Guest Author - Siobhain M Cullen
Each new blade of emerald grass outside the classroom window shone glossy in that particularly lurid sunlight of early spring – a shock to the eyes after the pallor of winter. Every blade bent and shivered gently in the breeze, through which brawling rooks battled to bring fresh twigs to repair their nests in the tree tops opposite. Magnified by the glazing of the classroom window, sunbeams burned the child’s back through her woolly cardigan as she calculated the number of hours before her hands could trail through those waves of green or grip the rough bark of the oak tree.
She was sure she had seen the rustling in its lower leaves that signified the nesting of a Song Thrush. This rustling was usually generated by the gentle, repetitive motion of a mother bird, as she circled slowly and deliberately round the inside of the nest, smoothing its thin walls of clay to perfection. As she sank her soft downy breast level with the rim of straw, only the pale stripe of her eye would be visible. Brooding, brown and dappled, she would melt into the background of the bark and branches.
10.25. Exactly one hour and twenty-five ticking minutes, and that was only ‘til Dinner Hour thought the child, as she pencilled in the beak of her bird doodle drawing next to the fractions.
Her friend Imelda jumped up suddenly. She was Door Monitor that week. She curtseyed slightly as she let in one of the Kitchen Sisters. The girls all smiled. It was Sister Peter, grinning a greeting to all and sundry as usual. She seemed to carry an aura of kitchen vapour with her everywhere she went – today it was the odour of boiling mince. The older girls let it be known that she had to work in the kitchens because she couldn’t read or write.
“One of the Kitchen Sisters was taken bad” they overheard.
“Could one of the girls be spared ‘til Dinner Hour?”
Sister Ignatius folded her arms, encased as they were in swathes of black, and tapped her foot.
“I’ll go” piped up Imelda, bashing her sum book shut.
“You’ll do no such thing” snapped Sister Ignatius, her eyes as cold as the pebbles in the stream bed in the water-meadow beyond the school field.
“YOUR mother is a lady – what would she think?”
Her eyes rested on Imelda’s friend, the thin one sitting next to the window.
“That one has a stone for a heart,” whispered Imelda into her friend’s ear, and poking her to make her stand up, “Go on – she wants you to earn your keep!”
The thin child followed Sister Peter out of the warm hushed classroom along the tiled hallway to the doorway where the air breezed in, breathing the scent of crushed geranium leaves. She was fond of the geraniums with their cheeky garish colours and she was fond of Sister Peter too. She knew she would give her a rock cake.
In the kitchens, all was activity. Potatoes were thrown on to boil, aluminium saucepan lids bounced around on the floor tiles, and of course, there were “the slops” – metal buckets with clanking handles echoing from the scullery walls. Sister Peter rolled the black and white gingham sleeve-protectors off her arms and used them to mop the steam from the washing-up water off her thick glasses. They had heavy black rims but her eyes laughed behind them. She gave the child two pieces of Fruit Brack* and nodded her invitation to eat both of them.
“Your arm would make a good sparrows leg.” She said, inspecting her wrist. “Eat those up, and take these.”
Then she picked up a bucket of vegetable peelings, tea leaves and smelly egg-shells in each hand. She headed out the scullery door, down the path leading to the Kitchen Garden. The child followed on behind, staunchly gripping the one bucket her little body could manage in front of her, bumping her grazed knees with it as they went. Stopping two or three times to rest the bucket on the red ash path in front of her, she realised (agog to see the inner workings of the convent) that they were heading towards a Hen Run.
Behind the chicken wire, the hens’ eyes fixed on her – each one yellow, beady, glazed. She shivered in the sunlight, though the hair under her hands was fiercely hot as she shoved it behind her ears. Sister Peter slopped the first bucket out onto the hard-baked earth. There was no grass here, just dust from the scratchings of the chickens’ claws, claws which were thick, yellow, horny and sharp. Unimpressed, the chickens ignored the potato peelings, turning each morsel over to get at some invisible thing underneath. Their backs gleamed greasily copper in the glare of the burnishing sun. One of them was larger than all the others and he paraded his blue-green tail feathers back and forth along the parapet of the coop.
“You’d think he was a peacock instead of a cockerel,” Sister Peter announced suddenly. “Saint Peter denounced his Master three times before cockcrow. Remember that when you eat your Easter Eggs this Sunday. You wouldn’t do that, sure you wouldn’t?”
“No indeed, Sister” the child answered, gazing fearfully at the horrible bird. A cockerel such as that one had jumped up with his two legs at once and attacked her little brother. It had left deep red scratches down his back.
“I thought not” nodded Sister Peter, taking six eggs from the depths of her pockets.
“Slip those into your cardigan and mind not to tell the other girls.”
“But Sister, won’t they crack?” the child ventured, as they stomped back up the path for more buckets, Sister’s heavy black garb brushing the scent of the Rosemary and Thyme up into the air as she marched.
“They’re no ordinary eggs,” she called back. “They’re made from thin sugar-coated chocolate.”
Hastily, as they were approaching the classroom window,the little girl stuffed them into her cardigan pockets, three in each side. Two of the inmates looked up from their sum books and one even poked her tongue out jealously as she trotted past. She didn’t care -she would stare and stare at those exquisite eggs for as long as she liked at home. She would plot how best to maximise the delightful surprise for her little brothers. Maybe she would even put them into real eggcups for “ a bit of great gas* for them all” on Easter Sunday. She felt her heart smile at the thought of the excitement of the little ones, as she slopped out the contents of the last bucket, an oozing smelly mess of slime accompanying the peelings, for good measure.
“Go ‘way out o’ that” waved Sister Peter as she tried to thank her. ”Tell your Mammy, that’s for your help this day and all the other days – there’s enough for one each for you little ones.”
In the evening, after she had skinned her shins sliding down the trunk of the oak tree from the Song Thrush’s nest, she got out her brother’s favourite matchbox. Next she carefully stuffed it full of sheep’s wool. Gently she placed inside it a tiny oval egg of the brightest frostiest blue, a little spoonful of sky, she thought, speckled with splashes the colour of leather. She slid the box slowly shut with one finger.
It had been still warm in the late afternoon sun, as she and her little brother had reached the nest. Two years younger than herself, he had announced dejectedly, that he had been watching all day and he was sure the mother bird had flown.
“Probl’y those bullying rooks” he had added, forlornly.
As she had manoeuvred her hand through the tearing brambles and ivy into the dark nest, it was met with an unearthly chill that confirmed their worst fears. There would be no gammy fledglings to watch, falling over themselves to acquire the new techniques necessary to achieve the aerial acrobatics of flight. The coldness of the four eggs was dark, profound and final. Cold enough to shock a warm finger.
“Will we warm them up?” came a quivering little voice from below, at the news.
Inspired, his sister called down, trying to cheer him. “ I know what we’ll do,”
“We’ll give them as presents, like Easter Eggs.”
Taking off her woolly cardigan, she carefully loaded the cargo of eggs, one per perilous journey, into the pockets and dangled it down by a long sleeve, to her brother who peered up into the gloom from below.
Once safely back on the front doorstep at home, she gave him the three matchboxes with the cars on the front and put the last one, the one with the picture of a swan on it, into the corner of her brown leather satchel. In the morning, when she took the Dinner Register over to the Kitchens, she would put it up on the Scullery windowsill, next to the geraniums, addressed to Sister Peter.
*1 – “brack” – a traditional Irish fruit bread, made with sultanas soaked in tea.
*2 – “great gas” – “great fun”
This story is from my first collection of Short Stories "Dead Nuns Shoes" which is published through Lulu.com Self-publishing under my pen name Siobhain O Cuillinn. These stories depict the sometimes bleak, sometimes brilliant sparks of an old-fashioned convent education.