by Helen Anderson
Illustration by Johannes Amm
There’s a wasps’ nest in the roof. Sarah is almost sure of it. From her bedroom window, she can see wasps flying out from under the slates; and if she presses her ear to the sloping part of the ceiling she can hear them buzzing. They land on the sill outside and gnaw on the wood; they have stripped it back in pale, tigerish stripes.
She has always been afraid of wasps, but she hasn’t told anyone they are there. She is fascinated by their sideways mouths. Like a scientist watching her subjects through glass, she wakes up early, and observes the progress of the chewing, and looks down towards the sea in case the nuns are there again.
She first saw the sisters a week ago, on the beach. She came out from under the railway bridge, and found them everywhere, sudden and scattered like beads from a broken necklace. They were facing away from her, out towards the sea; a row of broad backs smothered in cloth. Each one had her shoes and socks in one hand, and her skirts scrunched up in the other, gathered around her legs so no part of her was showing. They waded carefully to keep their hems from trailing in the water, coming forwards in twos and threes to stand at the water’s edge; stepping into the cold spring sea, and stepping back. They were like a piece of modern dance; a pattern of movement, wrapped in strange clothes.
Everyone else already seemed to know about them. Half Sarah’s class sat on the sea wall, eating Black Jacks and passing opinions around with the bag.
“My dad says he doesn’t see why they get that bloody big house just given to them. It’s practically a mansion.”
“I think it’s made of that stuff that gives you cancer. Asbestos? Chris Hughes and that lot said they broke in once and it was full of chest x-rays.”
“I thought it was a madhouse.”
“Mad people’s chest x-rays.”
“Well, my mum says they have to go somewhere.”
“Did you see on TV? It said they keep happening. Way more than they used to.”
“My mum says something ought to be done about them.”
“There are loads of them.”
“Well, they’ll get a nice view.”
“And really big walls.”
Sarah sat one stone away, and listened. The rest stuck their blackened tongues out at one another, and flicked balled-up sweet wrappers down onto the sand, and made jokes about penguins. (Why can’t penguins fly? Because they don’t have enough money for plane tickets.)
One of the nuns wasn’t being careful about her clothes. She still had her shoes on. She waded out until the sea was past her knees, up to her thighs, and then lay back in the water. Floating on the surface, drifting like a piece of kelp, her drenched clothes shone like a polished pebble. The other nuns flapped around her, and pulled her out and scolded, and dampened themselves in piebald patches.
They’re such freaks, Sarah’s class said. Look at that idiot. I pay taxes for that.
Look, her dress is sticking to her; you can see everything.
Yeah, all right, my dad pays taxes for that.
What are they even for?
It’s not like they do anything useful.
And Sarah thought: but they’re people, like anybody else. They are.
So she has brought her Bible home for the Easter holidays and is working her way through it, even the parts that are just lists of names; and she bought a crucifix for ten pence from Matron’s end-of-term lost property sale.
When she dug it out from a tangle of scrunchies and neon beads, it looked golden, but close up she can see that Jesus’ hands and knees and face are turning grey where the shine has worn off. He has a smell, metallic and insistent like a penny held in your hand on a hot day; it wafts up from under her top at unaccountable moments. She worries that someone will sniff him out, or that he will become entangled in the lace at the edge of her bra.
She goes down to the kitchen for breakfast, carefully. She can’t get used to the stairs in Grandma’s house. All the places where rooms have been added on join up in a muddle of landings; intersections where the stairs are triangular, or where one step has to be shorter than all the others to make everything come out right. (To get into Mum’s room you have to go up two steps and down three.) When there are power cuts, which is often, Sarah is afraid of the stairs, although she knows this is childish; and she has started to have a dream where she is walking down them, but cannot keep going. In the dream, she sits down and clings on to the banisters, and she knows that the stairs go on forever.
The radio is on in the kitchen; two men arguing about money, and population size, and genetics.
“…only based on superstition. As long as we allow this to continue, we’re all complicit in this oppressive policy—”
“Would you want one of them to marry your son? Your daughter?”
“I really don’t see—”
“They don’t even have to work. We give them a home where they can be with their own kind — no, no, let me finish —”
Sarah is not allowed to tune the radio to anything interesting, because she can never get the dial back in quite the right place, and Grandma might want to come out of her room to listen to Women’s Hour. So she turns it down, until the voices are only a cross whisper on the windowsill.
“What are you going to do today?” Mum is spreading margarine onto a slice of toast, scraping it thin and right to the edges.
“I might get some more books from the library. Or go for a walk.”
“I think there’s a sports day at the beach. You should go; you’re good at that sort of thing,” Mum says. She is already halfway into her overall, pinning her toast between her teeth while she works her arms into the sleeves.
“Maybe.” Sarah does not say that since the move she always comes last.
“I think it would be good for you to go out and do something. And you could see people from school.”
“You could ask someone round to tea, if you wanted.”
“Maybe,” she says, but she won’t. In this house, the room by the front door is Grandma’s. It means the first thing you smell when you come in is wee.
“Well, have fun,” says Mum, from the door. “I’ll dash back at lunchtime.”
Sarah had only ever been here in the summer before, a week at a time for holidays; when the whole place felt like a suitcase crammed full of swimsuits and jelly shoes and buckets shaped like castles. She hadn’t thought much about what happens to suitcases for the rest of the year. The town is a single street; a straight line sticking out into the sea. You can walk from the top-of-town car park to the end of the pier in five minutes, but you drag it out; you linger.
Sarah watches the machines in the penny arcade, shoving endlessly at piles of money. She reads the backs of library books. She goes into the music department of Woolworths and picks through the tapes — she can’t afford to buy any of them, but she goes because she likes to look; and because once when she was there, Simon Hobart from the year above said “Hi,” and the edge of the shelf gave her an electric shock at the exact same moment.
She doesn’t know where the nuns live — according to the map on the wall of the Tourist Information Centre, the world ends at the wild bird sanctuary — so every day she picks a direction and walks. Sometimes she doesn’t get very far; the pavement runs out. Sometimes there is something new; a pond, or a holiday park made of old railway carriages, or a haunted-looking house with spikes on the corners.
Today she finds it, on the crest of a hill; a high brick wall that goes on and on. She thinks it’s the right place when she sees the old sign carved into the stones: County Pauper Lunatic Asylum; and she is sure when she sees the graffiti. So she pulls her crucifix out from under her clothes and sits it on her chest, next to her Adam Ant badge. This arrangement makes Jesus look much smaller than Adam Ant, which is probably blasphemous, but she would still like the nuns to know he is there.
There are gates in the wall, spiked on top and bolted shut. She can only see the house indistinctly, at the far end of a drive speckled with weeds; but there is a lodge built into the archway. Someone is ducked into the doorway; one hand sticking out through the gate, fingers tracing the iron vines.
She isn’t dressed in a habit this time — she has on a baggy-looking sundress the colour of a cloudy day, and nothing covering her hair, and no shoes — but it’s the same one; the nun from the sea. She is leaning on the lodge door, with her back pressed against the glass, smoking a cigarette in quick, greedy breaths.
“Hi,” says Sarah.
The nun looks up, wary. She’s younger than she seemed on the beach; her face is smooth and grubby. Her eyes dart over Sarah, and back towards the house.
There is a mass of dots milling around near the main building, spilling out over the grass. It looks like a video they showed once in biology, of ants getting lost and following one another in a circle; round and round, forever. It takes Sarah some time to realise that the dots are people.
The nun drags the last bit of smoke from the cigarette, and flicks the butt out through the gate, off into the long grass beside the wall. “I like that,” she says, pointing at Sarah’s badge.
Sarah unpins it and holds it out through the bars, and the nun takes it between her finger and thumb, rolling it from side to side; turning it over and over to examine both sides.
“Why does she have a stripe on her face?” she says, after a while.
“He’s a he. And I don’t know why,” says Sarah. “He just does.”
“Oh,” says the nun. She has her head down; all of the back of her hair is a giant tangle, matted like a doormat. She is looking at the badge, picking at the pin to get it open.
“You can have it, if you want,” says Sarah.
The nun looks up at Sarah with a shine of a smile across her whole face, but it doesn’t stay; it breaks and slides away. She shakes her head, and all at once she jabs the pin-point into her hand, into the fleshy part of her palm. A bead of blood grows around it.
“Don’t do that,” says Sarah. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
There is a bell ringing in the distance, and Sarah can see the dots that are people, heading into the house in a crush. All of them move slowly, as though the ground is sticky; as though they are tied to it by a great weight. It must be hard, she thinks. To be like them, but have to walk.
“I need to go,” says the nun. “Here. This is yours.”
Sarah takes the badge; carefully, so she won’t get blood on herself. The nun isn’t careful; she doesn’t ever seem to be careful. She just wipes her palm down the front of her dress, leaving a thin, bright smear from her neck to her hip.
“Bye, then,” she says.
When she turns to walk up the drive, Sarah can see her wings.
She’d always assumed nuns’ wings would have feathers, but really these are more like moth wings; skin so thin you can see the blood underneath, layered with overlapping softness like patterned dust. They are rubbed raw from being covered. They are broken, and ragged at the edges; one hangs lower than the other. The markings are half worn away, but Sarah can still see them; circles within circles, like huge eyes, looking back as the nun trudges up the path, until all Sarah can see is their stare, and the scarlet words on the wall:
When Sarah gets home, Mum is in the kitchen. Two men in all-over paper suits are sitting at the table, and Mum is making cups of tea and putting biscuits on a plate. Pink wafers, and Garibaldis.
“I didn’t tell you,” she says, “because I didn’t want to worry you. There was a wasps’ nest in the roof. I know you don’t like them.”
The two men say thank you, and that’s just right; that’s a proper brew.
“But anyway,” says Mum, “it’s all taken care of now.”