This weeks’ flash fiction is more of a memoir. Immaculata, and the hymn mentioned below, has for the last, well, half-century, emerged from my brain, indelibly linked to the date December the 8th. I think I’ve admitted getting my education at a girl’s convent school. I might even rustle out some pictures of the cloisters for you to illustrate it. It was enjoyable writing it, I hope you enjoy the insight.
The excitement level through the school was like a bell-curve. The Years 12 and 13, those who hadn’t gone off to college for their final years, approached the event with interest bordering on nostalgia: it interfered with their timetable, but then, it would probably be their last time. Those 10th years who allowed themselves to be ‘uncool’ from time to time were in a frenzy of excitement, hatching plans for fire and candlewax, and the 7th years, in their first year at upper school, were mystified and a little nervous of the prospect.
December the 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, was one of the most important events in the convent’s calendar. The whole school turned out, to hold lighted candles and process around the cloisters, singing the refrains to the Immaculata, over and over again, till the echoes faded away and they all went back to class.
“Make way, please.”
The big girls came down from their common room, and pushed past the girls grouped in years, in height order, already coralled into place by their form mistresses. The head girl went to the front of the lines, and beckoned the first formers—year 7 in the new order of education—to walk into the chapel behind her. She guided them to their benches at the front, and stood beside the lectern, watching sternly. It was the third and fourth years who gave the trouble. Always giggling, passing things around, messing up the traditions of the school. She knew, because she and her gang had been the same. She watched one of the ringleaders as the fourths herded in behind the thirds, and reckoned she’d be head girl one day if she kept on the right side of that dreaded line called trouble.
Finally the ‘big girls’ squeezed into the wooden chorister pews lining the back of the chapel, nearest to Mr Buckley, who had been playing suitable organ music to keep the atmosphere going peacefully. How Mr Buckley managed to keep his sanity as the only man among over 500 teenage girls was a mystery. Eternal good humour, the patience of a saint, and the ability to withstand the antics of girls who managed to twist the song ‘Chiapanecas’ into ‘Cheaper Knickers’ and sing it as loudly as they could on every possible occasion.
Today’s song was different. A few hymns to accompany the service, solos from three of the girls in the school choir, and then the main event.
The choir started the first verse of the processionary hymn, and the school took up the chorus.
The prefects stood at the chapel door, handing out white candles as the students filed out, to take up their rows, eight abreast. The girls on each end held their candles to the taper supplied by the head girl and her deputy, then shared the flame with the girl inside her, and so on across the whole row. On the signal, they moved forward, and the row behind repeated the procedure. All the while the hymn echoed from the chapel, and the girls joined in the refrain:
“Immaculata, Immaculata, ora pro no-obis,”
“Sancta virginae,” from the choir, gained the response “immaculata,”
“In conceptione,” followed by “immacula-immaculata, immaculata, ora pro no-bi-is, ora pro nobis, o-ra pro noo-bis.”
And the choir gave the next line before the refrain started again, and each time the rows of girls, formed, lit their candles, and set off on the steady procession through the gloriously painted, dark cloisters.
The magic (although Reverend Mother would be shocked by the word) was the flickering of the candlelight on the frescoes and starry blue ceilings. The cloister murals looking ancient, and to many girls they were better than the pictures of the Sistine Chapel or any Michelangelo work. In fact, they were the work of the nuns in the early twentieth century.
If any of the girls walking steadily around, singing the refrain, shielding their flames from sudden draughts as they passed the library door or the double doors to the quad, had any thought of becoming a nun, they kept it to themselves. Girls these days did not consider the convent as a viable lifestyle choice, however much the system was modernised. As a result, the nuns encouraged family values, and the modernists even recommended university training, scientific careers, and not just teaching.
But now, it was just the procession, girls in uniforms, lit by candle flame that made everyone equal, and everyone, even the plainest or plumpest, a potential beauty.
By the time the first row reached the end of the fourth corridor, they had to mark time before squeezing out behind the first years again. Now the whole school was in the cloisters. The singing filled the very stones of the building with clear voices, and the choir and the older altos took the harmonies. One body of girlhood, praising the Virgin Mary, on the day that celebrated her Immaculate Conception.
Doubts over the physical possibility of such a thing were set aside. Miss Wilson, the biology mistress, supported the girls in every way she could. Her faith outwardly, at least, was unshaken by the conflicts presented between science and doctrine. But she knew that many of the girls from the fourth form onward would soon lose their faith, let alone their virginity. The senior common room over looked the entrance to the local STI clinic. They learned a lot from seeing the type of person who went in. Normal, average people of both sexes; men in business suits. Education comes in all forms.
She sighed as the teachers stood at the bottom of the main staircase, ready to intercept their charges on the next round, extinguish their candles, and lead them back to class. She watched as the leading group went past for the last time.
What if we just let them process around for ever?
© 2017 J M Pett