“Star of the Sea”
by Marise BOYLAN
The school stood at the end of the promenade from where it curled back towards the town square, affording passers-by a double vantage point from which to admire its crested tower and fretwork balcony. In its previous incarnation, as The Great Northern Railway Hotel, it had been the jewel in the crown of the coastal resort where afternoons were idled away at bandstand concerts, tea dances, and Pierrot shows, or even, for the more adventurous, the hot salt baths.
However, fortunes faded during the Great War and in 1922 the hotel was sold to the Sisters of Mercy, who dismantled the gold leaf mirrors and fripperies and erected crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary in their stead. The following year, the Star of the Sea Boarding School for Young Ladies opened its doors to the well-heeled Catholic girls of Northern Ireland. Girls such as Edith.
Edith queued to fill her washbowl, then performed her modest ablutions, a cat’s lick to the face and hands and a quick brush of her teeth, pulled on her navy dress, and followed the other boarders as they filed out and down the heavily bees-waxed stairs. Sister Josephine stood sentry at the chapel door, surveying them for a badly tied bow, a hair out of place.
The school’s tiny chapel retained its chandelier and mosaic floor from its secular heyday. Its pews faced away from the front windows lest the congregation be tempted to gaze across the Lough to the new Irish Free State and the Cooley mountains where, it was rumoured, lay the body of the Giant Finn McCool. On the boarders’ weekend walks, Edith would attempt to decipher his form with her gaze, making out a foot here, a nose there.
The priest swung the golden thurible and a cloud of incense snaked its way through the chapel, filling Edith’s nostrils with its alluring smokiness and constricting her throat. Despite her best efforts, a fit of dry coughing escaped, and Sister Josephine shot her a steely look. Noreen Darcy, a publican’s daughter from Armagh, hissed behind her: “Not teacher’s pet now, are ya?”
After mass, the bell rang to signify breakfast. As Edith was on table duty she had to carry the serving dish of porridge from the kitchen. She ladled out the pallid slop, noting wryly how it resembled a comestible version of her daily existence: so insipid and bereft of sensual pleasure.
“Sister!” snivelled Noreen, “Edith’s after spilling the porridge!”
“Silence!” scolded Sister Josephine.
They all stood as Sister Antonia, the principal, entered and announced a boat trip to Omeath the following Sunday. There would be mass, followed by tea and sandwiches, and a walk around the village. She emphasized the expectation of impeccable behaviour at all times.
As the refectory crackled with excitement, Edith was painfully reminded of another boat trip, the previous summer, when she and her parents had holidayed in Lake Como. She recalled the caress of the sun on her face as the boat skirted Villa Balbianello and its terraced gardens rose up dreamily in front of her.
Experiencing such exquisiteness had altered Edith irrevocably. She wondered sometimes if her present circumstances would be a less bitter pill had she not tasted that sultry Italian summer.
Since her arrival, she had excelled both academically and morally, and Sister Antonia had even hinted that a prefect’s role might be in the offing. But she was lonely and friendless, her fellow boarders having construed her cultivated manner and reticence as snootiness. Efforts to ingratiate herself were shunned and they sniggered and mocked her incessantly. Her only pleasure lay in the narrow realm of approved reading matter that she devoured before lights out. After which, tears.
She realised despairingly that the only way she would ever escape would be through expulsion. But because of her good record to date, a piffling aberration would only garner a few detention periods or withheld privileges; she would have to commit a misdemeanour so grave that it would earn her instant dismissal.
Edith had a plan. She would spend her disgrace period with her mother and aunt before taking the examinations at her former school in Belfast, after which she would go to Italy and work as an au pair. It was perfectly feasible, she reasoned. Hadn’t Doctor O’Neill’s daughter gone to a family in Spain the year before? These Mediterraneans were always looking for good Irish Catholic girls. It was the perfect solution: she would no longer be a financial burden to her mother and she would be liberated forever from the Star of the Sea.
Her eyes welled up remembering the mass earlier and the contemptuous Noreen Darcy.
She recalled the smell of the incense, the dryness in her throat, and Darcy’s wheedling voice. Suddenly an idea began to form.
She often consoled herself by re‐envisaging the dance held on her last night in Como. A handsome young Italian man had approached her and proffered his hand. Her father nodded his permission. Edith had never danced with a man who was not a cousin or a neighbour. It was startling: the light pressure of his hand on her back, his lemony scent, his hand guiding hers. Having exchanged not a single word, he returned her to her table, bowed, smiled, and said ‘Grazie.’
The following day, as she waited with the luggage, she spied him cross the foyer. Spotting her, and the suitcases, he hurried towards her. Rummaging in his pockets, he took out a pen, wrote his name and address on a cigarette packet and handed it to her, covering her hands with his. ‘Buon viaggio, Signorina.’ She had been unable to utter a word.
The cigarette packet had since lain, shrouded in a handkerchief, in her sewing kit.
On Sunday the procession of panama-hatted pupils marched to the jetty. The mild morning promised a smooth crossing yet the grizzled boatman manoeuvred his oars laboriously. The other pupils chattered excitedly about what they would buy in the little gift shop in Omeath. As usual they ignored her. Then Noreen Darcy pierced her with her ratty little eyes and simpered: ‘I know what some people should buy…’ and whispered into her friend’s ear. They erupted in laughter. Edith bit her lip and willed the tears not to fall. She knew that she could not stand to spend another hour in such misery. It was tearing her apart. She must carry out her plan!
Sister Antonia called for a decade of The Rosary for a safe journey. She delivered the first half of The Hail Marys and the girls monotonously intoned the latter. The moment had come.
Heart thundering, Edith reached into her pocket and slipped out the cigarette packet and the matchbox sneaked earlier from the kitchen. She struck a match, lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply.
The prayers petered out.
Sister Antonia, struggling to stand up, cried: ‘Turn back the boat!’ as a long, slow puff of smoke meandered towards a dumbstruck Noreen Darcy.
And that was the day Edith became the Star of the Sea.