School for a short time with Nuns and Caffolicks
I was five when Mama enrolled me in school. It was the local Caffolick School, Edward The Confessor, was its name and when mama found out he was the patron saint of difficult marriages she said that was the right school for any child of hers.
‘Besides,’ she added when tucking me the night I was told about going to school, ‘it’s the closest school to walk to.
First I should set the record straight about the Caffolicks title, I know that’s not their real name, I know they are Catholics, but it was a joke between Dada and me. And hear is another thing I should clear up. Dada was always loud and often yelling at me, but sometimes he was in a jolly mood and then he and I could chat and joke and laugh. I just always had to be on the lookout, even when he was laughing ‘cos his eyes could turn hard at any moment and then the moments between us passed, or changed.
So Dada always called them Caffoliks, ‘cos all they do is lick the arse of God.’ is what he loved to say and then he’d laugh, his big, roaring lughm, his head tossed back, his green eyes shining and his mouth open, letting the roar of his laugh exploding out of his mouth like a shooting star bursting across the night sky.
‘Damned right, Sonny Jim, Caffolicks and their damn pestering priests and whispering nuns. I went to a Caffolick school when I was young though not for long, I hated the nuns, hated the priest and mostly I just hated the whole experience.
‘Will I hate it too, Dada?’ And even as I asked it I could see the change, the light falling out of his green eyes so that they turned hard, the way he swallowed and his dam’s apple went up and down. Dada had a very large Adam’s apple.
He looked at me with those eyes of his that had turned hard and said, ‘I hope you hate it, its what you deserve, no less.’
Then he walked away, leaving me wondering, as I often did, why the change had come upon him but anyway, that’s why I call them Caffolicks, because Dada did. His words had unsettled me and so that night I asked mum about school.
‘But what is school Mama?’
‘School is where you will learn and where you will find a way out of this hellhole of a farm.’
‘But I do not want to leave you Mama.’
‘No, Brith, the idea is for you to take me with you.’
‘To school, Mama?’
‘No not to school, to the world beyond school, beyond this farm, when you are older and have grown wise because of all the things you will learn in school.’
She kissed my forehead and left me to my sleep. I heard he door close and I lay back in my bed, hands under my head, staring up at where the roof was though to was too dark to see it. I wondered about school about leaving Mama, about having to wear shorts and a shirt and shoes and socks. I hardly wore shoes on the farm, even in winter, I preferred going about barefoot and often bare-chested or just with an old singlet. I hardly felt the cold and in summer my skin turned dark.
‘Black as the ace of spades,’ Mama always said.
Mostly, that night lying in my bed, I wondered about the strange creatures called nuns that Mama had told me about.
‘What are nuns, Mama?’
‘Nuns started off as women.’
‘And are they still women?’
‘Sort off, but different too. For starters, they have no hair and must cover their baldness in shame. Plus they wearing these long, black dresses that make them waddle like the ducks., and they have these beads, the roses or something they are called, and I think they use them in self-defense but I am not sure. You see the nuns marry their God.’
‘Do they have babies?’
‘I think you children are their babies.’
I remember I started to cry when she said that and then mama came and hugged me and kissed my cheeks and said, ‘Shhh, you are my son, you will always be my son but at school they will treat you as their sons and daughter so that away from home you will still be loved.’
That calmed me and that night as I lay in bed, I could not help but think about the nuns and about school I wondered what it might be like and whether I would enjoy school or miss my Mama so much I would be miserable. I remember thinking I was caught, as Mama would say, between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand I wanted to enjoy school, but on the other hand, I felt guilty and then on the third hand, not that I had three, but still you get the idea, I was scared that school would be terrible which meant I would miss Mama horribly.
That first day was a blur. One thing I do remember. I remember leaving Mama’s arms and going into the classroom, first I thought the nun said glassroom but I thought that strange ‘cos the room was wooden and dark with only a small row of windows along one side. I sat at a desk in the middle of the room, I can’t remember what the desk was like, or even how I sat in the one I was sitting in. I just remember sitting down and waiting, watching at the other kids sat down, some boys, some girls, and then a few of them, started to cry, and then most of them started to cry, a few really bawling, their chests racked with gigantic sobs as if the ocean was inside them and it as swelling large like the waves I saw when I lived by the seaside, but I am letting the story run away, the seaside comes much, much later.
In the classroom someone shouted and then we all looked at the row of windows and we could see our Mama’s faces pressed against the class and we could see they were crying to. I saw my mama crying and I think I then started to cry too and so we all sat and cried and the nun walked around saying ‘Shhh!’ but we cried harder and harder still. Then the nun went outside and we heard her shoo our mama’s away and everyone started to quieten down after a while.
That is all I remember of that first day at school. The windows, sitting at the desk, all the Mamas’ sad faces pressed against the glass and the children crying. Oh and that our nun was not a nun, or she was, but we were not to call her a nun, we were to call her sister, even though she was not our sister (and anyway, I thought they were to be our mothers, not our sisters) and her name was Sister Annette.
Oh and I made a friend. His name was Paul and we played together everyday of my one and only year at school and then I never saw Paul again.
How Paul and I became friends.
It’s hard to explain really. Best as I can remember it, and it was long ago now, in that faraway time of childhood when memories are trickier than eels, slipping and sliding from fact to fiction in the twist of a tail. This is how I remember it. At some point a bell rang and Sister Annette said we could go outside and play then the children, me included, lined up and walked outside and we stood around in small groups or alone. I was one of hose standing alone ‘cos I didn’t know any of the kids.
Opposite me was another kid standing alone and we just looked at each other once or twice and then we just, sorta charged at each other like two small bulls and we banged into each other and we did that five or six times. I had a bloody nose and Paul’s shirt got torn and then he put his arm around me and he said, ‘We are now friends.’
I think about a day or two later we learned each other’s names and then we played together every before, after and during school that we could. By week two we even at together in the classroom and raced each other to put our hands up to answer the questions, even if we didn’t know the answer, that didn’t matter, what mattered was my hand beater his or his hand bating mine. We kept score inside his desk and there was never more than one or two in it either way.
Sister Annette called us the school’s very own, ‘Cosmos and Damian,’ but Paul said he was Paul and I said I was Patrick though she could call me Brith if she really wanted to.
One other thing I remember was school sports day when we all raced each other or did long and high jumps, discus like the Greeks and even javelin throwing. I was not much chop at anything until we did the one lap of the oval and in that o outran everyone; even Paul who had won the two sprints earlier. I wasn’t fast but I could run at full speed longer than anyone. Sister Annette said I was like Pheidippides the very first marathon runner as she game me the sash with WINNER to pin to me shirt and take home with me.
I remember Dada ripping that sash off my as soon as he saw it saying I was no show pony and what did winning mean anyway. That night Mama whispered that I was a winner and that’s what made Dada angry, ‘Cos he wouldn’t know how to win a race even if he was the only one in it.’
School passed quickly but I learned how to read faster than any other child and loved the books, devouring everything I could, reading, reading, reading. Maths was a struggle, the numbers always getting jumbled in my head but reading…I think I even began to dream about books that year. Paul and I stayed friends and I even got to know a few of the other kids though their names slip away from me now, all except for Paul, though his face is now lost to me.
Then the year ended and we all said goodbye thinking we would see each other the very next year and I guess they all did, but not me. What happened was that the nuns came to visit a few days after school had finished and unfortunately for me, they came when dada was home and not sober.
They knocked on our door one evening. I opened the door wondering who it was ‘cos I don’t think anyone had ever knocked on our door, certainly no on I could remember.
‘Hello Sisters, I said.
‘Hello Patrick,’ they said in unison. Then the older nun, Sister Bridget asked, ‘Are your parents home and could we have a word with them?’
From behind me I heard Dada growl, ‘And what word would that be?’
‘You are the father?’ Sister Bridget asked.
‘So his mother informs me, though I wouldn’t put it past her to be lying about that just so he could inherit me farm.’
The two nuns blinked at his words, startled by the anger and the horridness of them.
‘We need to talk about Patrick’s eternal soul,’ said Sister Katherine.
‘Damn his eternal soul,’ said Dada, ‘not that he’s got one, of course, only you Caffolicks believe in such nonsense.
The Mama tried to intervene saying, ‘Please Roger…’
And Dada hit her, once, hard cross her cheek. It was the fist time I had ever heard dada’s name but not the first time I had seen him hit her.
The two nuns both gasped and then dad just started searing and screaming as he shoved them out of the house telling them I was never coming back to school and they could all be damned and he hoped there was a hell for stupid little nuns and their silly ideas about souls that needed saving.
Then he slammed the door in their startled faces and said to mama and me,
‘Well, that’s the end of schooling for the boy. He’ll need books from the library and that will do and say no more or you’ll get another and harder whack this time. And now I am going out to escort those nuns completely off the farm and I will have a drink or two at the local before I return.’
Then Dada left me and Mama and we heard him screaming after the nuns like he was chasing away stray cats or some such and that was the end of my Caffolick schooling at Edward The Confessor Caffolick Primary School.
Sadly, it also meant I would never see Paul again,. I remember years later I took to wondering past the school, limping back and forth past its gates and around the small town, dragging my ruined legs about, hoping to see a glimpse of Paul somehow, even though by then I had forgotten what he looked like and besides, what would we have said toe ach other, but then, and many times in my life, I think I would have liked to have had a friend again.