Empty Vessels

By Mary Smith

One by one we were handed a big brown sealed envelope to take home to our parents. Contents unknown, at least by me. It was in the days were children were seen but not heard. No one asked, “Miss, what’s it all about?” They wouldn’t dare. This was the early fifties and curiosity was not encouraged. Speak when you’re spoken to and don’t answer back.     

A golden opportunity was extended to all eight year olds in my class to put our names down for a holiday at a residential school in Rothesay. It would have been out the question for most, if not all, had it not been heavily subsidised. The purpose of the trip was to take children from the pollution of the city, Glasgow in my case, to a healthier environment. Not everyone could afford to go despite the financial assistance. Sad to say my best friend Wilma was one of those left behind.     

We began the great journey to what we thought of as, had we known the word, an exotic land. Travelling by bus, train and boat to our destination meant it had to be far far away. I remember on the boat, feeling sick though not from all the travel. I was scared we might not find our way back.     

The school was run by two spinsters, the Misses O’Hagan. Kind, motherly, welcoming; words that could not be attributed to these ladies. There were children from all areas of Scotland so new friendships were forged.

We walked for miles each day, although talking was forbidden.  “Empty Vessels make the most sound,” the Miss O’Hagans would quote often in unison. I was oblivious to what this meant but thought it could be something to do with the squawking of the big birds in the sky. These were seagulls I learned. The only birds I’d ever seen up to this point were Glasgow pigeons. We marched along two-by-two, enjoying the fresh air, but found it strange not actually walking to somewhere. At home you walked to the shops, to your grannies, to the park with your pieces and watery juice.   

Every day we were allowed some sweets or biscuits from parcels sent from home, but only if you had not committed any misdemeanours. Suffice to say my teeth were in no danger of rotting!     

The highlight of our stay was a concert put on in honour of the Bishop, who was coming to visit. A choir was assembled and by elimination the best singers were found, the rest of us were told to stand at the back and mime. We were taught country dancing by the Miss O’Hagans. There was a rumour that wee Miss O’Hagan (her sister was big Miss O’Hagan) wore a wig, and sure enough as she was giving the eight-some reel her all the said appendix moved more than a fraction to the left. I tried very hard to suppress any laughter by clasping my hand over my mouth. The next thing I knew I received a blow to the back of the head, delivered by a glaring big Miss O’Hagan. She grabbed me by the hair and dragged me unceremoniously upstairs to the dormitory, all the while telling me what a wicked girl I was. There would be no concert for me.     

I lay in bed listening to the music playing downstairs and felt quite sorry for myself. I thought of home and how much I wanted to be there. A sudden overwhelming feeling of sadness engulfed me. This was the first, but not the last time I would experience being homesick. The symptoms are always the same. An ache from within; a yearning to see the people you love; places that are familiar and mean something to you. Home to me is not only the place of my birth but all that I hold dear in my heart.