Chapter 1 – The day Sister Bernadette fell down the main stairway
The day Sister Bernadette fell down the main stairway of St. Osmanna’s College had started like every common Tuesday. The first two hours of lessons had been relatively calm, even though the girls had showed a sporadic light restlessness, like the imperceptible inkling of electricity which pervades the air immediately before a thunderstorm. During the French class it would have been decided how to assign the roles for the play by Molière (in reality only a florilegium, an abstract edited by Sister Bernadette who was realistically aware that it would have been impossible not only to make the girls learn by heart 5 acts of texts in French, but also to keep the audience’s attention for such a long time) and it could be considered a real event to ruffle slightly the over quiet surface of the daily life at St. Osmanna’s.
St. Osmanna’s College had enjoyed an excellent reputation for the last 157 years and had contributed to form generations of well-educated and well-mannered young ladies, whose parents felt totally reassured about the environment where their daughters were ferried across the risky river of their teenage years. Everybody knew that nothing unexpected or dangerous ever happened at St. Osmanna’s College.
It had started raining, or maybe it had never stopped. In spite of the respectable dimension of the high and vaguely gothic windows, which dominated the main hall, the dim light was reminiscent of the College in the Harry Potter’s series, rather than the serene abode of the Little Sisters of the Holy Heart, but Sister Bernadette had never seen any film of Harry Potter’s saga. She wore, as always, a light-grey pleated skirt which fell to the middle of her well-shaped calves and a freshly ironed white blouse with long sleeves, which peeped out from a dark blue woollen cardigan she had left half unbuttoned. Her short curly hair, which Vatican II had set free from the obligation of a veil, looked a bit unruly, sketching capricious small spirals along her plump cheeks, giving to her face the astonished expression of an old Cherub.
Sister Bernadette carried a huge quantity of folders which contained all the freshly printed pages of the texts to distribute to the girls; she had carefully composed the texts in French on two columns with a short synopsis in English to help the students who were supposed to memorize them. As always she was a little late, all the students had already taken their place in their classes and the hall was totally empty. She fervently hoped that the Reverend Mother Superior was busy in her office, because she really didn’t feel like feeling those icy and reproaching eyes on her back, telling her off silently for her delay, in a louder way than any angry voice would have done.
“Saint Catherine, please, help me to be a fine teacher, to keep peace in the classroom, peace between my students and myself, to be kind and gentle to each and every one of my students and, most of all, please keep the Reverend Mother away from the landing right now until I’m safely installed in the class room”.
Sister Bernadette had been making an effort to get used to her bifocal reading glasses since her 50th birthday, when she had realized that her sight was not exactly what it used to be; but still she was not able to focus exactly an uncertain little zone placed more or less at the level of her feet, along the imaginary line between the two different lenses of her spectacles. She was hesitating between the option to rush down frantically along the steps, in order not to take too much advantage of the generous patience of saint Catherine, who was holding the Mother Superior somewhere else, and the wiser option to arrange better the burden of folders in her arms and to look where she was putting her feet in the slight misty provoked by the bifocal effect. She had not time to decided, because something or someone took the decision for her. She perceived, or thought to perceive, a light, but firm pressure on her back and one of the heels of her shoes, sensible shoes with a square heel, missed the edge of the first step and she realized she was losing her balance and was falling down pushed by her own hasty rush.
“Holy Virgin Mary” she wanted to whisper, but she could only utter a loud and scared cry while she could not mitigate the effect of the fall or try to grasp the handrail, with both her hands occupied by what she was carrying.
Sister Bernadette spread her arms and let go her hold on the folders only after one or two seconds, when she had already rolled and bumped badly along the long flight. All the sheets of papers, covered with the imperishable words of Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, flew about her like a flock of scared doves, but Sister Bernadette could not see them. She lay on her side at the bottom of the staircase on the immaculate and shining marble floor and she looked like an old big rag doll, left there by a capricious little girl who had preferred a new toy.
“Holy Virgin Mary, Holy Mother, here I am, in peace, in your celestial kingdom, my God, Thy will be done”. Once again Sister Bernadette could not pronounce the words she had just formulated in her mind. She opened her eyes, feeling quite immaterial. She felt her soul full of joy contemplating the blessed faces of the angels who looked at her; she could see she was surrounded by angels, how beautiful were all those angels’ eyes, exactly as she expected to see one day. She had for a troubling moment the impression that one of the angels looked very much like Fiona O’Shea, one of her most turbulent students, the same reddish mane, the same perfect little pointed nose, the same sparkling blue eyes. No, it could not be Fiona, first of all Fiona had no reason to be right now in Paradise and then Fiona had always such a teasing and mocking expression in her eyes, while the angel’s eyes were full of mercy, compassion and sympathy, exactly what one expects from an angel.
“Sister Bernadette, Sister Bernadette, can you hear me?” It was definitely Fiona’s voice.
Another familiar voice resounded in stentorian tones from the sky above or, as it seemed unluckily, only from the top of the stairways
“What’s happened? Is she conscious? Don’t touch her, don’t move her. I’m calling an ambulance immediately. Someone must put a blanket on her, but don’t make the slightest attempt to move her. Fiona! Don’t hang about, go to the infirmary to call the nurse”
“I’m still alive” – Sister Bernadette thought – “I’m still alive, it’s impossible to find Fiona O’Shea and the Reverend Mother in heaven all at once. Maybe I’m not dead yet, but I’m going to die soon, where is my rosary and where are my arms? I cannot feel them anymore…” and she lost consciousness again, sinking into a merciful state where she thought she heard the lullaby which her mother used to sing to her “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li, Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry!”
They assured the ambulance would have arrived quickly. There was not any reason to doubt about that because nobody had ever dared to take lightly any order received by the Reverend Mother. In Ballybeg, the village by the College, there was not any hospital, but she had just called the Galway Emergency medical Services; they would have transported Sister Bernadette to the main hospital of the town.
Mother Mary McNally, like a captain on the deck of his ship in a storm, controlled from the top of the stairways that every member of her “crew” had fulfilled their duties. The nurse was sitting on the floor by Sister Bernadette.
“She’s alive, the pulse is nearly normal, but I think she suffers with multiple fractures and probably also a concussion of the brain”
Luckily someone had covered the injured nun with a warm blanket, the Mother Superior noticed with relief, not only because the marble floor could be very cold, but also, or mostly, because the fall had left the poor Sister Bernadette in a quite unseemly posture, her skirt had been lifted up to her hip and the Mother Superior had immediately noticed that the amazingly slender and voluptuously-shaped legs of the nun wore incongruous thigh-high stockings finished with a quite seducing band of elegant black elastic lace.
Mother McNally sighed “We are all human with our weakness, my Lord” and, since there was nothing else she could do in that very moment, she went back to her office, which was overlooking the landing and where Mr Mockford waited for her.