Your ideas, opinions and recollections have been the heartblood of The Write Life throughout the year. Whether of global or of personal significance, each offering has struck a creative chord with someone somewhere. Here are two memories that reflect the wonderful reach of your stories. The death of a president and a lifetime’s love affair with literature might seem poles apart but at the centre of each recollection is the writer making sense of the world through words, ideas and images. Thank you for sharing your work so generously. I hope that 2021 will be your writing year in every way.
Editor of The Write Life
‘Oddballs’ by Maggie Sawkins
For a short while at the age of ten I lived in a prefab in the grounds of Feltham Borstal. I had been sent there to stay with my mother’s best friend Connie, her husband Maurice, and their three children. My mother was about to be admitted to hospital for a hysterectomy and didn’t know when she would be coming home.
In the 1960s Feltham Borstal Institution had acquired a reputation for being a repository for oddball cases — young men with assorted problems such as addiction, epilepsy, physical disabilities, and personality disorders. For some reason it was thought that I’d be safer there than staying at home with my brother and dad.
Although I missed my mum I soon got used to being part of this different family – a family, moreover, who had pet names for each other such as ‘Honey’, ‘Sweetie Pie’ or just plain ‘Love’. Maurice, who had grey bushy eyebrows and curly black hair, had some sort of pastoral job in the Borstal.
After I’d been mooching around their home for a couple of weeks, Maurice took me along to meet the nurse who lodged on a satellite camp at Finnemore Wood. It was suggested that I might like to look after her dog while she was out at work. The dog in question was a spine-tingling English Setter called Duke who had floppy ears and a beautiful grey and white dappled coat. As soon as I walked through the door of the nurse’s cottage, he bounded up to me and licked my face all over. It was love at first sight.
Finnemore Wood was an open facility for inmates serving their final three months at the borstal. It offered an educational programme consisting of a social skills course, classes in cooking, a remedial gymnasium, and gardening. A few days later I was walking along the perimeter path when I came upon a group of young men, all dressed in the same grey uniform, attending a large vegetable patch. As I wandered past with Duke straining on his lead, one of them looked up at me and stared. I remember staring back, feeling pleased that I had been noticed, especially by someone of the opposite sex.
The day my mum arrived at the prefab to take me home was Friday the twenty-second of November 1963. Connie had helped me pack my suitcase with clothes, an assortment of I Spy books and my battered copy of ‘A Child’’. I would be catching a train back to Portsmouth in the morning with my mum. That evening we sat around the table in the living room and ate our tea. When we’d finished my mum helped Connie clear the table while Maurice and us kids settled on the settee in front of the TV to watch the nation’s favourite game show, ‘Take Your Pick’. It had just reached the point where the contestant had to choose either to ‘open the box’ or ‘take the money’, when the screen went blank and a man in a suit appeared with a newsflash:
‘News has just come in that President Kennedy has been shot … One eye witness said he saw blood on the President’s head … The President was rushed to hospital, where there’s still no word of his condition.’
Of course, I’d never met the Kennedys but at times it had felt as if they were part of our extended family. My mother, whose father and siblings had emigrated from Ireland to America when she was a child, had talked about them constantly. In her eyes, the glamourous Roman Catholic president was the equivalent of a saint.
Maurice leapt called to Connie and my mum who rushed in from the kitchen. The room grew dark as we huddled together in front of the television. A little later another newsreader came on to announce that the President was dead. I went to bed wondering why anyone would want to kill this handsome man, a man that I suspected my mother loved more than she loved my father.
When we arrived home the next day to our council house in Leigh Park and turned on the radio, we learnt that the person who had shot President Kennedy was an unknown called Lee Harvey Oswald. In the afternoon I hunkered down in front of the TV with my brother to watch the first episode of Doctor Who. The two main characters, a schoolgirl called Susan and her grandfather, the Doctor, were aliens travelling through time and space. The final scene showed their spaceship the Tardis, shaped like an old-fashioned telephone kiosk, in a barren landscape. A human shadow was falling across it. I was spellbound, and beginning to fear that the world was full of aliens. What I didn’t know then is that I would spend much of my life gravitating towards them, or them towards me: the freaks, the oddballs, the poets.
‘Books, Blackboards and a Boxer Dog’ by Margaret Kiernan
The blue low-slung car cruised up the school hill. Purring its way around twists and bends. It arrived on time each school day. Alighting from the car to a bevy of girls smothering her, the elegant lady, with her silk scarf billowing, hailed to one and all, ‘Get in line children, get into a line’.
Willing hands proceeded to carry her things inside. Miss Armstrong, Aileen, was ready to teach for another day. Her flask, and the most essential item to us children were her daily newspaper. The pale cream leather of her car interior always appeared luxurious to me. Later in the day, she would load her boxer dog into it, drive two miles, let the dog out to run alongside the moving vehicle. The dog was slobbering at the mouth. This was a regular ritual to exercise the dog. Nevertheless, it was a plump dog.
The middle room of the H style Victorian building was the room that infants and first class was taught in. It was a room I never forgot. I expect most children never did. There were three long windows along one wall in a high- ceilinged room. Too high for little children to see out, only the sky was visible. A large fireplace stood at the top end, a fire was lit in it each day and burned fuel in winter. The teacher’s table was placed to one side of the flames. The blackboard was placed on the large wood easel and cupboards stood against a wall nearby. A door there opened into the Master’s room. Senior classes were taught there. It was also the destination of naughty children and those who had to answer to more serious complaints.
On the wall facing the tall windows, empty wooden cotton spools were painted in primary colours and were draped along the wall. A teaching tool for baby infants. Coloured letters of the alphabet and simple maths were hung on the walls. The last wall behind was where you placed your lunch. It was also the naughty corner. A door from there opened into the middle grade classes.
Miss Armstrong liked to start the day leisurely. She opened out her newspaper, a daily national broadsheet. We all had to sit quietly in our seats during that time. It was difficult. Hushed voices eventually gave way to chants of ‘Please Miss, read Curly Wee’.
Repeatedly, until finally, she relented. The called for article was a comic strip with a hidden twist, usually. Count Curly Wee. A character that things happened to or opinions he had, were shared with the world. She read aloud to an attentive audience. When she finished there were quails of regret. Everyone wanted more. But that was it. Down to work. Every-child loved this teacher. On reflection she was a very cultured woman. I began a lifelong love of reading with her.
She lived alone, in a beautiful south-facing house, two miles from the village. It always appeared sunny. It was painted yellow and that added to the perception. I got to see inside her home when I was fourteen. I was called upon to take the secretarial notes of a meeting of the Irish Country Woman’s Association, as she was a member of the women’s group, similar to the W. I. She held an Office in the National Federation, also. She was a positive influence on women in the parish. They became proficient at conducting meetings and carrying out committee roles. There was a focus on crafts and other skills. Public speaking was for the brave.
Her home was filled with books, just about everywhere you looked. A warm cosy home. Dark furniture gleamed with loving care. The boxer dog slept noisily on a cushioned chair, one eye occasionally opening to view the movements.
Outside in the pasture field were two white donkeys. They stood like sentries to the visitors. Their braying on a summer day carried across the woods.
I often think about this teacher, now long gone. I believe she was a great influence on many children, and I know she was to me. I learned to love reading, especially aloud, and every single facet of books and literature.