recognise chapter 2 of my story
EVERYONE I HAVE LOVED – 2
Leaving a school where I had a lot of friends, though none very close, was naturally quite a wrench and above all a somewhat sad time as I knew I was no longer going to be with my friends of nearly four years, well most of them very seldom and several never again. I never had a very close relationship with the teachers at Pathways because at that age they were people whom one was always trying not to upset by breaking rules and talking in class and such like. But on the whole I think they liked us all and none of them had favourites. Also when I left at least I was not severing my ties completely as my sister was staying on until she was thirteen. For girls the academic teaching was very good to this age and Michèle did not want to part from her friends yet. My parents were quite happy with this. Indeed they could see she was happy at Pathways and in those days that was all the ambition many parents, especially wealthy ones, had for their daughters.
But for David and I things were very different. Firstly we had to get new school uniforms and neither of us liked them. Even aged eight they were herring bone tweed suits, with short trousers to the age of ten, and school house ties and white shirts with starched collars that rubbed the neck off you. The school caps were naturally compulsory and nobody liked them. Also our grey knee length socks did not suit us and if we arrived in the morning with anything other than shining black leather shoes we were in trouble. For some unfathomable reason we also had to wear a different pair of black shoes inside school, so every boy had a small shoe locker which wasted five minutes every time we had to go out to play, have lunch at the main school or change for games. I should have mentioned that we started in the junior school which was almost in a campus of its own, a separate large old Victorian mausoleum for the seven to eleven year olds. For those who were eleven before the first of September in any school year this meant moving up to the middle school for two years, eleven to thirteen, again in a building and area of its own. We discovered why later.
Now you may have guessed from what I have already written that my background was a little different to that of other pupils. For a start my uncles and aunts, with occasionally mum, were regularly appearing in West End theatrical productions and Michèle and I spent some of our free time, either at weekends or early evenings, in dressing rooms full of stars and well known entertainers. But our mother gave us one really important lecture when we were six and seven. She took us into the playroom and said she had to explain to us something which most parents did not discuss with their children until they were a lot older. We then got a wonderfully explicit and highly dramatic account of every type of homosexual perversion. This, we were told, was so we would know what was happening if any male or female homosexuals tried to interfere with either of us in any physically abusive way. Apparently the theatre world was full of them. My instructions were to immediately tell any such men that I knew what they were doing and was reporting them to my relations, and to any such females that I was reporting them to the theatre manager. Don’t ask me why my mother told us to discriminate in such an odd way, but she did say one thing that I really loved.
“And remember, I was probably the best male impersonator the stage has ever seen so people will expect you to be odd. Therefore you must politely tell them that you have nothing abnormal in your own sexual make up and they will understand.” As it happens no one ever did try to abuse either my sister or me in the theatre, which rather disappointed me as I was looking forward to giving such a person the fright of their lives. I am old enough now to realise that I would probably never have been so approached because of who I was. But to return to school. Listen to this. The week before going to a public school for the first time, not a boarding school I am glad to say, mum told me that most boys would probably try to experiment, as she put it, sexually with each other but I was not to get involved. If any teacher tried to do so I was to tell either her or dad at once. She had had a series of boyfriends who turned out to be homosexual, and one homosexual husband who committed suicide in front of her, who all told her that such behaviour was normal in English posh schools. Rather like allowing caning, and other dreadful forms of corporal punishment, she believed such schools to be hotbeds of many painful practices. But it was just part of growing up. As you will hear I did not accept that side of life with my illness at all.
The worst thing about the first couple of months at our hallowed school was the absence of any girls. I had always loved female company and, I must freely admit it, showing off to them with what I was later told was my very charming and amusing manner. I was not handsome in any striking way, I certainly never even thought about it, but for some reason lots of girls always seemed to want to make friends with me. I cannot deny that I liked this, yet I also enjoyed playing all types of sports and games with other boys. But David soon saw how much I was missing having Sandie near me during the day. I saw her on occasional weekday evenings, but it was the weekends that mattered. And this is how I managed to kill two very tricky oiseaux with one pierre. About two months after she had come to Mass with me and a month into my first term at my new school I went to confession one saturday afternoon. I told her I was going and that I was going to tell Father Fagan about her. To my surprise she insisted on coming with me as she said it concerned her just as much as me. She sat at the back of the church to wait for me. It was one of the oddest confessions I have ever made. I entered the confessional box knelt blessed myself and began,
“Forgive me father for I have sinned, it is eight weeks since my last confession. I do not think I have done anything especially wrong but for one major thing, and Father please help me. You see I don’t even know if I’ve committed a mortal sin or not.” At this point he interrupted me in a friendly voice which made it obvious he knew who I was but could not actually say so.
“Well, what could you have done that is so seriously wrong at your age and not be sure whether it is a sin? What have you done?” I took a deep breath, paused and said in a rush,
“Please, Father. I have converted someone to the Faith. But I think I’ve gone too far.” I have never experienced since that day such a long silence in a confessional. It seemed like hours but was probably only twenty seconds before the priest asked,
“What on earth do you mean you’ve gone too far? Now take it slowly and tell me clearly exactly what happened.” So I very precisely told him how Sandie accompanied me to Mass and received Holy Communion. I mentioned no names but when I had finished I asked what should we do and was it a dreadful insult to God, even if she now loved him as as much as I did. His reply was so short I could not believe it.
“It was a beautiful thing to happen to both of you. Tell her she is loved by God as much as she loves him and both of you stay close friends until either she or her family allow her to come to confession. When that is arranged she may receive the sacrament as often as you do. And do tell her all her sins are forgiven as she has expressed sorrow for them. It is obvious she understands far more than you realise. That’s all. Now, for your penance just ask God to stay close to you both.”
That was it. That was all he said or did. He never even thought I’d done something sinful. Wrong, yes in one sense, but not on purpose. And then I remembered you could only commit a sin if you meant to and understood what you were doing. Apparently he and God could see that there was not a sinful or even wrongful intention in anyway connected with what happened that day. I said a very short prayer to ask God to look after us both, as I had been asked, and signalled to Sandie to come outside with me.
She was very happy when I told her what happened in the confessional and said she would try to get her parents to let her become a Catholic properly, as she put it. “But Ton, if they won’t let me I shall keep on trying with you and Father Fagan for as long as I have to until they cannot stop me.” Incredibly she seemed quite happy with that solution and almost dropped the subject for more everyday and ordinary topics. We went on seeing each other a lot that term up to Christmas, mainly at weekends when I also gave her beginners’ piano lessons, and she soon settled into a great relationship of friendliness with me that centred almost entirely on us just wanting to be together. But life at school slowly began to accentuate aspects of my phobia which I never expected. I think the worst was the way we were punished and the reasons why. I noticed that to break any school rule seemed to involve being physically smacked, caned or hit really hard with a leather strop depending on the seriousness of the offence. This is an example from late in that first term when I was eight and a half years old.
The junior school headmaster, Father Jerome, was the only master allowed to hit pupils and then at first not very hard. One might be caught talking in assembly when school started and would receive whacks on the left palm with a wooden ruler and told to do what one was told in future. I made my first terrible mistake the first day I was sent up to the head.
“But Father, nobody told me not to talk in assembly. What did I do wrong?”
“Wills-Eve, it’s written on the rules on the main notice board that no boys may talk in assembly. A teacher saw you talking and so reported you to me. Therefore you have to be punished.” I felt something was going very wrong and then I probably said too much.
“I repeat, Father, nobody told me not to talk in assembly. I have never read the notice board, who does? And even if I had it would not have constituted somebody talking to me, telling me, would it? It is merely a list of suggested forms of conduct at the school. It calls them rules but at no point on that board does it say we have to behave in the way they advocate. No, I’m sorry but those rules are merely suggestions, certainly not someone giving verbal instructions, so I maintain I have done nothing I was told not to.
“Oh heavens, but wait. They aren’t sins are they? Those I would not commit.”
In many respects I think I was lucky it was the first time I was sent up to him because he could not expel me. For minor offences one had to be found to be flouting the rules deliberately three times before the ultimate sanction could be imposed. The poor man just stared at me.
“It has been drawn to my attention that you are noted for your clever talking, wit and occasional remarks very close to insulting the teaching staff. Well I shall take this conversation as my introduction to your extremely rude behaviour and warn you never to repeat it. I am neither amused nor impressed by you!” And I was asked to hold out my hand. He was so cross he did not notice it was my right hand I put out. He struck it three unmerciful blows. As he was about to forget himself and deliver a fourth blow I pulled my hand away.
“Only three times Father. I believe that is the custom for a first offence. Also it should have been on my non-writing hand. I shall not be able to inscribe anything for the two hours remaining before lunch!” He was almost apoplectic by this time, but I was already on my way out the door. Actually I had behaved like a show off and an idiot because he was never going to spare me again. Then a thought struck me and I went straight back into his study. He could not believe it.
“Oh Father, you forgot to ask me what I was talking about when the teacher apprehended me. I was telling a boy next to me that I was feeling very ill and wanted to leave assembly at once. By attracting the teacher’s attention I was sent up to you straight away and so achieved my aim. Do thank him for me.”
You can see that I had not started off on the right foot. But I did gain one advantage from the encounter. When striking my hand he accidently broke my index finger at the second knuckle. My finger grew slightly out of shape from then on and by the time I was thirteen I could spin a cricket ball so well I was the best slow bowler in the school. I remember going up to him when I had taken eight wickets in an innings in a school under fourteens match that year and thanking him for what he had done five years earlier. By that time I was an established anomaly amongst the pupils of my age and he ignored me. Luckily my odd finger did not hamper my piano playing.
However the whole of my first year at school was taken up with with playing the piano, for an astonished music master who regretfully accepted my refusal to play in front of any type of audience for ‘nervous’ reasons, and working out how to control my phobic panics in everyday life. At home only Michèle could tell that I was actually ill and not just acting the fool. In many ways this was my own fault because I was a very good actor and so people took my exhibitionist behaviour and exaggerated pompous speech in several languages as merely showing off. It was not always, but often let me cover up for times when I could not behave normally. Like David, Michèle played with me a lot and when I was not far short of my tenth birthday she asked me one night when the grown ups were either out or listening to the radio,
“Anton, have you actually got anything wrong with you? I mean, it is plain to all of us that your linguistic and acting ability is very advanced for your age but is it just put on to impress people who know your background and how many languages are spoken in our family circle all the time? Well I speak five already and I’m only eleven and a bit. But you also look very scared at times, I’ve seen it often, and wondered if I could do anything for you? I mean, what’s wrong?” I told her in detail and she was in a dreadful state when I’d finished. But the one thing she could see was that I could never tell our parents unless it got hopelessly worse. My mother was far too ill, Dad would have had to tell her and my grandmother could never keep her mouth shut try as she might. Michèle dried her eyes, kissed me and said she and David would look after me for the time being.
Can you now see what a strangely abnormal world I was growing up in? I begged them not to tell Sandie either as she would be far too upset, so they agreed at that time and then came a really bad shock that nearly finished me off for good. Just before Easter in 1952 Sandie, her face gaunt and drawn, told me they were moving. Her father had been posted abroad, to Switzerland, and she would hardly ever see me for two or maybe three years. I literally fell on my knees by the bed that night and asked Saint Rita what I should do. It was the second time she gave me audible advice.
“Antonino, I will help you, but be very careful of the ways you try to treat your phobia and loneliness when Sandie is not with you. It will be very hard for you but I will do all I can.”
Our school staff included about 14 ordained monks who were also academically distinguished scholars. But they never treated us as anything other than youngsters whom they had to show how to live as God wanted them to. Thus for them the idea of following a rule, as they did spiritually in their daily lives, was the obvious way to help us to organise our own lives. But it did have its drawbacks. They also carried this to the extreme of obeying school rules in our everyday lives in such a way that they did sometimes get things horribly out of proportion. The panic attacks which accompany my phobia can still occur when just faced with the prospect of not being able to seek shelter when left on my own’ This drives me to a fit of breathless horror when knowing I am going to have to go through any physical really painful experience because my phobia has conditioned me to fear something unpleasant happening to me just as much as the panic symptoms themselves when they occur. Added to the mental side, anxiety neuroses are themselves physically very painful, as well as tiring and terrifying.
This is not cowardice, just simply the inability to deal with the apprehension which attacks me when I know I am going to have to undergo such a horrible experience. In short, by the time I reached a master’s study to receive a severe thrashing I had already had my punishment and almost no longer cared what happened to me. Just Imagine poor Saint Benedict having to apologise to me for his followers’ mistaken interpretation of his rule. But also imagine Saint Rita hanging on to me like grim death outside the headmaster’s study and smiling at me as she promised me I would soon be okay and it would all be over. They were really terrific, both of them, and in fact were the only reason why I did not report the school to the education authorities for excessive brutality as I was thrashed to within an inch of my life for regularly being reported for misconduct both verbal and physical. A threat my father would have carried out had I told him what I went through.
Did I hear you say, ‘what on earth had you done to get so severe a punishment?’ Not a lot, just being late with my homework, talking in class or obviously not working as hard as the teachers knew I could. But in 1953-55 those were very serious offences! Also my mother was terminally ill at this time, which the school knew, but did not know that she hated to hear that I had ever done anything wrong. She berated me, told me it made her feel worse, and went through the whole gamut of her actresses’ emotions to convince me that I was ungratefully repaying my parents for all the sacrifices they made to keep me at such a good school. The trouble was I believed her, never wondering what such sacrifices were given our wealth. So you can see why I never told the school that, if my punishment for something was, for instance, detention after the last class of the day, I would just not do it. I would just go home at the usual time and thus not upset my mother even though I knew the price I would have to pay at school the next day! But I had a third and stronger reason for this by the time I was thirteen.
If my heavenly friends tried to lessen my pain and mental anguish, they also did a lot to help me and in such a glorious way that I have never held any of the really awful events of those years against God in any way. You see I lived near the Abbey attached to our school and the one thing I loved doing more than anything in life was serving Mass. Standing with the priest on the altar made me feel so happy, so full of God’s love, especially at the Consecration, that I would have gone through anything to be able to do this as often as I could. In fact I served Mass at 7.00 am every weekday I was available and really thanked my spiritual friends for making this wonderful experience possible so often. The major difficulty was the way my phobia meant I could not walk the length of the long aisle down the centre of the Abbey, or stand alone and exposed on the high altar. But we had a series of small altars down one side of the church where most of the monks said their daily masses. These I could manage, and did. Whenever I served Mass God and my favourite saints made my life truly great and compensated a thousand fold for all my mental illness. Eventually I was so ill with my phobia, and two major nervous breakdowns between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, that I was finally excused several school activities because I just could not do them. The classic one was parading with the school army cadet force.
I finally told the senior school headmaster, who mercifully did understand my phobia, that I was not hamming it up when I could not breathe if asked to stand silently to attention. In the end, after a medical examination from a doctor who did not have a clue what I was talking about, I was excused corps for my last three years at school. Also they respected my wish not to worry my parents with my nervous condition.
I think my other main memories of early school life were loving all sports at which I was fortunate enough to excel, coupled with the subject of Saint Rita’s warning. Can you imagine a ten to eleven year old playing cricket and doing really well for the school under elevens side thanks to nearly half a bottle of scotch he had to drink to manage to cross the cricket field?! David knew about this and became very worried at first. But as I never appeared drunk, and the booze only calmed me down and did nothing else, he put up with it for quite a long time. The other sports memory was what I called the unnecessary side. I was regularly punished for not doing things which I could not manage because of the limitations of my phobia. For instance I could not do a cross country run outside the perimeter of the school grounds or playing field – well who could with my illness? So I just sat out such races and was of course reported for being lazy and disobedient. And then the awful added anxiety of waiting for three days before going into the headmaster’s study to be thrashed for being too ill to run. I remember first getting thoroughly fed up with this senseless torture when I was still only nine and holding out my right hand and saying to the new junior school headmaster, his first term in the job,
“Look Father you use your left hand to hit me and we’ll see who comes out of the contest best”. He did not have a clue if I was being impertinent or genuinely trying to crack a joke. He smiled and said, sorry it wasn’t negotiable. Following this I pulled my left hand from behind my back and said, “Sorry, but I fell off my bike yesterday evening and I’ve broken four fingers. You can’t hit that one.” He stared, put the ruler away and said
“Okay we’ll make that your punishment for a couple of weeks’. But I finally had him.
“No Father. That’s the last time you’ll ever hit me. I told the doctor the injury was the result of the ferocity with which we were thrashed at school. My father is taking no action, much as the doctor wanted him to, but he will if you ever touch me again.” Nobody did hit me again in the junior school so I had managed to stop that double torture without the family knowing about my phobia. But my father’s added condition was that no boys in the school aged under eleven should receive any form of corporal punishment, and as he was a well known journalist they did not argue with him and the rule he demanded was brought in.Actually what annoyed me most about that incident was not being able to play the piano properly for three weeks.
Finally I must briefly outline the last part of the story of my introduction to the Faith, the Charity and above all the Hope which control my soul. Let me explain what I believe spiritually which reached it’s final complete stage by the time I left school in 1960 aged eighteen and a few months. This will complete the background to the many exciting, dreadfully sad and unusual events that occurred during this part of my life. Above all, after this short explanation of how my soul loves God, my readers may better understand all the subsequent loves of which I write. It is best summed up by telling you about five saints who have long been very special friends to me in heaven.
Firstly there is my name saint, Antoninus, on whose feast I was born and has been with me all my life. Every day I ask him to make me worthy of his name, but nobody could ever aspire to the level of holiness he attained in giving all he had and devoting every word he preached to helping the poor. I try to imitate him but am very definitely only a very pale shadow. Secondly in my life came Saint Rita of Cascia. I have already introduced her to you all and made you aware of how much I rely on her help to get through every day of my life. Thirdly I learned about Saint Benedict, founder of the religious order which taught me for ten years. He has always reminded me, through his incredibly sensible directions for reconciling our humanity with our love of God no matter how often we stumble all over the place in all directions, how to get back on our feet whenever we fall.
Saint Caterinetta, or Catherine, of Genoa, the fourth saint I came to know, has probably played the greatest part in teaching me to trust in God’s mercy by refusing to condemn anyone whom he loves for any reason at all and to God, she realised and made clear to me, that means everyone because God created everyone and loves everything he created. She is more responsible than anyone for my approach to God, that is my personal relationship with him in this life and the next. Like hers, my spiritual relationship with God is totally just him and me. Not even the church gets a look in when I realise how much I love loving him and being loved by him, both now and eternally, provided I never forsake or deny him. And finally I pray every day to Pope Saint John XXIII to help all my friends who once professed their love for God but now doubt him. Why a man who was only made a saint less than three years ago and holds no special place in most people’s hagiographical knowledge? Simply this. I met him and knew him in the early 1960s, as did many people who need his help now for the reasons for which I ask for it.
Well that completes my very brief spiritual story from the summer of 1950 to my last days at school when eighteen years of age in 1960. In order for it to make sense I have had to write it straight through to let the events of the rest of my life during that decade show up against the background of the person I was. You will see how much of my life seems quite out of keeping with the spiritual love that underpinned everything I did, fought, or tried to do.
But I would like to end this chapter on a pleasant note, and they don’t come pleasanter than Sandie. It was my tenth birthday party and we all played hide and seek in our big garden. About ten boys and ten girls from near where we lived came to tea and games at our house. May is a lovely month for a birthday, yet Sandie seemed strangely shy and very upset.
While playing hide and seek I partnered her and knew a perfect spot behind the orchard fruit shed where no one would find us. I smiled at her deliberately affectionately, “Now what’s got into you since I saw you a couple of weeks ago Sandie? It can’t be just missing me for such a short time.” A tear ran down her cheek as she answered.
“Oh, Ton. It’s not that. At our age grown up life has not even started, no it’s our moving abroad soon for maybe three years. Dad’s been posted to Switzerland as I told you, so I’ll be a long, long way away from you.”Amid sniffles she added,”I promised myself I would not spoil your birthday. I’m sorry, I shall be good from now on. I looked round, saw nobody could see us and placed my hands on her shoulders and gave her the softest kiss I think I’d ever given anyone by then as I said,
“I agree with you we are too young to be in love as grown ups are, but I promise you this, my Sandie. I love you more than anyone I know and I hope I always will. So please just keep writing to me and as we get older we may get to love each other more every day. I am sure I can talk the family into a holiday in Geneva this summer as well. It needn’t be too bad.”
She said nothing, just put her arms round my neck and returned my kiss with ten times the love I had given her. She hung onto me for five minutes, wiped her eyes and completed the promise to write and never lose touch. She stayed very close to me until they moved two and a half months later. What I did with my family, David, and in different countries up to the end of 1956 follows next.
End chapter 2