Read an Excerpt
Finishing Touches One
Oh Mary we crown Thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and—
‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ Mother Perpetua’s stentorian tones belied the little nun’s frail appearance. The entire class of 3S gave a great communal sigh.
Mother Perpetua harangued the thirty girls standing on the steps of the stage in front of her. ‘You’re like limp lettuce-leaves. For goodness sake, girls, put a bit of enthusiasm into it. I had 2H here an hour ago and they were superb. You’re not going to let a class of second years do better than you, surely!’
Cassie suppressed a yawn. Today she just wasn’t in the humour for choir practice.
‘Catherine Jordan, am I boring you?’ the choir-mistress snapped.
‘No, Mother,’ Cassie said hastily, not wishing to draw the wrath of Mother Perpetua down on her. Mother Perpetua was one of the most feared nuns in Saint Imelda’s College.
‘Well, straighten up, girl, and stop yawning. And that goes for the rest of you, too.’ She waved her baton imperiously. ‘Listen to how I want the second line sung. Queen of the Ang . . . els . . . Draw it out, please.’
‘Queen of the Ang . . . els,’ 3S sang dutifully.
‘That’s better!’ approved Mother Perpetua. ‘Once again from the beginning.’
Not again, thought Cassie wearily. They must have sung the hymn twenty times already and she was heartily sick of it. It was so warm in the concert hall. The noonday sun shone in through the stained-glass windows, dappling the heads of 3S in a rainbow of pinks and greens and purples. The heat was making them even more lethargic than they would normally be on a Friday. Usually Cassie loved Fridays. Choir before lunch, after lunch a double cookery class and religion with Sister Eileen, who was their favourite nun. Then they were free for the weekend. Hearing the bell go at four-fifteen on a Friday was wonderful.
A trickle of perspiration dampened Cassie’s neck where the collar of her cream cotton blouse was bound by her blue school tie. Opening the top button, Cassie loosened her tie a little. That was better. It was an awful nuisance having to wear a tie. It must be terrible for men having to wear them all the time. At least she could get rid of hers after school. A bee droned lazily against one of the windows and the heavy scent of lilac and wallflowers wafted in on the breeze. She was looking forward to her stroll around the nuns’ garden with Laura, her best friend. It would be so much nicer than being stuck in here with the sun shining on their red faces, watching Mother Perpetua waving her baton around pretending she was Leonard Bernstein or some other great conductor.
Laura had looked terribly worried that morning and had been late for school, which was most unlike her. Cassie knew something was up. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, as discreetly as she could. ‘You’ve a face as long as a fiddle.’
As Laura took her place beside her friend during French, she whispered, ‘Something’s happened. I’ll tell you at lunchtime. I don’t want the rest of them to know.’ Poor Laura, she thought; she was always having hassle at home. Where Cassie was the eldest in her family, Laura was the youngest in hers. Both positions brought their own problems. Ah well, she would hear all about Laura’s latest problem in an hour or so.
Five sharp rings of the bell interrupted Cassie’s reverie and grins of relief passed along the three lines of ten pupils on the steps of the stage as the girls recognized Mother Perpetua’s call sign. What a stroke of luck, her getting a call in the middle of class. It so rarely happened.
‘Girls, I have to leave you for a few moments. Please excuse me and remain quiet until I return.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ they chorused.
They obeyed her command for five minutes and then, stretching limbs, they started chattering happily as they let off steam. Aileen O’Shaughnessy, the class wit, and one of the most popular girls in the school, leapt off the stage, fastened her cardigan under her chin in imitation of a veil and picked up Mother Perpetua’s baton. ‘Girls, you’re like limp lettuce-leaves,’ she announced in perfect mimicry of the little nun. ‘Straighten up, please. Button those cardigans!’
‘Like this, Mother?’ giggled Margy Kane, buttoning her cardigan on to that of her neighbour.
‘What other way does one button one’s cardigan?’ Reverend Mother Aileen enquired haughtily as, giggling and skitting, the rest of them followed suit until they were all attached. ‘Now, girls, I know it’s a little out of season but I think we should sing our class anthem.’
A wild cheer greeted this pronouncement as, with a frenzy of baton-waving, Reverend Mother Aileen began to conduct and the class began to sing.
’Tis the season to be jolly
Tra La La La La La La La La,
Stuff Perpetua’s hole with holly,
Tra La La La La La La La La . . .
‘More enthusiasm, girls!’ screeched the mad conductor, twirling below them, the sleeves of her cardigan waving wildly around her head.
‘’Tis the season to be jolly,’ the rest of the class yelled, giving it their all, thoroughly enjoying themselves. Cassie, jolted pleasantly out of her weary stupor, was singing as loudly as any of them. Even Laura, attached to her by her cardigan buttons, was laughing heartily beside her.
‘Stuff Perpetua’s hole with holly,’ they bellowed lustily, so intent upon their fun that they did not see the petite figure of the nun slip through the big mahogany doors at the end of the concert hall.
‘How dare you! How dare you!’ Mother Perpetua trembled with anger before them. Aileen halted in mid-twirl, her mouth an O of dismay. The others stood stunned, trying to smother their horrified giggles at the sight of Aileen, with her cardigan around her head, baton frozen in the air as she stared at the furious nun.
‘You brazen hussy, Aileen O’Shaughnessy. But what can you expect from free education? It’s the likes of you and riff-raff like you, the dregs of society, Aileen O’Shaughnessy, that’s what you and this . . . ’ She turned to face the rest of the class. ‘ . . . this crowd of juvenile delinquents are. You are not fit to wear the uniform of Saint Imelda’s. Guttersnipes! Guttersnipes, the lot of you. Up to the big parlour with you. We’ll see what Reverend Mother has to say about this!’
In the horror of the moment, forgetting that they were attached to one another by cardigan buttons, the class of 3S made to leave en masse. Blue buttons popped all over the floor as bodies became entangled and Mother Perpetua, almost apoplectic with temper, stabbed at those nearest her with the baton she had grabbed from Aileen.
Ten minutes later thirty girls stood under the cold eye of Reverend Mother Patrick, the principal of Saint Imelda’s.
‘Aileen O’Shaughnessy, as you seem to be the ringleader you will repeat for me the . . . ditty . . . you were singing when Mother Perpetua caught you.’
‘Me, Reverend Mother!’ protested Aileen, with wide-eyed innocence.
‘You, Miss O’Shaughnessy.’
Cassie bit her lip at the sight of Aileen looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. She was petrified she was going to laugh, even though they were all in serious trouble. Beside her, she could feel Laura trembling with the effort not to break into hysterical giggles.
‘I couldn’t, Reverend Mother,’ their classmate said.
‘Why not, pray?’ Reverend Mother Patrick enquired coldly.
‘I’ve forgotten the words,’ Aileen said weakly.
‘Repeat it!’ came the stern command.
‘It’s a bit . . . vulgar . . .’
‘Immediately, if you please.’
Taking a deep breath, Aileen stood up straight, and, ever the actress, flung her head back and with perfect diction repeated every word right down to the final tra la la. 3S listened in horrified admiration. A muscle jerked at the side of Reverend Mother Patrick’s mouth, but otherwise her face seemed carved out of stone.
‘Disgraceful. I’m shocked! Shocked at such vulgar unladylike behaviour. That girls of Saint Imelda’s should behave as you have is unthinkable.’ Her gaze swept over the class like a cold shower. ‘You will apologize to Mother Perpetua and carry out whatever punishment she gives you and you will, all of you, come to school tomorrow morning. You will spend the morning in complete silence, studying in the library. Another offence like this and you will all be expelled. Dismissed!’
Despondently the girls of 3S filed out, aghast at the thought of spending a precious Saturday morning in school. They were even more devastated to find that they had to write out the words of the hymn they had been singing one hundred times. That was Mother Perpetua’s punishment.
In the big parlour, Reverend Mother Patrick wiped the tears of mirth from her eyes. She had never seen Perpetua so angry. That Aileen O’Shaughnessy was a hilarious character, just the sort to give the bumptious choir-nun a run for her money. Pride comes before a fall and Mother Perpetua had plenty of pride. No wonder the girls made up such parodies. Heaven knows what they said about her. Reverend Mother Patrick had been running a school long enough to know that girls would be girls. Composing herself, she glided out of the big parlour, then began to walk as briskly as dignity would allow. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins was being dramatized on the radio and she had been following it. It was coming to an extremely exciting part that she didn’t want to miss. Glancing right and left, she saw the corridors were empty. With a sigh of satisfaction Reverend Mother Patrick slipped through the door that divided the school and convent and headed up to her private sitting-room.
• • •
The nuns’ garden was a haven of tranquillity. The lilac and cherry-blossom were in bloom and along the pathways beds of pansies and a host of other flowers lifted the heart. The cares of the world always seemed to be left behind when one entered the nuns’ garden. No-one would ever dream of larking around there – that was an unspoken rule in Saint Imelda’s. Boisterous behaviour was fine in the schoolyard and classrooms but the nuns’ garden was a place of peace where the nuns walked around saying their Rosaries silently to themselves, the only sound the rhythmic clicking of the big wooden beads as they slipped through their fingers.
It was lovely out there at lunchtime that day. Usually Cassie and Laura went straight out to the basketball or volleyball courts to have an energetic game before classes resumed, but today, by common consent the two girls made in the direction of the nuns’ garden, their shoes echoing along the polished wooden corridor that led from the refectory. In common with the whole of Class 3S, Cassie and Laura were very fed up about having to come to school the following morning to carry out the punishment for Mother Perpetua, but Cassie sensed that what was bothering Laura was much more serious than even this great disaster.
They emerged into bright sunlight and walked slowly towards one of the wooden seats that dotted the garden. The wood was warm against their thighs as they sat down and Cassie felt a sense of peace envelop her as she always did in this lovely place. In a way she didn’t want to hear Laura’s bad news here. It took the good out of her little haven.
She dismissed the thought. After all, Laura was her best friend and best friends shared everything. ‘What’s the matter, Laura, you look dreadful?’ she said solicitously, turning to her raven-haired friend. Laura was so striking with her jet-black hair and startling blue eyes. Cassie always felt so untidy beside her glamorous friend. Her own chestnut curls had a mind of their own and Laura’s extra few inches made her uniform hang on her like a model whereas Cassie, being smaller, felt that hers looked like a sack.
‘At least you’ve got boobs,’ her friend was always reassuring her. ‘All I’ve got is two fried eggs! And I’ll be fifteen next year. Quel désastre!’ Laura liked to speak bilingually.
Now she said fiercely, ‘Jill’s going have a baby.’
‘Oh God!’ Cassie was shocked. She hadn’t expected this at all. Jill was Laura’s elder sister. Their idol. Jill lived in a flat in Dublin and worked at the airport as a car hire rep. She was the ultimate in glamour. On rare occasions, as a treat, Cassie and Laura were invited to spend a night in her flat, where they ate lovely foreign food like lasagne and garlic bread and could smoke without fear of being caught by their parents. To live in a flat in Dublin and go to dances and pubs and stay up every night until all hours was Cassie’s and Laura’s dream and they spent many happy hours plotting their immensely exciting future. Listening to Jill telling them about the party that she went to and how she met a gorgeous hunk in Nikki’s nightclub or had dinner with a pilot in the International Airport Hotel was better than the excitement of any novel. They couldn’t wait to do the same themselves. And now here was their heroine, pregnant and unmarried. A fate worse than death in Ireland. It might be 1969 in the rest of the world, and free love and easy living might be the new thing, but here such news was a disaster. All the gossips in Port Mahon would have a field-day.
‘Close your mouth and stop catching flies,’ Laura snapped irritably when Cassie failed to respond.
‘Sorry!’ murmured Cassie. No wonder Laura was upset. This was terrible news. Mrs Quinn would be going mad. Her own mother wouldn’t be a bit pleased, either. Nora Jordan didn’t approve of young girls going to live on their own in Dublin, and Cassie knew she was in for a rough ride when she left school and wanted to move to the city with Laura. This would only increase the difficulties ahead. Cassie would certainly never again be allowed to sleep over at Jill’s flat after this news was made public.
‘Sorry I barked,’ Laura said sheepishly.
‘That’s OK,’ Cassie reassured her. She’d known Laura for ages and didn’t take any notice of the occasional abrupt remark. ‘Anyway, you’ve got reason to bark. How are things at home?’
‘Ma’s taken to the bed and Da has told Jill never to set foot in the house again. Mick went and got drunk and crashed his car into the pillar in the drive and I’m just sick of the whole lot of them!’ Laura said mournfully. ‘It’s not a bit fair!’ she burst out. ‘Mick goes around getting drunk every weekend. He’s crashed the car so many times but he’s let get away with it at home and just because Jill’s going to have a baby she’s been kicked out. It makes me sick!’ Her face was red with rage. Mick was her elder brother. ‘If Mick came in and said he’d got a girl into trouble do you think he’d be told never to set foot in the house again?’ Laura was nearly crying now. ‘He would not! They wouldn’t talk to him for a while and then it would be forgotten about. The double standard just makes me sick! Da makes no allowances for us girls and the lads get away with anything. God, I wish I were working and earning my own money. I’d be out of there so fast you wouldn’t believe it.’
‘Do you want to come over and stay the night with me?’ Cassie asked, feeling nothing but pity for Laura. Knowing what a tyrant Mr Quinn was, she could just imagine the state of poor Jill and the awful atmosphere in the Quinn household. ‘We can come to school together tomorrow,’ she added a little glumly, remembering the fate of their precious Saturday morning.
‘Thanks a million, Cassie. I’d love to, if your mother won’t mind.’
‘Of course she won’t,’ Cassie assured her. ‘And I’ll make you some hot chocolate with cream and flake in it.’
Laura smiled wanly. ‘You’re always great in a crisis, Cassie. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Oh Cassie, you should have heard my da! He called Jill a slut and he roared and ranted the way he always does and I just hate him.’ She burst into tears at the memory.
‘Shhh, don’t be upsetting yourself,’ Cassie soothed, putting an arm around her weeping friend’s shoulder. ‘It will pass over. He’ll come around.’
‘No he won’t,’ sobbed Laura. ‘He’s a big bully and once he’s got his knife into someone, it’s there for good. He always holds grudges and he’ll never forgive Jill.’
Privately, Cassie had to agree that her friend’s assessment of her father was extremely accurate. Peter Quinn was the rudest, most ignorant, most self-centred man, and he ruled the family with a rod of iron. To him, women were second-class citizens. He treated his wife and daughters as minions, expecting them to dance attendance on him and his sons. Laura, who was as strong-willed as he was, had a terrible time trying to cope with the unfairness of it all. Growing up in a generation where women were finally beginning to be treated as equals, she despised her father’s male chauvinism and railed against it.
Cassie thanked God for giving her a father like Jack Jordan. Her father was the complete opposite to Laura’s and Cassie loved him with all her heart. A genial, good-humoured, quiet man, Jack treated his sons and daughters as equals. He always had time to talk and listen to them and took a great interest in all their affairs. Much as he loved them all, Cassie knew in her heart and soul that she was her father’s favourite. Each evening after she had done her study, her father and she would tramp the fields for an hour or two. She would tell him of her day and he would tell her of his as he puffed contentedly on his pipe. Jack loved the countryside. His farm was his pride and joy and although the hours were long and the work was hard, he provided well for his family and never a word about it, unlike Peter Quinn, who was always going on about how hard he worked and how much his children had to thank him for.
‘Stop crying, Laura. It will be all right, honestly,’ Cassie said worriedly. It wasn’t like Laura to break down. Usually she was such a strong character. She really was at the end of her rope. ‘Here’s Miss Fagin,’ she went on urgently, spying their maths mistress bearing down on them. ‘If you don’t stop she’ll want to know what’s the matter.’
Laura hiccupped. ‘You’d better stop hugging me. She’ll think we’re a couple of lezzers. You know her and her warped mind.’
Cassie giggled. ‘It might give her something else to worry about other than that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Just look at her; she even looks like a triangle on legs.’
Laura snorted. ‘Cassie Jordan, what a thing to say! But you’re absolutely right! I’ve never noticed it before.’
‘Good afternoon, girls,’ the triangle on legs said, giving them a keen look as it passed by.
‘Good afternoon, Miss Fagin,’ responded the girls politely, getting up from the bench. They went to the games room and had a game of table-tennis, which Cassie kindly allowed Laura to win, and then the great bell rang around the school and droves of blue-uniformed figures headed for their various classrooms to begin the afternoon’s classes, like ants scurrying around an anthill.
As she put the finishing touches to her disgusting-looking carrageen mould in the school kitchen, Cassie cast a glance at her friend. Laura was cleaning the work-surface with a vague faraway look in her eyes, and Cassie knew she was thinking of the trouble at home. Well, at least tonight she could relax and forget about it. If only Barbara were going to spend the night with her friend Judy, it would be perfect. Then Laura could sleep in her sister’s bed and Cassie wouldn’t have to make do with the camp bed. Of course, if Barbara knew Laura was staying, she’d probably stay at home for spite.
Cassie sighed. Her younger sister could be such a little madam, always wanting to do what Cassie was doing, always looking for notice. And she was such a tattle-tale, ratting on Cassie to her mother about Cassie and Laura and a few of the others being caught smoking in one of the boarders’ bathrooms. It was Sister Eileen who had caught them, all ten of them, puffing away in the tiny bathroom, three of them sitting in the bath, four of them sitting on the edge of the bath, one sitting on the cistern of the loo, and the other pair sitting on the loo itself. Wreaths of smoke circling around their heads, they sat giggling and gossiping and puffing contentedly, ties loosened and uniforms in glorious disarray. Sister Eileen, who had a nose like a bloodhound and ears like an elephant, had heard the stifled giggles and smelt the smoke as she was walking past. Usually nuns and teachers were not to be seen on school corridors during lunchtime. They preferred the peace of the convent and staffrooms as they recharged their batteries before returning to the afternoon fray. But now, flinging the bathroom door open, Sister Eileen stared grimly at the scene confronting her.
Margy Kane got such a fright that her cigarette smoke went the wrong way. She started to choke and Cassie had to thump her several times on the back. The others tried to extinguish their fags and the inhabitants of the bath struggled to climb out. In the midst of this uproar, Barbara, Cassie’s sister, a second-year student at the school, and her friend Judy, happened to be passing. Barbara, listening to Sister Eileen coldly tell the miscreants to follow her to the big parlour, was disgusted, her pinched little face wrinkling in disdain. Barbara, being the goody-goody that she was, wouldn’t dream of smoking and was always threatening to tell on Cassie. So far she had refrained, but Cassie knew this time for sure Barbara would tell, because Cassie, fed up with her sister wearing her clothes and putting them back in her wardrobe dirty, had bought herself a padlock and locked her wardrobe door. Barbara had been furious and had been dying to get her own back ever since. The smoking episode had been a golden opportunity.
Sister Eileen had lined them up in front of her in the big parlour. ‘I am in two minds as to whether I should report this to Reverend Mother. It is absolutely outrageous and disgraceful behaviour. And not what is expected from the girls of Saint Imelda’s. You wouldn’t get the girls from Thompson and Maitland behaving in such a common fashion.’
Thompson and Maitland was the nearby Protestant school and their exemplary behaviour was always held up to the Saint Imelda’s girls. Mind, the Thompson and Maitland lot had confessed, one day they had been over on a courtesy visit, that the Imelda’s girls were always held up as examples to them, so they all agreed to take no notice of such pronouncements.
‘And furthermore, apart from the disgraceful disrespect to the uniform, have you girls no regard for your health and the state of your lungs?’ the nun demanded to know. Philippa Feely was so upset at being caught that she burst into tears.
Sister Eileen was unmoved. ‘Oh, stop snivelling, Madam Feely. It’s a bit late for that now! I want an essay on my desk tomorrow morning from all of you, on the dangers of smoking. Dismissed!’ She turned on her heel and swept out, her crisp white habit flapping in the breeze.
‘You should have seen their faces,’ she reported to a crowd of laughing sisters, later that evening in the convent. ‘If you had seen the contortions of Jane O’Hara trying to get out of the bath, with her socks at half-mast and her tie knotted up under her ear.’ Jane O’Hara was a gangling six-footer. ‘Don’t ask me how I kept my face straight,’ she grinned as the other nuns laughed.
The smokers could not believe their luck. Sister Eileen was a brick for not reporting them to the Reverend Mother and that would have been the end of it had Barbara kept her mouth shut. But it had been too good an opportunity for revenge and she couldn’t get home quickly enough to tell her mother. Nora had not taken so lenient a view as Sister Eileen, and Cassie had been stopped from going to the youth-club dances for a month. When Laura’s mother met Mrs Jordan in the street and wanted to know why Cassie wasn’t at the dances, Nora had informed her of the reason and Laura too had been stopped from going. One day, Laura swore, Miss Goody Two-Shoes was going to get what was coming to her. From then on, she called her Blabbermouth Barbara, much to the younger girl’s disgust, for secretly Barbara was in awe of Laura with her striking good looks and air of supreme self-confidence.
The best thing to do, Cassie decided, was to say nothing about Laura staying until after Barbara had announced she was going to stay with her friend Judy. It would be too late for her to change her mind then.