I’ve been asked to step in and do a children’s story at church this Sunday so I’m telling them about a little girl called Disastrous Daisy. It’s something that happened when I was 4 and living in Cyprus with the Army. I nearly drowned and had to be rescued by a soldier, and ripped my foot to ribbons (well, two ribbons) and then was stuck in a wheelchair for 6 months, which gave me boils on my bottom. The children in the front pew will like the boils on the bottom detail – it’s transgressive enough to edge towards blasphemy for good little Baptists. They’ll love it.
Anyway, that’s not what I’m writing about, but it made me reflect on my early years. They were jolly exciting, you know. And when they weren’t exciting but instead were horrible and shameful and terrifying and damaging and all of that…. they were still, I don’t know, unique. Mine. No one has ever had a childhood quite like mine.
And of course no one had a childhood quite like yours. Yours, too, is unique. And it’s made you. Unique you.
I’ve enjoyed remembering a few of the lighter incidents in my early years so I’m going to lift one from my autobiography, just for you. First a bit of explanation: My senior school was a convent, and it educated the bright girls in the X stream, where they studied Latin and Greek and Physics and stuff (Anne Widdecombe was one of them). In the Y stream they did Geography and History and French and Maths, and in the W stream lumpkins like me whiled away whole afternoons in the needlework room, or competing to see who could toss a pancake onto the ceiling in domestic science. I was quite good at that.
You don’t know what a lumpkin is? I don’t think the world has them any more. All teenage girls now are long-haired and slug-browed, pouty lipped posers. Then we were just lumpkins with wrinkled socks, ties askew, inky fingers and thick PE knickers. And I was officially an ‘educationally subnormal’ lumpkin, a badge I wore with a certain amount of pride, because it got me out of Maths and so made me the object of envy.
Anyway, here’s the story of a 12 year old in Bath Convent, a thousand years ago:
It’s rained and rained for weeks. It’s the wettest autumn ever. When we got on the train yesterday the 6th formers said the school might be flooded and we’d probably have to go home again. It was very exciting. The river had already broken its banks in lots of places and we could see whole fields under water from the train. We ran from the station, trying not to whoop and when we got to the bridge on North Parade we could see the water was up over the banks and reaching the Pavilion and just beginning to lap towards our netball courts. That meant it was already over the rec and Mary said ‘Hooray! No hockey!’ and we all cheered even though everyone likes hockey. It was sort of the thing to do. Beth was waiting for us on the bridge and we ran down to the bottom of the Pavilion steps and tried to see how fast it was rising, but we couldn’t tell.
In Assembly we said special prayers to keep the waters down and the Headmistress was very serious and she said that it was nothing to play the giddy goat about; the floods were terrible and they brought more than just water because there was dirt and mud and filth and the poor Nuns had to clear it all up and it could take weeks and disrupt the whole school calendar.
When we went for our milk in the convent yard, Lisa nudged me and we looked up and we could see, all along the windows, candles lit and statues facing out. Lisa’s not a Catholic so I explained that the nuns had turned the statues around to face out over the water, and the river, and had lit the candles, so the saints would keep the water down. She said that wouldn’t work, but I told her sure it would and all about Aunty Maureen lighting a candle every night to stop my cousin Gerard being killed on his motorbike and how it worked, even though he drove like a lunatic.
With my broken thumb I couldn’t do gym and Lisa was excused because she sprained her ankle last week so we hung around the milk crates for a bit. Then we went to look at the water but it had hardly started creeping up the netball courts. Lisa is a new boarder and she was desperate for the floods to reach the school because someone said boarders go into the old gym if there’s floods and watch films on Madam Evangelista’s projector. And eat stuff from the tuck shop that they’re not usually allowed.
I realised, as we looked at the water, that if the school sent the day girls home, I’d have to sit in the house with Mum in the other room, and me at my desk and yesterday when I was in the hall, I got in the way because Mum was coming down the stairs and I said ‘Sorry’ and tried to get into the dining room but she grabbed my wrist and squeezed it hard, like she was trying to do a Chinese burn but couldn’t. And she whispered something I couldn’t hear, but I was scared and couldn’t pull away. Then she let go and went into the kitchen. So, I didn’t really want to go home, not really, but I sort of did too, because they were saying we would be evacuated and that sounded like children in the war with gas masks. I know it’s different but it’s the same word and that’s something, isn’t it? Then I thought that if the water lapped right up to the Basilica and the old gym, it might also creep up over the railway track somewhere between Bath and Chippenham and Mary and me would have to spend the night in a village hall with bacon sandwiches and itchy army blankets and I wouldn’t have to go home at all, which would be a miracle.
The corridor where all the statues had been turned around to face the river led to the Chapel which was beautiful and smelled of incense and holiness. And you got to the corridor by walking past the Convent kitchens where all the old retired nuns pottered about all day, knitting and making tea with ideal milk in huge yellow metal teapots. I’ve seen them. Lisa says they put the tea bags in with the ideal milk and then pour boiling water on and it tastes like disgusting custard but she’s getting to quite like it.
We got to the end of the kitchen corridor and an ancient old nun came out and smiled at Lisa and said ‘Hello, what are you doing?’ And Lisa, quick as a flash said ‘We have to see the Reverend Mother, Madam’ and the old nun sucked in her breath and blessed us, because the Reverend Mother is a difficult woman, and we fled up the stairs trying not to laugh. And then we were there, tiptoeing into the Holy of Holies.
This corridor really is purely holy, like the Vatican, or Buckingham Palace, because that’s where they have the visitor’s room for when your parents come to speak to the Headmistress, and the Reverend Mother’s Study, and of course, at the end, the Chapel. The whole place smells of polish and flowers and that lovely incense. It smells like Benediction, which is my favourite thing ever. The floor is like glass. And it’s as silent as the grave, not even the ticking of a clock.
There they all are, a panoply of Saints, looking out over the River Avon, some with their hands outstretched, some looking up to heaven. And all the wee candles flickering in little red glasses there at the feet of the saints. The first statue is the Sacred Heart of Jesus and I jerk my head to Lisa and she nods and she takes one side and I take the other and we twist him around. It’s a bit awkward because of my thumb splint and the big fat bandage. Then I take the candle and put it in front of the statue on the corridor side. We admire it for a moment and then quickly glide on to the next window and St Patrick crushing the head of a snake under his bare foot. This one is a bit bigger but we manage it. There’s no noise anywhere but we’re getting very near the Reverend Mother’s room now so I slip up and put my ear to the door, listening. I nod, ‘All quiet’. We move on to St Francis who is a big heavy bastard of a saint, and it takes all our puff to turn him, but we do. Then we suddenly hear the Headmistress saying ‘Good morning!’ and we jump a thousand miles in the air and grab each other. Then she laughs and keeps on talking and we realise she’s in her office, on the phone. Lisa pats her heart and we manage not to snort too much but I’m beginning to want to wee and it’s getting terrifying funny so it’s all very dangerous. Perilous. The next statue is St Joseph of Arimethea and he’s not as fat as St Patrick but it’s awkward because he has a big white lily in his hand and as we turn him the lily hits the window and Lisa goes ‘Shit!’, which is understandable because she’s Protestant, and she tries to push him back. I put a hand up to steady him because he’s wobbling but it’s my bad hand and it hurts and I whip it back and shove the other hand up but it’s too late and Joseph starts to topple, deadly slow. Lisa’s eyes are huge and her mouth is open and Joseph’s eyes meet mine and he looks a bit surprised as he falls with an earth shattering crash onto the polished floor. For a moment I can’t move. Lisa and me look at each other and then we sort of wake up, like an electric shock, and run and run and run.
We fly down the stairs and past the refectory and out of the back door so we don’t have to go past the kitchens again and we sort of reel into the rose garden and we collapse there, stuffing our hands in our mouths, half laughing and half terrified and half excited. We stay there for ages, but we can’t hear anything and no one comes out after us. When the lesson bell goes we walk back to 1W as if nothing’s happened. As if butter wouldn’t melt.
You know, I really enjoyed remembering that, all over again. I loved those nuns. That convent gave me more love than any other community ever has. Terrible theology, great love. I think they are the only people who have really liked me for who I am, lumpkin and all.