22: THE HOSTEL:
I am to go to one more billet before it is decided that I should be taken into the school hostel. This billet is also on the Peartree side, with a Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and their twenty month old son, in a Council house so uniform with its neighbours that it is difficult to tell the houses apart. For the most part I check the numbers on the doors, but on one occasion I return home from school, walk into the back entrance and use the WC. Then I pass through the kitchen, noting the uniform aluminium bucket underneath the butler sink and enter the living-room. There, to my surprise, I see sitting stiffly in an armchair, a white-haired old lady, her startled eyes staring at me, her twisted hands grasping the arms of the chair. I am equally shocked, for the barrenness of the living-room of my billet has been turned to a room decorated by antimacassars, framed photos, chintz curtains, china ornaments... It is as if it is under an enchantment - and then I understand I am in the wrong house. And this is after I have lived at this billet for some weeks.
Mrs. Johnson, a youngish, nondescript woman speaks to me rarely and it is Mr., Johnson who attempts to joke with me and exhibit his dog training abilities. The Johnsons possess a medium sized brown mongrel and each evening in the living-room, Mr. Johnson puts it through its paces. "Sit, come, heel, wait, beg" and at the end of the show "roll over and die." I dread this last command on which the dog lies on its back, its paws in the air, its eyes closed. What if it really died? I wait in trepidation for Mr. Johnson once again to order the dog to "come" so that it jumps up, tail wagging. Sometimes the small boy copies the dog, lying on his back, thin, pale arms held in the air, his eyes tight shut in his pale wan face and I feel that I too am dead. At night I lie in bed in this strange house, holding my torch for comfort, the bulb covered in phosphorus paper so that when the torch is turned off it gives a green glow. This is a war-time economy measure to save the battery. When at an end, batteries are put into the oven for a short time, which provides them with a few more hours of light.
While I am at this billet, I am not much help to Mrs. Johnson, for I am unaware of the demands made by domestic work and the care of a young child. The day in and day out chores which are undone as soon as done. The continual call of a young child requiring attention. And, of course, in our inarticulate society, no one ever talks to me or begs for my help. Therefore, grudgingly I peel potatoes on a Saturday morning as asked, or indicated by this woman who rarely puts two words together. Then, before she can find me a further job, I go out to meet Colleen. However, in spite of my non-domesticity I might have lasted longer in this billet if unshed tears had not poured from my body at night, to leave the bedding wet and sodden. This shocks me for I have never been a bed-wetter. This is Oonagh’s role. She has always suffered from enuresis and my mother had dosed her regularly from a large bottle of medically recommended belladonna. This to dry up all within her and leave her arid and barren. It is Oonagh’s bed-wetting that had decided Mrs. James to ask for her removal, in spite of the fact that she worked hard in the house. In fact, Pamela Bloomfield had told me that her foster-father - her lady’s husband - was a milkman, and whenever he delivered to the back door Oonagh was working in the kitchen. "She’s made a proper skivvy of her!" he said to Pamela. Oonagh, like me, is to go through a number of billets. Later, I hear that Diane has taken my place with the Johnsons. She is in Oonagh’s form and I know her also from St. martins. The story whispered is that following his exhibition of dog control, Mr. Johnson had instituted a rough and tumble on the floor with Diane, during which he pulled down her knickers.
Dubbed a bed-wetter and difficult to place in a billet, my next move is to the school hostel and there, except for one disastrous period when I am moved out, I stay until I leave the Convent. The school hostel is a three-bedroomed suburban house standing with others in a line in Attimore Close, Det. Lge. Kit. 2 Rec. 3 Beds. usu. offs. Gdn. Des. Res. Now, with twenty-four children in the house, all apart from the kitchen and one large room upstairs are used as bedrooms. Only Sister Agatha has a room to herself. The other rooms are so crowded with beds and children that many of us are forced to sleep together. Until, at last, the Convent introduces a sleeping-out policy for a few of the more reliable girls. This suits those local people who are willing to sleep an evacuee without becoming responsible for her welfare during the day. Each evening I accompany ‘Fletch’ and her sister Eileen (known as ‘Dinkie’) to their lodgings for the night, happily walking back down the road to return to the hostel on my own. For while they fear the outside world when it is dark, my only fear of the night is the complete blackness of a closed room.
The small garden slopes downwards towards a main road, the other side of which stretches a golf-course, in wartime no longer used for this sport. And so, we use it as a playground, hiding in the bunkers, running across the greens, exuberant as cowboys and Indians, chasing each other for the sheer heck of it. As for the occupants of the Hostel, its composition cannot be stereotyped. The first and original occupants are the two daughters of a family named Smith who own the house. Their two girls, eleven-year-old Edna and six-year-old Jean, have been left in the care of the Hostel Supervisor, Sister Agatha. Edna is a kindly, pleasant girl, resembling a Dutch doll with her skinny short plaits, tip-tilted nose and wide blue eyes. She is wizard at making beds, murmuring as she tucks in sheets and blankets to form perfect hospital corners:
"First the foot, and then the head
that’s the way to make a bed."
Jean, livelier than her sister, more demanding and sharper. A whizz-kid at draughts, beating girls much older than herself, including me. Possibly, it is the presence of the Smith sisters which prevents the Hostel from becoming a refuge only for those girls unable to settle into a private billet. There are a number of these, including myself, but others, such as ‘Fletch’ are considered to be stabilizing influences and a potential help to Sister Agatha. There was also a policy to keep sisters together and, of course, if it had not been for Oonagh and my noisy disagreements at Mrs. James’ house, I am sure Oonagh would have joined me at the Hostel. Fletch’s sister Dinkie is a pretty edition of her sister. Whereas Fletch’s complexion is sallow and coarse, Dinkie’s face is bright and her skin smooth, on her cheeks a bloom. While the manner in which her features are arranged hive her face a piquancy instead of Fletch’s plainness. Her figure also is a refined edition of Fletch’s large frame. ‘Dinkie’ is the nickname brought from home and no doubt this had first been given her in comparison with Fletch. However, there appears to be no jealousy between the sisters. Perhaps the loss of their father had brought them closely together, and their love of their three-year-old sister at home with their mother. Other sisters at the Hostel are the three Mongan girls. Margaret some two years younger than me, a clever, thoughtful, bright girl who writes short stories and poetry. I would have enjoyed her friendship, but is not done for older and younger girls to become close friends. "They’d say I’ve got a G.P. on you" Margaret remarks. G.P. stands for ‘grand passionn’. Margaret likes to teaase and one day takes my diary from wherever I have left it and carries it into the dining-cum-living room upstairs (the room intended by the builder to be the master bedroom). In this room we eat, tackle our homework, play and pray. "I’ve got your diary" she says exultantly "I’m going to read it out!" She makes as if to open it. I rise quickly from my seat at the table where my work is laid out. My activities as such are of no interest, but in the diary I reveal my ‘innermost thoughts’ and I will not have these held up to ridicule. This apart, I am outraged that the privacy of a diary should be violated. In fury, I rush across the room and push Margaret who falls in slow motion, her arms flung wide, her mouth open to scream. THUD - her head catches the corner of a chair. She drops to the floor with a clatter. There is the high-pitched cries of children, their fingers pointing at me. I turn my face away in shame. Margaret’s parents sitting among us, having travelled from somewhere in Hertfordshire to make sure that the stitches in their daughter’s head have kept in place her mind. "She read my diary, she read my diary" is all I can say. I apologise to Margaret, to Sister Agatha, to the Sisters at their substitute nunnery in Young’s Close, to Margaret’s parents, to everybody. At last I am forgiven and no more said on the matter.
‘Happy’ Mongan, real name Patricia, two years younger than Margaret, had been given her nickname when a baby. Evacuation has made of her a thin, nervous, wide-eyed serious child, and so the nickname sounds as irony. The youngest of the Mongan girls, four-year-old Brigid, wiry short straight hair, stolid build, is a great favourite with the older girls. For we treat the three or four infants as pets, vying to take them out with us, mounting a small child behind us on the saddles of our bikes. During my second year at the Hostel, an auburn-haired, two-year-old child arrives, alone and with no sister to watch out for her. The childless nuns have not considered the practical difficulties of accepting such a placement and soon Sister Agatha is in almost permanent ill-temper with the infant. "She’s vain! She looks in the mirror all the time!" she says grimly, dragging the sobbing, screaming child across her knee and hitting at her bottom with a hairbrush. I am puzzled. Why shouldn’t a small child look in the mirror? Surely she is wondering over her reflection, who is that in the mirror, who am I? Now I can understand the real cause of Sister Agatha’s ill-humour. She has chosen one of the seven deadly sins with which to attack the child, but the infant’s real ‘sin’ is in wetting, or even dirtying, herself. An offence not included with the catechism. As a consequence of this almost daily punishment, the infant becomes silent and cowed, showing none of the curiosity natural to the child of that age. An interest and energy which would have further enraged the nun, leading her to search for some other sin with which to cover the child’s further ‘offence’!
However, by and large, the Hostel suits me for I can hide among the other girls. Even better, Sister Agatha’s determination to be no more than a matron, or warden, frees me from the responsibility of regarding her as a substitute mother. An organised woman, she has ensured the smooth running of the hostel by drawing up rotas for everything - bath nights, hair washing, domestic jobs... This rota pinned to the door of the living-cu m-dining room. This we examine every day to ascertain our place in the world. The heavy domestic work is done by a local woman named Mrs. Paternoster. She is not a Catholic, but on applying for the job, her name had convinced Mother Prioress that she was sent from heaven. We girls, of course, call her ‘Mrs. Pat’. She is a sturdily-built woman, permed brown hair, somewhere in her forties. At the weekend we older girls take charge of the cooking, for on a Sunday Sister Agatha spends the day in church and in prayer. We recite:
"Dearly beloved brethren, is it not a sin,
to peel potatoes and throw away the skin?
For the skin feeds the pigs and the pigs feed you,
Dearly beloved brethren, is it not true?
By mistake, I mix the custard for more than twenty children from yellow Soya flour - I do not know that custard powder is pink until mixed with milk. Also, I burn 14 lbs of jam. I stir the large, heavy pot standing on the electric hot-plate until I sniff an acrid smell. I don’t think to turn off the hot-plate and remove the pot, instead I hand the wooden spoon to Happy Mongan, relinquishing all responsibility. As during war-time food cannot be wasted, we have to eat both ‘custard’ and jam. To cover the acrid taste of the jam, Sister Agatha adds vanilla essence which together with the burnt flavour produces a pungent, unpleasant tang. Jam tomorrow, yesterday and today - for weeks and weeks and weeks! Every day, after dinner, Sister Agatha meditates, shutting herself in her room for an hour. I, and the other girls, creep about the hostel, our voices muted. I picture the short, stubby Sister on her knees before the crucified Christ, her long black gown trailing behind her, her round pale face confined by the starched bonnet, alight with passion. A crown of thorns pierces his head, his hands pierced by nails, a sword penetrates his side, blood flows... He groans and Sister Agatha cries out in ecstasy.
"She’s having a lie down’ Pamela Davidson says to me. "Or reading her book!" I say. Sister Agatha has left her book on a fireside chair in the dining-room and I, on returning home from school, pick it up and idly turn the pages. I expect to find a religious or moral tale, but no, it is a 1940s equivalent of a block-banger-buster. And I am most surprised to peep into a bedroom scene of Hot Passion! This book, I know, my parents would regard as trash! I return the book to the chair only just in time, for Sister Agatha who has suddenly remembered her oversight, hurries to retrieve it, shooting at me a suspicious glance as she gathers the book to her breast. Several months later, I am found to have borrowed from the public library D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ and William McCartney’s ‘Walls Have Mouths’, the life-story of a Communist given a ten-year prison sentence in England for spying. Sister Agatha finds the books in my chest of drawers and all hell is let loose! I am sent to Mother Prioress where I undergo an inquisition. I lie, of course. What else can I do? I say that I have read neither book. In ‘Walls Have Mouths’, McCartney writes about the conditions in gaol, the last Chapter dealing with homosexuality. And so I must tell the Mother prioress that I had thought the McCartney book was about prison reformers, someone like Elizabeth Fry! ‘Sons and Lovers’, I say, I had borrowed only because my father had known Lawrence. I had not opened this book, and had read only a few pages of ‘Walls have Mouths. It was boring!
As it happens, the McCartney book had been recommended to me by a girl in my class named Sybil, via Colleen. "She says it’s a good book" says Colleen. But to the nuns the quest of adolescent girls for knowledge outside the school curriculum is regarded as prurience. In fact, the nuns do not recognise adolescence. Girls go from childhood to adulthood without any in-between. Because of this, even after I have left the Convent to return home, I am once more in trouble. This time for writing a letter to Pamela Davidson. She had written to me to say that she was feeling very depressed. ‘Mrs. Pat says she gets depressed, but with her it’s the change..." I reply, jokingly, that the cause of Pamela’s depression couldn’t possibly be the change, and that it must be adolescence. My mother receives a letter from the Mother Prioress, in which she asks that I no longer correspond with any of ‘their girls’. This because the Convent was intent upon ‘their’ girls remaining children until they went out into the world.
Physiology is on the curriculum, and taught by a lay teacher. The lesson given from a chart thrown over the blackboard. The chart showing the outline of a man filled in by different colours to indicate heart, lungs, liver, the stomach, kidneys, intestines, blood. Green, mauve, yellow, orange, blue, red.... It bears no relation to a living person. I feel nothing of the lungs struggling to breathe, the blood coursing through the veins, blood rising up into the face or town to other places, or expelled during injury, the kidneys straining to emit body waste, or the liver out of condition causing vomiting and spots before the eyes. Nothing of the effort and mess of everyday living. This illustration is scientific, hygienic, the body behaving as a machine, its environment having no effect upon its function. There is no uterus, no ovaries, no fallopian tubes. Only those physical attributes common to both male and female are included. And so, at the Convent, the sexual functions of the body are never mentioned. Fortunately, with regard to D.H. Lawrence and William McCartney, Mother Prioress appears to accept that my possession of the two books is accidental. And yet I am sure that it is my possession of these which determines my exclusion from the Children of Mary. This is when I am in the Upper Third, at a time when we are of an age to join this sodality. Only I and a girl named Rosemary, but called ‘Vee’, are excluded. I can understand my own exclusion because both Sister Agatha and Mother Prioress have accused me of being too critical, I lack faith. But Vee’s exclusion I can put down only to her untidy curly hair and unpressed uniform. Vee and I look at each other ruefully. We feel shut out, and yet at the same time glad to avoid boring religious meetings.
At the Hostel, once a week, Father Brennan from our brother school, St. Ignatius College, visits Sister Agatha and she entertains him with cake and ginger ale. The two of them locked in the kitchen against our intrusion. How we older girls snigger! "I reckon they’re kissing and cuddling in there and she’s sitting on his lap!" We roll our eyes. Unfortunately, the door is locked with an inside bolt and there is no keyhole. The ginger ale poured out by Sister Agatha for Father Brennan, the flowing glass placed before him, is very weak for every time I and one of the other girls are left in charge of the kitchen, we creep into the larder and pour ourselves a drink, replacing the amount taken with water., We like ginger ale, but this is also our revenge on the St. Ignatius boys, for when one of them comes with a message to the side-door leading into the kitchen, Sister Agatha makes much of him, plying the boy with biscuits and ginger ale.
In one of the downstairs bedrooms stands a piano and sometimes of an evening, the beds pushed back against the wall, Father Brennan entertains us by playing and singing. He has a deep bass voice and his favourite song is:
Drake is in his hammock ‘til the great Armada comes,
Captain, art thou sleeping down below?.....
He is also an admirer of Bing Crosby and encourages us to sing Bing’s latest hits. One of the girls has a sweet voice and Father Brennan encourages her to sign solo. She is named Betty Devine and we call her ‘Divinity’. a little younger than me, she is pretty and freckled. Every night she punishes her light brown hair by pushing it into shiny steel curlers. Sometimes, I cycle with ‘Divinity’ to local towns, Hemel Hempstead or Ware or Hertford, or Hoddesdon. Although younger, Divinity is taller than me and her body already forming into curves. And so, Italian prisoners of war, identified by the large patches sewn on their uniform shirts, cycle alongside and chat us up. They are allowed out to work on local farms. I am sympathetic towards these prisoner and tell them solemnly that we too are Catholics. With a ciao, they cycle past us on their way back to their camp. Cycling on a warm summer day with Divinity to an outlying Hertfordshire town, we grow thirsty and knock on the door of a cottage, one in a row, to ask for a drink of water. a woman answers. She is dressed in a cotton frock, the colour washed out of it, her straight hair parted in the middle and strained back to be fastened by pins into a small bun. On her feet a worn pair of slippers. She turns, beckoning us to enter and we find ourselves in a darkened room, the greater part of which is taken up by a double put-up-up in which a man lies sleeping. His red face and dark hair lying on a pillow, one bare, muscular arm thrown outside the covers. Betty and I look at each other, we are embarrassed and want to giggle, but the woman opens a door and leads us into an adjoining kitchen. a room into which the sun shines through a window over the butler sink, lighting up a plain wooden table and a shelf of crockery. Wordlessly, the woman pulls out chairs for us and we sit stiffly, in silence, while she makes us each a cup of tea and puts jam on bread. We eat and drink until, at last, the meal over, we make our way once more past the sleeping man and out into the street. Our appreciation of the woman’s kindness overridden by the sight of a man asleep in bed. We giggle and pull faces at one another, and go into flights of fancy as to what might have happened should he have awakened.
Every morning at 6.30 a.m. Sister Agatha collects all those girls she can find to attend Mass at St. Ignatius College Chapel. ‘Fletch’ goes to Mass willingly every morning, for she is into religion and we respect her earnestness, not holding it against her. The rest of us go only reluctantly and when Sister Agatha catches us on her morning rounds. We hide in alcoves, under beds, or lock ourselves in the bathroom, holding our hands over our mouths to stifle giggles. With no time to spare, the good sister is then forced to proceed without us. On those occasions when I am trapped before I can hide, I give in gracefully, resigned to spending this time before breakfast on my knees. "I’m in love!" Pamela Davidson, kneeling alongside me, exclaims. She too has been caught by the indefatigable Sister. Pamela is not a Catholic, but having been a boarder since with age of five with the nuns of St. Mary’s Priory, Our Lady’s sister school, she identifies with Catholicism. "I’m in love!" she whispers again, indicating to me one of the servers, a kneeling boy seen in half-profile, high complexion, head drooping as if he is half asleep, which he may well be! His legs jut out behind him in unpressed, shabby, long grey trousers. He does not interest me, but Pamela’s face is aflame with excitement, her body tense at the idea of being in love. I am more interested in the other server, not as a boy-friend, but because he is the older of two brothers who went into a billet where they were fed on nothing but porridge. two or three months later they were found to be suffering from malnutrition and returned home to London to regain their health and strength. Although, once more at the garden City and in another billet, both boys remain thin and pale. I wonder what it is like to almost starve to death and see these two boys as romantic characters. With Pamela ‘in love’ with one of the servers, now, in the morning at the cry "time for Mass!" if I am to escape, I must avoid her as well as Sister Agatha!
"I’ve told my mother I want to be baptised a Catholic" Pamela tells me "but she says the beauty of the ritual can be deceiving. The heady incense, the candles dancing in flame, the sonorous music, the sweet singing, the altar flowers, the priest in his white and gold intoning strange words in Latin. You know, Lahr" Pamela says solemnly "it can all combine to deceive. My mother says I must wait until I’m grown up before I decide." Her words give me a jolt and I agree with every one of them. However, having hidden my secular background and family secrets for so long, I cannot reveal myself now.
Each evening, Sister Agatha gathers us together for prayers. We kneel in the dining-room while she leads us and gives a homily on "Defending the Faith":
Faith of our fathers, living still
in spite of dungeon, fire and sword;
oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
when e’er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death,
We will be true to thee till death.
Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
were still in heart and conscience free;
how sweet would be their children’s fate,
If they like them, could die for thee!...
We walk tall, seeing ourselves as soldiers ready to make war against an unknown enemy, only just out of sight! I have an odd relationship with God at this time. At school He takes hold of our lives. Night and day he is there, making His presence felt in all that we do. At home, my father claims to be an Atheist. There is no God. My mother has rejected the religion in which she was raised and has put no other theism in its place. Although, for a time when she was very unhappy, isolated at 9 Wilton Road and plagued by economic and domestic problems, she had taken religious instruction from Sister St. Alban, the crosspatch nun at St. Martin’s Convent. My mother had always said to me that religion was no more than a crutch and at that time she was desperate for some form of support. However, it went against the grain to take the further step of entering the Church. For when it came to the choice, Rationalism had upon her the stronger hold. "Is there, or is there not a God?" I had mused while at St. Martin’s Convent. "Prove yourself" I ask the God in my head. "If you really do exist, let me hear a strange noise in reply." Lying in bed that night, suddenly I become aware of a series of squeaks. Rather like mice, but we have no mice in the house. Can this be God? I am not convinced. "God" I say "if you’re real, let someone down here claim to be Jesus. Not like before, I don’t want him crucified. Just let someone claim he’s Christ." A week or two later I pick up one of my father’s Sunday newspapers - and he bought them all - to read in the News of the World that a man charged in Court with obstruction, had claimed to be Jesus Christ! I am awed. God did exist! But this newly found personal God bore no relation to the God I learned about in organised religion. He was more of a friend.
That is how I come to pray to God not to let me die from lack of a gland when I arrive at my fourteenth birthday. I pray at odd moments and at evening prayers in the Hostel. This worry over a possibly non-developing gland, I owe to Mrs. Sargie. On one of my weekends at home, Mrs. Sargie is sitting in our living-room talking to my mother. "She were a lovely girl" I hear her say "beautiful long blonde hair and such a sweet nature. Her parents were heartbroken when she died. I were upset ‘cos I often saw her coming down Wilton Road from the top and she’d always smile. She died from a gland that should have grown when she were fourteen, but it didn’t grow and the poor girl died." She went on to describe the beautiful funeral and the lovely flowers, but I heard none of this for my mind was concentrating on my own predicament. I was nearly fourteen! Every day at the Hostel, I examine myself most urgently, pressing at the glands in my neck, watching myself in the mirror to determine whether my face betrayed the seal of death. I fully expect to drop dead on the very day of my fourteenth birthday, 18 March 1941. A month during which the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin announces plans for the conscription of women to ensure that shell-filling factories work round the clock. A month of a new Spring Blitz in the South East, one 500lb bomb hitting a crowded suburban dance hall. a month in which the BBC lifts its ban on employing Conscientious Objectors. A month in which Virginia Woolf drowns herself in the River Ouse.. The 18th March comes and goes and I sleep that night to wake on the morning of the 19th March. The danger is past and I thank God for answering my prayers!
I have settled down happily at the Hostel, but one Friday on returning from school, Sister Agatha calls me into the kitchen. "You’re moving out tomorrow" she says abruptly. "Put all your things together this evening." As I pack my battered suit-case I wonder if this is a promotion, or whether Sister Agatha has lost patience with me. On the morning of the next day, Mary, a good-natured girl some two or three years younger than me, accompanies me to my new home, carrying one or two things I am unable to get into my case. I have been sent to a hostel run by a Mrs. Hazer, a squat woman with untidy hair. She has with her two daughters one of whom is at Skinners Grammar School, evacuated from Stoke Newington, an older daughter and an 8-year-old boy. There are some twelve to fifteen girls in this hostel, most of them from Skinners, girls from other schools being accepted to make up the number. Eileen Martinelli, who sits two or three desks away from me at school, is also a resident. Because ‘Martinelli’ rhymes with smelly, her nickname is ‘sentez’ the French for ‘you smell’. We are not close friends, but from my desk in the classroom I admire her raven-black shining short straight hair, kept in place by a white Alice band, her dark eyes and pleasing features. She and her friend Joan Gatcum, whom we call ‘Gak’ and Eileen sing at school concerts and Eileen’s singing of ‘Bless this House’ produces floods of tears from the audience. I envy Eileen her talent and courage in standing alone on the stage.
Before being dumped at this hostel, I had never heard of it and only later do I learn of its occupants’ proud boast that no Jewish girl sent there stayed for more than a week or two. Of course, in view of the area in which Skinners was situated in London, a large number of Jewish girls were pupils at the school. When I arrive at this hostel there are no Jewish girls in residence and I, although half-Jewish, am known only as a Catholic. The absence of a scape-goat has resulted in a certain boredom setting in and, therefore, when I show myself vulnerable to bullying, gleefully the girls set to work. As it happens, the ringleader is not a Skinners girl, but a Convent girl named Kathleen Webster. She is in Oonagh’s class and they are fairly friendly. It is Oonagh who tells me that Kathleen has a chip on her shoulder because of a step-mother whom she dislikes and a disinterested father. I arrive home from school, to find Kathleen, small of stature, brown curly hair, green eyes, standing by my bed in the downstairs room which I share with four or five other girls. She grins at me spitefully while other girls stand and watch. My blue dressing-gown has been spread inside-out across my bed. "What’s that?" Kathleen interrogates me, pointing to a small stain at the centre of the gown. The threatening atmosphere of the room makes me fear the worst. "What is it?" I recoil, mumbling weakly "I don’t know." Kathleen pounces, she is triumphant. "Yes you do! You’re filthy! No one wants to sleep in the same room as you. You’re spreading germs." She acts out a shudder. I cannot defend myself because I hear my mother’s voice grumbling at my having left a menstruation stain upon a bed sheet. "You should be more careful" my mother had said. "If you did that in someone else’s house they’d be disgusted!" she had told me of a woman "the lowest of the low" who had gone out into the street wearing a skirt the back of which bore a blood stain. "Men despise women like that." "When I get my periods" my sister had said sanctimoniously "I’ll manage them better than Sheila."
Now, all this comes back to haunt me and I feel guilty and cannot make any reply to Kathleen. I do not know what this particular stain might be, nor whether my tormentors have placed it there, but I cannot defend myself. This, of course, encourages Kathleen and her cohorts to continue their persecution. On another day, I return to the hostel to find my frayed and worn underwear, knickers and vests, pulled out of the chest of drawers to be displayed on my bed. No doubt the other girls’ underwear is in a similar condition, for this is wartime and we are away from home. But this does not occur to me. Once again I am a young child boarding at St. Martin’s and despised for my family’s poverty. "You must live in a slum and your mother and father must be beggars!" sneers Kathleen. Kathleen has cornered me in the bedroom, the girls once again watching me with their accusing eyes. "Look at your hair!" a girl says, pointing a finger. "It’s a disgrace! Where’s your comb?" She rummages in my bedside locker and flings the comb at me. With trembling hands I push it through my hair, tugging at tangles. "It’s no good - her hair’s filthy! Like her neck! Go and wash your neck!" I am given a slight push towards the stairs to help me to the bathroom, where I lock myself in and hope to stay until they tire of their game. I see myself creeping down the stairs, opening the front door and running down the street, to go where? Somewhere. They bang on the door, one after the other. "We’re waiting. Mrs. Hazer says you’ve got to come out." I know this is a lie, but at last I emerge and my neck is examined. "It’s still filthy, it’s been filthy all her life, it will never be clean. We ought to push her head in a basin and make her wash the fleas out of her hair....."
Recently, I have read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, published by Virage 1990, in which the main character speaks of being bullied at school. This book bringing back to me all I had suffered:
"I worry about what I’ve said today, the expression on my face, how I walk, what I wear...Carol is in my classroom, and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day...They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On the way home I have to walk in front of them, or behind. in front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind...."
A Jewish girl named Marion is sent to the hostel. Not a pupil at Skinners, but attending at a local Grammar School. She is a girl of athletic build, bold brown eyes, curly black hair. She is soon sucked into the game on the side of my abusers, acting often as their mouthpiece. For they are having too good a time abusing me to interrupt my maltreatment and turn their malignity upon her. As I know of the anti-Semitism rampant in the hostel, and nurtured by Mrs. Hazer, I feel betrayed by this girl, a potential victim who ought to be on my side. But she, of course, is ignorant of her own vulnerability. I grind my teeth. "Just you wait my girl!" I say to myself as if speaking to her "you’ll get yours sooner or later!" Eileen Martinelli does not join in with this bullying and yet she does nothing to stop it. Instead, she distances herself from my victimisation. Once, when at school I am crying to Colleen during the dinner hour, she calls Eileen over and asks for an explanation. "It’s only because they like you" Eileen says to me weakly "they only tease people they like"! This makes me angry, for I know it is her excuse for standing on the sidelines.
At the Convent Hostel, I can remember only one incidence of bullying. This had occurred when Maureen Quinlan, while we were at dinner, was accused by one of her class-mates, of losing the form a netball match. Other girls sitting around the two tables arranged in an L-shape, begin to take sides and the argument gains momentum. Brickbats fly at Maureen, who half crying, tries to defend herself. Until, Fletch intervenes and the girls are told in no uncertain terms to stop picking on Maureen. The girls subside and loaded missiles fall harmlessly to the floor. Afterwards, I walk to school with Maureen, a girl some eighteen months younger than me whose sister Theresa sits behind me in class. Maureen’s hair is in such tight curls that it is no longer than a boy’s and in each ear she wears a small circular dangling gold earring. She expresses her anger at her accusers and I excuse myself by telling her "I didn’t say anything about you." She looks at me contemptuously. "You never do. You always keep out of it." I understand the justice of her accusation and am ashamed. And I promised myself that I would be like Colleen who, sure of herself, is always willing to stand up and be counted on behalf of others.
However, the verbal assaults at Mrs. Hazer’s hostel continue to batter and damage me. If it had not been for this bullying, the hostel would have suited me fine. For Mrs. Hazer never objects if I go out in the evening or asks where I am going. One morning I decide to get up at 3 a.m. and go mushrooming with local sisters Madge and Betty Roberts, to whom Oonagh has introduced me. Like Oonagh and me, the Roberts girls are great readers and have organised their books into a lending library at 1d per book, although I don’t remember ever paying this amount. Madge, a short girl with straight brown hair, pale complexion, tip-tilted nose, light green eyes. I recall her face more easily than that of her younger sister, thinner and potentially taller than Madge, and who wears her hair long. A few short years later, Madge is to reappear in my life in London, when I treat her badly. To go mushrooming, I creep out of the hostel in the early hours and cycle in the direction of the Roberts house. They live in a road on the outskirts of the Garden City, adjoining another street, the two streets running alongside the Cherry Tree/pear Tree divide. In the half-light, I mistake the house and neither of the Roberts girls in evidence, I try to attract their attention by picking up some small pebbles from the garden path to throw them gently at the upstairs front window which I imagine to be Madge’s bedroom. No response. I pick up and throw a further handful, and then I see a man’s sleepy head at the window, his hands struggling with the catch. I am shocked and immediately realise my mistake. In discomfiture, I jump on my bike and pedal to the right address, by this time giggling over the whole episode. Madge and her sister are waiting for me and the three of us make our way over the fields, plucking out the light brown mushrooms as they push their heads out of the dark earth and above the green grass. Flushed with pleasure, my large paper-bag filled by fungi and stowed in my saddle-bag, I return to the hostel in time for breakfast. Timidly, I present the mushrooms to Mrs. Hazer who takes them without looking at me. She never looks at me, not even when I am helping in the kitchen by wiping-up while she washes-up. The mushrooms are never to appear on the table. Fearful that they are toadstools, she throws them all into the dustbin.
As the weeks go by at the hostel, I become more and more unhappy and yet it does not occur to me to complain of my treatment. For I have a sense of guilt. The fault must lie in myself. Then, one day, a Mrs. Bishop, a tall, dark-haired woman with a gentle manner, calls to visit her small daughter Josie, who is staying at the hostel temporarily. Josie had shared a billet with Oonagh, until the ‘lady’ became ill and was taken into hospital. Oonagh moving on to another billet. Mrs. Bishop finds me sitting in the living-room and I am weeping. My elbows on the table, my head in my hands. Concerned, she asks me "what’s wrong? Why are you crying?" I pour out over Mrs. Bishop my misery, my lamentations, to set the floor awash, lap against the walls, press against the ceiling, push the windows outwards. She is appalled and, unknown to me, immediately goes to the nuns at Little Young’s, her small daughter bearing witness to my unhappiness.
Therefore, I am surprised, but happy, when on returning from school on the next day, Mrs. Hazer says shortly "you’re going back to the Convent School Hostel." Mary helps me carry my belongings and soon I am at 97 Attimore Close. Happily, I embrace its wall-papered rooms, the furniture provided for use not ornament and the bare lino. This is a place I know well and all the girls are my friends.
On to Life-Saving
Get You Back Home