Sunday, 4 August 2013

Should auld acquaintance be forgot...

Over the crest of the hill, and here’s the village: the garage on the right, next to the social club where my father arrived to collect me from my first dance at 10 pm (oh, the shame); further down the road, the small hotel where I got my first holiday job as washer-up and later, less successfully, waitress. (‘She’s probably tired,’ I once overheard a kindly woman murmur.) Turning left through the tall gates, I pass the lodge where my family lived while my father was bursar at the school; shortly before he moved to another job in the Midlands, I joined the sixth-form as a boarder. Here’s the first bend in the drive where my friends and I would hide in the bushes, waiting for the taxi to take us off on illicit pub crawls.
Another bend and the school itself lies before me, drowsing in the sun: still beautiful, though inevitably smaller than I remember, and so quiet! Cows graze in the overgrown fields where we used to watch the boys playing rugby in the bitter autumn wind, or cricket under a blazing sun (the weather being always seasonally appropriate in my memory), and where I tried to keep well away from the action during mixed hockey. The groundsmen who once kept the turf immaculate must all be dead by now – and so is my father, who would patrol these grounds with an eagle eye. The entire school budget was controlled from his nerve centre of an office, its walls covered with complicated charts in those unimaginable pre-computer days.

A long-forgotten memory re-surfaces: I’m walking across the field when I feel an urge to see how far I can hurl one of my clogs into the air with my foot. The next second I’m gazing up at the sky, winded, but wanting to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, having overbalanced and fallen flat on my back. Now I’m lying on the same patch of ground, staring up into the same blue sky as I call my husband on a mobile phone to say that I’ve safely arrived. Somehow I’ve become an adult, too sensible to hurl my footwear about for no apparent reason, and I’m back here to spend the weekend with seven of the girls (sorry, women) who were at school with me, forty years ago.

There were twelve of us starting together at this boys’ public school which had recently started taking girls in the sixth form; we were the second year’s intake. No longer a school, the sprawling Victorian estate has recently been split into separate properties, renovated and sold to private individuals. Everything has been turned into accommodation, including the sports pavilion, the bothy where the kitchen staff once lived and quite possibly the chapel, too. New red-brick houses are being built in the lovely old walled garden where the shooting range used to be. The cottage we are renting for this weekend’s magical memory tour might have once been a housemaster’s quarters, classrooms perhaps, or maybe a boys’ common room. Nobody can quite remember.

We’re all a little shell-shocked, to be honest, gazing round the courtyard (was there a fountain in our day?) as we try to place these strangely familiar landmarks within the hazy landscape of the past. Only one of us can locate the girls’ cloakroom, where apparently there used to be toilets and lockers for our bags (this is a blank to me), and the walled garden holds more significance for some (the smokers) than others. We want to sneak into the main building to find out whether the stuffed birds in their glass cases, the vast marble staircase and the mosaic floors are still there, but despite bumping into the man who owns this part of the house and dropping heavy hints, it remains closed to us. Perhaps it’s just as well; there’s only so much reminiscence one can take. Today, flowery curtains flutter at the window of the sanatorium while picnic tables and garden umbrellas stretch along the terrace. I remember an outdoor religious studies lesson being interrupted one sunny afternoon by a white horse galloping down that same terrace and leaping over a stone wall before our startled eyes; a surreal experience even at the time.

What else? French lessons in the clock tower spent listening to Edith Piaf records – our teacher being a bon viveur who, according to legend, would ride his motorbike down the school corridor after particularly indulgent evenings. Academic results weren’t distinguished in my day but we all have a fund of stories. Wasn’t there a boy who’d spend hours floating on his back out in the bay, reading rag mags, and once convinced a boatload of day trippers that he was French and had lost his way while swimming the Channel? The school was an anarchic sort of place, the perfect breeding ground for eccentrics.       

So many memories are tinged with a glamour that, beyond mere nostalgia, comes from the atmosphere of the estate itself and its extraordinary setting, perched above the Undercliff: a land-slip, time-slip, sub-tropical world of tangled tree canopy overhead and dense undergrowth below, home to acres of bluebells in spring and adders sliding along secret paths in summer. We would scramble through it in flip flops on our way down to the beach, with only the help of a rope to scale the sheerest part of the cliff. (Did I really do that?) There didn’t seem to be much supervision, especially not at weekends when, having returned to school from Friday-afternoon community service with our bags weighed down by bottles of gin, whisky and Tia Maria, we would disappear to various distant corners of the grounds to drink and smoke and try to have fun – or, more often than not, languish in the girls’ boarding house to the mournful strains of Harry Nilsson. (‘Can’t live if living is without you,’ takes us all right back there, we decide as we replay the soundtrack of our youth courtesy of Youtube.)

Some of us girls might have been confident enough to cope with the scrutiny that comes from being in a minority of 24 among 300 or so boys but, coming from an exclusively female school, I wasn’t one of them. I remember feeling agonizingly self-conscious and shy for much of the time. It’s so strange, walking down the same paths I would stumble along in my platform shoes as a gawky fifteen-year-old, with some of the same friends who have weirdly turned into middle-aged women.

We’ve been meeting up once a year for the past four or five years, but this time is more significant; we’re spending a whole weekend in our former stamping ground. The place is soon casting its magic over us. We sink a few bottles of wine as the sun goes down (nobody admits to drinking Tia Maria any more) and talk about the old days. I feel safe, comfortable and supported. Could this be the perfect form of friendship? In some ways, we don’t know each other particularly well as adults – we don’t have mutual friends, we keep our children and partners separate, we only meet up infrequently – yet the intense experience we shared for two years as teenagers has given us a bond that still means something. After a previous reunion, somebody said, ‘It’s so funny: we’re all just like we used to be, only more so.’ Yet we seem to have learned how to become a little kinder to each other. There’s been the usual share of trauma and difficulty within our group – bereavement, illness, divorce, unfulfilled ambitions – but we can talk our experiences over without fear of being judged. Perhaps if we’d met up earlier, when we were in the throes of career and family, there might have been more rivalry; now enough water has flown under the bridge for us to take a longer view from the riverbank.  

Although our children are mostly older now than we were then, my schoolfriends provide a link to the girl I used to be. They are dear to me for reasons I still don’t completely understand. I find myself unaccountably excited to see them; I care about their lives. Their presence helps me contemplate the past with a gentler eye, forgiving my awkward early steps towards adulthood. Is this a consolation that comes with age?

‘Look!’ I want to say. ‘We have come through!’  

Here's a link to wonderful Middlemist cottage, where we stayed. Highly recommended, even if you haven't been to school there first... And this silent video on Youtube shows the school in 1970 (before girls arrived) - including footage of scaling the cliff by rope to get down to the beach. 

Special thanks to Karey Taylor and Jill Newton, for permission to reproduce some of their lovely photographs.