Recently I was asked why I am a writer of essays, plays, poetry and even my autobiography. I was quite surprised by the question. I cannot recall the exact answer I gave the company I was in, except it was something that came naturally to me. As I got up to leave the company, I caught a glance of my face in a large mirror that was hanging on the wall. In my mind for an instant I was transported back in time to the place where writing all began for me many years ago.
It was my misfortune to have been born illegitimate back in 1950, where such events were frowned upon by society in general and most particularly the Catholic Church. I was removed from respectable society, lest the moral fibre of young women be undermined and proceed in similar fashion to produce illegitimate children.
I was quickly dispatched behind big walls of convents and subsequently industrial schools having first being baptised with holy water. Any shame attending to such illegitimates were covered up by church and state authorities. Officially I no longer existed.
While with the nuns in the convent I first became aware of somebody outside myself at about 6 years old. His name was Jimmy. We did everything together and played in joyful innocence unaware of the outside world and its cruelty. On occasions on a Sunday Jimmy would have a visitor – a tall woman with a bun in her hair and white beads that hung around her neck. He would not go on these visits unless I was with him. He would shift nervously while sitting on her lap occasionally looking at me for reassurance.
Then on one particular Sunday visit, I noticed the Reverend mother and two other nuns hovering around me. I was given sweets while the Reverent mother led Jimmy away. I recall that he looked back at me smiling and waving his little hand. I sat on the steps waiting for him to share the sweets when he returned. He never did. I never saw him again. At supper that evening the Reverend mother told me that Jimmy was gone. In my rage I threw Jimmy’s sweets at her and I lunged to pull what she was wearing on her old head. I was quickly restrained by other nuns. Over the next few days I withdrew into myself and ran under a table at mealtimes.
Then one evening a young nun passed a book under the table. She said nothing. After a few minutes I reached for it. The book had coloured pictures and words. A light went off in my head as I cradled the book. The nuns let me keep the book since it seemed to calm me down. After tea the book was placed in a drawer in the classroom knowing that it would be given back to me at the start of school each day. The book became my comfort blanket.
I never forgot Jimmy. However his loss perversely was what got me interested in words, books and writing. What fascinated me from the outset was even though my first book was locked in the drawer each evening by the nuns I could still see the pages in my mind as I fell asleep. The first book I ever owned was the little green catechism given to me by the reverend mother while preparing for my first communion. Seeing my name on its cover gave me a ‘thrill’.
I was 8 years old when I was transferred from the nuns to the Christian Brothers. It was one of the Brothers who informed me that I was a very ‘clever’ boy as he sat me on his knee a few weeks after I started in 3rd class. I was delighted to see that there were many books on shelves in the classroom.
I was given access to westerns, detective stories as well as the lives of the various saints. By the time I was 10 years old I became chief altar boy and was assigned the most coveted prize of all, going down the town to collect the morning and evening newspaper. I read these papers as I walked back to the school.
My love for the written word grew more and more and I realised that nobody could take the words from my mind. I loved to write on the pages of my copy books. Words and books became my mother and father brother and sister. They became my family and gave validity to my existence. I became the king of my own thoughts.
I could endure my life circumstances in the sure knowledge that I would have the last word my sword, the pen could make words dance upon the page. I could turn the morning gloom, wind and rain into a sunny balmy afternoon.
To hold a book in my hands and caress the pages was a greater value than the transubstantiation of the body of Jesus Christ at the consecration of all the Masses I served in my years. Despite all that life threw at me I remained safe in the knowledge that I would one day write about these events. My reasons for existence could gain validation by my writings. Even now at 70 years of age I still get that giddy feeling of writing that I first experienced as a child. Maybe this is the reason I am still dancing at 70. The blank page the scourge of many writers has never been a problem for me.
(c) Michael Clemenger
About Everybody Knew:
Michael Clemenger was handed over as a baby to the unloving care of a religious-run children’s home. Aged eight, he was transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School.
Chosen as their ‘favourite’ by two Christian Brothers, Michael endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of both men. Brother Price struck at night, while Brother Roberts took pleasure in a weekly bathtime ritual. Although everybody at the institution knew, even the two Brothers’ ‘protection’ did not save Michael from merciless beatings by other sadistic men charged with his care.
Despite the unbelievable trauma of his early life, Michael emerged unbroken and determined to make something of himself. Everybody Knew is a story of remarkable spirit and courage.
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