Those Sad, Sad Sundays: 1960-1964

Sunday was a long empty day, “chapel” in the morning, “chapel” again in the evening. Everyone looked forward to Sunday, but, when it came, this long emptiness was merely confusing. Boys would wander restlessly, sometimes sitting on the tops of desks to talk in groups. Or they would read or write home.

So he wandered though classrooms, lay on his bed, read a newspaper, went to see what was going on outside.

Then at four o’clock, having put it off all day, he sat down to write a letter home, filing it with small school anecdotes.

It might have been a sunny September evening, with a slight suggestion of chill in the breeze that blows in through the open window, rattling the sashes, fluttering papers on the floor.

The evening bells from a nearby parish church start to ring, for a while firm and steady, then stumbling, then picking up again, swelling and diminishing as if the intervening air thickens, then clears.

Sometimes, the bells are lost among other sounds – cars on the road, children shouting, the wind in the trees.

He knows those bells, has heard bells like them for as long as he can remember. Now families sitting in the sun on the hillside would be looking at their watches and starting to fold their rugs. Fathers would be going down to the stream to look for their children. Boys on bicycles would be turning their machines round and starting for home. Umpires would be pulling up the stumps at end-of-season cricket matches.

Then another bell, a high-pitched, regular, unresonant one-note intervenes, its peal clashing with the slow tolling from across the water meadows.

The school chapel is long and narrow, with high arches. An aisle runs up the middle of the chapel, and rows of banked pews look down on it. There is a dry, dirty light in the chapel, yellowy without warmth. Large naked bulbs hang down from the roof on long flexes.

The large doors swing to with a thud and the service begins.

Then the chapel fills with a low uninflected drone, over which the amplified voice of the padre can be heard, leading the prayer.

Through his fingers he looks at the pictures on the wall. The pictures are all in the pre-Raphaelite style. This one shows angels taking a city up to Heaven. The angels are pale dark-haired maidens with little feet. Small scaly wings issue from the folds in their robes. The city is square and the angels take a corner each. It has left a great pit in the earth. He thinks the city looks like a wedding cake.

Around the pictures, in all the varnished wooden panels, in gilt letters, are the names of the dead, each with his school house and year, hundreds and hundreds of them, killed in the two world wars and the wars before that.

Then quite suddenly it is over. The preacher names a hymn. With a coughing and shifting in the pews, the congregation gets unsteadily to its feet, to sing: “The day thou gavest , Lord, is over, The darkness falls at thy behest”.

Solemn clumsy voices lag behind the big organ, voices full of a tired sadness. It is dusk now. The light has softened. He sees one of the parents dabbing her eyes with a little white handkerchief. The weekend visit is over.

As the congregation leaves the organ trumpets a toccata to itself.

It has rained a little outside. It is dusk now. He feels carefully for each step down into the courtyard, where he waits to find someone to walk back with, walking without a word to the other boy but glad of his company.

Occasionally a lorry hisses past spilling a grey parabola of vapour from its wheels. Beech leaves glint in the yellow lamplight. It would soon be bedtime.

Another Sunday wasted. Another Sunday waiting for the future to happen.