Dr. Foster went to Gloucester,
in a shower of rain
He stepped in a puddle,
right up to his middle,
And never went there again. Nursery rhyme.
Oonagh and I drive with Mrs. Shillan to Gloucestershire and meet up with Mr. Shillan in Burford. There we stay for the night in an hotel. I have never stayed in an hotel before and so it ranks as another first. Almost equivalent to learning to tell the time or to swim. A strange bed, but I sleep well and awaken to a bright day. Having washed and dressed, I sit on a padded stool in front of the long mirror of the dressing table and comb my short hair as if it formed a cape about my shoulders. Behind me, in the mirror, I see the tumbled beds in which my sister and I have spent the night. Under my feet I feel the luxury of soft carpeting. Over breakfast in the hotel dining-room, I observe the Shillans. Mrs. Shillan, tall, almost willowy, hair brown with auburn high-lights, bright in manner, somewhere in her middle forties. Mr. Shillan, some fifteen years older than his wife, square-faced, square-figured, thinning light brown hair, horn-rimmed spectacles. Stolid. At an adjoining table, almost abutting onto ours, sits Dorothy, the maid, nervously nibbling at a slice of toast. A thin, tense woman in her early thirties, dark brown hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck. She is obviously uneasy at such close proximity to her employers.
We climb back into the car for the five-mile drive to The Vicarage, Filkins, a model village in Oxfordshire, but on the borders of Gloucestershire. The Shell Book of English Villages says: FILKINS on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds, listed in 1675 by John Ogilby in ‘Britannia’ (our first genuine road-book) as on the route from Salisbury to Chipping Campden; Salisbury - Marlborough - Highworth - Lechlade - Filkins - Burford - Stow - Campden. "Almost certainly based on the carriage of wool from the Cotswolds to the Channel ports."
FILKINS....A lane winds through this village of mainly modest houses and cottages, all stone-roofed, many with upright stone slabs as fences, but F.E. Street’s mid-nineteenth-century church is out of key, with its pink tiled roof." Since our stay at Filkins, Sir John Cripps and COSIRA have supported the conversion of a large 1720 barley barn into an excellent art gallery and centre for local crafts: wool-weaving, rush-weaving, wood-turning, as well as other stable and woodcrafts and stone work. The guidebook remarking that William Morris, who had lived down the road at Kelmscott, would havae given his approval to this exhibition. While at Filkins, Oonagh and I remain unaware that William Morris had lived neaarby. For, if his name had been known to the Shillans, they would not have found him a person worthy of note. William Morris prints not becoming fashionable until the 1960s. The John Cripps referred to is the son of Sir Stafford "the austere Chancellor of the Exchequer in the post-war Labour government." The Cripps lived in Filkins and played a benevolent role in village life. But, while Oonagh and I were there, Sir Stafford was away in Moscow as Ambassador, leaving his large house for us to gaze at across extensive and cultivated grounds.
A further guide-book is equally disapproving of the usurper church with its ‘hexagonal E and French Gothic windows and...steeply-pitched tile roof...’ The guide book adding that "Even the council houses are built of stone with natural stone roofs." The Vicarage, which has been leased by the Shillans for the duration of the war, stands next to this despised church and until the bells are silenced to be run, or tolled, only in the case of invasion, we are awakened each morning by their loud insistent clanging. The previous incumbent, Reverend Austen, a white-haired, ruddy-faced, widower, had moved with his only daughter, Elizabeth, a tall, thin, pale girl in her twenties, to a prestigious, but much smaller house nearby called St. Peters. Perhaps the Vicar and his daughter had become lost in the old Vicarage, the many deserted rooms and spreading grounds which widened out into infinity, so that he and she moved silently as if two postulants in a ruined Cathedral. These Austens claimed to be kin to Jane Austen, a matter for pride, but they whispered the name of a more direct ancestor, John Hampden, for to Elizabeth, an obedient daughter and communicant of the Church of England, Hampden’s defiance of Charles I presented itself not only as disobedience, but ingratitude.
The Shillans soon brought the rooms deserted by the Austens in upon one another, making them part of a whole by designating and furnishing each one for its expected use. The library held floor to ceiling book-shelves and books on all four walls, a small room off the library which becomes Mr. Shillan’s study, the dining-room, the breakfast room, the drawing room, the kitchen with its stone floor, large cupboards and an Aga cooker on which Cook never learns to bake cakes. Off the kitchen is the servants’ sitting-room, used by Cook and her husband the gardener. On the first floor of the house are bedrooms and on the second a number of adjoining attics. I don’t think that I ever entered all the rooms in that house.
Oonagh and I sit at the long refectory table in the dining-room, Mr. Shillan at one end and Mrs. Shillan at the other. This room, Mrs. Shillan says, dates back to Saxon times. There are also priest holes, Mrs. Shillan proudly exhibiting to us the blocked entrance to a secret passage at the back of a cupboard. On a flight of stairs, an inside window opens onto a window on the outside wall, a space between in which to the side can be seen the beginnings of a tunnel. (41). I have a snapshot showing the side of the house and it is clear that over the centuries the house has been extended by a number of wings, but always in the original grey stone. The incline of the stone roofs are gentle, so that later in our stay I climb along them, an activity which brings me into disgrace and I defend myself by claiming, unkindly, that Miss Moss, the greying, timid governess Mrs. Shillan has by then hired for us,agreed that we could climb roofs.The truth of the matter is that she knew about this substitute mountaineering, but even more at a loss in this environment than me, and not especially competent at her job, she was lost for words. In the same snapshot, can be seen open French windows, small white-framed windows above, an added wing jutting forward, a window set in its side, this wing itself largely obscured by a bushy tree, roofs one behind the other. In the foreground, my sister in bathing-costume lies on the lawn, her back towards us and she is reading. Mrs. Shillan sits in a garden chair sewing, while Gwenda Coy perches on her lap. Gwenda Coy from Coventry, blonde-haired and younger than Oonagh and me, has arrived in answer to an advertisement offering a home to evacuees. In the photo, the Shillan dog Buster approaches. He is an Airedale who delights in fighting the baker’s bulldog and returns to The Vicarage to proudly exhibit his war wounds.
I had lived in buildings of equal, or even larger, size, but they were schools occupied also by many others, so now I relish the space around me. Room upon room, each one of a different size or shape. To live in such a house as a family home, I know means that I have ‘gone up in the world’! But there are none of my school friends present to see my sudden rise! The Vicarage and its grounds form a world in itself, for Mrs. Shillan, intent upon maintaining the social divide, makes it clear that she is opposed to us becoming acquainted with village people. This means that at first we pass through the village in Mrs. Shillan’s small red Fiat, on our way to somewhere else, looking out at the unfamiliar stone houses and village people from behind a glass shield. But, I do remember visiting, together with Mrs. Shillan, the village pocket-handkerchief swimming-pool. There I look with interest at a girl of about my own age whose eton cropped hair and round freckled face gives her the appearance of a tomboy. A girl I would like to know. I see her also waiting at the village bus stop, but I can never pluck up courage to approach her.
At the beginning, our days are spent in the grounds and, of course, the Shillans’ library. Neither of them are great readers, but their library includes all the acclaimed writers which, I remark to myself cynically, are obviously bought by the yard! Today, perhaps as a result of the blurring between literature and the mass best seller, the library would have contained block-buster-bangers and instant history based on recent dramatic events or the breakdown of a Royal marriage. But at that time although trashy novels were published, they were not confused with literature. Therefore, the Shillans’ library contained books by eminent 19th century and 20th century writers and included only the odd novel which purists such as my parents would havae dubbed ‘trash’.
It is at Filkins that I go on a ‘bender’ with novels by H.G. Wells. Perhaps at first because his name is a link with home, but afterwards from sheer interest and enthusiasm. I have a photo of myself sitting on a swing in the Vicarage grounds, my feet resting on the ground and in my hands I hold open a thick book which I know to be War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Behind me is the Yew Tree which I climb often, mounting by way of wooden struts nailed against its trunk for the use of generations of children before me. There I sit in my own private space, reading or writing, hidden by the needled branches of the Yew. Behind the Yew runs the brick wall which surrounds the Vicarage.
I read also several books by Joseph Hocking, an author of whom I have never heard previously, and whom, I suspect my parents would dub ‘trash’. But his titles fascinate me. Titles such as All Men are Liars appealing to the anger I hold inside because of my family’s predicament, while the emotion in which the stories are steeped, answers some need. I now know Hocking to have been a Christain writer and it seems to me that the sensual hymn by Charles Wesley Wrestling Jacob will better explain his plots. I quote the last stanza:
What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong;
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with God-Man prevail.
Fortunately, the Shillans are not possessive with their books and have no objection to my sister and me taking them from the shelves. Unfortunately, after a while they become concerned at the rate at which we devour them and are in their view, lost and isolated. Mrs. Shillan especially, as the person more involved in our upbringing, watches this endless supply of black print feeding into our brains to stain them as sin darkens the soul. A little reading encourages basic literacy and is a quiet pastime, too much holds back a child from natural activity. Mrs. Shillan calls Oonagh and me to her in the large drawing-room where she stands at its centre. I feel beneath my feet the soft brown carpeting and see from the corner of my eye the brown velvet drapes hanging each side of the French Windows. Mrs. Shillan looks at us seriously, her tall body leaning over to address us more directly: "Mr. Shillan and I feel you are spending too much time in reading." I press my lips together in a grim line and hang my head to hide my disgruntled expression. "It’s such a lovely summer" Mrs. Shillan continues brightly. "We think you should be out playing. There are badminton rackets and shuttlecocks in the house, and I might be able to find a cricket bat." Well, I have no objection to badminton or cricket. However, then she continues by informing us that if we are forced to stay indoors because of rain, we should tackle our mending, sewing or knitting. "I’ll show you how to put a patch on a worn garment" she promises "you’ll find it very useful one day." That I doubted. Mending! Sewing! Knitting! My most unfavourite activities! But I say nothing for here whenever I open my mouth I tend to put my foot in it! Soon after our arrival I have shown disapproval of Mrs. Shillan buying tins of red salmon for her two ginger cats, Senior and Junior, while at home we had been able to afford only pink or grey for ourselves. A remark which brought from Mrs. Shillan an angry reaction. And only that morning, I had annoyed both the Shillans when at breakfast by insisting that it was the British soldiers and not the German internees, who had smashed up the pipe organ in Alexandra Palace during WWI. Having been brought up in an articulate household where discussion was overt and received opinion open to criticism, I tended to take statements at face value and, of course, I had definite views of my own. To the Shillans, I appear as rude and ungrateful, but what is worse, as critical! Without faith, without trust. It takes me some time to understand that the Shillans’ ways are not those of the Lahrs, a fact which should have become obvious when shortly following our arrival, Mr. Shillan teaches us to say:
A socialist is a man who’s willing,
To share with you his ha’penny
and collar your shilling.
Oonagh, more introverted than me, is prepared to be seen and not heard, or when heard, to behave deferentially. On one occasion I hear her, in imitation of Dorothy, call Mrs. Shillan ‘Ma’am’. Once out of sight of that lady, I hiss "don’t you dare call her ‘Ma’am’! We’re as good as she is!" All these thoughts go through my head while Mrs. Shillan continues to speak. "Of course, we don’t want to stop you reading alatogether, but Mr. Shillan and I think that fifteen minutes reading each morning, in the library, immediately after breakfast, is quite long enough." I am shocked! I have never heard of rationed reading. Suddenly the dark drapes, carpeting and furniture of the drawing-room move to crowd me in and miserably I creep away.
It is Oonagh who finds the solutiion. My quiet, good, sweet sister, the child preferred by the Shillans. We have been playing together chasing each other up and down the paths and round the vegetable garden. Oonagh is obviously tiring, stopping every now and then, not seeming to care whether I catch her or not. "You’ve got to keep on running!" I complain. "I’m going to the lavatory" she says abruptly and hurries off in the direction of the house. I stand waiting, watching the cabbages and admiring the straight rows produced by Robertson, the gardener. a day or two previously, Oonagh and I have picked from their leaves more than fifty green caterpillars and put them into a tin biscuit box. What happpened to them after that I cannot remember, but we were hoping that some of them would turn overnight into crysalids and then into butterflies. But, cabbages can bear only a certain amount of contemplation and I am beginning to understand why a boring person is referred to as ‘a cabbage’ when it occurs to me that Oonagh should have returned by now. "Where is she?" I ask myself. "Gone off on her own somewhere?" I am annoyed and make my way to the house and through the library to the downstairs WC to find the door locked. "Oonagh, are you there?" Ishout, banging on the door. "I’ll be out in a minute" she calls and I give the door another bang. The door opens and under Oonagh’s thin summer dress I spy an oblong shape. "What have you got there?" I ask, knowing the answer and quickly she pulls out a hard-cover book and replaces it on the shelf. I am amazed at her ingenuity! After that, we take it in turns, first one of us grabs a book, shoves it down her knickers and makes for the sanctuary of the WC and, on exiting, the other takes her place. Perhaps this added danger of discovery lending a piquancy to our reading. This works well for a time, but one day Dorothy comes into the small room where Oonagh and I eat when not dining with the family. "Mrs. Shillan would like to see you" she says quietly. "What now?" I groan to myself. "Why does she want us, Dorothy?" I plead hopefully. Dorothy says nothing. She always treats us kindly, but is careful to maintain between us the same sense of distance that she has with her employers.
My sister and I hurry to thedining-room where Mrs. Shillan stands erect by the long refectory table. We stand before her. "I have something to say to you" says Mrs. Shillan, lowering her voice mysteriously. I look past her at the large, stone fireplace on which at one time whole carcasses were roasted. She appears to hesitate, as if she is searching for words. "There’s something I must ask you." Will she ask us outright whether we are taking books into the WC? What will I say? I am cold with apprehension. At last she says "you haven’t taken any purgatives since coming here, have you?" adding in explanation before we can reply "a medicine to regulate your bowels." "No" we reply enthusiastically, thinking of syrup of figs and senna pods and happy at being able to reply truthfully. She looks away. "Dorothy tells me you are both constipated and spending too much time in the bathroom." I glance at Oonagh out of the corner of my eye and she stoically stares ahead. Mrs. Shillan picks up a large jar from off the table and takes out of it two small white sugar-coated pills which she presses into our hands and watches while we transfer them to our mouths. "Cascara is very good for you" she says and turns to leave the room, calling out over her shoulder "report to me here every Friday at about this time for a cascara."
I know that I am not constipated and while very occasionally my mother had found it necessary to purge us, for the most part she had relied on natural methods, roughage and fruit. I remembered also a very bad experience I’d had with Exlax at 9 Wilton Road, a free sample having been put through the letter-box. Having found it on the mat, I assumed from its appearance that it was chocolate and greedily ate all half a dozen squares! Therefore, I do not intend to swallow this cascara and with Mrs. Shillan out of the room, I look for somewhere to hide the tablet held in my mouth. "Under the carpet!" I say and pull back a corner of its plush redness. Both Oonagh and I transfer the sticky pills to the floor and let the carpet fall over them. And this becomes our Friday drill.
My parents take it in turns sto write and we receive letters each of 24 lines from one or the other, on Army issue notepaper. A regulaltion endorsed by a stern warning by Onchan’s Commander Captain The Lord Greenway. "Writing acaross the lines is forbidden and the writing shall not be unduly close....Any infringement of the above orders is an offence which will be punished." (36) My mother’s 24 lines say less than my father’s, for his writing is the smaller. My mother confines herself to instructions with regard to our behaviour, health and hygiene as if even from a distance she cannot bear to relax her role as mother - or perhaps she writes in the knowledge that her letters will be read not only by the censors at Liverpool, but also by the Shillans. My father’s letters are always sanguine, reassuring, rejoicing in the lovely summer, the beautiful surroundings, tanning in the sun.... This infuriates the Shillans, Englishmen are facing death while aliens are being cosseted by a soft British government! Mrs. Shillan does not hesitate to express her feelings on this, which I feel unfair as I am always in such trouble for expressing mine. But, I steel myself to listen without comment, while inside I simmer, become hotter and hotter, redder and redder, until I am sure that my head will explode to shoot out anger, hate, disappointment, longing, bitterness, vituperation...drenching both Shillans and staining the polished oak refectory table, the off-white walls, the plush carpet and the old old fireplace. Perhaps we would all drown in what flew out of my head. At last, the meal over, I am able to run into the library where I stand gritting my teeth, clenching my fists and shaking with loathing until I regain some equilibrium.
My Aunt Mary writes to the Shillans, the letter enclosed in a parcel. Mrs. Shillan reads out the letter while we are at breakfast, her voice registering different degrees of surprise as she repeats my Aunt’s words. For here we are playing at happy families, and there is my Aunt who has dipped her pen into venom to pour onto the page bitterness, spite and malice against her brother and his family. My Aunt declares that she is sending this parcel from a sense of duty only and because my father is (unfortunately) her brother, otherwise she would refuse contact with him and his wife. My father wasted his money, was an atheist, drank too much and had been in trouble with the police. What was more, he mixed with disreputable persons, most of whom were communists. My mother’s home was filthy because she considered herself too intellectual for housework, was unfriendly, unhelpful and a fool with money. Their children were both badly brought up and Sheila was especially badly behaved and rude. She needed to be brought down a peg or two and be shown she wasn’t the only pebble on the beach. "Well!" says Mrs. Shillan, on coming to the end of the letter, rolling her eyes "She certainly does love her brother and his family!"
During this recital, I can hardly believe that the letter referred to my parents and me, half wondering if this was some deception on the part of the Shillans, but at last I accept that these are my Aunt’s words. Flushing, I duck down my head as if I am counting crumbs upon the table and tell myself that I will never forgive my Aunt and that I never want to see her again. I write nothing of this to my parents, for I do not want to worry them. Also, I cannot bear to set down on the page my Aunt’s calumnies to be read once more by Mrs. Shillan who reads through all our letters. "That fat creature, Mary, said terrible things about you" says my mother, her eyes blazing "and the first words Mrs. Shillan said to me when she called were ‘oh! your house is clean!’. This is when we are all together again as a family and it is my Aunt’s letter together with other occurrences in my parents’ absence from 9 Wilton Road, which is to separate them from my Aunt for the rest of their lives.
Some four weeks after our arrival in Filkins, Mrs. Shillan decides that Oonagh and I must go to school. During our first weeks, Elizabeth Austen had taken us for lessons, gently asking us to write a composition about the beauty of the countryside or the Seasons, Taking us for walks to local beauty spots, pointing out wild flowers on the way, which we pick and on our return to The Vicarage press into an exercise book, hard-back books piled on top until all the flowers natural sap has been evacuated. Then we stick the flowers down on a page with a little glue and neatly label them. I feel sad for the flowers, plucked from their natural habitat to be pressed into unnatural shapes, all the life ironed out of them.
And yet I welcome learning, for I am beginning to worry about my education. How can I become an important literary or political figure without education? I have even taken away with me an arithmetic text book, shoving it into my suit-case before leaving 9 Wilton Road. But, the pale old-before-her-time Elizabeth is not alone in attempting to educate my sister and me, for Mrs. Shillan takes a hand in this by correcting our elocution. "Neither of you sound your ‘R’s’ properly" she declares and makes us say "the ragged ruffian runs round the rugged rock." "The wagged wuffian wuns wound the wugged wock" we repeat dutifully and I am never to learn to say it any differently. "If you don’t speak correctly, you won’t cope socially" says Mrs. Shillan. "Mr. Shillan copes socially" I say artfully "and he doesn’t speak correctly." I had noticed that Mr. Shillan, a self-made businessman who had invested his fortune in glacé cherries, often said ‘me’ instead of ‘my’ - unacceptable in the Lahr household. Mrs. Shillan is furious. "Mr. Shillan wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth" she snaps. "He’s had to pull himself up by his bootstraps." I get a visual image of Mr. Shillan walking along, bent over and holding onto his shoe laces. Later, I am to say to Oonagh "lucky for him he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth - he might have choked on it!"
Of course, Mrs. Shillan will not risk sending my sister and me to the village school where we will meet with village children. Instead, aware that we have been brought up Catholics, she approaches the Reverend Mother of St. Clothilde’s Convent, evacuated from Eltham, South London to a Manor House at Lechlade, and begs for us to be taken in as non-fee-paying pupils. Convent schools at that time always willing to take in one or two charity pupils should they be in danger of corruption by dreaded protestantism. But, recently I have discovered a further point which argued in our favour and this refers to the Saint herself. For St. Clothilde, born in Lyons in 474 AD in her old age retired to Tours. She was a Queen and daughter of King Chilperic, King of Burgundy. Married to Clovis, King of the Salian Franks, she converted to Christianity. In Tours, worn out by the incessant quarrelling between her three sons, she died by St. Martin’s tomb. This would have been the first tomb, to be destroyed by the Normans in the 14th Century, the spirit of St. Clothilde wincing at every blow against the basilica. The shrine levelled, the shade of the now homeless St. Clothilde wanders the face of the earth until it is taken into the Convent that bears her name. Oonagh and I coming from St. Martin’s Convent must have been received as a sign from heaven by the Reverend Mother of St. Clothilde’s and, therefore, she agrees to accept us as day pupils.
In preparation for our entry into the Convent, Mrs. Shillan takes us shopping for clothing at Cheltenham, a visit to Cheltenham Ladies College preceding this expedition. Mrs. Shillan’s daughter by her first marriage - both Shillans having been widowed before they met and married - had received her education at this College. Now, in her late ‘teens she has been evacuaated to Canada, from where she sends her mother and step-father badly spelled letters. "Look how Margaret spells beat!" laughs Mrs. Shillan "B E E T!" I wish that she were so tolerant of my own inadequacies. I am interested in visiting the Ladies’ College for upon the wall of my bedroom at The Vicarage hangs a photograph of Margaret with her year group and taken a few years previously. But it isn’t Margaret, a fair-haired nondescript girl, who interests me. I feel a kinship with a dark-eyed gypsy of a girl sitting on a low bench in the front row, looking directly into the camera and grinning mischeviously. On this Saturday visit, no girls are in evidence and the many corridors and rooms through which we pass present themselves as cold and austere. Oonagh and I follow behind Mrs. Shillan and our guide, a smartly dressed middle-aged woman, or, I suppose, lady, until arriving again at the main entrance, we make our departure. Mrs. Shillan takes us to Marks and Spencer, remarking as we enter its portals "the College girls aren’t allowed to come here, or to Woolworths." These stores are too downmarket for College girls. At Marks and Sparks, Mrs. Shillan buys both Oonagh and me a flowered summer dress with elasticated waist, both exactly the same as if we are twins. She buys me also a pair of cheap dark blue shoes which are going to become an inconvenience a few weeks later when the heel of one of them falls off. The heel catching on a step and rolling onto a pathway, just as I am about to commence the four mile walk home from Lechlade to Filkins. Along the road I hobble like Dot and Carry, removing both shoes and socks and walking barefoot whenever I strike grass!
This four-mile journey is the most interesting and exciting part of our education. But, as St. Clothilde’s is situated outside the town, we never go into Lechlade-on-Thames and, therefore, I remain unaware that Percy Bysshe Shelley, having sailed with Mary along the Thames and putting off at Lechlade, had written in 1815 a poem entitled A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire:
The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray;
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.....
Shelley, who a year or two later is to become my favourite poet. And it is only recently that I have read a plaque on the brick wall running alongside the church and leading to the graveyard, on which is set out lines from the last verse of the above poem:
Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
And terrorless as this serenest night:.....
School itself being much as I remembered it, except that at St. Clothilde’s once a week we sit as a group in a corridor to listen to a recording of classical music. Beethoven, Bach... I watch the black bakelite disc going round and round the turntable, wondering to what I am listening, for we listen blind, and deaf. We have been told nothing about the composer or the music’s history. No doubt the nun in charge regards musical appreciation as no more than listening, or takes it for granted that the pupils, all from the upper middle-class, had drunk in such knowledge with the bottles of milk held by their nannies! Or perhaps she, herself, had no specific knowledge of music.
The art lessons I enjoy for Art at St. Martin’s had been represented by Drawing with precision. In fact, during the year when Sister St. Alban, a crotchety old nun, took the class I spent a whole term sketching a fork, rubbing out bits of it, replacing them, rubbing them out again and so the torture continued week after week. My fork never passed muster, and I began to wonder whether Sister St. Alban wanted me to be able to eat with it! Fortuitously, the end of the school year arrived in mid-fork and I went into another class at the end of the summer holidays. At St. Clothilde’s we are provided with powder paint of all colours, yellow, red, blue, green...and go out into the grounds to paint landscapes. With pleasure, I dip my brush into the mixture diluted with water and watch the colours spread across the page mounted on an easel. Under my brush grass, trees, flowers take shape, but I always feel that my paintings lack value because their production has been too easy and too pleasurable.
At St. Clothilde’s we are also encouraged to learn by rote extracts from the New Testament, for which we receive extra marks. Oonagh provides an exact rendering every week, but I can never bring myself to memorise anything unless the subject matter interests me. As it happens, Mr. Shillan had offered Oonagh and me 6d each if we learned by heart Corinthians 1:13, which begins:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and ngels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinking cymbal.....Verses 11 and 12 making an impact upon me, even ‘unto adulthood’:
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child I thought as a child" But when I became a man , I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face..."
"Seeing through a glass darkly" has always meant to me hiding the truth from oneself, while seeing ‘face to face’ I interpret as having the courage of honesty.
Of course, 6d is a great inducement to learning these verses, but Oonagh and I take too long. So, by the time we beard Mr. Shillan in his den and recite them, he has long forgotten his offer and wonders why we are standing there quoting at him! I preferred to choose what I will learn and coming across the Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe, caught up in its militant rhythem I learn it quickly. I quote the last stanza:
In the beauties of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me,
He died to make men holy, let us die to make men FREE,
While God is marching on.
I was great on FREEDOM! And two or three years later chose to learn James Russell Lowell’s:
Men whose boast it is of ye,
Come of fathers brave and free,
If there breathe on earth a slavae,
Are ye truly free and brave?.....
Of course, in those days I did not feel excluded by the terms ‘man’ or ‘father’. Not yet out of childhood, I remained androgynous.
To return to the curriculum at St. Clothilde’s. On Thursdays we are expected to speak in French at the lunch table. This is possible because instead of the long refectory tables of St. Martins, here the dining-room is set out with a number of small tables around each of which five girls sit, supervised by a nun. Thursday is also spinach day and a dark-haired, soft-eyed girl named Naomi hates spinach. Every Thursday she cries "I can’t eat it!" pushing away from her the green, congealed, soggy mess. "Speak in French!" hisses the nun, her grey hair, parted in the middle, showing to the fore of her white bonnet. "Je ne mange pas" sobs Naomi. "Regard eating it as a sacrifice for the dead and the dying" instructs the Sister. She says this in English, probably because she is not sure of being understood in French. "No, no, no!" cries Naomi and then, recollecting herself "non, non, non." Lunch on Thursdays always ends with Naomi being chased around the room by the nun until, captured and forced to return to the table and eat the spinach, she is promptly and violently sick.
While this scene is enacted around us, we make valiant efforts to continue French conversation practice: "Pass the bread s’il vous plait; pass the salt s’il vous plait; it is raining n’est pas?... In this way our childhood proceeds normally, unimpinged upon by the horrors of war. But it is many years before I can face a plate of spinach without suppressing a vomit! Certainly, the best part of school for me is the getting there - stepping through the Vicarage gates each morning not caring that the four mile road to Lechlade stretches before me as a long trudge. For I find distractions along the way. Bright wild flowers nod me forward, narrow grassy pathways invite me to tread them, their secrecy defended by nettles. I look for and find a dock leaf to rub over their spiteful stinging. Giant trees put out their limbs in greeting. I take great gulps of the air and smell of the countryside. Birds whistle or fly across my path. Cars whoosh past to leave me behind: All these provide diversions so that the macadamed road beneath my feet springs me forward.
On the outside of the village in one of four stone Council houses up a bank and off the road, lives an elderly lady named Mrs. Keeps. Each morning when Oonagh and I pass by she waves or calls out pleasantries: "You’re looking better now than when you first came" or "Hurry, it’s coming on to rain!" Pleased at this kindly attentiion, I never walk by without returning her salutation and on return to London I send her a postcard. We came also to know familiar figures in the village, such as Mr. Gibbs who runs the sweetshop. The Shillans give us each 6d pocket money weekly and we see this amount as very generous. Mr. Gibbs is a slim, dark, middle-aged man of average height. From the first he shows some sympathy for Oonagh and me as evacuees, but when he finds that like himself Oonagh and I are Catholics, he extends his kindness by often popping an extra sweet or two into our purchases. Another friend is Mr. Pryor, the dairyman, who greets us whenever we meet his milk-float in the village or on the road.
On leaving St. Clothilde’s at the end of the school day, to walk the path out of the grounds, trees and grass on either side of us, we are met by a Mrs. Arkell, a middle-aged well-built lady who lives in a house opposite the Convent. a pail in each hand she walks towards us on her way to feed her chickens housed in St. Clothilde’s grounds. Soon, Oonagh and I stop to help her, standing by as she empties the pails of boiled peelings with their strange smell, into the compound, and we watch the chickens, their red-brown feathers fluttering in excitement as they peck eagerly at the mess. On several occasions Mrs. Arkell invites us into her house to serve each of us with a glass of lemonade and all the time she talks. What she talked about I cannot now remember, although I do recall her informing us proudly that her son, Reginald Arkell, had scripted for the threatre ‘1066 and All That’, a comic history book by Sellar and Yeatman, which I had read and enjoyed. In 1941 he is to write, together with Noel Gay, a popular war song ‘Mr. Brown of London Town had a job to do, and he did it too....." It seemed almost like home again to be in virtual contact with a writer!
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