First Day At School – Story From Pen Of Thurles Author Tom Ryan.

First Day At School. ©

It seemed like only yesterday he had been protesting to Alice how much the writer could achieve if not tormented day and night at his work by the shrill cries of young children with their minute to minute crises.
He winced now as he recalled his usual outburst; “Ann! Mary ! I’m working at the typewriter. Stop all that fighting!”
It was one of the joys and sometimes irritations of the freelance writer that one was always at home with the partner and children in all their many moods. Yet, as often as he had berated their presence at crucial moments of writing, just as often he had mentally berated himself for his surliness, especially when one of the children was down with a cold or flu. After all, as long as everybody was in their health, that was the main thing, wasn’t it?

It was so quiet now in the kitchen of their rustic bungalow with only the dogs barking in the haggard in the early morning and the clucking of the hens disturbed his train of thought, which was heavy with uncertainty. He had risen very early that morning, had kindled the fire with yesterday’s newspapers and the kippins (light dry twigs), from Ryan’s hedge across the road, and the turf from the bog up the road.
He had made a pot of tea for himself, thinking it was too early to be waking Alice for that cup he had dutifully brought to her in bed every morning, since they’d been married. Then, after a few slices of toast, half burned over the top of the range, he had shaved; for he really must be respectable today, for his darling daughter, Ann.

It was Ann, of course, who was so much on his mind today. This beautiful fair haired product of a loving union had, for four years always and everywhere, been with them; never from their side. Even sometimes when he went out on duty as a reporter for the daily newspapers, to gymkhanas, the feiseanna, weddings, festivals, rugby and hurling matches, and the whirlwind social round which he recorded, to bring in the few ‘bob’ to pay the mortgage and the household bills.

Well today was Ann’s big day. He had psyched himself up for the occasion, as he had tried to prepare Ann for this event. It was to be Ann’s first day at school.

As he sipped on his mug of tea now, he smiled recalling how comical it had been the other day.
He and Alice and Ann and two years old Mary, the other child in the family, had, together, walked up to the white, pebble dashed, walled school. They had spoken to a new young principal with a ‘Ronnie’ [Dublin slang for an upper lip moustache, named after the British actor Ronald Colman.], Mr O’Regan who had smiled that deferential smile, full of understanding and who had greeted, good-humouredly, his latest pupil.

It was all a far cry from his own days at the Christian Brothers school, now, he thought. The memory of red raw wrists and raw palms from the heavy leather, even on bitterly cold winter mornings, was still with him all these years later. At least Ann now would not have to put up with that scenario.

Still, corporal punishment or not, he had been visibly upset when Ann had not sat down at her desk that day, despite the presence of her mam and dad and they had left soon after they’d arrived at the school.
But they had been assured by the principal that Missus O’Brien who looked after Junior Infants, had a great way entirely with children. “Oh, the little ones absolutely adore Missus O’Brien”, the Principal, Mr O’Regan had assured himself and Alice. “I wouldn’t mind a little bout of crying, ‘tis only natural. Anyway, no sooner will you have left the classroom than the child will settle in immediately. It’s always the way, we find.” said Mr O’Regan.

He vividly recalled his own first day at school. His own mother, Bridie, had enticed him to school, one cold September morning, after the All-Ireland hurling final in Croke Park, which Tipperary had won. She had told him they were going to the circus in the field down by the river. The thought had momentarily occurred to him that there had never been a circus in the river field before. But still, he really had not thought it was an unusual hour of the day, to be going to a circus. When you’re that age you don’t, do you? Something inside in him now hurt a little at the remembering, and his mother had brought him to that great awesome pile of a building, that was the local Presentation Convent school. Here a forbidding creature in black and white attire, had frightened the life out of him, and he had fretted and raged as he was abandoned to the mercies of this strange looking creature, dressed like an alien from another planet, like in the cinema.
He had constantly struggled with the nun, who had made gallant efforts to keep him quiet in his penny class, study desk, but to little avail. But, of course, those were the days when children stirred out no further than the road where they were bred; in the days before cars and lorries ensured such roads would no longer be happy playgrounds for bowly-rolling, hop-scotch, beds, ice slides in winter, hurling, and all the other delights of childhood of a whole other age.

He rose from the table, shoved the typewriter aside, knowing he just could not work this morning. He wondered again if it might not be a better idea to leave the child alone in bed this morning. Well, he didn’t go to school in the Presentation until he was six years of age and devil a bit of harm it had done him. In fact, he was much more mature and brighter than many another, if all was said and done and truth told. Sure, he reasoned, Ann was only a baby still.

He stared into the shaving mirror and noted a little dampness around the eyes of the anxious-looking beholder, before smiling through the tears at his own reflection.

Oh Lord, after all, wasn’t this to be a happy day, a major moment of development in the life of little Ann; a great new beginning. Ann would now set out in the world for the first time on her very own, to find her feet, as everyone had done since time immemorial.
He smiled again. Well, honest to God, he thought, you’d think the wee girl was off to Japan to university, instead of just up the road to school.

He rose from the chair again, sighed, and decided to grab the teapot and pour out another cup of tea for himself. Somehow or another there were few dilemmas in life which did not present either a solution or at least acceptance of matters, after a nicely brewed cup of tea.

He sat down again at the table where he did all his writing and a good deal of his thinking, in the late nights and early mornings. The early morning sunshine beamed in from the back garden, through the narrow back window, over the kitchen sink.

Ann would not like rising early this morning. She, like Mary, had gone to bed same time as Alice and himself; late as usual. He always rose early to despatch a few paragraphs of news or sport to Dublin, for the evening papers. He toyed with the idea of filing a piece on an armed robbery out of town the night before, but, uncharacteristically, lost interest in this. He was beginning to think with his emotions now and he reasoned that if Alice would only sleep on, he would not have to make the journey to the school that day.

For some nights Ann and Mary had slept on either side of their mother. The idea was to get Ann to school while Mary was still asleep. The two children were great pals and were inseparable. They would resent being separated.

A low cry from the bedroom now shattered that possibility and in no time at all Alice and the girls had risen, washed, dressed and eaten their cornflakes, drank their tea and were ready to go out the door to school. Ann, never easily fooled, wondered why she was wearing her Sunday sailor’s suit, and she had asked about their destination; “Is today school, Daddy?”.
Ann was indeed brighter than he’d given her credit for. Since she’d got out of bed his wife had said nothing, bar to remark on the promised fineness of the day and the need to hurry up and not be late for the party; which was their euphemism for school.
He had told Ann there would be a party with many boys and girls and their friends and everything – there would be ‘marley’ (plasticine), jigsaws, toys, comics.

Alice had felt his deep emotion, which had momentarily rendered him speechless that morning. Like any happy couple they had that way of communicating that required no words, especially on emotion charged occasions.
Quickly and in silence they fed the dog in the front of the house; the cats at the other side of the fence at the rear and some bread crumbs for the birds, before setting off to school.
As they walked along the potholed country road to the school, he pointed, with forced mirth, to the crows circling over the barley crop in the adjacent fields. The children displayed silence as if having obtained a secret knowledge it would appear, and what seemed to him a sense of betrayal.

When they arrived in the school yard, they were greeted by the good humoured principal, Mr O’Regan. He handed the young man with the ‘Ronnie’ a slip of paper on which he had the night before, typed the name and address of their first child and her date of birth.

The kindly teacher gently took the slip of paper from his proffered hand, like it was some sacred object; a gesture he greatly appreciated. Mr O’Regan suggested they had better put Ann at a desk beside a gregarious little creature, to bring Ann out of herself. Anyway, this was the wee girl to whom they had spoken often, as the veteran of High Infants, who had made her way home, with her mother, past Ann’s house in the past year.

Ann sat down, looking a little apprehensive amidst the harsh discordant mixture of sounds made by the veterans of both the junior and senior infants, who shared the same room.
But the man with the ‘Ronnie’ clapped his hands purposefully and called for attention from the pupils. He motioned to himself and Alice to leave now, with a wink that appeared to signal that everything would be all right.

They slowly left the classroom, amidst the many stares from apparently bemused children. But when Ann saw himself and Alice and Mary departing without her, she began to cry and raise her arms to her mother in tearful appeal. It was the moment both of them had secretly dreaded. But they had recalled the Masters advice, as he gently closed the door of the classroom, assuring Ann, “she’d be all right now”.
They could hear Ann crying, as they stood silently together in the empty school yard, like two little children in a storm themselves.
They did not speak for a long time, but both realised that life has its beginnings and many of them are in some ways endings, too. And it was this sense of ending and finality of all sorts, that engulfed them now.

And he thought again of the alleged importance of art and writing. He asked himself was any art greater than life; its joys and uncertainties, when it made you laugh and sometimes made you bloody cry.
But then Alice had always known that, he knew.

Throughout all the emotions they had forgotten little Mary. She clung to him now in his arms, staring in awe at the school building. She said: “Daddy, I miss Ann”. He hugged her tighter than he’d ever done. No, there was never art like this he thought, but he said: “She’ll be back again soon for dinner”.

Tom Ryan,”Iona”, Rahealty, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.


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