A Change Of gender And Beyond
by F.W. Hinton
The little train began to slow down, and as it jolted to a
stop Shaun leaned out of the window to read the sign '
Durham Vale'. For hours she had been going from one side of
the carriage to the other, watching the countryside go by.
Standing back when rows of trees seemed almost certain to
touch the windows. Then sitting down whenever they went
through a tunnel. listening to the echo of the wheels on the
Sandy Highfield didn't have the heart to tell her to sit
down, or they were going to a boarding school in the
" Come on Uncle Sandy," she said excitedly, " this is the
village you promised to show me, the one with the big old
He gave her the tickets to hand to the railway porter.
" Thank you Miss," he said with a grin, " hope you have a
pleasant stay at the Convent."
Sandy held her hand tightly as they walked down the lane
that led to the village.
" Will we be home in time for tea? I wish Ma had come down
with us. I know she loves riding on trains and visiting old
He ignored her questions, finding it impossible to answer.
Impossible to tell her that she was going to the school that
Dr McKinnon had recommended, or her mother so ill that the
doctor at Westhill had forced her to stay in bed.
At the top of the hill they came to the village. Just one
main street with timbered cottages, quaint little shops that
sold everything. In the centre of the village a picturesque
hotel with windows set in the attic. On the right the high
Convent wall stretching the length of the street. A huge
gatehouse at the end arching over two massive iron gates,
flung open, revealing a long tree-lined drive.
Without giving Shaun a chance to look back or pull away, he
tightened his grip on her tiny hand and hurried through the
gates. She looked at him. Her sad little eyes searching for
an answer to an unspoken question were breaking his heart.
He almost turned back as she stared at the brown leather
suitcase he was carrying.
The Convent lay in front of them, tranquil and silent. It's
sloping roof, flying buttresses and squat towers with rose
windows. To the left of the Convent, partly hidden by huge
jacaranda trees was a fantasy of red brick turrets and
towers with large windows. Sandy knew that this was the home
of the boarders.
He pulled on the bell rope hanging at the side of the main
door. Shaun heard the ominous clanging and shivered as it
faded into the background.
" Mr Highfield and Shaun Maclaren. I do hope you had a good
journey." Shaun looked up at the tall angular Nun, at her
long beaky nose and thick spectacles. The Nun enveloped her
in black serge for a moment, then pushed her gently away,
holding her at arms length.
Shaun stared at the sharp features again, suddenly realizing
with horror, that this was where she was going to be left.
Without a word, a short, round-faced Nun took her by the
hand and pulled her away from Sandy Highfield. She called
out to him, but he had gone, all Shaun could see was a cloud
of billowing veils. She was forced up a long flight of bare
wooden stairs, At the top she tried hard to pull away.
" Sandy! Sandy!" she screamed. " Please don't leave me. Let
me go! Please let me go. I promise I will be good."
The Nun clasped her hand tighter.
" Why can't I go with him?" Shaun asked through her tears.
" You're going to stay here-with me. I'm going to look after
you, not your uncle Sandy. I don't know what your mother
must have been thinking about, allowing a man to look after
you. Here you will go to school every day. There's other
girls for you to be with. You're a big girl now, and we must
act like a big girl."
" I don't want you looking after me. I don't like school. I
want to go home-to Ma. Ask Sandy- - he'll take me back-to Ma
I know he will. Please, please let me go."
" Now Shaun Maclaren you are being a very silly little
girl," the Nun told her angrily, " you know you have to stay
here. It's for your own good. The doctor said it was. You
might just as well stop this silly crying. It won't help
you." The Nun gripped her hand harder and dragged her into a
long low room. There were beds on either side, all draped in
white. A wooden floor, all shinny and clean, like the ones
she had seen in the hospital.
Shaun looked around the room and sobbed in irrepressible
" This is where you will be sleeping. It is called a
" But it's so hot in here."
" That's because you've been crying."
" I want to go back to Westhill. It's much cooler by the
sea. Please let me go back with Sandy I really will be
" You will get used to it," the Nun told her, " and in
future, when you address me you will call me Sister
The tour of the Convent continued. First the washroom,
attached to the dormitory where wash basins were set in a
wall, and the water icy cold. Then into a tiny room beyond
where Shaun was told she would have to clean her shoes every
Her heart pounded with hope and excitement as she followed
Sister Rebecca down the stairs and saw Sandy saying goodbye
to the Mother Superior, She wanted to call out to him, she
tried to run to him, but the Nun held her hand tight and
told her to be silent. They walked through a maze of
corridors and cloisters. Eventually they went into the
Refectory; a big, high ceiling chamber, which Shaun thought
was echoing and very unfriendly. There were tables stretched
around the three walls. Places were set only on one side of
each table so that everyone sat facing the centre. At the
far end was a smaller table. Sister Rebecca explained that
this was the top table, where Mother Superior, and when she
was visiting, Mother Provincial sat.
Shaun stared in awe at the huge Crucifix, hung high on the
wall behind the table. She looked at the lectern, a few feet
to he left, built like a pulpit, reminding her of the church
at Westhill. This, the Sister told her was where the reader
sat so that everyone in the refectory might hear her words.
That silence at meal times must be strictly observed by all
boarders. They went into a sparsely furnished community
room, where old desks with seats attached were set in a
straight line down the center. Shaun sat at a desk farthest
away from the door. For more than an hour Sister Rebecca
read out the rules, which she told Shaun every boarder must
learn by heart. Shaun could not even remember one of them,
and in despair rested her head on her hands. The Nun looked
at her in disgust.
" You're not even trying," she said angrily.
" But Sister - "
You will speak only when spoken to," Sister Rebecca shouted.
The interminable silence became more than Shaun could bear.
" I can't remember all those stupid rules," she shouted
" Then you will sit at your desk until you do. Your outburst
is intolerable. You will learn everyone of the rules you
will remember that in the refectory and in the dormitory
absolute silence will be observed."
" I hate this place," Shaun shouted again. She stood up,
banged her fist hard on the lid of the desk. Then cried with
the pain in her hands holding them out, shaking them. Her
eyes pleading for compassion.
Sister Rebecca glared at her. " That's your punishment from
God for being a wicked naughty child."
It was late afternoon when Shaun was taken to the study of
the Mother Superior.
" Have you managed to learn some of the rules?" she asked.
At first Shaun did not answer. The question was asked
" Yes," she said sheepishly.
" Can you tell me one of them?"
" We must not speak or make a noise in the dormitory or
" The child has remembered nothing, Reverend mother,''
Sister Rebecca interrupted angrily, " she will not pay
attention. She is a very stubborn child. All she does is to
cry and blubber when she cannot get her own way. I think she
is a spoiled child who needs a good thrashing" Shaun glared
at Sister Rebecca, hatred burning in her tear stained eyes.
The Mother Superior looked over the top of her horn-rimmed
" Dear me," she said softly, " this is not at all what I
The uncanny silence that followed was broken only by Shaun's
stifled sobs. The Reverend Mother, looked first at the
Sister, then at the tearful child standing in front of her.
" Shaun Maclaren," she began sternly, " you will have to
learn all the rules. They are there for your own good. You
have told a lie. Punishment for that alone is very severe."
There was that awful, deadly silence again. Shaun decided to
make a run for the door. Get away from the nightmare Sandy
Highfield had forced her into. Sister Rebecca read her
thoughts. Laid a hand on her shoulder and pushed Shaun
closer to the mother Superior's desk.
" Because this is your first day," the Reverend Mother
continued, " you will not be punished. I have asked Sister
Rebecca to keep an eye on you. You must promise never to
tell a lie or raise your voice in anger again."
" I promise," Shaun said tearfully then began to sob as if
her heart would break.
" There there, child," the Mother Superior said as she
walked round the front of her desk and clutched Shaun
Maclaren to her. " Once you learn the rules and settle down
you will grow to love us as we all love you. I'm sure if you
really try hard this Convent will be your home away from
home, and all the troubles of your past will be forgotten."
Shaun Maclaren was small, although she was not the youngest
in her class, she stood last in line when the girls were
drilling. She was painfully thin with straight blonde hair
cut squarely around her head in page-boy style. Her eyes
normally blue, but for the first week of her boarding school
life, red from crying were framed with long curling lashes.
In her navy serge uniform, and lace-up shoes she was often
mistaken for a girl much younger than her ten and a quarter
years. She was not a clever child, but had an extremely good
memory. In her first week Sister Rebecca praised her for her
achievement in the school spelling-bee.
'Weeny' she had been named by the other girls on her first
day at school. The name annoyed Shaun, and the head Prefect
aware of this ensured everyone called her Weeny.
Esther, the Prefect, three years older than Shaun tried hard
to imitate Sister Rebecca. She thought the new girl
characterless and described her as 'Nobody's Child' making
sure that Shaun Maclaren was the odd one out. She took a
delight in telling Sister Rebecca that Weeny moaned in her
" Everyone is complaining," she told the Sister, " one of
the other girls said if I didn't report it, she would, and
then I would be in serious trouble."
It was a hot November night. The dormitory airless, all the
windows closed. Shaun tossed and turned, and although fast
asleep talked about Casey Ann. Sister Rebecca glided into
the dormitory and stood by her bed. Shaun mumbled again.
Without saying a word the Sister dragged her from the bed,
took her by the shoulders and marched her into the
wash-room. She stared angrily at Shaun for a moment, then
threw her on the floor.
Shaun barely awake, bewildered, terrified began to scream
tears streaming down her face.
" What have I done?" she screamed, " please don't hurt me.
What have I done?"
" You Shaun Maclaren are a bad wicked child. You've broken
every dormitory rule. You've kept all the girls awake. It's
time you were given the thrashing you deserve."
For a moment Shaun lay on the stone floor. She looked past
Sister Rebecca at the dim blue night light, which cast
enormous shadows of a fiend-like figure in black.
From within the folds of her habit Sister Rebecca pulled out
a thick rubberstick with thin trips of rubber hanging from
it. Then with as much strength as she could muster struck
Shaun around the legs and across her back.
Screaming with pain, fright, and the agony of not
understanding why she was being beaten, Shaun crawled into
the corner of the wash-room. She covered her head with her
hands, shut her eyes tight seeking a secret, that secret
room in her mind, that sanctuary against pain. Knowing that
if she concentrated hard enough she could reach it, unlock
the door and slip inside as she had when Casey Ann had been
killed by the semi-trailer. There she knew she would be
safe. Safe from the lashing tongues of Sister Rebecca's
Shaun had an image of herself dead. A pale white corpse,
wearing her best blue nightdress. The one Sandy Highfield
had given her for Christmas. She saw herself lying in a
wooden box among an array of brightly burning candles. The
way she dreamed Casey Ann had looked. All she wanted now was
to join her sister.
In spite of the inauspicious beginning of her
boarding-school career, Shaun was a delight to the Mother
Superior and the Mother Provincial, who would on occasions
ask her to recite their favourite stories, ' The Stone that
Rebounded' and ' Zephyr's Last Ride.' Many of the other Nuns
were fascinated by her ability, and at one end of term
Parent's Day meeting Shaun was persuaded to recite the two
Sister Rebecca firmly believed that if Shaun did have a
photographic memory, then she should not have any difficulty
in passing any or all of her grade examinations. This was
something Shaun Maclaren found impossible to achieve. She
did try very hard, wanting her mother and Sandy at Westhill
to receive a good progress report.
Sister was firmly convinced that Shaun as not trying and
seldom missed an opportunity to use, with zeal her rubber
punishment stick. An opportunity which presented itself many
times. Sister Rebecca, was not only her teacher but also her
The animosity between Shaun and the Sister, to Esther, the
Prefect seemed to have reached an unbearable height, which
she felt was effecting the whole class. She believed that
because of her Shaun had suffered badly, and to make amends
invited her home for the holidays. Esther's father had a
large dairy farm. Shaun was in her element. She loved
horses, dogs, helping out around the farmhouse and when she
was allowed, with the milking.
No job was too difficult and Esther's parents who she
referred to as mother and Pop treated her like a daughter.
Although Esther told her parents of the unfair treatment
Shaun was suffering and her mother saw the deep marks on her
back Shaun herself never complained.
" One can get used to almost anything," she told them when
asked how she got them.
Outwardly, in spite of Sister Rebecca's constant beatings,
Shaun tried hard to comply with her wishes. She always
endeavoured to hand her homework in on time, spoke only when
spoken to and smiled at the Sister whenever she could. But
she had come to think that defiance of Sister Rebecca was
the most important thing in her life.
It was not an outward defiance, but another form of
resistance. A resistance of mind and heart, inside where it
really mattered. Shaun stayed hard, cold and distant. No
crying. No moaning. It was antidote against falling apart.
In a class full of girls she was all alone. Her only friend
Esther had gone back to the farm to help out her mother and
father. Shaun Maclaren knew that if she wanted to survive
this hell on earth in God's house, then she would have to do
everything Sister Rebecca told her. There were a few times
she thought about dying, but there was nothing poetic about
that kind of death.
In her letters to her mother, who had left Westhill and gone
North to work she told of the ill-treatment she was
receiving at the hands of the Sister. She knew they were
read by Sister Rebecca then destroyed. Even in the writing
of the letters, and knowing her mother would never read
them, she felt a sense of achievement, a sense of defiance.
To Shaun it was another dint in Sister Rebecca's armour.
When her brother George came down for a visit, or took her
back to his home for a few days she refused to talk about
her life at the Convent, for fear of getting a beating, and
of being told to try harder. But Shaun Maclaren prayed, and
prayed hard that one day it would all change. She believed
that whatever fate befell Sister Rebecca, it would most
certainly be in her Karma.
Returning from the mid-term holidays it seemed that her
prayers had been answered. Sister Rebecca had been taken ill
and sent to a nursing home. There was an air of happiness as
the new teacher, House Mother glided into the class room.
She was a tall woman with a pleasant face her eyes, small,
deep blue with a very slight cast in them, so that she never
seemed to be looking directly at anyone. There was a deathly
hush as she wrote her name on the blackboard-Sister
For the whole class it was a new beginning. A week later all
the old wounds of student teacher relationship had been
healed. The use of the cane or punishment stick was
abhorrent to Sister Constance. She firmly believed that
gentle persuasion, would in the end produce far better
Shaun adored her. Without being asked she cleaned the
Sister's Crucifix, belt and shoes. She tried hard in her
studies, but even with the Sister' s continued help, Shaun
still found it impossible to come anywhere other than bottom
of the class.
Sister Constance thought that Shaun, who had now become her
favourite pupil was at times withdrawn, especially as the
end of term holidays drew near. She seemed filled with a
sense of foreboding, reluctant to leave the Convent and stay
with her eldest sister. Sister Constance questioned Shaun
about her attitude. It was only after a lengthy discussion
did the fact emerge that whenever she stayed at Pauline's
house she was beaten by her sister and tormented by her
" Why don't you tell your mother?" Sister Constance asked.
" I dare not. The last time I stayed at Pauline's house and
Ma came down for a visit they made me swear not to say a
word. I know what would have happened if I had spoken out."
" But surely your mother must have known something was
wrong. This cannot, and will not go on. I promise you
something will be done."
" Please Sister," Shaun said with tears streaming down her
cheeks. " Please don't make a fuss. It will only make things
worse. The beatings-they don't really matter any more . I
suppose I must deserve them. Besides Ma's going to stay
permanently at Pauline's."
Sister Constance was suddenly transferred to another
Convent. No one really knew why. She didn't have time to say
goodbye to Shaun Maclaren.
Now that Sister Constance had been transferred, Shaun did
not want to go back to the Convent after the Easter
holidays, and pleaded with her mother to let her stay at
home. Her brother George, determined she would continue her
education, with her suitcase and term money forced her on
Sandy Highfield having given up all hope of ever marrying
Rachel had disappeared. George provided his youngest
sister's school fee and clothing, even though his wife felt
that his own children, were at times suffering more than
they should, and that, Shaun now aged fourteen should be
earning her own money.
The train slowed to a stop at Durham Vale, and as usual the
teacher, House Mother was waiting to meet them. Shaun looked
out of the window, as she had on her first day. A Nun,
short, round faced, who resembled Sister Rebecca was
standing in the centre of the platform. Shaun sat down for
a moment. Her heart pounding, her head throbbing, tears of
fright and despair running down her cheeks. She could see
the rubber punishment stick, feel the lashes on her back,
feel them biting into her legs. She bent down, touched her
legs just to make sure they were not bleeding again.
Suddenly she stopped crying, determined to hide her terror.
With her case in one hand opened the carriage door and
slipped around the other side of the train. She watched the
train disappear down the track and waited in the shadows
until the station became deserted.
Darkness fell, she knew she had to get away. Away from the
Convent and Sister Rebecca. She dried her eyes, pulled her
hat firmly down on her head and decided she needed some
place to go. Somewhere she could sit down and plan her next
move. She thought about the waiting room, Then she
remembered the porter. If he found her he was almost certain
to inform the Mother Superior, and she would be dragged back
to the Convent.
Shaun picked up her suitcase and walked down the track,
singing as she walked to keep from falling asleep. She took
long strides so that her feet would land on the sleepers
instead of the gravel that cut into her shoes.
An hour later she came to a tunnel. Too scared to go
through, too tired to go any further she sat on her case by
the entrance. The moon rose, she stared at the cloudless sky
for a moment, then closed her eyes and dreamed of dying at
the hands of Sister Rebecca.
She woke with a start as a spider crawled over her hand. She
screamed, swatted it aside, watched it in the bright
moonlight as it curled, defensively into a ball and dropped
to the ground. It took her a moment to assemble her thoughts
and remember where she was. Always afraid of dark places,
Shaun knew she could never go through the tunnel and decided
to find a way around it. Her feet, cooled by the night air
had stopped aching. She bent down eased her feet into her
shoes and began to tie up the laces.
She stifled a scream as she stared at a snake lying on the
cool track a few feet away. She thought it looked at her as
it's fangs went in and out. There were snakes on Esther's
farm. Pop told her that if you stay very still they will go
away. She'd even seen a snake at Westhill. This one looked
different. It was the biggest snake she had ever seen.
" It's a Python" she shouted, not daring to look away, " If
I move it will crush me to death." Fascinated by it's antics
of curling round and round she watched it for a long time.
Suddenly she remembered reading that all snakes did this to
mesmerize their victims before they went in for the kill.
Her eyes fixed on the snake she stood up slowly, the snake
still curling round. With a quick movement she grabbed her
suitcase and ran as fast as she could down the railway
Short of breath, a pain in her side she slowed down, then
tripped and fell as her feet became caught in her shoe
laces. How long she sat on the railway line crying, dabbing
her grazed knees she had no way of knowing. As the moon
clouded over she knew she must move or the Python would be
certain to find her.
She dragged her suitcase along the line not sure if it was
better to drag it or carry it. A pinpoint of light appeared
way off to the right. Shaun knew if she could only get to it
she would be safe from the snake. The moon came out from
behind a cloud she scrambled down the embankment.
She thought about saving her suitcase, hiding it somewhere,
along the embankment, in the long grass. She thought about
all the trouble her brother had gone to, buying her the new
school uniform. She heaved the case over the barbed wire
fence then climbed over. She got one leg over easily, went
to lift up her other leg, found it almost impossible to
move, knew she had caught her navy blue knickers on a barb.
If she wriggled she would tear them or cut the inside of her
Balancing on one leg she unhooked them and fell to the
ground with a thump, she lay on the damp grass not sure
whether to laugh or cry. Seconds before the moon slipped
behind a heavy cloud, Shaun saw a path that led through the
trees. She picked up her suitcase and walked towards the
tiny light. Strange forms reached out to touch her. Branches
brushed her arms and legs as twigs snapped behind her.
Something small flew directly into her face. She screamed
and started to run. Things seemed to grab her ankles, she
stopped, pulled away the long grass and for a moment stood
There was a snap - -snapping of dried twigs. It's the snake,
she thought then dismissed the thought almost immediately.
The twigs snapped again. She screamed picked up her case and
ran, until the pin-point of light loomed in front of her
bright and clear. In desperation she banged on the door as
hard as she could. Shaun saw a large woman, a white apron
covering her dress. She dropped the suitcase and fell into
the woman's arms.
The woman, Shaun remembered wearing a white apron was
sitting by the fire. " Awake at last," she said with a
smile, " if you go and have a wash you will feel much
better. Breakfast will be ready by the time you have
finished." She left the fire and began setting the table.
Shaun, bewildered, looked about her, then watched the woman
slicing a loaf of bread.
" You've been here all night," she told Shaun, trying to put
her mind at rest, " it was too late to take you back to the
" There you are Shaun Maclaren," the woman said placing a
plate of eggs and bacon in front of her as she sat at the
table. The woman stood back, a beaming smile on her face.
She folded her hands across her ample stomach and watched
" Just you enjoy that, and I want to see every scrap eaten.
Neither my John or me can abide food being wasted, and mind
you don't give any to the cat. She has her own food by the
back door. She will pretend she's starving."
Shaun looked at the big black cat sitting erect staring into
the fire. Over a steaming cup of tea the woman explained
that she found Shaun's name on the inside of her coat when
she took off her wet clothes and put her to bed on the
" We know you don't want to go back to the Convent. But you
might have to. Don't you worry though, my John will make
sure you're safe. We can't stand children being ill
treated." " How did you know? I never told anyone. I didn't
mean to be a nuisance. Really I didn't." " You talked in
your sleep. Most of the night you were crying. Once you
screamed, begged a Sister Rebecca to stop whipping you. I
sat up with you most of the night."
" I'm sorry I was a trouble."
" You were no trouble dear," the woman told her, warming her
hands by the fire, " my John was very upset though," she
continued, " and when the Priest came by early this morning
demanding we allow him to take you back to the Convent John
threw him out of the house."
" He told the Priest they had no right beating children like
that. The Priest said you probably deserved it. There was an
awful row. We both feel that no one should be hit with a
She stopped for a moment to refill their cups with tea.
" The people at the Convent must have complained to the
police. The Sergeant came down, said he'd been informed we
were keeping a young girl here-against her will. John put
him straight. While he was here you had another one of your
nightmares. Much worse than before. Screaming and crying.
Begging this Sister Rebecca to stop hitting you. Even
covered your head with your hands, pulled up your knees and
rubbed your legs. You swore you didn't talk in bed.
The doctor came after you passed out, gave you an injection
to calm you down. He told the Sergeant and us that you had
been badly beaten. Said something about a social worker. The
Sergeant said I was to keep you here while they talked to
the local Magistrate."
A week later Shaun accompanied by a social worker and the
Police Sergeant went to the Convent. Sister Rebecca greeted
them and glared at Shaun. They were shown into the Mother
Superior's study. Shaun shaking from head to toe at the
thought of what might happen to her stood in front of the
desk and waited. She started to cry. The social worker did
her best to calm her. It was only when the Sergeant held her
hand and told her everything was going to be all right, that
she stopped shaking and crying.
The Mother Provincial followed by the Mother Superior came
into the study. They looked first at Shaun, then the Police
Sergeant and the social worker. The Sergeant handed the
Mother Provincial an official document which the Mother
Superior glanced at then with a glare at Shaun signed.
She turned to Shaun. " You are being released by the
Convent. Your mother has been informed. However you are
being placed in the care of Mr John Woods and his wife until
the social worker is satisfied with your progress."
Shaun was delighted. She was free at last. It seemed that
all her prayers had been answered. There would be no more
beatings with the punishment stick, no more nightmares and
she would be able to talk whenever she wanted.
Shaun stayed with John and his wife for two months, then the
social worker found her a job with a printing company. "
What is your ambition?" John asked as she was leaving. "
Join the Army-like my Dad."