I can’t remember what made me include comments loosly based on my old headmistress, in The Magic of Stars. Some subliminal thought process I guess, that must shape every writer’s imaginary world. The memory of my innocent school days and wanting to show that Sapphire was very naïve, probably brought Sister Mary Mark to the front of my mind.
In The Magic of Stars, Sapphire, an air-stewardess gets very drunk and tells Marco, her soon-to-be boss, that she reminds him of her old headmistress, who was a really scary nun with a big black habit (for those who don’t know, a habit is basically the tunic and veil that various religious people wear to distinguish their ‘order’) Sister Mary Mark was quite frankly terrifying to me as a ten-year-old new girl, whose world was suddenly inhabited by formidable ladies wearing long black veils and floor length ‘dresses.’ Demands not to run or talk in ‘The Cloisters” were supposed to be met with a quiet bow of the head and words like Benediction and Liturgy were suddenly part of my vocabulary, along with convoluted Latin phrases which were chucked around as casually as a rubber ball. I felt totally overwhelmed at first – and pretty gauche, it has to be said.
Sister Mary Mark and the other nuns (many of whom were teachers at our school) played a big part of my life and I learned a great deal – not all of it strictly educational. Who knew that eating was only acceptable when sitting at a dining table, brushing your hair in public was almost a sin, and wearing make-up (young ladies do not need “lash paint”) or nail varnish, would ensure that Mr Mountford, the caretaker, would appear with his bottle of turps and an old rag, ready to remove the abhorrent display of “peacockery”?
It does all seem a bit authoritarian now, but Sister Mary Mark was a brilliant teacher and well-respected, and St Dominic’s was a place of great kindness and quiet intelligence and I wouldn’t have changed my time there for the world.
As an aside, my sister, who lives in Sydney, thought she was seeing a mirage when early one morning on Bondi beach, Sister Mary Mark came steaming towards her, long veil and gown flapping in the wind. My sister didn’t know whether to embrace her or run, but ended up having a surreal conversation about the Sydney Opera house – and the weather. She’s still not sure if Sister Mary Mark knew that she was an ex-pupil from her school in England. I think I’d have run – even as an adult I always found her fearsome, (even though she probably wasn’t) the anxious ten-year old that was me, resurfacing the minute I spotted her in Stone high Street.
The Magic of Stars is availabe here: http://amzn.to/2rPd0jo
Here’s a quick excerpt from The Magic of Stars where I mention Sapphire’s headmistress, who is very loosely based on Sister Mary Mark: Sapphire peered into her glass, squinting slightly. ‘I heard that the answer is always at the bottom of the glass. So, I’m looking for it.’
‘Do you know what the question is?’
‘Heck, no.’ She giggled. ‘Am I supposed to?’ The – very handsome, she noted – man’s smile loosened slightly, but Sapphire picked up on his underlying disapproval. She angled her head away from him, wanting to be left alone to continue on her path of self-destruction. But when she peered sideways he was still there. He looked so stern that she gave another nervous giggle.
He raised his forbidding eyebrows, once more.
‘Sorry. You reminded me of my old headmistress for a moment. She’s a nun. A really scary nun.’
Mr Cavarelli rested his arm on the bar, looking intrigued. ‘I don’t think I’ve been compared to a nun before.’
‘Yeah, she had a big black habit and a huge hooked nose.’ Sapphire pulled on her own nose. ‘Ow, that hurt.’ She grimaced as she rubbed her nose.
Her new friend looked amused. ‘Tell me more. What was her big bad habit?’
Sapphire thought this was one of the funniest things she had ever heard and she snorted with laughter. ‘Sorry.’ She put her hand up to her face to cover the embarrassing sound. ‘That’s hilarious, though.’
The hotel owner quirked an eyebrow, unmoved by the hilarity of his question.
She composed her face. ‘Not a bad habit, a black habit.’
‘Right.’ He still looked uncertain. ‘Long flowy thing.’ She ran her hands down her dress for emphasis. ‘And she was always giving me detention for dumb reasons.’
‘Dumb reasons?’ Mr Cavarelli turned enquiring eyes her way.
‘Yeah, like bringing an injured rabbit to the dormitory or feeding my dinner to the baby foxes. I mean, she’s a nun – she’s supposed to care about God’s creatures. Sorry, I’m going on a bit, aren’t I?’ She hiccupped and gulped. ‘Sorry. I really should stop saying sorry, shouldn’t I? Sorry. Damn it!’