Saturdays were usually fun for us junior boarders. Left free to amuse ourselves, we usually planned some mischief.
But even at a tender age, we were sometimes sternly reminded that life is not always a matter of fun and games, that pranks can misfire and when that happens we often hurt ourselves and others.
I learnt such a lesson one gloomy Saturday. Rains kept the boarders indoors. Feeling bored, I went in search of adventure. My walk led me to a corridor along which there were a number of rooms. This corridor was out of bounds to boarders, but with no nun to be seen, I started walking cautiously till I reached a firmly closed door, behind which I knew, a nun lay confined to bed.
We had all heard that Sister Y (name withheld) was very ill. But for me, at eleven years of age ‘very ill’ meant only a cold, cough and perhaps high fever. When I approached Sister Y’s room, I heard her voice. Now, I didn’t like Sister Y much because she was extremely strict with some of us - especially me, but what happened next was completely unplanned.
Sister Y called out weakly, “Who’s there?” I ignored the voice and walked on, then I paused for a few moments, turned and walked back the way I had come. As I passed Sister’s door a second time, I heard her say, “Could you ask a nun to come, please.” Unheeding, I passed and re-passed Sister’s door again and again in sheer devilment.
At the fifth time, some urgency in Sister Y’s voice brought me to my senses at last, and, with a start of guilt, I flew breathlessly along the corridor full tilt into Mother Agnes, our Principal.
"Mother,” I panted.. “Sister Y… She wants someone to..” Before I could finish, Mother Agnes shoved me aside and ran along the corridor to Sister Y’s room. By now the rain had stopped and I re-joined my friends, and by night-time I had almost forgotten the incident.
That night at recreation time Mother Principal came into the hall. “Girls,” she said soberly, “I have something to tell you. As you know,” she continued, “Sister Y has been ill for some time. She has a very serious heart ailment. Well, this morning she took a turn for the worse and needed help urgently. Hearing footsteps outside her door, she called out. No one answered.”
Mother Principal paused and looked gravely at our faces. “Four people passed Sister’s door and everyone of them ignored her plea for help. Only one little girl took notice of Sister’s cry for help and came running to me with the message.”
There was a stir of interest and Mother called out, “Bernie, come out here, dear.” Face flaming, heart thudding, my usual bravado gone, I tried to hide behind an older girl who gently pushed me forward. Mother drew me to stand beside her facing a roomful of boarders.
“Sister Y asked me to say a special ‘thank you’ to you,” she said. “You can be very naughty sometimes, but today you’ve been a very good girl. And now off you go to bed all of you. Goodnight girls.”
But it was not going to be a good night for me. It was not just remorse that cut me, but the undeserved praise - especially from Sister Y. I tossed and turned and when I got up exhausted, I knew what I had to do.
It was late evening when I met Mother Agnes. “Mother,” I gulped, “I have something to tell you.”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “Mother,” I continued incoherently, “I was the five people who walked past Sister Y’s door.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Drawing a deep breath, I managed to spill out the whole sordid story.
“But why?” asked Mother in astonishment when I finished.
“I was angry with her,” I said in a small voice. There was a long silence. “It was a terrible thing to do,” said Mother at last.
“Yes,” I agreed, “It was a wicked thing I did.”
“Well,” said Mother at length, “At least you have owned up. Naturally I’m not going to tell any of this to Sister Y, and,” she added, “the other boarders need not know either. You have punished yourself enough. Now go to bed.”
I felt a rush of gratitude to Mother Principal for her understanding.
I lay a long time on my bed, the tears drying on my cheeks till, like a benediction sleep overcame me, a deep and dreamless sleep.