Read Unfinished Desires Online

Authors: Gail Godwin

Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Nineteen fifties, #Nuns, #General, #Psychological, #north carolina, #Teacher-student relationships, #Catholic schools, #Historical, #Women college graduates, #Fiction

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BOOK: Unfinished Desires
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“More time for
what?”

“My, we are cranky this afternoon. But I forgive you; I used to loathe the registration interview. All I meant was, if I park behind Henry, you can meet Chloe right away and get the introductions over with. Or maybe you want to prepare your tactical approach.”

“Oh, Christ, it’s not that important. Park behind the Jag.”

“Watch all those Christs and Jesuses, honey. Summer’s over—you’re back on the Ravenel firing range. I was only trying to be helpful. I remember what it was like when a new girl came. A mutual appraisal has to take place, like dogs sniffing one another.”

“Well, I certainly am not planning to
sniff
her. Isn’t she my sort of cousin by marriage—if our aunt Tony was married to her uncle?”

“Oh, by southern standards, everybody’s a sort of cousin. I’d say you can either be one or not, depending on how you all get on.”

In her spaghetti-strap sundress, Madeline looked irresistible when angling the wheel, showing off the swanlike arch of her neck and her tanned bare shoulders. Tildy could have greatly benefited from an inch or so of Madeline’s neck without her big sister being any poorer for the loss.

Ahead of them, Henry Vick, spruce in a panama hat and cotton cord suit, was unfolding his lanky self from his automobile. On the passenger side, the dome of the girl’s head had not moved. Henry sauntered around the rear of the Jaguar, raising his hands in mock alarm as Madeline’s convertible leapt forward and stopped inches from his legs. He opened the door for his niece, who took her time in emerging.

“Hop on out, Tildy, and make the first move,” said Madeline. “I’ll just get my sweater out of the trunk to conceal my brazen arms so the Ravenel won’t take it out on you—but she’ll just have to swallow my bare ankles. Of course, she’ll be teed off when she sees
I
brought you instead of Mama.”

(“Tell her I’ve got stuff to do in the darkroom,” Mama had instructed Madeline. Cornelia Stratton had a successful studio in town, specializing in social occasions and group photographs. “Today I’m just not up to Suzanne’s registration fervors.”)

Tildy put herself into noblesse oblige mode and stepped out onto the driveway to meet Chloe. Introductions were easier if you pretended you were acting a part in a play. She walked up to the girl blinking at her in the bright sunlight, stuck out her hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Tildy Stratton. I believe we’re in the same class.”

Now, why had she spoiled it with that stupid
believe?
Chloe would think she was an idiot.

But the girl’s face relaxed and her hand came out and met Tildy’s. She was pale as the moon. She must have spent the whole summer indoors, “wrapped in black tissue paper.” Her cool hand nestling in Tildy’s grasp, Chloe said, not very audibly, “Hi, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

So much for that. Then uncle and big sister took up their parts and the four of them swept as a social unit toward the main entrance, from which two women were just emerging.

“Oh, great galloping
Jesus!”
Tildy sputtered. The two women were Lily Norton and her daughter, Maud. Maud looked about twenty. She had shot up in height and grown boobs. She was dressed like a model in a sheath skirt and matching jacket with a nipped-in waist and peplum. Her brown hair was cut short in a stylish pixie, and her earlobes were pierced with little gold studs. Worse, Tildy could see that Maud had already seen her, but was pretending—from some ominous, yet-to-be-revealed motive—that she hadn’t.

“At this rate, little one, you’ll be over at Mountain City High with me before the leaves turn,” said Madeline to her sister. “Expelled for profanity. Oh, good grief, it’s Maud.” To Henry Vick, Madeline explained, “That glamour girl mincing toward us is Tildy’s best friend.”

“Oh, yes, Lily Norton and her daughter,” Henry said.

Tildy could have killed Madeline for blabbing that Maud was her best friend when Maud hadn’t even deigned to acknowledge her yet. Chloe was probably thinking, This Tildy must be one big dope.

But Tildy was not about to be made a fool of by the person she had rescued in third grade and practically created from scratch. Maud might have all kinds of subtle dimensions, brought out by Tildy, but Tildy’s inborn ruling powers were very much intact. Once more she slid into noblesse oblige mode and, taking Chloe gently by the elbow, advanced on the mincing Maud and her mother, Lily Norton, looking rather glamorous herself—for a middle-aged woman.

“Maud. Long time no see,” Tildy said brightly. “How was your summer? I hope it wasn’t too
hot
down there in Florida.”

“Oh goodness, no!” Maud, startled, was already on the defensive. “My father has central air-conditioning, and their house is right on—”

“And how are you, Mrs. Norton?” Tildy pressed on, drowning out Maud’s plaintive “—the beach.”

“Oh, I can’t complain, Tildy,” said Lily Norton in the affected Yankee accent she had brought back from New Jersey. “Too busy, as always. The lodge was filled to capacity all summer. Mother and I were even forced to turn some old clients away. Well, Henry Vick, how’s life treating
you
these days?” This was said familiarly, as though to recall former intimacies. As a widower, Henry had dated Maud’s mother for a while, then withdrawn. (“She threw herself at him” was Cornelia Stratton’s take on it. “She succeeded in scaring him off local women completely and, I sometimes think, women in general.”)

“Hello, Lily. Hello there, Maud,” said Henry with a little bow to each. “Actually, Lily, I’d have to say I’m about the same as you. Too busy, but I can’t complain. You know Madeline, of course, and this is my—”

“Oh, Madeline and I are old buddies,” Lily pertly acknowledged, though she had totally forgotten to include Madeline in her greeting. That was the trouble, thought Tildy, with underbred people: they never could keep track of all the amenities you had to get through first.

“And this is my niece Chloe Starnes, who has come to live with me. She’s going into the ninth grade, too.”

“Oh, yes,” said Lily Norton, looking Chloe meaningfully up and down. She seemed on the verge of saying something particular to Chloe when Tildy sprang her coup.

“Chloe is the nearest thing I have to a cousin,” she told Maud. “Uncle Henry, you know, was married to my aunt Antonia, and I’ve always wished I had a cousin. I think ninth grade is going to be a really interesting year, don’t you?”

“Oh,
that’s
for sure,” said Maud, with a fakey new laugh. She offered Chloe a blasé handshake. So far she had not even looked at Tildy. “Just wait till you all go inside that parlor and meet
her.”

“Her,
who?”
Tildy irritably demanded.

“Our teacher. Mother Malloy, from Boston. She’s a knockout. We won’t be wanting to get rid
of her
anytime soon. Well, we have to run—Mother and I have some shopping to do. By the way, Tiddle-dy, I
loved
all your letters. I’m sorry I didn’t write back more, but Daddy and Anabel kept me on the go from morning till night.”

Tiddle-dy!
The added syllable seemed like a mockery. Maud would be punished for that, too.

“Maud’s father and his new wife just fell in love with her,” said Lily Norton. “My daughter was a complete success in Palm Beach.”

“That’s not very hard to imagine,” Henry gallantly replied as mother and daughter set themselves in motion to mince off to their next expedition. “Though I know you must be happy to have her home again.”

CHAPTER 5
Mother Malloy’s Ninth Grade, 1951

The morning interviews

SEVEN GIRLS—SURNAMES
A through L—from nine-thirty until the noon Angelus bell, followed by chapel and lunch. Day students accompanied by mothers, except for one father, Dr. Galvin, whose wife was in the hospital, about to give birth to their sixth child. Galvin, a general practitioner, also doctored the nuns. He brought his two high-school-age daughters, Josie for ninth grade and Sally for twelfth. He had been to Mount St. Gabriel’s the day before, he told Mother Malloy, to register his two younger daughters in the prep. There was, so far, one Galvin boy-child, who would be ready for first grade at Newman Hall when it opened next year. Josie Galvin, a small brunette with sly eyes, seemed sure of herself and of her father’s regard. Was Josie, perhaps, one of the ringleaders in Mother Malloy’s new ninth grade?

The two ninth-grade Cuban boarders presented themselves as a pair for their interview, as the new girl had so little English; Marta Andreu and Gilda Gomez had come down on yesterday’s train from New York, where their fathers were diplomats. Outgoing Gilda, whose heavily accented English rolled off her tongue in impulsive dashes and tumbles, was returning for her third year. She had been at Mount St. Gabriel’s since seventh grade. Her oversized blouses, she explained, laughing, to Mother Malloy, were always tight by Thanksgiving break, and her father said it was a waste of money to buy two sizes of everything. “At Sain’ Gabriel, Mother, my clothes they begin beeg and then they grow small. Jus’ the opposite of me!”

Marta looked, and was, more mature than her classmates. She had been held back in school in Havana, Mother Ravenel had told Mother Malloy, and during her year of shame at having to repeat a grade had formed an unsuitable attachment. Subsequently she had been sent off to Spain to spend a year with a great-aunt. “I am making an exception,” said Mother Ravenel, “by letting her room with Gilda Gomez, who is a good, cheerful girl and knows our ways. I am allowing them to speak Spanish when they are alone, though that’s generally against our rules. Marta is from a prominent Cuban family, and she has a baby sister who will be coming to us in a few years.”

Four of the new day girls were graduates of St. Jerome’s, the parochial grammar school across the river. They would be bused the fifteen miles back and forth daily for the privilege of receiving a higher Catholic education. Even though one of them had a surname beginning with Y, Mother Ravenel had seen fit to bend the rule so they could arrive as a morning group, minus one mother, who worked as a court recorder. These girls and their mothers hung together, wary and faintly scornful of Mount St. Gabriel’s interview day with the parents. “Lora Jean could have come here just fine by herself, Mother Malloy. She’s the one who’s going to be at Mount St. Gabriel’s, not me.”

Lora Jean Cramer. Kay Lee Jones. Mikell Lunsford. Dot Yount. Tonight, before Compline, go through the roll and match images to names. Lora Jean, no-nonsense and stocky, a junior edition of her mother. Kay Lee, green-eyed and fey, with a strawberry-shaped birthmark on her neck—Mrs. Jones was the absent court stenographer. Mikell, tall, straw-haired, and tomboyish: must take after her father, since Mrs. Lunsford was dark, tiny, and demure. Dot, sneezing apologetically into a wet handkerchief, was allergic to goldenrod, Mrs. Yount explained. Also, as though ticking off her daughter’s further accomplishments, to eggs, tuna fish, nuts, and chalk dust.

Thus the four transfer girls from St. Jerome’s across the river. But try to fix them in your mind as individuals.

A last-minute cancellation: Lidia Caballos, from Venezuela, had eloped with her cousin. “Her father is taking steps to have it annulled,” Mother Ravenel told Mother Malloy. “He’s furious about the non-refundable boarder’s deposit. He didn’t see why, if the annulment goes through, Lidia can’t come to Mount St. Gabriel’s next semester. I told him I was very sorry, but it would be setting the wrong tone with the other girls.”

Mrs. Frew had driven all the way from Knoxville to enter her stately daughter, Elaine, as a boarder in the academy as Mrs. Frew herself, the former Francine Barfoot, had entered as a freshman boarder in the fall of 1930. “I was in Mother Ravenel’s class, back when she was our talented Suzanne and our class president. She chose me to compose and play the flute music for our freshman play,
The Red Nun
, which she wrote herself. My time at Mount St. Gabriel’s was so happy, Mother Malloy. Unfortunately, Daddy passed away and I had to drop out my junior year. It broke my heart. But here is my Elaine, to finish what I started.”

Elaine Frew, an advanced musician, was to have piano lessons twice a week from a retired concert artist in town who handpicked his few students and charged a fortune.

“Except for her flute, Francine Barfoot was rather undistinguished, but she tried hard at whatever she did and you could trust her to be loyal. Not enough is said about those girls who are content to lend bulk to the class pudding rather than always having to be the cherry on top”: that was Mother Ravenel’s thumbnail sketch of “the third mother” in the class of ‘34.

Noon—the hour of Sext—the Angelus

Five minutes before noon, Mother Finney turned off the gas oven, leaving the trays of macaroni and cheese inside to keep warm. She washed her hands under the tap, dried them on a fresh towel with the priestly care that precedes sacred duties, and set off, with her slight limp from a girlhood horse fall, down the trophy-lined hall to ring the Angelus.

The knotted end of the thick bell rope ended in a stairwell and was cordoned off by a circular wrought-iron gate, which Mother Finney now unlocked with a key from her deep pocket. The temptation of an accessible rope connected to the thundering peal of a bell that could be heard for miles around had proved too much for several generations of little girls—and even some older ones. In 1939 a senior had announced her engagement via the bell and narrowly escaped being expelled. The last unauthorized bell ringer, before the gate went up in 1944, was a fifth-grade boarder, overexcited by the Friday night movie,
Arsenic and Old Lace
. She had yanked and swung on the forbidden rope to the horror and delight of her fellow boarders and, while its wild peals were still echoing from the tower, had raced up the stairs screeching Cary Grant’s infamous lines: “Insanity runs in my family. It practically
gallops!”

Mother Finney often thought of that little girl when ringing the Angelus bell. The child hadn’t stayed at Mount St. Gabriel’s for long, though she hadn’t been expelled. There were always those comers and goers, the ones dropped off by out-of-town parents, then just as suddenly whisked away. Mother Finney kept a special place in her heart for the bolder, high-spirited girls. She hoped God would grant that little bell ringer enough suitable outlets for her energies and would help her to distinguish between exuberant mischief and what Mother Wallingford, who had supremely embodied it, had called “holy daring.”

Three rings and a pause; three rings and a pause; three rings and a pause. Hark, drop your tools, and remember you are inside the Eternal Presence. Followed by the nine consecutive peals heralding the hour of no shadows, the end of morning’s work: resonating through the building and billowing out into the valley below. If the wind was blowing the right way, jail prisoners on the tenth floor of the downtown courthouse could count the rings of the Mount St. Gabriel’s bell.

Mother Finney’s frail, curved body belied her still powerful arms. She rang the bell cleanly, with no irresolute half measures. As a young woman she had broken recalcitrant yearlings on her family’s horse farm in Galway. Now she was in her eighty-ninth year, having outlived Elizabeth Wallingford, her fellow adventurer and beloved foundress, by two long decades.

The afternoon interviews

Eight girls, from one-thirty to five, M through Y, followed by Vespers and dinner.

Mrs. Saul Meyer, a stylish woman with a piquant mix of guttural German and Carolina drawl, introduced herself as “Judy Meyer.” “Rebecca has been at Mount St. Gabriel’s since first grade, Mother Malloy. We emigrated here in forty-one. She loves this school, and so do we. Her father and I are observant Jews, and we’re raising Becky in our traditions. But, you know, in Vienna, both Saul and I attended Catholic
gymnasia
. The nun who taught me penmanship had us copy out the catechism, so I know it almost as well as I do the Torah!”

Rebecca Meyer: small for her age, with poised, old-world child’s manners. A thick flame-red braid descending to her waist. Spoke with a Carolina drawl, but said very little.

Ashley Nettle, new day girl, and her mother, Virginia Nettle, who spoke in haughty, theatrical phrases. Jumpy, nervous Ashley, flyaway hair the color of tinsel, swallowed her words; she jiggled her legs under the table and her eyes darted about the parlor, as though looking for a way out. “Ashley’s father is the new assistant headmaster at Pisgah Prep—the private school for boys. Ashley will be riding in with the Dutch contingent from Enka Village. It’s so convenient, as we’re right on their route.”

Later, Mother Malloy asked Mother Ravenel if Mrs. Nettle was British. “No, she just gives herself airs,” replied the headmistress. “That Ashley will certainly need some work. I wish she were boarding with us, but at least she’ll be riding with the Dutch girls from the Enka rayon plant. They’ll be a good influence. They’re relaxed and friendly and speak better English than she does.”

Maud Norton, a tall, handsome, physically developed girl, and her mother, Lily Norton. “We’re old-timers in Mountain City, Mother. My mother was a Sluder, one of the pioneer families here. Mother and I run the Pine Cone Lodge. What is your accent? Boston! I thought so! I worked for a while up in Cape May, New Jersey, that’s where I met my husband, Mr. Norton. When I came back to Mountain City, everyone swore I had a ‘northern’ accent, but I don’t think so, do you? Mr. Norton and I are no longer married, but it was a very amicable parting. Maud spent this summer in Palm Beach with her father and his present wife. They both fell head over heels in love with her.”

Maud, who had been staring almost rudely at her new teacher, blushed from the neck up and rolled her eyes.

“Was it a good summer for you in Florida, Maud?” the nun asked.

“Everything was wonderful, Mother, but I’m glad to be back in school.”

“Maud loves her schoolwork,” Lily Norton chimed in, “and of course she missed her best friend, Tildy Stratton, didn’t you, hon? Those two have been hand in glove since third grade. They—”

“Tildy and I corresponded regularly,” said Maud coolly, cutting her mother off.

Mother Malloy had not realized how depleting the long day of continuous interviews had been until she looked up and saw Henry Vick escorting a slight girl with a pronounced chin and a dark fringe of bangs. Their entrance made the parlor, which had grown smaller and more oppressive in the afternoon heat, suddenly feel airier. Mother Malloy felt lighter of spirit and surer of her ground. Here was the kind man she had first encountered smoking his pipe on the marble ledge of the unfinished sculpture of the Red Nun. On whose cool ledge she had rested after her breathlessness, or whatever it was, while he stood close by and conversed with her in his easy way, saying much without seeming to. And this would be Chloe, another orphan like herself. Though Chloe had known her parents. And Kate Malloy had not been blessed with an uncle like Mr. Vick.

“It’s good to see you again, Mother Malloy. This is my niece, Chloe Starnes.”

“How do you do, Chloe. I hope you’ll soon feel at home with us at Mount St. Gabriel’s.”

“I expect I will, Mother. My mother, Agnes Vick, went here from first grade through high school. She told me all about how things are at Mount St. Gabriel’s.”

“In that case, you can be a great help to me.” Mother Malloy felt herself smiling without trying to. “I’ve been here less than a week and have almost everything to learn about how things are.”

It was rare for someone Chloe’s age to look you in the eye without defenses and let herself be looked back at. Perhaps you had to have suffered a great loss first.

Mary Tilden (“Tildy”) Stratton was accompanied by her older sister, Madeline, a beauty with the gift of gab. “Our mama sends her apologies, Mother Malloy, but she’s backed up on her darkroom work down at the studio—she had a bunch of weddings in August. So I’m being mother to Tildy today. I’m an old Mount St. Gabriel’s girl myself, until I got uninvited back at the end of my freshman year. Though things have turned out well enough for me at Mountain City High.”

“Do you go by your full name, Mary Tilden, or do you prefer Tildy?” Mother Malloy asked the younger girl. She was not a beauty like her sister, though appealing in a sweet, stalwart way. Her face was so sunburned you had to look closely for the expressions. But they were there.

“I almost
think—
” the girl began haughtily. Then she seemed about to cry, but switched to anger. “I
might
change my name to—”

BOOK: Unfinished Desires
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