a ghostly nun

Dead Nuns

by Vikki Petraitis, Copyright 1995

Today is Friday the 13th - definitely not a good sign for a school day. So many things could happen - especially if you bothered to listen to kids like Nicholas Ramsbotthom. Nicholas Ramsbotthom has spent the last two weeks spreading silly stories about dead nuns and ghosts around practically the whole school population of St Maria Goretti's Langwarrin.

Of course, I don't believe any of his stories for a second. There's no such things as ghosts and besides as our teacher Ms Sposato says, "There are enough things to be scared of in this world without inventing new ones".

The only story that did worry me just a tiny bit - was the story Nicholas Ramsbotthom told about the dead nuns. He cornered me and Jason McWhirter on our way back from music class last Tuesday.

We were walking back to our classroom past the huge old wooden storage cupboards that lined the grade 5 corridor, when Nicholas Ramsbotthom pointed to the very end cupboard door and said, "See that cupboard?" We nodded, not really interested and he said, "It's haunted!"

"Aw, it is not," I said.

"Yes it is," he said smiling smugly.

"How do you know?"

"I know because I've heard it," said Nicholas Ramsbotthom walking on ahead. Jason McWhirter and I looked at each other strangely. We didn't believe him of course, but he did look like he knew something that we didn't and for that reason alone, we ran to catch up to him.

"What did you hear?" I challenged.

"I heard moaning and groaning and...," he paused and Jason McWhirter said impatiently, "And what?"

"...and praying!"

"Liar, liar, pants on fire," I chanted.

Jason McWhirter and I laughed aloud. That story was silly. I grabbed Nicholas Ramsbotthom's arm and gave him a quick Chinese Burn. When we told him we didn't believe a word of his stupid story, he looked hurt and he walked on ahead of us.

"Nicholas Ramsbotthom's such a dork," said Jason McWhirter.

"Yeah, he didn't scare me a bit," I said.

Nicholas' stories themselves didn't scare me - but a combination of them as well as a few other things sure did the trick. In class all this week Ms Sposato has been reading stories from a book called More Tales From the Midnight Hour - and they were spooky. The book's cover had a bat and a huge scorpion creeping and crawling up an old grandfather clock whose hands were pointing to midnight. I hate scorpions and I hate bats.

It had been a bit of a spooky week all round. The Mighty Bombers had been beaten by Geelong, my grandmother had arrived suddenly from Queensland and settled herself comfortably into my bedroom and Snotty McFee had a cold. Snotty McFee was sneezing on average 17.2 times a day - we know because Ms Sposato made us do a maths chart on Snotty's sneezing patterns. Ms Sposato says that anything can be turned into a valuable learning experience. So, now the whole class is praying that Snotty McFee never gets gastro.

I hate weeks like this when things don't go how they usually go. I am sharing a room with my stupid little brother, I think I'm getting Snotty McFee's cold and all these scary stories are starting to give me bad dreams. Thank goodness the Mighty Bombers are still on the top of the ladder.

Today when I got to school early and wandered into the classroom to see if Ms Sposato had any jobs, I saw Nicholas Ramsbotthom had got in ahead of me and he had the job of writing the date on the board. He had written "Friday" in a particularly flourishing way and he was in the process of writing "the 13th" and decorating it with spider webs. I shuddered and unpacked my bag, trying not to look at the blackboard.

After the bell rang Ms Sposato marked the roll. All 31 of us were here and Nicholas Ramsbotthom lost no time pointing out that 31 was 13 backwards. Ms Sposato began a little chat about broken bones because Robert had his arm in a cast after an accident that had given Troy McKenzie a week's detention. Ms Sposato finished telling us how not to break our bones and then she looked strongly in Troy McKenzie's direction. She said in her best serious voice, "And encouraging others to poke the metre ruler into the ceiling fan when it's on 'high' is just asking for trouble."

Ms Sposato never dwelt on things that she called "unpleasant business", and after her pointed comment to Troy McKenzie she picked up the book of spooky stories and began to read one called In the Lantern's Light. It was about a boy who was being chased by a man with no face.

Ms Sposato smiled when she finished the story. Sometimes she had no idea how scared she made us. "What a wonderful story," she said, "The subject of lanterns brings us to our next topic - the olden days." A few of us groaned. After the grade 5 overnight stay at Sovereign Hill last month, we had had enough of the olden days to last us until these days were the olden days.

"I'd like for you all to ask your grandparents if any of them could come up and talk to the class about the olden days. It's a much better learning experience to hear it straight from the horse's mouth - so to speak."

I thought of my grandmother on my father's side. My mother was always saying that grandma "bent the elbow a little too often", and dad said that she only staggered when she walked because her lumbago was playing up. I never knew what either of them meant, but it seemed to me that grandma was always drunk. Then I thought of Grandma Dunham. She was on holiday from Queensland, but I was sure she wouldn't mind coming to talk to my class. I put up my hand and told Ms Sposato that I would ask her and that my Grandma Dunham had grown up in Langwarrin and was one of the first pupils at St Maria Goretti's over seventy years ago. Ms Sposato was pleased and I hoped Grandma Dunham would be able to come in.

We went back to our desks to do some fractions. Seymor Pereira made paper aeroplanes under his desk lid to fling at Bronwyn Bunting every time she bent her head to work. I was so busy watching this spectacle that I didn't notice Grandma Dunham walking into our classroom. When I finally heard Ms Sposato's voice, which always sounded different when she was talking to normal people, I turned casually around to see her in deep conversation with my grandmother. When Ms Sposato saw me looking she gestured smilingly for me to come over.

"You silly sausage, you forgot your lunch and your grandmother has very kindly brought it to school for you. While she's here she has just agreed to give the class a talk on the olden days."

I was a bit embarrassed when Grandma Dunham handed my huge Mickey Mouse lunchbox to me in front of the whole class. It smelt vaguely of last night's sausages which was no doubt what my mother had put in my sandwiches. My Mickey Mouse lunchbox hadn't seen the light of day since grade 2. I always kept it in my bag and reached in to get my lunch out so no one would see it. It was a present from my uncle who had been to Disney World when I was in prep. I used to love it then, but now I blushed and hurried it out to the corridor.

Strolling casually back into the room, Mickey Mouse shoved where the sun didn't shine, the class were sitting on the floor and my grandma was sitting on a low chair next to Ms Sposato and the heater. Ms Sposato introduced Grandma Dunham and told us how lucky we were to have someone so truly ancient come to speak to us. We clapped politely and Grandma Dunham smiled all over her face.

She began to talk in her crackly voice, "I remember when St Maria Goretti Primary School, Langwarrin was the pride of the community. Of course in those days, when you didn't have all this crime and vandalism and strange haircuts, we loved our school. It was set up by the nuns of the Immaculate Conception. Oh, they were a magnificent bunch. They weren't like these nuns of today that you can't tell they're nuns with their short dresses and perfume. No Siree Bob! Our nuns were real nuns!"

Grandma Dunham paused for breath and looked around at the sea of grade 5 faces and gave me a special smile. She really was warming to her subject, maybe because at home, no one ever listened to her reminiscing. "Is there anything in particular you would like me to talk about, dearies?"

Nicholas Ramsbotthom shot up his hand and Grandma Dunham picked him for a question. "Did any of the Immaculate Conception nuns ever die here?"

"Funny you should ask that," said Grandma Dunham in a quiet voice, "As a matter of fact, there was one nun who died under tragic circumstances." The whole class sat up a bit straighter and strained to hear what sounded like a juicy story. Grandma Dunham lowered her voice to almost a whisper. She had tragedy written all over her face. We listened.

"It was a dark and stormy night," began Grandma Dunham, "when Sr Anastasia died. The old convent which is by coincidence the very building we are in now, had a power blackout and the nuns had lit candles all around the convent. They had all gone to the chapel for evening prayers and there was silence all over the place - except of course for the storm outside. After prayers, the nuns returned to the kitchen and Sr Anastasia, who was a sweet old thing, turned on the gas jets to make the other nuns a cup of Milo before they all turned in for the night. Just as the milk began to bubble and rise, there was a crashing sound outside. Sr Anastasia, who all the other nuns always said was the bravest in the convent, immediately went out to investigate after first putting on a sensible raincoat.

"At the end of the paddock where the bus stop now stands a tree had been struck by lightening and one of its huge branches had crashed burning to the ground. The other nuns said that Sr Anastasia must have mistaken this act of God for a real Act of God and she ran as fast as her old legs would carry her over to the broken tree. Unfortunately the old girl forgot about the unused well in the middle of the paddock and she ran straight into the side of it and flipped over the low brick wall into the well and was drowned.

"They say that the nuns later found her sensible black raincoat caught on the well's old bucket hook. Oh, the tragedy of it all," sighed Grandma Dunham, obviously enjoying herself.

When she finished the story, Nicholas Ramsbotthom's hand shot up again. "Does her ghost still walk"? he asked excitedly.

"Well, I've heard that soon afterwards one of the other nuns saw her in the convent kitchen." said Grandma Dunham, her eyes narrowing.

"What was she doing?" called Troy McKenzie from the back of the room where Ms Sposato said he had to sit so he wouldn't steal quality learning time from the rest of the class.

Grandma Dunham took off her old fashioned glasses and wiped them with a neatly folded tissue that she pulled from the sleeve of her cardigan. "She was... making some ghostly Milo."

At that moment the bell rang and most of the grade 5's nearly jumped out of their skins. Grandma Dunham chuckled and said, "Don't worry, Sr Anastasia couldn't make Milo now because the old convent kitchen was converted into storage space. In fact if my memory serves me correctly, those cupboards just outside this room use to be the convent kitchen."

Nicholas Ramsbotthom turned around and gave me an "I told you so" look.

At play time, everyone in our grade was talking about Sr Anastasia. Bronwyn Bunting told me that she was sure that she had once seen a ghostly shadow near the tuckshop and Troy McKenzie told everybody that he regularly heard groans from the non-fiction section of the library. Nicholas Ramsbotthom was in his element. He told anyone who would listen about the noises he heard from the end cupboard in the grade 5 corridor and everyone looked impressed.

When the bell rang and we went back into class, Ms Sposato acted as if nothing scary had happened and we spent the rest of the day doing normal work, but I found it difficult to concentrate. I kept seeing Grandma Dunham sitting by the heater telling us the terrible story. I blinked and shook my head but I just couldn't get it out of my mind.

When the bell rang at 3.30, we all packed up - except Troy McKenzie who had detention - and Ms Sposato gave us fractions for week-end homework. I ran out to the quadrangle and nearly bumped into Grandma Dunham. She had come to school to walk me home. How embarrassing!

"Did you have a nice day dear?" she asked me.

"Yes," I said, "Was that story you told really true?"

"As true as I'm standing here," she said.

"How come you never told me before?" I asked.

"To tell you the truth," she said, "I had forgotten all about it. Being at St Maria Goretti's again jogged my memory. It was a long time ago - before the war."

Grandma Dunham then talked about the war until we got to my house at number 2 Manning Clarke Drive. I walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge and didn't find anything because dad hadn't done the shopping yet. Grandma Dunham said that there was plenty of fruit and in her day children never had any of these fancy after school snacks, they just ate fruit when they got home after walking three miles in nothing but bare feet because they couldn't afford shoes. She also told me how grateful they were for the fruit.

I escaped into my room and felt so strange that I decided to do my homework. I pulled out my Mickey Mouse lunch box and my pencil case and my newsletter and my bag of marbles and felt around for my homework book. I turned my bag upside down and the only things that fell out were my footy cards and last week's banana. No homework book.

I groaned. Ms Sposato got really cross when we didn't do our homework. I looked at my watch. It was 3.45 pm. I would have time to run back to school and get it if I left now. Ms Sposato would still be there because Troy McKenzie had detention until 4.30. I told Grandma Dunham where I was going and as I raced out the door I could hear her saying that in her day children never forgot their homework books.

I ran through the gates of St Maria Goretti's and in through the front office. I snuck past the staffroom and I could hear Ms Sposato telling Mr Box that Troy McKenzie should be given a one way ticket to the Langwarrin State School.

Troy McKenzie was going through Bronwyn Bunting's desk when I crept into our classroom. He nearly jumped out of his school shoes when he heard me and quickly slammed the lid down jamming Bronwyn Bunting's Dolly magazine half in and half out.

"What are you doing here?" he said in his menacing voice.

"I forgot my homework book," I said.

"Homework's for girly Collingwood supporters," he said because he never did his and he barracked for the Blues. I ignored him and went to get my homework book out of my desk.

Just as I was about to go, we both heard a crash from outside in the corridor. I jumped and so did Troy McKenzie.

"What was that?" I cried. Troy McKenzie turned pale and accused me of making the noise. I told him that it wasn't me and I think he saw by the scared look on my face that I wasn't the one responsible. He came over and stood next to me near the door and we both listened. I was just about to say that it was probably nothing, when we heard a thumping sound. We both grabbed each other.

"It's Sr Anastasia!" whispered Troy McKenzie, who was never normally scared of anything, but now he was shaking. Seeing him scared was almost as frightening as the crashes outside. I opened the classroom door just a tiny bit and peeped into the corridor. The end cupboard door was open!

I shut the classroom door quickly and told Troy McKenzie about the door being open. He turned even more pale, but in seconds the true Troy McKenzie that we have come to know and be scared of began to shine through.

"I've always wanted to bash a ghost," he said in his toughest voice. I relaxed a bit. If anyone could bash Sr Anastasia, it would be Troy McKenzie. He ran over to the blackboard and grabbed the metre ruler, which was slightly chewed at the end since its encounter with the ceiling fan. He raced over to Ms Sposato's desk and grabbed her large green vase filled with orchids from Bronwyn Bunting's garden. He opened one of the windows and tipped the flowers outside and ran back to me.

"You take this as a weapon," he ordered, handing me the vase. It trembled in my hands. He swung his metre ruler like a ninja and it whooshed right past my head.

"Are you ready?" he said crouching down just like he'd seen the Ninja Turtles do. I was about to say no, when he thought of something. "Hold on a second." I watched as Troy McKenzie ran to Ms Sposato's art cupboard. He grabbed his black art smock and tore a strip off the hem. He tied it around his forehead and ran back to the door and picked up the metre ruler again.

"Ready, Steady, Spaghetti!" he yelled as he raced into the corridor flourishing his metric weapon. I followed close behind. He let out a loud battle cry as he jumped around the cupboard door and swung the metre ruler. I raised my vase above my head and closed my eyes ready to send it crashing down...

On Monday morning, Ms Sposato gave another of her little talks.

"A school is a place where everybody has the right to feel safe. We must try to use our common sense and not to jump to silly conclusions." She looked at me and Troy McKenzie, who were both sitting up the back of the class and said, "And attacking the school cleaner with a metre ruler, dressed as a Ninja Turtle, is just asking for trouble!"