Disco Duty | Lorna Gray
Friday night, the most sacred of nights in all the week, would be sacrificed to standing in a dimly-lit, sweaty school gym and making sure that hormonally-charged teenagers didn’t smoke, drink, or do anything more than dance and hold hands.To make matters worse, I was up for a disciplinary review the following week after having been ‘insubordinate’ to Mother Superior. That’s her story anyway. My version was a little different, but that would be of no consequence now. Was I really going to lose my job?On Friday evening, I returned to the school on foot, hoping to twist my ankle on the way and be exonerated from disco duty. No such luck. As I walked, I thought about the events of the past week that had led to this dismal state of affairs.
It had all begun with the meeting. I’d asked to see the old bag alone, but Mother Superior had called Tombstone-Teeth Muriel the minute she knew I wanted to talk to her. Muriel was the head guide at Milan’s most famous tourist attraction, Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, housed in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I’d tried to talk some sense into both of them, but they were having none of it. No one believed that the priceless artwork was in danger. No one believed that I’d discovered a plot to destroy it, speeding up its deterioration by mimicking environmental factors on all fronts: humidity, changes in temperature, pollution, even mould. Virtually undetectable, because of the existing deterioration (and the fact that it is over five-hundred years old), and highly beneficial to the fundamentalists who claimed it was an evil perversion of the Good Book— we’ve all seen The Da Vinci Code, right?
Instead, they’d laughed in my face and Mother Superior had called me ‘a crazy, young girl.’ I’d remained perfectly calm and had even managed not to cry on my way out.
The problem— and current threat to my job— was that after I’d walked out of the meeting I’d called Monsignor Vespucci in Rome. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember calling Mother Superior a ‘cogliona’ and a ‘stronza’ (both words being more on the career-limiting side of what to call one’s boss). The social hierarchy in Italy is like something out of the Middle Ages— lords, ladies, and lots of underlings, and it’s simply not advisable to call up the Vatican and shout obscenities.
The rational me knew all of this. The rest of me was in a total panic. I was afraid I’d end up losing my job and the Rampant Righteous would succeed in destroying my favourite fresco (even if it was already peeling off the wall because Da Vinci didn’t follow fresco rules).
It all made me think we had something in common, Da Vinci and I: a mistrust of rules and the people who make them.
The music was already blaring when I arrived. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light (the Grade 8s had put black cardboard over most of the windows), I managed to make out the figure of Mother Superior wagging her finger menacingly at someone next to the punch table. I should go over and let her know I’d arrived. She was in full swing as I approached.
“How many times do I need to tell you people not to use the fine crockery for events such as these,” she said, one bony finger sweeping the room and indicating the mass of young bodies, jerking and bobbing to the music.
It was poor Svetlana who was getting it this time. The kitchen staff worked directly under Ciocca the Cook, who managed to protect them most of the time from Mother Superior’s sharp tongue, but Svetlana was on her own now and she was far too pretty for Mother Superior’s liking.
As I stood waiting politely for the right moment to announce my presence, someone poked my shoulder. I looked round to find Old Lemon-Face, our headmaster.
“Reporting for duty, Old Lem… I mean, Principal Cripps! You know what I mean,” I said, trying to laugh lightly.
“Most of the time we don’t,” was all he said. He crooked his finger and beckoned me to follow. As we walked, he pointed out the darker areas of the school gym, the shadowy nooks and crannies where mischief could be made.
“Make sure no-one ends up here, Caroline. They’ll all be trying to run off and snog!”
This last comment was accompanied by a leer and a snort. When he’d finished laughing at his own joke, he looked at me sideways and said, “We don’t want any nonsense now, do we?”
I shook my head, trying very hard not to think about Old Lemon-face and snogging.
The first two hours were uneventful. I soon got used to the darkness and the generic thump of the music. I even got used to that teenage smell— sweaty sneakers, an undertone of newly-washed hair and mint-flavoured chewing gum for stolen kisses. I turned a blind eye to the swaying couples that weren’t keeping the required distance from each other, their thighs almost touching and hands flung in adolescent rapture around the backs of necks. I remembered all too well what it was like to be that young, breathless with excitement, undaunted, the future spread out before you the way the sun glitters its shining path on the sea at sunrise. I looked at my watch. Another hour or so and I’d be on the tram, heading home.
Suddenly, there was a huge commotion near the emergency exit. I ran over and pushed through a large circle of students, some laughing, and some looking at each other nervously. As I got near the centre of the circle, I saw what they were all gaping at. It was Mother Superior.
“Wheeee!” she shrieked and spun around on one pointy, black boot. I saw her hair for the first time, a tired, dark brown, flecked with strands of grey, as her wimple gave up and slid onto the floor. She picked up the front of her heavy, black habit in both hands and shook it in time to the music like a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge. We were all treated to a view of her knee-length, black, woollen socks and above white, knobbly knees that held up her skinny thighs, the skin sagging on either side of the bone. By now the students were in various stages of hysteria. Those who weren’t laughing were filming her or taking photos on their cell phones.
A voice yelled in my ear, pulling me abruptly out of my reverie. It was Old Lemon-Face.
The music was turned off, the lights were turned on. It took a while for Mother Superior to stop gyrating though. I followed the instructions, which had been barked at me, getting the students into a line, two-by-two, and led them out into the courtyard. The other chaperone teachers did the same thing. We all looked at each other, shocked but silent.
Had her punch been spiked? Who would do such a thing?
I smiled as a wicked thought began to form in my mind.
“Giovanni! I saw you taking photos. Give me your phone immediately.”
The boy grumbled something about ‘not being the only one’ and handed over his cell phone. As I pretended to delete the images, I sent them all to my email address, including the video.
Monday morning dawned bright and cold. The sun was shining over Santa Maria delle Grazie and inside I knew the ‘The Last Supper’ was safe, even if only for now. I’d deal with that problem as soon as I could (or actually, as soon as I succeeded in making the Rampant Righteous leader fall in love with me). Before though, I had something I needed to sort out.
I entered Mother Superior’s chambers, my head held high, and found her in her usual place behind the imposing mahogany desk.
“The review will begin at ten o’clock,” she said, without even greeting me.
“Let’s you and I have a little chat first,” I said, sitting on the edge of her desk.
Mother Superior’s eyes opened wide at my obvious confidence. She wasn’t used to people being unafraid of her.
“It’s about Friday night, you see.”
At my words, Mother Superior paled visibly. She was silent for a moment before answering.
“You wouldn’t!”“Oh, but I would.”
We sat and stared at each other for a few minutes. Finally, she picked up the telephone. “Please tell Headmaster Cripps that the review has been cancelled. Yes, the disciplinary review! Just tell him!”
I slid slowly off her desk and walked toward the door.
Incredible how sometimes life has a way of handing you just what you need, when you need it.
Lorna Gray was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Lorna is a teacher in an Italian school, teaching English and Art History to Middle School students. She enjoys her multicultural life and manages to keep her mouth closed when she should – most of the time. She tries to teach her students to value kindness and to question everything.