Fighting to insert the duvet into a quilt cover that had a mind of its own, schooldays were evoked.
Were the housemaster to have undergone Freudian psychoanalysis, terms like ‘anally retentive’ would have arisen. There was an obsession with things being done according to each and every detail he stipulated’; this included the making of beds.
Beds came with cotton sheets, heavy woollen blankets and heavy, dark counterpanes. Beds were to be made according to the exact instructions he set down. The bottom sheet was to be folded back over the blankets at the point where the blankets met with the space occupied by the pillow. The counterpane was to be tucked in at the foot of the bed with 45 degree hospital corners. At night time, the counterpane was to be folded back at exact right angles to the line of the mattress.
Perhaps the obsession was defensible in terms that it kept the rooms looking tidy, there being an almost military air about the stern lines and exact angles. What was completely absurd was the requirement concerning the changing of the beds. Every week, a clean sheet was left on each bed; the bottom sheet was to be removed, the top sheet transferred to the bottom, and the fresh sheet put on top – all of which would have been reasonable, were it not for the requirements concerning the bottom sheet. Instead of simply throwing it into a laundry basket, it had to be folded into a neat rectangle, no more than a foot long, and placed at the bottom of the bed, where it would be collected. Failure to fold the sheet according to the prescribed dimensions, or to ensure that it did not appear unduly creased, resulted in some absurd and arbitrary punishment.
The sheets were part of the absurd and arbitrary control of our lives. Our school was a special one for people with asthma and frail health. It was not cheap, back in the mid-1970s, fees were around £2,000 a year, as much as a working man was earning. Fees were paid by local authorities, who deemed a special education necessary because each of us had missed so much time at ordinary schools.
The school was run by fundamentalist Christians who regarded it as their duty to educate us in their faith. Morning assemblies, evening epilogues, worship twice every Sunday, no opportunity was missed to preach to us their version of the Christian Gospel. Their work was presented to us as charitable, we were reminded of the generosity of those who had established the trust that had founded the school; there was never any reference to the fact that it was the taxes of working people that were funding the whole operation.
In the first decade after leaving, I had a very benign view of the school, I might not have agreed with their theology, but they sought to do the best they could. Thirty years after leaving, it is hard to be so sanguine.
I recall no real physical abuse, the odd staff member might have been over-enthusiastic in punishments, but there was nothing systematic in the way that occurred in some Irish schools. There was persistent bullying, to which the staff mostly turned a blind eye, as was normal in the 1970s. More seriously, there was an ongoing emotional and psychological battering. Staff considered it reasonable to have strange and arbitrary rules, like the folding of dirty sheets – I once had to clean the gym for three days because a friend lent me his football boots to play in a match. They considered it reasonable to subject us to a borstal-like regime. They considered it reasonable to constantly preach a version of Christianity that regarded even most Christians as doomed to eternal damnation.
Since those days, changing sheets has seemed always evocative of eternal damnation.