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When I first went up to Ghora Gully, my favourite teacher was Miss D’Outre. I loved her. She was a beautiful, and elegant French-colonial lady. She was tall and slim and wore her hair centre-parted and in two plaits which were then tightly rolled around like ear-phones and pinned neatly to her head.

One day the class was taken for a walk up towards Murree, the main hill town. Miss D’Outre was in charge. Some half a mile up the hill we were assembled and told by Miss D’Outre that we could play near her but, she instructed, we were not allowed to go beyond a certain raised pathway about one hundred yards further up the hill. A couple of the boys and girls were appointed as monitors to ensure that we observed the rule. Twenty minutes or so later, one of the monitors called out to me and said that one of his marbles was stuck on the forbidden path.

“Go on. Get it for me, O’Meara”, he ordered.

Well, he was a monitor and so, without thinking, I leapt onto the path and retrieved his bloody marble for him. The little sod, having deliberately set the trap, immediately ran off and reported me to Miss D’Outre.

No amount of protestation from me could affect the outcome —

“Miss, he told me to get his marble for him and I did what he told me to do!”

“Well, I told all of you NOT to go beyond the path.”

“Miss, I didn’t go beyond the path. I only went onto it.”

Tough shit, for me! I qualified for three whacks of the cane on my hands and 50 lines of “I must listen to and obey Miss D’Outre”. That’s when I fell out of love with her. More important, it was a salutary lesson in not allowing myself to be duped into stupid actions and another building block in learning to take care of myself.

Miss D’Outre was also the Cub mistress and, later on, I was invited to join her band of “Dib, dib, dib and dub, dub, dub”. I was still a bit wary of Miss D’Outre since the marble incident, but I fancied the swanky Baden-Powell hat, neckerchief and smart khaki uniform and belt with the special buckle — “Be Prepared” — and the lanyard. So I said “Yes.”

However, I soon felt it to be a load of nonsense and, once I left Ghora Gully I had no more time for the cubs or scouts. In the meantime, I had learned to use an air rifle. My father started taking me out shooting and, in later years, let me use a .22 Winchester rifle. Best of all, I learned to ride and acquired a bicycle. Who the hell wanted to mess around with a bunch of silly kids swearing allegiance to Chief Wolf or whatever he was called?


During each of the two years I was in Ghora Gully, I developed a whitlow (paronychia). The first one was on the index finger of my left hand and the next year one appeared on the middle finger of the same hand. Each time, of course, I lost the fingernail and to this day the replacement nails are a strange shape.

What’s a whitlow? I don’t really know, some kind of bacterial infection at the base of the fingernail. But, what I can tell you is that it is damned painful and it lasts for ages. Nowadays, I think it is easily treated with antibiotics and does not mean the eventual unavoidable loss of the nail, as it used to then. Today it is a relatively minor and painless affliction. But in 1936-37 it was excruciatingly painful. And the treatment was also painful, though straightforward. You had to soak and wash the finger, (under the supervision of the dispensary nurse ) in what felt like near-boiling water and at least twice a day. Then you had this heated paste, “Antiphologistine”, put on it to draw the pus. Then it was bandaged. After a week or so of this painful treatment the pus-sac burst, finger-nail came off and the growth of a new one was awaited.

At one stage I decided that the cure was worse than the affliction, but after two days of suffering ever increasing throbbing hell, unable to sleep at night and praying that it would get better by itself or ‘maybe, if I prayed to Our Lady?” which didn’t help either, I succumbed and decided that I had to go back for treatment.

The dispensary nurse hadn’t missed my non-attendance, or had figured that the pain would eventually drive me back anyway. In that case, she was right. But I got no sympathy, just a grand hauling over the coals and, as she put it, “a nice little gift” for my right hand… two or three whacks from Miss Clegg’s cane. I can’t remember how many. But anyway, they all hurt once you had got the initial wallop.


When December arrived we were homeward bound. Following the pony ride and then the bus ride, my father met Kathy and me at the railway station. Dad kissed and hugged Kathy. I was so pleased to see him and, when he had finished cuddling Kathy, it was my turn and I went to kiss him and be cuddled too. He drew back.

“Son,” he said, “big men don’t kiss in public. We shake hands.”

We shook hands and I was near to tears because all the other fathers seemed somehow to have forgotten that they should not kiss their sons in public. We got into the rail carriage and, in its privacy, my father kissed me. That was the last time we ever kissed.

On his deathbed, nearly forty years later, I kissed him on his forehead.

Goodbye, Dad.”


By the end of the 1937 school year, my father had been transferred to Karachi. We lived in the so-called, Army Bakery Bungalow, a nice house with several rooms and a beautiful garden. By this time my two younger sisters, Philomena, who was four years old and Mary, who was nearly two, were just about coming into the scene.

My main companion was still, however, Kathy. We used to play together and one day I decided to let her play marbles with me. She did not have any of her own so I loaned her half of mine to start her off. She played with a winning streak and eventually won the whole lot off me. Dad and Mum were sitting on the verandah looking at the game and laughing. I was really angry and especially when Kathy taunted me with that childlike lilt in her voice because I was “no good at marbles, ha, ha, ha.”. I shoved her sharply and she fell over.

Shit! Dad had seen. He took me into the bedroom and gave me a thrashing with the buckle-end of his Sam Browne, and told Kathy not to give me back any of the marbles. I really had a sore back-side, but worst of all was losing my marbles. (Pun.) However, my darling sister felt so sad for me that the next day she asked Dad if she could make me a present of all the marbles. I got them back.


One afternoon, I was riding my bicycle near the house and I suddenly espied a couple of pariah dogs. Some rotten sods had “stuck them together by their bums”, or so I thought. I called the cook and told him. He looked out from the kitchen window and then came rushing out with a bucket of water which he threw over the dogs. They yelped and tried to run away, dashing this way and that, but they remained “coupled” for several seconds until the water dissolved the glue which was holding them together. At least that was what I thought had been the case. That night I told Dad and Mum about the cruel people who “had stuck the dogs together” and they nodded with knowing smiles and, I thought, amused looks on their faces. But, in fact, they were smiling at my still innocence.

By this time we were awaiting a passage to England which was due soon, and so we were not sent up to the Ghora Gully school in 1938. Instead, we went to the Grammar School in Karachi as day scholars. I loved those days for many reasons, mostly because we were living at home. Each day the bearer [1] would bring our lunch to school in a tiffin-carrier [2] , — (it consists of two or more circular pans like small saucepans with “loops” on the outside and a carrying handle fashioned to pass through the loops when the device is assembled. The bottom pan is usually filled with hot water to keep the nested pans and their contents warm) — and lay it out on one of the tables in the refectory. The children of other families would have their meals laid out for them too.

This was all great fun and we looked forward to whatever we were presented with. Sometimes it would be breaded lamb cutlets and mashed potatoes with gravy. At other times it might be beef curry and rice with a portion of dhal (red lentils). Then there were times when we had roasted corn-on-the-cob which I was very partial to, especially when the main part of the meal was roast chicken.

We always had a dessert and my favourite was a giant dollop of home-made ice-cream which would have been packed separately. Most dairy desserts were home-made to ensure purity ; ice-cream was made in an ice-filled bucket with a special metal container containing the ingredients and which was paddled around for what seemed like ages while it solidified.

We nearly always finished off with fresh fruit — a mango, orange, some chicos or a large segment of papaya which Mum always insisted was freshly cut in front of us. All through her life she was so particular about the hygienic preparation of food and always peeled fruit even down to each and every grape she ate. I suppose she had become even more careful after the deaths of my brothers, Barry and Michael.

We made many friends and often got invited to “spend the day” with them. Spending the day with one’s friends was a much looked forward-to event. You got up in the morning, a Saturday, Sunday or other holiday, had breakfast at home and then went over to the friend’s home. Sometimes, Mum would come over too, especially if she was a friend of the parents. Fathers never seemed to be present and that was fun because our mothers seemed to have so much abundant tolerance of the mischief we got up to. The girls would knit, draw, use their mothers’ make-up, dress up in different clothes and generally do the things which girls are wont to do.

We lads climbed trees, playing “Jack the Monkey up the Tree” - a kind of “tag”, - played marbles, hockey, cricket or football, rode our bicycles into the local market and purchased for a few pice [3] the wherewithal to engage in kite flying skirmishes with some other, almost inevitably, anonymous fliers who invaded the air-space.


Kite flying is a war game. The kite is usually made of tissue-paper stretched over a bamboo-strut frame and then secured by some devilish cunning to the “manja”. The manja is the control-string from flier to kite and is the relatively more costly of the battle accoutrements. It is therefore worth engaging in battle for. It is prepared by mixing ground glass with egg-white and then spreading the resultant mixture over the length of the string. Spread from one end to the other it becomes a “letting-out” manja. Spread in the opposite direction it becomes a “pulling-in” manja. Sometimes the manja is divided into different sections so that it becomes partly a letting-out type and partly a pulling-in type.

In the hands of an expert, the kite is highly maneuverable in flight and, by various tweaks on the manja, can be made to soar, spin, dive and twist. The idea is to attack and cut the manja of the other flier’s kite. For example, with a letting-out manja you can attack the other kite from below and then use the soar. Get it right and pull on your manja as it makes contact with your opponent’s line and you will cut the opponent’s manja. Now the objective is to run for all you are worth and capture the opponent’s kite, but more importantly the manja, as it wafts to earth. If you are successful in getting hold of it, and it is of good quality, you then add it to your own collection of manja for future air combat..

The chase for the opponent’s manja was exhilarating. Mostly the kite-fight was engaged in completely anonymously and often at a distance of half a mile or more. You might only see your opponent when you came face-to-face while you were trying to get his manja and he was trying to retrieve it.

There were seldom disagreements as to ownership once the manja was claimed. It was usually taken as part and parcel of the engagement, the “spoils of war”, as it were.

Kite flying was great fun and if you also had a bearer who could run really fast with a long pole and a snare at the end of it, the chances are that you would soon have miles and miles of valuable manja.


While we were in Karachi, Dad decided that his children should learn to play the piano. Kathy took to it like a Mozart or Beethoven. I was not interested in the monotony of five-finger exercises and the tediousness of practice, and preferred to go out with the chokra [4] and have kite fights with the villagers. Snr. Fonseca, our piano tutor, was not amused by my inattention and recommended that Dad save his money.

Years later, when I was in St. Mary’s, Mt. Abu, I took up the violin and studied under a Goan music-master named D’Abreu. He was a fantastic violinist and could often be heard playing beautiful solo melodies on the verandah of the masters’ house when we were returning from jungle-walks late in the evening. We would stand and listen, entranced. But most of the time, though he played like an angel, D’Abreu was as “pissed as a fart!”

The first technique that D’Abreu insisted on with all his violin pupils was that of being able to hold the instrument firmly, very firmly, under the chin and without any support from the arm. You had to be able to hold it as though it was a branch sticking out of your throat. I soon discovered why. While playing he would stand to your left and slightly forward of you. Often, he would play a second fiddle harmonic melody with you and if you made a fingering error while playing the main melody he would use his bow to describe a sudden arc from the wrist and accurately whack your errant finger while it was on the neck of the instrument. It was usually quite a painful experience and… though you might snatch your hand away, you’d better not drop your violin!

I suppose I might have made a fairly decent violinist, ( I often played in the chapel “orchestra” with D’Abreu and a couple of the other music pupils at High Mass and Benedictions ) but unfortunately, going up to Abu at the start of a school year I forgot my violin on the train and lost it. I never got a new one. Mum, totally serious, always said that I had lost this “beautiful Stradivarius” which was irreplaceable. Actually it was an ordinary run-of-the-mill fiddle from M.Rose and Co., the big musical instrument store in Bombay. So ended the career of a budding Yehudi!


My big experience in 1938 was that I had my tonsils taken out in the Military Hospital while we were in Karachi. It was the “big deal” operation for kids in those days. I think some member of the royal family had had the operation and it then seemed to become de rigueur for the “plebs.” As an encore for any students or pretty nurses watching, the ENT surgeon would usually take out your adenoids as well. Thank heavens for adenoids, otherwise who knows what spherically shaped appendages might have been lost in the demonstration of surgical prowess!

About seven or eight army kids were to undergo the operation on the same day. We were taken to the hospital the day before the operation and, early the following day we were transported by army truck to the hospital ; there to sit in a kind of ante-room and wait for our names to be called before going, individually, into the operation theatre. It was one of those alphabetical name-calls and I was to be the last. There were no adults with us.

Time dragged on and, one by one, the kids disappeared into the operating theatre… But they never seemed to come out. Eventually, when I was alone and awaiting my turn, a young British medical orderly came by and I asked him why the kids weren’t coming out.

“Well, ‘ave yer been sitting ‘ere all the time and keeping an eye out?”, he asked.

“Yes, and I am the last one and none of the kids have come out yet. Is it a long operation?

“Naw, it’s not a long operation. Maybe they’re having a bad day in the theatre.” He pronounced it “fee-eter”.

“Why aren’t they coming out? What’s a bad day?”

“Well, son, it’s like this, you see.” He said, kidding me along. “When they are ‘aving a bad day the children sometimes die on the table and so they just “frow” the dead bodies into the garden at the back of the ‘ospital so that jackals and pariah-dogs can ‘ave ‘em for dinner. Maybe, so far today, they ‘ave all died. But don’t let that worry you. It must be good news for you, ‘cause surely they’ll get at least one operation right and that means you’ll be the lucky ‘un.”

I could have crapped myself and, when my turn eventually came, I really wanted to ask the surgeon if he had “accidentally” killed all the others and flung them out for the jackals — I didn’t want to insinuate that he was a bad surgeon, in case he got angry and deliberately killed me off! — However, the theatre staff all looked so terrifying in their white gowns and with masks on their faces, I thought better of it and kept my fingers crossed while I responded to his command.

“Now laddie, climb up onto the table and lie with your hands under your bottom.”

In those days anaesthesia meant chloroform, a really sickening experience. The nurse put a cotton wool mask with two eye-slits on my face. I could peep through the slits and saw a kind of giant tea-strainer, with a bed of cotton wool in it, being held over my face by the surgeon. He held a bottle of chloroform in his other hand and had started to pour the contents into the tea strainer.

“Now laddie, I want you to count after me. One, two, three…”

“Do you want me to keep my eyes open or closed?”, I asked, absolutely petrified but wanting to stay awake and alive.

I heard them all laughing ; the nurses, shrill and frivolous, the surgeon and his male assistant, hoarse and guffawing. I passed out.

When I came around, I was back in the hospital. Mum was by the bed wiping the blood off my mouth. I passed out again and awoke a couple of hours later. Mum had gone home on the instructions of the surgeon, to await further news. The surgeon visited the ward on his rounds a little later and pronounced that I could go home in the evening.

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[1] A male servant.

[2] An ingenious device for carrying food.

[3] A quarter anna.

[4] A boy servant. His usual jobs were to clean the shoes, maintain the bikes and run errands.


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