Reach for the jeans, then a vest. Then a top to go over the vest. A jacket, a scarf. Ankle boots, shoulder bag. It’s what I wear, most days of the week. Comfort, with a bit of style. Well, that’s the idea.
Seven easy pieces. A few choices to make: bootcut or straight, spring or autumn colours, the animal print or the polka dot….Yesterday’s socks? There’s no hurry. It’s just another pensionista getting decent for the day.
But it’s cold out there and I’m about to break a Rule – to open the front door with bare hands.
It’s 1950 something. A woman in black is standing on a platform, high above an Assembly of girls in brown dresses – all small and very new to the school. She doesn’t actually look like a woman, but she must be because she’s a Mother. Her voice is shrill, bigger than she is. We’re going to learn how to be a Lady.
A Lady’s petticoat would never show. Her fingernails would always pass inspection and she’d always wear gloves, in all temperatures. She would treat everyone equally, even the cleaners. There were a lot of Rules. Being a Lady wasn’t going to be easy, but you had to be one. The alternative was to be a terrible person called a Vulgarian, who ate in the street. Or one of Them.
They were nuns who’d taken the veil and hid their hair. They swept down the corridors on invisible feet, their skirts making a swishing sound over the polished floors. They never undressed completely, not even in the bath – or so the whisper went – but surely a Lady had to be clean? Were the nuns ladies?
The Boarders might know, but they ignored us. Most of them were posher, older, with parents who could easily afford the rising fees.
The next Biology lesson was going to be about Reproduction. Drawing frog spawn was a bit boring – like Latin – but this was going to be about the Birds and the Bees. The Facts of Life! Like me, my best friend had no father or brother, so men and boys were an alien race called the Opposite Sex. We didn’t know any. Visiting priests in hoods who thundered about Sin and counselled Confession, didn’t count.
The lesson began with a prayer. The nun in front of us drew a lot of diagrams on the blackboard – all about the self-pollination of peas – then, with a starched expression, went on to the mating habits of – rabbits. Then she swept out of the classroom, clutching her crucifix….
But what about the Bits and Bobs? What was a Lady to do? What about the gloves?
We turned to our English teacher, who looked miserable most of the time, but she was Married to a Martian and must know a Fact or two about Life….She warned us that boys got ‘more excited’ than girls and that we mustn’t kiss one until we were Engaged. Then she read us a romantic poem – about seeds being sown in fields – and told us to learn it for homework.
Our favourite nun, the fairest of them all, full of grace, a white coif framing a face neither young nor old, smiled at us kindly, as if she heard the questions we could not ask. Sometimes, a tendril of hair would escape the coif, as if making a bid for freedom. Love, she said, was a Mystery. She wasn’t wrong.
A nun, then, wore a tunic over a long black robe with deep pockets, confined with a belt. It looked strange – like a shroud or a tent – but there was a dignity to what they wore, day after day, year after year. An elegance, even, to the absence of ornament. Each one dressed in common with her Sisters, but the Habit – plain and simple – was the only sameness about them. Some were patient; others knew their power over us and used it. Some were troubled; others seemed at peace. A few seemed to have a light inside them, as if possessed of a shining secret.
Like men, they were only people. And each one, alone in the cool cell of the morning, slipped the full dark folds over her head, then her body – in the inescapable intimacy of clothes against the skin. And if after the last bell and call to a mass or a prayer, one or two danced with doubt in the night and longed to cast it all off – the whole thing – and run free – God only knows.
It doesn’t matter now, so much Life later, but I had a seed inside, a secret of my own, which didn’t shine.
The school has grand iron gates. There are copper beech trees in the grounds and a grotto where the keen girls pray. I’m lucky to be here, but I’m a Day Girl and not a Catholic, so I don’t quite fit in. I like the Chapel though, especially the painted statues and the smell of incense.
I am 11 and have a new uniform which does not fit me. It’s a sludgy-brown dress like a sack, longer at the front than at the back. The sack comes with a mock tie on a piece of elastic. The blazer is striped like a deckchair and I feel loud in it. The summer hat is a boater. When it gets damp, the straw crown rises to a point and has to be flattened with a pile of books. Later, I get another hat, made of velour with a ribbon round it, which I lose.
Afraid to tell my mother, who’s made Great Sacrifices to send me to the school, I steal another girl’s hat from the cloakroom. The prefects on patrol do not notice. I trim the brim to make the hat look like the lost one. My mother does not notice.
I can’t catch or throw for toffee and soon develop a horror of hockey sticks, so I ‘forget’ my plimsolls a lot and the games teacher hates me.
In RE, I ask questions about the Bible and words that sound important, like Faith and Purgatory, and am rewarded with lovely holy pictures, so I ask many more. Mary in a crown, on a cloud…or a saint looking soulfully at a flower. One of the nuns gets excited and tells me I’m destined for a different kind of wedding, to be a Bride of Christ. This means my hair will be cut off and that black will be the only colour. Horrified, I start to keep my mouth shut –
My best place is the library, with its wooden-panelled walls and shelves of books. It’s quiet and safe in there – but to reach it, I have to get to the end of a very long corridor and pass under a painting of the Sacred Heart, high on the wall above me.
It’s Him. He’s pointing to the bright red organ in his gaping chest. The bleeding heart has a golden light around it and on autumn evenings, it glows. Jesus definitely knows the Truth about the hat.