The change from the relative simplicity of Infant School to the far more structured environment of Junior School was a shock to my system. For one, the building itself was far larger. The long, L shaped corridors, filled with more children that I’d ever imagined existed in the whole world, were daunting for a small girl of seven or eight. Something about the rows of doors made me feel like Alice in Wonderland and I half expected to come upon a white rabbit with a pocket watch or a glass table with a key. Unlike the little Infant School, this had two floors and three sets of stairs, one at each end and a giant staircase at the apex of the L, going up, then dividing into two directions. The classrooms were almost all upstairs, mine at the far end, nearest the back gates of the school.
Nothing at all was the same. The low tables pushed together into little islands I’d become accustomed to were replaced by rows of single wooden desks with hinged lids and inkwells. The friends I’d made so far were mostly in different classes and I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar faces. The teacher, Miss Please, had a name made for jokes but, under her short dark hair was a stern face. Wobetide anyone who accidentally said, ‘please Miss Please,’ or sniggered when someone else did. She barked orders and seemed to take an instant dislike to the round little girl with short, white blonde hair.
In those days a rap on the knuckles for inattention, being pulled from a chair by the pigtails or even a visit to the Headmaster for the cane were quite normal. At the hands of Miss Please I suffered all but the latter, mostly for talking when I should have been listening. No doubt I deserved it and it was no more than I’d have got at home for misbehaving.
Fitting into this new world was made more difficult by Mother, who, stuck somewhere in the 1940’s or 1950’s, insisted on dressing me just as she had dressed Alex almost two decades before. The other little girls ran around the playground in best friend pairs, holding hands, heads together giggling, in Mary Quant style mini skirts and long white socks, while I was dressed in voluminous pleats, well below the knee and my socks were grey to match the skirt. The mothers, waiting at the school gates wore short skirts too, some even wore kinky boots. They had sleek, Vidal Sassoon style hair, or long straight hair held back with stretchy Alice Bands. My giant of a mother, in her floral dresses, well below the knee and hair like the queen stood out.
At the beginning of the flower power era, while the Beatles were in India studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Peace and Love were seemingly breaking out everywhere, I was a bundle of newfound insecurities. Everything conspired to make me feel different and, for the first time, I realised I didn’t quite fit in. Now I see my quirkiness is a virtue and can celebrate being a little odd but then the plump girl in the strange clothes stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the miniature versions of Twiggy. In truth, I was happier on my own reading a book, drawing or, like Mother, crocheting squares to make a multi coloured blanket but I desperately wanted to be like the other girls.
Change was everywhere. Our pounds, shillings and pence were going to be decimalised and new coins began to appear. The five and ten pence coins began life as new versions of the shilling and two shilling, or florin, coins. As the only coins I’d ever had were pennies, tuppenny bits, the occasional golden threepenny piece and, once in a while, a silver sixpence from the tooth fairy, it didn’t make much difference to me. In fact it seemed it would be much easier counting money up in tens than in twelves. The adults though were far more used to the old lsd. If a shilling, worth twelve old pennies, was only going to be worth five pence and a pound was only going to be worth a hundred pence instead of two hundred and forty, they grumbled, things were going to get dearer.
Another change happened right in our classroom. One morning Miss Please announced there was going to be a new boy in class. His name was Hardik and he had brown skin. We were warned most sternly that we shouldn’t mention his brown skin or make fun of him. Until that moment the thought had probably never occurred to any of us, it certainly hadn’t to me, although we’d never seen a child with brown skin before. Nothing was mentioned about where he came from or how he came to be in our little village, things that might have made him exotic, interesting and popular, and the warning mostly served to make us afraid to talk to him in case we might somehow do something wrong and get in trouble. If a little chubby girl with odd clothes and stupidly blonde hair felt out of place, goodness only knows how poor Hardik felt.
One day we were all ushered out into the playground for a school photograph. The whole school sat or stood, along with the teachers and even the headmaster, Mr Fry, while a man with a special camera took a panoramic photograph. We had been warned to sit very still and most of us did. The resulting photo came out in a long roll. Mother didn’t want a picture where I was just a small blonde dot with pigtails sitting cross legged in the front row so she didn’t buy one. My friend Jill was luckier and, thanks to her, I have a copy today, albeit in slices. Oddly, very few of the faces look familiar to me now and I can name just a handful.
Of course the world wasn’t really all peace and love but the violence of the Vietnam War, the shooting of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy barely touched our quiet little village. What we did see came via the evening news and seemed nothing but grainy black and white film, much as the assassination of John F Kennedy had years before. With the exception of Jackie Kennedy becoming Jackie Onassis, the stories that caught my attention, were mostly closer to home. The Beatles new cartoon film, Yellow Submarine was something I longed to see, but with Alex married, trips to the cinema were a rarity and it would be years before I did. Their new record label, Apple, seemed exciting, although I could never have imagined what an influence that particular fruit would have on my later life. Smartphones, computers and iPads were beyond imagination back then when we didn’t even have a phone in our house.
Alex was having another baby, although I had no idea where it was coming from or how except that she would get it from the hospital at some unspecified point in the future. Before it came though, she moved from her little caravan home to a tall tower block on the other side of the city. She lived on the thirteenth floor but Dad hated lifts and insisted and climbing the stairs. It may not have been ideal for a growing family but it was considerably better than a caravan. There was underfloor heating and fitted carpets throuout. A small hallway led down a handful of stairs into a long living room with a narrow kitchen to one side. Oddly, at least to me, the bedrooms and bathroom were downstairs.
Opposite the bedroom door was a fire escape door, leading, I think, through the flat below. The idea of a fire so far from the ground was terrifying. It kept me awake when I stayed there and haunted me, even during the day. When Ronan Point, a twenty three floor tower block in London collapsed after a gas explosion I watched the news in horror. After that I nver really felt safe there. Things were not all bad up in the sky though. The views were wonderful, looking down on little rows of houses and fields where there were sometimes horses. Directly below was a fire station and I would spend hours watching the firemen practice putting out blazes in a special concrete tower beside it.
One news story that did capture my imagination was the Apollo programme. Dad, who would take me outside to look at the stars and tell me the names of the constellations, followed it with interest. We watched riveted, as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon and astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William A. Anders became the first humans to see its dark side. With children’s shows like Thunderbirds and Lost In Space, the idea of going into space seemed as if it might soon become as normal as getting onto one of the cruise ships that regularly left Southampton Docks. In fact, as I’d never been anywhere near a cruise ship, getting into a spaceship and flying to the Moon seemed far more likely.
Towards the end of the year my new nephew was born. When the midwife asked Alex what he was going to be called she said, “Christopher.”
“He’s the fifth Christopher today,” the midwife replied.
“Oh,” said Alex, “then he can be Matthew.”
And so I became an auntie for the second time and now the third youngest in the family instead of the second
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