First term at Saint Rose of Lima’s
It is customary for the girls to receive packages which they score with Swiss army knives. Their pale hands shake. Often, the brown paper is stained. They pull out the goods like midwives, hold them up to bulbs which quiver so above the stark dormitories it’s as if they have a covering of fur. We can barely contain our excitement but are sure to be patient: the crux of the ritual is to wait until midnight.
Of course the staff know something’s afoot. Why, only yesterday didn’t I catch a crafty half-smile slide off Mam’zelle onto the floor, right up to Matron’s jolly old face! Such good sports; their complicity adds to the wheeze.
Then that hallowed hour where moonlight slides in like cinema on the cache of tins. We peel open sardines in tomato sauce like blood. Pineapple rings and spam. Jars of crystalized ginger bobbing in dark suspension like honeycomb.
Oh Mother, though I do miss our home, I think I should be very happy here.
Your darling, loving
I’m sorry it’s been over a week since my last letter. Promise not to worry – I’m consigned to the sanatorium till I recover. This beastly belly ache! I can barely glide pen over paper, tight as I am in starched, white sheets. I must say, Matron’s been an absolute brick, swooping in and down with her spoon every now and then. Mother, please don’t think I have acquired airs – but the fact is even the castor oil tastes heavenly here, like when you are going out to dine and kiss me goodnight and I catch the lovely perfume in your hair.
Mummy, I must sign off now as I feel rather queer…
My dreams are so strange. I wish I could describe them but forget them as soon as I wake.
Take care Mother!
Something rather odd occurred during lacrosse (I don’t mean to sound haughty but it is such a silly game, wafting those big nets above our heads like we are trying to catch giant butterflies).
Anyway Mummy, here’s the thing. When Dunny blew the half-time whistle I saw a strange youth beckoning me over from the wire fence. I took one look at his shabby clothes and rope-for-a-belt slouch, knew without doubt he was a bad sort. But there was something about his eyes… so deeply brown, undulating with a fawn-like sincerity. His face was as white as a washroom tile as he drew his mouth close to my ear, whispered:
There’s a war on
When I asked old Dunny about it she just gummed my mouth with a lemon wedge, pushed me into the flurry of panting girls.
Mummy, what did he mean?
Anxiously awaiting your answer,
Your doting Daughter.
I’m told I am a woman now.
Though I smouldered scarlet like that old brick in a sock we kept for chill nights, Matron
insisted on showing everyone how to apply the napkin and belt. As the girls circled, I tried to imagine the contraption she took out as a cheerful invention; a parachute, a fairy hammock. But as I stepped in I thought this would how it would be if Houdini’s shackles were elastic. Mother, it looked all the world like a strait jacket.
The pain drips nightly like jam through muslin. The bedsheets are stained.
It’s a rotten lot to be grown up!
From your Daughter, with love.
Two weeks and no news … I dare say you’re frightfully busy; knitting, the WI and the whippets. I feared a postal strike but only this morning another hamper arrived. Lettie’s great Aunt from Kettering; a big round of tea cake, condensed milk, peaches. Lately, my appetite is waning. The girls tuck in with gusto, marmalade glossing their chins like flower sap. From where I stand in the corner, they look quite mad – flaxen heads bunching, grey bottoms see-sawing round the yummies.
Mummy, their eyes gleam. They use words like lashings.
I have come to the conclusion that eating at midnight is bad for the digestion.
Please write soon! Do! Do!
I did something wicked.
Sleepless, I crept out the dorm in the middle of the night, saw light where Mam’zelle’s door was ajar. I heard laughter, peered in to see her and Matron sat round a glistening chicken, plucking it like a harp, feeding each other. They had a marvellous fire going; all was radiant, as if Rumpelstiltskin had spun straw into gold from floorboard to rafter.
Matron sucked on Mam’zelle’s finger.
Oh, I was just so blasted tired of boiled ham with its bolero of jelly. Next morning I sneaked in to plunder that carcass, the bones like quills, hairy with meat. Daily, I go to the shipwreck; the flesh on the turn, redolent of strawberries.
I simply cannot wait for the holidays.
Please write back soon Mummy
P.S. In Mlle’s grate amongst the ashes: bits of newspaper, handwriting, a scrap of postage stamp: unicorn de-horned by the char. I intend to piece these findings together till they make a lick of sense. I know, I know, if only I spent as much time on my algebra as deciphering funny codes I would far and away be school swot! You should see me Mummy, in the witching hour, on cold wooden boards, trying to spell out Eternity!
The girls have sent me to Coventry. This is not at all a good thing despite the lovely trip we took there two summers back – even Aunt Ginny marvelled at the cathedral!
They say I am a goose and conceited. I ask too many questions. Above all, they say I am not a sport; the worst thing to be, I mean, the worst thing not to be.
They needed to take me down a peg or two. Was just a jape really. Suppose I had it coming.
I was sleeping deep as I have been of late, the same dream where I come to the high gate. On the other side, shimmering in the grass, is a silver key – like the one on a tin of pilchards. I use my lacrosse net to get under, swoop it towards me.
Then I break free. Run for miles over swelling, surging green.
I awoke to find the bed sticky; the girls had stolen a specimen from biology, put it in my sheets. Even after a boil wash, there’s still a shadow of frog like a trampled autumn leaf.
Mother, I thought that the heartbeat was in my feet.
I passed a note to the shabby young man (I think he may be a gypsy) It said:
What is happening?
I paced by the fence, waiting for him
The girls staring at me from east wing tower window. I sense they sense deceit.
Mother, my bad hands are greasy with meat.
Where are you? Where are your letters?
What do these words mean?
Air raid shelter
Who is this man pointing with big moustache? He needs me.
Who is this man with little moustache?
(Please find cuttings attached)
How is my father?
How is my brother?
Where are your letters?
For days now weak to get out of bed.
I try to move am sticky to sheets.
The Girls come at me in waves
like the moonlight I hear the pad of feet swoosh of nightgowns
The girls come at me as if in waves
but I have the one eye
always have this fever
the dream where
I make clear I make
of the fence but the wire cuts in above my thigh ripppsss the skin it flows out of me mummy: myself myself till I am too tyred to go further and that’s wheyre thay catch me jusst
I love you Mummy
but I must stooppp
Louise Peterkin is a poet working and living in Edinburgh, who has had work published in Magma, The North, The Dark Horse, New Writing Scotland and The Glasgow Review of Books. In 2016 Louise won a New Writers Award from The Scottish Book Trust in the poetry category.