Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals.
She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.
Wah Wah Wah
By Elaine Lennon
Assumpta Attracta Hilda Majella Marcella Imelda Fidelma Concepta and Breda and Breedge, Bridie and Bridget and Rose and Marie, Rosemarie Roseanne, Rosemary, Ann, Anne, Anna, Awnya and Grawnya and Deirdre, Philomena and Teresa and Dolores and Dympna, Olive, Ina Regina Sabina Vagina, Lourdes Loreto and Therese, Noeleen Josephine Geraldine Bernardine, Maureen Noreen Doreen Boreen, Jacinta and Mary, Mary Mary Mary Mary Mary Mary, a neverending succession a veritable legion of bloody Marys.
Bizarre names and culchies all, from schools in the hinterland with their Gah obsession and countrywomen cakes and Jesus they had hair that was ‘done’ and frizzy and red and Brilloed, a legion of them had short back and sides like Lesbian butches, embarrassing shoes and worse accents and Christ they were terrible bores with their camogie and of all things they watched RTE. RTE! Morons. Except a bunch of them were extremely good at maths.
The building rose up from the reedy fields, a frightening monolith backing on to the local Lord’s land, with a pooly little lake bordering the surrounding woods where a nun had drowned herself and there was an avenue a long unspooling avenue that would lead inexorably to something that seemed to presage certain doom.
Secondary school was going to be a challenge. On many levels, in many ways, it was best to just … tune out.
Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wittered the witless twentysomething teachers with pass pass degrees who aggressively telegraphed their insecurities by making the weakest girls cry and confessing to not knowing what had been in The Observer at the weekend because they read The Sunday Press and they would beg the girls to play violent Republican sports and to speak oss gaelgah occasionally and were confused when met with blank hostility and a wall of insulted silence. It was a Charlie Brown cartoon minus the music or the cute philosophising. A monumental act of tolerance by the students was enacted on a daily – no, an hourly – basis. They were maturely endorsing Gandhi’s tactics in an environment of psychological abuse by people who didn’t have enough cop to know better and were envious of taller smarter wittier better looking girls just a handful of years their junior. It was an unsentimental education. It was going to last five bloody years.
‘Class Prefect Elections This Coming Monday.’ pigtailed Minerva O’Brien nudged mulleted Tildy Smith as they walked by the notice board.
“That’ll be Enid’s job,” she said. “Won’t it.”
Tildy cast a disparaging glance at her acolyte. “Will it now?”
Enid was at orchestra rehearsals in the assembly hall. She regarded the cheap upright piano with disdain verging on contempt. She rubbed the keyboard with the elbow of her cardigan and hit a couple of keys with her index finger, shuddering as she endured the atonality.
Sounds like cats dying came from the string section.
Enid closed her eyes, gritted her teeth and played Breakfast in America with her long hair swinging and nobody noticed.
On the way back to class she beat a hasty retreat to the jacks and opened her blazer to reveal a Yorkie and stuffed her face. She checked her reflection before she re-entered the mêlée. There was the ethereal Giselle Mulligan wafting up the corridor with a copy of Valley of the Dolls propped on top of the pile of books she balanced in her arms in the manner of all the Fourth Years who insisted on looking like models the wrong way up.
“Shouldn’t that be on your head?” called Enid to the airhead as she swanned past.
“Now girls,” said Miss Kewniss with the endlessly tapping right foot and the naturally permanent hair and the mole on her lip and the sister lost to some godforsaken Middle Eastern cult living on a lake up in Donegal. “As you know the elections are taking place next week. Have any of you decided you’d like to put yourselves forward.”
“I know someone who likes to put herself forward,” muttered Tildy under her breath and then coughed loudly.
“Let’s get to the matter of the weekly charity whipround. You have distinguished yourselves by raising the sum of three and a half pence. It is the lowest amount ever recorded by a class since the school started its fund. I hope you’re ashamed of yourselves!”
Tildy and Minerva high-fived.
Miss Kewniss continued. “Very well. Today we are going to discuss the concept of love in its heavenly sense and love in its earthly sense.”
Tildy burst out laughing.
“Do you have something to contribute Miss Smith?” Miss Kewniss said sharply.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Haven’t a clue,” said Tildy with a nasty grin.
Heads craned around the room.
“According to the philosopher Ian Curtis, Love will tear us apart,” said Enid snottily.
“Who?” asked Miss Kewniss.
Minerva and Tara Kelly laughed. Tara flipped a rubber with her ruler and hit Tildy in the back of her head. Tildy turned around and gave Tara a look. Tara winked at her.
“You’re obviously talking nonsense,” said Miss Kewniss, embarrassed.
“I prefer to consider William Wordsworth however when it comes to the vicissitudes,” continued Enid.
“Do you indeed,” said Miss Kewniss putting her elbows on the lectern. “This isn’t English class.”
The girls sniggered.
“Te te te,” trilled Tildy. “Te trouble wit teachers from Tullamore is tat tey cannot pronounce te word te and tey all have speech impediments. Ssss. Ssss.”
Those in her earshot sniggered loudly.
“Can I proceed?” asked Enid and carried on without waiting for Miss Kewniss’ approval. “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not rather find strength in what remains behind.”
Tildy indulged in a slow hand clap.
“Kewniss! Kewniss!” shouted Miss Kewniss.
“Maybe some people have had splendour in the grass. I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” announced Tildy and sat back in her chair putting her arms behind her head and tilting her chair back. “You should ask Enid here.”
“Sit properly! And keep quiet you … you….!” Miss Kewniss. “Minerva O’Brien! Who does God love?!”
Minerva looked puzzled. “How the fuck would I know? There’s no such thing!”
“This is Religion class! How dare you! How very dare you!” shouted Miss Kewniss.
Minerva put her fingers to her mouth and indicated that Miss Kewniss should adopt her own byword. “Ssshhh.”
The girls looked at Miss Kewniss with malice aforethought. Then they all sat back on their tilted chairs with their arms behind their heads. Even Enid joined in. As she placed her right hand on her left wrist she felt the loss of her leather adornment.
“Enid Conway! Sit down properly. If you discovered your God loved someone as much as he loved you what would you do?” Miss Kewniss’ face and voice had reached a high point.
Enid eyeballed a teacher who she wanted to make sure was on the way out. “I’d fucking kill him,” she declared.
“Blasphemy! Leave my class you little wretch!”
“I’ll do no such thing,” said Enid, offended.
What Miss Kewniss didn’t know was that Tara was standing a few feet behind her mimicking her every gesture. She stood, hands on her hips, waving at them all. She had been there for a few minutes while Miss Kewniss was busying herself with discipline.
All the girls started to laugh.
“Kewniss! Kewniss!” screeched Miss Kewniss. Sweat beaded her brow. The apples in her cheek were as purple as turnips. Her eyes were out on stalks. She was flooded with fear.
They kept on laughing.
Tara kept on wagging her finger.
Miss Kewniss ran out of the room crying.
They were still holding their sides five minutes later when the Headmistress entered the fray and hurled her considerable wiry personage in front of them, eyes ablaze with anger.
“You are the worst class that has ever been in the Girls’ College!” she exploded.
And they laughed even harder.
“Detention! Detention! For all of you! Every day! For the rest of the term!” she screamed.
She balled her fists and the steel grey hair winding out from her wimple seemed to curl in frustration on her lined forehead.
“I mean every word I say!” she insisted.
Miss Kewniss’s tears had stopped their flow mid-cheek as she smirked asymmetrically, nodding in affirmation of her boss.
And still they howled.
The women stared at the uncontrollable teenagers in pure horror. There they were, ranged around the third-storey room called Outlook with its walls of windows presenting the natural world from three angles, a haven of religiosity and meditation and here it was playing host to the demonic cackling of their demon Others.
They were afraid of them. And there were more girls than there were women. Thirty to two. A swift appraisal confirmed they were bigger too.
And the girls just screeched with laughter understanding that there was safety in numbers and who in hell could blame anyone for having a bit of fun now and then. Who in their right mind would dare.
The pair of bested women beat a strategic retreat and their clacking heels could be heard echoing down the staircase through the open door, hurtling past the poorest nun in the convent who was in her twenty-third year of cleaning the steps with used tealeaves. As you do when your father isn’t good for a dowry when you’ve rejected his generous offer of incest for life and even living with a nest of veiled vipers seems like a more viable option.
Secondary school was a hoot on days like these.
On days like these you could forget where you were for a few minutes.
On days like these.
They were few and far between.
© 2021 Elaine Lennon