Maeve Brennan: Lessons and lessons and then more lessons
From The Long-Winded Lady, reissued by The Stinging Fly Press to coincide with Maeve Brennan’s centenary on January 6th, 2017
Maeve Brennan: January 6th, 1917 – November 1st, 1993
On Eighth Street, in the Village, there is a modest restaurant, humanely lighted, not too bright and not too dark, where I used to spend about two hours every day, sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes in the evening, sitting always at a small table by the large street window. The window was recessed, and half curtained, and it was furnished with an oversized Tiffany lamp and an oversized bronze-coloured crock that held artificial flowers or artificial leaves, according to the season of the year. I spent a good deal of time by that window. I remember being there on November nights when it was snowing, and all the people hurrying by were brightened by their white crowns and white epaulettes, and then there were afternoons in midsummer when I hardly dared look out for fear of seeing some struggling man or woman become finally embedded in the thick heat, to vanish forever as I watched. I was such a faithful customer that a martini usually appeared on the table while I was still arranging my books in the order in which I would look at them. There was a small service bar halfway down the room, which was very long and very narrow, but there was no place where people could just sit and drink. It was a decorous place, with exactly as much style as a nice, plain tearoom. I used to always carry three or four books with me, and if l had just visited the bookshop across the street, I often had six or more to look through when I was not attending to the outside scene.
One afternoon – it was autumn; there was an armful of flaming, papery leaves in the crock beside me – I glanced up to see two nuns walking by, walking west towards Sixth Avenue. All nuns look alike. Their black draperies, their resolute tread, and their remote air-everything about them was familiar to me. I was surprised to see them, as I am always surprised to see nuns abroad in New York, and I thought, as I had thought at other times, that it is out of the ordinary to see nuns here, and a very ordinary matter to see them in Dublin, where I was born. There was a time, during the years I spent in a convent boarding school and for many years afterwards, when the sight of a nun would fill me with apprehensiveness and dislike, and I was glad then, sitting by that restaurant window, to know those years were gone.
That afternoon I had arrived at the restaurant when the lunch hour was over, and now, except for two waiters, the place was empty. I like empty restaurants, and I had counted on having all the tables and booths to myself. Even the cash register, by the door, was unguarded. I had taken the afternoon off, but why, what excuse I had offered myself, I can’t remember. Perhaps I felt free because it was autumn again. Even so, three o’clock in the afternoon is no hour for anybody to be sitting at a window in a public restaurant with a martini in front of her, or half a martini, as it was by the time the nuns passed, and it seemed miraculous to be able to be so free and independent that I could be in the restaurant I preferred and drink what I liked and eat what I liked and read the books of my choice and see two nuns pass and feel nothing except a slight surprise – no apprehensiveness, no wild survey of a panicky conscience, nothing like that.
The two nuns who ran that boarding school were violent women. The head nun was short and fat and her assistant was tall and thin, and they both had genteel accents, the fat one speaking low, the thin one high. The head taught English and her assistant conducted singing classes, but they spent most of their time looking for sin. Their task was easy because of course we were all filled with sins, but they worked hard at it. They were always on patrol, sometimes together and sometimes separately. They patrolled the silent study hall, and they patrolled the corridors, and they patrolled the classrooms and the washrooms, and they even patrolled the dormitories, often walking between the beds after the lights were out. We knew what they were hunting for, of course, and as soon as one of them appeared in the doorway of a classroom, or anywhere, we all knew that sin had been stalked home and that at least one person in the room was going to have to answer for herself. The only thing was, we did not know which one of us it would be. I always felt I was the sinner, and I suppose the others felt the same.
The Devil works in mysterious ways, and there was never any way of knowing which of our faces he had chosen to reveal himself in. We never knew where we were. Those two nuns tracked him down even in the refectory, where we had breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper. They never seemed to notice what was on our plates. Awful food. It was always tea and bread scraped with butter, except at midday dinner, when it was boiled potatoes. And at supper the tea was replaced with vile cocoa. For breakfast on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, the tea and bread and butter were accompanied by one tablespoonful of dates that had been boiled into a thin soup, or, as the nun who cooked would have said, a jam. On Tuesdays and Thursdays breakfast was emboldened by a wafer of cold porridge damped with blue milk, on Saturdays by a spot of marmalade, and on Sundays by an ugly morsel of bacon. Teatime and suppertime were all bread and butter, except that at teatime we were allowed to bring out the jam and cake we had received in packages from home. Some girls got parcels from home and some didn’t. Those who did had the privilege of going around from table to table (there were five long, narrow tables) carrying pots of jam and big cakes and bestowing their favours on the girls they liked and walking past the girls they didn’t like. There were about sixty of us, aged from seven to eighteen, and sometimes the room was quite busy at teatime, especially at the beginning of each term, when everybody had something to walk about with. I can’t remember Sunday dinner, but on Mondays and Wednesdays it was boiled potatoes with black pudding that was nearly all grey, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays it was said to be corned beef. On Fridays something fishy, and on Saturdays a stew – an end-of-the-week stew.
I was thinking of that Saturday stew and admiring the huge menu the waiter had left on my table when the entrance door of the restaurant opened and the two nuns walked in. They had been looking for a nice quiet place to eat, and they had found it. They walked quickly, without making a sound, straight down the restaurant, and I watched them all the way, and watched until they had settled themselves in a distant booth. Then I went back to my menu. The menu was still in my left hand, tilted up, as I had been holding it, but my right hand, with the empty martini glass in it, had somehow gone under the table and was hiding there behind the tablecloth. It was the moment of no comment. It was the moment of no comment.
Originally published in The New Yorker on November 10th, 1962