Forbidden territory

The year I turned fifteen I pulled the blankets up to my chin in the Immaculate Conception dormitory, a couple of feet from the next bed where my fellow boarder slept, or so I believed given the muffled sounds that came from her side.

Two or three other girls at the far end of the dormitory chattered among themselves. ‘Did you see what Mary Lou wore on casual clothes day? ‘one girl said to the other.

‘Has she no pride?’ the other said.

I wished them silent.

I wished them dead. I often wished people dead although it seemed a fearful wish in case it should have happened. It also seemed a convenient way of getting rid of people from my life. Just wish them dead and then somehow magically they disappeared.

And soon enough their conversation died down and I was left in the silence I needed to drift into sleep. But this night was long, a long night of dreams, of me in the back garden at my home in Camberwell with my sister.

A bright sun shiny sky and we tried to hide from something unseen. Even in the dream, my heart raced.

There was a clump of trees, ti tree like branches that formed a wall on the outside and in the middle a clearing wide enough in which to hide. I sat there breathless and peered through the chinks ever watchful until a huge hand stripped back a layer of leaves and the sun shone into my eyes too bright.

So, I squeezed them shut and Mother Mary Paul’s loud voice stung my ears.

‘Praise be to Jesus,’ she said and peeled back the blankets from the foot of my bed to pull at my toes.

She did not stop pulling and her fingers scraped my skin until I said the Amen.

She moved onto the next bed then and the next and there was a shuffle of feet pushed into slippers and the clink of jugs against wash basins and the splash of water as girls prepared to wash away the sleep and grime of the day before.

Sunday morning, compulsory Mass morning and within ten minutes every girl was ready and waiting to file down to the chapel.

‘Come along girls,’ Mother Mary Paul led the way.

Although I was closest to the door I held back and let the others past. Twenty girls from the Immaculate Conception dormitory all of them in blazers and ready for Mass but I could not find my blazer.

I must have left it behind down stairs on my coat hook in the cloak room.

I could not go into chapel without a blazer and as the last of the girls filed downstairs and the top of her head disappeared, I tried to figure out what I should do.

You can’t go back to the cloakroom, you’ll get seen. Lose marks for deportment or order. I had already lost two marks from the ten allocated to us girls each week.

A short list of unsatisfactory behaviours attracted these marks. Marks for application. If you’re lazy you lost one or two. Marks for punctuality. If you were late you could lose as many as three. Marks for deportment, the worst of them all.

If you swore at a teacher or did something sacrilegious then you’d cop five marks, two marks for deportment and you’d lose your shield. Then you’d have to go up in front of the whole school at assembly and Mother Xavier told everyone what you had done.

It never happened to me. The only marks I ever lost were for neatness and order. No, you can’t go down the cloakroom and cop another mark.  You’ll have to go around the back way. But you can’t go there.

The exit door of the dormitory led to a t-intersection in one direction, the stairs that fell below to rows upon row of classrooms, the cloak room and the chapel. The other led to a corridor that turned a corner to the nuns’ house. You did not go into the nuns’ house.

The grey linoleum creaked under my shoes. I had no choice. I could not be seen down stairs without a blazer, not on a Sunday. I could not sit on my bed and wait it out till Mass was over and hope no one noticed I was gone either. Nor could I go into forbidden territory.

The wash basins that lined the corridor on the way to the secret door that led to the nuns’ house were still wet from last minute collections of water for face washing, the floor too was splashed in places and I worried I might leave foot prints.

I could hear the bells from below stairs in the chapel. Mass had begun, and they were all down there in prayer, all of the nuns and students. No one would see me if I snuck into the cloakroom for my blazer. Nor would anyone see me if I opened that door into forbidden territory.

I turned the handle of the door into a long corridor white walled and empty. There was a row of doors on either side. Door after door in what must have been tiny rooms given the proximity of one door to the next. At the far end of this corridor of doors there was another wide door that beckoned me.

Get out of here it seemed to say, get out of here fast. You do not belong here. You are walking in sacred territory, the terrain of the nuns, their secret places like being inside someone else’s body, where you do not belong.

But I could not reach that door without at least once checking behind one of the doors on either side and just as I debated which cubicle to go into whenever I approached a row of toilets, I chose the one in the middle, the one that might be safest simply because it was in the middle.

A small bed, covered in a grey army blanket, a flat white pillow with the indent of its occupant still visible. A windowless room and in one corner, there was a small picture of Jesus, his red heart outside his body, bleeding from the slash at the side and the crown of thorn on top like a hat. In the corner opposite the bed there was a wooden kneeler and a missal on its upper ledge. A black habit hung from a single hook on the wall and a tiny chest of drawers at the foot of the bed.

I did not venture inside. How could anyone fit into such a small space? But it might have felt safe for anyone who had a right to be there. Not like me. I had no right to be there and so I went to the far door and down the dark wooden stair case that led to the parlour of the main building in the convent close to the kitchens.

I could hear the burr of machines as they rattled their way through heating up food in the refectory and snuck my way around to the cloak room and my blazer. By now Mass had ended and the girls were snaking their way from the chapel through to the refectory for breakfast. I slipped in line without any of the nuns noticing.