The Party was evidently in full swing. Crossing the carpark and entering the school hall, Bernadette could hear the decibels getting higher as the shrieks of welcome greeted each new arrival. In 50 years not much seemed to have changed in the excitement level of the girls of Sacre Coeur Ladies College.
Bernadette stopped short in the doorway. “Oh Mother of God No!! No!! not HER!” Her bones chilled as she remembered 1962 and another party, the farewell party that had been the precursor to this 50th Anniversary School Reunion. It was small, just 23 teenage girls and a nun. In 1962 Sister Mary Bernadette (Oh the pain of having the same name as her nemesis), was the Head of Sacre Coeur Ladies College. Old and tough, she was known to the girls of SC as ‘Herr Bernie’. How many times Bernadette had been hauled into Herr Bernie’s office and dressed down, she couldn’t remember. The Irish nun had crucified her; not all Bernadette’s fault. After all, she had so much for the nun to dislike. She was an English migrant, Mortal Sin number one. She was a champion ballroom dancer, Mortal Sin number two, for that meant dancing close to a boy. Unacceptable. She was a Girl Guide, a non-church organised group. She had poor parents and a mother who worked (no support there for the Mothers’ Club and canteen). all in all, she was a huge anathema to her namesake.
Herr Bernie had her favourites though, daughters of the wealthy, or mothers who worked tirelessly in fundraising for the school, girls who would clearly go on to be lawyers, scientists and doctors. For Bernadette, whose mother worked and had no time to support fundraising or work in the tuck shop, and who had her sights so firmly set on a career of writing and acting, Sister Mary Bernadette saw only “a sinful life of squalor”, as she so often put it, “filled with faithless men and misery”.
On that fateful Leaving Night the old nun had spoken to each girl in turn as they stood with her in a circle in the middle of the school hall. She wished them well, telling each girl in turn their great strengths and her expectations of them in the future. When she reached Bernadette her cold blue eyes had flashed, and she had said, loudly and clearly so that all could hear, “Ah…. Bernadette Fisher. Well! The world will have a good old tug at you my girl. And you’ll go under!”
The circle of girls had fidgeted and giggled, some with embarrassment, some with triumph and others with glee. Bernadette had flushed, felt the tears of shame and hurt start to well and had turned and walked away, out from the hall, never to return.
When the invitation had come six months ago, it had said, “Please come – we know you are busy but we have tracked down every single girl from our leaving year, and everyone is coming, except for poor Barbara who died in a car crash in 1965 and Jenny and Freda – sisters Cecelia and Anne – who are in America on a spiritual retreat and won’t be back in time. We all want so much to see you.”
She had thought that with 50 years between the farewell and the reunion, Sister Bernadette would have gone to her reward, hopefully downwards rather than upwards, if you get my drift. There would be little chance of her being there. It would be great to see all her classmates again and how much they all had or hadn’t changed. It would be nice too to be able to let them all see that she had proved Herr Bernadette wrong. She had not gone under.
“Well bugger Sister Bloody Mary Bernadette! “ She muttered under her breath. She was going in there and show her. That woman had made her angry. The hurt had lasted for 50 years. No more! Never again! She’d show her!
The old nun watched Bernadette from across the room. She saw her stop in the doorway and hesitate, saw the colour drain from her cheeks and the play of emotions across her face.
“Please don’t leave.” She murmured under her breath. “Please come in.” There had been other reunions over the years. Every ten years there was a dinner, and on the five year marks a morning tea, but Bernadette had never responded to invitations. This year, Herr Bernie had asked the organiser to send a special invitation just to Bernadette and to please not mention that any of the nuns would be there. She let out a long sigh of relief as Bernadette straightened her shoulders and walked forward with a defiant stride. The nineteen women in the hall stood back. They cheered and clapped and whistled like sixteen-year olds at a rock concert, rather than 60-somethings at a school reunion, as she strode towards Herr Bernie.
Sister Bernadette smiled. She knew that defiant gait and the almost-a-swagger so well; the squared shoulders and the glint of tears that would never, never be allowed to fall. She’d worked so hard with this one. This child had been so creative, so talented and so very, very vulnerable. She didn’t known and would never know that the nun was aware of the circumstances of her home life; that her mother had warned the school that there were problems there. The father had deserted them as soon as they reached Australia. She had a brother who had cerebral palsy. She had told of the need for Bernadette to work with her mother in the evenings scrubbing floors at the local doctor’s surgery, so that the fees for Sacre Coeur could be paid. “Herr Bernie” – oh yes, she knew what they called her behind her back – had taken it all on board and promised the mother that the child’s dreams and hopes would never be crushed for the lack of a father or money.
She had quietly organised bursaries and scholarships, unannounced, to see her through school and university and then NIDA. She made the path clear for her. Yet Bernadette herself had been a problem. She was determined to stay at home and help her mother; determined to go to teacher’s college and take a nice safe job that would ensure security and comfort for her mother and family. No amount of talking and badgering from anyone could convince the child to take the harder road and follow her immense talent. It would take a miracle and a huge incentive to change that destiny. So Herr Bernie had hatched a plot. She would give Bernadette something to focus on. Anger, passion and pride were the tools she would employ to put that stubborn determination to work. If it meant the child would forever hate her, that would be sad, but so worth it. She closed her eyes for a moment and saw again the ramrod straight shoulders walking away from her and out of the hall, 50 years ago tonight. It had certainly worked.
She smiled as Bernadette approached. The child, for she still saw her that way, returned the smile, but only from politeness and with stiff lips. “Sister Mary Bernadette.” she said.
“Oh no dear. I dropped that name when the habits came off in the sixties. I’m just Alex now. Only Father O’Reilly calls me Sister.” She grinned. Bernadette noticed that she was not nearly as old as she thought, probably in her eighties. She would have been about 30 in 1962. So young to be a Headmistress.
“Well now, Bernadette Fisher,” said the old nun, her eyes twinkling and the Irish lilt still noticeable in her soft voice. “Welcome home to Sacre Coeur. Haven’t you proved me wrong over all these years? How many plays have you written? How many Oscars is it now? Two? One for screenplay and one for Best Actress. Then there’s the Tony, not to mention this year’s BAFTA! The world must indeed be tugging you this way and that! But you have gone so far. You mother would be so proud of you. As are we all, especially me. You’re just awesome, my dear. Just awesome!”
Copyright Chris Sutton 2020