First day

BerkeleySquareWestside
Berkeley Square, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons, cropped image)

It was a little over half a century, but it may as well have been the Dark Ages. Bare knees raw from the wind and knocking together beneath scratchy woollen shorts, the lad of ten years circled the gloomy Georgian square clockwise. His companion was confident, having walked this route many times, but the newcomer’s heart pounded in his chest as loud as a drum beaten for an execution. As he walked to the topmost corner of the square the anonymous Bath stone buildings intimidated, staring impassively but judging this poor specimen of a schoolboy as wanting, inadequate, unprepared. As indeed he was.

Surrounded by stony-faced frontages was a fenced-off garden, its bleakness needing no Keep Out notice to suggest somewhere forbidden to the likes of him. A Victorian copy of a truncated medieval high cross stood in one angle, dominated by the grey pillared tree trunks and overlooked by stripped bare boughs.

As they climbed the few steps to the entrance he gave another shiver. His blue gabardine mac gave no protection against the bitter weather, nor did his black blazer which, as he was to find out, made him as overheated in summer as it failed to safeguard him against winter cold. As the pair entered the lobby through double wooden doors his companion hissed at him to remove his cap. Out of the wind his ears stung with sudden warmth; however, when his gloves – sewn to pieces of elastic – shot up his raincoat sleeves, his fingers remained as bereft of feeling as if he’d never worn them in the first place.

A glance around confirmed what in retrospect he would recognise as a Dickensian scene: the dark panelling of the entrance; the shining shoulder-height paint on corridor walls; and, above all, the crow-like creatures who suddenly loomed into view. These were Irish Christian Brothers, neither necessarily Irish nor very Christian, and rarely brotherly. In the capacious pockets of their black habits they each carried a wicked leather strap which they named Fred or Excalibur or some such companionable name. The youngster would get to know these instruments of chastisement very soon, all too well and always with fear. For this he had left a near idyllic existence, for this he had travelled over ten thousand miles from the other side of the world.

* Another submission for creative writing classes, the theme genre writing, the genre Gothic, the prose overlarded …

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14 thoughts on “First day

  1. Oh, this is good. And I know Berkeley Square very well. Yes, it can be rather gloomy and intimidating on a cold and gloomy day. Christian brothers, eh? Reminds me of my own Catholic secondary education – lots of crucifixes dripping blood and Father Cullen swinging his cloak around like an Irish vampire. Nothing scary about that, right? Really well written. I’d be very happy to read some more …

    1. St Brendan’s became a sixth form college in the late 70s after it had moved from Berkeley Square to Brislington, off the Bath Road. The link with the Brothers is, I think, now broken, but they were still in evidence when I left in 1966. I was just a year and a bit in the Berkeley Square site — our lunchtimes were spent on Brandon Hill — but as you can see, Lynn, it made an impression on me! Certainly after nearly a decade in Hong Kong …

      The college was in the corner of the square (in the centre of the photograph); that the building housed part of the University’s Psychology Department for a while, with my old basement classroom the site of the library, seems somehow appropriate. Father Cullen sounds to be a, ahem, fine counterpart of some of the Brothers I knew.

      1. Oh, yes, St Brendan’s is still going strong – a friend mentioned it to me the other day. It must have been a one hell of a culture shock for you. From Hong Kong to Berkeley Square-it must’ve felt so enclosed, so dark and dismal. It’s interesting talking to friends who also had a Catholic education (most of whom are now atheists). There’s a sort of unifying bond there – shared experience, I suppose. I was reminiscing months ago about my pilgrimage to Lourdes at the age of 12 and the tacky plastic bottles in the shape of the Virgin Mary filled with holy water – a friend had the same bottles. I’d never met anyone else who knew what I was talking about.
        Father Cullen was intimidating and was moved on after I left the school – though probably not for the rumoured reasons.

        1. I’m grateful to my Catholic upbringing for many reasons — historical perspective, a smattering of Latin, understanding of religious art, consciousness of myth-making and so on, even a sense of common morality — but like your friends I’m an atheist through and through. I’m particularly grateful to the vapid Brother who, in response to my query how did we know religion was true vaguely replied ‘Faith’. My atheism dates from then, I suppose.

          I know exactly what you mean by the Lourdes experience, Lynn — it was another nail in the coffin of any residual belief I had.

          1. It’s funny my (also atheist) husband can’t understand my mild obsession with religion, churches, artefacts, iconography etc. But he went to a C of E school not a Catholic one and I think the weight of history hangs lighter there. And he didn’t have to watch A Man for all Seasons every year in the hall because his school was named after Thomas More – that kind of thing stays with you :). I can think of a thousand reasons that surround me every day arguing against the existence of a loving god – the flies that can only reproduce by laying their eggs in human eyes for one. They beat blind faith every time.
            Sorry, this makes me sound very downbeat about life on earth – I’m not. But I don’t need to believe in an omnipresent being to know there is true wonder and beauty in the world.
            We are all made from stardust and will return to it and that is a lovely thought. (If a bit hippy sounding!)

  2. Favorite line: “A Victorian copy of a truncated medieval high cross stood in one angle, dominated by the grey pillared tree trunks and overlooked by stripped bare boughs.” So brooding, so portentous. I actually like this type of “overlarded” writing. There’s an honest intensity to it, a sense of the author’s need to be perfectly clear.
    Next time we meet, we’ll have to share our Lourdes stories!

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