Sister Superior has a beauty spot on her upper lip which she sometimes licks or even sucks so that when she’s finished and lets it go there’s a smacking sound. She does it on purpose, I’m sure. I like the smacking sound, too – and I wish I had a beauty spot like that.
Sister Superior walks down Moonhill, head high. She walks on air, her smile is radiant. She has that same smile when we sing the Hail Mary in chapel. We all love her, particularly when she swings the myrrh and incense by the altar, lets us pull the Angelus bell, and when she tells us the story of Adam and Eve.
Sister Superior helps us with our seedlings in class: we’ve put them in cotton wool and jam jars; the radishes and peas haven’t yet taken, but our bean shoots are already quite tall. This morning she brings in some sticks she’s cut from the branches outside in the playground. “Here, let’s give them tutors,” she says, helping us fix them.
“What’s a tutor?” Brenda asks.
“Ah,” she says, “tutors guide you.”
“So then you’re our tutor,” I say. Sister Superior beams up at me.
“Who’s yours?” Brenda asks her.
“The Man up there, He’s my tutor,” she points to the sky.
She’s the only nun we can speak to like this, the only one with a sense of fun, lifting her black robe up to above her ankles to run with us when we play hide-and-seek. Unlike Sister Monica.
Sister Monica is very different; she is grim, with a hard-set face and a rigid body; it seems only her feet move, and her hands give just the occasional flick when she writes the Ten Commandments up on the blackboard. Thou shalt not sin, thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not sin. Her face is like a dark cloud so it looks as though she’s been to hell and wants to talk about that only.
“What’s for pudding today?” I ask Sister Superior as she leaves us with our bean shoots.
“I’m not sure dears, I’m not on duty, but I think it’s Blanc Mange.”
“Oh no, Blanc Mange!” everyone groans.
Lunch time arrives. We’re seated in rows in the canteen with the pink and red walls. Peas and fish-fingers aren’t the same without Sister Superior dishing them out for us with her breathy smile and her ‘here girls!’ passing the plates along. We’re very noisy. “Hey, pass the salt.” “Blanc Mange – Ugh!” “Look how it wobbles.” I put some in my spoon and flick it on the wall where it sticks for a second on the line where the red paint meets the pink. We squeal with laughter. Suddenly the bell is ringing; it’s Sister Monica swinging the hand bell. “Girls! Behave! Girls, be quiet! Girls: silence!” her face red as the walls and the ball of the bell flies off its hinges up in the air, falls with a thud into the Blanc Mange bowl. We daren’t laugh. Sister Monica is now in hell and ready to charge. It’ me she’s after. She grabs my shoulder and pulls me off the bench. “ You! Get back to the classroom.”
On my way out I think I see Sister Superior down the corridor. I run up, but she’s vanished towards the Headmistress’ office. I see she’s dropped something. I pick it up. It’s the Book of Common Prayer and I slip it into my pocket to give back to her when I next see her.
After school Sister Superior walks down Moonhill. She leaves a full path of light in her wake; leaves a space, too, for the soldier who’s following her. Her black robes fly out behind her like a cloud; she switches her head to check he’s still there, the white band across her forehead flashing. He’s taking her same stride behind in his uniform: khaki trousers and jacket full of pockets, the dark beret on the crew cut. And, like the soldier he is, he keeps up the rhythm, watching her feet.
Behind them comes Sister Monica, mouthing her prayers under her breath. But neither Sister Superior nor the soldier notice.
My friends and I are in the churchyard. Sister Superior is coming over. I stay under the church porch while they set up a picnic round the tombstones. She breezes past me without seeing me. “Hello girls!” she calls to my friends, hesitating for a second, licking her beauty spot. They look up and smile because she’s always so fresh. She walks over the daisies towards the dark yew. It is a huge tree, the trunk almost the width of the church doors. It stands by the older, leaning grave stones. The soldier’s still following her. He stops by the tombstone of Mary Forthright, wife of William, tallow maker from London, died 1812 – the slab is cracked and lies flat on the grass; it’s our picnic table on other days. He hasn’t seen my friends who are busy unpacking the biscuits and juice. He’s watching Sister Superior who has now vanished under the yew. I fancy I can see her light through the branches. The soldier walks in; he’s going up to her. He pulls the white band off her forehead, then her veil; it drops at their feet and a river of long dark hair falls over her shoulders. She throws her head back. He puts his fingers on her mouth, runs them over her lips, his index finger lingering over her beauty spot. But then suddenly he stops. He pulls away.
Sister Monica is walking past, muttering some angry sounding prayer, repeating the Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, pray for us sinners. When she has gone, Sister Superior comes out of the tree. Her veil is back on, her hair hidden. Where is the soldier?
She sees my friends. “Hello children,” she says breathily, walking over the daisies past them, back up the hill.
The next day I go into the chapel before class. She’s usually in there, early mornings. But she isn’t now.
During break, while the others play, I stand by the cedar watching out for her. But she’s still not there.
It is now two days since we last saw her and the others have noticed. “Where is Sister Superior?” Brenda says as we walk back to class. None of us know. And no-one dares ask Sister Monica who would probably bite us if we did.
I wait until Friday. Today. Four full days and we still haven’t seen her. So I’m going to ask. When everyone’s gone I follow Sister Monica down the corridor.
“Please,” I say, “excuse me, but: is Sister Superior all right?”
She turns round slowly, then takes a deep breath. “We won’t be seeing Sister Superior any more.”
I stand staring up at her pinched face. I don’t understand. “Why? Is she ill? What’s happened?” I blurt out.
“Sister Superior has left my dear.”
Left? How can she leave? She’s a nun. Nun’s don’t leave. I feel for the prayer book in my pocket. And suddenly I think: it’s because of me. Because I stole her prayer book. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not steal. It’s all my fault. I’ll give it back to her and she’ll come back. Yes, she will.
Sister Monica walks away. I don’t say anything to anyone, but after the last class I go straight to the Angelus bell, grab its velvety rope and I pull and pull. I’m ringing the Angelus Bell for Sister Superior to come back. Please come back. But she doesn’t.