You think you’re different?
On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the 1960s, my first weekend in boarding school, I sat down to write a letter home with the help of a friendly older girl. I was six years old. My father had died at the end of July. Now it was September, a new school year. The mud-coloured tunic of my uniform was heavy and stiff.
I copied my helper’s instructions faithfully as she guided me through the intricacies of the letter-writing form, a form that was new to me – address in the top right-hand corner of the page, line by line, the date underneath it, then over to the left margin. This was not a speedy undertaking, you understand, but at last we got to the point.
‘Dear Mummy,’ I began, at the senior girl’s dictation.
‘… and Daddy,’ she went on.
‘Dear Mummy and Daddy,’ she insisted, stabbing the page with her finger. She didn’t sound so friendly now.
‘No!’ I shouted, making everybody look. She recoiled as if I’d slapped her.
On the general scale of instances of ‘I won’t and you can’t make me’, this was a small thing. I should have forgotten it, but I didn’t. Not because of any emotional trauma but because of something I learned: about truth, but also about myself. I knew that girl had forgotten that my father was dead and that there was no way she could make me write something so patently false (imagine!). I remember the absolute calm I felt waiting for her to realize her mistake. I knew that she’d have to give in and, what’s more, I wanted to see what that would look like.
I expected a sympathetic fuss, but she dismissed the squall with a furious blush and a simple wave of her hand. ‘Oh yes, I forgot,’ she said. ‘Well, dear Mummy then.’ On we went with the letter, as she drilled into me the stock, hollow phrases with which we were taught to communicate with our parents in those days.
Our incoming and outgoing post was read by the nuns in that school. No one seemed to question this practice, or even find it worthy of comment. Our letters were public property – what private thing could we possibly have to communicate? Any instinct for privacy was considered suspect. The Second Vatican Council was underway by then, but the Mass was still in Latin, and the nuns’ authority was absolute. If a child’s parents had challenged them on any issue whatsoever there was no question but that the entire family would have been shown the door. Our mothers, most of whom had been educated by the same order of nuns, seemed to diminish at the school gates. Fathers had little to do with anything and rarely appeared. The parents’ role in the school was to provide the children, pay the fees and otherwise stay out of it.
If there was any pretext for the censoring of our post, it was that our handwriting, spelling and grammar needed to be checked. Handwriting was seen as an index of character. Mine was bad: it looped, careless and untidy, couldn’t make up its mind which way to lean. The ideal was for it to be straight, or perhaps to have a delicate tilt forwards. Leaning backwards was slovenly and rude, suggestive.
Once I wrote a letter home complaining about something (probably the food) and the nun who was in charge of the Juniors – let’s call her Mother Incognita – came to give out to me in the middle of study, in front of everyone. She gave me a miserable few days, but I soon came up with a plan to get back into her good books and wrote a fawning letter home saying how lovely she was, how kind, how fair.
The next time I saw my mother, she pointed out that Mother Incognita would have seen straight through me. My mother laughed, but I was mortified. From then on I was aware of an objective, most likely hostile, audience for my letters, outside of my control. It made me duplicitous: I developed codes, tried to write between the lines, to find ways to say things whose meaning might not be immediately apparent. It made me a criminal: I learned to tap the public phone on the back staircase, a skill that would stand to me throughout my years as a boarder in different schools. My career as a lick rudely cut short, I switched sides and became known for answering back.
We had ‘hobbies’ once a week, on Saturdays. All of the Juniors went in for stamp collecting. Mother Incognita was dead keen on Stamps for the Missions** and she also had a fine collection of her own, on the side. Stamps were the currency of whatever goodwill might be going, so when we went home we’d beg for them, harvest used envelopes and bring them in for inspection. We swapped our offerings with Mother Incognita and with each other. Along with feeding her interest, we learned things that would come in handy later on: the proper names of countries, the volatility of European states, how to find our way around a postmark.
Living in a world where to be a liar is one of the worst of all possible crimes can be something of a handicap to a budding fiction writer, but at that school I had the fantastic luck to coincide with other girls who shared a love of storytelling: we sat at the back of the classroom and filled our copybooks with small novels about boarding school and animals. One girl in particular was the undisputed star. A diplomat’s daughter, she came to school in fifth class. Fortified by the intoxicating notion of diplomatic immunity, she was less constrained than the rest of us by the atmosphere of censorship that pervaded the school. Her imagination was freer, her palette broader, her vision more sophisticated than any of ours. Her characters had names like Zoe and Tabitha while ours were more likely to be Roisin or Mary. Zoe and Tabitha were bad and – worse – unrepentant. They acted out, pushed their enemies down flights of stairs and laughed at the ensuing mayhem. Lies tumbled freely from their mouths. Their exploits made our audience, on out-of-the-way staircases or in the box-room under the stage, laugh, gasp, beg for more. Poor Roisin limped along in their shadow, head hanging. I paid attention to what my rival did, began to shake off the caution, the fear of being caught in a lie that made stories untellable.
My early teens found me at a different school in the care of nuns who, less sure of themselves in the wake of Vatican II, didn’t interfere with our post. I became a reckless, extravagant correspondent with friends in other boarding schools. My notions of who a reader might be expanded accordingly. Sometimes we wrote to vent our emotions, but more often we wrote to entertain, to evoke a response, rehearsing the different voices that might be used to tell a story. This backfired badly when a letter I wrote to a boyfriend was intercepted by his mother.* The letter had described a hockey match, milking the metaphors for all they were worth, using puns and double meanings to flirt on the page. When his mother found this letter, she wrote back warning that if I ever made contact with her son again the consequences would be dire. Whatever upset I felt over breaking up with the boy was nothing to my fury at the misappropriation of the letter. For weeks afterwards, a phrase or double entendre I had written would resurface in my mind and I would rage with embarrassment to think it had been read by such hostile, philistine eyes. It was a feeling I’d recognize years later when I got my first negative review.
One year, a new nun arrived in our midst. This woman embraced Vatican II with gusto and intelligence. She talked philosophy, said the word ‘sexuality’ out loud – that got our attention. But when she invited us to note down lines from books, poems and songs that we liked in the back of our copybooks and hand them up for her inspection I was appalled.
Being a reader, in the Ireland of the 1970s, made you a dissenter. The best books were banned, although they were easy enough to come by and disguise between the covers of other books. Notions of being on the wrong side of the law, even if only slightly, fed our developing attitudes; at this time, in my reading, I was coming out of a Russian period and entering an Irish one. I made notes. The lines I copied out in my disorganized notebook electrified me; I got into dialogue with them on the page, opened them up and turned them inside out – or do I mean they opened me up, turned me inside out? Either way, I wasn’t about to hand them up for comment, certainly not to a nun – not just because the material was contraband, but because of how personal it felt, how inward its direction. If she had asked us to undress, en masse, in front of her I would have been less offended.
When I was fifteen I was one of a group of girls who were expelled for smoking dope in school. The others were all day girls. Like Jean Brodie, we had been betrayed, ratted on by one of our classmates. Because it was the seventies, when recreational drug use of any kind was only just beginning to be whispered about, this expulsion became something of a cause célèbre. The school held a public meeting so that parents could air their views and have their questions answered.
This was near the end of the spring term. Easter was late that year, which meant that the summer term would be short. The atmosphere bristled and hummed. There was an element of cat-and-mouse in what followed: first we were told we had to leave straight away, then at the end of the term, which was only a week or so later. When the initial fuss died down, it was decided to allow us to complete the school year and sit our public exams.
Pink Floyd had just released Dark Side of the Moon and it was a good soundtrack for the emotions that raged through our classroom that term. Change and treachery were in the air. The Senate Watergate Committee was about to begin its hearings and soon the resignations would begin. The last US soldiers were leaving Vietnam. A referendum determined that Northern Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom. On the day of the vote, two IRA bombs exploded in London. With all of that going on, you’d think that the problems of one seething schoolgirl would have slipped under the radar, but no. Somehow I managed to generate a rogue, fractious electricity of my own. A teacher whom I believed to be sympathetic threw me down a flight of stairs by the hair. A bad-tempered nun proved unexpectedly kind. Another teacher, a committed eccentric, expressed the opinion that I was either a genius or an idiot and that it would take both of us our entire lives to figure out which.
All of which was interesting, but not especially helpful.
There was one nun, let’s call her Sister Inimica, who embodied all the polarities at once, a one-woman alternating current. She seemed to stalk me. Her eyes always managed to track me down in a crowd. She pursued me with sarcasm, turned up in classroom doorways just for a look. Worst of all, she sometimes tried to console me. I wasn’t having any of it.
On the last day of the school year before we broke for the exams, our class decided to go for a picnic in the garden of a girl who lived close to the school. When we got there, those of us who were leaving were stunned to discover the secret planning that had gone in to this apparently spontaneous party. We were each given cards professing enduring friendship, signed by everyone in the year. They had collected money to buy silver rings for us and have them engraved. We cried and we laughed, things that were long overdue.
We returned to school from this picnic glowing, elated. I think we were singing. I can imagine now how I must have looked, to Inimica, in the middle of that rowdy herd: untidy, as usual, but flushed and happy, when by her lights I should have been devastated.
‘Come here,’ she said. ‘I want you.’
My stomach knotted. Across the heads of the others, a friend grinned and mimed a knife cut to the throat. I followed the nun’s brisk, bowed legs into an airless office.
‘Sit down,’ she said.
‘I’d rather stand.’
The window was behind her, so her face was in shadow while mine was not. I’d read about this old secret-service trick, it didn’t impress me. I folded my arms and stared out the window while she sat down behind her desk and fussed with her veil in a way she had, tugging at clips and wayward hair, then patting it down, before beginning to speak.
‘You might be better off sitting,’ she said. ‘But suit yourself.’ The fleck of saliva on her lip was a bad sign. I shifted my gaze to the calendar. Soon the page would turn. A new month and I’d be gone.
‘There’s a rumour going around about you. Have you heard it?’
Which one? I wondered, but I said nothing.
‘A rumour that you will be allowed to come back next year, after the exams? Let me assure you, that won’t happen. No question.’
I folded my arms, sighed, did my best to look bored. (I was an infuriating little bitch in those days. I used to work at it.)
All of a sudden, she was enraged. She pulled a drawer open, took out some letters and spilled them onto the desk between us.
‘These are letters,’ she spat, ‘from parents. Saying how glad they are that you are leaving. They say the sooner we get rid of you the better. That the school will be a better place when you have gone.’
A stupid smile spread across my face. I could feel it, but I didn’t know how it got there. It made her worse.
‘You think you’re different?,’ she hissed. ‘That you’re above all this? That you’re immune? You think you have friends? You couldn’t. Be. More. Wrong. I’ve had letters from more parents than I can count, about you. They say that they’ve always known there was something wrong with you, that their daughters were never really your friends, that just because someone spent time with you or invited you to her home for a weekend, didn’t mean that she liked you. Their daughters have asked them to write, they say. Some of them are afraid of you. Some fell under your influence. These parents say that their daughters will be better off when your influence is removed from the school, that it’s a relief that you are leaving. That you are a poison.’
I could have used a chair, after all. I folded my arms more tightly around myself and held on while she read bits of those letters out loud, a line from this and a line from that, to prove her point. She teased me with initials and beginnings of names. I stared hard at the calendar until all the dates blurred into one.
‘I’ve had no such letters about any other girl.’ She sat back and looked at me. Her face changed then. And her voice. She asked if I was all right, did I want to sit down now?
All I wanted was to get out of there, to get as far away from her as I possibly could. When she let me go I stormed out of the school and across the grounds, clambered through the hedge to the archbishop’s garden, a favourite refuge, a place where I could be alone to smoke and think in peace.
I had an anarchic approach to other people’s houses and lands in those days, which probably derived from growing up in public buildings and institutions of one kind or another (a series of boarding schools, the hospital and nursing home where my mother worked). Besides, I had read the Communist Manifesto. The land for the people, was my motto; if a building had an open door, I was in; No Trespassing/Keep Out signs may as well have been open invitations.
Anyway, I had met the archbishop once, so as far as I was concerned we were practically related. It happened during a trip to Lourdes, a couple of years after my father died.
I disliked Lourdes, it made me uneasy. We had to queue for the baths, along with people who were seriously ill, on crutches or in wheelchairs or other kinds of wheeled transport. I remember one boy, older than me, who was cramped into a pram that was far too small for him. I remember his pallor, his damp hair. The greedy blaze of his eyes when he looked at me.
I didn’t want to go into the dim water, where all those sick people had been before me. Strange, murmuring women surrounded you and helped you to undress and to put on a shroud-like garment, then tilted you back into cold water. You were supposed to pray for your intention when you went down, but I was too busy concentrating on holding my nose and my breath until I came up again, gasping.
Our hotel had few amenities – there would have been no question of a bar, for example – but it did have a small sitting room with a piano. One day I wandered into it and began to play. My mother came in and asked me to stop, because people were trying to rest, all around us. But the next thing a long thin man filled the doorway.
‘Let her play,’ he said.
He was the tallest man I’d ever seen, in an old-fashioned costume seamed with purple, a purple cap on his head. He had a narrow face and long fingers clasped in front of him. A silver crucifix hung from a heavy chain on his important-looking chest.
My mother went down on one knee.
I couldn’t move. The sight of my mother genuflecting to a man scared me more than anything yet. Who could he be? The next thing she had taken his hand and kissed it. ‘Your Grace,’ she said. When she let go and stood up I could see that he wore a large ring.
He sat down on a high-backed chair beside the door, and spread his hand, like a dancer, inviting my mother to sit and me to play in one easy move, like someone who was used to being obeyed.
When my fingers had finished blundering along the chipped keys, he thanked me, blessed us and left. Then my mother told me who he was: the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.
Now here I was, years later, trespassing in his garden on a fairly regular basis. John Charles McQuaid was no longer Archbishop of Dublin, but as far as I was aware this was still his house. My impression was that he still lived there. I had seen him in the distance, walking along the path, head bent, pale hands clasped behind his back. I used to tell myself that he wouldn’t mind if he caught me. I’d call him Your Grace, but I wouldn’t kneel. Once, I walked right up to the tall, blank windows of the house and looked inside. I got the fright of my life when something moved in there, but it was only my own dark reflection, trapped in the glass.
What the nun didn’t tell me, but I found out later, was that she got letters from other parents, too, asking for leniency. She did mention that John Charles McQuaid had asked them to reconsider their decision. She mentioned it only to underscore their determination to get rid of me, a determination strong enough to withstand even a plea from someone like him.
Another September found me in another school, this one deep in the countryside, where my long-suffering mother imagined I’d stay out of trouble.
A small post office at the gate controlled the party line on the telephone, but at least anything entrusted to the post-box went out uncensored … so far as we knew.
One morning, only a few weeks into the term, an American girl got a confusing little package of letters in the post. This girl’s father had Irish roots, god help her. He’d seen a photograph of the school and its surrounding countryside, and once he’d seen it nothing would do him but his daughter had to go there.
My previous acquaintance with the language of postmarks came in handy as we tried to decipher the items she’d received: an official-looking outer envelope, an even more official customs form, folded over an aerogramme. When we opened the aerogramme, a handful of Rizlas fell out.
‘What does it mean?’ she asked, about the form, smoothing the cigarette papers with a wistful hand. It only took a quick scan of the document to determine that her friends at home had taken pity on her newly cloistered, conventual life and sent her the makings of a couple of joints to help pass the time. The customs notice advised that ‘a substance’ had been detected in the aerogramme and removed for testing. The substance had proved to be cannabis. The form would be followed shortly by a visit from the authorities.
We knew this meant nothing good. The fact that they’d sent on the Rizlas but kept the hash was clear evidence of spite. But we had nothing to hide. Or so we thought.
As it happened, some of the more enterprising juniors had already unearthed my murky past. Bored, over-imaginative and malicious as teenagers often are, they had invented elaborate scenarios in which I was seen to imbibe forbidden substances and rage along the empty corridors at night in states of disarray. The nuns had got wind of this and asked me, straight out, if the rumours were true. No, I said and they were generous enough to take my word for it.
Now, a matter of days later, this.
The two policemen who came to the school that evening saw to it that we were confined to a classroom while they conducted a thorough search of the premises, including our dormitories and classroom desks. It was late when they got around to calling us out to be ‘interviewed’, one at a time: me, the American girl, her sister and the girl who shared a cubicle with me.
During the course of my first encounter with those two men, they described their search of my cubicle: the two nuns sitting on the bottom bunk with their heads lowered, my drawers wide open. They leaned heavily on the weight of the word ‘drawers’. I cringed because I did indeed store the diary I was still naive enough to keep (you’d think I’d have known better by now) with my underwear. They had found the diary and read it. There were things in there that they could hardly credit a fifteen-year-old girl with writing, things that they would really rather not know and would certainly prefer to have spared the nuns, those poor, decent, blushing women. They’d read extracts out loud, along with sympathetic letters from my own friends, responding to my attempts to be entertaining about my current circumstances.
Now we know what you think of us, the principal said to me when the policemen had gone. There was disappointment in her voice. After all, these nuns were giving me a chance. They deserved better. But once it’s out there, the written word has a life of its own. This was the obverse of what had happened in my last school; this time the words that were unearthed and flung at the wrong target were my own. This time, I was source and target, both.
Crime rates must have been pretty low in that part of the world that year, because those two policemen kept turning up looking for trouble. Unluckily for us, they had an uncanny knack for finding it. They showed up when two boys were living in a tent on school grounds; they were there to see a girl spectacularly and loudly drunk; they were waiting for us when we’d been out for the day and were smuggling cigarettes back in. They took a particular dislike to me (because of that diary, which I ripped to shreds after their first visit? because I was from Dublin?) and came back one last time a few days before the Leaving for no other reason than to remind me that it would make no difference how well I did in the exams or what notions I had of what I’d be when I left school … I was on my way to hell in a rusty bucket anyway.
They advised the nuns to keep an eye on my incoming post. I didn’t know about this until I wrote a careless, manic letter describing the latest visit from my nemeses, the latest insults, the latest search. My friend misunderstood my histrionics and wrote back: What drugs have you taken? Stop! I paraphrase, but you can imagine the fuss this caused, the lengthy explanations I had to undertake to extricate myself and make them believe the truth, that I never brought drugs into that school.
All of which goes a long way towards explaining why I gave up on the whole letter-writing business for a number of years. As for keeping any kind of diary, there was no question of it. I vowed I never would, not ever again. The ghosts of those two men and the nuns with their averted faces blazing would come between me and the idea of a blank page for a good long while to come.
Years later, living in Los Angeles, I was sunk in a miasma of combined postnatal depression and homesickness, a stranger to myself. One day I got an effervescent letter from a good friend who had recently been in California. Her vivid descriptions of what she had seen there, things she assumed that I was seeing every day, woke me up. Some old competitive streak roused me to respond to her with better images, funnier jokes, a neater turn of phrase. The drive to find the images, the jokes, the phrases made me assess my circumstances with a different eye, an eye that had been glued shut for a considerable time.
The effect of writing that letter was so profound that I didn’t want to stop. I began to write a story. In it, a woman who was lost in a fog of depression went through her day looking for things to write to a friend about. In doing so, she began to notice the texture and colour of her surroundings, tried out different voices to express them. It was structured as a series of drafts of a letter attempting to explain what had happened to this woman, what was happening to her still.
I went to the local Salvation Army shop and bought a typewriter for twenty dollars. I can still smell its ink on my fingers, feel the resistance of the keys and hear the particular, weighted click as they struck ribbon and paper.
The title of that story was ‘Letters’. Luckily, it was never published.
* This was a fundraising initiative in aid of Catholic missionaries. Postage stamps of all kinds were collected and sent on to be processed, batched and sold off at philatelic auctions. Even everyday stamps had value.
** As some readers of this magazine will recall: see ‘Boarders’, The Dublin Review issue No. 21 Winter 2005-6.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 32 Autumn 2008