Once upon a time in a convent


FIFTY SOMETHING:I made my First Holy Communion on May 10th, 1970, around the time The Beatles were coming to the end of their long and winding road. I don’t know why the date has stuck in my mind for more than 40 years, but the details remain as crisp as a wafer in a willing mouth.

I went to a convent school with polished parquet floors and many and varied plaster representations of the Virgin Mary. If you were good, and remembered your dancing shoes on a Tuesday and your plimsolls on a Friday and your knitting on a Wednesday, and if you refrained from smirking when Sr Colette said that Adam had to “toil” in the garden (we thought that sounded desperately rude), you were allowed to empty the glass vases and change the flowers under the Virgin Mary’s naked feet.

I didn’t often get that job: lost needles down the back of the couch and too many dropped stitches probably. To this day, knit-one-purl-one is a phrase that chills. Knitting was like maths, knotty and incomprehensible.

There were pictures on the wall, the usual convent fare, a lot of ascensions into heaven on puffy, fortified clouds, many nappy-less cherubs, and one that terrified me, one that made me wish I could knit and add and subtract and blend right into the crowd and be a perfect girl.

The picture was of a big, bearded angel with dark-grey, gull-like wings, knocking at Mary’s bedroom window to tell her that any minute now she was going to have a baby boy named Jesus. What she must have done to get that kind of unwanted attention I couldn’t imagine. My friend Karen had a chubby, lifelike baby doll that cried real tears and came in a box with her name on it (Bettina, which took a bit of getting used to).

Tough enough, I imagined, to suddenly have a proper baby; even tougher not to be allowed choose his name. If I had been given a baby boy by that angry, hirsute angel, I would have liked to call him Sebastian, or maybe Tony.

Butter balls and Jesus

There was a chapel in the convent right next to the lunch room, where we practised confessing and demure walking and precise kneeling. The chapel smelt of steak-and-kidney pudding and Brasso, and a rumour went around that when the day of the actual communion arrived, after we had received the body of Jesus, we would all be brought into the lunch room for bread rolls and jam, and that the butter would be rolled up to resemble tiny golf balls and placed in a silver dish.

The day came and, with it, a white dress and white gloves and white knee-socks and a veil held in place with a white velvet band. Some of my classmates had tiaras and parasols, and one little girl with curly hair and an unhappy mouth had her mother’s blue eye-shadow powdering her lids. Afterwards we walked warily back to the lunch room, one white-sandalled foot in front of the other, careful not to wake the baby Jesus who was nestling inside us now.

We sat up at the big table and spread the little balls of butter on our bread rolls, and passed each other the jam like ladies at a boat race, and when we swallowed, the tiny baby Jesus smiled and ate his share of the delicately sculpted butter and licked the strawberry preserve from his tiny baby lips. When I pictured him, the baby Jesus, he was playing among the tendrils at the bottom of the ocean, in an octopus’s garden; sometimes he was circumnavigating the coral banks in a yellow submarine. He seemed a happy child.

I didn’t make it all the way through to sixth class in that school: fees were involved, money was tight and, as we all know, there ain’t no such thing as a free golfball-butter lunch.

In the end, the cheques were bouncing higher than the nuns could jump, and I was told to pack up my shoe bag and my stiff knitting, and go.

A moment of kindness

Now, listening to the accounts of the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, I am struck by a memory of kindness that one woman recalled. She spoke of how a particular nun allowed her to have a Beatles poster on the wall. I don’t know why that detail seemed so sad, so poignant; sometimes acts of kindness shine a light on terrible shapes in the dark.

I remember my big sisters lolling over their turntable, my brother painting the garage in psychedelic green and pink; I remember my own battle to understand the rules, read the symbols, follow the pattern.

And I wonder. I wonder who shone the big brass candlesticks in the convent chapel, all the convent chapels; who buffed the acres and acres of parquet floors; who rolled out all the pastry for all the lunch-room pies; who shaped each little ball of butter on the shining plate; whose raw hands crushed the withered flowers that once adorned the Virgin’s feet.

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