Maire Fisher

Old nuns

The boys came yesterday – brought the children. I love their visits – but how tired I am when they go. Bone, bone, beyond bone weary. When they are here I am vital, alive. The children hug me and I remember to ask after the right things – crack a joke to make solemn little Sara smile. But Daniel and Kieran – how they fuss. Try to stop me ‘overdoing it’, don’t hear me when I say, ‘I wish you wouldn’t’. I don’t mean to snap, but they must hear me. I am infirm, but not yet senile … ‘Plenty of life in me yet,’ I say, to soften my ferocity – ‘Good heavens, I was taught by nuns older than I am now.’

Sister Ancilla … if she wasn’t put out to pasture, why should I be?

Standard Four. I am eleven. And recently voted the Naughtiest Girl in the Class. Who cares, anyway? It’s better than being a goodie-two-shoes, ‘Yes sister, no Sister.’

‘Who made that smell?’ Sister Ancilla glares around the classroom. Her white skin lined like a piece of paper that has been scrunched and re-scrunched. Funny, but I can only see the wrinkles close up. From far away she’s waxy – like a dummy in Madame Tussaud’s. How famous do you have to be to get in there? Is anyone from Rhodesia there? Mom and Dad say Ian Smith is famous for being infamous – maybe he’ll be there one day. Half of his face is plastic anyway … Maire needs to pay more attention in class and stop dreaming.

From my seat at the window I can see into the police compound. Five policemen stand around a fire, feeding something into it. What, I wonder. Usually when they’re there, it’s to eat sadza, crouched on their haunches, dipping rolled balls into a thick brown gravy that smells delicious and sets my stomach gurgling. But now they’re pulling masses of something thick and rubbery from a black plastic bag and the smoke rising from the fire –

‘Maire, was it you?’

‘Me what, Sister?’

‘None of your cheek – you made that terrible smell.’ Everyone in the class is looking at me.

‘No, Sister. I never …

‘Quiet,’ she says. ‘I’m tired of your behaviour.’

Is black. And oily. The smoke is black and oily, pushed this way by the late morning breeze.

‘Sister, it must be –’ Maire must learn not to answer back.

‘I said quiet!’ Her bleached paper skin brightens to pink.

I find it hard to allow the boys their concern. Their fear I might slip, fall, hurt myself. Fear I might – and I can say the word for them if they can’t – die. I am lucky. To have sons who love me enough to care. Who – I like to think – visit me because they want to. But I am old. Older than people who seemed positively ancient when I was a child. All those nuns – Prisca, Luitgard, Deodata – well into their seventies. Old women like Ancilla. How cruel I used to think they were – putting her in charge of a class of 30 eleven-year-old girls. But – were they? Better be exhausted by someone like me than parked somewhere convenient and left to die. And Ancilla wasn’t really a bad old stick. She was quite gentle. Not like Venerandah …

Twelve years old now, and sitting in the playground, the tar hot under our bums. Engrossed, frame by frame, in a True Love magazine. Gillian and Susan on either side of me. We don’t hear Sister Venerandah until her hand swoops down and with a sound that’s half grunt, half shout snatches it from me. Because, of course, I’m the one who’s holding it.

‘This … this filth. Is it yours?’ She splutters and we lean back from the spit that flies from her mouth.

‘Maire! What would your mother say if she knew you were reading smut?’

‘My mother wouldn’t care. She says I can read anything, as long as I’m reading something.’ I’ll get into trouble (again) but it’s wonderful to quote my mother the librarian – word for word. Maire must learn to control her impulses.

I can see her glassy grey eyes. Feel the sting as she twists my ear.

It happens the way I’ve heard it would: this return to the past, the memories there clearer than yesterday. I know Dan asked me to do something, but can’t remember what. And I didn’t write it down. But I can smell Venerandah, hear that flat Germanic accent, feel again the hatred I’ve felt for few people since. And that surge of defiance that filled me time after time as we locked horns in the Standard Five classroom. The memory leaves me breathless, agitated, glad! that I didn’t shut up when I think of all the girls she tweaked and pinched into silence.

I stretch, sit back, close my book of words. I stand slowly; leaning on the solid table for support, then make my hobbling way to the kitchen. A cup of coffee, I think, and not that rubbishy decaffeinated stuff either.

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