WINNIFRED – Part 9


October 1931 (cont.)

     But Emma was not yet ready to speak of these things and thought it better to satisfy Mrs Reiner’s curiosity – or perhaps it was genuine interest – by telling her about the trips which were organized each year: to the beach, when she saw the sea for the first time; or to the zoo, where she managed to get lost.

     Emma was always in a world of her own, but on this occasion she had stayed with the body of children throughout the afternoon as they wandered from cage to cage, looking at the birds and animals.  They spent a long time watching the monkeys whose antics captivated them all, but when they stood in front of the lion enclosure Emma was lost to all around her.

     For a long time she simply stood and stared at the enormous yellow cats as they yawned and stretched – occasionally getting to their feet to prowl around the perimeter of their cage as though seeking a way out.  How, she wondered,  could they bear to be shut in like that?  She expected to hear them roaring in protest and thought to give them some encouragement.  Grasping the protective rail to support herself, she gave a few good, hearty roars.

     The lions ignored her; just kept up their yawning, stretching and prowling – sometimes to and fro in front of her.  Emma was about to give up in disgust, when one of the huge beasts came right up to the bars, opened its great mouth and let out a mighty roar!  It shook the very ground — and Emma too! She fell back from the rail in a helpless heap then shakily picking herself up, turned to run away.

     She expected to see the others at the next enclosure, but there was no sign of anyone.  She hurried, as well as her trembling legs would allow her, to catch up with them.  But they’d completely disappeared.  She wandered around hoping to catch sight of the group or at least a straggler like herself, until the fading light told her that they’d gone back without her.  She hadn’t been missed!

     In despair, she was dragging her weary feet towards the entrance gates with no real idea of what to do, when her troubles were speedily ended. A kindly keeper took her in charge and soon she was sitting on a table in the warm office, being fussed over by more kind men in uniform, and fed on hot cocoa and biscuits.  She felt warm and safe.  It was worth every minute of the trauma of being lost.  Of the drive back to The Home she knew very little.  In the warmth and comfort of the Police car, with nothing to fear, her little body succumbed to fatigue — and she slept.

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     It took an hour on the part of Matt, George Weston and the boys – an hour of heaving, shoving, pushing and hammering – before the car was clear of the creek-bed, the bent track-rod straightened, and they were on their way again, hoping to cover the remaining fifty miles to Northingham before dark.  The boys were in high spirits after their enforced activity, but Em had grown weary with waiting – and answering Mrs Reiner’ s questions.  It was now well into the afternoon and they were still on the road.

     At first it had been fun trying to count the cows and sheep as they passed them by, and now and then they had to slow down while a few runaways crossed the road in front of them.  They’d counted fence-posts, they’d sung songs, told stories and jokes, and played innumerable games of riddle-me-ree, and any other game they could think of to while away the time.  But as mile after mile became a succession of country towns, some large, some small, all separated by interminable stretches of road, Emma’s interest faded, and now the question uppermost in her mind was “How many more towns before we get there?”

     Settling herself back in her seat with the warm sun on her face, she looked at her father’s strong shoulders and the way his dark hair curled on the top of his head, and a lovely sense of security stole over her – reminding her of yet another experience.

     While playing hide-and-seek with one or two girls in the schoolyard, she lay on the ground in the sunshine with her head on her arms and counted to fifty.  When it came time for her to ‘seek’ she stayed where she was pretending to be asleep.  It was lovely lying on the sandy ground with sun shining on her back.  The sound of children at play faded.  The sound of the bell, when it’s summons sent the others scurrying to their lines, failed to rouse her.

     The next thing she knew, she was being lifted by strong arms and a man’s voice was saying, “What have we here?”  It was the voice of the Headmaster, Mr Kemp!  She opened her eyes, blinking in the strong sunlight, but still heavy with sleep, her head drooped onto his shoulder.  The roughness of his coat against her cheek and the faint smell of tobacco brought a vivid reminder of her father.  Like him, Mr Kemp was tall and thin, but his hair Emma noticed, as she roused herself, was not so crinkly.

     With infinite kindness, he carried her into the building, right past her classroom door and into his own classroom, where he stood her on the step beside his desk, saying as he did so, “Look what I found.  A little Sleeping Beauty.”

     Emmy looked shyly around the room and saw her brothers sitting among the other students.  All were smiling in such a nice way.  She felt very special – an uncommon occurrence in her restricted world.

     In a world dominated by women she had ceased to look for love or affection and had come to accept that the attitude of those on whose ‘charity’ she depended was at best impersonal.  No doubt some felt a kindly enough regard for their charges, or they would not have been placed in such positions of trust.  This certainly applied to Matron and one or two senior ‘nurses’, but as Emmy knew only too well, there were weak links in the chain of authority, and the callous, seemingly sadistic treatment she had at times encountered had eroded her trust in them all and her confidence in herself.  Each experience increased her distrust and widened the gulf between herself and other members of the ‘gentler’ sex.  Without emotional support, she was thrown on her own resources, and the foundations were being laid for a personality that was becoming defensive in the extreme.

     But here, at the Headmaster’s side, facing a large group of senior students, Emmy felt unusually confident.  She saw in their smiling faces no rejection, only a sympathetic interest which warmed and exhilarated her.  With sharpened senses, she thought of the picture in the church at which she gazed every Sunday — a small group of children gathered about the feet of the Divine Teacher, whose love encircled them.  They looked so happy and secure.

     It seemed to her that she had stepped through the glass, as she had so often longed to do, into the centre of that intimate group, held safe within the circle of those loving arms.  The mystical moment was caught and held, then everything slipped into focus once more and she was aware of the classroom, the children’s smiling faces and the warm current circulating around the room, having as its source the simple kindliness of a compassionate teacher.

     A rare experience indeed! For it was only on her father’s infrequent visits that Emma got to feel that total sense of security that a man’s presence can give to a child – a feeling that was almost erased by an encounter with the regular Headmaster of the school.  For Mr Kemp was only relieving for a short period while Mr Morrison was on leave.

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     It has already been recorded that in the Third Grade Emma was often apt to lose her things.  It may be that since she had no sense of ownership, she had no sense of responsibility.  Be that as it may, in this class Emmy herself always felt lost – except in language lessons.  She was a champion speller and was recognised as such.  But sums were still a nightmare and it seemed to her that her teacher considered Arithmetic more important than anything else.

   Miss Hobbs was a big woman – not fat but athletic-looking.  From the first, Emmy feared her.  Her very stature was intimidating.  The coldness of the teacher’s manner chilled and bewildered her.  She looked in vain for a smile or  kind word, but received only a cool stare which seemed to be reserved for Emmy alone.  Abjectly, she wondered why her teacher seemed to dislike her.  Apprehensively, she faced the beginning of each school day, thankful when it ended.  And no-one to confide in!

     One day, to relieve her feelings, Em wrote on a small scrap of paper the words “I hate Miss Hobbs”, and hid it in her sum book between the book and the paper cover.  It gave her a sense of relief.  She’d actually put her feelings into words.  They were no longer bottled up inside her.  It felt good – until she lost her book!

     It was an exercise book, in which she wrote her sums.  She had taken one or two pages from the middle of the book to use as scrap paper – as most of the children did at some time or other, but it was otherwise intact.

     She hunted everywhere for it – even at The Home, on shelves, ledges, in impossible places where she knew it could not have been, because it should have been in her desk at school.  Two days went by, and without her book she could not do her work.  The backlog of sums was mounting.  On the third morning as she entered the classroom for the first lesson, Miss Hobbs said, “Emma Haywood, you are to report to Mr Morrison at once.”

     Emma had never been in the Headmaster’s office.  She had seen others go in from time to time and come out crying, and wondered what happened to them. She was soon to learn!

     This morning, all unsuspecting – merely curious, she knocked on the door.  It opened and she entered, her eyes following Mr Morrison as he walked back towards his desk.

     “Shut the door,” he said. She did so and turned to face him. Thickset but by no means tall, he surprised her as he moved quickly towards her.  Towering over her, his eyes hard and his naturally swarthy face made darker by anger, he raised his hand and slapped her about the head and face with an exercise book which he was holding.  Back and forth several times he slapped her until she was gasping and crying.

     “Look at this book,” he thundered.  “Or what’s left of it.  How dare you treat your things in this manner!”  He opened it and Emma saw through her tears that half the pages had been removed from the middle of the book.  What was the use of trying to explain that only one or two of them had been removed by her.  He wouldn’t believe her and it would probably make him even angrier.  As it happened he gave her no opportunity to explain.  She withdrew into herself and listened to his voice ranting about the cost of things supplied to her and other Home children and that they should be grateful and look after them, and she’d better not be sent to him again or “Look out!”

     Then handing her the book he said, “Now you can report to Miss Hobhs who found the book – and this!”  And in his hand he held the scrap of paper on which Em had scribbled the fateful words.  She’d completely forgotten.

     Returning to her classroom she was treated to an icy glare from Miss Hobbs, who issued an imposition of two extra sets of sums to be done when she’d completed the work she’d missed.

     Was it any wonder that she was delighted when occasionally banished to the Grade 2 classroom as punishment for any misdemeanour?  To Emma this was no disgrace.  It was Heaven!  She could join in confidently with all the work there.  Everything was so easy.  How she loved it there and hated to go back!

     But again came a reprieve.  Another relieving teacher came for a few weeks. Her name – incredibly – was Miss Haywood, the same as Emmy’s.  During her stay Emmy blossomed.  It seemed that all relieving teachers were the ones whom Emma liked best.  For a time she knew what it was like to look forward to school each day.  She gained a little in self-confidence so that when the time came for Miss Haywood to leave, she was able to face the change with a degree of composure.

(C) Winnifred Knight  2000 – 2007

Transcribed and Edited by Jud House 2007

(C) 13/06/2013

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