Our Fake Nun

August 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Here’s another little story. This is based on a real fake nun I once knew.

We all called her Sister Barbara but despite her thin, creamy blouses, neatly embroidered with insipid daisies, and the wooden cross, which, like an ancient piece of cheese, hung as a holy brick around her neck, she wasn’t a real nun at all.

It seemed she had come with the church itself, like the dusty prayer cushions each sewn in memory of someone now forgotten, or the rot that was eating its way up the west wall. She smelt of candles and used-up incense and sometimes, we thought, as we huddled together during Mass, of loaves and fishes.

We had two reasons for believing her to be a fake. Firstly, she did not spend time with the other Sisters. Even the nice ones hunted in packs but Sister Barbara was always alone. However, it was the way our parents spoke of her that really convinced us. At the mention of her name they would smile sadly and whisper, “Ah, poor Barbara. It’s a shame an’ all, but she’s harmless enough.”

Why anyone would pretend to be a nun was of on-going concern to us. Debbie Shoot, the prettiest girl in our year, said that she’d heard from a boy in the choir over at St Dominic’s, that Sister Barbara was really a man who had once been an actual, real-life monk, but that he/she had renounced God to punish Him for giving her the wrong body.

“Time passed,” Debbie went on, her sing-song voice drawing us all in, “and gradually God came calling again and, as one thing follows another, she/he un-renounced Him.” As if to prove this version, Debbie pointed to Sister Barbara’s feet.

“Those are not the feet of a woman,” she said, doodling hearts in the margin of her Bible, alongside Timothy, Chapter II, verse 15: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.

But despite her disproportionate feet and shocking taste in shoes, we remained skeptical. It didn’t seem credible and besides, the boys in St Dominic’s choir were famous liars.

It was widely agreed that there were two types of nun. Well, three if you included the young, anorexic virgins with their hamster eyes and cold, translucent hands. Like beings from a parallel world, they baffled us. Why would girls only a year or two older than us choose to leave the world, just when it was becoming ours? We couldn’t fathom it.

The rest, we divided into good or evil. The good ones were wise and soft. Even the thin ones, we viewed as chubby, doughy women who smelt of nothing. They loved forgiveness and, if there was a God, which none of us believed anyway, He sat on their shoulders, smiling indulgently at our youthful sins.

Then there were the rest, the evil Sisters. They were all thin, even the fat ones, with sharp bodies and shutters for eyes. They pretended that they had sacrificed themselves for God and for us, but the truth was they couldn’t quite leave the world or, more importantly, us, alone.

Had Sister Barbara chosen to be a fake doughy nun, no doubt we’d have taken her to our hearts, like a school mascot. Maybe Stephanie Crowley, the best cook in our home economics class, would have baked a Victoria sponge on Sister Barbara’s Saint’s day. Or we might have built a tender and romantic story around her pretence. Man meets woman; they fall in love; man meets someone with smaller feet and leaves woman; woman falls into decline; woman becomes a pretend nun. But Sister Barbara was a vile, bitter viper and we hated her like the devil himself.

However, unlike the other doom-filled sisters, we did not fear her. We held her look when she glared at us for refusing to join in with the responses or, passing her in the aisle, we’d continue to talk, both things we never did with the real nuns.

“Do you think the Lord spent forty days and forty nights being tempted by Satan himself so that you girls don’t have to wipe your feet?” she said one day, after someone had trailed mud into the chapel. “ “I’ll report you to Sister Clare.” But like always, we just shrugged and giggled and carried on.

From time to time, one of us would indeed be summoned to Sister Clare’s office to be reprimanded for this or that misdemeanor but the punishments handed out after a Sister Barbara reporting always lacked real substance. It was as if the proper nuns felt duty bound to keep up appearances with the pretend nun and yet they, like us, were not sure why.

That year, Debbie, Jenny and I were church monitors. It was our duty to keep the chapel clean, clear up sweet wrappers, tidy away Bibles and sort the bags of donated clothes which were dumped in the church porch from time to time. We didn’t mind. It kept us out of the playground and gave us somewhere quiet to talk. For Debbie, the only subject worthy of discussion was boyfriends, and why we didn’t have any. Jenny and I thought ourselves a degree more serious. We wanted to debate “issues” for, in those days, a great many things riled us. Our school bags were covered with small button badges declaring our allegiance to one cause or another. We would rather talk about Debbie’s brother, Jed, who sold Socialist Worker on a Saturday morning, standing outside Woolworths in his donkey jacket and black woolen hat. We saw him there most weekends. He would nod at us, or even shout, “How’s it going, our Deb’s mates,” and we’d feel a little bit sick, but in a good way.

Sometimes, Debbie would bring us old copies of Socialist Worker, which we duly smuggled into the Chapel of the Sacred Heart under our school sweaters, ready to read and dissect. But we were careless of time and often the talk of our non-boyfriends dragged on so that we were left to stuff our unread copies into Bibles, giving them the appearance of tiny accordions. Father MacNeice, our pocket-sized parish priest, seemed to us too small to notice anything in his sacred texts, including communism, but not so Sister Barbara.

One afternoon, she came to us in the chapel, holding a copy of Socialist Worker between her cold, uncaring thumb and forefinger, dangling it before us, like a diseased rag.

“Wait until I show this to Father MacNeice. Just wait. I know it was you girls.”

“God’s a fascist, “ said Jenny. “‘I am the Lord thy God’; ‘Thou shall have no other gods before me’. Only a dictator makes those kind of rules?”

“You girls think you are so clever,” she said, striding away.

She was right. In the last year, we’d come to the conclusion that yes, we were clever. We demonstrated this by shouting at our parents, at the television but most satisfyingly of all, at the Church.

“‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says’,” read Jenny, slamming shut her Bible. “Who are the sodding Corinthians anyway to be telling us to be ‘in submission’?”

We didn’t like it. Not a bit, but we kept our views to ourselves around the real nuns, the ones who would complete our university forms and grade our papers. However, if Sister Barbara heard us complaining, we did not care.

One day in the spring of our duty year, a parishioner dropped four huge suitcases into the porch.

“They are for the poor,” she shouted, as she hurried back to her still running car. Donations of this kind seldom reached the poor directly, but rather were fed into the ongoing cycle of jumble sales and events to raise money for the church roof or to take people in wheel-chairs to Lourdes, some of whom, we hoped, might be poor.

The suitcases were lumpy and bumpy, like cakes that had failed to rise evenly. They smelt stale and vaguely of urine, like the old people’s home where we went each Christmas to sing carols and hand out mince pies.

“Come on girls,” said Sister Barbara, interrupting our talk. “Chop, chop. Remember, ‘All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.’ Bring those cases into the church.”

Rolling our eyes, reluctantly we shuffled into action.

“You can sort here,” said Sister Barbara. “Put the clothes on one side – men’s, women’s and children’s – and bric-a-brac on the other.”

“Who’s she to tell us what to do?” Debbie muttered as Sister Barbara opened the heavy church door to leave, allowing a beam of early spring sunshine to set the winter dust to dancing. For once we wanted to be outside, with our eyes closed and our faces upturned to something warm. Instead, we pulled back the zips and snipped open the clasps to reveal bundles of clothes and small parcels wrapped in tissues.

We sighed and poked at the contents, not eager to begin unpacking. Finally Debbie picked out a package and peeled off the paper. It was a porcelain bird of some kind, with a small chip in its beak and tiny knobs of dust caught where the wing joined the body. In our experience, all bric-a -brac was like that, unloved and slightly broken.

The clothes were clean, but still, we didn’t rush to touch them.

“Do you think they belonged to a dead person?” Jenny asked, cautiously picking up a stiff, mauve skirt.

One case contained baby clothes: small hand knitted cardigans, well worn and frequently washed so that the wool had become stiff and cruel; hats the size of large oranges and a pretty white dress with puffed out sleeves, a tiny ruffled skirt and a shadowy, yellow stain down the front.

The highlight was a plastic bag full of men’s underwear.

“That’s disgusting,” said Debbie. “I mean, really, do they think people are so desperate that they will buy other people’s shitty pants?”

As instructed we piled the contents into organised lots.

Afterwards, as we walked out into the sunlight, Jenny sniffed at her hands. “I need a wash,” she said. “I think I’ve absorbed the stench of abandonment.”

We’d reached the school gates before I remembered my coat.

“I should go back,” I said. “Otherwise they will sell it. I’ll catch you up.”

The church door was still open. Beside the piles of clothes stood the familiar figure of Sister Barbara, her back curved around her shoulders. I wanted to creep away, to avoid her inevitable lecture on our failure to sort with sufficient reverence, but she turned before I could retreat.

Across her chest, she held the tiny white dress, arms locked, almost as if she were cradling a baby. And she was smiling. Or was she crying? Now I think about it, from all this time later, I think she was smiling and crying.

“I forgot my coat,” I said.

“You can’t get rid of this kind of stain.” She held up the dress. “She will have been sick.”

“I suppose so,” I said, edging round her.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? Something so pretty. She would look lovely in this. So much the little lady.”

Laying the dress back down on the pile, she picked up one of the cardigans. “I used to knit,” she said. “I used to be a good knitter, but you have to hand-wash wool, especially for babies. You have to keep it soft. Like this.”

From her skirt pocket, she pulled a small mitten, the colour of white chocolate and round, with no fingers or thumbs.

“Feel this,” she said, handing it to me. “Rub it against your cheek and you’ll see.”

The mitten was no bigger than the palm of my hand and so downy that I barely felt it against my skin. It was a whisper of a thing, hardly there at all.

“It’s lovely,” I said, handing it back.

She nodded. “It is.” For a moment, she ran the wool across her lips, as if to feel whatever was possible.

With her other hand, she reached out and cupped my chin. Her fingers felt dry and warm against my skin and her breath smelt only faintly sour as she whispered, “‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.”

Then remembering who she was, Sister Barbara pushed the mitten back into her pocket and stepped away.

“You girls didn’t sort the men’s clothes properly. The trousers are still mixed up with the sweaters.”

I grabbed my coat. “Sorry, Sister Barbara. Thank you, Sister Barbara.”

I told the others, but only Jenny and Debbie. We still held her look and she continued to scold us. And we minded, but perhaps not quite so much.





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