Nuns should never have been allowed near children. The habit is terrifying.
We only ever saw a narrow section of her face squashed between two white folds of fabric, starched to an unnatural sharp white, one resting just under her chin, the other where her forehead should have been. Her robes and veil were long and black and menacing, and always seemed to billow out behind her like a wicked witch’s, even though she only ever walked very slowly, patrolling the school yard at break and lunchtime, sharp eyes peeled for any wrong-doing. Her sandals were leather, and just like the skin on her hands, they were so cracked and dried out they looked like they were always about to come apart. Maybe it was faith that held them together. No one ever doubted her faith.
She was tall and thin, and her grey eyes glinted like sun on cold steel. Even in the old photos that lined the noisy corridors of our primary school, photos going back decades to when our grandparents’ playful shouts bounced off the walls on the way from the classroom to the yard at lunchtime, she was old and severe. It’s hard to imagine she was ever any different. We were afraid of her.
But her smile would seem to come from God himself. It always came out when it was needed, and you could draw all the strength, hope and comfort you needed from that smile. It would bring peace to the most fraught of situations.
We were afraid of her severity, her strictness, and her terrifying black habit. But she had a heart of gold. I see that now. She had such time for the lonely old people of the parish in particular. Now I wonder if she had such affinity for lonely old people because she was one, too. We were taught not to think of nuns as people, with feelings. On holiday in Poland, we saw nuns with young faces. It was a shock. Here they are old, all of them. She was the only one left when I was growing up. If she still lives, she probably still is. If God has taken her up, then my hometown is probably without a nun to terrify young children and comfort the lonely elderly.
God was her only company in that cold, echoing grey convent which once, we were told, was filled with young nuns and life. There was a sister Francis until I was seven, a frumpy woman with a kindly face and a heart problem. Sister Francis used to give out ice-creams at the sports day, until the sports day when I was seven and she dropped dead. It was very undramatic. Sister Francis was buried the next day and she was left alone with God in a building the kids thought was haunted and were afraid to go near at night. Was God enough? Did she ever long for more human companionship, someone to talk to her, hold her, keep her warm at night and protect her from the fear of lonliness? I can’t imagine how she spent her days, how long her nights must have been, especially in winter. I only know that when I was a child, no one ever doubted her faith.
I was long gone from that town, my childhood a hazy but happy memory, dreamlike, when I heard about it. I don’t remember him but he was in the same class as me in primary school, I’m told. We went to different secondary schools.
There but for the grace of God go I.
Could she keep her faith even after that young man died, after the note he left in the church? We never doubted her faith was unshakeable, but her smile never came out again after they found his body and the priest confessed.