Short Fiction

As Ever, the Nun by Antony Osgood

To some, hindsight proves a faithful if fashionably late companion. Though it often offers questionable advice, reflexion is more tolerant than people, each of whom seems keen to speak of subtle feelings Chas rarely recognises. His, ‘I’m just angry’ stock response fails to satisfy those in search of his finer feelings.


‘No space for sadness when you’re angry.’

His whole life being a brakeless rollercoaster, him intentionally facing backwards, screaming at the stomach-ache of long-gone dips and turns, Chas tolerates no thought of pension or future or subtle emotion. His emotional range is singular, unmoving, without spectrum: just rage. Modus operandi? Wrath. His fate is to hate. His blind Charge of the Daft Brigade is not his fault, but the fault of the Nun’s. You’ll know in a mo.

As a youth, buying Chas a bag of liquorice results in him expounding upon his grievance: lack of agency. Years later he will do the same for a cigarette, or a coy-dipped eyelash. Toward the end, for a glimpse of crucifix, or a tip regarding which ethical stocks to avoid on the Exchange, the same vitriol.

Had that Nun’s thin lips not suggested he had been a ‘good boy’, why, he’d not have spent a third of a century seeking to prove her wrong. It becomes a way of life. For years Chas maintains that had Philip Larkin been exposed to his cheerful Nun, even briefly at a bus stop, the poet might have composed a radically different This Be the Verse, warning of the perils of inadvertent praise. At the time of his Close Encounter of the Nun Kind, the only poetry Chas recites is Belloc, concerns a boy called Jim being slowly eaten by a lion. For his entire life, Chas suspects his Nun is a similarly starved tawny-coloured Panthera Leo of the family Felidae. It is only when she reaches his nether regions that Chas pauses abashed, ashamed, aggrieved yet blissful. Rather than blame Belloc, he censures the Nun. Sex begins for Chas in 1977. Hindsight (that’s you and me) waits until 2001 to put in an appearance, and then too briefly, as we’ll see.

To be fair to Lip Service – as Sister Blanche P. O’Hare is known by the class of ten-year-olds – she has few opportunities to familiarise herself with the wisdom of Johnny Rotten. Kind-hearted yet conditioned, Loose Lips – as our inadvertent hero comes to bitterly know her – has no inkling of punk. Piercings are beyond her ken. Spitting remains unfathomable, despite the emphysema-blessed poor amongst whom she’s been raised. She knows frigging no better than rigging. She marries Christ at twenty-eight having given up entirely on the hope of anyone better coming along, given patience, though her middle-name, is beyond her repertoire. She knows the theory of it, but like abseiling, dieting, kissing, opportunities escape her. What better husband than one never dirtying her carpet? Her libido thus subsumed in service, Sister O’Hare evangelises with holy vigour the hinterland parishes of Cork until the weary bishop, woken once too often from his slumber by a phone call of complaint, suggests Sister O’Hare become a missionary to the lost tribes of England. A life’s work there.

The Nun – so capitalised – does not so much teach Chas’s class of London scallywags as impose upon them a disciplined Catholic Religious Education. (‘Catholic,’ she asserts, ‘means universal. Nothing exists save the Pope. The Buddha is a charlatan. Mohammed’s just confused. The thousand godlets of heathen India are best left to Mother Teresa. As for the Jews, why, they are little better than Protestants, both slouching in the heretical hierarchy way below charlatans selling The Watchtower.’ If judging others is wrong, why does it come so easy?) Peckham kids may be impressionable but are seldom stupid. Few escape gangs without being wary of psychologically damaged bullies. These kids are most apt at exploiting objects of ridicule when one lands wimpled at their feet. Most children learn their first regret once puberty manifests. Our hero experiences repentance far younger, amid the heady aroma of a swooning Nun and heedless accusation of goodness.

If only little Chas like his peers succumbs to sarcasm. If only he isn’t caught red-handed feeling sorry for Lip Service as she struggles to decipher the novel vegetable chalked upon the board by smirking Violet Harger.

‘A cucumber, Violet?’ the Nun asks innocently. ‘Satsumas at its base? Is it leaking?’

If only he doesn’t blurt out, ‘Be careful, Sister, it looks more like a willy.’

If only he does not rashly rush to catch her as she faints, why, he would not be crushed beneath said Nun, nor accused of being good. It takes him six-minutes to physically escape the warm constricting trampolining comfort of the Nun, yet a lifetime to escape her purring presence in his subconscious. His is a love dares not speak its name: Auto-Nun-Asphyxiation.

His life immediately becomes intolerable. Not simply because Johnny Rotten has only that summer convinced inner-city children that to be cool is to be bad (‘I riot therefore I am,’ the Pistol riffs off Descartes), but because to be condemned as good is to be labelled a capitalist collaborator with The System. Chas’s father is certainly not serving twenty-years for armed robbery on account of anything as mundane as financial profit – his father is banged up for, ‘taking one for the revolution’. Or so Chas’s mother claims. High-rise estates are no place for good boys. Chas will never now amount to anything – not a dealer, nor a damaged Army veteran, nor a councillor representing The Socialist Party. Condemned as ‘good’ he might as well be finished. He seeks to renounce the indictment.

Next morning following dreams of warm darkness, heavy bosoms, thrilling thoughts of a crucifix wrapped about his neck, Chas races through the playground, ignoring taunts of ‘goodie-two-shoes’, crashes through assembly-hall doors, and sings loud, and out of tune, in place of All Things Bright and Beautiful the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. That it does not scan does not matter.

Relieved at being hauled up by his ragged tie, lambasted in front of a jury comprising his peers, knowing he had surely proven his badness – Chas is joyful when his mother is summoned to the headmaster’s office. To be joined by the blushing Nun causes mild discomfort, especially when she places a warm hand on his flushed check and tells him to confess his darkest sin.

‘Would you fall on me again?’ he does not ask. Not once does he add, ‘And wriggle.’

The boy’s only response to his mother’s, ‘But why, Charles Derek, why? Sister said you’d been a good boy–’ is to blurt the first line of John Cooper Clark’s Letter to Fiesta.

‘Such goodness! Reciting modern poetry–’ begins the Nun.

Chas beats his skull upon the head’s desk in concussive disbelief. Silence follows the headmaster’s translation of Fiesta, and the Nun expresses perplexity by falling to her knees.

‘Do you want to go to hell?’ the head asks as Chas (and wailing mother) are escorted from the school.

No teacher or pupil responds to his, ‘This is hell, don’t you see?’

When excluded for being naughty he is considered by his school friends as good at avoiding exams. Even when he is bad some good comes of it. It is all the Nun’s fault. What if Jesus really does want Chas for a sunbeam? What of free will? A pox on predestination!

On his return to school the following week, Chaz decides to put aside all thought of good and bad, to concentrate on school work. When the Nun appears, he averts his eyes, thinks of the far less worrisome content of Fiesta. It isn’t his fault he keeps being given school points, winning prizes for best composition. He can’t help finishing mathematic tests first, or winning long jump. When commended on good work his heart sinks. When he answers a question correctly and is acclaimed, he swears to not answer at all: admiration follows. He is suspected of thoughtfulness for, ‘Giving others a chance to answer’.

He channels his inner punk. The more offensive his language, the more plaudits his vocabulary wins. His classmates call him Golden Balls McCain. He determines to be thoroughly bad, just as Sid Vicious demands. He begins to look up the dresses of year six girls. (They stand in line to volunteer; who’d have thought winning detention equates to The Great Escape? Not hopeless Chas.) The boy tries to fail his Grammar School test. (He passes top of the class.) He beats up a boy who turns out to be a bully. (Chas is awarded a School Citizenship Badge.) Downhearted Chas realises he is bad at being wicked, awful at being seen as anything but good. He is a Belloc fable made flesh.

He asks awkward and circuitous questions of teachers. (Chas wins the debating prize.) Writes a sardonic symbolic poem called Fleas, thinks it edgy – and is cursed to represent the school in district writing competitions. (Horrified, he wins time after time.) His tears of frustration prove he is sensitive, insightful, artistic, teachers say. Why not rather flay him, get it over?

That single bit of Nun praise follows him to Grammar School, and no matter his efforts to be bad, is perceived as too good to be true. Rebelliously, he is the first in his year to abandon kisses in favour of snogs. Any passing mouth becomes a target. His eager tongue seeks ears, necks, collarbones. All are legitimate targets. Soft inner elbows, toes, fingers, earlobes. He’ll suck any limb, bite any bit of goosebump flesh. But given consent is not invented until after Chas leaves school, he fails to be considered predatory. He is viewed merely as rather keen. Having run naked through the girls’ showers, he is also viewed as blessed. His career teacher suggests work in the adult film industry. It is hopeless.

Girls’ toilets feature graphic graffiti starring Chas. He lets his hair grow, his shirt hangs out, learns to lollop, sneer and snap. Perfects sullen, is made Prefect. The less he washes the more he is desired. He ups the ante. During Sex Ed he mimics cunnilingus on a crisp packet. Is applauded in admiration – any boy so explicitly focussed on the pleasure of a partner is rare as a rhinoceros at the Ritz. He takes up smoking but fails to be sick, gives away his Camels to a withdrawing PE teacher who will now not slap a child. Brings beer to school only to see the friend inspecting the can frog-marched from the premises, despite Chas confessing himself a scoundrel. His complaint is taken as proof that here is a young man who would lay down his life for his friend. Chas finds himself desired by older girls after presenting in art his unique collage Puss in Boots. No hint of detention, only dates behind bicycle sheds. Sixth form boys discoloured by acne want to know his secret. When Chas says his secret is he has no secret, swots think him a disciple of Foucault, herald Chas an advocate for the powerless. His explicit demonstration during O level biology of fingering techniques is heralded by teachers as suggestive of a burgeoning sign language career – he is made School Inclusion Captain. Oh, the frustration. During A levels – well, you might imagine. Suffice to say Chas is applauded for suggesting innovative contraception techniques long known amongst liberal Greeks of Ancient Times.

If he were to rescue his father’s shotgun from the canal, he would hunt down that damned Nun and shoot her dead. But only after Top of the Pops. Unfortunately for Chas, even his Thursday night procrastination results in inadvertent good. A homeless angler lands the oilskin rag containing the weapon and during its rebuilding, shoots dead an escaped murderer on his way to further nefarious deeds. The angler is awarded a bounty that enables him to buy a flat. Chas, reading the newspaper account, thinks, had he claimed the shotgun, had he gone done the deed, he’d have been awarded a medal by Ian Paisley.

He undertakes to cheat at his exams, but running out of fleshy forearm to write upon, is obliged to memorise the answers. The shame! Chas promptly wins a scholarship to Cambridge. Whilst there, the more he tries to subvert the Establishment the keener MI6 become. He expects to be posted eventually to Murmansk or Mogadishu, but is promised the onerous task of following Moscow Rules on the New York Stock Exchange. Chas is the only first year with a certain future. He seeks to fail his essays, wins awards for originality.

To while away the years at university, he cheats on Edwina his skinny girlfriend by sleeping with a tall loquacious woman named Germaine. When Chas confesses, Edwina expresses a wish to join them in a threesome, because otherwise, why youth? why wine? why be away from home? It will be a tale to tell her grandchildren, Edwina explains. She admires Chas’s honesty, she says; he doubts her sanity, he suggests. She thanks him for his emotional solidarity with women. He gives up, learns to cook risotto (wins a competition), and soon Edwina and Germaine become inseparable, later advocating for same-sex marriage and winning the day. The gatehouse at Jesus College with joy becomes festooned. When Chas begins to push hashish to fund his second year, customers claim he is responsible for their psychological research opening new realms of human consciousness. In despair Chaz makes a car bomb during an optional chemistry module, only to inadvertently blow-up a police inspector. He is carried through the streets on the shoulders of a crowd of striking miners. When he thinks he’ll confess to his ex-skinny girlfriend (she’d put on weight when Chas dumped her: she applauds his strategy for getting her to a healthy weight), when he tells Edwina and Germaine that he has performed fellatio upon a senior lecturer in criminal law during Fresher’s Week, Chas is voted Gay Pride’s Icon of the Year. When he says it was a lie – he doesn’t know a senior lecturer in criminal law – right-wing students laud him for being a fifth-columnist undermining liberal sensibilities. When Chas refuses to sit his finals, when instead he daubs the hall with three-foot high letters complaining about corporate enslavement, he wins the Turner Prize. He leaves for America, hoping things cannot get worse. But we’re hindsight, you and I…

In New York he enters therapy. His therapist abandons the profession in order to, ‘Find herself’ through organic horticulture. She makes a million selling her business to Procter and Gamble. Chas decides to jump from a two-storey balcony in order that he might end his perennial suffering, only to land upon a man intent on snatching a child. When Chas declines to attend the television studio to receive his Hero of America award, a panegyric New Yorker column cites humility. By admitting he is by nature fraudulent, he is given charge of a hedge fund and the Republican Nomination Committee. 

Will he never escape the white-soap smell of Sister O’Hare, nor find a way to avoid arousal from stiff-cotton? Chas McCain writes a learned article confessing Post-Traumatic Nun Disorder. Just the whiff of incense causes his mind to loiter among the cloisters of lust. Suffocating in Lip Service’s lavender perfume, being restrained by Nun, would not have caused him quite so many shameful feelings, he writes, had he only gone to counselling. But he was occupied by being bad rather than mended. Re-traumatisation make him throb at Christenings and Weddings, he writes. Christingle makes him tingle, and at Mass he is a mess. He is invited to Bar Mitzvahs by strangers keen on novel entertainments.

Americans find his kink refreshing. But after a while, say a day or two, his constant pleas for absolution become decidedly off-putting. When his low-mood causes bodily functions not to rise, his partners consider him so sensitive they adore him all the more. Chas wretchedly supposes he is doomed to become a saint, despite his best efforts. He quits MI6, gives away the millions of dollars he’s earned, thus saving two-thousand random strangers from poverty. Leaving Newark and his condo to the family that has that morning been made destitute by the failure of a military conglomerate in which they have invested their life savings, Chas sets out for San Francisco International Airport, intent on becoming a hippie fifty years too late, imagining, wrongly, he’ll have the ideology of Woodstock all to himself.

Hilaire Belloc died in 1953. Chas suspects, at the end of his life, that the author and satirist had taken every cautionary maxim and all improbable morals from each possible fable with him to his grave, leaving Chas without conclusion, point or lesson. He surmises, as jet engines roar, and fellow passengers react to Chas’s nihilism by voting to re-take the plane, that as a child, a label overheard can define a whole life. As Chas struggles to disarm a hi-jacker on Flight 93, dispassionately watches the man’s knife plunge into him for a fifth time as the Boeing dives toward Stony Creek rather than destroying its intended target, Chas just knows he’s doomed to be awarded a humourless posthumous medal on account of his cowardice.

What if death should be different than life, which has always been someone else’s fault? If there is one he’d blame by default it would be, as ever, the Nun. But as metal becomes splinter, noise silence, as seats anemone into flame, and his body becomes a sad mist, all rage dissolves. Chas wonders – briefly – if he’s not mistook his purpose. If the Nun by being good is proven bad, perhaps by being bad he’s been a conduit for good. Maybe he has taken a wrong turn after all. Maybe Sid and Johnny are wrong. Maybe the Nun–

Antony Osgood


3 thoughts on “As Ever, the Nun by Antony Osgood”

  1. Happy Valentines Day, Antony

    Chas is a fitting person for the day of the heart. He learns the truth about love: there ain’t one–especially as far as Nuns go–whom I view with unease. My mother influenced my fear of Nuns. She was an orphan in 1940’s Canada and a ward of the Catholic Church. Mom said most of the sisters were sadists who looked more like Ernest Borgnine than Jennifer Jones. Then again, we all, like poor Chas, have our points of view gleaned from direct and indirect experience. Lovely work as always.


  2. Hi Tony,
    There is so much in this…References alone!
    There are a few things that came to me as I read this. First was an episode of ‘Only Fools…’ when Rodney was telling Del about his friend Miles and his successful organic business when Del was struggling. He stated, ‘Thanks Rodney for telling me the parable of the lucky bastard.’
    And secondly, in a strange way this reminded me of the film ‘Bad Boy Bubby’ who reiterated the last sentence that was said to him and that was what got him through life.
    The line about ‘…little better than Protestants’ took me back to one of the best horror books I have ever read, David St Claire’s ‘The Devil Rocked Her Cradle’ – There was a section where a priest was talking about the MC and how disruptive she was in church. He said, ‘At first we thought she was mad, or even worse, a protestant.’
    (I maybe have to clear something up here incase any of the enraged want to get upset – I have no affiliations either way!!!!)
    Loved the idea that he wrote down to cheat but remembered anyway.
    And a mention of John Cooper Clark – I had a compilation Punk album and he had a poem on it. It mentioned (Not sure about the spelling) Yang Shang Tow – The place from ‘The Water Margins’ HAH – I think that was another Thursday night programme. I loved it but loved the theme music more – That is one cool piece of music!!
    As I said, so many references and you prod at us with musings from the past. Add to that your brilliant turn of phrase and well thought out premise, we then end up with an outstanding piece of work!!!
    All the very best my fine friend.


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