The summer of 1959 was a memorable one. In Scotland, the sun shone every day from May until October. It was the last Tuesday of June and school was due to close for the holidays the following week. The brilliant weather and the prospect of long days unhindered by lessons filled eight year old John with happiness. As his class lined up for lunch there was a good deal of skylarking and a girl called Patricia Balfour, the daughter of the school’s deputy headmaster, accidentally knocked over a pile of books. The children froze. Sister Stanislaus, their teacher, looked up angrily from the class register, which she had been marking. ‘Who knocked those books over?’ she demanded.
There was silence. She slowly surveyed the room until her eyes alighted on John. ‘It was you, wasn’t it?’
‘You’ve a guilty look about you. Tell the truth.’
‘It wasn’t me, Sister, honest.’
‘I don’t believe you. Pick up the books!’
‘But I didn't knock them over, Sister.’
‘I think you did. Pick them up immediately!’
John could see that she was becoming irritated, but he couldn’t help himself. He opened his mouth to continue the exchange. Slap! She caught him with a hard smack on the side of the head. His left ear rang. He began, sullenly, to pick up the books. While he was doing this Sister Stanislaus recited a litany of his faults, ending with, ‘I can hardly believe that you’re a grandson of Mrs Brennan, who is a saint. When I see her at Mass on Sunday I’ll tell her all about your carry-on.’
John had never heard Grandma described as ‘a saint’ before and would have smiled if he had dared. She had many wonderful qualities; she was kind, affectionate and full of fun, but she did things he could never imagine a saint doing. She drank stout and whiskey, swore and made jokes about the parish priest and his housekeeper, which John didn’t understand but which sent his parents into fits of laughter. Grandma was a stickler for good behaviour though, and John feared the consequences of a complaint from Sister Stanislaus. His happiness fled.
For several days he was preoccupied with what Sunday would bring. By Friday he had decided to come clean and get the punishment over. When he got home from school he found Mum and Grandma, as usual, in the kitchen. Grandma, in wrap-around floral apron and tartan felt slippers, ironing, and Mum, rather more glamorously dressed, preparing fish for tea. He blurted out the whole story, expecting to get another smack around the head. Miraculously, Grandma took his side. ‘What a bloody cheek. If your father had been a teacher you wouldn’t have been treated like that.’
Mum was less certain, ‘I’m not so sure, you know what an aggravating little bugger he can be.’
Grandma stuck to her guns, ‘I've known that Stanislaus for years, she’s always sticking her shovel where there's no shite.’
John was astonished but didn’t get his hopes up. He knew that it was one thing to be disrespectful about a nun behind her back but quite another to openly challenge her. He had only ever seen nuns treated with deference.
On Sunday, as usual, the family walked the mile to church. Despite the heat, Grandma was dressed in her ‘going to church’ clothes: a dark blue hat with a feather covering her silver hair, a full length coat of the same colour, black leather shoes and gloves, a large black handbag and a dark varnished wood walking stick with a brass tipped handle. John was nervous. He didn’t run ahead as normal but walked demurely at Grandma’s side holding her hand.
As soon as Mass was over John reluctantly followed Grandma to the front of the church where the nuns were preparing to leave for their convent. His teacher looked hot and irritable in her heavy black habit.
‘Good morning, Sister Stanislaus!’ Grandma was at her most polite.
‘Why, hello Mrs Brennan,’ replied Sister Stanislaus, in her broad Irish accent. ‘I’d been hoping to see you.’
‘I hear my grandson’s been getting himself into your bad books, Sister.’
‘Yes, Mrs Brennan, I’m afraid he has. He’s an impertinent boy.’
‘He told me that you made him pick up books that someone else knocked over, why was that, Sister?’
The nun’s voice hardened. ‘I think he did knock the books over. Anyway, someone had to pick them up.’
Grandma, her voice also hardening, asked, ‘Did you see him do it?’
‘Er... no!’ stammered Sister Stanislaus.
‘Then perhaps you could have made more of an effort to find the culprit rather than taking the easy option of blaming my grandson.’
Sister Stanislaus was stunned. She was not accustomed to being taken to task and certainly not by the widow of a coal miner. Eventually, seething with indignation, she retorted, ‘But nobody owned up, Mrs Brennan. What could I do?’
Grandma patted Sister Stanislaus patronisingly on the arm. ‘You know, Sister, you’re not an old woman, it wouldn't have killed you to pick the books up yourself. Perhaps John spoke as he did because he felt he had been unfairly treated.’
John was aghast. He had never heard a nun spoken to like this before. Sister Stanislaus gave Grandma, more than forty years her senior, a stern look. ‘There’s no excuse for bad behaviour, Mrs Brennan.’
Grandma was not intimidated. ‘I agree, Sister. But remember, John’s a child and you’re an adult. You have a responsibility to set an example of good behaviour.’
Before Sister Stanislaus could respond Grandma turned and walked away. She had made her point. John trotted at her heels. After days of worry his happiness had been restored. How he loved the old lady. When they reached the street where his mother was waiting for them, Grandma commented smugly, ‘That’s put her gas at a peep.’
JOHN SCOTTIE COLLINS, who was born and brought up in Scotland, mainly writes short fiction and creative nonfiction. He is a retired social worker and now lives on the Wirral near Liverpool after travelling in Spain and Portugal for several years.