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Authors: Clare Chambers

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I love churches, as opposed to Church, which I avoid, no doubt as a result of my upbringing. My parents sent me to a grammar school in South London which was run by Christian Brothers. As such establishments are almost always mentioned nowadays in the same breath as allegations of sexual abuse, I should make it clear that I never witnessed anything of that sort. I can't even recall any instances of really barbaric cruelty: the ethos of coldness was too subtle for that. On one occasion I slipped coming out of the (cold) showers after PE and went down hard, smacking my head on the tiled floor and – it was later discovered – breaking my arm. My classmates didn't laugh, even my enemies, but Brother Brendan did, heartily.
Beatings, with a tartan slipper called Jezebel, kept in the deputy headmaster's desk, were frequent and arbitrary. I remember Brother Paul trying to hit me so hard that he actually fell over. I had to help him to his feet so he could finish the job. Brother Leo, who taught history in a second-floor room overlooking the wheelie bins, used to say in his menacing Polish-English, ‘You not vorking boy, I trow you out ze ruddy vindow.' For some reason this threat seemed entirely credible, and seats furthest from the windows were hotly contested.

These incidents are trifles: anyone who went to school in the era of corporal punishment will have similar memories. It was the underlying contempt for humanity that was harder to understand. In the seven years I was there I don't think I ever saw one of the Brothers show a scrap of sympathy to any of the pupils or one another. They hated children, hated teaching, hated each other and very probably hated God too. In Religious Instruction we learned the catechism, the importance of confession and regular attendance at Mass, St Paul's missionary journeys and the lives of the saints, Catholic martyrs and the work of Leonard Cheshire. Jesus hardly got a mention, and I left this Christian school knowing almost nothing of the Gospels.

I suppose I should be grateful to Brendan, Leo, Paul and their loveless ilk. Without their example I might have wasted my life in craven subjection to superstition and cant. Brothers, I salute you!


requires some explanation.

We have never been close, the way some brothers are, but it wasn't until we were in our twenties that the rift occurred. We fought as boys, over petty things, but everyone said that was normal sibling rivalry: we'd grow out of it. We competed vainly for our mother's attention: she neglected us with scrupulous impartiality, much preferring the company of her women friends. Gerald was two years older, but I was big for my age, and by seven or eight was taller than him. I think there must have been a few years of successful comradeship before this destabilising growth spurt. I have a clear memory of the two of us playing with a Hornby train set, taking turns to lay our head on the track to see the train coming through the tunnel. There was also a shared addiction to toothpaste, and we spent many happy
hours skulking in bathrooms – our own and other people's – sampling new brands. Macleans was our favourite: minty and sharp as a lemon, but not too strong. Colgate was deadly: bitter, cold porcelain. Signal, emerging mysteriously from the tube in perfect red stripes, was the most beautiful, but made bad eating, like the taste of limescale when your tongue grazed the end of the cold tap.

We slept in the same room in a pair of divorced bunk beds. We had quarrelled so furiously over who should sleep on the top that Dad dismantled them in a fit of temper. The curtains, heavy maroon drapes, acquired from the home of some dead relative, only approximated to the size of the window and didn't quite meet in the middle. When I was very young I had a morbid fear of the moon in its crescent phase. From my bed at night I could sometimes see it through the gap in the curtains, a crooked mouth, leering at me.

‘Gerald, I'm scared,' I would say. ‘I think the moon's going to eat me up.'

And infallibly out of the darkness would come the reassuring words, ‘Don't worry, I'll look after you,' and I'd turn over and go to sleep in perfect confidence.

Then one night when it was there again, coldly grinning in a black winter sky: silence.

‘Gerald, are you awake? I think the moon's going to eat me up.'


‘Gerald. Are you going to look after me?'


Our education was a further cause of estrangement. Gerald failed the eleven plus. I passed. We went to different schools, wore different blazers, and caught buses from opposite sides of the road. We had no friends, teachers or subjects in common any more. In fact our two schools were mortal enemies, and if we happened to pass each other in the street in our uniforms there was an unspoken agreement that we would ignore each other. This came so naturally and seemed so utterly inflexible a rule that on one occasion when I'd got to the bus stop and realised I was short of change, I walked the two miles to school, straight into a latecomers' detention, rather than cross the road and ask Gerald for the fare.

I knew Gerald was different even then. Not just from me; from everyone. My friends used to say, ‘Your brother's a spaz.' Even they could see it and they'd barely met him. He wore the worst sort of National Health specs, with thick black rims, which made him look like Buddy Holly, and took his books to school in a proper briefcase. Because he was always having his belongings nicked or vandalised, he took to carrying everything around with him, and somehow acquired a second briefcase for the purpose. Perhaps his later paranoia stemmed from this experience.

When Gerald was thirteen he was found to be good at something. It was just as the Christian Brothers had threatened in their interminable assemblies: even the unlikeliest of us has a talent, and woe betide the boy who wastes it. Gerald's was middle-distance running. His PE teacher had, to his credit, discovered this gift concealed
beneath many layers of sporting ineptitude: inability to catch a ball, poor hand–eye co-ordination, aversion to physical contact and a pathological lack of team spirit. None of these, happily, were incompatible with the sort of dogged self-reliance and stamina required for running. Unknown to us, Gerald was entered in a local inter-schools athletics competition, finished third in the 1500 metres and came home to the amazement of all with a bronze shield, which was put on the mantelpiece above the gas fire with other family treasures. After that Mum and Dad did everything they could to encourage Gerald in his newfound hobby. They bought him a (second-hand) pair of spiked running shoes and a stopwatch, and ferried him to weekly training sessions at Streatham Harriers and athletics meetings at Crystal Palace.

We went along to watch his first race in a state of great excitement and clannish pride. There was our name in the printed programme: FLINDERS, GERALD: 1500M.

I'd never been to a sports stadium before and I was astounded by the size of the arena and the grandness of the facilities. It bore no resemblance to our shambolic school sports day, on an undulating patch of council land outside Croydon, where the competitors had to wade through the uncut grass on the tracks. Here it was like the Olympics, with real starting blocks, perfectly parallel lanes, surfaced in red cinder, and a vast display board on which details of each event were pricked out in hundreds of tiny lights. Everything ran with flawless efficiency, directed by uniformed marshals, so that there was always
some field event to watch in the lulls between races.

There must have been dozens of schools represented, as the stands alongside the home straight and beyond the first bend were full of spectators, mostly families like us, there to support one of their number. Every so often a cheer would go up from one section of the crowd as someone cleared the high jump, or hefted the shot. At a sudden crack from the starting pistol, we would all sway forward expectantly to catch the start of a race, and there would be a crescendo of shouting which switched to applause as soon as the winner broke the tape, and continued decorously until the last runner was home. Extreme stragglers got a fresh burst of clapping to themselves.

Then it was Gerald's turn. His name, one of eight on the electronic board, prompted sharp nudges from Mum and Dad, and there he was on the curve of the starting line, dwarfed by the other runners, and faintly ridiculous in his baggy white shorts and Buddy Holly specs. Even the way he stood, frozen in an exaggerated posture of readiness, arms bent, fists clenched, was embarrassing to watch. Around us I could sense, if not actually hear, chuckles of sympathy, and I felt that painful clash of emotions that is always prompted by seeing one's near relations mocked, however deservedly.

‘Look at that kid in the bins,' came a voice from somewhere behind me, to general chortling, and my face flamed.
Go on Gerald. You show the bastards,
I urged him silently. While another part of me thought:
Why do you have to be such a spaz, Gerald?

On his box, the steward held the starting gun skyward. A wisp of smoke bloomed from its tip and then there was a bang which tore into the silence, and the runners stumbled forward. ‘Go on, Gerald,' Dad bellowed, using his rolled programme as a megaphone. Gerald was boxed in now, as everyone bunched on the inside lane, a dangerous flail of stringy legs. ‘Someone's going to trip,' said Mum. ‘Spread out!'

The cheering subsided as the knot of runners moved down the back straight and then picked up again as they rounded the bend. They had strung out now, and Gerald, still hugging the innermost edge, had emerged from the pack near the front. He had such a graceless running style, shoulders high, head tipped back and lolling alarmingly from side to side: it made your neck ache to look at him. But he was in second place and close on the heels of the leader.

‘Come on, Gerald,' yelled Dad, half out of his seat. ‘Overtake!'

‘You can come out now, Dorothy,' he added to Mum, cowering behind her programme. She gripped my knee. ‘He might get silver,' she whispered, thinking of the mantelpiece at home.

We cheered him round two more laps of the track, during which the order of the field hardly changed, and then, as they rounded the bend at two hundred metres, the front runner gave a kick and seemed to pull away, and the gap between him and Gerald widened. As if woken up by this spurt, the rest of the field dug in, lengthened their strides and began to gain on Gerald, who was
struggling to maintain his pace, his head jerking wildly, his glasses bouncing on the bridge of his nose.

‘Keep going. They're catching up,' roared Dad, as the first challengers drew level.

‘I can't look,' said Mum. But I could, and did, in helpless dismay, as one after another they passed him. Third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth. Only one had left it too late, and he and Gerald crossed the line together, to a smattering of applause.

‘It's not winning or losing that matters. The important thing is
did you enjoy it
?' said Dad, trying to lighten the funereal atmosphere in the car on the way home. Gerald stared out of the window, frowning, in the deepest of sulks.

‘It was certainly a nail-biting race,' said Mum, holding up a chewed hand for our inspection.

‘You did OK,' I said.

‘It was one of my worst ever times,' Gerald corrected me, without turning his head.

‘Well never mind. Next time,' said Mum brightly, adding, perhaps unwisely, ‘That coloured boy was a lovely runner, wasn't he. Really graceful.'

The journey continued in silence. At last Gerald burst out, ‘It put me off, you watching me. Don't come next time.'

Soon after this my maths teacher Mr Tanner (one of the few non-brothers, and coincidentally a nice man)
talked me into playing in the school chess team, because I knew the rules and they needed a sixth man to make up the numbers. I didn't particularly like chess, and had no great ability, and only agreed to oblige Mr Tanner, but Mum and Dad were inordinately proud of me and took me to the local tournaments where I was duly slaughtered. I think my best performance was one and a half points (one stalemate and a bye, when my opponent had an asthma attack and was taken home). My team mates, far from being grateful to me for sacrificing my Saturdays on their behalf, resented my negative contribution to the score and blamed me for holding us down in the rankings. They didn't include me in their post-mortems or the car pool for lifts to the venues, and I used to while away the intervals between games in the car park, kicking a tennis ball against the wall of the building, trying to train myself to be both-footed.

Mum and Mad, who had always been armchair sports enthusiasts and were now keen converts to live athletics, had put Gerald's rancorous outburst down to disappointment in his own performance and thought no more about it. He continued to train, timing himself and meticulously plotting the results on a graph on his bedroom wall – a typical Gerald activity – but when the next competition came round he was adamant that he was going alone. This came as a bitter blow to Mum and Dad, who had enjoyed the last day out immensely in spite of Gerald's defeat.

‘I can't do it if I know you're watching me,' he said.

‘Couldn't we come along and watch the other people and leave just before your race?' Mum asked. ‘If it really puts you off.'

‘No, that wouldn't work,' Gerald said. ‘I wouldn't trust you not to sneak back in.'

Mum looked affronted, but didn't insist. As it turned out, I had a chess tournament on the same day, miles away in Harrow, and it was this fixture clash which led to Gerald getting his own unreasonable way without further argument.

Coincidentally, he performed rather better at this event, coming second in his heat and fourth in the final, which strengthened his case for independence. For all I knew he may have plotted this on a graph too: Position in Rankings against Distance from Family in Miles.

The truth was, Gerald didn't really like competing. He didn't like losing, certainly, but he hadn't got a champion's drive to win. He was more interested in improving his own performance, shaving tenths of a second off his personal best, than in beating other people. At the time this looked like wisdom and maturity, but later I came to wonder if it wasn't another symptom of Gerald's self-absorption and indifference to those around him.

BOOK: The Editor's Wife
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