Nun's soapy penance offset by cream buns

19:37, Dec 02 2012

I have previously spoken of my early convent miseducation at St Bernard's Convent, Brooklyn, Wellington in the 1950s, although have not spoken of the actual process of instruction, which was a hit-and-miss affair.

We learned to read with Janet & John books and, to this day, I do not recall what happened to Janet or John, or whether they made it to the top of the hill and, if they did, what they did when they got there.

We learned most things by rote. You progressed through a series of numbered and illustrated books and these seemed to go on forever.

Looking back, I realise now that this was the first and last time I ever shared a school room with female school children. Growing up through the Catholic school system would come to mean blanket segregation. Gregarious freedoms were easily condoned in the world of pre-puberty.

The nuns would put on a "special occasion" - that is, something that broke the monotonous routine of classroom instruction - and would build up our expectations days in advance.

We would be given a rare movie screening, and only those who were "very good" would be allowed to attend.


This did not mean an Audie Murphy western or the sunny smile and equally sunny voice of a freckled Doris Day (that came a few years later at the Brooklyn Vogue, now reinstated as the Penthouse movie theatre with a restaurant, after years as a closed production house for television commercials), but a religious flick in shaky black and white.

This screening coincided with having my mouth washed with warm soapy water. The movie was about the three peasant girls in Portugal who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. It featured stony hillsides, sheep and clouds and a bright, suffusing light.

It was more to do with burning carbon rods in the old projectors than anything divinely intended by the director. Children, open mouthed stared in awe up to some far-away vanishing point.

Suddenly - I don't think we ever got to see the Virgin Mary - each of the three girls acquired, I swear, a spray of flowers over the chest (heart) to denote, I suppose, that they had received the Holy Vision. There were no special effects to assist us towards an unconditional state of grace.

Even to my untrained eye, I could see what looked like a wooden tray (something similar to a match girl's) clumsily attached to each little girl's chest and balancing a precarious bunch of flowers - in a vase! Was this the vision?

I didn't buy it, and I believe I made a loud facetious noise to that effect. The next day, I was administered a soapy warm tonic by Sister Berenice. I may have complained to my parents, and my father (a confirmed atheist - my mother was the strong Catholic) may have had a word with the sisters, but here memory fades.

The iris of memory opens upon another major crisis. I deliberately and energetically ran into a closed circle of kids at full tilt and was pushed over onto a sharp piece of tin. For my trouble, I slashed open the palm on my left hand (a self-imposed stigmata, perhaps?), for which I received 13 stitches done very badly by the local doctor, who accused me of "carrying on like a two-bob watch".

The scarring is as vivid and white today as it ever was. This experience reminded me that I didn't, nor would I ever belong to or conform to groups, especially males conforming to groups.

Certainly, it was a dangerous attitude to develop in later life as far as job security and career orientation went.

Predictably, I looked forward to the leisurely walk home (school ended in the afternoons about 3.30, sometimes earlier on Fridays) and back along Ohiro Rd (hoping to avoid the state-school kids always ready for a bit of name-calling and a fight), past the Brooklyn shopping centre off to the right, with Percy the barber, famous for his short-back-and-sides haircuts, executed with Calvinistic severity and doused in bay-rum, but more importantly, Fawkner's Cake Shop, a squat whitewashed building with a window display of confectionary situated a few metres from the old fire station in Cleveland St.

Beyond this was a small shopping strip, presided over by the post office opposite Brooklyn Library and the bus terminus, and Seymour's Bookshop - more an emporium stocked with stationery and glossy magazines (NZ Women's Weekly, Vogue, etc) with thousands of useful knick-knacks like white tallow candles, Christmas wrapping paper and henna powder.

The one shop that recalls this Aladdin's cave remains - Melbourne's Jeffrey's Bookshop in Glenferrie Rd, Armadale.

From Fawkner's Cake Shop rich baking odours wafted through its protective wire-mesh door, and I had a particular hankering for the rich cream buns (4p each, although you could get credit), with thick cream flecked with raspberry flavouring, crunchy with icing sugar and maybe a hint of sherbet. Jam tarts with a deep buttery biscuit base came a close second. Just thinking about them makes my teeth ache.

Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry, including Apocrypha. He lives in the north King Country.

Waikato Times