By Chris Priestley
From TALES FROM THE TUNNEL’S MOUTH
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 1 4088 0014 0
Text courtesy of Bloomsbury
Sister Veronica ran the back of her hand across her forehead, mopping up the beads of perspiration that had gathered there. She breathed deeply through her nose, her nostrils flaring as she did so. She composed herself and smiled her brilliant white smile, a smile that Mother Superior had said could light up the darkest of hours.
'You can shout and scream as much as you like, silly child,' she said. 'These old walls are awful thick and we are a long way from town. No one is going to hear you and no one would care if they could.'
Sister Veronica lifted the hazel switch above her right shoulder and brought it down, its angular trajectory marked by a high-pitched whistle until it hit the bare legs of girl with a brittle crack.
The girl squealed in pain and Sister Veronica pursed her lips before raising the switch and bringing it down again. Whistle. Crack. Squeal.
Sister Veronica closed her eyes and let her heartbeat slow its giddy fluttering. The girl whimpered and sobbed, pressing her face into her outstreched arms, the knuckles standing out as she clutched the edge of the tabletop. Slowly, Sister Veronica came out of her trance.
'Come, child,' she said, the usual headache forming. 'We must all endeavour to be more like the saints, who bore their sufferings with such grace and fortitude and dignity.'
The girl winced and slid from the table, walking as best as she could to stand with the watching girls.
'Though, of course,' continued Sister Veronica, 'the blessed saints would not have been caught stealing from the kitchens now, would they?'
Sister Veronica allowed herself a smile at this joke, but it faded fast as smiles will when they are starved of company. The girls had heard Sister Veronica's thoughts on the dignified suffering of the saints many times before - many, many times. These words were often accompanied by her wide and white-toothed smile. And a beating.
'Now then, girls,' said Sister Veronica, though she was scarcely more than a girl herself. It had not been so many years since she was among their number. 'As you all knew of Christine's sin of theft and did not report it, none of you will be attending the village fete this year.'
Like a showman working a crowd in a music hall, Sister Veronica left a pause for the groan she was sure would come, but there was silence.