My first memories are of my mother – of her softness and warmth, her expressive face always beautiful to me, of her endearing, coaxing voice whose slightest irritated inflection would cause me dismay. She would exhort Edmund my elder brother by a mere two years, to ‘look after that child! Don’t let him get his feet wet!’ as we went out to play together.
We lived off Bridge Street. Our house had extensive, overgrown grounds with mature trees. But flowing past the front of the house there was a shallow stream. Our nearest entry to the slippery stones of this familiar stream was gained by ascending a small set of steps which arched over the water. We occupied the first floor of what had been a grand house that had a large imposing oaken front door flanked by foot scrapers. There was an impressive bell-pull which extended out of a metal face, like a long, snaking, curved tongue. My memories begin in this appropriately named “Brookside”.
Sometimes our play took us upstream where the rivulet vanished in a tree-shaded gloomy corner of the tumbledown distillery. Attractive as it was, this place was mysterious and slightly menacing to me. Out of the dark rippling water my child’s mind conjured, from wish or imagination or both, desirable rather than frightening images. Often Edmund would help me search for these figments of imagination. Sensible and knowledgeable in equal parts, my elder brother by two short years patiently indulged me as we diligently but fruitlessly sought out these elusive treasures.
I told him of an abandoned bicycle – with ‘nick’ [cog] wheels – that I found in the depths of a pool. It was the mid-Thirties. Public images were mainly of war. Mussolini’s tanks appeared in magazines and newspapers and became the subject of conversation. These tanks had cogwheels and my brother and I – no doubt influenced by comic-cut propaganda of the time – supposed that these devices enabled the tanks to crawl over enormous obstacles, even houses. In my fevered imagination my treasure-trove bicycle became endowed with similar powers. I innocently but earnestly described its appearance to Edmund and explained where I had seen it. Together we walked the river’s banks, peering into its dark, distorted depths through the restless, quavering reflections of the cool running water’s surface.
Often enough our quest had us standing on stones projecting over the water. These footholds were usually slippery and I remember once stumbling into the water, soaking my shoes and socks. This earned my mum’s opprobrium but her wrath fell inevitably upon the innocent Edmund, who being older, ‘should have known better’. Every accident or misdemeanour was his fault. We had a close relationship, we two, though it was not of equals.
Sometimes we searched, to the irate cawing of the disturbed jackdaws whose abode it now was, inside the crumbling walls of the roofless old distillery. Amid a mass of broken glass we would occasionally, to our mutual delight, find an intact bottle. It was promptly smashed to release the glass ball within, which originally had served to seal the bottle. In our hands it became a marble. SCHOOL
When Edmund turned five years of age, the talk was much of school. We were placed in the strong hands of the Poor Clare nuns. Our parents – and other colluding adults – intimated that school placement was an exciting prize for worthy and well-behaved young boys. The nuns, it appeared, were prepared to bend the rules and admit not just Edmund who was of age, but also his younger brother, who certainly was not! I was delighted. I would not be parted from my soul mate, mentor and great friend.
I remember that first morning well. Excitement mounted as together we filled our stiff new leather schoolbags. In went the coveted lunch packs, each in its separate pocket. I recall Aunt Tease’s anxious and strident exhortations and my mother’s taut but nervous and quiet efficiency. The journey to school was a triumph. Aunt Teasie stopped Vincy McLaughlin’s bread van to procure buns to augment the scholars’ lunches. It took ages to reach High Street. My initial enthusiasm began to diminish as soon as we passed through the school’s high forbidding walls. There in the gloomy, gravel-strewn courtyard surrounded by high grim buildings I met my first nuns. A deep, unfathomable quiver of anxiety convulsed me. My experience until then had been of two distinct types of human being. There were males, like my father and brother, and females, like my mother and aunts. Of course I vastly preferred the females, who always made such a fuss of me. They gave me sweets, pushed pennies into my hand and embrace me into their warm, scented, resilient bosoms. I have never lost my partiality to this particular experience.
Stern, cold and remote, flapping about in bizarre, voluminous clothes, these nuns were as black as night. Their pink faces were severely boxed in linen stiff as card that denied all view of ears and hair. The whole ensemble was topped by a black veil covering head and shoulders, imparting an overall tent-like appearance. Atop this dark pyramid glowered a pink face encased in white – giving out a strange, sinister and disembodied aura. Quite natural hands protruded from the ample black folds of their garments and sometimes, when they moved, a black shiny leather-clad foot could be seen. It is difficult to exaggerate the terror these enormous dark creatures imparted in a young boy, on first meeting them.
They moved quickly and effortlessly, and with a strange quietness. But not wholly quiet. They emitted a rhythmic rustle as their many folded garments brushed and enveloped one another. My colourful imagination painted them as outsize moths flapping along the corridors, altogether more sinister than curious.
Other pupils, boys and girls, stared emphatically or curiously as our little group passed them on the corridor. We were led by a nun through a complex of classrooms. After a brief introduction my mother and aunt prepared to leave. When realization dawned that we were to be abandoned to the nuns in this strange place, panic set in. My bother and I made a break for freedom in close pursuit of our departing mother and aunt. We were quickly restrained. Glancing over her shoulder, my mother managed to control her emotions and departed. More courageous than me, Edmund howled and grasped the door-knob with both hands. Still struggling stalwartly he was nun-handled backwards into the classroom. All was now lost. The sight of my formidable brother in distress, so easily and ruthless vanquished, left me shattered and sobbing uncontrollably and dejectedly. Tears streamed down my face. My mind was outraged beyond all reason. I knew then that, at just three years of age, I would never again see my mother’s loving face; that I would evermore be incarcerated in this hateful place. To make matters worse I was at once separated from my elder brother. I became suddenly conscious of sitting with face and hands wet from tears, in a strange classroom. I was the centre of unwelcome attention. ‘These boys will think me a cry baby’, I reflected ruefully.
Our seats were tiered vertically in front of the teacher. Behind on the wall was a small altar, its door curving to a point. When these doors opened to reveal a statue illuminated with a flickering light, we prayed before it. Lost and self-conscious in this strange new world, I struggled to compose myself. Furtively I appraised my companions. I was just beginning to orientate when the nun pressed a small rubber doll, with a little recessed whistle for a navel, into my hand. I was mortified. I glanced about to detect whether the others were enjoying my humiliation. How I hated these nuns!
Baby infants’ lessons were mainly practical. I remember learning to tie shoelaces, using two types of card with eye-holes and a long lace – one of life’s more useful lessons. I remember often playing with plasticine and the engrossed delight I garnered from making little figurines. Even today I can recover these dim memories from the slightest scent of plasticine. We did a lot of singing. Then in the beginning the songs were suitable for our age. I remember ‘Pretty mister squirrel in the big oak tree’. I loved singing, an exercise in which I could give free rein to my fertile imagination.
That first terrible morning eventually came to an end when, at a sign from the nun, the whole class stood up and began to file slowly out of the room. Blindly, like a lost and lonely lamb, I followed, not knowing why.
Outside in the corridor my delight knew no bounds when I beheld my cousin Nellie Kinney and Edmund waiting for me. How could anyone possibly have located me in such a labyrinth? All my anxieties were swept away in a flood of relief. This was one of the most joyful moments of my entire life.
Nellie was about two years older than Edmund and had been detailed to mind us both. She was like a big sister to us, with all the authority and respect that commands. Girls develop faster at that age and the few years’ difference might just as well have been ten, for her greater maturity of outlook. She was vivacious, very pretty and freckle-faced with smiling eyes. Just then she appeared like an angel. Her humour was down-to-earth and spontaneous. She had a caustic tongue too when she detected falsehood or phoniness in others.
Our cousin Nellie was amply qualified as our guardian in the rough and tumble of those noisy lunchtime schoolyards of our early days.
Although the school catered for boys as well as girls, classes were never mixed. One had the feeling that it was really a girls’ school and boys admitted under sufferance. The antipathy of the nuns towards the boys was obvious in their readiness to criticize and – when things went well – the meanness of their praise. Boys were troublesome and difficult, whereas girls were all that was good and proper. The behaviour of the girls was often lauded, and they were frequently held up as a model for the boys to emulate. Even worse were the sly taunts, where the boys sometimes struggled, especially at reading.
I remember one occasion during a reading lesson when, at the nun’s bidding, each boy would stand up and read a paragraph or so. One pupil stumbled so that painfully through his task that the teacher was incensed. “A girl could do this easily,” she said. Leaving the room briefly, she returned with a girl of about our own age from another class. Giving the book to the girl, she instructed her to read. After a brief hesitation the little girl commenced. With her head jerking from side to side, causing her plaits to dangle, she spoke like a little talking machine. The boys listened, glowering. The nun gloated at their discomfort. In this way the boys were humbled and their progress impeded.
Another unattractive trait to which the nuns were prone was favouritism towards boys with well-off parents. On these fortunate few they bestowed fawning sympathy and often tempered their harshness with help. But in the eyes of the nuns, the rest of us were just rough boys, to be disciplined and criticised.
To the nuns, religion was just as important as education. In fact their religious zeal knew no bounds and from its pursuance they derived the utmost satisfaction. They were never happier than when collecting money for religious purposes. One of their favourites was the “Foreign Missions”, or as this was commonly called, the “Black Babies”. The nuns demanded from each pupil, at least one penny a week. Exhorting the pupils to pressure their parents to part with the money, which though a modest amount, was often more than people could afford. How I hated this charge! I was a timid boy and having to scrounge money from parents or relatives was a real trial. Often I didn’t get any and had to return to school next day with an embarrassing excuse. Sometimes, happily, I would be given a little white box that bore the legend “African Missions”. On top of this little box, a little black boy knelt in prayer. As the coin dropped his little head would nod gratefully and with mechanical vigour. This token of appreciation was always satisfying to the young donors. Doing a good deed is gratifying even to rough boys.
Lunchtime, eagerly awaited, came at twelve thirty. Picking up our school bags we left the class and went a short distance to a covered area in which several pillars supported the building above. We sat on wooden benches arranged around the walls and here rendezvoused with our friends, in my case with Edmund and at first, cousin Nellie. Into this place, preceded by a nun, two of the bigger boys would carry a wicker basket full of thickly sliced white bread, but without butter or jam. A large urn of cocoa would also be provided, and dozens of tin mugs. From these we drank copiously and boys whose parents had not provided them with sandwiches ate the bread. Free meals were also provided for the poorest boys. How the smell of cocoa reminds me of those times! I recall the accompanying din of boys’ voices in the reverberant place. After our meal we would pour cocoa on to the concrete ramp that led to the toilets. This ramp, lubricated by cocoa, made an excellent slide. Our boots took a hammering as we hurtled down the slippery slope. Many a knee was grazed and many a tear shed in the noisy melee.
This was the nearest thing at school we got to sports. The games that the nuns contrived were much too tame for boys. They could not take part in our rough and tumble but would admonish us for this. Always finding fault with our wild behaviour, comparing it disparagingly with that of the girls.
Boys would sometimes climb onto the lower section of the iron fire escape that zigzagged up the wall to the top floor. Often falling, from the lowest level, because other boys would pull them down. Girls, of course, never indulged in this stupid, goat-like behaviour. So the nuns quite reasonably, regarded us as hopeless ruffians. Consequently we felt alienated and cheated. We accepted that we were lost souls, and in our minds there was nothing for us, when we grew up, but the “Foreign Legion” or some other uncouth adventure.
I now realize the facilities and the wonderful service that the nuns provided for poor people like us. We were introduced to music, taught to read and to write and, of course, indoctrinated in religious beliefs. These were undoubtedly bewildering and possibly, oppressive; but still they helped to define and to buttress human morals. Fuzzy ideas were brought into sharp focus. This religion also introduced a new exotic cultural dimension, rich in music and art. This would beguile our minds and enrich our experience far above the narrow parochial constraints of our normal experience; surely a benefit for the rest of our lives. We were also provided with food and drink that, though basic was adequate. So my original negative reaction to the nuns was in time tempered. It was their devotion and sacrifice, their obedience and their sense of duty, to say nothing of their religiosity that made the existence of the convent with the benefits it brought, possible. In this modern world of financial imperatives, the unstinting sacrifice of the nuns, for a possible reward in the after-life, is absolutely incredible and humbling.
During breaks such as lunchtime, girls played in a separate area from us. Sometimes between games we would watch them through the iron railings that surrounded their playground. Their games were different from ours. They didn’t play football. Instead using tennis balls, they played against the wall with great expertise. Often with two balls, these were thrown against the wall in succession, to be caught and thrown repeatedly. Between the catches the girls would twirl around without interrupting their rhythm. During this performance the whole group of girls would chant a play song. The song would stop when the player made a mistake and dropped the ball. Then another girl would play and the song began again. Their song had many, many verses, all different. The girl who lasted the longest was deemed best.
In other games the girls would stand in two rows, facing each other at arms length and would chant ‘…in and out through stocky bluebells’. Then girls would peel off from the end of a row and walk between the lines while bowing under the arch formed by the outstretched arms of their playmates. They also skipped a lot, using skipping ropes of various lengths. Sometimes they skipped singly. Sometimes as many as three or four girls, faces flushed and hair flopping wildly about, bobbed energetically above the curving rope. They would chant a street song, one of many they knew. Their chant, timed to the smacking of the rope on the ground, might begin, “My Aunt Jane, she brought me in, she gave me tea outta her wee tin etc”. Or it might describe the man they could possibly marry one day. This one went … “A rich man, a poor man, a beggar man, a thief, A lawyer, a doctor, a minister, a chief”. Another rhyme went -‘I’m getting married, oh my joy, first a girl, and then a boy’.
So that, even then, at this tender age, they seemed to perceive their future role in life and what their futures might hold. Boys on the other hand, much less precocious, often entertained vague impractical ideas of adventure, travel and discovery, or sporting prowess. While playing in the streets it was the girls who, making a noose of a rope around a lamp-post or telegraph pole would swing in circles around this pillar with complete abandon. Often the girls too would play hop-scotch. They would chalk a large grid of squares on the pavement, number each square, and by throwing a piece of slate or wood on numbered squares in turn, devise a game where they had to hop one-legged through the grid, until the set was completed. This game too would be accompanied by a rhyme. But all these were exclusively girls’ games.
Whenever the girls played “House”, they would obtain from their mothers, odd pieces of old crockery, old rickety chairs, and perhaps a little rough table. These would be set out around the ground plan of a room, defined with a chalk line with a little gap for a doorway. They would then invite a boy to be the “Daddy”. Boys were usually reluctant to take this role, and it often required bribery with a sweet. The ‘Daddy’ had to sit on a chair in the corner and drink imaginary tea that the girls poured copiously from borrowed tea-pots. While he would be supping loudly (as was required) his imaginary tea, the girl would dart deftly about, doing imaginary household chores.