My first meal in Sydney was a bowl of chicken noodle soup made by adding hot water to the dehydrated contents of a foil packet. It was all my sister-in-law could manage. I need not have worried about eating her meals. My eldest half-brother usually cooked dinner but within days, I was in boarding school.
I was dumbfounded when Sister Bridget, our boarding mistress, told me that I would be expected to ‘make my own bed’. I looked around the dormitory and felt panic. I withdrew within myself and kept silent, standing stock still and wishing to be invisible. Soon a senior came along and showed me what Sister meant. I decided that Sister Bridget’s English was not too good.
Several boarders came along and helped me ‘make my bed’. I was grateful until I tried to get into it that night: they’d ‘short sheeted’ it, tucking the top sheet around the mattress at the top then folding the other end back and tucked in the sides, covering it with a blanket so that my feet would hit the fold and I was unable to slip in. After rounds of giggles someone came to sort me out before Sister came back to check on us.
Thus began my new life living under yet another roof; this time in a Catholic convent.
We attended Mass before breakfast every morning. We lined up in the cloister, Sister B clicked her clacker and we fell silent, she clicked again and we entered chapel in single file. Coming out, the ritual was repeated. In the refectory we sat and said Grace to her clicks. We ‘spoke’ to each other in sign language until we heard the click that allowed us to talk.
I learnt to drink tea with milk and sugar and to make bangles out of stale bread after taking the bit that is barely edible out of the middle (before I realised that it was wicked). It took me a while to figure out why we had a cupboard full of loaves: we received leftovers from the bakers.
Every Sunday we had old meat pies for lunch. Those were the days when shops closed on Sundays. Someone said that they were left overs from the boys’ school. They had pies after sport and the left overs were kept for us. The reheated pies would be hard, dry and sunken disks but were considered a treat compared to our weekday fare. The loaves of bread would be relatively fresh then became harder by the day until the next delivery.
My weekly letters home were filled with descriptions of the horrors that came out of the nuns’ kitchen. Food was something my parents understood. My parents, in fact, didn’t understand why I was being boarded. They had sent money to my half-brother and sister-in-law to buy a home for all of us. That money must have been spent for as long as they were married they never owned a home. Worse, my school fees were unpaid until my mother flew to Sydney to investigate. That’s another story. Meanwhile I was stuck.
We took a look at what the nuns were eating by going through their garbage: grapes, half oranges that were squeezed for juice, meat bones…we were furious and didn’t care if they were wed to Christ and gave their lives to the Church. We went into the vegetable garden and caused havoc. Picking up water melons and crashing them onto rocks for a feast and lifted every carrot and flung them everywhere. We hated carrots; we hated every soggy vegetable on our plates. We hated being abandoned and imprisoned.
I don’t remember how we were punished or if we were punished at all. We didn’t confess and no one told.