EVERYONE I HAVE LOVED – 1
by Anton Wills-Eve
a great prompt! I am replacing my last two posts with the following re-write, plus new title
I promised you all a leisurely relating of the five romances which make up my life story and so I shall start today. Heavens knows when I shall finish. But en bref the whole opus consists of five medium sized books totalling probably some 350,000 words in all. Each book bears a girl’s name in the title for reasons that will become obvious. I am aiming at 2 or 3 postings per week numbered accordingly as the work progresses. I have written more than 70% of it already so a lot is just editing and subbing. For those of you who have read some of this already I apologise for starting again, but I have deleted my previous first two posts and here begin the story again.
EVERYONE I HAVE LOVED – 1
Ho peccato e amato, ma ogni giorno ho pregato Dio; sono solo umano.
Shshshsh …whisper this among yourselves if you must but no public acclamation yet please. Read it first. But read what? The Italian above? Heavens no, that is my epitaph. I just thought I would slip it in while I am still around as, if this work goes on for as long as it could given my current state of health, I may not end it in time to let everyone know what I would like on my tombstone. Cheerful so far, isn’t it? Never mind here comes the bombshell.
You will all be glad to learn that I have at last decided to take the bull by the horns, ignore all familial advice and write – well tidy up and finish – my version of my life story. Now don’t all pant and leap out of your seats at once, page 364 is actually rather boring. But, as all our lives are basically monotonous, to make out that I had lived nothing but an extraordinary life of non stop exciting, funny, romantic, frightening, enjoyable, spiritually glorious or sinfully repellent episodes for more than 70 years would just be stupid. But, on the other hand, I can claim to have been incredibly fortunate to have known both the depths and the peaks of human experience in five languages on five continents, and had both my spiritual and physical courage and powers of survival tested to the limit in a variety of ways that seldom fall to one person. And to have done this from a genuinely unusually young age has definitely marked me out as an anomaly. But why does this make me feel it is worth recording? Quite simply because such a very large number of people have said to me, about so many different events and times in my life, “you should write a book about that, you know.” So I have. Five books in fact each centred round a romance. After all I’ll be seventy five next May so I had better do it while I still can.
For a start I am definitely not a Saint, a sinner most certainly but I like to think a pleasant one. I would hate to be remembered for being in any way vicious. And before going any further I do have to make this important point. A lot of the autobiographical works that have appeared in my stories, poems, blogs and articles over the years have always contained exaggeration, changed names and humorous asides which have suggested happenings which perhaps did not occur in exactly the way I have related them. Therefore I am NOT going to write stories that can be checked out on every page of Google or Wikipedia. Apart from anything else, three key people have insisted that they do not appear unless I change their names. So I have changed them. If that is the price of doing what I wish, so be it. But where this work will, and does, differ from many of my memoirs over the last fifteen years is in the degree of truth in it. Everything I recount happened. Only the names of some people, and some institutions here and there, have been changed. Oh, and some of the family sources I have relied upon may well have been badly inebriated when providing me with key anecdotal material. Also my own tendency to hyperbole has not been totally overcome. Far from it. So where should I begin? With my birth? Yes, why not. It was as eventful as most things that have happened to me. And anyway it is the obvious starting point.
I was always told that the ambulance that rushed my mother to the maternity ward where I was born did so by dodging German bombs and such like at the height of WW2, but I have always known that was an enormous exaggeration. It is true that a German plane returning from a raid over London got lost and jettisoned its bombs near our home at Bourne End, on the Thames in Buckinghamshire, but I also know that my mother and the nursing home near High Wycombe were never in any danger. But mama always told every story to gain the fullest dramatic effect she could extract from it, so everyone thought that I was lucky to be born alive. This must have been untrue because, while I may have been five weeks premature, my difficult birth was due entirely to her playing golf that afternoon against doctors’ orders and hooking her drive at the par three eighth. This apparently put me, literally, in an awkward position. And her too I assume as she took a six. She told me she fired her caddy – lucky chap. But the nursing staff at my birth must have done a good job because I was delivered, eventually, just after midnight in the early minutes of Sunday May the tenth, nineteen forty two. Those few minutes were to have an enormous influence on my life, indeed still do.
I returned home with my parents, dad having managed to get down from London to greet me when I was a day old, and was taken into the huge bosom of my polyglot and poly-devotional family. We had two houses next to each other with gardens running down to the river, sharing a large boathouse. In all there were 48 rooms in which we housed my mother, father, fifteen months old sister Michèle and both my grandmothers. Then there were my mother’s two sisters and their husbands, her elder sister’s two sons, ten and eleven years older than I, and my great grandmother on my mother’s side. She had her ninetieth birthday on the day I was born. Both my grandfathers were dead and mum’s mother died just before I was two in the spring of 1944 so I cannot in fairness claim to remember her, save in photographs of us together. Actually my sister was the only female born in direct line to either side of the family by that time. We have one lovely picture of her on her second birthday with her mother, two grandmothers, and ninety year old great grandmother. My mother’s Scottish brother and his French wife, who was to be one of my godparents and talked french to me from a very young age, lived in Kent but had come up to the Thames valley as mum’s waist measurements increased. In addition to our relations we had seven more friends living with us then, all in the theatre like my mother, aunts and uncles. Some of the males were on military assignments as well so our houses were used basically as a place of safety for the ladies during the war. Dad was a war correspondent and had in fact been blown up and thrown right across a London street, in 1941 just after my sister was born that February. He was quite ill for a few months and insisted the family stay as far from danger as they could.
I was talking earlier about the significance of my birth date. Well as I just crept into May the tenth my mother had to keep a promise she had made, more probably to herself than anyone else, but made nevertheless. She had to give me the name of a male Saint on whose feast day I was born. The choices for May the tenth were not very large or included names she would normally have chosen. But she did see that one of the Saint’s celebrated that day was Antoninus, archbishop of Florence in the 1450’s, and someone whose name could remain in Latin for a Baptismal certificate but be Anglicised to Anton for a legal birth certificate. Ergo sum he chi je suis.
Nevertheless, we had a problem in our family at that time which had nothing to do with the war. Alcohol was accepted as a perfectly normal diet for everyone over the age of 20 and was consumed in large quantities, especially by my great grandmother who still downed a bottle of whisky a day in 1947 aged 95. I have often thought she must have been a very unfortunate role model for her younger relations. But then she was Scottish, as were all her grandchildren, so I suppose that explains it. Also my two American Uncles were acting in films while also serving in the US air force. Thus we had access to PX rations and limitless booze, our own pigs and hens, a large amount of fruit and vegetables from our gardens together with food parcels from my father’s brother and relations in Australia, when they managed to reach us. Now, if you add to this the fact that we were extremely wealthy, all the adults were earning enormous salaries acting and entertaining, and the Fleet Street side were all in top newspaper jobs. But the worst thing was that of all the people living in our houses at least three quarters were instantly recognised whenever they set foot in any public place. So I can honestly say, as I start my story, life really was totally abnormal for my sister and me. Also, as you may begin to appreciate, war for us was anything but hell. Well until I was two years old. Then things changed in so many ways that I must also change this from a prologue to the narrative and start of my Books.
I had just had my second birthday in May 1944 when dad came home one weekend for thirty six hours rest and told the assembled family and friends that as the bombing of Germany had now stepped up so much he would at least be spared ever having to go to Berlin, the one place he said he would really hate to visit. Mum told him not to make rash assumptions which he might not be able to keep and he laughed. His great friend, my godfather Walter Cronkite, who worked with him and lived with us at that time with his wife Betsy, also laughed but looked anything but certain that Dad’s hopes would be fulfilled. When both of them were assigned to cover the D-Day landings a couple of weeks later and then stay with the troops, Walter the US, dad the British, all the way to Berlin, the war really came home to me for the first time. I had lost the closest person to me and was just old enough to be scared that the loss could be for ever.
As we grew up mum always made the children in the family say their prayers every night and now dad was added to the list of people God had to keep safe or the world might as well end. He’s a lovely God and did look after dad, but not without some scary moments before the awful conflict ended in Europe a year later. Probably the most exciting event at that time was when I was two and a few months in 1944 and a buzz bomb nearly killed my sister, three years and seven months, and me as my grandmother raced for our house pushing our pram as we just beat the German monster. Well, obviously, this story gets better every time I tell it but we did get a shock from the explosion and my mother being very well known at that time she rang a London national daily newspaper editor and recounted my story, warts and all, even if there weren’t any warts, thus gaining me my first national front page byline before I was three. Even at that age I was clearly paparazile.
Fortunately dad was returned to us as the war ended and the lovely houses by the Thames slowly shed their motley crew of entertainers, celebrities and writers. But it was a wonderful first three years of life, always full of multilingual laughter and devotion. It was a strange way to begin wondering about all one was told about God. The people close to us followed all creeds and denominations, while being mostly drunks or invalids like mum, who many thought was dying. Yet we were all constantly filled with a feeling of hope and certainty that everything was going to be alright. The greatest thing about those ‘house guests’ was that I could never dislike them just because they were different to me. Jews laughed and played with me, homosexuals would lift me up and maybe kiss me on the cheek – I was young enough – but they were never malicious or threatening. The drunks and adulterers I know now, looking back, lived lives totally opposed to everything I was later told was how they ought to behave, but I cannot ever remember a day when I did not love them as friends of us all. No, even at three and four my sister and I disliked what many people actually did, but somehow we could always separate the sins from the sinners despite being so young.
Before leaving Bourne End and its lovely leafy, quiet dreamy part of England in August 1945, possibly three of the four most important things in my life happened to me within a couple of weeks of each other. The first was shortly after ‘the day peace broke out’, to use my mother’s first father in law’s famous line, and happened unexpectedly in our huge drawing room overlooking the long lawn down to the river. I was sitting with my face screwed up in anger as I tried to make the lovely rosewood grand piano do what I told it.
Of all the really great tunes that I have heard in my life, pop, classical, country and western, operatic arias, ballads et al it has always been the catchy–‘want to sing or whistle it again’– quality that has made me put it in my favourites. There are many songs and tunes that set me going, foot tapping or rushing for the nearest piano if there is one, to join in and enjoy myself. But there I have mentioned the luckiest, loveliest thing in my physical life. My mother’s half of the family were all well known singers, actors and entertainers so of course I was brought up with a piano in the house. I loved sitting trying to make the keys play a tune from as early in my life as I can remember.
My father, who was a journalist and nothing to do with the theatrical side of the family was a modest pianist himself and it was he who first spotted in me the natural ability to pick up a tune and reproduce it. I must have been about three and few months because it was just before we moved to East Sheen near Richmond in London, that mum was playing arias from the Marriage of Figaro on a 78 record player. Records in those days, were not of the acoustic quality of today, but never the less the wonderful soulful yet bouncing melody of Cherubino’s Aria ‘voi que sapete’ really turned me on. I listened to it about fifteen times through and then went to the piano and tried to find the right notes to play the tune. It was as I was on about the fifteenth attempt and getting to the stage where I wanted to smash the piano to bits that my father came in. He just looked at me and said.
“Do that again. No seriously, it sounded just like one of the Arias from Figaro. But you couldn’t have taught yourself!” I couldn’t, and didn’t believe him. I thought he was joking. so I played the same notes through again to the end of the sixteenth bar. Then I looked at him inquisitively. All he said was brief and to the point. “You were playing ‘voi que sapete’, in the wrong key, the wrong tempo and with one or two notes of your own, and an inability to finish it. Also your feet don’t reach the pedals. But if you taught yourself to do even that and, it must have been all imitating and experiment, you still finally got somewhere near the basic melody.” He was so impressed all he said was, “Right, when we move to our new house in July or August that piano is coming with us. I don’t care whose it is we’re taking it and you’re going to have proper piano and music lessons. You obviously love playing and have a gift for it. Go on trying anything you like in the meantime. Your aunts and I will get you started on the basics. I was amazed at his reaction and from then on started trying to play more melodies, even though they were beyond me. I especially loved the duet ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni and asked mum what the words meant. She did not know but my aunt told me it was the evil Don Giovanni trying to kiss a pretty peasant girl called Zerlina and she was trying to fend him off. I remember seeing a reflection of a very pretty face in the lid of the piano when I was trying to play the tune and thinking if she was that pretty anyone would want to kiss her.
The second really important event occurred at the end of the week when I first tried to play music. Our local Catholic parish church was across the river, St. Joseph’s in Maidenhead, where I was Christened. The Catholics at home were intermittent Mass goers and I was actually three years and five weeks old before my Australian grandmother took Michèle and me to a Sunday Mass there for the first time. Mum had told us that as we grew up we should go to Mass on Sundays but could not receive Communion until we were about eight or nine. Combined with this was a very confusing version of what was right and wrong, a sin or not a sin, but fortunately always done with the sole purpose of telling us how much more God loved people who were good or did not sin. At that age the worst thing either of us ever did was occasionally copy the grown ups’ swear words, but apparently this sent one straight into God’s bad books and also embarrassed my parents in front of their friends. My mother never did manage to explain which offence was worse. But apparently swearing was OK for grown ups.
Anyway that Sunday, the first in July 1945, Nana, we always called her that, took us to Mass. I was almost struck dumb by the atmosphere in the church and instantly felt completely at home. But the high point came at the consecration. I stared at the altar, the priest had his back to the congregation in those days, and as the altar bell was rung I actually saw God standing before me, facing me, at the foot of the altar steps. His hands were held out towards me and my heart literally thumped at the piercing stab of love that totally consumed me as I looked at Him. I could not describe Him to you then, I cannot now. All I know is that it happens every time I receive Holy Communion and God’s love is completely reciprocated. It is the only reason I have never even considered not being a Catholic and have shed so many, many tears when dear or close friends have lost their faith or doubted what they once believed. It doesn’t matter two hoots to me what type of Christian, or good person of any sort or religion one is as long as they let God love them and love him back. It is a gift which I have been given which transcends anything else I have ever experienced or ever could.
The third thing to happen just before we left Bourne End was a chat Michèle and I had under a tree in the orchard one hot afternoon with mum. She decided to tell us the life story of a particular saint, something she often did even if she got it wrong or hammed it up dreadfully. But this day she told us the story of a fifteenth century Italian lady who had a very difficult marriage, her husband was killed, then her sons died of disease and finally she spent her last years as a nun praying for and looking after people in almost hopelessly depressing situations. She is Saint Rita of Cascia in central Italy, and is now the patroness of all hopeless causes and known in some places as the ‘advocate of the impossible’. I had an overwhelming feeling when I heard her story that I too was going to have an almost unbearable life. There and then I asked her in a very short and childlike prayer never to forget me. She has never left my side since that day despite everything you might read here if you carry on with my tale. Doctors insist she is just in my head, but get very confused when I tell them I agree. It’s that part of my head I call my soul.
And so we moved to our new home near London that August. I never found the silver spoon that so many of my friends thought I had in my mouth when I was born, but for several years something akin to it was definitely spoon-feeding my life. My family had access to considerable wealth and many of them were very famous actors or entertainers. From May 1942 to April 1956, my sister and I lived in a mixture of fairyland and Heaven. I am just thankful that Heaven is still a possible final dwelling place. But Oh, were we the anomalies of our age. Let me give you a flavour. I spent the years aged three to fourteen in the most beautiful suburb of London, in a thirty seven room Georgian mansion which we almost had to sell to pay the bills we ran up over ten years. The bank knew we were good for them. It was worth £2.5 million by early 1957 so you can imagine how beautiful it was. And the location! Richmond Park and Sheen Common, bordering our house with Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, etc all a few minutes drive along the beautiful banks of the Thames where Surrey made it so attractive. Also only fourteen minutes on the train to the very heart of the city.
Our house was totally secluded from prying neighbours with an enormous ten foot high wall and holly hedge round three quarters of the estate which also included an orchard of six different types of fruit trees, four summer houses, a pond and huge elm tree in the 3 acres of garden, plus a separate walled rose garden. You get the idyllic picture. My sister and I went to an expensive, private school from the ages of three to eight (she’s fifteen months older). BUT we weren’t allowed to play with any children except our vetted school friends. You would only believe this if you had known my mother and her side of the family! Not snobs, no, far worse. Content to be different, recognised and obeyed. In fact we were too young to realise what an incredibly prejudiced world we lived in.
Given such a setting, what in life could not possibly be very pleasant when all the rooms in the house were huge, superbly decorated and especially the living room with a bay window and door onto the rose garden and a grand piano where I spent eleven years learning and playing at least three hours a day. Dad even had to have it sound proofed without spoiling the decoration or the superb Adam fireplace which burned whole tree trunks. At one end was the sliding glass door to the huge conservatory with real grape vines and a marble fountain which was turned off at Christmas to accommodate the twelve foot Christmas tree? So where was the prejudice? I never saw a coloured person, any colour other than white, in the area I inhabited for the first thirty years the family lived there. In the late nineteen forties there just were none. At the local pub some fifty regulars from our incredibly select road, the most sought after in South West London, met each Sunday lunch time for drinks and they agreed never to talk religion or politics at the bar. Unfortunately mum’s notoriety as a famous entertainer let her get away with murder and insult whomsoever she chose. Dad was accepted as her pleasant, Australian, other half who had one of the top jobs in British journalism. As bars closed at 2.00pm on Sundays in those days we usually had about 20 people back to our house for drinks and finally had lunch around 4.00pm. That house swam in booze every day I.
So who were the baddies, ie those not accepted by our ‘clique’? WelI, everybody who did not know any of us. If they came in expecting to buy a drink, as they would in any pub on a Saturday night or Sunday, they were simply ignored totally by staff and customers unless they were guests of the set. Most gave up and walked out dejected after recognising most of the people in the pub. But even within the accepted drinkers there was a hidden class of stereotyped prejudice that would have made you sick. They all smiled and laughed together but detested, in order of priority, first and foremost socialists, then Catholics or any non-conformists, then Jews but worst by far the thought of an American tourist ever being let near the place. Not famous Americans like three of my family members among the regulars whom they had got to know, but the conviction that ordinary US citizens only came to London to gloat over how they had won the war for us after raping all our virgins. Quite seriously, in that environment that was a prejudice which lasted until the Conservative government was returned to power again in 1951. The American presence in Britain towards the end of the war left a horrible anti-US feeling of pure jealousy because they were, to use the famous quote of ‘Mr. Average Brit’, “over sexed, over fed, over paid and over here!” My uncle in the US air force reserve still had a PX card, though we never told anyone.
But my sister and I just led a strangely unique and unreal life until I went to the most expensive Catholic boys school in London and again mixed only with my school friends. Fortunately we had all colours and races in the school, mostly sons of foreign Catholic diplomats, rich businessmen and 60% of the upper school from the age of 11 were on totally free scholarships gained through the state scholarship system. Thank heavens for this because the only way I ever have met ‘ordinary’ people was through my school.
Yet even within this strange mix of a world when we were ten and eleven the Catholic/Anglican/Jewish divide was huge. Many of my family’s clique were Jews, we were Catholics and in every case it was humour that saved the day and calmed things down. Naturally klbeing Irish was not acceptable either, but Irish, Jewish and Catholic jokes were the backbone of the pub conversations. Imagine this scene. A Jewish fellow who owned a company the equivalent of Hertz in the States, with a lovely French titled wife, once teased my mother; she was excused the politics and religion rule on account of her wit, “Vel, yor Jesus voz a Jew? Vozn’t ‘e?”
To which mum snapped back in millie seconds, ”Yes, Bernie, but we were taught that out of humility he chose to come to earth in the guise of the lowest form of humanity known to man!” What response would that have got anywhere in the western world today? The whole pub, Bernie most of all, just creased with laughter. But that was 1949. There was no malice, just relief that you could laugh in peace and honestly no offence was taken by anybody. Are you all wondering what my sister and I were doing in a pub barred to kids when we were that age? Well at least nine other children our age of members of the set were also there most weekends because the pub owner wanted his customers money and could not give a fig for the licensing laws. Catholic priest and Jewish Rabbi jokes were also all the rage because the Anglicans laughed at every opportunity to see the absurd side of Catholicism and Judaism. One such joke that went down very well was told by a Catholic Irish crooner who lived four houses away from us and was never off the radio. (Is the awful hypocracy coming through?). I heard this one when I was ten and took a few minutes wondering the meaning of a word when the loud mouthed, blousey wife (?) of a member of parliament whispered the meaning in my ear. You’ll spot it.
“Der wass dis priest on a bus and who should sit next to him but de local Rabbi? Dey smiled and de priest said,’Ah god bless ye’z Rabbi, now isn’t it a lovely day for me to be covertin’ Jews?” They laughed.
“Not me, fadder,” the rabbi replied. At the next turning the bus skidded into a ditch and turned on its side. Nobody was badly hurt as they scrambled off, but the priest stared in disbelief as he watched the Rabbi place his right hand on his forehead, then his stomach, then his right breast and then his heart. A miracle! He was blessing himself. But the rabbi smiled and, shaking his head, said, “Sorry, Fadder, bud I alvays do dat after an accident just to check. Spectacles, testicles, vollet and votch.” Again total collapse of all present and the story teller was bought several large libations. But these were not snobbish people, just totally self satisfied. There were two occasions only before I went to my final school when I felt the heart stabbing horror of the only prejudice that directly affected me. The first was at the age of seven when the son of my parents’ best friends was getting married in the local Anglican Church just two roads away from us. Our own parish priest would not let us attend the church service because we were Catholic. In those days (1949) catholics still prayed for the conversion of England to Rome. The reformation was still alive and kicking. I prayed for weeks to try to understand, but eventually got my own back by marrying my present wife who is a Liverpool Anglican. But we go to each other’s churches, so the world is a lot better than it was.
My second horrible experience of religious prejudice was aged eight and one month, when, on the day I had made my first Communion that Sunday morning I did not go to the pub, but one of those ‘regulars’ mentioned above, said to me back at our house after the usual exodus from the boozer, “Here, Anton. Have a coke and get that awful taste out of your mouth!” He was rich, influential, forty seven and I hit him so hard he lost two teeth. I was ushered from the room and was obviously never going to apologise. He made no fuss, but never spoke to me again. I also broke a finger.
Well, My last example of early 1950’s prejudice was also my first brush with racial prejudice. In the summer of 1952 my mum’s sister and her American husband, were starring in a very popular revue at the Piccadilly Theatre . The vaudeville show had been packed out for eighteen months and one of the hit turns was a young American half coloured half Hispanic singer. She was 22, a real poppet and my sister and I loved her. As mum was in hospital after major surgery, (my sister asked the surgeon if mum was having her gin and tonic removed), and dad was on an assignment in New York we asked our aunt and uncle to invite our friend back to spend the weekend at our house. They agreed and so we all went home after the Saturday night performance. My American uncle was by far my favourite relation. He taught me baseball and I taught him cricket when he was starring in the West End production of Damn Yankees. He supported the Pittsburg Pirates and I still do. Anyway, to the terrible bit. Perhaps my life’s main introduction to just how awful some people and groups of people can be.
As my uncle was well known at the pub he suggested we all go down for a drink at lunchtime as usual. My Aunt pleaded a headache. We had just started the first round of drinks when the pub owner came up to my uncle and took him aside. He said he did not want to upset him but no way was he allowing a coloured girl, however much a friend of ours, to drink in his bar. He would lose all his customers. I won’t say what he said to her but the singer just smiled and told my uncle it happened all the time in London. She understood and told the three of us we’d better go home. My Uncle, God bless him, never entered that pub again. My drunken, cowardly aunt did not even warn us but did at least tell us she had telephoned the pub owner during our five minute walk round there to say who was about to arrive.
Thus, like a pleasant encore at a piano recital I shall finish with an encore on the subject. But a nice one. My grandmother made two little woollen dolls for my sister and me when we were five and six. They were black with big smiles, fuzzy hair, and E.P.Christie minstrel outfits. We loved them. They were called Golly and Sambo and we took them to bed with us every night. As we grew up we never lost them and both of us still have them and love them. But we can’t call them by their names in front of other people. So, out of love and respect, we don’t.
However I am slightly jumping the gun here because the fourth important thing in my life happened just eighteen months after we moved to Sheen. I had my first really dreadful attack of agoraphobia which I will describe next in some detail. But with it will be the introduction of Alexandra Jane to my life as a fellow six year old infants school pupil. Only a month younger than I, she humanly saved my sanity as my mind could not cope with irrational fear. For the first year we spent settling into our new home life at ‘Per Ora’, as the house was called, was a mixture of fun, exploration and learning how to mix with people other than just members of our own family. In September 1946 Michèle and I both started lessons at a small convent school about a mile’s walk from the house on the other side of the common. However it was more of a nursery than a school and after one of the coldest winters on record for the London area we changed to a select infants preparatory school in April l946 just before I was four. The school was called ‘Pathways’ and the standard of academic teaching was really quite high for children aged four to nine. It taught some pupils up to the age of thirteen, but very few and only girls.
Michèle and I soon settled in well, although she was in a form for children a year older than me, and I met three youngsters who stayed friends for a very much longer time than one would expect. I also spent a lot of my own time at home playing the piano and being introduced to a new teacher, Signor Pirelli, who called mum ‘Madamina’. I don’t know why but she seemed to like it. She told me he was an old friend and a well know concert pianist. Several years later my music master at school could not believe who had been teaching me, nor why I had never sat any piano exams. But that will be explained as we go along. After only a a few days at ‘Pathways’ a boy a few weeks younger than I told me he lived in the next road to us and his father was a diplomat at the Foreign Office. At first mum did not want either Michèle or I bringing friends home to the house until she knew exactly who their families were, but I insisted in the case of David. She demurred but when dad came home that night I asked him to let me invite anybody home to play in our huge house and garden. He asked who the boy was and then smiled at my mother and said,
“John Denton, David’s father, is one of our most important contacts in Whitehall and I was hoping Anton would make a friend there. John has already told me he would like David to imitate Anton’s famous posh and pedantic way of talking! Has he been playing the fool at school already?They are a really nice family and just the sort of people you are keen on your children knowing. They are the same age too, and Catholics, so I can see David becoming just the sort of boy you would like to have around the house.” David was thus formally invited to my fourth birthday party two weeks later and we got on like a house on fire. We were both keen on sports, cricket especially, but being so young we could only visit each other when taken or collected by an adult. David had a great sense of fun and was a little taller than I was, but at that age height was not something children noticed. The only things he found odd about us all was my devotion to the piano, Michèle’s complete lack of interest in him at all at first and the general air of humourous and celebrated insanity which pervaded the household. He later also told me that he loved coming round to our place because post war rationing of things like confectionery and really good food did not seem to have reached our world. It took a good year and a bit to decorate the whole building and restore it to its former glory after the damage it had sustained from bombing raids during the war. For instance some thirty one small glass windows in the conservatory had to be replaced after being individually shaped and cut, and the whole exterior of the building re-painted. The burst pipes caused by the bitterly cold winter, especially December and January, did not help with putting the inside right either. Luckily the owner who died in the war had insured the building and because he was a victim of enemy action the war office honoured his insurance policy. Dad said that saved us nearly £60,000 in those days, the equivalent of about a million pounds to do the work now.
We spent the second half of 1946 getting to know our house, the lovely surrounding areas of Richmond Park and Sheen Common and meeting all sorts of odd friends of the family. But our first years in Bourne End had prepared us perfectly to accept just about anyone in life whether saint or sinner, pauper or magnate, obscure shy individual or over the top celebrity. Then came the terrible introduction one Spring morning in 1947 to the mental torture that was to plague me for the rest of my days. Michèle, mum and I took a short bus drive to Hammersmith bridge with the intention of having a nice long walk across the wide River Thames as it wound its weird way around south west London. It had been mum’s intention to enjoy a walk over the broad stretch of river. Well, the bus pulled up by the start of the Bridge and I got off thinking the other two were behind me. I jumped down onto the pavement and to my horror saw the bus carry on over the bridge with my sister and mother still on board.
“Stop! Stop!” But it didn’t hear me. At the age of just five I didn’t know that big, red, double decker London buses couldn’t hear, but they could abduct your mother and sister and drive off with them leaving you on your own without another soul in sight. It was so terrifying I was too scared even to cry. Think what it must have been like. The bus stop was on the Surrey side of the Thames at the start of Hammersmith bridge with its never ending open air tunnel of iron arches. I knew I was not able to swim so I could not step onto the bridge in case I fell off and was drowned. I turned round to put the bridge behind me but that was worse. A mile long, so it seemed, dead straight road of private houses on both sides faced me. We weren’t allowed to go into strangers’ houses. I started to hyperventilate for the first time in my life.
I was trapped! I wanted to wait for the next bus, but I had no money. If you tried to dodge paying the fare you went to jail. They locked you up and left you alone to starve. I was beginning to shake and then felt I needed to go to the toilet. But if you took your willey out in public horrible perverted men would jump out of the bushes and do dreadful things to you. At least there were no bushes by the bridge, but no toilets either!
I was really worried now and finally had to edge back to the bridge and pee up against the iron stanchion. As I went on looking at the huge bridge I could not understand how people could cross it on foot. I must have been on the point of full blown, choking panic when a bus pulled up on the other side of the road and my mother and sister rushed over to make sure I was OK. On seeing I was alright they treated the whole episode as a very good joke. They thought my uncontrollable shaking was a form of laughter! I was rooted to the spot and insisted we got the next bus home.
A few days later my mother had one of her posh friends round to tea. I heard her say, “Dorothy, we’ve always made a point of making sure the children understand why they should behave correctly, especially in public. The last thing either of them would do is appear rude, afraid or upset in front of other people.”
That was sixty nine years ago and on really bad days I can still barely cross the road outside my house. As for bridges I have still never walked across one anywhere in my life. Just the sight of one brings on a panic attack. But I could never tell anybody like a neighbour or doctor this at that age. They might think me very odd and try to do something about it. It was during the course of that summer that I gradually started to become panic stricken when isolated anywhere. I neither understood nor could I bear the mental pain I kept going through.
I know every inch of the beauty that is the garden surrounding my home. The three acres of lawns and orchard, trees and summer houses and the path leading to the pond by the chestnut tree. Above all I adore the elm tree and its enormous base which so sadly had to be pruned to only a quarter its vast height when Dutch Elm disease ravaged southern England in the 1970s. But I gradually sank into a kind of depression which I did not even know was happening to me. Yes I loved my piano, going to Mass and playing with David and other friends very occasionally, but I also had to pretend to everyone I was normal. So unusual was our family life, Fleet Street offices, West End dressing rooms, and above all being hailed as the son of my mother, that not even the love of playing with Michèle and her friends and taking our adorable Labrador puppy Kim for walks, could calm me down properly. In fact Saint Rita was fast becoming the only person I could talk to about my mental fears as for the first time in my life I began to wonder if my parents would think me naughty for being a coward. Over the years the admission of that feeling at the age of seven has given drooling psychiatrists hours of fun making up nonsensical explanations of why I have a guilt complex. I have never had one in my life, I love God too much, but they never believe or even understand me.
Some two years after that dreadful time by the bridge I was sitting alone on the lawn one Sunday morning wondering what had happened to me, when along the pebbled path from the elm and under the edge of the beautiful pink Magnolia tree to the side of it I saw a girl walking towards me. I blinked. It couldn’t be, I mean why? She had never visited us before and I only knew her from school.
“Hello Anton, are you alright? Your sister said I’d find you here. Do you mind me coming to see you, you’ve looked so dreadful at school all week. I felt sorry for you.” It was Sandie, Alexandra Jane to be exact but she never answered to that. A shy girl some one month younger than I, between me and David in age I suppose, but with mousey-blonde hair cut in a style that did nothing to flatter her. Also I doubt we had exchanged more than half a dozen words at that time. But she had one wonderful thing going for her. Her eyes smiled, not her mouth, I was not to learn what wonders that might hold for a few years yet. She sat down next to me. “You look very sad, is someone ill in your family?” I stuttered before replying,
“Sandie. Have you just come round here to see if I’m OK? Have you? Nobody has ever cared about me before. When I’m ill of course, but never because they thought I was unhappy. Thanks very much, because yes, I am.” she looked at me and gently put her hand in mine. Then she pulled me up and said,
“We’re going for a walk and you can tell me all about it. We can’t have you looking so rotten all the time.” I grinned and we strolled very slowly past the cricket pitch on the common, through the gorse bushes and into the copse towards the Richmond end of the lovely deserted greenery. Neither of us spoke a word for a good twenty minutes. Suddenly Sandie turned towards me, her lovely eyes now so much happier and her green check gingham dress sparkling in the sunshine. I began to feel very odd indeed. In fact I had no idea what was happening to me. Well at seven and a few weeks what could I feel? I didn’t know what loving other people even meant let alone was. But Sandie was having a very strange affect on me. Then she first suggested we ought to walk back in case people started to worry about us, and then did the most wonderful thing. She put an arm round my shoulder and said,
“You do know I’ll always be your friend, don’t you?” Then she very gently kissed my cheek, blushed and sprang apart from me. I did not have to think what to do my whole being did it for me. I pulled her back towards me, kissed her hair, just above my shoulder height, and replied,
“I didn’t before today, Sandie. But I do now. Also I know you will always be my best friend. But please don’t leave me alone, I’ve got this horror at the thought of seeing you walk away from me.” She smiled, clasped my hand tightly and we walked back home, again without saying a word. But as we parted at the gate, nobody at home even knew she’d been there, we both knew something everlasting had happened to us. I couldn’t wait to see her at school again the next day and my phobia never even entered my head for the rest of that day. All I remembered were her parting words.
“Have I earned a private piano recital?” And at her her smile I wondered how on earth she knew. But deep down inside me I was awfully glad I had not told her about my daily mental torture.
I think the time spent at Pathways, where I learned to grow from a toddler into a youngster who could think for himself, was one of the most difficult periods of my life to put into a holistic account of every aspect of growing up. As many of my days were so very much the same, as were the weeks, and the number of friends and teachers relatively so small, I can only say in honesty that May 1947 to the summer of 1950 is more a series of tableaux in the memory bank of my mind. As you can imagine the rest of that summer and the following school year were amongst the pleasantest times in my life. I have often wondered whether it was the freedom to play, with David, my sister, even by myself but most of all having Sandie round the house at least once or twice a week, made the whole time really enjoyable. Due to several serious illnesses which my mother underwent at that time, much of my life was unsupervised and exactly as I wanted it to be, allowing for schoolwork of course. Naturally my sister and several of her girl friends would also join in what we were doing at home, but for most of the time David, Sandie and I spent time playing cricket and tennis or just messing about in the garden. For a lot of the time too, we were left to our own devices and would take lovely long walks through Richmond Park with our dog Kim, who loved pretending to chase the wild deer.
Obviously I also spent several hours playing the piano Yet I was amazed at how often Sandie used to just curl up on the sofa in the sitting room and listen to me practising. I always thought it must have been the most boring thing she could have done, because I played so many pieces over and over again until I got I them right. But to my surprise she never stopped asking me to carry on playing. Then one day I realised why. I think it must have been several months after that never to be forgotten day in May when she suddenly looked up as I finished a piece, and said
“Ton”, as she now always used to call me, “I’d love to ask you a special favour. Can you tell me how I could start piano lessons myself?” I could hardly believe my ears. Did she really want to play the piano or was she just trying to do something that would please me? I couldn’t resist asking her and she made me really shocked by her reply. “No, I really do want to learn to play. I know I could never be anything like as good as you, but I would love to produce music in the way that you do and experience the pleasure that you obviously get from playing.”I think that was the day that I really realised how much she meant to me. I determined then to ask Signor Pirelli what she should do, because I knew she would have to start from scratch. But I did also think that perhaps I could teach her the basic beginnings of music and together we might find out whether or not she was ever going to be any good. And somehow I knew in my mind that it would be an awful lie if I was ever to tell her that I thought she could play something when really I believed she could never master it. I discussed this, believe it or not, with David during the summer holidays of 1950 when we had just finished the school year at Pathways and knew that we would be going on to a different school the following term. He was very helpful, even told me that it would do me a lot of good to try teaching other people things for a change, instead of just playing with them and, in the case of Sandie and himself, letting them get me through the difficulties and often horrors of my phobia.
By the start of 1949 I had told David of my anxiety problems when he hit a ball too far for me to chase on the common and I froze on the spot. He ran up to me,
“Hey, Anton, what’s wrong? You look awful. Are you feeling sick.?” I gripped his arm and slowly walked back to our garden where I explained my nightmares since I was five. I thought he would just laugh it off or not believe me but quite the opposite happened. He slowly brushed a tear away from his eyes and gripped my shoulders with his hands. Almost choking with grief and obvious sorrow he managed to say, and remember we were not yet seven years old at this time,
“Come on. It must be terrible and much more frightening than anything in a story book, but if I can help you in any way at all tell me and I will. You poor little chap, fancy having a mental illness like that at our age. Dad’s told me of several people who work for him abroad having to have treatment for that sort of thing when they return. But I never thought children could. And Anton, dad also warned me never to go to a doctor with mental problems, just tell him. He said doctors could certify you mad for the rest of your life and your career would be ruined. So just come to me for the time being, OK! You promise?” And that was how I fell in love for the first time my life. With a boy too, but there are many forms of incredibly deep human love.
I have never had any homosexual feelings of any sort for anyone, ever, so I cannot explain what David means to me. All I know is there is nothing I would refuse to do for him if he asked me. It was my first realisation of the power of love, the strongest of all human emotions, spiritual or earthly. But at that age I had no idea what had just happened to us and was merely thankful that David had unhesitatingly believed me, wanted to help me and above all treated me as someone who was just ill in a nasty way. So many, many people since have assumed I am just acting, lying or showing off when I panic. It has been the only serious barrier between me and the rest of my family, having to decide who wanted to help me through a horrible illness and who simply did not believe I suffered from such a thing.
At this stage I should perhaps explain how the year from just seven to eight and a few months had changed and bonded all three of us. Naturally we knew each other at school and David and I would go the same church on Sundays, with Michèle, but Sandie was merely a nominal Christian whose family supported the Anglican faith but never seemed to worry whether she went to church or not. It was was around February 1950 that she stunned her parents by asking them if they would mind if she went to Mass with David and me.
“Oh Ton, “ she told me, “It was almost funny the look on their faces. Dad didn’t mind in any way at all he just thought it was because I wanted to do the same as you two. They could see how friendly we had all become. But mummy was quite different. You won’t believe this. She said,
“Alexandra. Do you realise what you are saying? You are asking us if you can go to a Catholic church? Really! They are totally opposed to everything we stand for religiously and socially. I admit they seem very nice boys, and I know Anton and Michèle’s family are highly thought of and well known, but what they preach is quite another matter. I’m sorry I would not like it at all! So Daddy agreed with her. But Ton, I had a really good answer up my sleeve.
“Well then mummy, could we, and with my little brother Jerry, all go to an Anglican church on Sunday then? After all we ought to from time to time or our religion is meaningless. Why don’t we start this week?” You should have seen their faces. We only ever went at Easter and Christmas, and this more socially than anything, so they were stumped. They ended up saying I was too young to understand but such things didn’t matter. They said your family forced God on you to scare you and they did not want that happening to me. So I just walked away. But I will still come with you all if you don’t mind. They’ll only think I’m playing at your house won’t they?”
I did not know what to do. Of course they would know, they would be told by somebody in our congregation very quickly if I new anything about the social side of life where we lived and were educated. But first a story of how I unintentionally influenced Sandie in a way of which I was quite unaware. But before explaining how I dealt with this problem there is another very important side of growing up at that age that I must recall first.
I have told of how I first knew irrational fear but not how I learned to deal with it. I have many recollections of how I managed to fend off the terror of being alone in large open spaces. At first going for rambles through Richmond Park with Michèle and our lovely dog Kim helped me feel protected and safe. But not always. Kim loved running among the deer in the park and playing at shepherding them. We would laugh at this and at the antics of the deer in appearing not to care. The fawns sometimes were wary of him but he always raced back to us, tail wagging in gratitude for the fun of the chase.
But the greatest help stemmed from my love of going to Mass on Sunday mornings and the two mile walk to church with my sister and grandmother. Oh when would I be allowed to receive Holy Communion with everyone else? As I passed my eighth birthday our parish priest had already started our short instruction in the basics of our faith so we could make our first confession and Communion that mid June on the feast of Corpus Christi 1950. Even David, who was doing the same as us, and Sandie too noticed a change in me, but neither were specific in their curiosity at the obvious hidden excitement that I could not conceal. So we come to that time in my life when I first realised that enjoying one’s belief in God, and all the majestic mystery that went with it, was just the overture to the whole opera that is our spiritual life on earth. For several weeks before I made my first Confession I was very worried by the thought of what I would have to say to the priest when I confessed my sins. You see the man who was instructing us in our faith was so nice he almost did not want to scare us by telling us what a life of deliberate sin would lead to. He explained both kindly and with understanding for our very young and immature minds, what making a firm purpose of amendment meant.
“When God asks you to tell him how you have disobeyed him, how you have sinned, he does not expect you to remember every little wrongdoing in the whole of your life up to your first Confession. No, all he wants is that you tell Him you are sorry that you have occasionally upset Him and will try very hard to resist doing wrong in the future. He knows, and you know, that you will upset Him but that is where the beauty of Confession comes in. It is a sacrament, an act invented by God by which you can wipe the slate clean and start again. Only the really serious sins in your life must be confessed, you are hardly likely to have forgotten them are you? At the age of eight you are not even likely to have committed any! But if some sinful habits do recur, and you don’t like them any more than God does, you really must try to avoid them. But don’t think you have lied to God when you do commit another sin, especially one you have particularly promised not to commit. You haven’t.
“All you have done is maybe try to stop yourself doing something you shouldn’t and not had the spiritual strength – enough grace if you like – to manage to avoid disobeying God. He forgives you because He knows just how difficult such a thing is, and He also knows that deep down you really do wish you had managed to keep your promise. To help you next time you are given a penance to atone for what you have done wrong. At this stage in your life your penance will usually only be a few very short extra prayers, maybe just three Hail Marys. But never forget this. When saying those prayers think about how much you have hurt somebody who loves you. It really does help as you grow up and more and more ways of hurting God are sent to tempt and test you. That is when you really need the grace of the sacrament of Confession, Penance , Reconciliation or whatever you call your return to God’s ‘good books.’”
I have never forgotten the beautiful way our priest explained to us how God both loved us and always forgave us, as long as we really meant to try to be better and never gave up trying not to sin no matter how often we failed. In the few hours between my first Confession, when I struggled through my list of sins and asked God to forgive them – oh dear they were so venial and unimportant I can hardly believe I even thought of them – and the First Communion Mass next morning, I had the most odd feeling. It felt like an overpowering love that would not leave me yet scared me stiff. This must have been because I did not understand it. I felt I had to avoid all possible acts of any kind that might be sins because I had to be pure of heart and worthy to receive God the next morning. I hardly slept all night. I was only just eight years old and kept getting up to see if my sister, who was fifteen months older, was alright too because she also was making her first Communion the next day.
We had been told by our priest that people often pick one particular Saint to ask to help them to be good whenever they are tempted. This was not placing a saint on a par with God, heavens no. It was asking a saint of whom we were particularly fond to use their influence, as one of God’s best friends, to help us when things really became too much for us and we felt incapable of behaving as we should. And more importantly, in relation to penance, to use them to ask favours of God on our behalf when we felt we were too sinful or unworthy to confront God directly ourselves. By very definition such a spiritual friendship usually develops very quickly into a relationship that keeps you closer to God, even when feeling you are drifting apart from Him and all He asks of you. We were also asked, and not all priests do this by any means, to invite our favourite Saint to receive Holy Communion with us as we started on the most important step at the start of our main religious journey. For, this way, that saint would always be closer to us than any other being and literally would love us, and hold us close to them, whenever we faced moments in our life with which we could not cope. I have never known who my sister chose, but we had studied the lives, very brief accounts it is true, of a lot of saints by this age and that is why on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1950, as I got up from the altar rails and turned back towards my pew filled with the wonder of Christ in me for the first time in my life, that I felt Saint Rita put her arm round my shoulder, as she so often does, and saw her smile down at me with unalloyed happiness. I made a very good choice in my friend when I was very young, because she is the patroness of hopeless causes, and is sometimes called ‘the advocate of the impossible’. That Sunday, as I set out on my new path through life, little did I know just what an impossibly hopeless case I was going to become. But she has always helped me to love God and has never left my side. Indeed I was tested that very afternoon as I have already related, but Saint Rita did not think knocking somebody’s teeth out was likely to please god very much!
However, I should return now to the end of that summer term, my last at Pathways, and the realisation that from September onwards I might have David in my life every day, but no longer Sandie. She would be around, of course, but at weekends only as school work would change our daily lives completely. David did not have my excitably romantic side to his personality, but our joint love, which included cricket and several other sports often spilled over into a very competitive relationship. A strange but wonderful thing. We loved trying to beat each other at all games but always in a spirit of friendship, good fun and enjoyment. So imagine the first week of the summer holidays when Sandie came round as usual but somehow seemed to know that our closeness was going to end, or at least ease off fairly soon. David somehow seemed to sense it too and I was amazed at the times he would turn down the chance to come round and play if he thought Sandie and I could thus be left alone together. We were both only just eight and a bit, it was a very odd and wonderfully sympathetic gesture on his part. It led to a Thursday in early August when Michèle was out with a friend and just Sandie, Kim and I went for a gentle wander through the shallow wood that bordered one side of the common. She sighed,
“Ton. Ton, do you realise we won’t be able to see so much of each other when you change schools? But we will be together as much as we can, won’t we?” I took her hand in mine as I promised,
“As long as we can see each other some evenings and laugh, enjoy our music and be happy together while spending more time at weekends, we’ll always be together. It certainly won’t be my fault if we aren’t!” She just collapsed across my chest and hugged me, quite unable to let go. We kissed innocently and gently, but could still not let go of each other. Her mother was quite surprised when we did not return until after six o’clock. She looked at me a little oddly.
“Alexandra is usually home for tea before this as you know, Anton.” she said. I smiled.
“I know. Forgive me, we were talking about how different everything was going to be when I changed schools next term, I’m sorry if we are a bit late.” But she never said a word as her daughter smiled goodnight and went indoors. I knew what Sandie was wondering and pondering over in her silence. We had just arranged that she would come to Mass with me at 11.00am the next day as there was a special service that morning to commemorate a local parishioner who had recently died after living near the church for some fifty years. She was quite excited but determined not to let anyone guess what we had planned.
That Mass, some two months after I had made my first Communion, will stay in my mind for as long as my mind and I can communicate with each other. She dressed quite normally but was careful to wear a school summer straw hat as she had been told girls in Catholic churches always covered their heads in those days. Actually it was quite true but nobody knew why. Michèle asked a priest once and he said it was so as not to distract any boys who might keep looking at her. A ludicrous, and wrong, answer which she giggled at out loud and said she’d always make sure she had a headscarf with her in church in future. I’m pretty sure she never wore it. Anyway, Sandie seemed at first overawed and then puzzled when we entered the church to take our places in a pew about six rows back from the altar. Phobically this was already difficult for me, but I was determined not to let it show. Just before the priest approached the altar she whispered to me,
“Ton, if it wasn’t for those two candles this would be just like our church!” I smiled back.
“It’s meant to be.” I said. However, I was sure she was going to get a shock a bit later on. She carefully looked at me and copied everything I did, but seemed totally lost when the words were all said in Latin. I passed her my Missal and showed her the English translation written in matching columns next to the Latin. She seemed fascinated and actually asked me afterwards if we had to learn the whole Mass off by heart. I assured her otherwise but said that when I was taught to serve at the altar in about a year’s time I would have to know the Latin responses and when I had to make them. She seemed to find the whole experience both mystifying and great fun, well that was until the altar server rang the little hand bell at the consecration. She nearly fell over sideways. We were kneeling down in prayer of course at this point and she bumped into me. I stifled a laugh and explained what it was. She just stared ahead blankly but told me later her first thought was that someone had driven up in an ice cream van! I had to admit the sounds were similar. But boy, did I get a terrible shock a couple of minutes later. I could have kicked myself for having forgotten something and genuinely did not know what to do, or more importantly what I had done.
As the congregation filed up to the altar rails to kneel and receive Holy Communion I realised, too late, that Sandie was walking up behind me. Even worse the Mass was being said by a priest we did not know, he was a relative of the deceased man for whom the Mass was being offered, and had been invited just for that occasion. He naturally assumed Sandie was a normal Catholic little girl. As she knelt with the other communicants at the altar rail I said the shortest prayer up to that point in my life, and to Saint Rita not directly to God. “Help! Please forgive her, she doesn’t understand.”
The look on Sandie’s face as she watched the worshipers next to her, and then took the Sacrament on her own tongue, was almost a miracle to behold. She had her eyes closed, did not get up for some fifteen seconds and then walked, hands clasped, slowly back to the pew and knelt in total silence next to me. She seemed miles away and was almost overcome by what she had done. For the last few minutes of the Mass she just smiled at me and at the final blessing, instead of crossing herself she tightly hung onto my left hand. Luckily there was nobody I recognised in the small congregation and so I was able to talk only to her as we were walking out of the church. She saw me dip my fingers in the holy water stoop by the door and then bless myself with it.
“What’s this for?” she whispered as the blessed herself in a rather odd and awkward way. “What’s in the water? Is it special?” I explained it was simply a very old custom to bless oneself with water which had been blessed by a priest. I explained it was something that was called a ‘sacramental’, which meant it was an act of reverence but had no deeply important religious significance. I tried to say it was merely something nice which we did, but she had no idea what I was talking about. To be truthful at that age I am not too sure I did either. But the main difficulty came a few minutes later when I had to tell her what had just happened. I took her back to our house where Michèle and one of her friends, Jennifer, had come round to have lunch with her. They waved to us as we crossed the lawn and I asked Sandie to sit on the bench in the smallest summer house for a minute as I had to explain something to her. She agreed somewhat apprehensively.
“Did I do something wrong in church, Ton?” she seemed very upset at the thought. So I assured her it was nothing like that and went on to explain my problem.
“Sandie, as you know David, Michèle and I all received Holy Communion for the first time in the middle of June this year, but in order to be allowed to we first had to go to confession. All that means is telling God we are sorry for any sins we have committed, tell the really bad ones to the priest and then, when God forgives, us say any prayers we are asked to say to make up for not being as good as we should be.” She was very interested by this time and urged me to carry on. “Well at our age any sins or things we shouldn’t do are not that serious, you know like lying or swearing and maybe even stealing sweets, not really dreadful things like murder.
“But the reason why this is important is that we should not receive God in Communion unless we have cleansed ourselves of our sins first. You see we believe Catholic priests really do change the bread and wine which you saw on the altar today, into the body of Our Lord God. It is the main difference between our church and yours. Your vicar never claims to do anything more than bless the bread and wine. The congregation receive it to remind them of everything God has done and always will do for them. We are all loving friends of God, it’s just that we believe we get a bit closer to god physically than people in your church.” At which, to my astonishment, Sandie became very confused.
“But Ton, when I received Communion for the first time today I felt so much more in love with God than ever before that all I thought was that it explained why you loved God as well. I know lots of children at our church but I just assumed that, as they have to be much older, I don’t know why, before they can go up to the altar they don’t get as close to God as I did today. But when they do later in life they will feel just like I do now. I really feel like I’ve done something very special and that I can now carry on going to Communion as often as you do. Of course I know when I do something wrong, what you call a sin, and if it upsets God then after today I shall definitely say sorry to Him and ask for forgiveness. He will forgive me, Ton, won’t he?” I suddenly felt helpless, ill and so upset at the thought that Sandie would ever be denied any aspect of God’s loving that I clammed up completely. I nodded in acquiescence while feeling deep down that somehow I had got the whole thing wrong. I only knew two things. Sandie loved God and wanted him to love her, but my church might stop her from fulfilling her love in the one way she wanted to so very much. I silently begged,
“Saint Rita, what on earth shall I do?” And for the first time, the first of so very many, I actually heard her reply. David believes I heard her, ninety per cent of my fellow Catholics think such conversations as ours are just in my head. Personally I simply love and enjoy them and call them part of my faith. A soft Italian voice had said to me.
“Antonino, this has happened many times before. Just ask your parish priest, Father Fagan, to give Sandie absolution and see what he says about your situation. Don’t worry, fratello, nothing wrong or awful has happened.” So I asked Sandie if she would mind me talking about her to our priest. She frowned a little and asked,
“Why should you have to Ton? I am as much a Catholic as you are now, aren’t I? Yes, I shall have to ask for my sins to be forgiven, but couldn’t that just be between me and god? If he knows everything, as we are told he does, then why does a priest have to be involved?” In truth at that age I only half knew the answer but did try to add one thing which I remembered from our lessons before our first confession. I asked her how else could she know what penance she had to do unless somebody told her. The priest acted as God’s go between so he could encourage her for the future and, by performing a sacrament, with her to give her even more of God’s grace and love to help her in future. She almost smiled her reply. “That’s very nice of the priest, Ton, but is it so necessary? I mean I’m very grateful for someone wanting to give me more love and grace, as you call it, but if I managed never to commit a bad sin again I’d be alright wouldn’t I?” Then she grinned and quite took my breath away.
“It’s not a problem. I know how much you feel you need to tell your priest because we’re only eight years old and you have no real idea what you may have done. I love you so much I wouldn’t stop you settling your conscience. But I must make this condition. Father Fagan is to mention this to nobody at all except us. I am not ashamed of what happened today, actually I loved it, but I am not going to upset mum and dad. I will happily have a chat with him, but it goes no further.” So I finished the conversation with a revelation that amazed her.
“Sandie you are quite safe. If I tell Father what happened the next time I go to confession he cannot mention a word of what I said to anyone. Everything said in confession is between the priest, the penitent and God. So if I tell him there he cannot mention the subject at all unless you begin to talk about it to him.” This seemed to cheer her up and she was happy to leave things as they were until I had spoken to my priest. But what should she go and do then but flatten me completely when we joined David for a game of tennis that afternoon. A propos of nothing in particular as we were walking back from the courts she turned to him and said,
“Oh David, Ton and I went to Mass together this morning. It was lovely, I received Communion and everything. I feel a real Catholic already. He’s going to tell Father Fagan in confession next week.” My long standing, closest friend almost lost his balance, turned grey and said to both of us,
“You what! Anton, you let her receive Communion? Are you insane? You’ll be in real trouble for this one mate!” He was badly shaken. “Look I can understand that you didn’t know what you were doing, Sandie, but he did. We were told that the sacrament could only be received by anyone in a state of grace. I don’t suppose Sandie even knows what that means. Do you? God won’t mind, at least I’m sure he won’t, but the people who run the church on earth are going to be flaming mad.”
“I don’t think so,” I smiled ,“I shall tell father in confession and not mention anything to a living soul. So if you can remain silent about it as well we’ll be fine. But do think of one thing David. Sandie has discovered how much she loves God. You and I are going to protect not jeopardise that! Yes I should have told her the situation before we went to Mass, but to be honest I was so happy to have her with me in church it never even entered my mind. So we’ll wait until I get told off properly by Father and then we’ll see what we all have to do.” I will love telling you all how this apparently enormous difficulty was solved, but it was not before David and I changed schools, which happens in the next chapter.