Best of Times, Worst of Times: I was too fantastical for her tastes: Thomas Keneally talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I FIRST met her at the little school; she was an unattainable seven-year-old, lanky and handsome, and blessed with a natural grace.

Sydney is a very allergic city, there's too much pollen and too much dust, and when I was a kid my nose used to drip uncontrollably, so I was literally a snotty little bugger. She was a haughty creature whose nose never dripped: she transcended mucous.

At about the same time as my first sense of Pamela, I met this formidable galleon of a woman, an old Irish nun called Mother Benignus. Around the time the Japanese were threatening Australia, and Singapore was falling, Mother Benignus found out that some of the boys were having peeing contests up the walls. She drew a white line and said: 'Any boy who pees above that line will be in trouble with God. . . .' She turned micturition into a sort of test of cosmic forces.

Time goes on, and we're both 16, Pamela and I. I went to a monastic school in the western suburbs of Sydney, and a few miles away, Pamela was head girl of Santa Sabina Convent in Strathfield, New South Wales, Australia. The universe, in the days of Menzies, when we didn't know which end was up. We were very innocent, I mean we were primitively innocent in that early Menzies Australia.

The works of Gerard Manley Hopkins had an enormous impact on me, and I carried his little Oxford University edition around in the breast pocket of my school uniform. I was enlivened by Hopkins, and I constantly wanted to read him to Pamela.

I thought these poems were the greatest tricks on earth. In the Peter Weir film Dead Poets' Society, the teacher asks the kids: 'What's the purpose of poetry?' They begin making up all these reasons - that none of them believe - and he astounds them by saying: 'No, the purpose of poetry is to woo women . . .' And that's pretty well how I saw things.

I was a little disappointed that such a beautiful creature would not take off and bounce around the ether with me, my balloon was up there, but she was too sensible, too practical.

I was too fantastical for her tastes, melodramatic, given to overinflated emotion, overinflated language, and there was something about that, quite rightly, she didn't trust.

Nevertheless, we're getting towards the big one, the hand hold.

At the same time, Mother Benignus was dying. She was dying in a very grand manner, there was incense and prayer and sacraments. And Mother Benignus told Pamela, maybe not quite with her dying breath, but in her last day of life: 'I want you to take my name on, and became a Dominican nun.'

I heard that particular news walking home from school. I met some girls from the convent, good, solid girls called the Raffertys, who used to go around with my friend, and they said: 'Hey, you know what? Mother Benignus asked Pam Davis to take her name]'

And, as they say in Australia, bugger me dead, she did.

The day she entered the noviciate, we all went up in our school uniforms to Newcastle, which is north of Sydney, and watched her go into this medieval enclosure. It was an awesome thing. I remember her father, who was a very quiet, gentle man, weeping. And in a way so was I, although, of course, I was conditioned not to cry.

Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize for 'Schindler's Ark' in 1982. His latest novel, 'The Place Where Souls Are Born', is published by Hodder & Stoughton (pounds 17.99).

(Photograph omitted)