by Janet Behan
Diedre, a smartly dressed woman in he seventies, tears into the room, cheeks blazing, a wild look in her eye. She wears good coat with a Hermes silk square at the neck. Although she probably got this from a charity shop.
Some of the time she is reading, some of the time she is digressing, some of the time she is telling her story from memory.
Oh sorry, sorry. Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t leave the flat until I’d finished, I’ve been awake for two nights, in fact I couldn’t even get up out of the chair, I HAVE BEEN WRITING! I have been writing! Finally.
(she pulls a pile of dog-eared paper, torn from a diary, out of her handbag)
And I’m sorry, I can’t read it in instalments and I know you have the rule, the ten minute rule and I don’t know how long it is anyway, but I know – I must read it all out to you straightaway and tonight I’ll never have the courage again if it’s not tonight. I haven’t told anyone this story and I am seventy two years of age , not a soul. I’ve been up for two nights writing and I know – not like me, I know, I’ve been coming to this class for what is it? Twelve weeks and never written as much as a word but I don’t know why, I just started and then I couldn’t stop so anyway, I have to read it all out to you now or I won’t have the courage, I’ll just destroy it – I mean – look! I’ve written it all in this tiny diary, only meant to make a few notes and once I’d started I just had to carry on, didn’t even get up out of my chair to look for proper paper, I didn’t dare stop, and – anyway, anyway, here it is. I – That is Realtine. It must be called Realtine, I just feel it must. Don’t ask me why.
You have to understand, I had to go back right into the early years of my, that is to say, Realtine’s, childhood otherwise the story doesn’t make any sense, so just bear with me. I was – you know, I think I said last week, or at some stage at any rate – we were country people, I won’t say where, that’s confidential, I still have cousins there and it’s a small place. I’ve called it Bally Buff, but I just made that up, the real location is, as I say, to remain confidential. Not that I’ve anything to be ashamed about. I mean, it was a shame. But I’m not a-shamed. Well, maybe a little. Anyway, anyway.
(Reading) When Realtine was seven years of age her brother Paul was born. He wasn’t my only brother, by no means, my, her mother gave birth to seven of us – of them … Shit. Should I cross that out, I should? No, right, right, I’ll do it later, I’ll just press on with the story. So. Sorry, it jumps about a bit.
(reads) Realtine’s mother got married very young. And got pregnant straightaway. Her eldest brother, Ciaran – not his real name – was born not many months after. Premature. Apparently. Luckily for her because he weighed in at nine pounds four. Anyway, after that she was pretty much pregnant all the time and I, (correcting herself) I mean Realtine, was number three – the only girl out of the seven of us. (tuts) Shit, I’ve done it again! Never mind, I’ll just read it as it is, correct it later, shall I? I’ll just press on. So. I, er, Realtine had a happy childhood, running the fields around – around Bally Buff. She was always out and about on the farm – well it wasn’t really much of a farm, more a small-holding. Chickens, a few pigs – bit of a field. Few cows. Anyway, her father liked his pint, which was fairly normal, but then he got into cahoots with another fella, some fella he knew from the pub and this fella wasn’t a farmer, but he had a bit of money and a lot of ideas so he hatched some kind of a plan, you know, the way men do when they’re in the pub and they’ve had a pint, or two and, you know “why don’t we pool our resources and do this, that and the other”, sort of thing, and before you know it, the farm is gone and we’re homeless. (looks through pages) But. Where am I? No, that happened later. Anyway, anyway, to get back to the story, when I was seven years old my mother gave birth to her, what turned out to be her last child, A little boy. Paul. Now, funny thing as it turned out, but I’d always assumed my mother liked me. But when I saw her with Paul I – well! I seriously doubted if she’d liked any of us! She doted on Paul, wouldn’t put him down. I mean, we all loved him, I especially loved him, doted on him! Loved to hold him and play with him, I was like a second little mother to him and hers wasn’t the only heart broken when he died. Ten months old. No explanation, she woke one morning to find him dead in his cot. Like a doll. Perfect but lifeless. And I was upset, of course I was, but I was just a child. So I just carried on as normal, went out to play as normal. Looking back I can see how that must have looked, but a more understanding woman would have said to herself, well, she’s only a child after all. And I don’t remember the boys sitting round weeping and wailing, so why she took it out on me in particular … But. And I have carried this with me all these years and never told a soul until now, because she was his mother and she was heartbroken and of course, she was my mother too and I forgive her, I genuinely do forgive her, but I remember to this day and it is seared into my soul, the look on her face. Paul was laid out in his tiny coffin, like a dolls coffin, perfect in every way but tiny, laid on the parlour table and – you know the way in Ireland you always had the good room? Only used for wakes and the priest calls round? So she was sitting in the parlour the day of the funeral and my big brother calls me in to say a last goodbye and I’m one side of the coffin and she’s the other and she pins me with a look I’ll never forget, and says “I wish to God it had been you and not him. In that coffin.” I wish to God it had been you and not him.
So, soon after we lost the farm and had to move into town. The Corporation had some new houses built. It was not a happy house, I’ll say that, but I went about my own business. School. Dances. Listening to music in my room, secretly trying on make-up, though I’d never had been allowed out wearing it. I had one of those, what was it called, a Dansette? I used to practice dancing in my bedroom. I suppose we all did.
So the years passed and I moved up to St Anne’s with the rest. I wasn’t a particularly distinguished scholar, the kind of pupil that causes no trouble, middle of the pack, sort of thing. We used to hang about, me and a couple of the girls, hang about the park, not that it was much of a park, they don’t really make much of the parks in Ireland, do they? Mostly just a few swings and a muddy field. Why is that? Anyway, we used to … you know, looking out for boys, though any boys that saw us would just abuse us, call us all sorts of names. But there was one I liked, a quiet lad, we’d exchange a look. Never anything more than that.
So one day, a nun came to the school. A beautiful creature, from the Poor Clare. Not many women can look beautiful in a nun’s habit, not a hair showing. But she did. Such a sweet face. And smile. You couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Not that I’m any way that way inclined, I don’t mean that way! But the way you might get a crush on a film star? That’s how beautiful she was. And she talked about the life of a Poor Clare and she made it sound really rather nice. Very simple, very companionable. Although I couldn’t tell you the half of what she said and I wonder, at this remove, if I was listening to the half of it. But I had instantly developed what we girls used to call a “pash” so when, at the end of the afternoon she said, “Now girls, I wonder is there one among you who feels called to the contemplative life? Is there anyone among you who feels moved to seek a life of ever closer intimacy with our Lord Jesus?, I put my hand up! Looking back, I think I was only looking for a bit of attention. Anyway. A couple of days later, my mother brings me up to the school to talk to the nun – I do remember her name, in fact I will never forget her name, but I’m not prepared to name her – though I suppose she must be dead by this time. Either dead or very old. We were ushered into Father Brennan’s office and he was sitting there with the holy sister – not that dirty devil who was all over the papers the other week! This Father Brennan was in charge of the school. I never heard anything bad about him – though looks like they were all up to it, now, doesn’t it? Do you not think? Anyway, so. We’re sitting one side of the big desk and Father Brennan and the Beautiful Nun were sitting the other and we were given tea and spoken to very politely, which I thought was very odd. The nun beamed at me, told my mother she’d clearly been very blessed by God, to which my mother gave a somewhat terse reply, and then I noticed a sheaf of forms on the table. And it transpired that the Nun and Father Brennan were of the opinion I was destined for the religious life! Well, my mother, to give her her due, said she wouldn’t sign – she had to sign as I was too young to sign for myself – that I was too young for such a decision, that if I felt the same way in a few years, etcetera etcetera. I felt immense relief, I must say. She was buttoning up her coat to go when the Nun places her beautiful white hand on Father Brennan’s and says “Father, would you mind if I had a few words alone with Mrs Hannington ?” So he withdraws and she looks into my mother’s eyes in a sad and saintly fashion and she says “ Mrs Hannington. You may think Realtine too young and I don’t propose to give you chapter and verse on the many saints who found their vocation at her age and even younger, I shall only say this. There is one thing for which she is not too young, and we both know what that one thing is. If, a year from now, she were to come to you and tell you she was expecting, what then would you think of the decision you’re just after making?” My mother looked at her, then at me, picked up the pen and signed. I just sat there, open-mouthed.
Well, in the following weeks, we’d to buy the bale of black cloth, the black shoes, the horrible undergarments. I’d still a whole term of school to go. And I just pushed it to the back of my mind. Carried on as normal. Thinking that when the time came, something would happen to prevent it. I remember one evening, I was in my room, dancing to Freddie and the Dreamers. “How do you do what you do to me”, I think it was, when I heard my brother Conor on the landing, saying to her, “come on Ma, that one’s never going to make a nun.” “Too late now,” she said, “ the money’s spent.” I think that’s when it hit home.
A few weeks later I was waiting for the bus to Dublin, en route to the boat. I stood at the stop bawling my eyes out. My father was there, crying too. When the bus came, I wouldn’t get on. My mother told me the man couldn’t wait all day and I was making a show of myself and she told the driver to take up my heavy case. I couldn’t make my feet move so she – and how well I remember the feel of it to this day – she placed her two hands on the small of my back and firmly encouraged me up the steps. She slammed the door of the bus shut; that was that. I was still weeping when we got to Dublin, still weeping the following day when we were waiting on the pier at Dun Laoghaire. My Beautiful Nun was there and she gave me a hanky, told me God was watching over me and I wasn’t to be afraid. I said, “I won’t be afraid, Sister, I promise I won’t, not as long as you’re beside me.” She laughed then and said, ”I’m not coming! Did you think I was coming? Oh no, this is what I do, I go round the schools, you won’t see me again. “
Anyway. That’s it, really. I went to Wales. Stayed in Wales. Stayed in the convent. Ten years before I saw the outside world again. Poor Clares is a closed order, did I say that? Anyway that’s all I’ve written. Is it any good?