Boarding School

Three floors of classrooms run along the length of the building. A circular driveway sweeps through sprawling lawns dotted with large shady trees.  Riotous flowers cluster about the feet of a marble Virgin and child.
I sit on the lower steps of a shadowy stairwell. Outside butterflies flit among roses and I long to join them.  The step feels cold through my woollen bloomers; regulation royal blue. I look down to stare unseeing at the speckles in the polished concrete, hoping for inspiration. main-school-block
A door behind me at the top of the stairwell slams.
I shift to huddle against the wrought iron balustrade expecting a Nun to descend, knowing I will be scolded for sitting on the step. It is unladylike behaviour. I turn my head to look up waiting for a flash of black habit or the jingle of rosary beads to galvanise me.
At the top of the stairs is the sewing room from which I was expelled ten minutes into a double lesson. Across the corridor from me is the art room and to my right around the corner is the domestic science room. These are the three elective subjects from which we must select one. I chose sewing because I don’t like the domestic science teacher, or at least I am certain she doesn’t like me. The aroma wafting passed is from their cooking and it smells like they are boiling milk. I wrinkle my nose. Art is out of the question because Sister Astrid will only allow students in her class who show real talent, so sewing was all I had left.
I twist my shoulders to look up the stairs. My eyes fix on the enormous painting hanging on the wall at the back of the landing. It depicts a young girl with a small angel on one shoulder and the devil with pitch fork and pointed tail on the other. Its moral has wormed its way into my conscience over the years. The messages of competing commands pester me as I hear the seductive voice of devils countermanding the dulcet tones of angels.  I wait to see who slammed the door and will descend the stairs, but no one comes.
I turn back to inspecting the concrete at my feet, wishing I had someone to tell me what to do. I could obey Sister Flavia and go to domestic science, but I don’t move. It’s not as though I deliberately stitched the skirt hem to the bodice. I just don’t get sewing, but Sister Flavia believes no one could be so dense. She is convinced I am intentionally provoking her. I know if I went upstairs and grovelled she would take me back, but next lesson it will all happen again so what’s the point.
When she threw me out she told me to go downstairs and join the domestic science class but I can’t. I just can’t. I know I will be equally useless there. Besides, you have to eat what you cook. The thought of eating custard or any milky puddings makes me heave. I don’t know what to do so I sit here in limbo and worry. There are no other options.
I am in form four at Gwelo Convent, and I am fifteen years old. The boarding school is small with a hundred or so girls in their senior years. It is in the bush about five miles from Gwelo on the road to Salisbury and thought to be a safe distance from the city, the other boarding schools, and the army, and air force barracks.
Perhaps the Nuns think it’s remote enough to manage teenage girls with raging hormones. At least safe from the depredations of the boys from Guinea Fowl, or worse the government run schools of Chaplin and Thornhill. My boyfriend is a Chaplin boy so the Nuns obviously didn’t work hard enough. We girls still manage the occasional illicit liaisons, meeting under the orange trees in the Bishop’s orchard next door.
Later the school will close for fear of terrorist attacks, but for now I don’t give such things any thought. If they came to mind, I might have welcomed the distraction from my perplexing dilemma of how I can get out of taking an elective class.
As I sit worrying fruitlessly and feeling sorry for myself, the art room door opens and Sister Astrid comes out. She is young and kind, unlike the strict disciplinarians of most of the Dominican Order.
‘What are you doing?’ She asks.
I stand up as is expected in the presence of our betters and say, ‘Sister Flavia banned me from her sewing class.’
Fleeting humour flashes in her eyes but her face remains stern as she adjusts her veil, giving herself time to assimilate this piece of information. Her forefinger runs inside the veil’s headband, pushing wiry red hair back behind their containment lines. It’s not so long since they were given the choice to leave off their wimples and she is one of the van guard.
‘Well it’s no use sitting here. You had better hurry along to domestic science.’
‘Oh Sister please can I join your art class, please. I will work really hard. Please.’ I beg suddenly desperate for this small window of opportunity to escape my sentence.
‘Why do you want to join?’ Can you draw or paint? Do you have any artistic ability?’
I look at my feet defeated, and then with a flash of inspiration I say, ‘I once painted a picture of a puppet for you and you said you liked it.’
She looks taken aback and says, ‘when did you paint a picture for me, what puppet?’
It was in Standard One. You were our teacher for a term. I painted a puppet with strings and everything. You said mine was good. I trail off seeing the blankness in her face. She doesn’t remember.
A thoughtful frown crinkles her forehead. ‘That must have been when I did my teaching prac. That was at Salisbury Convent wasn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ I say feeling a small surge of hope.
‘No sorry I don’t remember,’ she says. ‘Tell me about it.’
I can barely remember, but I tell her about his big head and spindly body. I describe the Wedgewood blue of his coat, the pink and yellow striped trousers, one leg in the air as if he dances, the bamboo pole background, the silvery wires and the puppets face, full of mischief with his white pointed star crossed eyes, and gaping wide red mouth.
She watches me as I speak and when I finish she says, ‘I think I do remember.’
I am sure she is just being nice.
But then she says, ‘all right I’ll give you a chance, just one though. Go into class and find a sheet of paper and paint sunflowers. Don’t disturb the other girls and I’ll be back in ten minutes to see how you are doing.’
‘Thank you Sister.’ My voice is calm but inside I am yelling and capering with relief.
Elated I walk towards the closed art room door. I open it as Sister Astrid walks away along a cloistered veranda towards the administration wing. Inside the large airy room four girls paint studiously, barely glancing up to note my entry.
Large windows run down the length of the room and along the far wall with a sink at the end. Against the inside wall sits a desk, and a long table with various pots and jars, brushes and of all things a primus stove with a jar of instant coffee, milk and sugar next to it. A door behind the desk leads to a storage room.. Running in rows across the room are several easels lined up like desks, most unused. The art room could clearly cater for many more students than the few using it.
I whisper to one of the girls, ‘where do I get paper?’
She points with the end of her brush, barely glancing up at me.
The sheets of A3 rag paper are in a pile on a long bench that runs the length of the room under the window. I fix a sheet to a spare easel. Then I help myself to paint using a wooden paddle to scoop a dollop of colour onto a palate. I take one of each colour, blue, yellow, white and red. My eyes scan the room in case I’m missing something, but it seems to be what all the girls have.
Shrugging I pick out brushes from a bunch of them standing upright in a jar, and take them back to my easel. Then I see the girl next to me swish her brush in what looks like water. I go back to the table to collect a jar that I fill with water.
Everything is in readiness as I stand and gaze at my blank paper. All I need to do now is paint. The silence in the room surprises me. I have never been in a class that is so studious. There is no Nun or prefect to maintain control. All the girls focus on what they do and none are distracted by my activity.
I watch the girl next to me for a minute to see what she does. She is painting a horse. The neatness and precision of its form makes my heart quail. I will never be able to paint like that. The anatomy is so perfect its muscles twitch.
‘It’s good,’ I say, and she smiles but continues painting.
I turn back to my paper and stare at it blankly. Where to begin? It dawns on me, I don’t know what a sunflower looks like. My mind seems to have shut down, and for the life of me I cannot conjure a memory of these ubiquitous blossoms. It’s been the bane of my life that when I am anxious I can’t recall the most obvious things, but here I go again. None of the other girls paints flowers so I can’t copy their work
My mind thrashes and I chew the hang nail on my thumb. The more I try to grasp an image the more ethereal they become, sliding away into the soggy grey blancmange of my rancid brain. I don’t know if I ever knew what a sunflower looked like, but at this moment I haven’t a clue. I’m beginning to panic.
Eventually I turn to the horse girl and almost in tears I say, ‘can you tell me what a sunflower looks like?’
She looks up annoyed, but sees my distress and her face softens. ‘They are those big yellow things—you know?’
I shake my head. I still can’t remember what they look like.
Her eyes express disbelief as she says, ‘lots of small yellow petals and a big black centre.’
Then she turns back to her painting. The other girls have stopped painting and watch the exchange. I can’t continue to display my ignorance without losing all self-respect so I say, ‘oh ja thanks, I remember.’ But I don’t.
I am at a loss. The door opens and Sister Astrid comes into the room. The girls bend to their work as she walks over to sit at her desk. It’s too late for me to do anything else but paint.
I pretend to know what I am doing, and jab a brush into the yellow paint, lifting a liberal blob of sunshine which I daub in a tentative circle half way up the left side of the paper. Then I splotch another circle next to it. I fill the paper with circles of yellow petals and then look for something to make black centres, but there is no black paint. I compromise making brown from blue, red and yellow, but it looks flat so I add blue speckles. I stand back and look at what I have done.
It’s a mess but maybe if I include yellow flecks in the brown centre, and bits of red at the base of the petals it might look better. The red gives the petals an orange tinge which worries me. The only colour I haven’t used is the white, so I place a few flecks of white at the petals’ edge to alleviate the orange look, but it doesn’t turn them back to yellow. Too bad, it can’t be helped.
Despite the mess I’m enjoying myself, although I’m already resigned to being chucked out of this class. I notice the blue and yellow paint have run together in one spot making green, and it gives me an idea. Sister Astrid once showed me how to paint the bamboo background for my puppet picture. I put that lesson to use, and turn the green into a stalk with brown, blue, and red lines depicting joints. Yellow and white highlights round it to three dimensions, so I paint more. When I have finished, I fill the small amount of background space at the top of the paper with blue. The painting begins to pulse.
All too soon the end-of-lesson bell rings. I can’t believe a double period has passed so quickly. For the entire time since I began painting I didn’t once look up, long to read my library book, yawn and glanced around, or gaze desperately out the window as I did in most classes. Along with English and geography, art is now my favourite subject.
We pack up and wash our brushes at the sink. The other girls leave but I dawdle. Its lunch time so I don’t have to hurry to another class, and I have time enough to get to the Refectory. I hover, desperate to try once more to persuade Sister Astrid to let me stay. I know this is what I want to do. I love art.
Sister Astrid is in the little back room behind her desk, and I wait for her to come out. Her face registers surprise when she sees me.
‘What are you still doing here? Get along now, you’ll be late for Refectory.’
‘Can I come back Sister?’ I ask my eyes pleading, desperate for her to relent and let me stay even if my work is a fright.
She purses her lips, and walks over to my painting still on the easel drying. I cringe with fear at her appraisal. I know my sunflowers don’t stack up, but surely I can learn. Holding my breath, I am about to explode when she nods her head.
‘Yes, you can come to the next class, but I don’t tolerate people who aren’t serious about art. Any fooling around and you are out, no warnings. Now hurry to the Refectory before I am in trouble for keeping you late.’
‘Thank you Sister.’ I say it with all the decorum I can muster and leave the room in a cloud of happiness.
Weeks later, perhaps months, I can’t remember how much time passed, but I am a well-established member of the art class. We have the run of the art room and often paint in our free periods or on weekends. I am serious about painting and Sister Astrid signs me up to take art for one of my O level subjects. The art room is a place where the misery of boarding school is forgotten.
I didn’t explain earlier but you may have deduced that I was less than a model student. In fact I was frequently ticked-off for whistling, and for other conduct unbecoming of a lady. On the last occasion the lecture was more serious, warning me against the perils of smoking. It was true that my friends and I would hide out behind the school, or across the playing fields and smoke whenever we had a chance. Although I was accused and warned I was never actually caught. Smoking is a ticket to expulsion.
One morning just prior to lunch I am told to report to the Headmistress’s office. I know I am in trouble because there is usually no other reason for such a summons, unless a family member dies. That’s unlikely. Dragging my feet along the cloistered verandas, I ponder what new transgression I might have committed. All my insecurities rush in with their usual torment but nothing comes to mind.
In the end I deduce someone’s ratted on me for smoking. Since the last carpeting I am more careful about hiding my cigarettes. It was my own fault last time, because I was careless, or as the Headmistress said—blatant. I had left my packet and lighter in my locker. While they hadn’t caught me in the act the evidence was pretty unambiguous.
I reach the inner sanctum of the Headmistress’s office and knock. A disembodied German voice commands, ‘enter.’
I open the door and tentatively step inside. Sister Mary squats behind her desk, her short rotund frame barely visible above the piles of books and papers. Her weathered face is stern with jowls pressed in folds above her wimple, her form framed by the dark matter of her veil. The room seems dim as if a shadow has passed over the sun. A desk lamp spills a pool of light on the clutter but no further.
‘Don’t hover girl and shut the door,’ she says.
I cross the room and stand before her desk, hands linked behind my back as I wait for her to speak.
Another Nun stands behind Sister Mary, her features hidden by the gloom. As she steps forward I see Sister Astrid and my heart shrivels in my chest. Oh no, if I am in trouble and Sister Astrid is here it means I am to be kicked out of art class. I want to cry.
Sister Mary clasps her pudgy hands in front of her and says, ‘well, what do you have to say for yourself?’
Dumbfounded I wonder what she expects me to say. I remain standing in front of her desk while she gives her most malevolent glare. My hands grip each other so hard my nails sink into flesh. I look straight ahead saying nothing but my mind is in cyclonic chaos.
‘Speak up girl,’ she says.
The swirling fog in my brain obscures my ability to speak. I feel her anger at my silence, but that is better than treading where only fools and angels dare.
Sister Astrid takes pity on me and steps forward. I can see she is smiling and my bewilderment deepens.
‘Haven’t you noticed anything Gillian?’
Noticed anything! I have noticed everything and I am terrified. Especially now as Sister Mary’s mouth stretches in a kind of rictus.
Sister Astrid walks to the door and turns on the lights flooding the room. I blink to adjust.
‘Now what can you see?’ She says it kindly as she walks back to the desk. Sister Mary is still grinning like I am the subject of immense amusement.
My gaze flashes about the room for clues, but I don’t know what they want me to see.
‘I don’t know Sister,’ I say.
By this time I have given up. The fear of the past few minutes has sapped my strength with its conflict between fight or flight, neither of which is an option. I am a Duiker surrendering in the jaws of the leopard.
Sister Astrid points to the wall behind Sister Mary. There is a large framed painting with one of those circular rosettes stating in bold letters “1st” and beneath it “Gwelo Agricultural Art show”. I still don’t get it and don’t immediately recognise my painting.
Sister Mary says, ‘I would like your permission to keep it if I may. I think it looks rather good on my office wall, don’t you?’
I stare in shock. It’s the painting I did on my first day in art class, now framed. It looks different, more like a real painting not the chaotic conceptual sunflowers of my panicked imagination. I can hardly believe my eyes, or my luck that I am not in trouble.
Quick silver flashes of triumph swamp my reason. Sister Mary wants something of mine. I pull myself up thinking give it to her, and get out quick while you still can.
I nod. ‘Yes,’ I say.
She claps her hands satisfied, but surely she never anticipated any other response. I have no power to thwart my principal.
Sister Astrid smiles at me again and says, ‘well done. Hurry along back to class now.’
I never saw the painting again, but neither did I get into any more trouble. Although my behaviour didn’t change, and I still smoked, I was never again summoned into Sister Mary’s office.

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