Carmel is the daughter of a working-class couple in Manchester, and it's her Irish mother's dearest dream to send her daughter off to the Holy Redeemer. And no one brooks Mrs. McBain when she's got her mind set on something.
I can see that my mother was, in herself, not exquisite. She had a firm jaw, and a loud carrying voice. Her hair was greying and wild and held back with springing kirby grips. When she frowned, a cloud passed over the street. When she raised her eyebrows – as she often did, amazed each hour by what God expected her to endure – a small town’s tram system sprang up on her forehead. She was quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd; her speech was alarmingly forthright, or else bewilderingly circumlocutory. Her eyes were large and alert, green like green glass, with no yellow or hazel in them; with none of the compromises people have when it comes to green eyes. When she laughed I seldom knew why, and when she cried I was no wiser. Her hands were large and knuckly and calloused, made to hold a rifle, not a needle.One of Carmel's primary schoolmates is Karina, the stoic and somewhat enigmatic daughter of Slavic immigrants. When Mrs. McBain convinces Karina's mother that she, too, should apply for a scholarship to the Holy Redeemer, Carmel is less than pleased. Both girls win their scholarships, and the two mothers take them into town with the school's detailed uniform specifications in their pocketbooks.
This was the first time I had ever been taken to a shop for clothes. Everything I had needed until this point had been manufactured by my mother. I looked at Karina to see if she was any more at ease in this situation. She was standing with her eyes closed, breathing in the deep scent of leather and polish. A saleswoman dressed in black minced towards us over the polished floor, like a panther who has spotted something juicy: like a panther who has spotted something slow.
My mother unclasped her handbag with a big snap and withdrew the uniform list, folded in four.
"The Holy Redeemer," the saleswoman murmured. She seemed to curtsey as she took it from my mother's hand and opened it. Her fingers brushed her smiling throat as she ushered us towards the curtained cubicles of her choice. The room was built up to its lofty ceiling in glass cabinets and deep wooden drawers, some of which other salesladies slid open enticingly, to reveal stacks of stiff shirts bound in Cellophane; from which they lifted jerseys with their arms strait-jacketed by cardboard, in every size from dwarf to gross.
"In here if you please," the saleswoman said, as if she were threatening us. The curtain swept behind her. I was shut up with my mother in my own cubicle, at dangerously close quarters. But she was all simpering smiles now: for the duration, I was her darling. She took off her coat and hung it on one of the hooks supplied, and at once her woman smell gushed out and filled the air: chemical tang of primitive deodorant, scent and grease of Tan Fantastic, flowery scent of face powder, emanation of armpit and cervix, milk duct and scalp.
I removed my clothes. I was pale as paper, my body without scent or flavour of its own. Each of my ribs could be counted; each vertebra was accessible to a casual eye. Around my nipples was a puffiness which looked like a disease. I had been worrying that I would have to undress in front of Karina, who was in advance of me, gently but definitely swollen. I knew I had to get a bosom, but I hoped it wouldn't come on too quickly, because when it did I'd need an 'A' cup, size 32 broderie anglaise bra. And my mother would say, All this costs money, and as we are scrimping and saving for your education . . . The flatter my chest stayed, the cheaper I'd be.
The items required for the Holy Redeemer were brought in one by one, stiff on their glossy wooden hangers, by the saleswoman in black. Only the winter tunic was an exception; she carried it across her arms, palms spread beneath it, as in certain statues and paintings Our Lady bears the weight of the body of her crucified son. The tunic was clay coloured, a stiff deep grey-brown. In the uniform of the Holy Redeemer this colour predominated, but it was offset by a solid purple-red called maroon: and sometimes where you would least expect it, these two colours would collide and form stripes. I slid my arms inside the chilly sleeves of a cream shirt blouse. My mother twitched the stiff collar into position and began to button it up; she was attending to me as if I were a three-year-old, impressing the saleslady with her maternal skills. When the blouse was fastened it came to mid-thigh. The cuffs hung below my hands as if I'd climbed into the body of an ape. "I'll move the button," my mother said.Grudging companions, the two girls pack up their regulation grey and maroon, put on their sensible outdoor shoes and board the train bound for the Holy Redeemer, where their new schoolmates are quite of a different class.
This was where we would be educated, Karina and I, among girls whose fathers were solicitors, factory managers, small businessmen and the more prosperous sort of shopkeeper. Their mothers stayed at home to construct Battenburg cakes and cut back hydrangeas. Their first memories were of garden ponds and weeping willows, of the wrought-iron balconies of Scarborough hotels, of the slippery leather of the back seat of the family car. When I think of the early lives of these girls – of Julianne, let us say – I think of starched sun-bonnets, Beatrix Potter, of mossy garden paths, regular bedtime, regular bowels: I see them frozen for ever in that unreclaimable oasis between the war and the 196os, between the end of rationing and the beginning of the end: fixed in time, their bodies scented with clover honey and Bramley apples: one foot daintily poised, one hand – as their ballet teacher prescribed – gesturing a charming invitation to the years to come. Life, do your worst; we are plump of knee and mild of eye, we are douce, glib and blithe: we inherit the semi, while others inherit the wind.Carmel, like so many of us who were brought up in a Catholic household, looks back on her childhood and adolescence and wonders if she'd really been as sinful as she'd been led to believe. As she progresses through the Holy Redeemer, though, and moves on to a London university (as does Karina, as well), her moral compass appears unreliable -- the result, I suppose, of having been told for so many years exactly what to do rather than learning to make sound ethical decisions for herself.
When I look back from myself now at myself then, I believe I was a diligent, quiet, undemanding child; hardly more trouble at sixteen than I was at ten. At the time, though – even after I had stopped going to confession and stopped examining my conscience every day – I believed I was a monster of egotism, an incipient tyrant, a source of trouble and agony of mind. My mother said I was, and I didn’t query it. I never tried to take out of her hands the direction of my life, or questioned why she and not I should have it. Inoffensive though I was, she treated me as what was known in those years as a juvenile delinquent. Everything I did was suspicious – at least, it aroused her suspicion.As their relationships with each other and with men come to prove, the young women who share a residential hall at the university are not what their mothers and the nuns had hoped for when they'd entered the convent school years before. They seem ill-equipped to confront the tangled issues of class, sex and friendship. The relationship between Carmen and Karina shifts from awkward to malevolent, yet their paths remain somehow knitted together.
It is a mistake, of course, to think that convent girls wait until they’re adults to disappoint the expectations of the nuns. In our generation, growing up through the sixties, we quickly developed our double lives. We were women inside children’s clothes, atheists at Mass, official virgins and de facto rakes. It was not deceit; it was dualism. We had grown up with it. Flesh and spirit, ambition and humility. It was time to make plans for the future; I swung between thinking I could do anything with my life, and that I could do nothing. I still fitted into the blazer bought for my first summer at the Holy Redeemer. My mouse feet had hardly grown, so my indoor shoes were still going strong, and had perhaps acquired a perverse chic. But my satchel was scuffed and battered, and inside it at the bottom corner there was a big ink stain, like the map of a new continent. Maybe the act of love came too late. As a career move, I should have lost my burdensome virginity at thirteen or fourteen, when there would have been no question of a lasting attachment and no desire for one. As it was, I shook when I removed my clothes and I cried after it was done, not out of pain or disappointment but out of an up-rush of muddling emotion which twenty-four hours later I was ready to call love.Carmen's whole youth might be termed an experiment in love, I suppose, but I don't think anyone would rejoice at her findings. Including Carmen.