One of the worst aspects of boarding school for me was to watch the day-pupils walk out of the open school door, past the lime trees in the triangular driveway and through the strait iron gateway onto the pavements outside. I follow their progress with my eyes, grieving for my lost freedom.
On Sunday mornings our mother hurries to the Convent to take us home with her until Monday morning, the time passing all too quickly and instead of enjoying my temporary liberty, I fret that I must soon return to the confines of the Convent. Sometimes, on a Monday morning I stretch out on my bed crying that I feel ill and cannot return. My mother, gathering up our clothes, or performing last minute chores, turns away her face, her expression stiff as she is forced by circumstancaes to close her ears against my entreaties. So once again I return to the Convent with my sister, to sleep in a long white dormitory, the two rows of iron bedsteads covered by dead white counterpanes. Along both side walls stand cubicles from which hang blanched white curtaining. Between these cubicles on both sides of the room, long windows give a glimpse of gardens on the one side and the triangular drive-way on the other.
The cubicles are allocated to the older girls and enviously I wish that I too could hide behind these hangings. Instead, my sister and I sleep on beds alongside one another, she cuddling a brown woolly toy dog, which she tells me she pretends is our mother, me hugging a soft toy cat with light blue-white fur. A larger cubicle at each end of the room is occupied by the two nuns set to guard over us, Sister St. Wilfrid and Sister St. Francois.
To us children, Sister St. Wilfrid dressed in her long black habit, white bonnet and black veil, appears ancient, but my mother surprises me by referring to her as Ďa young girlí. She is one of the few Irish nuns at the Convent, tall and thin, the skin of her face pale and freckled, her eyes green, the colours that announce auburn hair. I imagine it as long and luxuriant, pulling on the Sisterís tall, narrow frame. But imagination has to suffice, for there is no way in which I am going to see the nunís head without a cover and, anyway, it may well be that her head was shaven.
Sister St. Wilfrid has some sympathy for the children in her charge - perhaps she is not so many years older than the girls in the cubicles and finds the elderly French nuns hopelessly old-fashioned. For at night she reads to us not from the slim, green-covered Childrenís Realm, but from what I know later to be More William by Richmal Crompton. We lie in our regimented lines on our iron bedsteads while at the further end of the half-lit dormitory Sister St. Wilfrid sits on a chair, her black gown shading into the gloom. If I peep over the blankets I can see the white of her bonnet as she bends her head over the book:
"William was frankly bored. He disliked facts, and he disliked being tied down to detail, and he disliked answering questions. As a politician a great future would have lain before him....."
Of course, the levity of such as the William books was absolutely forbidden and especially at bedtime, for did not the catechism itself adjure us to lie ourselves down with thoughts of death? This stricture making it necessary for Sister St. Wilfrid to keep handy The Childrenís Realm and should Sister St. Francois appear before her appointed time, slap, bang, wallop, the William book was hidden away and stories of sinning, punishment, repentance and forgiveness, or a story from The Lives of the Saints (simplified and expurgated) were substituted.
I liked Sister St. Wilfrid because her disregard for the rules meant that she was on our side. But nothing is consistent in this world for Sister St. Wilfridís attitude to coughing at night caused me much worry. Coughing seemed to drive her crazy and on the first cough she appeared in a long white nightdress, her head covered by a shawl. "Stop that coughing!" sheíd hiss, her face looming angrily over the head of the bed. I try to stifle the sound, hand pressed over mouth, throat held still, breath imprisoned, but at last the strangled cough explodes into the night. Sister St. Wilfrid stalks away to l,eave me to wait in trepidation. Soon she returns with an enamel mug filled by a thick brownish not unpleasant liquid tasting like licorice. A liquid which I would have been glad to receive if I had not first been imbued with a feeling of guilt.
A few years later Sister St. Wilfrid renounces her vows and returns to lay life. When I hear of this defectiion from my mother, for I am no longer a pupil at that Convent, I find it difficult to understand for in those days to me a nun was a nun was a nun.
Perhaps it is apt that in an environment in which spiritual beings and unseen deities are presented as more real and desirable than human kind, I see visions. Mine, however, are of a different calibre to those seen by St. Bernadette or others of the saints. I lie awake at night, sheet pulled up to my eyes, and watch small, misshapen elfin creatures playing leap-frog across the dormitory. Silently back and forth in a mute dance which I follow with my eyes. Or am I dreaming? Or between waking and sleeping? Or seeing pictures on my innter eye-lid? It seems very real at the time and the memory is unlocked for me by a book by Doris Lessing in The Children of Violence series. Whatever - I hugged these visions to myself, for these extra-terrestrials had no place in Catholic doctrine and at home my parents professed to be rationalists. A convictiion on which my mother with her love for films, novels and a belief in telepathy, held narrow tenure. But, for their children a belief in fairies or Father Christmas was definitely out. And yet, I am frightened of being alone in that dormitory, not because of anything I can see, but of the unseen lurking kbehind the icy white cubicle curtains, or just outside the long, second-floor windows, seemingly isolated from the ground: or behind the swing doors at each end of the room: or behind the washroom door: or lying under the cold white counterpanes.
My sister must have had similar fears for on the one occasion when she is ill and left alone, the sole occupant of this seemingly never ending blanched room, she screams so loundly that even in the school hall and dining room her cries can be heard. Hurriedly the nuns confer, talking in French, running this way and that. At last a decision is made. "Go to your sister" and I am hauled up two flights of stairs and deposited by her bedside. However, when it is my turn to be ill, I am considered old enough to bear the punishment alone. I lie in bed and watch the dead still cubicle curtains hanging in their stiff folds. I listen to the creaking of the building and await the presence of the maker of creeping footsteps. I watch the swing doors which seem about to open. I wonder who is hiding behind the washroom door. Outside the windows the tops of trees move as if stirred by an unseen hand. I lie and listen to the stillness in which I am wrapped. At last, in panic, I grab my neatly folded clothes from out of the white bedside locker and hurriedly dress myself to run in terror down the long back staircase - straight into the stolid large kitchen nun whose job it is to bring me food. She grabs hold of me and shouts angrily in French, for she knows no English. I watch her large angry face, the eyes glaring, the mouth moving and I shake with fright. She half carries me back to the dormitory, strips me, shoves my nightdress over my head, throws me on to the bed and beats my bare backside, her heavy hands coming down again and again. It is in this manner I discover that human kind with power over the defenceless is more terrible than the supernatural.
My nights and days are filled by arbitrary decisions against which I can make no verbal complaint or explanation, for a child is not allowed to speak to a nun or teacher, except in answer to a direct question. And, of course, in those days absolute silence reigned in the classroom, this was so in all schools, but to the nuns with their admiration for closed and silent orders, such silence must have been doubly valued. The sacrifice of communication being seen as a saviour of souls. It is not for many years that the teachings of Piaget and other educationalists are to perssuade schools that by speech young chilidren, and perhaps all of us, develop thought, for as Mandelstam writes in a poem:
I have forgotten the word that I wanted to say,
So my thought, unembodied,
Returns once more
To the shadows
An understanding of child development, undermined in the 1990s by Tory and New Labour governments, intent upon returning education to the 1930s.
At that time, in the abasence of speech, but overcome by a need for communication, a girl would sometimes post a note to a friend on the other side of the class. This voluntary writing and grammatical phrasing not being valued by the authorities, for if the culprit was caught punishment followed. The note shich stands out most clearly in my memory is that seized in passing by Pamela George, a tense, dark-blonde, eight-year-old. The note, intended for the girl sitting by Pamelaís side, said no more than Ďsee you at playtimeí, this message travelling joyfully from one end of the classroom to the other, assisted on its way by classmates until it arrives at Pamelaís desk. Seizing it she springs from her seat and triumphantly presents the note to the nun sitting at her desk in front of the class.
Pamela George dies that summer during the holidays and the nuns describe to us children her last agony, how unable to breathe, Pamela had begged to be taken to Mass. They tell us of her goodness, thoughtfulness, obedience...and all I can think of is "she was a sneak" and I wish that I had liked her better. However, I ring round in black ink Pamela Georgeís name in my autograph book and take to myself some of the glory of having knnown someone who had died.
Of course, when it comes to speech, in the dead regime of the Convent where all is ordered from rising to sleeping, words are superfluous. We rise at first bell to be shepherded into the washroom, a line of white pedestal basins, where we dip our hands and faces hurriedly in cold water. In the dormitory we pull on vest, liberty bodice, navy blue knickers, black stockings, a navy blue jumper edged with white, a striped tie. Our shoes are black. In early summer the jumper is replacaed by a white blouse and in the midst of summer by a navy blue and white school dress. Dressed and passed as neat and tidy, before breakfast we walk in a line down the stairs to the Chapel, which I see always dressed in Lenten mauve, the statues hidden behind their shrouds. The red glass lamp hangs from the ceiling on a golden chain, a faint glow of light within it announcing the presence of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Three persons in one. One morning I disgrace myself in this Chapel for in its quiet cloisters wind blows around my intestines and exits from the only place open to it. Out it comes with a crack, to crash against the walls and tip up the altar, toppling the priest in his long robes arse over head. The light in the red holder flickers, in shock the praying nuns are torn from their seats, their pews cast asunder. I am seized and thrust out of the Chapel, to creep with shame into the Assembly Hall where I sit in a corner, dreading the appearance which I must put in at breakfast:
Bless us O Lord
and these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive
through Thy bounty
From Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Breakfast begins every morning with a bowl of gruel-like porridge in the centre of which has been placed a desert spoonful of white granulated sugar, wet and brown at the edges, making a raised oval pattern. This uniform shape decorating all the bowls lined up on the long table. And each bowl of porridge which I have eaten since bears this same mark, whether it be stodgy, unsweetened or salty. Just as all custard to me is lumpy, even now when I cook it for myself, smoothing out the lumps before they form. I eat it carefully, feeling each particle with my tongue and I am back in the Convent dining-room, sitting at the table in isolation, for dinner is over for all but me. I must eat my custard. I gag on it. I cry. The salty tears joining the yellow mess on my plate. At last I have eaten enough to satisfy the watching nun and am allowed to go. Or I am weeping in front of a plate of white blancmange covered in a red sauce. Years later, in a restaurant, I try once again to eat this thick glutinous mass and spoon up the red liquid, but cannot do so and sick and shaking at last push it away.
These are the foods I remember, for they made eating a misery. I recall also the clear soup served up every day. A soup which even the French nuns fail to call consomme. Too clear for us and so we rectify this by breaking bread and dropping the pieces into it, to soak up the colour and texture and lie like dead swimmers in the pale liquid. It is certain that nature, if left to itself, would have us eat only when hungry, but modern civilisation demands set times for everything, so that from chilidhood we are programmed to respond automataically. Food piled onto a plate and placed before a chiild at a certain hour demands Ďeat or be found guiltyí. Therefore, to relieve the tedium of such meals I form the food on my plate into a model world. I demolish mountains, swim seas, land on foreign shsores, fall into craters, meet giants....
But the food at meal-times is not the worst of my worries. For as it happens, my sister and I are the youngest boarders and all those older than us, if only by a year or two, are entitled to govern our behaviour. "Donít hold your knife like a pencil...donít twist round in your chair...keep your elbows off the table...donít eat so quickly...slowly...donít put so much in your mouth...donít...donít...donít...donít your mother and father teach your anything? Do they eat like you...I expect they do! I hear the sneer and in frustration my chest becomes taut, my limbs stiffen, my neck rigid, my hands clench and unclench and then the temper welling within me arrives at my face to twist it into the ugliest of grimaces. My tormentors are taken aback. "Look at her face!" they gasp. I am odd, beyond their comprehension. A madness. They are uneasy and retreat.
We give Thee thanks O Mighty God
For all Thy benefits
which we have received through Thy bounty
From Christ Our Lord. Amen.
These bullies can be no more than twelve years old, but to my sister and I they are Ďbig girlsí. The oldest boarders at the Convent at this time are about fourteen or fifteen years of age and the two of them are named Joan. Joan Batchelor and Joan Hastings, and I donít remember either of them ever talking to me. Joan Batchelorís parents are in India and she has been boarding at the Convent since the age of five. A tall, well-built girl, well groomed, face pale and closed in upon itself. She is not a Catholic, nor is Joan Hastings, and I cannot remember whether or not they attended at Chapel. Joan Hastings has short brown hair, ruddy complexion and is livelier than her friend. Once a year Joan Batchelorís parents come to England and visit her at the Convent. They walk around the school premises and Mrs. Batchelor, a beautifully dressed grey-haired lady, bends towards me in the manner usual to an adult towards a small child with whom they have no connection, and says kindly "youíre Sheila". I canít deny it, but am embarrassed. Soon both parents, the father tall and grey-haired, move away in stately fashion.
Joan Batchelor is to stay at the Convent until the age of eighteen, when a few months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, she is to join her parents and return home with them to England after a short holiday. How does she feel? After a gap of thirteen years to live with these stranger parents" For so many years she has been surrounded by women only, now she will learn to know the presence of a man, her father. But this is denied her, for the very day before Joan is to fly out to India, her father is killed in an air crash. She flies out to be with and to comfort a mother she barely knows.
The two Joans to me are on a par with the nuns and I have little or no contact with them. It is the younger girls, older than me, who are the bain of my life. For instance, two of the nuns have taken the boarders for a walk for which we form a crocodile and I am walking beside my sister. With mounting excitement I follow the route down Colney Hatch Lane and my heart almost bursts as we turn into Wilton Road. I look across the road to find my house. Yes, it is there, there looking across at me! Is my mother inside, will she open the front door and call me in? I falter. I am a captive in another world, but I can gain some comfort from knowing that the promise of the house is there. "Hurry up!" says a girl behind me. "Iím looking at my house" I say and all the girls look across at the red brick and brown paint-work of the small semi-detached house at 9 Wilton Road. "Look at that awful paintwork!" Ursula says scathingly. "Can you wonder the two of them are like they are, coming from such a slum!" The other girls agree and as now miserably I watch my house, the dull brown paint flakes off to leave dirty white scars. The whole house sags.
In my defencelessness, I need to find a protector and I discover this in Marguerite Poisson, a good surname, for I am pisces and my symbol is a fish! She is the daughter of an English mother and French father and while her name has embossed itself in gold letterts in my memory, I cannot recall her appearance. I think that she wore her brown hair short, was slightly built and aged about twelve or thirteen. Why she chose to be my guardian I do not know. Perhaps at first it was merely that she was kinder to me than were the others, I showed my liking for her which, in its turn had a knock-on effect.. I know that I want to please her and show my gratitude, so that when on one Empire Day 23 April, for which we are given a half-day holiday from lessons, she explains to me that the British Empire is the biggest in the world, I reply, without any true knowledge, "but the French Empire is the next biggest"! It is not that she would intervene with the other girls on my behalf, but she would whisper afterwards "donít take any notice. They donít mean it." Or she would listen to me when I spoke to her and answer me pleasantly and seriously.
If I knew more about this girl I could explain a terrible happening when in the middle of supper she runs from the dining-room table and into the Assembly Hall, under the looped climbing ropes hanging from the ceiling, past the wall-bars, the horse and the stacked balancing forms. Marguerite is pursued by Sister St. Francois, the nunís black garments rustling with anger as she treads after the terrified girl, her quarry. The air bristles around us, working itself into a frenzy of electric sparks so that flashes crackle against the walls and hit the ceilings over our heads, paralysing the girls at the table. Marguerite screams and the girls who are placed near to the open connecting door, whisper that Sister St. Francois has hold of her and is banging her head against the wall. Screams, cries the sound of running footsteps, terror, are all that remain to me now.
My sister and I learn to make the best of it. What else can we do? And we find diversions. For instance, immediately after school on a Wednesday the Catholic children must attend at the chapel for Benediction. When a day girl, I longed to join the non-Catholics and go out of the school door onto the gravelled triangle, paast the large lime trees and through the strait gate onto the pavement outside. But the vigilant Sister St. Clare, the keeper of the gate, kept a sharp look out for defaulters so that even on one occasioin when I genuinely forgot that it was a Wednesday, she pulled me back inside. Now I am a boarder and dreams of escape impossible. I am done for. Kneeling side by side my sister and I each take a hymn-book from the pew behind. Tauntum ergo and O Salutaris Hostia are our favourites, for they all have the mystery of abracadabra: "Tauntum ergo sacrementum, veneremur cernui" we sing, rolling our tongues around the unfamiliar words and guessing at the pronunciation. "Et antiquum documentum, novo cedat ritui..." Our part in the ceremony over and the priest dressed in his long white cassock and gold-threaded stole at the altar, we amuse ourselves by pointing out to each other the title page in the hymn-book, making poems by reading the titles one after another; stifling giggles and bending our heads to hide from authority our enjoynebt:
All creatures of our God and King
Alleluia, sing to Jesue
All Godís people come together
All people that on earth do dwell
All the earth proclaim the Lord
Come and bless, come and praise
Come and Worship
Come, my brothers, praise the Lord
Fear not, rejoice and be glad
God is Love
How good it is to know your name
Immortal, invisible, God only wise
Itís me, O Lord
We rejoice especially at those titles which seem to fit together snugly:
Ding dong! Merrily on High
Go Tell it on the Mountain
In this manner, and very much a captive audience, we alleviate the boredom of religious practice. AMEN.
On to In Trouble
Get You Back Home