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Mask oil on canvas

A big thank you to Yonita Fairfax for sharing her wonderful piece of writing that evokes memories of childhood. It is a very vivid and inspiring piece – I love the ending!

Away from the boys: Miss Bignolds

My mother was highly amused when she had returned from  a visit to their friends, the Roadnights in Kent, who were my brother’s Godparents that their young daughter aged about seven on being asked what her interests were, had said ‘Boys, Mummy, Boys. The grown-ups had chuckled. My mother was unaware that I would not have answered in a similar vein: I imagine that parents generally know little of the trauma of their offspring’s childhoods. I heard very little about hers, except that she adored her father, and since he had been an engineer that they had travelled a great deal and that she had gone to various convents. Hence it was not without possibility that my first schooling, my nursery boarding school, was a Roman Catholic one. I was not aware of this at the time but on reflection have come to that conclusion. The school was a nursery school near Farnham in Kent to which my brother and I both went  during the war years which we still call ‘Miss Bignolds’. Although my mother used to tell of how she had been washed underneath a voluminous white shroud, and that she was kept  in the dining room until she had eaten her revolting food, which she did by discovering that she could tip it out of the window!- my experiences were somewhat different; did not involve washing or food, but the sleeping arrangements and the teasing by the boys who were there with me, one of them being my brother.

The reason why I felt that it was a Roman Catholic nursery school was that every night without fail we used to climb up the dark wooden staircase as silently as possible  and tiptoe round what seemed like a huge bed in which lay a very old wrinkled lady. We said ‘good night’ in hushed tones, one by one. Above her head on the wall hung a crucifix. Then equally silently we climbed down again and dutifully lay down on our mattresses which were placed under the slope of the stairs. We went to sleep with our gas masks next to us. They were such a very weird shape and quite heavy for little children.  We had a practice run of how to put this thing on and how to take it off, like they do now in aeroplanes but the tight feeling it gave reminds me more of underwater goggles. Then the mask would be handed over every morning, and we watched how it was neatly packed away into the cupboard on the right hand wall next to the class room. It was solemnly done and we never played with them. I distinctly remember this although I must have been only about five years old at the time.

During the first years of the war, many parents sent their children out of London for their safety, little knowing that as the war progressed, bombs that were destined for London which did not hit their mark, often fell in Kent, so it became quite a dangerous place to be! Perhaps that is why we slept with our masks near us. It seems that gas was even more feared than the bombs. Masks of various sorts have been a good theme for artists throughout the ages but my painting of a gas mask refers to man’s inhumanity to man and dates from this period of my life.

This time of my life at Miss Bignolds was probably full of unexpected terror. We might also have been out for an innocent school walk, ambling along a narrow country lane when an army convoy came roaring down on us, which forced a sudden scramble out of the way; the only way out, being up a steep muddy bank, clutching at tree roots myself flattened against the earth, and the recipient of a heavy scolding for getting my dress dirty.

I have a lasting impression  that  on one occasion we were taken right up to the edge to peer down a huge deep round hole, rather like a volcanic crater, but here no doubt, a bomb’s crater. A bomb had probably fallen nearby. It could even have been on the property which was fairly extensive. What a silly thing to do, or perhaps the visit  was to explain what was going on. It meant that for many years I had a very vivid re-occurring dream of being pulled up and out of just such a place, up just such a slippery slope, almost like being pulled up from Plato’s well. Perhaps during a rough game I did fall into the crater, in which case I should be thankful to the boys at the school, that they pulled me out.

But what has most stayed with me, the effect which has been the most lasting, is that  I learnt to defend myself from the vicious and unpleasant teasing that I had from the boys.  I do not remember any girls. Perhaps I was the only girl, and hence ripe for teasing.  I am sure I would have ganged up with another girl against those rough boys if there had been one, and remembered her- instead I had to fight it out alone.

The continual self-defence must have made me strong physically, or I drew on an internal strength; or one could say that unfortunately this is when I learnt to rise to a bait, a challenge, -that I could only be pushed so far before retaliating in my own defence. On this occasion, I had been locked into the rusty corrugated iron shed on the grounds and was being  jeered at from the outside. There was no other way.  I managed to lift up high what was for me, who was a thin smaller than average child, a very heavy boulder which I balanced on the opening where the window would have been. Did I warn them? If I had, would ‘they’ of the voices have taken any notice? I let it go. It fell onto the voices beneath the window.

As it turned out the boulder fell on to my brother’s big toe. He lost his toenail. I am lucky that his toe was not broken. I am lucky it was not another child’s toenail. I distinctly remember once we had gone back home to London for our holidays, that my mother painted the area with this red mercurichrome. She developed quite a ritual. ‘You  naughty girl’ my mother would invariably say as she carefully painted the red on to the area of the missing  toenail. I was always there watching this ‘happening’: fascinated by the way the wrinkled pale flesh gradually became red again. My brother was not in pain but with a quick but friendly teasing face, sticking his tongue out at me behind her back, as she bent down carefully to apply the red liquid, as she did not want any to spill, he also made sure that I would remember the incident, and I have.

My mother had not been put into the picture that I had acted in self-defence, and I felt that I had no support from her. Her favourite phrase was ‘comparisons are odious’. With that one phrase she would shut one up if one tried to complain or say something in one’s own defence.

Once we were back in London for our holidays, unknown to our parents my brother and I certainly jumped around as if on a beach amongst the rocks created by a nearby bombed house. We must have been very agile. I shall always remember how the cellulite light switch with its protruding knob hung in the middle of the empty house and the fun was being able to turn it on and off without being ticked off for wasting electricity. It was strange how the staircase   still hung precariously in mid air. With a ladder we could have got on to it, but we did not have a ladder, and neither of us was tall enough to reach the bottom step.

Perhaps the boulder incident  was the last time those rough boys  teased me in that way, as my other memories are calm ones, of another type of self assertion. I found a place to hide. I remember that I could steal away, disappear by walking close to some bushes that must have made an uphill boundary on the right hand side  to the school property. I often re-visit this journey in my dreams.

No one ever found me in my secret hiding place into which I would crawl, nor did they come looking. It was a place for myself far away from those rough boys. The evergreen branches of a wild  prickly tree were interwoven above me like a canopy. Through them came some patches  of light into this tent so that I could read safely away from their teasing. My brother remembers our parents saying: ‘Look at your sister, she is always reading. Reading became a refuge from the world as I then knew it’.

That way I practised invisibility. It was the only way I knew how to protect myself without entering into the defensive/attack mode. Once on a desultory Sunday afternoon, as a grown up when we were doing one of those quiz style analysis exercises you find in newspapers, and I was asked ‘what animal would you be’, I found myself surprised that I had chosen a white leopard, which  blended in so well with its background, invisible against the white snow. I feel sure that it came from this time of hiding into my tented overgrowth to protect myself, away from the boys.

© Yonita Fairfax

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