Anne crutches herself into Sister Paul's office. The nun is sitting in a chair behind a desk, hands folded on the table, eyes stern, lips a straight line. Anne stands before the desk, taking in the huge crucifix on the wall above the nun's head.
- You can sit down, Anne, the nun says, eyeing her firmly, watching the 12 year old girl, as she manoeuvres herself with one crutch onto the chair.
Anne sits down and puts the crutch beside the chair and pulls her red skirt over her knees, covering the stump where her leg had been.
- Do you know why you're here? Sister Paul asks, unfolding her
hands, and laying them flat on the desk top.
- No, Anne says, looking at the nun's black and white headdress, the thin features of the face, hawk-like nose.
-There has been complaints made about you, the nun says. She watches as the girl fidgets in the chair, lifts herself with her hands, back further, on the chair. - Are you not comfortable? She asks.
- No, Anne says, My knickers are too tight.
The nun sighs, looks at the wooden ruler on her desk, wishes she
could, but knows she can't.
- Complaints made by other children here and staff members, the nun says, toying with the ruler with her fingers.
-What sort of complaints? Anne asks.
-The worse sort: bad language, insolence, rudeness. It has to stop, Anne, do you understand? The voice sounded like grit poured into a bucket.
Anne fingered at her backside. -Ah, that's better, sorted it out now, she says, putting her hands together in her lap. - I can't recall any rudeness, she says, acting miss innocence, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, kind of expression and pose.
The nun looks at the girl and inwardly is glad she never married and had children, especially if one had been like this.
- Sister Bridget says you called her a dried up prune, the nun says, looking at the dark hair and eyes of the child, the insolent way she sits and looks.
Anne frowns.- Me? To Sister Bridget?
-Yes, to Sister Bridget, and Sister Mary says, you exposed your bottom to her when she asked you to take your afternoon sleep. The nun looks at the girl's expression, her frown of brow.
- No, not me, Sister Paul, must have been some other kid's backside she'd seen.
-Are you calling these two nuns, liars?
The girl looks at her hands in her lap, raises two fingers upwards, out of the nun's sight.- No, not liars, just mistaken. We all make mistakes, Anne says, we're all human, after all.
Sister Paul's eyes darken, she grips the ruler tighter, pushes her toes to the end of her sandals.
- And some of the children have made complaints, too, the nun says, the words hard as nails from her lips.
-Ah, you know what liars kids can be, Sister. They couldn't tell the truth if it came wrapped in yellow paper saying, TRUTH. She smiles at her wit.
Sister Paul doesn't smile; her lips tighten, her eyes scan the child, if the girl at been at one of the schools, rather than the nursing home, she'd be well on her way to a sound caning.
- I know children, Anne, and liars, the nun says, eyeing the girl
firmly, tapping the ruler on her palm. - You are a liar, and I
know you. I have read the reports on you before you came. I was
reluctant to take you in, but had little choice. You will behave
yourself or be expelled from the nursing home. Is that
Anne senses a fart coming on, but holds it in. - Yes, Sister, sorry Sister. It's my leg you see, it gives me pain, and keeps me awake at nights, and I get tired and I get irritable. She puts on a hurt expression.
The nun sits upright and stiff, an expression of dislike etched on her features.
-We are given pain, by God, for a purpose, Sister Paul says, it is a gift we ought to shoulder and bear with gratitude.
-Like haemorrhoids, you mean? Anne says, fiddling with her fingers, a blank look on her face.
- You know what I mean, young lady, pain in general, not in particular. At that moment the nun feels a great urge to inflict pain on the girl sitting in front of her. She can picture it, the whole scene, the satisfaction.
Anne shifts in the chair, steadying herself. - Can I go now?
The nun sits back in the chair, eyes focusing on the girl, her face straight and stiff as a board.- Your leg has been amputated, so how can it give you pain? the nun says, her words pushed from her mouth as if they were sour.
- Nerve endings, they don't realise the fucking legs gone, oops
sorry, about that it kind of slipped out while I was engaged in
thoughts, Anne says, looking at the nun's reddening face. -
Didn't mean to, it's my leg you see, it gets me all uptight, and
wound up like a clock, and then ping! Out it comes.
The nun sighs deeply. The word hammers inside her ears and brain. - I won't have such language, do you hear me, not another rude word or expression.
Anne clenches, the cheeks of her buttocks tightly, to hold in the the coming wind. She nods, gives an expression of remorse, allows her eyes to water, takes out a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wipes her nose. - Sorry about that, don't mean to be such a bad girl, my apologises to all. She wipes her eyes, lets herself go, does her acting bit, slumps her shoulders, weeps softly.
The nun is confused, sits up, feels an urge to go around to the girl and embrace her, say, there, there, dear child, but she doesn't, instead she stares at the girl, at the slumped shoulders, at the dark hair, the sight of neck, and wonders what kind of mother she would have made had she married, would she have coped with the nappies and sickness and foul smells and dressing and undressing a baby and the disturbed nights, and a man touching her, and doing things to her. No, she couldn't have married, nor had a child. She sighs and softens, -OK, Anne, lets say no more about it, and she gets out of the chair and walks around to the child weeping, in the chair, and puts an arm about her, feeling the shallow shakes, the sobs, the sight of the one leg, knowing a stump was beneath the skirt. - There, there, calm down, it is all too much for you after losing your leg, I'll have a word with the children and staff and explain about your pain. She holds the girl close to her breast, feeling her there, the catching of breath, the sobs, the shaking shoulders, and plants a kiss on the girl's black hair and head.
- Sorry, Sister Paul, Anne says, between her acted sobs, sniffing, wiping her nose, feeling the fart go away silently, like sneaky hound, all without sound.
The nun feels her heart open and close. - All right, Anne, you may go and rest your leg or stump, she says, going back to her chair and sitting there, watery eyed.
Anne lifts her head, pushes her hair from her eyes, sniffs and wipes her nose. -Thank you, Sister, you're like a mother to me. She pulls herself up from the chair with the crutch, feels the pain shoot through the stump, rubs it, pulls a face. - I'll go and rest it, she says, soft voiced, sobs held in check, head lowered. She crutches herself from the room slowly, sensing the nun's eyes on her, feeling a sense of fulfilment, like passing an audition, and lets the door click gently behind her.
Sister Paul sits and fingers the ruler. Sniffs and coughs softly. Feeling the girl's shoulders in her hands, the gentlest of touches, the sense, momentarily, of being a mother, compassion, concern, yes, it is there, she says inwardly, maybe I might have made a good mother after all had it been God's wishes, even if I had to put up with a man's touch for the duration. Thank God, she says softly inwardly, for my vocation .