An excerpt from Midnight Feast by Martina Evans (revised edition published by Bloom Books - May 2013)
My mother loved it. She could never get enough of it. And she got plenty of it, the night I arrived at Mayo.
I liked sympathy, too, but I got hardly any. And none from Sister Paul.
‘Bringing up your daughter on your own. Without a man in the house and struggling against it all, to send her to the best of schools. Are you pure thankful?’ Paul asked me.
‘Well, it hasn’t been easy,’ my mother said.
‘Easy! How could it be easy?’ Sister Paul’s grey eyes were on me. ‘Too good is what you are. Isn’t she, Grace? And are you proud of your mother now getting back into the civil service. A woman all by herself. Later in life. Thanks be to God they removed the marriage ban and gave hardworking women a chance. There mustn’t be another woman like you, Mrs Jones in the whole of Ireland. Is there?’
Her eyes pinned me down, ‘and I hope you will be half the woman your mother is.’
I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. I stared back at the two grey eyes, which fused into one desperate big eye. Like Balor the Fomorian.
‘You won’t be able to lie back here and pretend you’re not brainy with that example before you.’
‘Listen. Listen now to Sister Paul, Grace. She knows what she’s talking about,’ my mother stood with her limp tan gloves in her hands.
Sister Paul’s voice softened towards my mother, ‘But sit down, sit down, Mrs Jones and take the weight off your feet. You must be worn out altogether,’ Paul looked at me as if I was doing the wearing. ‘Sister Carmel is getting you tea now so.’
Footsteps came along the corridor. Too quick for a nun. They stopped and the door opened and I saw her. Like a band of white light, kneeling over her spilled luggage. Fair-haired. Fierce thin. Her eyebrows were like Spock’s, except they didn’t curl up at the ends as much as his did. Pulling the edges of the old bag together, she stuffed the clothes back. Small Sister Carmel had put the tea tray down on the hall table and pushing her veil back as if it was an embarrassing head of long hair, she was trying to help. Tinny music came out of the blonde girl’s pocket.
Sister Paul and my mother had their backs to the door. They couldn’t see her. I stared down the V between their two bodies. She smiled at me. The way a boy would. Taking a long time.
‘It’s all right, Sister, I’ve got them now.’ The girl pulled the bag away from Sister Carmel and ran off down the corridor.
Sister Paul and my mother turned around.
‘What was that?’ asked Sister Paul, her red mouth hanging open.
‘A transistor radio,’ Sister Carmel answered straight away. ‘I told them to turn it off.’
‘And who had the cheek and audacity to be playing a radio in the convent premises?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Sister Carmel, her head bent over the tray as she put cups and saucers on the table. ‘She wasn’t wearing a uniform. It must have been one of the visitors.’
Sister Paul had a habit of pinching herself when she was thinking. She did it now, pulling out a bit of her cheek. It looked painful. ‘I thought I heard a familiar voice. I wonder, was she any relation to that MacSweeney girl? Oh, a troubled family! Let me tell you, Mrs Jones, the things we hear in this convent. We’re like priests. We get all the problems. Confidential.’ Her grey eyes wandered over my face and back to my mother’s.
‘Do you?’ my mother leaned closer.
‘We do,’ said Sister Paul and she looked at me again like she was in desperate agony. My mother looked at me, too. I was in their way. I was in the way of Sister Paul ‘opening up’. It was one of my mother’s favourite things.
‘She opened up to me,’ my mother would say, pure delighted. People were always opening up to her because she was so sympathetic. To everyone except me, of course. There was no sympathy for me.
Sister Carmel’s tray was empty. She put it down and going to a small drawer took out a bundle of white damask table napkins. She put them on the table beside Paul and then stood with her small red hands folded at her waist.
‘How is everything going?’ Paul interrogated.
‘Grand,’ Sister Carmel said, softly.
‘And what about Mother Lorenzo’s flower bed?’
‘Sister Peter is clearing it up.’
‘What a mess! I’ve never seen such pillage!’
I stiffened, feeling the back of my neck redden.
‘It looks like some wild animal. There was talk of a fox seen on the farm,’ Sister Carmel said, pursing her lips as if she was trying to be firm with Paul.
‘Fox, my eye!’ Paul said. ‘It was a human fox, as you well know.’
My mother bent over the silver spoons, examining them, running her fingers over them, feeling the design. I stared at the tips of her hairpins, glinting inside her bun and tried to will the blaze on my face to simmer down but it was beyond me.
‘Mr Cronin! I’m sure of it. He’s so awkward. Who gave that man a Volvo?’ Paul asked Sister Carmel who nodded and looked down. I could see now that Sister Paul’s questions were not for answering. My mother lifted her dark head and darted me a look of pure triumph.
‘You’ll have to excuse us, Mrs Jones,’ Paul said, ‘but we’ve had a flower bed ruined here tonight. Some vandal drove a car into it and broke all the railings. He didn’t even have the gumption to own up. And we’re all so upset. It belonged to Mother Lorenzo, she died only last year, the creature.’
‘Ah, but, Sister Paul, I’ve been through the mill myself with gardening,’ said my mother. ‘Ask Grace. I’m just mad about flowers. I was admiring that lovely Mahonia Japonica. Well, I’ve never seen one look so good in September.’
‘That’s the one. You must have been the last person to see it in its glory.’
'Oh no!’ My mother flinched as if it was her flower bed that had been wrecked.
‘Some parents!’ said Sister Paul, You know, only that I can’t say…’
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ my mother said. ‘I mean none of us are perfect but some parents. . .’
They couldn’t say what some parents did. Their eyes met in fierce frustration, waiting for me to go.
I looked at Sister Carmel. Her eyes were lowered.
‘I know the type.’ My mother put her hand on Sister Paul’s black arm. ‘Nouveau riche.' She gave me another delighted look as she pressed in the clips in her bun.
‘There was a fox seen on the farm,’ Sister Carmel persisted. ‘Two chickens were found in a faint outside the henhouse.
‘Don’t be bothering Mrs Jones now with talk about chickens,’ Sister Paul cut in. ‘Why don’t you take Grace along to the convent refectory so that she can meet some of the other girls?’ She turned to my mother. ‘We always have a special tea in the convent for the girls, their first night back.’
‘The openness of you. The trust. Sure, girls were never allowed into the convent in Grace’s old school.’
‘What a beautiful mother, you’ve got,’ Paul said to me.
‘You know you only look sixteen yourself, Mrs Jones, and your hair! That lovely French roll.’
‘Well, I can’t afford a hairdresser,’ my mother said.
‘Oh but your skin, Sister Paul, I’ve never seen anything like it. I have always noticed that nuns have the best skin.’
‘Ah no,’ said Sister Paul.
My mother forgot to kiss me. She jumped when I put my cheek against hers and that made me jump back. At the door, I looked back, but they were whispering already, ‘As I sit here before the picture of the Sacred Heart... the MacSweeneys...’ and ‘As God is my judge...’ And their eyes were on each other as their hands were busy with the jug and the sugar bowl and the spoons.
‘You can tell me, it won’t go beyond…’ my mother was saying, as Sister Carmel clicked the door shut behind us.
The refectory was bursting with girls in bottle-green gymslips and white blouses. A long table covered with a white tablecloth held cake and sandwiches. She was there. I could see the outline of her arms through her transparent white blouse. She was talking to two small girls. They looked like first-years. Their faces were full of admiration and my heart started knocking.
Sister Carmel held my arm and guided me across the floor. ‘We must find someone in your own year. Someone from Saint Joseph’s dormitory.’
‘Why Saint Joseph’s?’
‘That’s where you’ll be sleeping.’
Sister Carmel was moving towards her. I held my breath. She looked about my age. She knew we were coming. She stopped talking to the small girls and nudged the black-haired girl who stood beside her. I looked at her eyebrows again. She frowned and began to scrutinise mine. I thought I would die. To be caught looking was the worst. Her silky blonde hair was short but long in the front, falling into her eyes. She kept throwing it back.
‘Colette MacSweeney, she’s in Saint Joseph’s with the two of ye,’ Sister Carmel half-whispered to herself. ‘And, of course, Patricia.’
‘Who’s your girlfriend?’ Colette asked Sister Carmel and threw back her blonde hair. After winking at me.
‘Stop that now, Colette,’ Sister Carmel said. ‘This is the new fifth-year, Grace Jones. She’s in Saint Joseph’s with ye.
‘I saw you in the convent parlour,’ Colette said to me. You must be well in there.’
‘No need for shame. I don’t mind at all.’
Colette put her hand on mine. It wasn’t a pretty hand. It was kind of purple and pudgy. Not like her body. She was so thin. Her green woven sash was loose round her waist, almost sliding down her hips. Just managing to hang on.
Colette had a fierce cute way of squinting at me. ‘I heard you were at the Ursulines before. Grand out.’
‘It was okay.’ I looked around for Sister Carmel, but she was gone across to the other side of the refectory. I saw her at a small table, lifting teapots. Looking serious through her square spectacles, her green eyes large with the magnification as she tested their weight.
‘She’s gone now,’ said Colette, watching my face. As if I was going to be upset or something.
‘It doesn’t bother me,’ I said.
‘Carmel’s all right.’ Colette thought about it. ‘No, I take that back. She isn’t all right. She’s a pain in the arse.’
‘I’m Trish,’ the other girl butted in quickly. She’d been opening and shutting her mouth for a while, trying to get a word in. ‘Don’t take any notice of Colette. Carmel’s nice.’
‘Where are you from?’ Colette asked, adjusting my sash with her purple hands. “You look sort of French.’
'Well, Carrignavar, actually,’ my heart was knocking again. I was battling against looking flattered but I wasn’t winning.
‘It must be the thick eyebrows.’ Colette pointed to Trish. ‘She’s got thick eyebrows too but you can’t see them under the black fringe of her. She’s like Cleopatra.’ My heart stopped knocking. ‘I like thick eyebrows,’ Colette patted Trish’s head. Trish nodded at me. I didn’t know what that meant. Maybe her heart was knocking too. ‘Watch me eat ten slices of duck loaf in one hundred and eighty seconds,’ she said suddenly, and started to stuff slices of the white iced fruity bread into her mouth.
I thought it was stupid. Juvenile. Like something you’d do when you were twelve. But I said nothing. It was still nice watching her Spock eyebrows, they kept going up. She wrinkled her forehead a lot. The two small first-years stared as well.
Colette threw down the last iced crust ‘Aren’t you impressed?’ she grinned at me, wiping her mouth with her hand and wiping her hand on her sleeve.
‘Why?’ asked Trish, lifting her short nose. ‘Why should she be impressed?’
I couldn’t say anything.
‘Oh for Jesus sake!’ Colette gave her a waspy look.
‘I’m as sick as a dog now.’ She staggered out of the room clutching her stomach.
‘She’s only looking for notice,’ Trish said, offering me some duck loaf. ‘It’s her own fault. You should ignore half the things that Colette says.’
‘Like all this business about eyebrows, for instance. She’s got a thing about them.’
‘Did you see her own?’
‘Yeah, they’re strange. But very nice.’
‘She took the scissors to them when she was young and they’ve grown like that ever since.’
Sister Carmel came along again and Trish whirled round and the two sides of her straight black hair flew out like bats. ‘Thanks for the duck loaf, Sister Carmel.’ Sister Carmel looked very serious and walked over to the first-years.
‘She is shy,’ Trish said. ‘But she is fierce nice. You should compare her to Mother Colm, who’s a complete briar and only likes girls from West Cork, If you’re not from anywhere west of Skibbereen, you’re a leper.’
Sister Carmel collected the empty plates and brushed crumbs from the table into her small puffed hands. The refectory door opened, and Sister Carmel ran forward to help a gaunt nun who came in, waving a shovel, full of earth, crushed yellow flowers and the splintered remains of delicate white wooden paling. She was like something out of an Irish play. You’d expect her to make a speech about the ould sod. About the land that had been plundered. About the garden my mother had driven over.
‘It’s all right, Sister Peter,’ Carmel said and helped her to carry the shovel and the earth into the kitchen.
Sister Peter wore the old-fashioned veil and her habit was lumpy and square. Carmel puffed around her, soft and round. She didn’t seem to mind the earth that Sister Peter had spilled over her clean habit. Or the cakes of mud that the first-years ground into the floor as they ran out of the refectory when all the buns were gone.