Continuing the education of stegzy Gnomepants
Mr Clarke was a fearsome man. Everyone was frightened by him. To be fair he was a really nice chap, quiet, well spoken and,, on reflection, possibly gay as a parade. He rode a black and red Honda 125cc motorbike and wore dark tinted spectacles. He wore his spectacles not only to read but to stand in assembly, class and other group sessions just in the light so that you couldn’t quite see where he was looking . Was he looking at you? or was he stood there with his eyes closed having a snooze. Who could tell?
He was also one of the first teachers I had had that didn’t seem to say any of the morning prayers or get involved too much with the day to day religious thingies that went on in school. When questioned about this he would state that “prayer could be done in silence”. A cop out if ever I heard one but later on in my life an excuse I would use myself when I discovered atheism (details on a future post).
What was most memorable about Mr Clarke’s class was Stephanie Wilson. An early developer, Stephanie Wilson had the biggest set of breasts you could imagine. Quite shocking for a 10-11 year old really, but I remember how all the boys used to stare at poor Stephanie and whisper about her breasts. I felt sorry for her really but, in a way, glad as all attention on me was deflected once Stephanie walked by or was in the room. My joy was even more heightened when she was moved to the front of the class and allocated the desk next to mine.
Of course this automatically meant the Stephanie and me were boyfriend and girlfriend. But this was news to me as I still thought of girls as icky and besides, they smelt funny. After St Mary’s I was to see Stephanie Wilson once more in my life. She was working in a greengrocers next to the solicitors office that I worked in in 1995. She hadn’t changed much apart from her breasts being even bigger. We got chatting again and it soon turned out she was living in an abusive relationship desperately trying to get out. Sadly, before I could say goodbye and reestablish bonds, Teana came into my life and I lost contact with her again. I still wonder how she is now.
As the Winter set in. One chilly morning in February, Mr Foy, the school caretaker, entered the school at 6am as usual. He made a cup of tea and then proceded to walk to the boiler room. Mr Foy was a man of about 58 I would imagine. Years of smoking his pipe had taken their toll on his weathered face and he had a skin polyp hanging from under his left eyebrow. He was a lovely man, always had a friendly bit of advice to offer kids and if you got into school early enough, a cup of tea to share. In this day and age he would probably have been put under serious investigation, suspended from his duties and marched through the village with a bell round his neck while people shouted “Peedie!” at him and threw tomatoes. He wasnt. He was just a friendly old man who liked kids. He reminded me of my grandfather in many ways but what I most remember about him was his tobacco pipe and the smell of his tobacco. A smell I rarely get to scent these days.
Mr Foy checked the temperature, and made the decision to ignite the ancient school oil fired boilers. Apparently there was an almighty boom and years of soot and dust ejected explosively taking Mr Foy with it. People living in the houses neighbouring the school leapt out of bed and watched as a plume of black acrid smoke made the dawn appear as night. The fire brigade were called and they brought an unconscious Mr Foy to safety, calling for an ambulance to take him to hospital for smoke inhalation and burn treatment.
By the time I arrived at the school the fire engines were still trying to control the fire and the smoke but Mr Foy had been taken to hospital. Mrs Moran greeted me at the gate, her kind warm smiles, like that of a grand mother for her grandson. She told me to go home and explain to my parents that there would be no school until further notice. Surely this didn’t mean I wouldnt have to go to school again!? As it turned out it didn’t. It just meant 3 days off while the school powers discussed alternative arrangements.
By Wednesday morning an announcement was made on the local radio station that pupils of St Mary’s, Much Woolton RC School affected by the explosion should report to the Annex in Watergate Lane (the building which less than 6 months previous I had moved from) where lessons for 3rd and 4th year juniors would take place in the assembly hall. 1st year juniors were taken to the Commodore PET suite (by this time already obsolete) and 2nd Year juniors would resume their lessons in a handily delivered porta-cabin. Mrs Slack obviously put the fear of God into the headmaster too as the porta-cabin classroom was far better equiped than any other classroom in the school and for once I am not exaggerating.
Mr Foy was released from hospital and offered early retirement which he took. He returned one last time to the school to thank all the pupils for their kind thoughts, cards and well wishes. I wanted to get him some tobacco but the damage to his lungs was quite bad that he had been told unless he wanted to die quickly that he should give up. I doubt Mr Foy is still alive, I believe he inhaled quite a bit of dust into his already damaged lungs and last I heard he was suffering from emphasimia.
Easter approached and we were told that after the Easter holidays we should return to the old building and that we should bring a duster for our return. On entering the classroom after Easter there was no sign of structural damage all that was evident of the blast was a couple of new doors on the boiler and ancillary rooms, a thin layer of black soot covering everything (and I mean everything) and an acrid oily but dry smell lingering in every room. I recall seeing classrooms littered with desks piled on top of each other or just strewn higgledy-piggledy or arranged in the incorrect order (my desk had moved to the back right hand corner of the class when it should have been up the front of the room). The windows of some class rooms, great big Victorian sandstone high arches, had a new blackish tint and the school just felt….wrong…like it was dying….
We were instructed to first of all find and move our desks to the correct position in the room. After this was done we were told to dust the books and papers inside and then move to the classroom library (actually a very tall cupboard built into the old thick sandstone walls) and dust the books within. Moments later the classroom was a haze of black dust and, by the end of the school day my fellow pupils and I resembled Yorkshire miners. Our faces filthy and our hair dull and black. A few of the “asthma children” were excused earlier in the day and one or two didn’t return for a few weeks later. Had I not started smoking at 17 and I got something nasty like “Lung rot” or asbestosis I’d probably have some claim on my hands. However as nobody else, as far as I know, seems to have sued the school on Health & Safety at Work grounds then I think I probably wouldnt stand a chance really…..but its nice to dream innit?
Then in May someone said “Oh yeah, you kids are off to Big School next year aren’t you?”. Stephen Daley had been accepted into St Edwards School for posh boys; Paul Melvin, whose nan had died leaving his mum a bit of cash and a nice house on the Wirral, was relocating to West Kirkby; Duncan Nealey’s parents were “right on” and fiercely opposed to single sex religious schools so he was shipped out to Gateacre Comprehensive (a school resembling Grange Hill in more than just the uniform. Creator Phil Redmond attended the school himself and based Grange Hill on the antics of Gateacre Comp (which is in Grange Lane in Gateacre….curiously…its on a hill too). I wanted to go to Blue Coat with Christian Keane, but my mum was adamant that the labour council were about to close and sell the school buildings and insisted I attended Saint Francis Xaviers College with the rest of my peers. Something I wasnt too keen on as there were, despite the assurance that “They would have forgotten about you by now”, older boys there that would remember me….
Mr Clarke waved goodbye in July and I gave St Mary’s one last glance over my shoulder as I headed out the Summer of 1985 an d the prospect of big school…..