I have to interrupt this tour of my personal Madame Tussaud's to talk about a very important subject - food. As anybody can imagine, food or the lack of it, and the quality of the food when not lacking, is a major preoccupation with boys in a boarding school. There were two aspects: food itself, and the thought of food, and unfortunately these two did not always coincide, firstly in the sense that there was a huge gap between the food you thought about and the food you got, and secondly in the sense that you spent a lot more time thinking about food than eating it, because the food you got wasn't able to stop you thinking about food between one meal and the next. On the other hand, I have to admit that no one actually starved. This story is not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or anything like it. It's just about hunger never being quite satisfied.
Breakfast was rubbery porridge, two pats of butter on a plate and all the dry bread you could eat once the butter was used up. A very large tin teapot, like a squat watering can, stood at the head of each table in the refectory. Big enamel jugs of milk were placed at regular intervals along the tables.
Silence always had to be observed at breakfast. The clinking of spoons against porridge bowls. Shadow-sounds of shiftings and slurpings. The occasional cough or forbidden whisper. The dean pacing up and down, reciting matins and lauds from his breviary, his lips moving soundlessly. A sentry with a prayer book.
Dinner was some kind of boiled carcass of unpleasant meat, but hunger bypassed the look and the smell: the taste wasn't too bad, once you managed to get it inside your mouth. It was served with steamed potatoes, many of which had gone black inside, and watery vegetables. And there was semolina for dessert. Every day semolina, a supply of it that stretched to infinity, interrupted every now and then by a bowl of rice pudding. The priests sat at a table at the top of the refectory, literally a step above the boarders on a slight platform, at right angles to them, and several times a week they ate roast beef. The joint was carried out ceremoniously by the brother cook, to be carved by the monk whose turn it was on the roast-carving roster, and the mouth-watering smell of it reached my nostrils. During the soup, which was thick and crudded, a senior boy read a passage from the gospels, and the rector knocked on the table with the butt of his knife when and if the reading was to stop. Then the boys could talk, as they ate their carcass and semolina.
Supper was two more pats of butter, and bread and tea. On feast days or on some occasion worthy of celebration, such as a win by one of the college's football or hurling teams, or sometimes quite unexpectedly (the rector was prone to fits of condescension), there were three pats of butter. It's probably hard for a person who hasn't attended an old-style boarding school to understand the excitement of the students at the unexpected appearance of three pats of butter on their rows of plates as they streamed into the refectory from the study hall, the whispers of delight:
'Three pats of butter!'
'Good on the rector!'
'And there's fresh bread tonight!'
The week's supply of bread came on Wednesday afternoon. Fresh bread was a heavenly taste, and the butter went further on it: you didn't need to use so much to moisten the bread, because it was already moist; you could eat it almost without butter. Fresh bread and three pats of butter was not only heavenly; it was heaven itself. But by Tuesday the bread was so stale that it devoured the butter.
To get a new loaf of bread for his table, an appointed student had to go up to the dean carrying the breadboard, hand raised. The dean, pacing his way through lauds or vespers, nodded permission, and the boy went through a door to the cupboard where the bread was stored. He felt around speedily in the dark cupboard for a fresh loaf, because if there were any stale ones left, they were put in front by the brother quartermaster. But the student couldn't spend much time groping for fresh bread without arousing the dean's suspicion.
Sometimes a triangle of cheese appeared on the plates at supper, beside the pats of butter. Spreadable cheese acted as a third pat of butter, though it wasn't as nice. In my first year in the college two Hungarians, refugees from the Uprising, joined the class. There was huge hilarity in the refectory one evening when little Galtee triangles appeared on our plates, and someone asked the refugees what was the Hungarian for cheese. It sounded amazingly like shite. In fact, there was no difference; the Hungarian, sajt, seemed to be just a posh, rounded, Montenotte-type of way of saying the English excrement-word: He's full of shoyt, that fellow. I'm telling you now.
Between these three meals, there was nothing except the hope of a parcel from home, or of bumming a sweet or a piece of chocolate from one of the fellows who received a lot of parcels, like the undertaker's son. The son of the dealer-in-death was never hungry. The many parcels were the result of his father's wealth. It was a good trade, you could be sure that people were going to die. The undertaker's son received a parcel from home every week. When he went to his locker with the parcel, the other boys from his class crowded round him.
'Give us a sweet, Fitzy. Give us a sweet!'
The undertaker's son turned from rummaging in his parcel, and threw a single sweet into the air.
'Up for a Baa!' he yelled.
On wet afternoons, when outside games were cancelled, the so-called shop was opened. The dean's office, at the bottom of the study hall, was converted into a place for selling Cleeve's slab toffee - and nothing but Cleeve's slab toffee. Push-penny was played on window ledges in the recreation hall, table-tennis balls ponked to and fro, a few of the seniors played billiards. There was 'free reading' in the study hall, while the strains of My Fair Lady blared from the speaker there. Our cheeks bulged with Cleeve's slab toffee, our jaws were exercised in difficult chewing.
From memoir in progress, The Hungarian for Cheese, © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010