‘Someone has been stealing the priest’s breakfast milk. Theft is unacceptable in this school’

The reverend mother called us to a special assembly. What crime had been committed?

Rosita Boland as a schoolgirl

Rosita Boland as a schoolgirl

 

In my sixth and final year at boarding school, our common room was adjacent to a tiny room under the back stairs, a stairs that led to the nuns’ private quarters.

This room was the sole domain of Madame Clemence, the oldest nun in the community. Her tasks were to open the front door – only formal visitors arrived at the front door; everyone else came in the side doors – and to prepare breakfast for the priest who said Mass each morning at 7.30am in our chapel.

When we discovered that Madame Clemence’s breakfast-tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves

This breakfast was cooked hot daily, and served up by Madame Clemence in a parlour with a harp and a large, permanently unlit fireplace. Each evening she prepared the breakfast tray in the tiny room under the stairs. When we snooped, as of course we did, we saw unfamiliar china, delicate cups and plates with flowers. Our refectory china was of the heavy white institutional type. Here were a lace tray cloth and china so thin we could see through it if we held it up to the light.

Our common room had a little kitchen area where we made hot drinks. Milk was delivered to the fridge once a day, but we had usually run out by evening. So when we discovered that Madame Clemence’s breakfast-tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves. To make sure the level of the milk did not fall, we cunningly topped up the jug with water and carefully replaced the crochet-edged doily that sat atop it.

One evening a couple of weeks after we had begun our nightly milk heist, the reverend mother called all the boarders to a special assembly. This usually only happened when serious crimes had occurred. We were agog, wondering who had been caught smoking now, or had gone out of bounds, or been found with something banned, such as the radios we all had but kept hidden.

“Girls,” she began, “Madame Clemence, the most senior member of our community, is very upset. Someone has been stealing the priest’s breakfast milk. Theft is unacceptable in this school.”

There was a titter among our huddled masses. I exchanged incredulous glances with my classmates, all of whom were trying not to roar laughing. Busted! But how?

There was a titter among our huddled masses. I exchanged incredulous glances with my classmates, all of whom were trying not to roar laughing. Busted! But how?

We owned up, trying very hard to look repentant. We were ordered to apologise to Madame Clemence. I was one of the group selected to carry out this task. At the end of our grovelling I asked her, “How did you know?”

“I knew,” she said, “because the milk jug was always topped with cream for the priest’s tea. And when I poured it for him in the morning there was no cream.” And thus it was that Madame Clemence Holmes discovered our nightly dairy-pilfering crime.