When I was at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Infant School, our teacher Miss Pickerell somehow divined that I was good at storytelling. At the end of every day, she’d send me to the front of the classroom to quieten the other children for their journey home. I’d clamber onto a high stool (it was difficult, as I was very short for my age) and I’d spin stories out of my head. There was one about a man who turned into a cloud and who was diminished every time he rained: another about a magic book that opened its own pages.
I even sang a little song about a bad nun with a poisoned foot, which was dangerous, since this was a convent school and the chief nun had a limp. Often I felt like a squeezed orange after my recitals. What I recall clearest of all are the sunbeams shining through the smeared windows, with motes of dust in them. And the saucepan in the corner of the room.
It was grubby. I had tried to shift it once from its corner, but it was stuck fast there, by congealed grease probably. And the smell! Turpentine, oil, rat-poison, rancid meat, lumps of excrement. I moved my stool further and further away, so that in the end I was virtually teetering on the edge of the raised dais. Miss Pickerell was mystified by my fear - “come along child, it’s only an old tin” - but I would not be bamboozled into quetitude.
Years passed. I grew up, and forgot the stool and the saucepan. Not the nuns though. They had forever instilled into me the reverse of what they espoused: in my right hand was pleasure, and in my left was rebellion. I called them my two roses. They would never die, but would be fragrant forever. And the nuns would hate them.
One year I went up to London at Christmas to see the shop-windows in Liberty’s, Selfridges and the rest. They had wonderful tableaux: glittering, full of shine and lustre. Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Santa and his reindeer. The full panoply of myth and fairytale shimmered behind the vitrines. I wandered up a side street, and saw a shop I had never noticed before. The story it portrayed in the window was not one I knew. It was dark and misty, for one thing: and the figures inspired dread rather than longing. And then, in the corner of the window, I recognised something that made my flesh crawl and my eyes water. It was the saucepan.
I entered the shop (no-one seemed to be around) and sidled into the big window. Indeed, there it was: stinking and glowering as before. What could be in it? This time the saucepan was set on a little fire, and something was cooking. There was a crusty, ancient spoon beside it. Holding my nose, I stirred around and lifted something out. It was a human foot. And wearing a black shoe.
But not any foot. The nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour had worn specific shoes: stout black ones, with a double strap. They had always worn grey lisle stockings with them. There was no doubt that this foot was one of theirs. Was it the foot of the limping nun, hacked off by her in exasperation and rage? Was it the foot of a nun who had rebelled and met her punishment?
I never waited to find out. Shrieking, I stumbled out of the window and the shop, and ran down the road towards the Christmas lights. But ever since, when I walk down a dark street, I fancy I can hear someone hopping after me. Silly, I know. All the same, I never wore black shoes again, just in case.