The polishing nun

Who on Earth is Tom Baker? An Autobiography

© Tom Baker 1997

Excerpt from chapter 8

Once when I was on laundry duty I had to go and fetch the clean rough sheets for the dormitory. At the far end of an immense corridor, perhaps two hundred yards long, I rang an old brass bell and waited at a highly polished door on which was a brass plate so worn I could not read the vital information on it. I listened carefully. Sure enough there was the sound of fumbling. After what seemed about two days and nights the door was eased open and the top of a head appeared all covered in a black cotton veil. It was possibly the top of a tiny nun I thought to myself. A hand stretched out towards me and I placed the requisition note for seventy-eight sheets, thirty-nine pillowcases and thirty-nine towels. I’ll never forget those towels. They were as coarse as cheese graters; we didn’t need to shave.

The note was enfolded in one hand and another hand came out from somewhere and beckoned me in. I stepped inside and made as if to advance. The figure in black hissed in my direction and I froze. It then did a dreadful little shuffle and a hop. I looked at it and it looked expectantly back at me and repeated the hop and shuffle. It obviously wanted me to do the hop and shuffle, too. The hand cocked impatiently as if to say: “Well, what are you waiting for?” So I did a terrible hop and a vague shuffle, very vague I’m afraid as I’m not too immense at ballet. The figure in black hissed with fury and repeated its ghastly dance of death clucking as it hopped. Hiss, cluck, shuffle hop, hiss cluck shuffle hop. I raised my hand, the gesture saying: “Got it, got it!” The black-clad Sister Terpsichore paused and watched. So I went into my shuffle and hop with a little hiss and a bit of a cluck, too. This did not go down well. Later I would feel the same degree of helplessness in front of the director John Dexter when he would say: “Go on, then surprise me.”

The dancing thing in front of me now gurgled in between the hisses and clucks. Like Aaron throwing his rod down she pointed towards my feet. I leapt back and saw before me two very neat little mats about fifteen inches by eight, like small off-cuts from an old dark-green carpet. The little demon in front of me jumped back and revealed two identical mats between its feet. Then with a scolding shake of its hand as though to say, “This is the last time,” it performed the hop and shuffle which got it on to the mats, and then, with the most shocking change of style, it skated off quite lyrically towards the far end of an enormous room around the walls of which were high cupboards and in the middle of which was a table maybe sixteen by seven, though I could be mistaken. The black-clad skater seemed to do a pirouette and with a hiss watched me set out.

With more of a yelp than a cluck, I leapt aboard my mats and skated towards my tutor. Its hands jumped with pleasure and I distinctly heard chuckles from among its veils. It looked down at the high gloss I had produced on the floor and nodded vigorously. It was pleased with me. Hideous as it seemed, I fell instantly in love with it and set off westward across the room, eased southerly and, swinging to the east, got up speed before sharply turning north and heading back towards my teacher producing a marvellous gleam behind me. I had become a floor polisher. And suddenly I wondered if this was what God wanted of me. Did He mean me to be a minim among polishers? My lips were tumescent with affection as I panted to a halt before my new love. Her chuckle became a chortle and the hidden head nodded to me in approval. I skated away again and did some fancy turns for my mysterious new love. And I remember laughing aloud and being shocked by the noise for laughing was forbidden. The dark figure held out its hands and for a moment I thought it was proposing a dance. Oh, all things bright and beautiful!

At that moment two other ghostly figures skated into sight and coughed. My tutor seemed suddenly old and defeated and turned towards a cupboard behind her and began to load me with the linen I’d come for. Back and forth I skated polishing the floor the while until seventy-eight sheets and thirty-nine pillowcases and the same number of towels were stacked outside the mysterious door to the linen studio. I never did the bed-linen run again but I reproduced the hop, shuffle and glide in She Stoops to Conquer at the National Theatre years later. Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail hated it, thinking it rather overdone. I didn’t care as an ex-ballet dancer wrote and told me she had seen the production and fallen in love with my legs. She said that in other circumstances she could have lived happily with my legs but that she only had a small flat in Holland Park. The Nottingham theatre critic felt pretty much the same but was a married man so I had to keep my legs to myself. I’ve held on to them ever since, and honestly, I can’t say that I’ve regretted it, they’ve been very loyal over the years and we’re still together, my legs and I.

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