Here’s that dream again. I’m mounting those polished steps. I’m skating along the refectory floor. I eye the tables, food the nuns and boarders have left behind, entire slices of bread, an uneaten sausage, the gooey tops of hard boiled egg, oceans of cold toast. Soon I am at the other end of the dining area, moving towards a glass panelled door into the school. The arrangement is odd, our having to pass through the dining hall on the way from the cloakroom to our classrooms – but that’s how it is in this building that has grown, from one large old house into the renowned establishment known as St Nennoc’s Secondary School for Girls. Nennoc was a virgin of course, and all the nuns embrace that particular abstinence, but they don’t go without their food. You wouldn’t expect them to, would you? The ache of an empty stomach! Too much torment on top of all those other deprivations.
I should have eaten the food. It was there, for the taking. I’d need to be quick, of course, and covert, but I should have taken the food. The odd fact is that Sister Benedict organised the long-term loan of a cello for me. That made it possible for me to remain a member of the school orchestra for five years. I played Brahms, Mozart and Schubert, often on a groaning stomach, but no one ever offered me food. Maybe I should have asked for the food. Why did I not plead for food for my empty belly and my struggling mind?
My dream trails after each morsel. The kitchen. There is a bin there, made of white enamel. The discarded food crowds into it and remains until Adam comes. It goes with him to the pig yard at the far side of town. Those pigs grow fat on my uneaten food. In my dream I am waving my arms about, beating them off for the last delicious morsel. One animal rams me so hard I fall into their muck. Sister Immaculata holds out a hand and pulls me out, but she is laughing. I smack her full on the face.
Brightness comes from a high slit in the wall. I try to understand the geometrical pattern before I realize it is composed of bars. A man opens a door, jabs a slice of bread and a mug of watery tea towards me. I am acutely aware of the famine in his brown eyes. There is only a blade’s width between his breath and mine. I fiddle with my Child of Mary medal until he retreats, locking the door.
“How do you plead?” The voice is stormy, accusatory.
Light from a stained glass window spills across the judge’s flushed face. I trace a jade green beam until it targets his nose. He hisses with anger.
“You’re a thief, girl, is that not so?” He is chewing gum.
I believe the whole truth should be told only in the last extremity. We are not there yet. “Only from a pig,” I explain. “But not even from her ‘cos she upended me.”
His scorching voice sears the courtroom.
“I see. A pig.” And as an aside to Sister Immaculata who is sitting in the front row with seven companion sisters – “this ‘girl’ – he holds the word out as if on a pair of disinfected tongs – “this ‘girl’ is calling you a pig.”
My tummy is rumbling so much I cannot contradict him. As I watch the judge toss the chewing gum around in his mouth I begin to salivate. The sisters share some chocolate biscuits between them and I moan. A woman at the back of the crowded court opens a wrapped sandwich and I shout out. Soon I am in a holding cell. It is brighter than the gaol, and a bit warmer.
That noise. That boisterous chatter. It filters towards me through a narrow pipe. It is the jury.
“Sure, isn’t the poor child hungry?” That sounds like an old lady.
“A cheeky hussy! Did you hear the way she spoke to the judge?” He is elderly, full of his own importance. More bluster. I hear crisp packets crinkle, the crisps collapse into mouthfuls of mushy fried potato.
“Look at this. See here, look at this.”
A rustling newspaper.
“There’s a report here. One in four children goes to school or to bed hungry. See, it’s all here.” His voice rises. This one sounds young and eager to persuade.
“She assaulted a nun.” Ponderous, judgemental.
“But she was hungry.”
“That was yesterday.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You have to understand that the report was referring to ….”
There is a clumsy silence. The restless breathing of twelve people surrounds me. They are older than I am and well nourished.
Soon the jury chairman declares his authority. “I’d like to wind this one up soon,” he suggests. “After all, it’s almost time for lunch.” He sniggers. Several voices agree.
“That report our young friend has mentioned – that is for today,” he continues. “But the prisoner before us tried to steal food yesterday. I repeat yesterday. We have to judge her according to the date and facts of the case. I say she is guilty.”
“And she assaulted a nun”.
“She was hungry.”
“She assaulted a nun.”
“She was planning to steal from the convent.”
“She could have asked for bread.”
“She was afraid to ask for bread.” The young man brings his fist hard down on the table. “And she shouldn’t have to ask. Her parents shouldn’t have to ask. Her father works. Her mother looks after four children. Her family should have a wage adequate to their needs. They should be able to properly feed themselves.”
“An adequate wage,” echoes the old lady, but the other voices are draining away. I want to shout back at all of them, but I’m still asleep. I dream me a rasher of bacon and two slices of fried bread.
Marie MacSweeney was born in Dublin of Kerry parents. She writes poetry and short stories, and also had two radio plays produced by RTE. Published in several journals and anthologies, she is a winner of many awards for her short stories and poems, including the Francis MacManus Short Story Award, The Bookwise Short Story Award, the Phizzfest Poetry Award, David Burland Award and the Kells Poetry Award. Two poetry chapbooks were published by Lapwing. These are ‘Mother Cecily’s Music Room’ (2005) and ‘Flying During the Hours of Darkness’ (2009). The latter also includes her translation of the great ‘grief poem’ Caoineadh Airt Úi Laoghaire. Marie has also published ‘Our Ordinary World and other Stories’ and ‘Letters from a Recalcitrant Woman’. An E-book, containing poems and stories, ‘Cooking for Galileo’ is her most recent offering. She has broadcast many radio scripts and written essays for the Historical & Archaeological journals of both Meath and Kerry. She lives in Drogheda by the Boyne.