A story of 1950s indiscipline related by Brindley Hallam Dennis with a soupçon of humour
The cathedral doors were massive. They towered above them. Even the keyhole and the iron ring handle were above their heads. And you would think it was the youngsters’ fault, the way they got a severe reprimand when the headmaster and his group arrived on the riverbank. Perhaps he had a word with Mr Stephens too, on the quiet in the coach on the way home.
Sound travelled oddly in big old buildings like that cathedral. Something whispered in one place at the other end of the cloisters could be heard quite clearly, yet something spoken in a quite normal voice above the heads of the children couldn’t be heard in the middle of the nave. What was heard perfectly clearly by the children was the instruction to go back inside through the huge wooden doors because you were with Mr Stephens’ group. And what stuck in the minds of at least one of them for decades afterwards was the shock of seeing that vast, empty grey space when they did. Mr Stephens and his group had simply vanished. Perhaps there was another door out of the building, somewhere down towards the choir stalls, or behind the pulpit.
It was Bryan who poked around behind the candles and the rood screens and in several other gloomy places, but he found no-one. It was Bryan who suggested that they should go back outside and tell the headmaster that Mr Stephens and his group had disappeared. It was Bryan who went outside and came back in saying that the Headmaster and his group were missing too. Then they had all gone outside and stood at the foot of the Cathedral doors wondering what to do.
What memory hasn’t recorded is the life of the city that must have continued to pass by, to and fro, in front of the building where they stood, whatever the Headmaster and Mr Stephens and their groups were doing. All sorts of people must have gone by and noticed the five or six adult-less seven-year-olds huddled against those doors like medieval supplicants denied entrance on account of some unforgivable sin or unacceptable affliction. Perhaps even policemen on their beats passed by without intervening, along with Samaritans and other travellers.
It was Bryan, probably, being a precocious but thoughtful child, who suggested, that they should go down to the river where they were scheduled, after their picnic lunch, to go on a boat trip. Mr Stephens and the Headmaster and their groups would be bound to show up there, obviously. Bryan had a watch, perhaps, or maybe they looked up at the Cathedral clock, if there was one. I think Bryan would have been the sort of boy who would have had a watch. Perhaps several of them did. And perhaps too, children being more observant often, and attentive to adult memes, they had taken in the oft-mentioned half past twelve of the planned lunch break at the wooden tables down by the landing stage.
It would have been Bryan, if anyone, who guessed or even knew that if you want to find a river, going downhill is as good a strategy as any. Or it might have been blind luck of the good sort, as one must suppose the abandonment by Mr Stephens, or the Headmaster, if wilful neglect or lack of attention or plain unruliness in the children were not to blame, had been the bad luck.
Whatever the explanation for the recovery of the situation it came to pass that the children moved safely through that urban jungle and found themselves on the riverbank where boats plied for hire. There they waited the half hour or so that it took for Mr Stephens and the Headmaster and their groups to circumnavigate the city’s ancient walls. Which of these two arrived first, memory does not record but what remains clear is that the Headmaster was very cross and flustered. He may have wished that there had been enough parental volunteers among the group to have prevented the occurrence. Or maybe, he did not.
With a voice sharper than they were used to hearing, the negligent children were told, that, seeing as they had already consumed their picnics, and before the appointed time, he, the Headmaster, would take them personally around the walls as that been the major educational objective of the trip, before they embarked on the boat. This he did at a pace remarkable for such small legs, and the walls passed beneath them in a blur.
By the time they got back to the riverbank, the Headmaster had cooled down, and made it plain that there would be no more mention of the children’s momentary lapse of concentration, and that they should be glad that nothing untoward had come of their irresponsible behaviour. They were advised, for their own sakes, if they wanted such trips in the future, not to talk about their misdemeanour with their friends or brothers and sisters back at school, and certainly not with their parents. Such indiscipline was not to be tolerated, and though it need not be dwelt on, it might serve as a useful lesson to us all.
Going back a lifetime later what was most surprising was how small those Cathedral doors really were.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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