You can no longer travel by train from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. In my time it was an overnight journey that involved a great deal of shunting back and forth, in the middle of the night, to reach the final dizzying altitude of 4,921 feet. But the train was clean and comfortable even though it was hardly conducive to sleep.
At any rate it was a lot better than travelling in an unreliable car with a bad-tempered driver. I was happy to be alone with my mum who was always good company. She enjoyed train trips and it was a nice little adventure of our own.
Many British children went to boarding school. It just didn’t seem to be a big deal and I was not apprehensive about it. I knew I would miss my mother for a bit but I did not realize then just how much. If I had had any idea how little, thereafter, I should ever see of my mother, for the rest of her life, my stiff upper lip would not just have quivered. I would have been inconsolate.
But I didn’t know and I remember being quite cheerful when she left me, aged eleven, at my first boarding school, “Les Oiseaux”, sister school to the one I had attended in Saigon. For once there was consistency in teaching methods.
My parents had a deadline to make in Thailand, so Christmas was declared “off” in 1959 and while most of the boarders went home for the holidays, I joined a little group of homeless waifs who were “staying over”. I don’t know that they were actually homeless. Their families probably couldn’t afford to pay their fares home more than once a year.
No one seemed to mind and nor did I. Mum had made a point of telling me that she had wrapped a gift for me and placed it in my suitcase. “So if you don’t get it, ask them”, she said emphatically. She was a smart woman.
Christmas may have been off for the Smiths that year, but in a Catholic convent, it was a major celebration.
Our little group was sent to bed early and then as the big day approached, we were summoned to attend Midnight Mass in the small attached church.
My primary school in London was Church of England, so I had been in a church before. I remember standing in a pew at the back, searching for the right page in my hymn book. Just as well I could never find it, given the awful sound of my singing voice.
My father was not just an atheist. He detested any sort of reference to religion. My mother had insisted that my brother, Peter, be baptized. But the agreement was that if a second child came, it would not.
One day when I was eight, our teacher decided to identify all the children in my class who were not baptized. We had to stand against a wall facing the saintly “anointed” standing opposite. We were told that they were “Marys” and we were “Mary Magdalenes” and it was made clear that this was a very bad thing to be.
I didn’t want to be a bad thing so I went home and told my mother that I wished to become a “Mary”. It would have been so simple, as we lived across the street from St. Luke’s. I wanted to go to church at Easter and get a palm frond because that seemed so important. My father made dark looks and grumbled like a volcano. I did not get baptized.
Attending Midnight Mass, therefore, was very interesting to me. Obviously I could not take communion, but otherwise I was allowed to participate in the proceedings. The sound of the choir enveloped me, making me feel peaceful, warm and safe. They preached love and that was something I craved. Next time I saw my parents I told them once more that I wished to be “christened” and got the same sour looks.
This was as close as I ever came to being a Christian, but many of the lessons stayed with me to join my Buddhist leanings and form what I think of as my personal ethics. I do not call myself religious but I believe people should be free to follow the faith of their choice and should not be criticized or belittled for it.
I cannot seem to tell a story without digressing, but so many small things influence a child’s mental growth and I think it is worthwhile to mention them. The teacher who dubbed her pupils Mary Magdelenes was seriously misguided.
After Midnight Mass we were herded into the refectory where we received bowls of hot chocolate and bread to break our fast. Then we went back to bed for a few hours before being called once more for the morning mass which was a smaller celebration.
I had expected, when we came back to the dormitory, that I should find my mother’s gift on my bed, but I was sadly disappointed. As mother had suspected, I had to ask for it. It was located in the linen cupboard with the wrapping removed and it was turned over by a rather disappointed looking attendant. Perhaps she was hoping to take it to her own child. It would have been such a treasure. It didn’t occur to me to offer it up and at the time I needed my mother’s gift quite badly. It was a toy tiger with luminous eyes and a squeak. I really loved that tiger and he brought me a lot of comfort in the days to come.
Timmy Tiger is with me still after all these years and all these miles. I don’t think Mum had to worry anymore about smuggling my toys past father because from then on, for the most part, I packed my own baggage and it went where I did.