Why did you join the army, Luce?

I was asked that yesterday and it would have taken too long to explain, and I don’t really do proper conversation. I can joke or listen, not actually say stuff with a beginning and a middle and an end. Then I remembered that I’d written the answer already, in my autobiography:

An excerpt from ‘The Amazingly Astonishing Story’

November 1965

After school I went to Benediction, which is still my favourite time of all, and when the oldest nuns came in, the retired ones who potter around all day getting lost and smiling, and drinking tea as pale as custard, I looked at them and something clicked.

On Wednesday morning I had a free lesson, being a fifth former now, and I went along to BX’s study and knocked on the door. I can’t say she was thrilled. She kept saying ‘Are you sure, Lucy? Are you absolutely sure?’ And I just nodded my head and said ‘Yes, Madam, I want to be a nun.’

………

The next weekend was my visit to Highgate Convent, to see if it’s the place for me. It was lovely there. You could hear the traffic, just over the wall, on Highgate Hill, but inside it was tranquil, almost silent. Just the distant hum of buses and lorries reminding you of how lucky you were to be in here and not out there. Marx lay under a stone slab somewhere nearby.

I had a lovely little room, overlooking the gardens, and a bible and a prayer book and a prie deux. It made me think of all the paintings and mass cards of Theresa of Avila and I wondered, just briefly, if I could ever aspire to sainthood, if I lived long enough. Haha.

I arrived on Saturday and we said The Rosary before lunch and after that, recreation. I was put with a novice, Claire, who’s nineteen and from Galway. I told her that my family were from Mayo way back but she said that she’s never been out of Galway, except for coming here. We did a jigsaw which she said has three pieces missing, and she didn’t know how many times she’d done it, but she guessed probably five or six. She said it with a soft smile. I think of Aunty Nelly calling Joe Grimshaw a soft lad, and I hope that if ever she falls through a tin roof, she’ll find a soft landing.

After that it was more prayers in the chapel and then tea which was bread and butter and jam and apples. The butter was margarine. A lifetime of margarine. That made me wonder about the whole idea, right enough. While we ate, one of the nuns read the bible, the book of Obadiah, which sounds like a name from Round The Horne, and I thought of Gruntfuttock, our favourite bit, and I felt a pang of homesickness for Beth, not for home. Bethsickness.

We were all in bed by seven, but we were up at five and down to the chapel again, for Mass. The priest was ancient and Mass took hours, and you couldn’t hear a word of it. When he lifted up the Host a nun had to put her hand under his elbow. Breakfast was horrible porridge and tea, and then we had fellowship, which is prayer but in the sitting room. I know that if I told Beth about it, she’d say it was dire. But it wasn’t. It was lovely. We all belonged there. I don’t know how else to put it.

After prayer we sat and had community, which is talking. The nuns asked about my family  so I started at the very beginning, knowing that when I got to the bit where when Mammy died that would make all the questions melt away in a flood of Irish sentiment. It did, of course. ‘God bless the child’ and ‘Rest her soul’ and all that, looking at me with such pity that I felt a terrible fraud. I said ‘It’s alright, I don’t mind’ but that made it sound like Mammy was no more to me than a bus driver or a shop lady. Or I was a cheerful axe murderer. I felt my cheeks burning so I went to an old blind nun who was trying to unravel a skein of wool and getting in a right state. If people would just not talk to me, everything would be fine.

After cabbage and bacon I had an interview with the Head of the Novitiate, a French woman, not just an Irish girl with pretensions. I was all ready to answer her if she asked about God. I’d rehearsed saying ‘Like Thomas, I have my doubts, but like the father of the possessed boy, I pray that God will help my unbelief.’ which seemed pretty good to me, if I do say so myself, and wide enough to cover a multitude of sins (literally) but she didn’t talk about God at all, she was more interested in my needlework and cookery O levels. I think maybe they’re a bit short of those skills in Highgate Convent, and the breakfast had been pretty rough right enough. I wanted to ask her if I could serve at the altar during Benediction but she was finished with the housekeeping skills and onto my periods. My periods! I only started them last year, the last one in the class, and beginning to panic that they’d never come and I’d be a hermaphrodite.  She said ‘Are you pure?’ I made a joke of it and said ‘Purely sinful, I am that.’ because her being so very French somehow made me want to be more Irish. I nearly broke into ‘Begorrah’ and ‘by Jaysus’ but I just stopped myself in time. Then she rang a bell and another older nun came in and Frenchie gave her the nod, a meaningful sort of nod, and she took me down to the garden and we sat there chatting for ages and it was lovely. She said ‘See how all the squirrels are playing around us?’ And they were. And she said ‘See the lovely gardens.’ And I did. Then she said ‘It’s beautiful weather today, is it not?’ And I said it was. Then she took my fat hand and she put it between her boney ones and she said ‘Sometimes it rains, and it’s cold, and miserable. And there are 48 women locked up in that house behind us, and they’re all trying hard not to kill each other.’ I wasn’t sure if she was joking. I thought of Mrs Murdstone and I looked up at the windows on the top floor but of course there weren’t any shadows, no one darting back out sight, no pale face pressed against the glass. She patted my hand and said ‘However bad life is, Lucy, this is not the place of refuge you’re looking for.’

They’ve said I can come to the novitiate for a few months to try it out, but they’ve made it clear that they don’t think I’m suited. And the thought of the unending rain and the monstrous regiment of murderous women has persuaded me. And the margarine. Two days was just right. Sixty years would be pushing it. So, what now? I still fancy a job at Bowyers sausage factory but when I phoned Pam she said I’d never afford a bedsit on a starter’s wage, and that, said Luce, is that.

I bought two 1000 piece jigsaws and sent them to Highgate to Claire but when I posted them off, I felt sad, and wondered if I’ve made the right decision. Not the jigsaws, the vocation. I had a letter from Martin saying don’t do it, Lucy love, do not do it, so Dad must have told him about the convent. He’d underscored the words and said he’d go AWOL and come home and drag me away if he had to. I wrote back, by return, to say false alarm.

Bugger. Now what? In a week it’ll be my birthday and no one wants a 17 year old. You can’t go to teacher training college or nursing school till you’re 18 and anyway, I haven’t got bloody Maths, have I? So much for considering my options. I wish Aunty Nelly was alive. I could sleep in the parlour where Mammy died, and get a job at the peanut butter factory, or the pub. But she isn’t. They’re all keeling over like skittles.

Bugger bugger bugger. There must be somewhere I can go. I’ll be chucked out straight after Christmas and what will I do? Who wants a convent schoolgirl? No one.

Exactly two weeks after my 17th birthday, 16th December 1965, instead of catching the train to Bath, I cross the bridge to the London platform and, in my convent uniform with my homework under my arm, I catch the train to Swindon. And in Swindon I walk to the recruiting office where I am welcomed with open arms and they throw flowers at my feet and pile my arms high with money and chocolates and promises. Crackerjack!

Not quite. But they’re friendly and they don’t turn me away.

When I come home I tell Dad that I’ve joined the Army and he says ‘It’ll make a man of you.’

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