The ambulacrum was built alongside classrooms for the Commercial students – those who left school after they turned sixteen and went out into the world as secretaries trained in shorthand and typing – and our tacked on weatherboard concert hall, the place where I once stood on stage for the first time and sang solo.
The floor of the ambulacrum was layered with red terracotta and mustard Italian tiles. Curved at the edges whee they dropped down to the concrete walkway, they formed a slippery surface some girls used as a slide. Stockinged feet in winter and socks in summer.
The nuns forbade this practice as dangerous and risky but when no one was around, one or two plucky girls tried. Never me. I was made of obedient stuff. Timid to the core and wary of attention until I stood on that stage in disguise.
In my thirteenth year I became The Merry Peasant, a title I shared with the title of the performance, full details of which I cannot remember only the words of my signature song:
A peasant I, out in the fields all day.
I plough and sow and reap and mow and make the hay.
I work all day from early morn till eve.
There’s always something to be done you may believe.
When harvest comes, and all the fields are white,
my neighbours all, from far and near, I call
To lend a helping hand to make the labour light.
To be chosen for one of the central leads, to rise above the ignominy of my hopeless self, took me places I had never been before. I felt sorry for the other girls in my class who were not so chosen. The ones who acted merely as stagehands or danced and skipped in the chorus. The ones who stood by nodding, as I sang my song.
This was fame and I relished it. My life seemed worthwhile in a way it had never done before. To be central for those few glorious minutes on stage when all eyes and ears were on me, as I sang the glorious words, made my life worthwhile.
Like all good things it did not last, but it laid a foundation, a shaky foundation for future efforts to speak in public, but always inside a tremulous voice that says,
Who do you think you are?
How dare you?
What gives you the right?
Don’t buy tickets on yourself.
Or get too big for your boots.
Since when is it your turn.
Who do you think you are?
Who are you.
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell.
They’d advertise you know.
How dreary to be somebody.
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring Bog.
Emily Dickinson’s words ran through my head between performances and gave comfort.
She of such fame albeit only after death. She from the lines of my poetry book, there nestled among the anonymous poets who numbered more than those who had names, her words.
How do we break with the tyranny of the past? The way it creeps into our minds and memories with a fury that knows no bounds. Something happens today and we’re pitched back in time to when something else happened that resonates with now and we cannot stop ourselves from shrinking in size and form to the small child who stood shame ridden, red faced, body trembling in front of a threat so great we might as well be dead.
And yet we survive and put the sensation behind us, only it never disappears. It’s there in the form of objects that coat our memory like Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels. They stand still when we look at them, but when we look away they creep onto to us ready to attack. And when they attack we’re engulfed by the past.
Look up into the ceiling of the ambulacrum and you will see the vaults of a cathedral. Wide arches supported by dark wood beans as deeply recessed as an upside down well. Birds’ nests in corners, safe and concealed from the light of day.
The ambulacrum brings memories of shame. The way I fled through it after I helped Sister Dominic in the sacristy polish brass vases one evening before supper and she pointed out to me that I was getting fat.
She did not use these words. Only told me my dress was cutting into my hips where my suspended belt supported my stockings. A line in the fabric. Her eyes bore through me. I was back in the chapel at Mass that morning and the weight of her disapproving eyes in the seat behind me, one in a line of boarders, everyone else their dresses neatly ironed and falling like loose veils across their hips while mine was bunched and tight.
‘You might want to tell your mother you need a new dress. A larger size,’ she said.
I made some excuse and bolted across the tiled ambulacrum in the twilight out to the tennis court. And I wept into my pinafore, the gingham affair we wore by day to keep the mushroom-coloured linen of our dresses clean. At least behind my pinafore one that covered us from front and rear, no one need notice the indentations Sister Dominic found so disconcerting.
It was out of concern she said these things, but she was not inside my head. She did not register the hideous sensation that spoke to how bad I was, not only in mind but more so in body. A lumpy ungainly body of too muchness.
A body that had begun to change a year or so earlier and I could not keep up with the hunger of boarding school where food was plentiful, bland, and rich in fat and carbohydrates: white bread rolls the nuns collected from a local bakery free of charge the day before. Day-after stale bread they soaked before placing in the oven to crisp their crusts. To me it was like eating heavenly clouds laced with melting butter and honey.
Every morning for breakfast. The comfort of comfort food. And I had not noticed and hoped others might not notice that the hand me down dress from my elder sister that once fitted at the beginning of my year seven was, three years later, as tight and stretched as a balloon ready to burst.
So many things to hide in this body of mine. My hips, my breasts, my periods sopped up with rags I collected from the science block when we ran out of pads. My teeth, yellow and pitted.
An urchin child, though I was no longer a child and the nuns expected only the best of their inmates in this convent for ladies. I had tried to fit the bill even as I burst from my clothes. I walked around in stealth and when addressed, covered my mouth while speaking so no one might notice my discoloured teeth, moving from yellow to brown. So, no one would notice the cracks inside my mouth and the shame of the hidden pain. So, no one would notice the way one day my left cheek blew up and was hot and red and throbbing.
I left the breakfast table early that day on the pretext of needing the toilet. I left the nun reading from the lives of saints as other girls munched on their white honey covered rolls and slid down to the toilet block. None of the day scholars had arrived yet.
Inside a closed cubicle, I sat on the toilet seat and drew out a safety pin holding up the hem of my school. I opened it wide to form a pin used the point to pierce my gum where the throbbing was hot and regular.
Liquid, warm and metallic, sputtered into my mouth. I dabbed it with toilet paper and the pain stopped. Back at breakfast, I resisted another bread roll. I did not want to put anything into my mouth for far of opening the pin prick hole I had made in my gum. In the unruly mouth of my unruly body.
My teeth are mended today. No longer grey. My teeth are mended, and my hips have lost their adolescent heft, but still the memory of my unruly body remains. And the girl who refused to skate across the ambulacrum in socks, who walked quietly as she was supposed, except on stage when she morphed into a merry peasant, lives in on.
The tyranny of the past cannot be opposed. It can only be softened.