6: CONVENT GAMES:
The Convent School is entered by a narrow gate set into the railings and this opens onto a wide triangle of gravelled ground (24). Ground which hides the marks of shoes within which feet have planted themselves solidly, refusing to move forward to the narrow entrance guarded by Sister St. Clare, the Kindergarten teacher, a plump, white moon-faced nun who opens the gate four times a day, two of these at least being happy occasions for she lets the children out. Behind the footprints are drag marks which move inexorably towards the door, leaving behind them a mist of misery. Marks made by generations of children, but those which most draw my attention are made by Gracie James, a small dark girl brought into school each morning by an adult sister whose fate even then was sealed. For she was to die of tuberculosis and Gracie, perhaps in an act of premature, yet genuine, mourning, weeps bitterly each day on being left at the Hall in which we gather for Assembly. Until, one morning, Sister St. Clare and Sister St. Francois, the latter an elderly red-faced nun with pockmarked skin, pounce, lift Gracie between them and thrust her into a dark cupboard, to teach Gracie that children must come willingly and happily to school. Not long afterwards, the Sisters set free that part seen by them as the Infant Gracie James, but unseen something of Gracie is left behind to hide in dark corners and throw itself against locked doors. And so, in later years, when Gracie has escaped the Convent and left it far behind, her husband and children suspect often that part of Gracie is shut away beyond their reach.
On the triangle grow several large lime trees and these at least give us some pleasure, for we are able to pick a leaf from a low-lying branch and pull out the green between the veins to produce a ‘fishbone’. Should a vein be broken in the process, we pick a second leaf and so on until the skeleton is perfect.
These trees bear also the mark of children’s hands, feet, arms and tears, many hiding behind or clinging to their thick trunks, or longing to climb and hide themselves in their lush foliage. One of them is especially stained and the branches sing out to me the screams and cries of Mona who, eager to escape school at the end of the day., fails to operate the brakes of her bicycle and goes slap-bang into a trunk of a tree. I stand amidst the gaping crowd of children and mothers and, being of an age to experiment with language, for several years am confused as to the connection between Mona’s name and her lamentations.
If entering the official, approved, narrow door into school is a trial for us children, woe betide those who arrive late after Sister St. Clare has locked and bolted the door, for then we must knock at the front door leading into the nuns’ quarters, an old house onto which the school has been grafted. Many are the times when on my way to school I hear the bell tolling high in the tower and envisage Sister St. John, a young, fresh-faced nun, pulling on the red and yellow bell-rope, the strenuous exercise disturbing the top half of her black habit to reveal an edge of pink corset. An item of lingerie never failing to surprise me for it labelled the sexless nun as a woman. Before the bell ceases, I know I must be at school, if I am not to be forced to knock on the nuns’ door.
If I do arrive after the school door is closed, I must walk at the side of the triangle to the solid front door, which in response to my ring is opened by a kitchen nun who is distinguished by her head-dress, foreshortened, without white ruff around the neck and over the shoulders to be softened by the steam of cooking. She looks at me angrily, for her duties have been interrupted by my tardiness. I apologize, hanging my head, and creep past her quietly, to turn into the passage with its brown patterned lino and shiny varnished, forbidden doors. The smell of floor polish and incense hanging about me like a pall. Hung on the wall is a large, framed, dark-tinted print of St. Martin, a Patron Saint of France. His noble countenance ablaze with love as he leans sideways from his horse, sword drawn to rend in two his more than ample cloak, so that the almost naked beggar kneeling in supplication at the City gates can be clothed. It does not occur to me to ask myself why St. Martin should possess such a fine garment while the beggar shivers in his nakedness, for did not Christ himself say "for the poor always ye have with you"? Nor do I question St. Martin’s motives, and wonder whether he is intent upon providing the beggar with warmth, or is offended by his show of flesh.
Then I turn away from St. Martin and his charity to follow the brown patterned lino past the WC in an alcove to the side of the nuns’ stairs. This is properly part of the Sisters’ house, but near enough to the school to be made use of occasionally by the pupils. It is here that Sister St. Francois, having left the WC, automatically slips the outside bolt on me within. I hear its movement, but cannot believe that like Gracie James I am imprisoned, until on turning the handle and on pushing at the door, it refused to give. I scream and cry out in panic, banging on the door, until the nun returns to let me out, indicating as she does so her disapproval at my protestations.
I cross from the lino to the grey stone floor and brownish distempered walls of the school building and make for the stone stairs which will lead me to my classroom on the first floor. Now I must face up to the worst of my ordeals - entering the classroom after the lesson has begun. I peer through the square glass window set into the door, to see the Sister, or one of the lay teachers, squatting at her desk in front of the class, maintaining a close watch while the heads of the children are bent over their books. Always there are one or two who glance towards the door and while no obvious signal is given, surreptitious sideways glances at each other and at the closed door reveal that my class-mates are aware of my plight. I summon up the courage to knock timidly, but the teacher may not at first hear my tapping. However, one or two hands are raised eagerly, "please Sister (or Miss) someone’s at the door." The teacher looks sharply in my direction. Then, I might be ordered to stand in the corridor until the lesson is over; or I am called into the classroom to stand in a corner with my face against the wall; or, if the teacher has woken that morning in a happy, hopeful, frame of mind - a good temper which will last until mid-morning at least - I am told to go quickly to my place and take out my books.
But, at the beginning, before I am old enough to walk alone, or with my sister, to school, my mother takes both of us there and leaves us to be drawn in by Sister St. Clare.
While the grounds at the front of the Convent stretch away from us, those at the back are sweeping. At each recreation period we walk in a long file past kitchen gardens circled by a curving path. Past the shrine occupied by a plaster saint and ignored on our outward journey, but to whom we must genuflect when met with face to face on our return. Our goal is the playground which is surrounded by a high wire fence, and doubles as a hard tennis court. On one side of this playground is a grassy bank on which we can sit when watching a tennis match, but at playtime it becomes the terrain of our games. Behind this grassy bank is a fence and behind that the gardens of houses in King’s Avenue. The proximity of the houses made no impression on me, for my sister and I were now boarding and I was confined within the Convent precincts. Until a day girl, for domestic reasons, must spend a Saturday at the Convent, climbs the bank and calls over a fence "Dad, can I have my doll’s pram", the pram to appear promptly over the top of the fence. If I but lived there I would scale this barrier and stay in my own home forever.
At one time it was a fashion for the boarders to make small, pretend gardens, on the bank, decorated with berries, pieces of glass, leaves, twigs and whatever we could find, but they were soon trampled down by the day pupils in their games, leaving in my a sense of loss.
We play all manner of games on that playground, milling around in our separate groups, but on wet days we play in the Assembly Hall and it is a great surprise to me in the 1970s when teaching in inner city schools, to find that on rainy days the children were made to sit quietly in their classrooms or in the hall, allowed to look at comics, but forbidden to move. For in our hall we were able to play exactly the same type of game as on the playground.
Sociologists and psychologists who have made a study of play, see it as a catharsis for children who in appropriating to themselves the power of adults, or in acting out the role of the child as seen by adults, integrate themselves into the world around them.
And certainly our games of ‘mothers and fathers’ on first going to school reflect ‘family values’. Mother is the main player, bustling about ‘doing the work’ and nagging at the children. The children taking delight in disobeying her and in being ‘naughty’. Father’s is a minor role, he goes to work each morning and comes home in the evening for his dinner.
Or ‘schools’ in which the ‘children’ are lined up in front of ‘teacher’ who asks them a number of questions ‘say your two times table" or "how do you spell ‘school’", one child at least taking delight in getting all the answers wrong, until she is sent ‘outside’. A spin-off from the cinema are our games of cowboys and Indians (I always choosing to be an Indian because that was where my family’s sympathies lie), or ‘cops and robbers’. Both of these games requiring much rushing about in an attempt to catch, or capture, each other and cries of ‘bang-bang".
Adults, of course, see play as time-wasting, or as a short break between work tasks. certainly, Froebel’s and other educationalists’ theories that children learn by play remain controversial and are an emotive subject to governments which distrust the free rein of the imagination, or energies, of the people. Obedience, lack of self-respect, lack of self-confidence, greed, competitiveness, dullness, are the virtues governments and industry are keen to inculcate. If learning by play has gained a certain credence during times of economic boom (now called upswing) when the populace are allowed some leeway, it soon finds itself under attack when slump (now called recession) bites and social control is the order of the day.
However, unaware of theories and attitudes towards our play, we engage ourselves also in games to an age old routine: ‘In and out the dusty bluebells (or windows), ‘the farmer’s in his dell’, ‘Poor Jenny is a-weeping’, ‘I sent a letter to my love...’ - Games which to me are often an ordeal, for they require each participant to be chosen by the one who went before, I fear always that I will never be called, until at last I feel a soft touch on my shoulder and throw myself wholeheartedly into the game.
During at least one period of the year, usually in the Spring, we rush home to demand of our mothers a skipping rope and on the following day skip to school, more intent upon our journeying than destination. "Has yours go ball-bearings? Let’s see." The playground has become a seething mass of swinging ropes and chanting and springing girls as one after another we run in to jump over the turning rope held on each side by an ‘ender’. The mathematical calculation required to decide when to run in and jump being certainly more skilled than that required to add or subtract numbers on a page:
I am a Girl Guide dressed in blue
These are the things we have to do
Salute to the Captain
Bow to the Queen
Turn right round and face the King...
The patriotic sentiments of this skipping rhyme not preventing us from singing on the way home:
God save our old tom cat
Feed him on bread and fat
God save our cat.....
or the equally irreverent:
Land of soap and water,
Mother wash my feet
Father cut my toe-nails
Give them to baby to eat....
Imprisoned within our child’s world we cock a snook at the world of dominating adults.
Often we play ‘He’ - called by Council -school children ‘It’, just as they say ‘faynites’ while we say ‘pax’ for a temporary cessation of the game:
Dip, dip sky blue
Who’s it, not you
O U T spells out
So out of this game you must go
Because my mother told me so
In this way we choose the first person to be ‘He’ and chase after those in the game until another is caught and she becomes ‘He’. And, of course, we use most of the dips and skipping rhymes, perhaps with minor variations, recorded so meticulously, if joylessly, by the Opies. One of our rhymes indicates that the attitudes of imperialism had seeped into our souls:
Chinkee chinkee Chinaman
Muchee muchee glad
Chinkee chinkee Chinaman
Muchee muchee sad....
But this Chinaman is a cartoon figure wearing a pigtail, mandarin moustache, round cloth cap, loose blouse and wide trousers. How can we connect him with the struggle of the Chinese people against Colonialism? The myriad politics and tactics of what is now called the ‘First World’, the opportunism of Stalinism and the policies of Chiang Kai-shek were not subjects covered in our school curriculum! Instead, unknowingly, we imbibe the fear dispensed by a tabloid press against ‘the yellow peril’ - ‘they were breeding too fast and would soon overrun ‘ ‘us’’. A press which itself comes to be called ‘yellow’. The tabloid press speaks of opium dens in Limehouse in which Chinamen seduce young and, of course, beautiful, white girls. What do we know of the nineteenth century Opium Wars (1839-42) in which Britain went to war against China to force the import of opium?
Coming from a political family, I do know during the Sin-Japanese war that the Chinese are ‘good’ and the Japanese ‘bad’. and, in fact, I can remember sitting on a seat on a platform at Muswell Hill railway station and telling a young woman sitting alongside, that my father said that we should not buy Japanese goods. A difficult task for in those days Japanese goods fulfilled the role taken later in the century by goods from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Woolworths consisted almost entirely of Japanese goods.
But, of course, our school history told us none of this. Instead, we learned lists of Kings and Queens of England and the dates they reigned, out of context and like a shopping list. These ‘facts’ interspersed with such tales as King Alfred burning the cakes. This, of course, was general to all schools and while the French and few Irish nuns may not themselves have been infected by British imperialism, they aimed at pleasing English fee-paying parents, the larger of whom came from non-Catholic homes. These pupils were the children of small shop-keepers, artisans, white-collar workers and others with a regular income and no more than one or two children. The common denominator for these parents being a determination to save their children from the ‘common’ Council school where they would mix with ‘rough’ children.
A second group of pupils are those who require the Convent’s boarding facilities, such as the children of Civil Servants who have been posted to the far-flung outposts of the Empire. Places about which we learn in geography as wild, uncivilized and heathen. Places which are in urgent need of Catholic missionaries. Hanging on the wall is an illustration of rising steps going up and up and up, at the top clouds denote Heaven. For 1d each child can choose a small cut-out figure of a child of the Empire - Chinese, African, Indian.....Children in need of salvation. A 1d pins the figure to the first step and each subsequent 1d takes the child a step nearer heaven. When, at last, the cut-out child arrives with her head in the clouds - and pennies being in short supply in those days many never made it - the sponsoring child gives her convert a name and in return is given a holy picture stating that she is godmother. To be a godmother! That sounds important to me and so I go without my daily cocoa, which costs a 1d per day, and quickly send my child, whom I name Maria, up those steps to paradise. After such an effort, I tire and a future cut-out child remains with most of the others, about a quarter of the way to salvation.
The Convent of St. Martins had been brought to Muswell Hill to continue the charitable work of its patron saint in providing a Catholic education and to ensure that Catholics in the vicinity should not be corrupted by Protestantism. Therefore, while the Convent was intent upon receiving fees from non-Catholic parents, the Reverend Mother was always ready to offer a reduction in fees, or even to provide free schooling, so as to ensure that a Catholic child remain within the community. In fact, when following the baptism of myself and my sister, my parents find themselves with no money for fees, my mother makes over to the Convent an endowment policy payable when I am fifteen years of age. By that time I have long left that Convent, but my mother’s sense of probity ensures that the payment is made in full.
The Mother House of the Order of St. Martin is situated in Tours in the Loire Valley. Tours, named for a Celtic tribe, the Turanes, and the district first became prosperous in the days of the Pax Romano under the name of Caesarodunum (Caesar’s Hill). It was in 360 AD that St. Martin founded a monastery for it appears that his experience with the beggar had decided him upon a religious path. Convinced that the whole episode had been a direct test from God, and it was Christ himself who had appeared to him in the guise of a mendicant, he ended the military service for which he had come to Northern Gaul and gave himself to good works.
St. Martin’s remains lie in Tours and three Basilica, two of them in ruins, ensure that he is not forgotten, especially by tourists. Three basilicas, because while in life St. Martin abandoned military action, in death he was bedevilled by its violence. The first basilica was destroyed by the Normans in the fourteenth century and the second by the Hugenots during the religious wars of 1562. The third basilica was not built until 1924:
The Penguin Guide to France 1989 writes:
"Today the 15th century half-timbered houses and gabled facades of the Old City shelter seductive sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Various styles of town houses cluster on rue Briconnet near the Musee de Gemmail. The relatively modern art of Gemmail, colourful glass pieces assembled and artificially lighted from the back, or inside, to create a contemporary version of stained glass, was invented by the painter John Crotti (1878-1958)".
And, I daresay, there’s a McDonalds somewhere.
Looking back over the years, I cannot now remember my first reaction to the appearance of the nuns in their long, dark black dresses and stiff white bonnets, ending on chest and shoulders, covering every vestige of possible heads of hair. A black veil hangs from the back of the bonnet and ends in a point. A large crucifix strung on a black cord hangs around the neck, and to the side of the full long black skirt hangs a black rosary. Beatrice Hastings, ex-artists model, ex-mistress of Modigliani, ex-suffragette and democratic anarchist, refers to them as ‘penguins’ when she comes with my mother to meet us from school. But apart from their similar black and white colouring, I could not see this resemblance, for even the Kings, seen at the London Zoo, were much smaller than the overpowering nuns and posed no threat.
On first going to school and in the kindergarten, I sit at a table at the back of the large classroom. If I turn my head I can see a picture of the Sacred Heart, his red heart exposed to my gaze as he fingers it gently. He is dressed in a white gown and red cloak. His hair is long and a crown of thorns surrounds his head. Today, this picture joins with the Sacred Heart at the very top of an over-mantel over-seeing my cousin Cecil’s ruined room. On the bed, my Aunt Mary lies dying. Tumbled among the old newspapers, trampled clothing, plates of dried food and cat shit are my Aunt’s prescribed heart pills, red, green and yellow.
In the classroom, and on the other side of the room, the Virgin Mary stands high on a small shelf, her blue-painted gown faded and dusty. My sister is at the other end of the room with the under fives and over us all hangs the moon face of Sister St. Clare, surrounded by her dark habit. I sit writing at a table, carefully tracing over with my pencil the light blue lines of the alphabet presented in an exercise book. I do not know what the letters mean for I cannot read, but there is some amusement in trying to keep the pencil on the narrow lines. My neighbour, Betty Scott, whispers to me. I cannot hear what she says, but Sister St. Clare’s whipcrack of a voice breaks the quietness of the classroom. "No talking!" I cower in my seat in resentment against Betty for including me in her shame.
At the side of the classroom, under a window, stands a wooden sand-tray painted green and raised on legs to child height. Sometimes, I gaze at the loose, yellowish sand and vaguely wonder that it is doing there. I know its purpose for my mother, as a concession, has made my sister and me a sandpit in our garden - a place where we bury my mother’s cutlery. Here it appears to be out of place for we are forbidden to use it. I have no doubt that Sister St. Clare herself must have been equally puzzled at its inclusion within her classroom for the teachings of Montessori and Froebel are outside the experience of the nuns who believe in obedience and penance.
At times, Sister St. Clare leaves the classroom for a short space of time, first announcing her intended departure: "I am going just outside the door and will be able to hear you. You must count 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on until I come back." At other times the instruction is to recite the alphabet, or the two times table. And so we set up a drone "twice one are two twice two are four twice three are six..." not daring to break for a second, for we know that God is everywhere and attribute a similar ubiquity to Sister St. Clare.
My sister and I had, of course, entered the Convent as non-Catholics, a category covering all branches of religion and none, but by the time my sister is six and I am eight years, my mother decides that her two children should be baptized as Catholics, my father putting up no argument against it. Instead, he rationalizes "If they’ve got any intelligence, they’ll come away from religion when they’re old enough to think for themselves." I see my mother’s decision as partly due to her own childhood experience at a Portsmouth Church of England school. The Head Teacher had been instructed by my grandfather that his daughter must in no circumstances sit in on lessons about the New Testament, nor must she attend at Christian prayers. This meant that my mother must wait together with two or three other Jewish girls until morning Assembly was over, and when the New Testament was the subject of a lesson, she must walk out of the classroom under all watching eyes, separating herself from her peers, and from the host culture. Undeniably, the insecurity of the immigrant had been transmitted to my mother from her parents and this coalesced with the anti-Semitism she had herself experienced as a child and the growth in the 1930s of fascist and Nazi organisations. My mother wanted my sister and me to feel as if we belonged, to be at one with our peer group, and to escape persecution, by being presented as Catholics.
Of course, the news from Germany added to my mother’s paranoia and possibly was the deciding factor in my sister’s and my own conversion. For in January 1993, with the connivance of President von Hindenburg Chancellor von Paper and the Cologne Banker Kurt von Schroeder, Hitler had been appointed Chancellor. A month later the Reichstag went up in flames and von Hindenburg signed a decree suspending all legal guarantees for personal liberty, freedom of speech and the press, and the right of Assembly. At a meeting held at Berlin’s Kroll Opera House, in sight of the burned out Reichstag, an Enabling Bill had been carried out with the support of the Nationalists and the Centre Party which allowed Hitler to rule by Decree. Communist, and some social-democrat deputies, absent and under arrest.
Dr. Goebbels denounces the ‘Jewish vampires’. Storm troopers roam the streets looking for Jews to beat up, their victims being left lying on the pavement, avoided by passers-by. Nazi thugs burst into the Dresden Opera House and eject the musical director Fritz Busch. The Berlin home of Leon Feuchtwanger, author of Jew Süss, is broken into by Nazis who tear up papers and steal the manuscript of his new novel, Josephine. In April, a boycott of Jewish businesses is ordered by the Nazi government. Windows of Jewish shops are smashed and posters pasted up which read "Germans defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda. Buy only at German shops." This boycott is enforced by beefy, uniformed SA Guards who stand threateningly outside Jewish shops. Jewish professors are prevented from entering the University of Münster, lawyers and bankers barred from their offices. Insurance Companies complain that they are out of pocket from the damage to Jewish property and that national property is being destroyed.
A huge bonfire of books burn in the square in front of Berlin University and a similar pile burns in Munich, watched by thousands of school-children: the works of Heinrich Mann, Upton Sinclair, Erich Maria Remarque.....the bookshops stock Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This alone must have terrified my parents who could envisage their own precious stock of books piled in the street to form a bonfire-night pyre. And yet a few years later their books are to be burned.
In Germany, the trade union movement is purged and Storm Troopers sweeping through their offices seize files and arrest labour leaders. Dr. Robert Ley, an alcoholic chemist from Cologne, becomes the head of the new German Work Front.
By June, Germany has become a one-party State and school text-books are being rewritten to include such subjects as ‘racial science’. In July the Nazis announce a programme of sterilization of ‘imperfect’ Germans. By August, the Jews are herded into concentration camps. The outlawed Socialist Party reporting that 45,000 socialists were also being held in 65 camps, the largest at Dachau.
"The space between the double fence is patrolled by armed sentries who shoot anyone attempting to escape without challenge. Herr Wekerle, the Prison Commandant, said ‘four men made a dash for it last week. They got a hundred yards before the bullets hit them.’"
In January 1934, Oswald Mosley, speaking in Birmingham calls for a modern dictatorship. Many
of the British Union of Fascist members present wear black shirts and leather belts, a uniform copies from Mussolini.
Around us, conveyer-belt death trains feed human cargoes to the camps to be piled onto the mountains of living skeletons.
My mother is able to bravely face the threat to herself, but she cannot accept it for her children. We are to be concealed behind the facade of the Catholic Church.
Shortly after my birth, my mother intent upon pleasing her family, had taken me to the synagogue to be named ‘Simcha’, which means joy, a name translated by my Aunt Becky into ‘Seema’ for one of her daughters. Simcha in honour of my grandfather, Samuel. As it happens, while my parents’ first wedding had been in a Registrar’s office near to Farringdon Road - my mother arriving late for the ceremony due to becoming immersed in the wares of the book market - later they had agreed to go through a Shul ceremony for which my mother wore a light grey beaded dress. My father agreed also to become Jewish and be circumcised, an uncomfortable operation
for a man nearing 40 years, who could take no time out from work and must cycle about his business. Of course, as an atheist, he did not take this conversion too seriously, and yet regarded it as a gesture.
Now, I am to become a Catholic. The baptism takes place at Our Lady of Muswell, the old church at the back of the grounds soon to be relegated to Church Hall. As I wait at the fount, dressed in the white satin gown, made from material, sacrificed by my mother from a time closed to me, a future self lurks in the shadows to walk across the altar replaced by a stage, to dance at Church socials, to take part in a nativity play as a Roman soldier while the mob shouts "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb....."
I finger the white transparent beads adorning the collar of my Christening Robe while the ceremony drones on with questions from the priest and responses from the godparents. Godfather to both of us is the writer John Brophy (father of Brigid). He is not a Catholic, but has a Catholic wife. We have been given separate godmothers, mine Ann Aldred, daughter-in-law of Guy and my sisters’ godmother is Maireen Mitchell, a character actress seen in long gown and beaded skull cap as the nurse in the film of Romeo and Juliet. Ann Aldred is unable to attend, and so an old lady stands in as proxy. Maireen is to take her role seriously, for once or twice a year, she takes my sister out for the day, and at these times I am a little jealous. At last the ceremony is over and we both have now the Christian name of ‘Maria’.
While these preparations for integration are under way, my mother pushes to the back of her mind the nagging worry which gnaws away like a toothache - what will her family say? She takes comfort in the thought that the East End is a long way away, almost in another time zone. Little does she know that events are in train which will bring her sister Becky and her family to Barnet, within the environs of Muswell Hill. In the meantime, I am to reconcile the religious doubts of atheism and libertarian socialism with the certainties of Catholicism, for the catechism asks and answers:
Q. Who made you?
A. God made me.
Q Why did God make you?
A. He made me to know him and love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.
Q. In whose image and likeness did God make you?
A. God made me in his own image and likeness.
Q. Is this image to God in your body or in your soul"
A. This likeness to God is chiefly in my soul. and so on.
From now on I am to be indoctrinated into religious belief which allows no opportunity for argument or discussion. I either know the answer, or I don’t. For, as Dr. R.L. Worrall writes in TIME AND LIFETIME 1989, "Religious belief demands a surrendering of past, present and future to the dictates of dogma and the capriciousness of an unseen deity. In this way, the marrying of knowledge and memory/experience becomes a misalliance. And we are unable to master the march of time." Such religious belief surrounds our days, the Catechism, prayers, the Lives of the Saints, the Old and New Testaments, attendance at the small Convent Chapel, Mass on Sundays, preparation classes for making a First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation....
The non-Catholic girls withdraw for these lessons, staying only for those on the Bible, but for us Catholics faith invades even our lay lessons, classed as endeavors which we virtuously offer up to God. Original sin, Mortal sin, Venial sin, daily these are in danger of staining our soul and we will be saved only by faith, confession and penance.
Father Clayton visits the infant classes. He is the parish priest and to us children an ancient - white hair, fat double chin, ruddy face, rounded shoulders. He carries with him always a bag of boiled sweets. As he walks the district, paper bag in hand, he offers the unwrapped sticky confection to any young child crossing his path. My mother, in whom the hygiene laws of her youth persist, makes sure to hurry us away as soon as she spies in the distance his rounded figure and black broad-brimmed hat.
Father Clayton knows better than to offer sweets while in the Convent and under supervision of the nuns. Instead, with a captive audience of infants, he enlarges upon the Blessed Sacraments. He sits on a chair in front of the class, facing the wide-eyed infants who wait and watch. On and on his voice drones. He is speaking of Holy Communion, but we understand little of what he says. Except for one small, bright, blond boy named Timothy Smiley. He puts up his hand. "What is it Timothy?" Sister St. Clare asks, sharply. She is hovering behind Father Clayton’s chair. Her very presence daring the children to misbehave. "Please Sister St. Clare, please Father Clayton" blurts out the earnest Timothy "if we eat the body and blood of Jesus Christ we must be cannibals!" Sister St. Clare frowns in consternation, but Father Clayton, who is very deaf, cups his hand to his ear and leans forward to catch Timothy’s words: "What’s that boy? Cannonballs?" It is incidents such as these which I take home to delight my parents.
At that time I live in two worlds. Home, where feelings can be expressed and all is open to criticism, explanation and discussion, and school where precepts are set fast. There I must be every watchful not to betray that part of me which comes into being at 9 Wilton Road and this schizophrenic development of the psyche is known as socialization. However, in spite of my developing ability to divide my world and myself into two separate spheres and my growing cleverness of dissimulation, there remain times when I am shocked at the clashing of my two cultures.
One overcast afternoon, Annette Giddon, a plump infant, and I put up our hands so as to be allowed to go to the WC. As it happens, in the case of two infants needing to relieve themselves simultaneously one is supposed to wait outside the classroom door until the other returns. Today, as I stand by the door, I see Annette hovering. The day is stormy and almost as dark as night. Annette gazes fearfully at the shadowy passage which leads to the WC, near to Reverend Mother’s room. "Let’s go together" she pleads and takes me by the hand. As we come out of the WC together, Reverend Mother passes by. She is an elderly, bent nun, face wrinkled, eyes sharp behind wire-framed spectacles. Lips pursed, she waits as the door closes behind us and then demands in her French accented voice "What were you doing in there together?" We know that she means the WC, but cannot understand the import of the question and so look at her in confusion. At last Annette stammers "Sister St. Clare said we could go." "Why two together?" the nun persists. We do not know how to answer. "Come to my room" she instructs and we follow her bent, yet stiff, figure in its long black gown into a room to stand in front of the large desk on which lie neat piles of correspondence. Reverend Mother sits herself behind it in the carved chair and I watch the dull light filtering through the open slats of the venetian blinds. "What were you doing in that place together?" she persists, catechizing us, but unlike the catechism there are no set answers. "Why two together?" At last I find words. "Annette doesn’t like the dark" I say timidly "she was frightened at going in there on her own." The Reverend Mother’s face brightens. Our sin is not of the flesh, but of a lack of faith.
"There is no harm in God’s darkness" she informs us. "You must pray for faith. Always go to that place alone. Never with anyone else." Sister St. Clare must also have been reprimanded for both Annette and I receive sour looks from that direction for the rest of the week.
But I am left puzzled. I have been found guilty, but of what? At home, my sister and I often go into the bathroom/toilet together, or with our mother. Is this a further example of Lahr depravity which must at all cost be kept hidden from the nuns?
For the most part, however, so swiftly am I able to change my persona at the first step into 9 Wilton Road, that my parents seemingly fail to recognize my double identity.
On to Crime and Punishment
Get You Back Home