The school was a huge old house, It had many dusty rooms filled with desks and clanking radiators and smelled of chalk and orange peel. Each storey was connected by twisted wooden staircases with poky little windows on one wall where if you stooped you could peer down into the school yard, or out into the distance. I would often sit on the stairs and focus on two far off pine trees standing alone among reddish roofs and believe that was my grandma's house. There were two pine trees at her house which I later realised was many miles further away.
Sometimes mum and dad would do work around the place for grandma and I would explore. It was a big rambling rundown house with dark window panes and lots of ivy. The upstairs seemed to be full of mysterious rooms that you couldn't find without looking for them and outside had an enclosed yard overhung with trees that showered the ground with leaves in autumn. My little brother and sister and me would play monsters and chase each other around the yard after dark. scaring ourselves half to death, our screams, echoing sharply off the damp walls, sounding big and real. A large wooden water barrel which came up to my chin, sat in one corner. It smelled like a river in a mossy woodland. I was afraid to stick my hand in the water, imagining there was some kind of monster living under its black surface. I asked my grandma about a monster and she there was one living in it which she called the Greebly, but she didn't think that it was there anymore. So I didn't stick my hand in the water, just in case. I often floated tin-lids on the surface and pretended it was a ship full of sailors who were about to be eaten by the Greebly. I would load the lid up with bits of gravel until it sunk, see-sawing lazily down, glinting greenishly, lost forever.
The garden was great, there were trees everywhere and big wild hedges with bird's nests. In the Summer the garden would sing with bird songs and there were gooseberry bushes and secret pathways to go down. I found a hidden gap in the hedge which led to the grounds of the house next door. Grandma warned me not to go there anymore when the next door's gardener complained to her about me. She said that it was Mr Waverly's residence and he was a minister. I still went because his house and garden always reminded me of the garden in Alice in Wonderland, which I'd seen on tv with real people acting. I fell in love with Alice. She was a lot older than me, maybe fourteen. I would snuggle up in bed at night and imagine Alice beside me and I would press myself to her without knowing why. I half imagined that I would see Alice walking among the trees in Mr Waverly's garden on her way to the rabbit warren, and that I would meet her and save her from the insanity of top hats and pocket watches. When I was sick in bed mum would bring my meals on a tea tray with a picture of a big English house printed on the surface. The house was just visible behind lots of oaks and elms and I would stare into it for hours imagining that's were Alice lived.
My grandmother lived alone for many years and then one day mum and dad said that we had a new grandfather whose name was Ebeneezer. We all went up to meet him and he was very fussy and wore glasses and a green cardigan. Tea was served by grandma with a hesitant clinking of spoons and cups, and Ebeneezer carefully cut the Russian cake into slices so thin that you could almost see through them and they fell to pieces in your hands. Mum held her tea cup and made amiable sounds, her little finger sticking out more than usual. They all talked in words that meant nothing to me but the tones were ones of formal agreement.
Dad bought a car around that time, it was a black Ford Hillman. On the day he was to get it, he said he'd pick me up from school. I spent all day staring out the window, looking forward to seeing our new car* imagining that it would be like the Brown's car from next door-a brand-new black Morris Minor. I remember years later, Mrs Brown blacked-out and crashed her Morris into our car which was parked on the street. I was standing on the front steps when she mounted the kerb and smashed into the fence and then rebounded into our car. It was all very near and violent with lots of broken glass. She was OK but afterwards she was all white and shaky and neighbours brought her cups of strong tea. I never sew Mrs Brown like that before. She was always so proud.
When dad came to pick me up from school, the car was so old fashioned that I pretended not to notice. Mum was leaning across dad and tooting the horn to get my attention. That same day the car broke down on a steep hill and started rolling backwards. Dad had to get out and start it with a crank-handle which made his hair flick wildly, like he was insane*like a mad violinist. I felt very embarrassed. He soon got rid of it and got a Volkswagen. German reliability. he said. I didn't mind the Volkswagen because it was new and shiny yellow. After that, we went out every Sunday for drives and took grandma and Ebby, as he preferred to be called, to various places in the country. It was always a tight squeeze and mum would have Christopher on her knee. He was a little chubby thing with a bad temper and me and Joan teased him endlessly by calling him Michelin man. He was too small to know what we meant but this didn't stop him going into tantrums and screaming the place down. Ebby would sometimes get dad to stop the car in some small town and he'd buy ice-cream for the 'kiddies', as he called us. He sucked endlessly on imperial mints which he kept in his cardigan pocket. Sometimes he would give us one each and mum would prompt us to say 'thank you' Ebby.
We visited old cemeteries that had been lashed by gales, and we walked between crumbling graves reading the headstones of long dead children. Ebby was always serious at gravesides and didn't say much. He'd just stand there with his hands in his cardigan pockets staring absently in front of him, the wind blowing the wisps of his silver hair about, the rooks circling far over his head.
One of my teachers Mr Keenahan was a tyrant, especially so on those dark winter mornings when the drizzle would blot out the two pine trees. He would switch on the one single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it would cast ghoulish shadows down over his face and his glasses would furiously glint its twin reflections. He reminded me of a talking skull and every word he spoke was a sneering bark. When I saw Oliver Twist on the telly, the bit where Oliver asks for 'more' and the master's reply......well, that was Mr Keenahan's voice. Grandma had a skull in her living room on top of the telly, but it was made of brass and the top of its head was hollow*to put cigarette butts in. It had a grotesque spike sticking out of its grinning mouth which dad said was to hold a fake cigarette that had gone missing years before. I could never take my eyes off it. It scared me. When I was alone in the living room, I would stare at it for ages and everything would go deathly silent except for the slow ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall and the distant sounds of the birds outside. I would run from the room haunted by my imagination. It looked so like Mr Keenahan.
Our headmaster made Mr Keenahan look pleasant by comparison. He was Brother Leonard and wore glasses that made his eyes very small and rat-like. Brother Leonard's black flowing robes were tied with a thick belt and he kept a black leather strap tucked under it. He used it often and got very red in the face when he did. He dashed everywhere yelling at boys to "scram", his robes flowing behind him as if they had been caught unawares by the urgency of his mission and were trying to catch up. Jimmy Flynn, dad's friend, was taught by him and he said that in his schooldays, brother Leonard used to drop ball-bearings on heads and use electric shocks to punish boys. I remember dad and Jimmy talking about this when they were friends. Jimmy said Brother Leonard was forced to stop because of the complaints, but I never really believed the stuff about the ball bearings and electric shocks.
Some Brothers held spelling 'bee's and we would line up into two teams. For every spelling we got wrong, we got the strap, and so the more you got the strap the more likely you would misspell a word and so forth. Mr Coalahan was the fondest of spelling 'bees'. He wore little half-spectacles that he'd peer over, and his breath smelled liked pickled onions. I remember years later sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus and as the bus passed the school stop, I saw Mr Coalahan roughing up some boy and tweaking his ear. It was like a slow speed silent movie watched from the glassed-in warmth of the bus. Mr Coalahan's mouth moving angrily, his face very red, and some kid, small as a marionette* its breath puffing, its face twisted, making speech bubbles in the freezing air * being dangled by the ear between the brutish nicotined fingers of an educated man.
Mr Coalahan was also the music teacher and on Thursday mornings we went
over to the newly built huts for our singing classes and we sang along
with the radio schools program, reading the lyrics out of a booklet--Green
Grow the Rushes 'O', and Ten Green Bottles. If we sang too boisterously,
he would pick up on this and clout someone at random. The huts sat right
under the edge of the forest and I would daydream and stare out the window.
Sometimes I would see a strange old woman in purple shawls weaving through
the trees carrying bundles of sticks and then she would disappear. Maybe
she lived deep in the woods and would come to the edge to look. I thought
she might be a witch, like in Hansel and Gretel. Now and then I would
see 'big boys' with sticks and barking dogs, shouting and running wildly
through the trees and if I was outside, I would sense a faint smell of
Me and Ricey had a couple of fights and I always came off the worse with a split lip and feeling sorry for myself, but I never backed down from him. Ricey didn't care whether kids stood up to him or not. He didn't think any more of me for standing up to him. I cant remember what happened to him, I was just glad to be rid of him when I left the Christian Brothers. Charles MacCauley was just as weird. He was enormously fat with black greasy hair and his dad owned a restaurant in town. He always brought heaps of cakes to school and on the last day of term before the summer holidays his dad would bring a big silver tin of Italian ice cream for the whole class.
One winter it snowed and during the morning break we pelted MacCauley with snowballs, then someone pushed him into a muddy frozen puddle. When we got back to our ESN class, he left a big brown muddy stain on the wall beside his desk which stayed there for years. He got the strap for that from Mr Coalahan who went very red in the face. I will never forget that day because I love snow.
Dad said it was the east wind from Russia that caused the cold and he
also said that it would bring a blizzard. It arrived on the day Charles
MacCauley left the stain on the classroom wall.
As winter turned to spring and then to summer, the garden at grandma's house became very tidy-neat rows of vegetables chasing each other the length of the garden, and the tall hedges had been squared-off like green buildings and the low branches of the pine trees were lopped off. The secret gap in the hedge that led to Mr Waverly's garden was fixed with wire, and straggly bushes and floppy plants were trimmed and tied stiffly to bamboo sticks with bits of maroon coloured ribbon. Maroon coloured ribbon appeared everywhere, tying up bundles of old magazines for the rubbish, or looped through the handles of small garden tools for hanging in the shed. The shed itself was locked with a thick new padlock. One day I peered in the window and saw rakes, sieves, shears and all the tools neatly hung on the walls. Paint tins, oil cans, boxes of nails and screws and jam-jars filled with turpentine with paintbrushes stuffed in them, all stood in formation along the dim wooden shelves. The floor had been swept, leaving little telltale trails of dust leading towards the door. Ebby was often in the garden and I would try to hide from him in all the places I knew, but he was always there complaining about me breaking things*things I didn't even know I broke. Sometimes he would just appear out of nowhere. Like the time I saw him looking up at me hiding in the pine tree and I had to crawl down slowly under his gaze. He always told me off quietly but then he would reach into the pocket of his green cardigan, hand me one of his imperial mints and tell me to run along.
One day Mum and Dad
and a strange man with grey hair and glasses sat me down in the living
room and asked me would I like to go to a special government school in
England. His name was Mr Elliot and he showed me a brochure that was very
old with black and white pictures of neat bed-lined dormitories and a
refectory with everything laid out spotlessly clean and sprig of flowers
at each table as if for a banquet. Happy nuns at the blackboards were
photographed teaching attentive classes, and there were boys playing soccer
in silly long shorts and clumsy boots. He said the school would make me
well again and I would get my independence, whatever that meant.
At the airport the flight was delayed for hours because of a blizzard. Mum fussed over my clothes and dad smoked endless cigarettes and conferred with Mr Elliot about the school. We had a complimentary meal and I found eggshells in the food. I realised that I already missed home. To kill time we walked onto the outside gallery and the cold air roared with aeroplane fumes while men scurried about below in little vehicles with orange flashing lights. Snow covered everything and the B.E.A sign was half whited out. Shivering, I trudged behind Sister Xavier on the way to the workhouse, her nun's garments, black against the snow were hitched slightly to avoid getting wet. She was talking over her shoulder to me in a bright Irish brogue telling me that I'd soon settle in, but that made me feel worse. We made our way between green wooden huts with cruel icicles hanging from gutters and window sills. She pointed to each hut with descriptions of what they were for and asked me lots about my family. Brash confident boys with funny English accents, dressed in brown corduroy trousers, threw snowballs at each other and she greeted them all by name and told some of them off for their horseplay. We arrived at the workhouse and sister Xavier kicked her squarish black boots against the wooden step and snow fell off in tread patterns.
She introduced me to sister Eustelle as the 'new boy' and said that she was in charge of things and that she would fit me out with school clothes. The place smelled of leather and shoe polish and was warmed by a sparse looking electric heater mounted high on the wall. Everything was made of wood, and shelves packed with shoes and cases and piles of corduroy trousers, towered into the dusty rafters. The place was filled with the sounds of three noisy budgerigars that danced mindlessly from perch to perch and rattled their cage and bells. Sister Eustelle who called them Peter, Paul and Mark 'tut tutted' with puckered lips and fed them bits of something. She then measured me up for clothes with quick firm movements, wrote the figures down and disappeared down an aisle to get things. As I unpacked I came across a box of imperial mints. They were from Ebby with the message 'I hope you get well, Love Ebby. p.s, write and let me and your grandma know how you are.'
A couple of months later mum said in her letter that Ebby died in his sleep. He was buried up in the country near where he was born and that grandma had moved house to a brand new bungalow further down the road.
John Magee 1998