Sister

For the last week, my son and I have been fighting off a fluey cold of gargantuan proportions. It has felled many others: Phil has been coming home with stories of hardened workaholics who are taking their first day off in 25 years, because this cold is different.

It induces a feeling one is hovering about a foot off the ground.

It being Sunday morning, we hovered blearily to church and back. We glided into our pew, croaked several hymns, can dimly remember a sermon somewhere in there, floated across a few friends, and drifted home.

I hovered straight back to bed, but made the classic mistake of taking a caffeine-loaded paracetamol just beforehand. I lay under the duvet, spiral eyed, sleepless, maniacally composing today’s blog. So if it’s all a little high spirited you will know why, and will, I hope, forgive me.

So there I was, chattering away to myself, giving rather too much free rein to my inner monologue, and I realised that what I had most felt like as I went to church this morning was one of those Hovering Nuns.

You know, that running spooky visual gag, the mother superior who doesn’t actually walk.

She dispenses with the customary bobbing up and down, that us everyday gentlefolk take for granted. For her, bobbing is rendered unnecessary by a floor-length habit which hides one’s holy legs.

If the hovering nun were being filed as a blog, the automatic sorter would have problems classifying her. Because she’s both very funny and deeply unsettling. She can be found in horror and ghost stories, and in comedy classics.

When I began to try to recall where I had encountered her, screeched with fear or howled with laughter, I came across a sinister development: I found I was unable to source a single appearance. I could not, for the life of me, recall how I knew about her.

So, how did I remedy this all this? Reader, I googled her. I typed in Hovering Nun, and I pressed return.

And it all came flooding back, thanks to the miracle of modern communications.

For humour, try The Blues Brothers. The nun in this cult classic does not walk: she glides. Doors open and close simply because she approaches them.

And if you watch that spellbinding tale, Death Becomes Her, carefully, you will see three of the creatures pass Bruce Willis on his way to the morgue.

Real fear: look no further than The Omen, where a nun denies Gregory Peck information before rising silently out of sight in an antiquated paternoster lift. Or the dark gliding spirit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Normal nuns have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Mine generally wore blue, the habit of the Marist order. They were usually Irish, and often so steeped in the life of the church that they carried a vacant quality around everywhere with them.

They lived in nice houses and when you went to tea with them there was always a fig roll somewhere in the pantry. Some of these figures- who generally bustled rather than your standard hovering- stand out in my memory.

There was Sister Oliver, with whom for some reason I decided I would like to live. I told my mother so, in no uncertain terms, but I can’t for the life of me remember why I was so eager to pack my case and leave.

There was Sister Mary Margaret, who spent an entire year teaching me almost nothing except country dancing. Once I brought my favourite vinyl single into school. I had a sweet, open face and Sr Mary Margaret liked sweet, open faces so she consented to put my record on the school record player.

This good lady never looked beneath the surface of her pupils’ personalities, which was a shame, because she did not realise I was a little rocker. The single was Puppy Love, by Donny Osmond: but its B side was a loud and deplorable pastiche of rebellious rock called Crazy Horses.

She played it all the way to the end, but wore the expression of a prune throughout.

I went to two convents during my secondary school career. The first was in another one of those fabulous old houses. It had been commandeered by Eisenhower for his British HQ during the second world war. A wonderful backdrop to one’s teens.

By the time I was in sixth form I had graduated to black and white nuns: the Bernadine Cistercians, lovely, open hearted, down to earth Englishwomen. And Frenchwomen.

One day I strolled through the corridors of the pretty mansion from which they ran their school, whistling happily. Not ladylike.

A tiny rotund French nun, half my sixth-form height, stopped me. She said sternly: “Oooooo eeeeez zat weestling?”

I hitched up my baggy socks and thought on my feet. “Me, Sister”, I replied with as much earnestness as I could muster.

“Whistling is a much undervalued instrument”, I continued. I took a deep breath. “In fact, I am, right now, in the process of composing a whistling concerto.”

I continued in the same vein for a while, waxing lyrical about tone and timbre, orchestration and tempo. The nun’s eyes began to glaze over: and because irony can be in short supply in the corridors of a convent, I got away with that one.

I wouldn’t have got away with it had Father Superior been stalking the corridors. One of those impossibly mannish women, she towered over nuns and students alike, giving the impression the heavies were only just round the corner if one stepped out of line.

The butch exterior hid a heart and spirit of incredible kindness and wisdom, and she was much beloved. If healthily respected.

These days I don’t see many nuns. I’m hoping this visit of the Pope’s might bring a few out of the woodwork. There I’ll be, glued to the television screen, hoping beyond hope that my personal favourite makes an appearance.

The singing nun.

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6 thoughts on “Sister

  1. Hehe, my mother went to a convent school and, until she was about 9, believed that nuns did not have legs. She was much traumatised on spotting the hairy ankle of the nun in charge of sports.
    Feel better soon, Kate.

  2. The last time I had anything to do with nuns was in North Dakota, when they tried to get me to join the order. They were a merry bunch, and I might have taken them up on the offer if not for what my children would have made of it. They had legs – everyone of them.

    I also enjoyed my overnight stay with the Benedictine monks at Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota. Another merry lot, who drank and smoked and, I dare say, swore out of hearing distance of their female visitors. The gardening monk gave me a poinsettia before I left 🙂

    1. Ah, Liz, you reminded me of a set of novels which I loved so much by a lady called Susan Howatch, all based around monks and the clergy, but written by a woman. They are strange but captivating. She always maintained that a monk could swear better than any other man alive. I’m fairly sure her novels were extremely well researched…

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