Sunday shoes, mantillas and the fear of divine retribution

Little girls’ lives were circumscribed by school, Sindy dolls and the imminent arrival of stigmata

 

When I was a little girl, in Dublin in the 1960s, a time when an awful lot of people still had Sunday shoes, and Sunday dinners, and rosary beads that snagged on their mantillas, I was dogged by fears of divine retribution. A borderline hysteric, I was already passing out at the sight of blood, gagging at the taste of milk and threatening to throw myself down the stairs if I had to eat an egg, so I’d be the first to admit that my terror of a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, with a list of my family’s non-compliant behaviour, written in pig’s blood on a sheet of divine parchment, was pretty much par for the course.

In the suburb I grew up in, little girls’ lives were, it seemed to me, circumscribed by school and Sindy dolls, the six o’clock news and the imminent arrival of stigmata. There was a kind of bloated fear in the air (or at least in the air I breathed) that carried over from day to day, into a convent school full of dusty altar flowers and razor-sharp rebukes and blackboards full of incomprehensible sums and great tracts of a crunchy, indigestible language that I could never quite swallow.

The subject I enjoyed was religion, mainly because it was in English, but also because the narrative was so wild and feral, the parables and stories proof-positive that dreadful things happened to people who ignored the rules.

Scarier than Harry Potter

I think lots of little girls flirt with the intoxicating notion of sacrifice; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who saw the Virgin nod sadly at me from the May altar. Now the little girls I know, instead of waiting for brimstone to shatter their suburban window panes, are dreaming of offering up their fragile necks to pretty-boy vampires.

The other night I accompanied a friend who was picking her adolescent daughter up from a very junior disco.

I was hoping she wouldn’t make me get out of the car in my awful sweatpants that billow at the knees. I needn’t have worried.

“We’re not allowed to get out of the car,” my friend informed me. “I embarrass her. Just my presence, just my being alive, embarrasses her. We have to sit here until she arrives.”

“Right,” I said. “You sure?”

“Absolutely. Anyway, if she saw you wandering around in those purple leggings she’d probably refuse a lift.”

“They’re navy blue,” I replied, more relieved than hurt.

“And don’t get alarmed if she’s staggering. She has kitchen roll shoved into the toes of my shoes.”

Puppies in drag

Later, while the daughter regurgitated her night on her iPad with her litter of yapping mates, her toes and her heart crushed and livid, her mother and I sat on the step outside the kitchen door, under a butter-coloured moon, and I found myself wishing I still enjoyed smoking.

“Do you think it’s harder now?” I asked my friend. “Harder to be adolescent, to have so much, and to want so much, to have so much communication and so little repose? To have the world coiling your neck, to be observed and calibrated and marketed to 24 hours a day?”

“Harder than what?” she asked, pulling on her electronic cigarette.

“Than when we were young, and there was just God and The Late Late Show.”

“You forget,” she said. “You forget how we were taught that God could look inside your soul and know you. You forget how we were told that every time we sinned we were driving another thorn into his head. At least, unlike a shagging conscience, my daughter can turn the iPad off and get some sleep.”

“I don’t forget,” I said.

She drew on the smokeless fag, a grand substitute for the toxic real thing.

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