Little Mary is new to this new Dublin suburb, and her parents have plonked her into the local school which is free, and being in Ireland, it is free because it is run by the Catholic nuns. Her mother hands her over to the sister in the morning and she is taken firmly by the hand into a playground where there is nothing that would make you want to play: cold thick stone walls with patches of moss on them, and then the squares of grey concrete slabs that the children run around on. It hurts when you fall but Mary is careful. All the little girls and boys are running around like mad in their uniforms, blue ones for the youngest kids, the babies, and green ones for everyone else. The buildings are square with big square windows and the walls are stuccoed, they hurt to touch, and there are old red chimney pots on the roofs. Statues of saints watch the children, and the nuns are always gliding around.
The school is halfway down the hill, on the main road, sitting halfway between the Heights, above, and the Village, below. The Village is the old part of this outer Dublin suburb where the fog sits over the rooftops of the counsel estate, home of the bullies and the “Common Girls”, as they are called at school. The Heights is where the “Snobs” live. The school is the meeting place for both groups, and in the mornings you can see the green uniforms streaming down from the Heights and up from the Village towards the school gates where there is usually a nun or two waiting to inspect the girls before they enter. Anything that isn’t part of the uniform is confiscated by the Penguins and taken to the headmistress’s office.
Mary constantly feels damp from walking to and from school in the steady drizzle. Nevertheless she likes her green gabardine coat very much with its hood and silky lining, the only real piece of uniform she has. Mary’s school frock is home-made by her mother, and it’s not the quite right green and not the quite right fabric and not the quite right shape. But the gabardine coat is a real one, a hand-me-down from the nuns, and she loves its rich smell as she huddles in the shelter watching the girls play in the rain before classes start.
Inside the classrooms there are rows of wooden desks with holes for inkwells from when people had feathers for pens, and you can lift up the lid and put all your stuff in there. The desk seats rotate up and down against your legs as you rise and sit, which is often because every time a teacher comes into the room the girls have to stand up and chant a greeting in Irish, and after the teacher answers, they all sit down again. “Dia duit” – “God to you!” “Dia is Muire duit” – “God and Mary to you!” The seats also creak up when a girl has to stand up to answer a question. Sometimes the girl has to remain standing for the rest of the class if she doesn’t know the answer and the teacher gets annoyed, especially when it’s Fatty Donovan.
In the babies’ year, there are boys in the school, just for that first year, but they are dirty and annoying and loud, and they’re always in trouble. On the breaks the boys run around screaming and whacking heads. Mary tries to ignore them, to dodge them. She hears stories about how the boys are spanked with their pants down in front of the class. Mary has never seen this but it doesn’t seem to make them any better. There are fresh white lines painted on the grey ground. You cannot go past those white lines otherwise you will be in big trouble, unless you have permission to do some special task like gardening in one of the little flowerbeds, if you are lucky enough to have a teacher who likes plants. These are little spindly plants struggling in the shade on wooden lollipop sticks by the wall. There are really nice mosses and lichen on the walls, if you look closely, and Mary dreams little worlds into the damp greens and greys.
When break time is over, one of the nuns comes out with a big bell, her hand holding the inside until she’s ready to ring it. When it rings, loudly and aggressively, the children have to stand very still until the second bell, and this is supposed to be serious, a time to collect oneself. The children like to freeze on the spot, as in mid-gesture, tongues out, hands out, balancing on one foot, their little joke. Then they line up in class lines, in the same dreary spots every day on the concrete, and they are marched back by the nuns to their classrooms and teachers.
In the classroom there is a roll of toilet paper on display inside the glass cabinet along with the spare text books. This is because the toilet rolls keep getting thrown into the toilets, so the nuns have to lock them away and you have to ask for it if you need to go. Mary has seen one down there in the toilet bowl, all swollen and obscene. It’s not good for the pipes. The girls whisper that it’s the Common Girls from down in the Village that are doing it. There are about five of them in Mary’s class and you can hardly tell what they are saying, their accents so strong. But you’ll never really know who is drowning the toilet rolls as that person is behind that locked toilet door, the perfect crime. For months that one roll of toilet paper sits in the glass cabinet with the pile of books unused. No one wants to ask for the key. That would be mortifying. Mary just drip-dries and she gets used to that.
At lunch the girls are to eat in the outdoor shelter, a big covered area near the toilets with wooden benches along the walls. It’s quite dark in there and musty. Mary doesn’t really talk to anyone. She looks at her feet and then the feet of everyone sitting quietly eating their food. Some of the girls have crisps and sweets, and fruit cut into little pieces. Mary has her usual squashed flat Marmite sandwiches and she’s aware of their funny smell. Sometimes the other girls offer Mary their unwanted sandwiches but Mary is repelled by the thought of eating someone else’s food, unless it is in a package from a shop. Other girls’ sandwiches might be made by dirty hands.
Mary is always sleepy at lunch, but from the darkness of the shelter she watches the girls play with a tennis ball in the rain. Miriam has tiny tight curls and a red face and raspy voice and is louder and more enthusiastic about the ball than the others. Everyone knows Miriam has a hole in her heart. How can you love when you have a hole in your heart, thinks Mary. How does the blood pump through it? It’s as if Miriam doesn’t know she has a hole in heart the way she is carrying on, but she does know because she had a big operation and was in hospital for ages. There are pictures all over the school of Jesus’s heart with thorns around it and a little red light under it that is always on. Unlike Jesus’ sacred heart, Miriam’s heart is not talked about in public, and not prayed for, but it is the big secret that everyone knows.
In September Mary moves to the next grade, and her classroom becomes a mobile home in the mud at the back of the school while the nuns work on collecting for the school building fund. The nuns are preparing the girls for giving a hymn service at Easter mass. You have to walk through mud to get to the prefab, and it’s two classes squashed in there for hymn practice. That’s about sixty girls, doubling the amount of bodies singing and breathing, doubling the stink and condensation. Around this time Mary’s fainting spells start, usually around religious stuff like singing or standing at the back of the packed church.
All the hymns have to be learned by heart and practiced a lot as the whole community will be at church for Easter mass, which means more donations towards the school building fund. The girls are given parts by Mrs. Tynan, the kind music teacher, and Mary gets put in the lowest voice category. There’s this one girl from the visiting class that everyone dreads, Martina Meehan, from a really big family in the Village. All of Martina’s brothers are bullies, feared around the Village, and Mary’s brother has been spat on and chased by them. Martina Meehan is thin and freckly with a small mean mouth. She also smells very bad, like old rotting cheddar. And then when her class is squashed in the prefab with Mary’s class, that smell gets into your nose, into your mouth, into your clothes. Mary’s stomach heaves but she still has to sing all those miserable hymns.
“Father we adore you
Lay our lives before you
How we love you”
The windows get steamed up and everyone is so glad to burst out of that class at the end of the day into the clean rainy air.
“Maybe someone’s parents complained,” whispers one of the girls, because Sister Rosario suddenly makes it her business to lecture the girls about hygiene. The girls squirm having to hear about washing your parts. “Filth, girls, filth!” spits Sister Rosario” and the girls look down. But you’re not supposed to touch yourself down there so it’s tricky. A wash cloth. The nuns suggest that if your parents don’t have enough warm water, you can heat some up in the kettle and have a sponge bath. “You can ask your mammy if you can hop in her bath after she’s finished,” suggests sister Rosario. The girls giggle. Mary has baths after her mother is done, the water lukewarm and greasy, but she keeps this to herself. Because of the oil crisis Mary’s family has had to budget and go easy on the heating. Mary fears she smells bad too because of her dank coat. It smells a bit like Marmite. Mary squirms for Martina Meehan because everybody listening to these embarrassing lectures knows that the smell comes from her.
Beside the old school are the nuns’ quarters. Occasionally Mary is sent by Sister Rosario to the front door to deliver money or pick something up. As Mary approaches she notices beggars at the door getting food, the nun quickly handing them something in a bag, and then scurrying off into the shade looking ashamed. She feels tiny there, standing in the doorway smelling the floor polish trying to see everything. It seems so palatial and the wooden floors shine. The quarters smell good, lemony. From the big doorstep, Mary peers inside and sometimes sees the shadow of a nun in a corner, but she wants more, like the nuns without their veils cutting each other’s hair, as the rumours have it. Mary wants to see nuns doing human things, like washing the dishes, or playing with a cat, but she’s never invited inside.
The nuns also have a beautiful garden, and sometimes Mary hears the sisters in the flowerbeds chatting like humans as she walks back to her stark schoolyard. The garden is formal with a little tea house, and it has a section of winding roses and thriving vegetable beds. There’s a magical pond with big happy goldfish. When the girls get to go on a special outing there, in twos, hand in hand, led by a teacher, they like to pretend to push each other in, a pantomime, almost falling in. There’s a statue of the kindest Virgin Mary that you’ve ever seen, and little Bernadette kneeling below her surrounded by fresh flowers from the nuns’ garden.
Back in the mud, in the squashy prefab, on the heels of the toilet paper flusher and the bad smells, appears what the girls come to call the Phantom Scribbler. The Phantom Scribbler begins to strike when the girls are outside on a break, in the yard or the shelter. This is when one of the Snobs comes back to her desk to be faced with the violation of an ink scribble on the cover of her exercise book, always in the shape of a small blue spiral. The Phantom Scribbler is sneaky, and these scribbles appear subtly on the Snobs’ exercise book covers or indeed on any piece of paper left on a Snob’s desk, and this goes on for months, always the same curly blue scribble. Mary secretly hopes that she will get a scribble and feel special, elevated to Snob status, but it seems that the Phantom Scribbler only goes for the girls like Hilary and Niamh and Laura who come from Rose Lawns or the Heights where the houses are bungalows and the fathers are professionals. How deftly the Phantom Scribbler works, waiting for that empty classroom. No one catches them, and no one can even guess who it is, except that it must be one of the Common Girls from the Village. The Phantom Scribbler is there with the girls for the whole school year, striking when it can with that curly blue scribble.
With the two classes squashed in the prefab, the smell gets so bad, more like shit than mouldy cheese, that Sister Rosario has to call in back-up. She returns to the steamy class with the headmistress, Sister Joseph, and with Mrs. Moloney, a married teacher, always pregnant, who is known for getting on well with the girls. They are here to find out the source of the smell. Stern and formal, Sister Joseph begins the interrogation:
“Now, girls, the toilet paper is here for all of you to use. You just have to ask us to unlock it. And you should always use it when you go. And, girls, make sure to wipe up properly and don’t get any of it on your clothes.”
The girls are mortified. Mrs. Moloney has a kinder approach:
“If any of you girls had an accident, just raise your hand. We all have accidents, girls, as I know with my five kids. You just have to say and we can help you.”
Silence. Mary looks over at Martina Meehan but she looks bored. Then another hour of questioning and shamed silence from the girls. Then from the middle of the room comes the sound of howling. It’s Laura White, one of the Snobs, and she is bright red and bawling tears. This is the Laura White with the perfect hair who wears little badges of tiny baby feet on her cardigans, proudly telling you that they represent the feet of the unborn. Her father is a journalist and she gets time off school to go to anti-abortion rallies. Laura has had her books scribbled on. Laura once accused Mary of stealing her coloured pencils, but that didn’t stop Mary desperately trying to be her friend, as being friends with the Snobs is the highest status you can have amongst the girls. Mrs. Moloney leads crying red-faced Laura out of the classroom so she can get a change of clothes from the office. Laura doesn’t return to class that day but the stench lingers as the girls continue practicing their holy songs.
Then there is news of an accident, one afternoon right outside school, a horrible, horrible accident. One of the girls in Mary’s class has been killed, Ruth Carr, a quiet girl. Ruth won’t be singing her parts for Easter mass because she has been hit by a truck. The girls wait all morning in sniffly silence, until Sister Rosario and a policeman comes into the classroom to tell them the news. Ruth was with her mother crossing the road after school, not using the traffic lights, and when she was halfway across she ran back for some reason and got hit by a truck while her mother looked on. Sister Rosario fills them in: “Ruth was from a broken family, girls. Ruth’s life was hard but she was a good girl, looking after her little sister and brother.”
Ruth’s empty chair is too much for everyone. The Snobs seem extra upset, probably because they always laughed at Ruth, thinks Mary. Sister Rosario tries to comfort the girls further: “You never know, God might have been trying to save her from something much worse that might have happened to her later on.” The wheel went over her head; Mary wonders what could be worse than that.
After the fuss of the Easter mass hymns, classes are quieter, with less pressure, and Mary feels much older. Laura White’s family moves to England, and so does the smell, and both her and Ruth Carr’s desks are gone. It’s like they never existed. After the summer holidays, and with the new school year, toilet paper reappears in the bathroom stalls, and it stays there on the holders. The Phantom Scribbler ceases to strike, even when Mary leaves her books out on her desk in hope. She kind of misses the drama of the Phantom Scribbler. The girls are to start reading the story Peig, in Irish, about one of the last miserable residents on the Blasket Islands. The pile of Peig books are taken out of the glass cupboard by Sister Rosario who has the key. There is still the old yellowing toilet paper in there. Peig’s toilet roll, the girls call it.
That Autumn it feels like it is always raining, and when Mary goes home she puts her shoes and socks out to dry in front of the fireplace, just like old Peig in her drafty house on the Blaskets. After dinner, Mary picks up Tiger the mad kitten, all wiggly, and takes her up the stairs to her bedroom to do her homework but she doesn’t feel like tackling Peig with her Irish dictionary. Checking the door is firmly closed, Mary pulls her autograph book out of her drawer and unlocks it, the little key going into the little metal heart. Lying on her stomach on the bed, with Tiger jumping at her hair, Mary looks at the autographs and messages from last year’s classmates on the pretty pastel pages. Even the Snobs have autographed this precious book. Mary turns to the very middle, where the fold is, where the treasure is. It gives Mary the shivers to see dead Ruth’s neat handwriting. She reads the message once again: “Don’t mess with the best because the best don’t mess.” Underneath Ruth’s message is her tidy signature in the joined handwriting they worked hard to perfect, “Ruth M. Carr,” and underneath that, perfectly centred, is one curly blue scribble.
Siobhan Neville lives in the ground in Toronto, Canada. She likes to bicycle and swim in great lakes. In the evenings she likes to stretch out.
© 2019, Siobhan Neville