For a while, my subconscious was giving me comfort in the night. There were dreams of covered walkways – wood, stone and patterned shadow – but then I stopped dreaming cloisters. Instead, it was social events with combinations of people that made my palms sweat and clothing in which I was either inappropriately exposed or simply humiliated. A complete Dorothy outfit with sick down the front – that sort of thing.
And three hours of sleep littered with vomit and crying is not really adequate rest. So that’s why I tripped. I went over on the penultimate step because my hazy brain told me it was the last. I was sitting there with the taste of blood in my mouth, trying to bend the arm of my glasses, gently, back into shape, when she was suddenly in my space. Right in my space. A nun.
‘Are you hurt?’
She wasn’t real. I’m not fool enough to think that a nun with vast, almond eyes the colour of autumn beech leaves, is likely to be the person picking me up. She had her hand on my arm. I could feel it. Maybe I was dead.
‘I am. I think I’ve bitten my lip and my head feels a bit…’
She nodded and helped me to stand. Her habit smelt like aniseed. I looked at the way her wimple ran across her forehead and wanted to put my finger tip there.
She took me to the toilets and ushered chatting students out of the way of the sinks. It was fairly impressive – a split, fat lip, sticky with congealing blood, and a pleasing, blue egg above my right eyebrow. She wet some loo paper and dabbed at the blood.
‘I’ll take you home.’
Of course they let me go without an argument. I think they’ve been praying for something like this really – anything to get me out of the college. Staff in the throes of breakdown don’t do wonders for morale in an Ofsted year.
When the bus comes, she leads me to the back corner, over the thrumming engine. I’m a bit weepy again so she wraps her arms around me and rocks me all the way across town. The bus fills up – there’s a baby screaming in a buggy at the front and a man is arguing about Centre Fares. That’s when she starts singing.
‘Hush little baby, don’t you cry, mamas gonna sing you a lullaby.’
It’s not religious, of course. I mean, imagine if she’d struck up with something from school – Non nobis Domine, maybe? That would’ve got me really edgy. No, she knows who she’s got here all right.
She tucks the duvet around my shaking limbs. Singing again. Then I watch her undress, layer after layer, cloth folded on itself and piled on my chair. In white cotton underclothes she slips in beside me and falls silent. When I close my eyes we’re there immediately, sunlight through arches. And she walks with me, back into the cloisters, through the long, long night.