The primary school I attended was run by nuns. Real nuns, clad from top to toe in black with just their faces showing. They scared the life out of me.
I particularly remember the nun who taught me in my last year at that school. Her name was Sister Catherine. She was a tall woman. Though, to tell the truth, I never thought of any of them as women. My mother was a woman. My aunt was a woman. The person who served behind the counter in the shop across the road from our house was a woman. But the creatures who presided over the seven terrible hours of each weekday that I spent at school were just nuns.
Sister Catherine didn’t like boys. Girls were fine, girls behaved themselves. Some of her favourite girls were even allowed to do little jobs in the classroom, such as cleaning the blackboard or taking her place at the teacher’s desk when she had to leave the classroom on an errand, and writing down the names of anyone who talked.
But boys could not behave themselves even if they tried. It was not in their nature. Boys disgusted Sister Catherine.
One of my favourite lessons was art. I wasn’t particularly good at it but I enjoyed the relative freedom it involved. I remember one day painting a picture of a house on top of a green hill. There was a tree beside the house and smoke coming out of the chimney. I was pleased with that picture. At the end of the art lesson Sister Catherine collected our paintings and pinned them to the wall at the back of the classroom.
As the weary day wore on, I happened to glance back to look at my painting and I remember feeling pleased with it and deciding that it was one of the best I’d ever done.
Suddenly Sister Catherine’s voice cut through my thoughts like a guillotine dropping smoothly down on someone’s neck. ‘Brian Keaney!’ she said. She was standing right beside me, looking down on me and speaking in a level voice but through gritted teeth. How had she got there so quickly without me noticing? ‘I don’t know how many times I’ve seen you looking at that picture of yours today,’ she continued. ‘You must be the vainest child I have ever come across.’
There was no sound from the rest of the class, not even a hint of a giggle. No one wanted to be the next to incur their teacher’s anger. Instead they gazed in horrified fascination as the vainest child Sister Catherine had ever seen shrivelled before their eyes like the desiccated remains of an insect shut away in an empty room in a long abandoned house.