With a distinct “Oof!”, I bounced off the unyielding door, a door which – and I mention this purely in the interests of accuracy - had a large metal 'H' screwed onto it. I didn’t often say “Oof!” – in fact I don’t think anybody outside of ‘The Beano’ usually did, but in my defence, if I hadn’t been eleven years old, fresh out of catholic primary school and sincerely afraid of going to hell for doing so, I’d have said “Fuck!” and with some feeling. However, at that point I hadn't begun my swearing career, and 'Fuck' was yet to become my favourite word, although that process would not take very much longer.
1976 was a momentous year for more than one reason – each of them enough to justify a well-rounded expletive (and I got around to that within a matter of days). Most important of all, it was the year of the United Kingdom's best summer in living memory and as a freshly-released primary school pupil, I was gloriously free to enjoy the sunny, hot weather for a whole six weeks before embarking upon the greatest - and therefore the scariest - adventure of my short life; starting secondary school. It was a summer of bright colours, a plague of ladybirds, scorched grass and lots of time spent at the local open-air swimming pool (which, in deference to the roasting air temperatures, consistently offered water cold enough to turn a human body an interesting shade of blue within ten minutes); a summer for being outside every day without ever getting rained on. The light was special, the traditional family beach holiday was the best holiday ever (the wonderful weather again), and by beginning secondary school I was – as far as I was concerned, anyway – growing up.
Walking - with that peculiar stiff-armed ‘walk’ that kids do when they’re actually running on school grounds but pretending to themselves and everyone in authority that it simply isn’t the case - to the last school bus from my tiny primary school, I had unknowingly left behind something precious; something quite wonderful and which I would fail to appreciate for many years. It hadn’t dawned on me that I was leaving behind all of my best friends, many of whom I would not see again for fully twenty five years, and even more – including my best and closest friend ever - whom I would never see again. I had no idea; I wasn’t able to imagine that far into the future.
Had I but realised the finality of that last day at Our Assumption of Catholic Guilt Primary School, I would have cried my little heart out, and I’d have pleaded for those days to never end. I would have sobbed uncontrollably and yearned for the open, innocent and honest friendships that I had enjoyed so fully for the previous six or seven years. I would have looked into my future with horror – even if unnecessarily - instead of mere trepidation. However, being too young and just a little too stupid to fully grasp what was happening, I scuttled along that concrete driveway towards the school bus which would take me home one last time. My heart, in its innocence, was singing.
The loss of those friends is still very real to me more than forty years later, and although I blundered into my future wrapped in a cloak of childish ignorance, I’m now grateful that I was spared that particular agony of parting at such a young age. As things are, the scars have not healed. This is how I know with utter certainty that I would have cried like never before had I known the truth.
My primary school had been a gentle, if not quite genteel establishment. The Catholic Church, with its history of vile oppression, torture and brutal warfare against people who had the temerity to have grown up somewhere else (and therefore to have not been ‘blessed’ with the messages of a hippy Palestinian carpenter), officially strongly disapproved of any un-Christian nastiness in the schoolyard or classrooms. This was unless, of course, that such nastiness was perpetrated by a teacher upon a child up to and including the age of eleven (basically, the smaller, the better). Nuns were, of course, exempt from all the rules - including the laws of the land – when it came to cruelty towards children. In the case of nuns, the idea seemed to be that psychopathy was a desired character trait.
I was fortunate to have been taught (with one glaring exception - a lady of whom it is rumoured that she went on to join the East German secret police humiliation squads) by a series of compassionate and caring teachers, but the deputy head of my junior school – as well as the big headmaster man himself - scared the crap out of me, mostly because both wielded the ultimate punishment in times of moral or ethical crisis: the cane.
The cane was a terrifyingly thin piece of bamboo (it looked as if it would slice clean through a human torso) with a hooked end, exactly like every instrument of evil schoolroom torture I had seen in the old black ‘n white movies. The cane promised unimaginable pain and humiliation, followed by the very worst consequence of all, namely having one’s parents called in to explain why the teacher had been forced – forced, you understand – to thrash their recalcitrant offspring. It went without saying that parents always took the teacher’s side in those days. We knew and understood it; we were after all – and were reminded every Sunday just in case it slipped our sinful minds - unworthy. We didn’t know quite what we were unworthy of (it was all kept deliberately vague, I think in order to avoid awkward questions), just that we fundamentally were – and this was a notion with the full support of the regularly visiting priests, of course. Yep, we kids were utterly and irredeemably unworthy, and that was that.
By today’s standards, the prevailing attitude towards children was leaning towards the brutal end of the spectrum, but in truth, it could have been much worse. We were a delightfully nun-free school, however my elder sisters (ten and thirteen years my seniors respectively ) both told stories of pure terror about their secondary school days, replete as they were with pupil-beating nuns, whose manifestation of devout worship seemed to be cruelty towards powerless children. Typically, the only time I saw a nun was at church (they would occasionally turn up in slowly-moving packs of twittering, rosary bead-fiddling old biddies) but those tended to be very elderly and well past their best child-thrashing age. Nuns in school, it became clear, were an entirely different kettle of wimples – now there’s a fascinating mental image and were - I was solemnly advised - to be avoided at all costs.
The one brief incursion into my childhood by one of those pious, cowled monsters occurred when, in order to fill in for a teacher who had rather selfishly fallen ill, we were ‘blessed’ with a temporary visitation by the redoubtable Sister Presumpta (not her real name; that was Attila). A middle-aged (and to our eyes, quite ancient) woman who obviously worked out with heavy weights each morning after a light breakfast of nails and broken glass, she ruled her unfortunate class with a rod of iron (and the thin edge of a ruler across the back of the hand) for several weeks. When not actually engaged in torturing people, she patrolled the corridors like a black Dalek, grim-faced and ready to pounce with ridiculous – and awesomely righteous - outrage upon even the most inconsequential misdemeanour. Sister Presumpta was, it’s fair to say, universally feared and despised – except of course by the headmaster and his deputy, both of whom seemed to revere her as a saintly influence who was doing them and us a huge favour by gracing us (quite literally) with her presence. It was her ghastly – if thankfully brief – reign of terror that began to sow the seeds of doubt in my mind about the notion of a ‘merciful’ God and church. She did some good, then.
The main weapon of choice at Catholic school – just as in the churches - was psychology. In particular, the Catholic church and its followers were very big on guilt and humiliation, and Catholic schools were the places where this message was most insidiously reinforced. Never a moment slipped by without our unworthiness being apparent (at least as far as the school leadership was concerned), as was the underlying – and traditional - sense of an afterlife filled with pain and horror, because (as we were constantly reminded) we were all sinners. The paradox of Catholic belief (at least among every Catholic I ever knew) seemed to be that we were all somehow born rotten to the core and had to spend the rest of our lives making amends for being so sinful before even drawing breath (which, as it turned out, was all Eve’s fault), but also that everyone we ever knew who had died, had quite definitely – no question about it - made it to heaven. To even entertain a thought that it might not be so was considered very bad form.
I was never sure how that mental somersault worked, but by golly, I was assured that all my dead grandparents were looking down upon me and wagging a reproving finger whenever I stepped out of line. Yes, that’s right; they were all dead. Not one of them had hung around long enough to see me more than a few weeks old. I thought that was rather bad form, actually.
Our innate sinfulness allowed Mr. Barker (the deputy head) and Mr. Fillmore (the big cheese himself) in particular to regard the small people in their charge with permanent expressions of distaste, if not at times outright disgust. I felt their respective contempt on two occasions in four years, both of which left me quivering with self-loathing and fear in equal measure. It’s now a little too late to thank them for their influence over my adolescence (both having doubtless risen to paradise, from where they are wagging their holy canes at me right at this very moment), so I won’t bother. The miserable bastards.
Mr. Barker was a very tall, very thin man. If he was alive today, he’d be an internet meme. His height was bad enough for a child who was already small for his age, but compounding his looming creepiness was a permanently pale countenance, emphasised by a fierce blue beard shadow even at the start of the day. Steely, dark eyes peered out malevolently at the world as he bestrode the corridors and revelled in his power as the not-quite-but-almost boss of the school. He was never seen to smile (not even if a child tripped and injured themselves right in front of him), and the consensus was that he never blinked. Rumour also had it that he was married, but kept his wife locked up in the house when he was at work. How the heck the person who started that one came up with it, I’ll never know - but I believed it for several years. He was that kind of man.
Mr. Barker always, always dressed in a brown suit with drainpipe trousers. The suit – made of high quality rayon - rustled slightly as he walked, the interlocking, agitated fibres generating thousands of volts of static electricity. Every ten or twelve paces, he would pause to ground himself on a metal window frame or door handle, the pain of each static shock strengthening his resolve to never stop hating the children under his supervision. Mr. Barker, through word and deed, was the grim reaper whom we all feared. Following my innate sense of self-preservation, I kept my distance and allowed my unreasoning terror of him to quietly and steadily develop.
At one time, together with a couple of my friends, I took to spending time inside the classroom at lunchtimes, where we would read, tell each other silly stories, and draw. It was simple stuff, innocent and utterly harmless. Staying indoors wasn’t exactly banned, but was definitely frowned upon (the school didn’t bother with ‘gently discouraging’ anything, and leapt straight to frowning disapproval), since the merciful Lord’s fresh air was deemed to be good for us. Other teachers had seen the three of us making our own fun and had quietly warned us to not make any noise (for reasons unknown), but otherwise left us alone, since we were doing no harm and not actually breaking any rules.
One day we all decided (for the same reasons that kids will stand in the shower with their raincoat on, or watch TV lying upside down on the settee, or try to drink milk through their nose) to sit underneath one of the classroom tables and read a favourite story from the library shelf. It felt a little like camping – it was fun! For a while we giggled and chortled (quietly) at something very innocent, but were interrupted by the shock of a huge BANG on the top of the table. For the first time in my life, I farted with fright. I looked up to see – to my horror – a pair of brown drainpipe trouser legs standing motionless (the occasional crackle of high voltage sparks playing across the surface of them) next to the table.
Mr. Barker, the seeker of all things sinful, had found us...