OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``Here upon the beach I wander'd, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time.''
From "Locksley Hall" by Lord Alfred Tennyson.
I was told that I began my formal education at a preschool in Belfast in 1944, about a year before my family moved to the country village of Magherafelt. However I have almost no recollection of that beginning except for a faint memory of an embarrassing stage appearance as a bunny rabbit, a story I tell elsewhere (see "Acting"). What I do remember clearly is that shortly after our move to Magherafelt, my mother enrolled me in the local village grammar school, the Rainey Endowed School. It is to that great school that I owe most of my education. It was about 3/4 mile away from where we lived on the other side of the village. Like most children venturing away from home for the first time, it was a traumatically remembered moment when my mother took me there on my first day. I recall distinctly being led up a set of wooden stairs in the middle of the old part of the Rainey School. I remember the knot holes in the floorboards as I climbed the stairs holding hard to my mother's hand. At the top was a big red door with glass in the upper half and through this I could see a mass of faces of older boys and girls and the rather grim visage of a lady teacher dressed in black. Her name I later discovered was Miss Rachel Carson; normally she was a vice-principal of the senior school but at that time she must have been a temporary stand-in as the kindergarten teacher. I do remember with great trepidation that she opened the door causing the sea of older faces to focus on me. Urged forward by my mother I tried to make my way into the room as inconspicuously as possible. There the memory ends and I do not recall much that happened immediately afterwards. Neither do I remember much about Miss Carson or about the schoolroom. I do, however, recall that two other children joined the kindergarten just about the same time, one boy and one girl. The boy was Iain McKay; Iain became a pharmacist and lived out his life in Magherafelt, a stalwart member of the community and a good friend to my family. The girl's name was Barbara Badger; many years later she was to become a very important part of my life.
Barbara Badger and Christopher Brennen in Form 3
I must have merged easily into this new environment that they called kindergarten. Certainly I found comfort in a low profile within which I could develop my own reaction to the outside world. It was a relief to discover that I could explore that larger world a little bit at a time. When it overwhelmed me, I was comforted by the thought that my refuge at home was not far away in time and space. My father kept all of the school reports and gave them to me much later in life. They leave the impression of a quite and shy boy. From 1946: ``For some reason or other he is very shy to repeat nursery rhymes or answer questions although he is quite lively in other activities''. Reports from the following year reflect the same introversion but are also sprinkled with humour: ``Christopher's work in the 3 Rs has been rather spasmodic this term. His number work is very good. Writing is improving as he gains more muscular control. Concentration could have been greater in reading. He is overcoming shyness by degrees'' and ``Writing has greatly improved. In number work he is most anxious to work without counters. Still rather shy when saying poetry''. Later in 1947 a number of other subjects were introduced into my curriculum including French and Handwork. A lifelong lack of affinity for foreign languages was evident right from the start: ``Eleve un peu dissipe. Pourrait mieux faire.'' and ``Ne s'interesse pas beaucoup au francais''. Conversely Handwork seemed to go rather well: ``Very good, has produced a most creditable piece of sewing'' and ``Good, has used colours well and enjoys using his hands''.
In a few years, the kindergarten that consisted of about a dozen children with ages ranging from about 4 to 9 was transferred to a small building behind the main school that had been built specially for these youngest students. About the same time, the school hired a new kindergarten teacher whom we knew as Miss Williams. I spent several years in that class, mostly with Miss Williams for whom I came to have great affection. Several incidents from that comfortable time stand out in my memory. One occurred when Miss Williams tripped as she was entering the building and struck her head on a raised concrete step. This opened an ugly gash on her forehead that bled profusely. Barbara and I were standing nearby and remember the incident with horror. It was my first real experience with blood and substantial injury and therefore imprinted itself forever in my memory. Miss Williams was taken to hospital where she was sown up (perhaps by my father). Much to our collective relief, she returned to the kindergarten not much the worse for the experience.
Several years later I suffered a compound fracture of my left arm as the result of a fall from a tree. Because of the series of surgeries that were needed to repair the arm, I had to go on leave from the kindergarten. Just after I returned from my convalesence Miss Williams became engaged to marry and decided to leave for Holland to live with her Dutch husband-to-be. I remember her visit to our home to explain her decision to my mother. I was privy to that conversation and, for the first time, experienced the sadness of personal loss. I looked to the future with some trepidation.
However it was not long after that (and perhaps before Miss Williams actually departed) that I got transferred into the other room in the kindergarten builing. This was occupied by the so-called Third Form in which regular teachers from the main school came to give classes in their specific subjects. This was another traumatic and vividly remembered transition for me. I was frightened out of my wits by the stories that the other, older third form students told of some of the teachers. In particular, the stories of Dr. Gwilliam, the math teacher who was portrayed as a real ogre at whose hands I would allegedly suffer greatly. Apparently the other teachers were not so bad but Dr. Gwilliam was regarded with great dread by those older students. Dr. Gwilliam's math class was the last of the day and I was so traumatized by the stories and so terrified by the thought of being trapped in the room with Dr. Gwilliam (even before I had a class from him) that I made a series of excuses to try to get away from the school before that last period. One day I pleaded sickness. The following day I hid in the cloakroom and then, when all the other students had gone, I surreptiously escaped through the window in order to sneak home. I also have a somewhat indistinct and disturbing memory of what happened on the third day. In order to sharpen my pencils, I had earlier ``borrowed'' some used razor blades from my father's razor blade container. I think I genuinely used them to sharpen my pencils. But in the process I cut my fingers rather badly in several places. The cuts bled profusely and, as a result, I was sent home prior to the last class. I have some very vague suspicion there might have been something deliberate about that but I cannot be sure. In any case these consecutive absences were noticed by other teachers and this resulted in a conference with my mother during which this series of events were discussed. Though I do not remember the consequences of that conference, I believe I was either encouraged or, perhaps, gently admonished. In any case, the result was that I did begin to attend Dr. Gwilliam's math classes. The irony of this story is that I turned out to be rather good - even outstanding at math. In the years that followed, I also began to understand and appreciate Dr. Gwilliam's expertize and teaching. In the end I became a great fan of his to the extent that I think he changed my life. Ultimately it was his teaching and my receptiveness to his teaching that led to me gaining a scholarship to Oxford University and going on to a career as an academic with a strong emphasis in mathematics. So there is indeed great irony in the story. Nevertheless I have some suspicion that I managed to manipulate those first days in order to avoid imagined suffering at the hands of Dr. Gwilliam.
The Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt
I also remember the third form for other reasons including a broadening of my social awareness and an expansion of my acquaintances. I made many new friends. There were a few that I had known in kindergarten and that were friends throughout my school years: Iain McKay was one, Barbara Badger was another, Alison Schofield was yet another. So it wasn't that I lacked friends but that the base was broadened; there was Alistair Simpson, Anthony Redmond, Derrick Crothers, Peter Burton and Jim Getty. Each of us had our own desk. I sat behind Anthony Redmond on the left side of the room (viewed from the back) and hid in his shadow for a while though I soon emerged from that. Barbara's desk was on the far right side near the front and I would often gravitate to my life-long friend. Many decades later several of my grandchildren would answer my question ``which class do you enjoy most'' with ``recess, of course''. And so it was for me for it was an important part of my emergence from the cloistered environment of a child into the rough and tumble world of a young and energetic schoolboy. Recess involved endless games in the school grounds and even the occasional fights with other boys. Just behind the kindergarten was a small field bounded by a grassy bank and a stream and many of our recess activities were centered there. We were also provided with small bottles of milk during the morning recess. We could consume as many of these bottles as we wished and sometimes there were competitions to see who could down the largest quantity. Often this resulted in someone being sick.
Ahead of me in third form lay one of the big hurdles in the educational system of my time, namely a government-organized intelligence test called the ``Eleven Plus''. The purpose of this examination was to determine whether you were intelligent enough to be able to take advantage of the more advanced form of schooling, namely a grammar school education. It was indeed an elitist system. Children who did not pass this examination were channeled into a more trade-oriented education at the local Technical School. Alternatively, if their parents were wealthy enough, they could still pay their way through grammar school. Thus it was an unfair system in several ways. I had not had much practice at examinations and because of where my birthday lay within the year I first took the Eleven Plus at the age of 10 plus. I did not do very well. I don't think I knew what an examination was and I do not think I had ever previously sat for an academic test. Though I do not know what score I earned, I either failed or it was decided that I was still too young, too immature to move up into the main school which would have involved leaving the third form and attending classes in the main building. Thus I remained for another year in the third form and retook the Eleven Plus at the age of 11 plus. This time I think I did remarkably well, probably because I had been practiced and had received instruction on what this was all about. Moreover I think I had matured to the point where I knew what I was doing. I was never told what score I earned, what my IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was, but I think it was a high number. This second Eleven Plus marked the end of my career in third form and the end of my residence in the cloistered environment of the kindergarten building. The following September I graduated to the grammar school in the main part of the Rainey Endowed School.
The entering class was called the Lower Fourth Grade; this was further divided into three classes according to intellectual ability. Thus entering the Lower Fourth was really the beginning of my formal, structured education at the Rainey Endowed School. I was placed in Lower Fourth One, in other words the elite level of the Lower Fourth Grade. The day was divided into eight 40 minute classes or periods as we called them. We moved from one classroom to another to attend the various subjects. There were 5 periods before lunch with a short break after the third period. Then there were three more periods after lunch. Sometimes we had double periods, that is to say two consecutive periods of the same subject and teacher. Those were a bit of an ordeal for me for I did not have a strong ability to retain my urine and so at the end of two periods I was almost inevitably dying to go to the toilet. Early on I remember one or two times when I couldn't get up the courage to ask to leave for a toilet break with the result that I peed in my pants. That kind of unneccessary discipline left a very unpleasant memory.
In each of the classes we sat at old wooden desks that had inkwells and many years of carved initials. The writing surface opened up to reveal a container where books and notes could be stored. They were almost always empty because, during the day, many others came to the same classroom and used the same desks. Instead we all carried a large leather bag made by a local saddlemaker, with a strap that you would put over your shoulder. These bags were filled with books, both workbooks and textbooks. The bags must have weighed about 30 pounds and we hauled them around all day; hence the need for the strap.
We were also obliged to wear the uniform of the Rainey School that reflected the school colors of red and black. For the boys the uniform consisted of gray trousers (shorts for the younger boys and long pants for the older boys), a white or gray shirt with a gray pullover, a red and black striped tie and a black blazer with a red embroidered patch, the school crest. This was, in fact, the crest of the London-based Salter's Company who had acquired a large tract of land in County Derry in the 1700s and had helped found the school. The girls had an equivalent uniform though they had a summer version and a winter version. In addition we were required while coming or going from school to wear a black cap though we treated these with a great deal of disrespect. Moreover the requirement was only occasionally enforced.
In the Lower Fourth I studied a wide range of predetermined subjects (no electives). Some of the subjects involved one period each per day though, as mentioned earlier, we did have occasional double periods. The basic subjects were English Language, English Literature, French, German, Latin, Math, Physics, Chemistry, History and Geography. There were no Biology or Social Science classes for there were no teachers equipped to teach those subjects. Some Geology was, however, included within Geography. The eighth or last period each day was devoted to a lighter subject, Art or Music or Gym. Thus each day was very full. In addition, any of the classes could demand homework so that we often had a stack of work to do each night.
Each day began with ''Assembly'' when all of the students in the school would gather in the main hall. Once we were assembled the headmaster and the teachers would march in and make their way up onto the stage. The headmaster would then conduct a brief religious ceremony, the singing of a hymn, a bible reading and a prayer. He would also make announcements such as the scores of the previous weekend's interschool games or the coming of some special events. I should remark briefly on the religious instruction during Assembly. At that time, ``The Rainey'' was unique among the grammar schools in Northern Ireland in that it was both mixed and co-educational. In other words it was attended by both Catholics and Protestants and by both girls and boys. The Catholic students were much in the minority for there were other Roman Catholic Church schools in the neighbourhood. For Assembly the Catholics would go to a different room to receive Catholic religious instruction. This was conducted by one of the small number of Catholic teachers, Dr. Gwilliam among them. I don't know anything more about that for we, the students, were all quite careful to avoid the inflammatory subject of religion.
Assembly lasted for about 15, perhaps 20 minutes, before we would file out to go to our first period class. A hand-held school bell wielded by one of the school administrators would ring to mark the beginning and end of each period. A dining hall and a kitchen were integral parts of the school and almost all the students ate a cooked lunch there, even those students that lived locally. However I was such a picky eater and disliked the cafeteria food so much that I went home for lunch every day. This was quite unusual and I am not quite sure how my mother put up with it but that habit continued throughout all my years at the Rainey.
I have fond memories of many of the teachers. I have already written of Dr. Gwilliam and his excellent mathematics instruction that undoubtedly changed my life. I also remember James McAteer who taught me physics and Alan Burton who taught me Chemistry (his son Peter Burton was also in my class). English, perhaps my weakest subject, was of less interest to me though I did enjoy the occasional play readings and poetry recitations. Otherwise the subject seemed very dull and that dullness was matched by the teachers. Mr. Schofield was particularly uninspiring though later on I had a teacher by the name of Wilfred Young who brought more enthusiasm to the subject. I was not very good at foreign languages either. Given the extended instruction I received in French and German, I ought to be able to speak those languages but my recollection of both languages is very slight. We also had some vicious, old-style teachers. I remember Mr. McFadden who would rap the back of your knuckles with his pencil or ruler when you failed to pronounce your French verbs correctly. I also remember my Latin teacher, Jimmy Smith, who was usually nice but lost his temper on occasion and could be quite violent when he did. On one occasion he threw a blackboard eraser at me because I was not paying attention; it left quite a bump on my head. I did enjoy History, in part because my teacher, Arthur Arnold, was not only interesting and amusing but was also my second uncle. He inspired my lifelong interest in history. Geography was another subject that interested me though I could not possibly have visualized how extensively I would travel the world in my later years.
Rainey Endowed School teachers in 1956
The year after the Lower Fourth was called, not surprisingly, the Upper Fourth. This followed essentially the same curriculum and, at the end of the year, we were required to take another government test called the Junior Certificate Examination. I took ten three-hour exams, in English Language, English Literature, French, German, Latin, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, History, and Geography and had remarkable success earning a distinction in all ten subjects, a feat that I don't think was ever equalled at the school. A distinction meant you had exceeded a score of 280 points out of 400 maximum. My lowest score was in English Language where I only just achieved a distinction by a handful of points. On the other hand in physics and math I scored close to 400. After successfully completing the Junior Certificate, I then entered the Lower Fifth. At this point we did have some choice. We could choose between math/science on the one hand or languages on the other. There might have been a few other minor choices but the details escape me. Most of the boys went into math/science with a few of the girls. Many of the girls went into languages.
My curriculum in the Lower Fifth was reduced to one language, German, but we had a much expanded curriculum in mathematics, physics and chemistry. We also studied English. One period was also devoted to gym. That curriculum continued for two years through Lower Fifth and Upper Fifth. At the end of the Upper Fifth year another government-run exam loomed, this time the Senior Certificate, Ordinary Level. Following this came the Lower Sixth year, when most students planning to go on to university took a few subjects at the Advanced Level. The exams and the end of that year, the Senior Certificate, Advanced Level, determined your entrance to university. I recall taking three math subjects, General Math, Applied Math and Pure Math as well as Physics and Chemistry. By this time I was a six-foot-tall high school senior and very confident of myself. I did extremely well in those Advanced Senior Examinations, receiving the top marks in County Londonderry and the third highest marks in Northern Ireland. At the end of that year I could have followed the normal course, left high school and gone to a local university, either Queens University, Belfast, or possibly Trinity College, Dublin. Indeed, I had already been offered admission to the departments of science, engineering and medicine at Queens University. However, the other option that was mooted was that I could spend an additional year at the Rainey School. I could study more math and science and then sit for the scholarship exams to Oxford University. So that's what I did. Along with a fellow student, Derrick Crothers, who had done equally well in the math/science Advanced Level exams, I remained at the Rainey for another year and almost exclusively studied math and physics. I say ``almost'' because we also knew that to be admitted to Oxford we would have to pass a latin exam. I had not studied latin for about three years and so had to work quite intensively to prepare for that test. Those studies included some latin literature, parts of Virgil's Aeneid, in which I was tutored by the local Presbyterian minister. the Reverend Dr. James Johnston. I remember it as a very enjoyable year in which Derrick and I were privileged to get special tutorial help from Dr. Gwilliam in math and from James McAteer in Physics. It was a time exceedingly well spent for I learnt a tremendous amount of math and physics in those tutorials.
Let me return to earlier years and recount some of the other activities that I enjoyed during my days at the Rainey. In addition to the required gym classes, the school organized extensive extra-curricular sports activities. These were nominally voluntary though everyone was expected to participate. In the autumn and winter, the primary sport for boys was rugby while the corresponding activity for girls was field hockey. We had after-school practice at least once a week and a game against a rival school the following Saturday. The school fielded a number of rugby teams, enough so that everyone who wished to play could do so. There was an Under 13 team (for boys under 13 years of age), an Under 14 team, an Under 15 team (known as the Medallion team though I am not sure why) and then two or three senior teams, the First Team (the varsity), the Second Team and sometimes a Third Team. In this way all who wished to play did so and none were left out.
I enjoyed the rugby very much. I remember the very first match I played against another school at the age of 12. I had just started in Lower Fourth and I was surprised and somewhat alarmed to be selected for the 1954/55 Under 13 team. I was a year younger than most of my team members and we travelled to the city of Londonderry to play Foyle College. I was put out on the wing, a fairly remote position on the field. But I still was absolutely terrified of the opposition even though I had shown during practice matches that I had both speed and skill and could run quite elusively with the ball if I got it. However, I don't think I even touched the ball during that entire match against Foyle. Moreover, I don't think I played in any other interschool matches that year. But I did hone my skills in many practices. The following year I was still on the Under 13 team but now was a year older and a lot more confident. Indeed I was chosen to be the captain of the Under 13 Rugby team. Though I Was not the best player by any means I did quite well and scored a number of tries (touchdowns). I remember we beat one team, Limavady Grammar School, by the rather lopsided score of 53-0 (there exists a very short piece of film of a run I made during that match). The next year I played for the Under 14 team, then for the Medallion the year after that.
1954/55. RES Under 13 rugby team. Back row: C.Brennen, N.Evans, J.Hillman, G.Watters, W.McClean, D.Crothers, ? Mitchell, F.Hartley. Middle row: J.Scott, A.Redmond, I.Gordon, R.Morrow, I.Campbell. Front row: J.Turner, J.Smyth, S.Walls, J.Brennan (no relation).
The following year I played the first of three years on the First XV and scored a try in my very first match against Dalriada Grammar School, a school in Ballymoney, County Antrim. Thereafter I played for the First XV for three full years. It was quite prestigious to be a member of that varsity team and we were presented with special gold (rather than red) crests to wear on our school blazers. Underneath the crest were the years played on the First XV. So I was very proud of the three lines of dates for the three years that I was a member of the varsity. There was a similar structure of Field Hockey teams for the girls; indeed there was little gender discrimination in that regard.
So rugby was a big part of my high school life and we were quite proud of how the team played though we never did especially well. There was a knock-out contest among schools in Northern Ireland called the School's Cup but we never progressed very far in that competition. I was particularly proud to play for two years with my younger brother Michael who was much better than I and played for the Ulster Schools Team. But strangely I scored more tries for the school than Michael ever did. My tries were mostly opportunistic efforts in which I used my quickness and elusiveness.
Rugby took up most of our spare time in the months of September through to about March although we also had cross-country races during that time. I also participated in cross-country; there were several courses with distances of about three or four miles around the local countryside. These courses always began and ended at the school. I was reasonably good at cross-country and was included in the team that competed against other schools. I do remember, however, that I began on the junior cross-country team that ran distances such as 2.5 or perhaps 3 miles. and became used to those distances. I did so well that, on one occasion, I was chosen for the senior team that ran longer distances, perhaps four or five miles. I remember getting to about the 3.5 mile mark and being violently ill by the side of the road, with the result that I finished very poorly in the race and was subject to disapproval of the team manager. That taught me something about pacing myself in the future and also put me off long distance running.
In the summer months of April, May and June the primary athletic activity was track and field. I was not very fast in the short sprints but had a good deal of endurance and so my specialty was the 440 yards race (roughly 400m). Anyone who has participated in that race knows that it is truly exhausting; in the final 100 yards your whole body goes numb and you are on the verge of collapse as you approach the finish line. As a school we participated in meets against other schools, in the County Londonderry Championships and in the Northern Ireland Championships. I never made it to the Northern Ireland Championships but my high point as a track athelete was to finish second in the County 440 yard Championship. One other thing of note was that unlike rugby, the men's and women's track teams travelled together and that added spice to the track and field activity. I might add that throughout all of those sporting activities, my brother Michael who was only 1.5 years younger than me (but more robustly built and a faster sprinter) participated with me. My younger brother Colin also participated and my favorite school sports photograph is the one of the school track and field team that includes all three of us.
1958/59. RES Track and Field team. Second row from the top, third from left: C.Brennen. Seated second from right: Michael Brennen. Seated on the ground on right: Colin Brennen.
Another extra-curricular activity that I enjoyed and in which I achieved greater success were the theatrical productions. In another chapter ("Acting") I describe the various roles I played. Though I did not recognize it at the time, that acting experience formed a very important part of my education. It taught me how to present myself, how to speak to an audience, how to project my voice, and, most crucially it gave me the confidence to build these skills in the years that followed. At the time, I mostly enjoyed the companionship and, in particular, the opportunity to get to know some of the girls.
I want to add a little detail regarding the friends I made in high school. I remember that, when I was in the Lower Fourth, I got into a fight during one morning break with a tall lanky guy by the name of Frank Johnston. I am not sure how it began but, in the end, I think the fight was more or less a draw. What tended to happen when two boys, especially two younger boys, got in a fight was that the rest of the boys would crowd around in a ring and encourage the two protagonists to greater efforts. Most of these fights ended up with two exhausted young boys lying on top of one another but some did become quite violent especially when older boys turned to fisticuffs that resulted in split eyebrows and knuckles. But this fight with Frank Johnston did not go very far. Perhaps because of that he and I became great friends and remained friends throughout our time in high school. Indeed, today, more than 50 years later I still have contact with Frank. He lives on the shores of Lake Malawi in Africa and is a photographer and antique dealer. If anyone could be called my best friend in high school it was Frank. There were, however, other boys with whom I was friendly, including Derrick Crothers my principal academic rival. Derrick was a little bit of a wild man, quick-tempered and a little out of control at times. There was also Peter Burton, the son of the chemistry teacher.
I would also like to recall some of my relations with the opposite sex. I was very shy as a younger boy. I did not have any romantic contact with the female sex until the Lower Fifth at which point I would have been 15 or maybe 16. I had my eye on a demur little girl by the name of Esme Somerville. Esme was in the grade below me and I think the relationship started with the passing back and forth of written notes. At some point I asked her to meet me one lunch hour in a little room that was called the library. It was my duty to look after the library and so I had a key to this normally locked room that was little used. So we met during the lunch hour in this little library room, locked ourselves in and spent maybe 5 minutes together. We had one very tentative distant kiss on the lips before departing. That was the full extent of the first and only date I had with Esme. I never did have any further contact with her though on the spur of the moment I once cycled in the dark across to the village of Coagh (about seven miles from Magherafelt) where she lived. Her father was a policeman and I had given very little thought to what I would do once I got there. Indeed I was standing in the dark near her home in Coagh when I was approached by several elderly, drunken gentlemen who seemed to think that my behavior was suspicious (which it was!). They accosted me, wanted to know what I was doing. Of course, I was afraid to tell them and therefore in a real pickle. Finally I saw an opening, sprinted away on my bicycle and rode home in the dark without further incident. I remember the night as one of those crazy things a young man does when he is infatuated with a young girl. Incidentally, Esme married another classmate called Eddie McClure. They lived in England and had a family. Unfortunately Esme died at quite a young age, of complications during an asthma attack. She was a lovely girl for whom I always retained a special affection.
A short time after the Esme affair in June 1958 I became very attracted to my classmate and childhood friend, Barbara Badger. I was very keen on Barbara but she was not very keen to become romantically involved with me. During the summer of 1958 we saw quite alot of each other, sometimes playing tennis at the Magherafelt Tennis courts. We had a visitor from France staying at Cranagh Dhu that summer, a sophisticated young man called Claude Lebon from Voiron in France. He was a keen tennis player. Often Barbara and I, Claude and Eileen McMaster would get together for doubles matches. Claude and Barbara took a shine to one another so I had briefly to take a back seat to that connection. Even after the summer had passed and Claude had gone home, I continued to try to woo Barbara but with little success though she was always friendly to me. The end of that relationship came when Barbara went off to be au pair in Geneva, Switzerland, and subsequently to nursing school in Belfast. However there is a much later and much more important era in my relationship with Barbara that I recount in a separate chapter of these chronicles.
In 1959, after Barbara had left town, I became very attracted to another girl in the grade below me, a girl by the name of Laverne Symonds. I tell her story elsewhere in the chapter entitled ``Slieve Gallion''. Laverne and I had a long and torrid relationship, an on/off affair. It was a much longer and much more physical relationship than that first fleeting affair with Esme though I hasten to add that we never actually had sexual intercourse. Many times I would travel the ten miles to the town of Cookstown to try to see Laverne, often on the spur of the moment, frequently hitchhiking in the dark. Her mother was usually not pleased to see me when I went knocking on their door and I would have to hitchhike right back again. Early on in our affair Laverne had a earlier boyfriend in Cookstown, an older and quite rough young man whose name I have forgotten. On one occasion Laverne and I were walking along Molesworth Street when this young man and his friends came up behind me and briefly attacked me. I am ashamed to say that I ran leaving Laverne to deal with the situation, a task that she accomplished with some ease. As the relationship developed she tended to get tired of me and to flirt with other boys once she knew she had me on the hook. I would then give up on her, the result being that she would try to wangle her way back into my affections. So it was a very unstable affair that eventually ended when I had had enough of her machinations. Indeed I clearly remember the time when I hitchhiked back to Magherafelt in anger determined to move on. Laverne was really the first girlfriend I ever had and I continued to feel affection for her until her untimely death from ovarian cancer. She had a sad life, a marriage that did not work out, and lived her last days with her son in very modest circumstances. Part of the problem was severe post-partum depression after the birth of her son, Michael Haskins.
The break-up with Laverne meant that at the end of my last year in high school in the summer of 1960 I was essentially unattached though Laverne still hovered somewhere in the background. That summer I met my future wife Doreen in Portrush, the story of that meeting being told elsewhere in these memoirs. For reasons I am not sure I completely understand, through the years I have spent perhaps too much time thinking of these relationships with Esme, with Laverne and with Barbara, even to the point of thinking about making contact with them. Perhaps this reflects an insatiable curiosity about my own emotional development and life.
Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen