Friday, 30 March 2012

Me, RE and the boys' school

We move house when I am going into the Sixth Form.  Rather than take a bus to my old school I decide to move schools.  The new school is an all-girls, set in imposing grounds - think I must have been having  Mallory Towers fantasies when I ask to go there.

On the first day of the autumn term we are given our timetables with details of where the lessons will be held.   Against my RE lessons was written  Boys instead of a room number.   Much giggling (this was the usual reaction to the word Boys at the new school  - at the old school if you saw/heard the word Boys you just groaned dismissively and then flicked your hair about in the hope someone would notice you).  I ask for clarification from my new form teacher - where will I find Boys. It turns out that as only two of us want to study RE at A-Level  the school has decided it isn't economical to offer it so we are to take a thrice-weekly cycle ride to the nearest boys' school to join their lessons.  This results in almost universal hysteria in the common room and there is much discussion about changing subjects - RE has never been so popular.

Fran and I cycle wearily to the boys' school - we have little time between the end of English and the start of RE.  We are arrive red faced and probably rather sweaty - but let's not go there - boys in the playground would say things like 'Hot, girls?'  rather than 'Hot girls!' - it was very dispiriting.

Death of Jezebel
The boys in our class consisted of Bob, who is engaged to be married to the Head of RE's daughter (yes, they are both 16).  The daughter is home-schooled, but joins us for RE - the affianced couple sit cosily sharing a bible.  The other three lads won't even look at us - we weren't that repulsive, even if perspiring a little, but girls from our school had a reputation as the local Jezebels (they were probably worried they'd end up like Ahab - dodgy wife, dogs licking blood etc).

Two years of toiling up and down a hill, studying John's Gospel and the Book of Job and not a single party invitation from any of the lads - although we were once asked to a bible-reading weekend.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Me and the perm

As a teenager my hair was dead straight and it made me sad - I wanted wavy tresses to swish around.
Odd that now my hair responds to any moisture by becoming somewhat sheep-like; this morning it dried naturally and it looked like I could join a Peter Frampton tribute band.

Quite a few girls at school had their hair permed into bouncing curls so Mum suggested I should do the same.
Instead of going to a decent hairdresser in town I go to the hairdresser that my Nan goes to (mistake #1) - Nan comes with me and tells the hairdresser what I want (mistake #2).  After hours of sitting with evil-smelling, corrosive gunk on my head the moment of truth arrives.   My head is covered with tight curls (an old lady perm to put it bluntly).  Instead of hair to flick around I look like a cross between Pennywise  and Harpo Marx (just not as appealing).

I rush home, weep, shout and when not weeping/shouting I wash my hair over and over again.   I refuse to go to school until it relaxes a little.  I wear hats and scarves (more Rosie the Riveter than Princess Grace) and put my hair up in a bun - but the crinkliness can not be disguised.  It took a whole year to grow out - a very distressing and never to be repeated experience.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Me and Wild Boy (5): Trilogy (ELP)

The next morning WB stands in the snowy garden wearing only a pair of jeans - no shoes, socks or shirt (one of his typical dramatic gestures that I initially thought amazing and then found really, really sad).  I am inside with his mum and longing to go home.  She says,  'I love my son, but he'll come to nothing. Don't do anything silly - you've got your whole life ahead of you.'

At home I write WB a letter, tell him I don't love him and I don't want to see him again.  It was a lie as I do love him so much that it still makes me almost sick to think about him, but his intensity and lack of control are really frightening and I am only a kid.

After that he occasionally turns up, often late at night, at my house.  Despite disliking him,  my parents insist he stays as they worry he will have an accident on his motorbike. He continues to say that I am the only person who can save him and that he can make me happy - even at that age I know neither is true.  Eventually when I go away to university he drops out of my life and I hear from mutual friends that he has become increasingly dependent on drink and drugs.

He died some years ago, but I think about him nearly every day.

I sometimes hold it half a sin 

To put in words the grief I feel ; 
For words, like Nature, half reveal 

And half conceal the soul within. 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Me and Wild Boy (4): Love Hurts

Wild Boy is expelled from school and goes back home to the Midlands.  His mother invites me to spend New Year with them; I don't want to go, but don't know how to say no.   On arrival I am surprised to find that he lives in a house not unlike mine and that his mum and sister are not unlike my mum and sister.  I think I imagined he either lived in something akin to Blenheim Palace or a crack den - so my months of worrying he'd think me too ordinary were wasted.

It has been arranged that we are going to a New Year's Eve party.  I wear a turquoise cheongsam dress that is so tight I can't bend down to do up my sandals without assistance - I think I look mighty fine (mighty cold actually - it has been snowing and my mottled blue legs tone well with the dress).

The party is at WB's Dad's golf club - the ultimate in middle class, middle-agedness - where has my wanna-be rock god gone?  Dad - all sheepskin coat and flash car - drives us there and Mum stays at home. I am surprised (and a little shocked - I have led a sheltered life) to be introduced to Dad's girlfriend - she is probably no more than 6 or 7 years older than me.

Just before midnight the DJ announces the next song is dedicated to a lucky lady whose boyfriend is intending to propose to her that night.  All the party guests say how romantic and on New Year's Eve too.  The song comes on and it is 'my' song (well, the one WB says is my song - we never agree on music).  I am embarrassed that in front of a crowd of people WB gets down on one knee and asks me to marry him - I say nothing and this is taken as grateful consent.  I am sixteen, scared of him and just want to go home - even if my parents do say 'I told you so'.

His Dad's girlfriend says that I am a lucky girl and if I ever decided I don't want him she'll have him - she proceeds to give him a congratulatory kiss that morphs into her eating his face.  Strangely I just don't care.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Me and Wild Boy (3): Time Bomb

Wild Boy is fun for a while and totally unlike anyone else I know.  But my inner-sensible person comes to the fore as he gets more out of control and unpredictable. For instance we have a difference of opinion about music and he 'punishes' me by lying down in the middle of the Banbury Road (a busy thoroughfare) saying he will stay there until I agree with him.

I tell him I need to concentrate on my school work and I don't want to see him quite as much so he 'borrows' a friend's motorbike and tries to run me over when I get off the school bus - an experience I find both mortifying and ridiculous.

The lowest point comes when he cuts his wrists in my parents' bathroom - fortunately they are out for the afternoon.  He is extremely proud of the resulting scars and insists on showing everyone - saying he had done it for me as if it was some sort of bloody tattoo.

At first my parents and friends are charmed by his good manners and amusing ways, but as time goes on they dislike him and criticise him to me all the time.  But their dislike means I can tell no one what is happening or how I feel as I am too ashamed.  So what do I do?  I do nothing.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Me and Wild Boy (2): Teenage Kicks

Wild Boy (WB hereafter) drinks heavily, smokes constantly, wears make up and wants to be a rock star  - he, of course, sings in a band - what's not to like. I am initially dazzled by him; he is funny, outrageous and has the most beautiful eyes, but I worry that he will think me suburban and dull.

I become increasingly caught up in his bad behaviour.  One Saturday afternoon I watch while he and his rich friends shoplift; once I realise what they are doing I decide to go home.  WB chases after me shouting that I have shown him up, disrespected his friends and I should apologise to them.  Instead I punch him in the face - it was meant to be a slap, but I forget to unfold my fist and give him a nose bleed. Instead of being angry he thinks this is hilarious, and writes on his blood-stained t-shirt 'My girlfriend did this to me' with an arrow pointing upwards (I think he probably nicked the pen).

At a party he asks me if I trust him.  I, of course, say yes.  He says will I let him and his friends lower me from a first floor window as it will be fun.  I agree until my arms feel like they will be ripped from their sockets and beg him to get me up.  His best friend, who I realise now was in love with him, tells him not to be soft.  WB insist they pull me up and I fall into the room crying with fright and pain.  He comforts me saying I should have trusted him and that he would never let anything bad happen to me.
Why don't I realise that he is the bad thing happening to me?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Me and Wild Boy (1): Ever Fallen in Love With Someone...

I wrote the following five stories over six months ago, but have hesitated about posting them as they are quite personal, but in the spirit of portraying my teenage years honestly I'm going for it.  Afraid you won't find much humour in them.

I go to a party and meet a boy who is wearing more make up then me. We bond over nail varnish - he admires my toe nails which are painted red with white dots to match my t-shirt.  I admire his black varnished nails and we discuss the merits of various brands of mascara.  After ten minutes we decide we are made for each other and arrange to go to a deeply inappropriate film featuring lots of sex and violence.

He arrives at the cinema with a bottle of whisky, packets of fags and a plastic bag of what look like aspirins; all of which he promptly offers to me.  I say no thanks - I hate whisky, have never smoked and don't have a headache - he partakes of all of them and is off his head for most of the film.

I think I have fallen in love.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Me and the Deputy Head's slipper

It is my first week at secondary school - I am terrified, but determined to make friends as soon as possible to avoid social ruin.  A few girls in my form meet at lunchtime and decide to form a 'gang' (too many Enid Blyton books rather than the viewing of violent films).  We decide to call ourselves 'The Naughty Gang' - given that we become the swottiest girls in the year I can't help feeling a little melancholy when I think what might have been.

 Like all gangs we need an initiation ceremony - we dismiss killing people, drinking buckets of blood or chopping off digits as a little excessive and go for something uniquely our own - we would be dragged through rose bushes.  You might think this sounds a bit soft - not only did we have to deal with thorns, but the flower bed is directly outside the Deputy Head's office window.

The Deputy Head is a very scary woman with unnaturally black hair and an intimidating pair of horn-rimmed glasses - she carries a slipper for whacking bad girls (it was actually a black plimsoll - not one of those furry things - that would be silly).

I am dragging my friend Holly through the bushes: she obviously likes it as she is shrieking like a banshee.  Suddenly the window opens; Slipper Woman takes one look at us and calls us in.  Three whacks of the slipper each on the back of the leg and then we are told by the Basilisk that we have made a very bad beginning to our school careers, that she will be watching us closely as we are likely to become a bad influence on other children.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Me and the purse-belt rebellion

There were only so many ways that school uniform could be customised - sophisticated girls wore American  tan tights (any other colour was strictly verboten) and rebels wore black pullovers rather than the regulation grey.  We were frequently lectured about the importance of maintaining a good uniform (honour of the school,  not looking like slappers) and there were regular uniform inspections with dire consequences if found wanting.

Some bright spark suggested we should wear the correct elements of the uniform, but mix things up a bit (I bet she became a lawyer).  So one Friday at break time,  along with most of the girls in Year 8,  I took off my tie and fastened  it around my waist.  Then the particularly ugly grey purse-belts we wore around our waists were worn as necklaces.  We all wander around the school giggling like idiots and feel quite secure as there was safety in numbers as Slipper Woman couldn't whack  all the girls in our year.

My hero
Our insurrection did not go unnoticed - we were summonded to the hall and the deputy head asked the instigator to stand up to save the rest of us from punishment.

I would like to say that we re-enacted the famous scene from Spartacus and that girl after girl stood up to say 'I am the purse-belt rebel'.  (Isn't Kirk Douglas lovely in that scene, a little bedraggled and dusty, but that manly tear so makes up for his lack of grooming.  Not so keen on the pants, but suppose slaves couldn't be picky).

Back to the hall - no one owned up so we all had a lunchtime detention.  Uniform rules were rewritten to specify what part of the body a particular item could adorn.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Me, the Boyfriend and how I finally crack maths

I go to University and do not give maths a thought for two and a half years.  But then in my final year the job market rears its ugly head and with it my appalling lack of mathematical qualifications.

I complain to my boyfriend that loads of idiots can do maths - why not me?  Boyfriend sees me as the ultimate mathematical challenge and says he will teach me.

Our maths sessions go something like this:
Me (frowning) - But why do you have to do the same thing on both sides - it doesn't make sense?
Him (sighing) - Of course it makes sense - just get on with it.
Me (hair swishing) - Why is maths so boring?
Him (wincing) - Maths is beautiful.
Me (extreme hair swishing with some pouting) - Shall we go and have a drink?  Maths makes me thirsty for alcohol - do you think many mathematicians become alcoholics?
Him (through gritted teeth)  - Please, please stop talking for ten minutes.  Oh for God's sake - even just one minute - please, I beg you.
Me (cheerily) - Sounds like you need a drink - I'll go and get my coat.

Six (very, very, very long) months later - the day after my finals - I go back to my old school to take the maths exam along with a roomful of clever-looking 16 year olds (how I hate them all).

August, the letter comes - I have passed.  I am delighted for about 10 minutes, have a lot to drink to celebrate, burst in to tears and promptly forget how to do percentages.  Boyfriend heaves giant sigh of relief that this is the end of his mathematical involvement with me - well, that is what he thought at the time - even now I email him if I get stuck on a particularly tricky percentage...

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Me, maths and Rhett Butler

Strangely I am put in the top class for maths at secondary school - either a case of mistaken identity or someone with a twisted sense of humour?  It seems to have escaped my teachers that maths has escaped me - but there was no hiding it when it came to public exams at 16.

The exams are a bit of a chore, but the best thing is that when we have finished a paper we are allowed to give it in and then sit quietly reading a book.  I am reading 'Gone with the Wind' and am obsessed with Rhett Butler (who in my imagination looks nothing like Clark Gable - I was utterly traumatised when I saw the film - much too smooth - no five o'clock shadow - anyway enough of my fevered imaginings...).

On the day of the maths exam I have got to a good bit in the book and can't wait to get back to Rhett.
'Oh Rhett,' - I'm saying that in my fluttery Scarlett O'Hara voice  - 'Oh Rhett, you are such a bad man!'  - these aren't Scarlett's actual words for any purists - just my interpretation of what she should have said, then they'd have got together quite a bit earlier.  Actually this talking to characters from books is becoming quite addictive - must do it more often - definitely Captain Wentworth next.  Slight dilemma do I stick to calling him Captain Wentworth or Frederick - don't want to be thought forward?

Anyway I speed through the simultaneous equations as the siren call of Mr Butler tempts me from the path of righteousness (Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn - sorry, so couldn't resist that).

When the results appeared in August it was not surprisingly that I have failed maths (so you don't think I am utterly sad I have to assure you that Rhett didn't have a negative effect on my other exams - my inner swot won out against the lure of literature).

I retake the exam twice in the Lower Sixth to no avail.  In desperation I am sent to a private tutor who happens to live in Christ Church - one of the Oxford colleges.  I am not thrilled to spend sunny afternoons doing maths, but I am thrilled to find out that the room where I sit was lived in by the Liddell family (Alice 'in Wonderland' Liddell).  Also that Lewis Carroll possibly sat on the same chair as me (not at the same time -that would have been creepy).  Oddly enough Carroll's academic field was mathematics - this confirming (to me anyway)  the rumours that there was something dubious about him.  I spend a fair bit of time talking to my tutor about Carroll - it is very interesting, the maths less so.

Inevitably I fail again.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Me and the Bishop

The Rector asked who would like to be confirmed by the Bishop of Oxford.  I wasn't sure what this entailed, but he mentioned that we would need new dresses. That was all it took to bring me to religion - if he had mentioned shoes I would probably be a member of a closed order of nuns by now or perhaps an anchoress - a modern Julian of Norwich.

Confirmation lessons were surprisingly interesting - knowing so little about religion there was always something to surprise me - it was like some amazing soap opera with funny names.  The best bit came after the lesson when Mrs Rector used to make us hot chocolate and biscuits, then the Rector would turn off most of the lights and tell us ghost stories.

Confirmation day came and I put on my new dress (navy blue with a white sailor collar decorated with a couple of red anchors - I can see it now) - suspect the shoes weren't so good as I have no memories of them.  We get to church to find tens of small girls all dressed up as Barbie bride in flouncy white numbers with veils (sorry - again no recollection of what the boys wore).

I don't have a veil and am in a panic.  Mum, although not an experienced confirmation attendee, was not to be defeated - she attaches my baby sister's muslin cloth (i.e. the cloth for wiping baby puke - let's not beat around the bush) to my head.

I'm sure the Bishop winced when he came to bless me - it may have been the matelot outfit or the delicate aroma of  vomit issuing from my hair.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Me and maths

My brain isn't designed to do maths (or to use DVD players, drive cars, change light bulbs or set up computers i.e. basically anything I can persuade someone else to do as they do it so well...)

I became aware of my mathematical shortcomings when fairly young.  At primary school we had a maths test every Monday morning.  I didn't mind the test itself as it gave me uninterrupted time to think about books or food , but I hated it when we went through the answers.   The headmaster (who taught the top class) would read out the question - something like 'If it takes 20 men 50 years to fill a bath containing 45 gallons with a tooth mug how many months will it take a old man armed with an egg cup' or some such nonsense.  He would then look a round for the child least likely to know and then demand an answer.

I grew wise to this and just before 'answers' I would put up my hand and ask if I could go to the lavatory.  I would then hang around in the lav making origami animals out of paper towels until I heard the lunch bell ringing and then reappear in time for goulash and jam roly-poly.

I probably got away with this for about six months before the HM asked my Mum if there was something wrong with my bowels.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Nan and the guinea pigs

One day Nan produces a cardboard box saying she has a surprise for us.  My parents exchange anxious looks.  Inside is a heap of straw that moves as if something is going to erupt from it (think John Hurt's chest in Alien).  Nan parts the straw to reveal a small furry bundle: a guinea pig.  Orange and white with black button-eyes and wiggling furiously.
'Cousin Doreen's got an Alsatian,' she says as if this explains everything.  The box fortunately was not big enough to contain an Alsatian - even a puppy.
'He eats anything that moves so I said I'd find a good home for this little chap'.
Mum and Dad don't want a  guinea pig, but know when they have met an immovable force.  The guinea pig is christened Peachy - another top-class animal name from me (Just as well I never became a racehorse namer or one of those people who think up paint names - Farrow and Ball would have gone out of business).
The straw continues to churn.
'Well, if you are going to have the big one,  you'll have to have the small one.'   Nan reaches in and pulls out a tiny guinea pig - this one is black and brown with a little caramel sprinkle.  He is covered in tufts of hair, not smooth like the other one.  Inevitably I decide to call him Tufty.

Nan puts Peachy and Tufty down to play on the floor.  Peachy zips around, but Tufty lurches drunkenly.
'He's a bit lop-sided,' says Dad, picking him up. 'Oh he's only got three legs.'

'Yes'  I know,' says Nan as if three-legged pets are nothing out of the ordinary. ' That's why I was telling you about Doreen's Alsatian, he bit the leg off poor little Tufty - so I couldn't leave them there could I?'

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

me and the school tuck shop

At primary school during morning break nearly all the children would descend on the tuck shop (there were no more than 90 of us from age five to eleven).  We were allowed to go out of the side door of the school and into the headmaster's garden, through the garden, minding not to step on the plants or his wife would get cross, and then down the lane to the village shop.

The shop, which doubled as a post office,was tiny and we were only allowed in three at a time.  The elderly woman who ran it didn't like time wasters and would start shouting if we took too long deciding (no suggestion of the customer always being right).  I would often start planning my purchases on the way to school or even in bed the night before.  The enticing glass jars I hold responsible for my imperfect gnashers.    My favourites were sherbet dabs - always discard that rather medicinal liquorice stick (they look alarming like leeches) and use the finger,  That way the flavour could be savoured all day and at story time you had the comfort of the wrinkled yellow finger to suck if bored.  Other favourites were flying saucers - sherbet again, rainbow drops, black cat chews and fruit salad chews, Love hearts were good .  Liquorice  shoe laces - red or black - tasted vile, but were useful for garroting people or tying their hand together (we played a lot of kiss-chase at primary school and the boys weren't always compliant so restraints were necessary).

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Me and Dad's razor

Before or after?
Strange how something as natural as female body hair is now something women are told they should be ashamed of.  I'm concerned that we are in danger of creating a generation of John Ruskins and that when the full bush makes a comeback (as it surely will - think the modern obsession with vintage) all these young men will be traumatised and have to undergo graduated exposure therapy.

The fair-haired tend not to be very furry, but as teen I realised that even blonde hair on legs was thought unacceptable - someone stroked my leg (uninvited I should stress) and said that my leg felt like his guinea pig (hope he meant one of those smooth ones, not the tufty type).  Now I love guinea pigs, but I don't think  it was a compliment.  So I borrowed my dad's razor (to both his horror and disgust), shaved my legs and managed to gash the back of my thigh open (scar still there) - the bathroom looked like something from Psycho.  But the said legs did feel rather nice - once the scabs had gone.

Having got the hang of the razor (despite dad's protests - and when have I ever taken notice of them?)  I decide that my eyebrows are grotesque (blonde version of Frieda Kahlo crossed with Breshnev) and need some attention.  There are no tweezers in the house (we didn't have a phone - we're hardly likely to have tweezers), so I take the heavy razor and apply to my left brow - that goes quite well.  I then apply steel (or whatever razor blades are made from) to the right brow, the razor slips and removes half my eyebrow - unfortunately not the outside bit which could easily be hidden.

In despair I inspect my denuded brow - it looks a bit like a baby mouse, pink, naked and vulnerable.  There is no such thing as an eyebrow pencil in our house (Mum being dark and not having need of such things) so I fetch a felt pen and try that - I look a bit like Bette Davis, scrub it off (funny how brown felt pens leave a blue after-stain - chromatography I vagely remember explains this).  So the glowing naked brow is now bright pink with a blue aura.

Disguising it is going to be difficult - I don't have a fringe, just a floppy sheet of hair that will not cover the nude brow.  The hair stays in place if I hold it in my mouth - sadly not practical in the long run.   So I adopt a very low parting - female version of the comb-over.  I think it is hidden quite well, but immediately I go downstairs Mum asks where my eyebrow is, Dad inspects me, looks a bit cross and says, 'In my razor - I expect'.

I would like to say the eyebrow grew back, but sadly it is still patchy.  Perhaps this should serve as a lesson for anyone shaving their punani - be warned it may not grow back  (possibly safer to stick to waxing) - then when fashion changes you'll face a lifetime of wearing merkins.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Me and when I'm not allowed to have a good time

I have a role in a school play as a Sultana (wife of Sultan rather than wrinkled currant-type thing) - don't ask as I remember very little about my Thespian experience.  My 'Sultan' is from the year above – not typical passion material as he is very keen on physics, but he makes me laugh like a drain, steals my pencil case and  spends a lot of time pushing me off chairs (such are the inexplicable courtship rituals of the young). 

Term ends and I am parted from this fascinating creature.  Living in the countryside is a bit of a pain as we don't live in the same village and transport is limited.  He can not phone me, as for some reason, my parents don’t have a telephone (we also have a black and white TV unlike everyone else I know).

One day Mum holds up a crinkly envelope and says, 'Who is writing to you?'  
I wonder if it might be an answer from the agony aunt in my ‘teen’ magazine giving advice on how to stop your mother steaming open your letters?  But no, it is from Jerry inviting me to a gathering at his house which I am informed is ‘in aid of nothing, but having a good time’.

Sounds good to me, but Mum obviously doesn’t want me to have a good time and strictly forbids me from going. Her main reason being that she knows just what 'having a good time' means - I find this very hard to believe. (She may have had a point - I was probably about thirteen or fourteen).

I am distraught, slam doors and sulk.  I phone Jerry from the phone box and announce I am not allowed to  ‘have a good time.’  He comforts me saying that it won't be long before school starts again and we can see each other.  I am not comforted - this is a tragedy of epic proportions.

I sit at home that Saturday night glaring, but as Mum and Dad had gone to the pub my glares were wasted on them.  I then look mournfully out of the bathroom window in the direction of Jerry’s house and concentrate really hard on making him think about me and hope he isn't having a good time.

Eventually the Autumn term starts.  I return to school sporting that fetching combination of knee-length grey woolly socks, a skirt that should be on the knee but is rolled up revealing lots of mottled thigh.  I suspect it was accessorized with a slightly too short fringe - Mum would have been busy with the nail scissors the night before.

I go into the classroom where Jerry can usually be found and find him sitting on one of the huge cast-iron radiators that heat the school.  Sadly he is not alone; he is snogging (I will not dignify his actions with anything as delicate as kissing) a girl called Susie from the year above him.   Such public displays of affection are rarely seen at school (or in the hours of daylight in Oxfordshire).  I am not amused, actually I am furious - all those evenings of thought transference wasted when I could have been watching TV.

I decide to play it cool - in my dreams.  I get very red in the face and shout at them, ‘You'll get piles!'
I am then mocked, for the rest of the term by the boys in his year, as the girl who thinks that (what can I safely write here?) ‘physical congress’ gives you piles.  It didn’t matter how often I repeated ‘cast iron radiator’ they still laugh.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Me and sex education: boy in the bath

For  Фома́

When this takes place my son is five, he sits in the bath while I read Thomas the Tank Engine to him - I curse the Rev Awdry on a daily basis.  Suddenly he (Son, not Awdry) turns to me and asked,  'Muma, where do babies come from?'

I am not prepared for this, I break out in a sweat and start to hyperventilate.  This is an important, if premature moment.   I  make him play with dolls and watch Disney princess films - he is to be a new man - women in the future will thank me.  No, don't get excited - let me just say that my experience had shown that nature beats nurture hands-down.

I have always said I wouldn't lie to him - how easy to say this when your baby can't talk and ask awkward questions - Dutch courage is called for. I tell him to sit still, not to touch the taps and that I will be back in thirty seconds.
A pair of penetrating blue eyes judge me as he tells me I'm not allowed to leave him alone in the bath, in case he drowns and that Alfie's mother (thanks Shirley Hughes) would stay and read about Thomas.

Little prig - I think disloyally.

I run down to the kitchen and had a quick glug of neat gin (mother's ruin? No, more like mother's rescue remedy).  Run back upstairs and sit outside the bathroom where I can see him, but he can't see me. How to start -  birds, bees, hamsters?  Play-dough models - oh God -  should I do diagrams, what about Lego - he loves Lego?

'Muma, where are you?'
Damn, where is his father when you need him - this is man's work?  I take a deep breath and go in to the bathroom; the gin is being to work - I'm beginning to feel slightly less tense.
'You know you were asking about where babies come from?'

No , I can't do it.  Perhaps I should wait until he's older - keep it on a strictly need-to-know basis - the full horror of this thought hits me, perhaps after all five isn't such a bad age for sex education.
'Now about babies...', my voice is strange and wobbly.
'Mama, who do you like best - Gordon or Henry or do you like Annie and Clarabel because you are a girl?'
My lovely boy with a memory akin to a goldfish.

Thomas the Tank Engine I embrace you (not literally - there are limits, although I believe there are women who fall in love with inanimate objects) and am sorry for all the rude things I usually say about you.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

I get religion

My religious mania was encouraged at school - a Church of England primary - if not at home.  The Rector came every Friday, taught RE and then played football with us in his long black dress.  The whole school - all ninety of us - went to church for all the major festivals.  I loved harvest festival, all the food piled up before the altar - this being a farming community there was not a packet of pasta or tin of baked beans to be seen, but great baskets of colourful fruit and vegetables and who could not like bellowing 'We Plough the Fields and Scatter' - bliss.   But Ash Wednesday was probably my favourite because I liked having the cross marked on my forehead - don't ask me why -  I suspect it was just another chance to show off.   By the time we got back to school most of the cross would have worn away so we'd spend all afternoon rubbing pencils on hard surfaces - the desks were ancient and had metal ink wells with brass covers so we could re-anoint ourselves.  If  the pencils had been lead I expect we'd have all been poisoned - not sure if there is such a thing as graphite poisoning. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Me and Church

There is a girl at primary school who is picked on more than me.  I am an outsider, my mum is not well and so I am an easy target; but surprisingly Bess is from one of the old village families.  The reason she is picked on is that her family are poor, her four much older siblings all live at home and she shares her parent's bedroom; in her innocence Bess told someone and this makes her a pariah.   Inevitably, as isolated children, we become friends.  Bess goes to church every Sunday on her own and I am invited to accompany her.  My parents see this as a definite sign of eccentricity - religion playing no part in our family life - but agree I should go as I imagine it gives them a few hours of peace and quiet.

The church isn't actually in our village, but in a little hamlet just ten minutes away.  You can get there either by walking along the main road, risking death by crossing on the blind corner or you can walk along the disused railway line.  Then up the lane that led to home farm, a manor house with an octagonal folly and the church.The churchyard was dark and gloomy, worn gravestones surrounded by trees and yew hedges - it was absolutely terrifying and Bess and I made the best of it by scaring each other silly.

 The Rector (who ministered to three or four churches) was a lovely man and was always welcoming.  Church was never full; there would be the Rector, me, Bess, the local doctor and his daughter - who played the organ and a few elderly ladies.  The service seemed to go on for hours; a long sermon and a short one, lots of hymns (the best bit in my opinion - especially 'Praise my Soul the King of Heaven' -).

My devotion to the church continued for some years and I went through a stage of telling people I wanted to be a nun - this may either have been influenced by 'Black Narcissus' - could never decide if I wanted to be Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr - I salute you) or crazy Sister Ruth (amazing hair as well) or it might even have been The Sound of Music.   Occasionally Bess and I slipped from our spiritual path; greed getting the better of us we would spend our collection money on  sweets and then couldn't go to church empty handed.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Me and sex education: books

In our sitting room was a bookcase with a number of books placed spine down.  As a voracious reader no book escaped me; so at at youngish age I devoured 'Giovanni's Room', 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'  and 'Fanny Hill' which I found interesting, if a little confusing.

Then one day I went back to basics when I found a book by Claire Rayner, 'Sex Education for Girls' or some such.  The pictures left a lot to be desired and filled me with a certain amount of concern as no one in my family looked like that with their clothes off - how many children have been traumatised by black and white line drawings?  But Claire was a nurse (it said so on the back) so she obviously knew what she was talking about and perhaps D. H Lawrence didn't?.

About six months later Mum said that she would tell me where babies came from - I didn't like to tell her that I had a pretty good idea from my extensive reading of our equivalent of the British Library Private Case, from kids at school and not withstanding that my bedroom window overlooked a field full of cows and the occasional bull.  She produced the Claire Rayner book, said we would read it together and learn where babies came from.  I felt it only polite to pretend I hadn't read the book before and whenever she got embarrassed I'd try and help out by asking her leading questions being careful that I didn't bring in the activities of Fanny, Constance or David.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Me and the wedding

One of my aunts is getting married and I am going to be the smallest bridesmaid - I'm probably about seven.  I have vague memories of the day - a sweet mauve dress made out of some shiny self-patterned fabric, being given a silver bangle by the groom, deciding that I will entertain all the guests with a ballet dance and then, after about thirty minutes, getting cross when I am moved from the dance floor so the happy couple can have the traditional first dance.

There is a buffet-supper; I am allowed to go and help myself - although Nan-next-door says I must eat everything I take - waste not being permissible (also she and Grampy are paying so I expects she wants her money's-worth).  I milk the situation by making numerous trips to collect a single items of food, a slice of ham - eat that, then back for a bread roll, eat that and then back for a single tomato and so on - good excuse for swishing around in my nice dress.

Then the best bit - pudding.  This is a dodgy-looking fruit salad - too many pears and not enough peaches for my taste, but never mind,  I spot a bowl of cold pale yellow custard - so much nicer than cream.  I wonder why formerly hot food tastes so much nicer cold?  Pizza, tepid roast potatoes and toast left in the toaster for 15 minutes until it is nice and crisp - delicious.

Back at the wedding - I liberally (actually - replace that with greedily) spoon custard over the miserable fruit salad and plod back to the table (all those trips to get food and the ballet dancing are taking their toll). Unfortunately the bowl did not contain custard, but salad cream (I do not mean mayonnaise  - which would have been more palatable, if a little strange), but sharp and vinegary salad cream.  I am mortified at my mistake and do not tell anyone.  Instead, taking Nan's words to heart, I plough my way through the fruit salad and salad cream -a  very nasty combination.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Me and how I lost my sense of humour

I inherit my friend Lucy's boyfriend Piers when she moves on to someone else.  I am in ecstasy - I've had a secret crush on him for ages;  actually it probably wasn't such a secret as I am one of life's blushers and he may have noticed my rapid change of colour whenever he appears.  He has dark hair, crinkly eyes and a thin top lip that I find both strangely repulsing and enticing at the same time.  The only fault I can find with him is that he is very attached to his tambourine and carries it around at all times - he is musical so I suppose this eccentricity can be forgiven, but in retrospect I can't decide if he was more Liam Gallagher or Linda McCartney

To be honest, although delighted to be the Chosen One,  I feel that Piers is totally out of my league and can't understand why I am honoured with his attentions. He says he likes me because I am funny and make him laugh (Note to those looking for lurve - it is OK to tell a woman she is funny, but start with something a little more romantic - it will be appreciated). This is not what I want him to say, but I decide to work on improving my traditional girlfriend qualities.

One Saturday afternoon we go back to his school (he is a boarder).  His study is full of lads who have been invited to meet me (great - a mass inspection - just what a girl needs for a confidence boost).
Piers says: 'Come on Renka - say something funny.  I've told everyone you're the funniest girl I've ever gone out with'  (See what I mean - that 'funniest girl' doesn't have the same ring as 'nicest', 'sexiest', 'loveliest' does it?)
This, I feel, also says a fair amount about his former girlfriends (and him) as I am not exactly Dorothy Parker, more Lady Penelope's Parker.

I'm not saying I'm Scheherazade -but I'm beginning to see how she must have felt - performing to order.  Achieving the ultimate prize isn't exactly what I thought it would be and has a detrimental effect on my sense of humour. When I'm with Piers I can hardly speak, my throat constricts and my tongue turns to cardboard;  I feel undeserving and hence can think of nothing to say.  After a few weeks of this he dumps me (kindly - as he is a nice person); initially devastated I survive and decide to seek boyfriends who can make me  laugh.

I was reminded of this episode when rummaging through my jewellery box recently and came across the silver charm bracelet I always wore as a teenager.  Inside the miniature Aladdin's lamp was a piece of cotton from one of his shirts, it had got snagged on my bracelet and I had kept it like a piece of some saint's thigh bone in a tiny religious reliquary.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Nan-next-door and the dentist

Nan-next-door didn’t really have much time for dental hygiene.  Living with her I remember eating lots of biscuits, but never being told to brush my teeth.  Fortunately when I went home at weekends Mum had a rigorous approach to teeth and drummed it in to me  that I had to take responsibility for brushing at least twice a day as the grandparents couldn't be trusted.  When I reported back and was seen to act on these instructions Nan-next-door would snort, ‘Modern nonsense – we didn’t brush our teeth when I was your age and what harm did it do us?’  Nan seemed unable to connect this lack of attention with the fact that most of her generation had false teeth from the age of thirty.

Eventually I needed to be taken to the dentist as one of my milk teeth was painful - I am probably about six or seven - those malted milk biscuits have taken their toll.  The dentist operated out of his house which stood on the main A40 into the city.  Whenever I pass it now I have a little shiver  - it remains the same: gloomy, with brown pebble-dash and dark green painted woodwork - it could easily act as a location for a horror film - Silence of the Lambs or some such.

The dentist decides I need the tooth out and because I am so scared he is going to put me to sleep (temporarily - it isn't that bad).  He puts the rather nasty, smelly mask over my face; unwisely he has his finger between the mask and my mouth and gives my sore tooth a prod.  Not liking this treatment I decide to bite him.  I bite, he screams and drops the mask,  I cry,  he slaps me and then slaps me again for good measure.  Nan-next-door rushes in to see what is going on and why the poppet (this is what I am called by the family - simper, simper) is wailing.  She is furious that he has slapped me and completely indifferent to the fact that I have almost severed one of his fingers and there is blood running down his arm.  She shouts at him using what I know, even then, are bad words. We are told to leave and never to return.  Back home Nan-next-door gives me sweets to comfort me.

My tooth still hurts, but Grampy loops a length of thread around it and then ties the other end to a door handle, slams the door shut and, hey presto, out comes my tooth, ready to be put under my pillow for the tooth fairy.

Now when I go to the dentist I have to try really hard not to think of this story as I am worried that one day I’ll do some more biting.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Me and the school library

At primary school I was known (probably also pitied) as the only child who had read every book in the school library (oh yes, my destiny was calling).  Actually it wasn't true, but the headmaster put it on my reference for secondary school and in my final report. I suspect he just wanted to prove that one of his pupils could read.  Education wasn't high on his list of priorities, but we did an awful lot of sport.  Mostly football or running up and down the playground - yelling loudly.  The latter came to an abrupt end when a boy ran so fast (the playground was on a wicked slope -- like Yeovil Town's old pitch)  that he punched his arm through the dining room window and a tourniquet had to be applied by one of the dinner ladies.

Anyway back to the library.  The library consisted of about 300 or 400 books and I vowed I would read everyone of them - goodness knows why - for attention I suspect. 
The books in the school library were largely ancient hardbacks that sat mouldering in a corner waiting for someone to love them.  Lovely 'Little Grey Men' by BB - all about gnomes and nature and, of course,  that seminal work 'The Secret Garden' with fierce Mary Lennox, feeble Colin and Dickon.
There were also lots of school stories, mainly set in girls' boarding schools,  where everyone was called by their surname.  One in particular sticks in my mine, about a family of very plain girls - their faces are described as being like dinner plates -  called Kibble.  At the beginning of the story the Kibbles are just known for being dull and virtuous, but by the end they have saved the school, the true worth of the plain woman is finally appreciated, the glamorous, but unworthy headgirl has been replaced and all is well with the world - 'Hurrah for the Kibbles!'. Sadly complete fantasy - let's face it we plain girls are just not going to get to rule the world.  These books made Mallory Towers (Darrell Rivers - how I loved you and wanted to be your 'bosom chum' - you were the k.d. lang of my pre-teen years) and St Clare's seem very contemporary.  They always wore gymslips which sounded very appealing - I imagine they were something like a floaty nightie  - perhaps made of pale pink or duck egg blue silk with a coffee-coloured trim?  It was a disappointemtn to find they were what we called school pinafores.

Other titles of note included 'The Swish of the Curtain' by Pamela Brown - about some teenagers who start a thetare company - this fueled an acting bug and a book about a girl called Mary who did something with a bible in Wales - can't remember what - but I so wanted to be her (may have been nothing more than a shallow desire to wear one of those red cloaks and a tall black hat).

I loved these books - their very physical nature: heavy and substantial,  thick cream paper  with brown freckles and  covers that would get all gummy when you read them in the bath.  They were good to sniff, musty and a little mouldy, like the smell of green canal water.

A somewhat melancholy link with the past weree the inscriptions inside the books  'To Sylvia, Happy Christmas 1932,  Love Mother and Father' or 'To Bobbity, for being such a good sort, from your pal Ruggles' .  The bookplates recording some child's proudest achievements: books for good conduct, for doing well in algebra, in parsing, in bible studies, for deportment.  Occasionaly you would find some long-forgotten bookmark and feel a fleeting connection with a human being you would never know. Books, lovely books.