Limbs like melting butter

The nuns rostered bath times three times each week at intervals before and after school. Nothing to do with the actual state of your body at any time. You could be rostered on at 4.00 pm any weeknight or at midday on a Saturday. A thirty-minute limit on the time needed to fill the bath, to soak, then dry yourself and re-dress.

The baths were located a narrow strip of garden away between the boarders’ study and the nuns’ quarters. So positioned, I imagined, because sometimes the nuns themselves might need to use these baths for their own washing. Late at night when the boarders slept.

To take a bath at boarding school was to become aware of my body, hidden under the mushroom pink uniform of a linen dress, with detachable white Peter Pan collar and cuffs in summer, or navy tunic, white blouse and striped tie in winter. 

To take a bath was to find myself connected once more to my flesh and blood beneath.

One of the older nuns told stories of her time in the novitiate when the nuns took their baths dressed in a night gown so as not to be tempted by the sight of their naked bodies. 

She did not include the stuff of temptation. She talked only of her need to cover up for God. I could not understand that need other than to protect myself from the eyes of other people, especially my father.

I did not consider my body as a source of temptation, merely of shame. It had ballooned. Since I began at boarding school, my breasts, my hips, my pubic hair, all an embarrassment of riches I preferred to hide.

As much as I hated to undress even in the privacy of the tiny cubicle that stood in a row of four, each with its claw footed bath in the centre. Once in the water, I returned to my mother’s womb, the warmth soothed and held me. And I drifted off into song. 

I was in love with one of the nuns, the youngest in the order and by far the most hip and attractive, however cold she might sometimes appear.

Among her fellow nuns on a rare event, and eating in public, at a picnic.

She was tiny against my growing bulk, a small wispy insect-like creature behind wire spectacles that matched her elfin face. And she was whip smart, as far as I could tell. Had travelled around the world and knew things the other nuns did not know.

I wanted to impress her with my singing at full throttle in the bath, knowing she was in the boarders’ study at that moment, overseeing the boarders at their homework. 

She sat at the head of the classroom, black woollen fingerless gloves to protect her from the chilblains that assaulted her every winter. She sat at the head of the classroom and read her book. She too was studying; she had told us.

Further mathematics at Monash University. A degree aimed to improve her teaching. I was impressed with the idea of any nun at the university. That heathen place filled with young people in hippie dresses and sixties long hair. 

To be submerged under water, the warmth enveloping my limbs as though they were melting butter. Shameless I sang as loudly as I could, my voice echoing off the ceiling. And although I sensed they could hear me in the boarders’ study, I feared  other girls might not look up and laugh at this idiot at bath time, I did not stop. 

I also imagined my favourite nun was impressed. Sure, she might raise her eyebrows in disapproval to suggest this behaviour was not to be tolerated in front of the others, but most of all she enjoyed my foibles, or so I hoped, while I soaked for my allotted fifteen minutes in the bath before the water turned cold and I was left to face my body again as I dried it. Before I returned to my uniform and back to the study with all the other students who might look at me with smiles when I returned, or sneer in contempt at this hapless person who could not bathe in silence.

My clean body back in my dirty clothes. I did not have enough extra pairs of underpants to change them when the bath roster dictated. I sensed the clash of cleanliness and the sordid nature of my thoughts which tinkered on the edges of desire, not for bodies but for minds that might meet across the void of classrooms, water, and air, across the small corridor of garden between the boarders’ study and my bathroom and into the head of my favourite nun whom I hoped against all hope, she held me in mind, with loving feelings and good will. She saw me as more than just an ungainly adolescent but as a person who mattered more than the other ill-dressed schoolgirls who marched into her classrooms year after year.

I looked for proof. I courted her attention. I kept the slips of paper she left for me when she wanted me to tell the five other girls who also studied Latin under her charge that she might be late that day. I treasured the curve of her letters in her handwritten note as though they were precious jewels embedded in gold, the one evidence I had when she wrote my name, 

Dear Elisabeth, I shall be five minutes late to the Latin class, could you please tell the others and get to work translating the first section of the Aeneid. And then Catullus, Oh Mea Lesbia

My older sister came to visit the school one day to bring pads for our periods. Something the nuns did not provide, and I told her about this nun who took us for Latin.

My sister who was four years older than me and had left the school the year before my favourite nun began. ‘She’s a lesbian,’ my sister said, and her words rankled. I did not understand my sister’s conviction such a person was dangerous.

Such a person might get me into trouble. Such a person had sex on her mind and sex between women was something I could encompass any more than the idea of sex between a man and a woman. 

I shrugged it off. 

My love for my favourite nun was platonic. I knew only this. Bodies did not come into it. Bodies were only the external trappings of our minds. It was our minds that did the loving. Our bodies only got in the way.

And so, my love grew and widened into proper letters between me and my favourite nun. Until university beckoned and I met boys and men and a different sense of bodies, mine and theirs, and my love for my favourite nun cooled like the bath water, and I no longer longed to be with her. 

The memory of that love still sparkles in my mind, the most radiant of loves and one that will never fade. 

Not this photo

The photo slipped from among a pile of papers on my mother’s bed side table. Well-thumbed papers, creased with age and use. It weighed more heavily than the other sheets as if it was waiting to be found.

My mother had a way of hiding things from view when they created an image unacceptable to her. There were holy pictures amongst the papers and a picture of the Blessed Virgin, her hands clasped in prayer, eyes heavenward. 

In the photo, the young woman who stands in the centre has eyes similarly elevated, though there is not the look of inspiration in them, nor one of fear or apprehension, as if she is a Hollywood starlet waiting for the assault of some monster about to descend.

Instead of looking upwards like the Blessed Virgin, this young woman, whom I recognised as an earlier incarnation of my mother, pulls back her shoulders, tense, as if she is avoiding the approach of actual danger.

Her hair is tousled as though she has been roughed about, maybe in the wind, and her skirt, in a floral summer cotton, is twisted around her waist, as if it is too loose and refuses to settle on her hips. 

My mother in her early years, a photo taken in a studio, by the look of the backdrop, one of those restrained, constrained ones, given the technology of the era, the 1940s, but the photo holds movement as if my mother is about to slip out from the frame if only she could. 

I have only ever seen my mother look like this at times when my father, drunk, bore down on her, ready to slap or pull her hair for some perception on his part that she had offended him. She had stirred up his rage yet again because she was not the woman she was meant to be. 

Whoever this woman was, she did not exist.

No person can exist as the willing servant of another and ask nothing in return. Blind obedience to a master who forces you into meeting his every demand, while insulting you as though you’re enjoying it. Rather as sex workers are sometimes required to pose delight. At least they get paid for it.

The photo was an original, but is still in good condition as if few eyes have peered at it, few thumbs smeared its surface. As if it had lain hidden in a box somewhere in the dark where no one could interrogate my mother on where she was when this photograph was taken.

As if it was a precursor of what was to come, only my mother did not know it then.

If I had seen this photograph while she lived and had asked her what was happening, I doubt she’d have told. She had a way of focussing only on the good stuff, the bright and shiny. She did not want any of us to know the truth of her fears from her young squeaky-clean past that might not have been as pure as she might once have wanted us to believe.

My mother was not the Blessed Virgin. 

Not this photo.