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Now the day will never come

November 17, 2015

Because you weren’t with them, it only hit me years later that they were your parents – that faintly comical couple who stood right out from the shuffling group of mums and dads and daughters being shown around the grammar school one summer afternoon in 1972. “This is the chemistry lab”: we silently surveyed the rows of polished workbenches and Bunsen burners – then filed out again, most of us none the wiser. But your mother didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stay behind and explore every sacred corner; or else just stand there, imbibing an atmosphere thick with scholarly endeavour.

It was around the time of my eleventh birthday; I knew nothing of adult relationships then, but even I could tell that in this one, your mother was the driving force. I can see her now: tall and willowy, with an expression, as she advanced, of pure ecstasy, as if she already glimpsed the longed-for dreaming spires and Groves of Academe opening up in front of her. Your dad, rotund and short, was dragged along in her wake, red-faced and perspiring in his suit.

They lagged behind the rest of us. Your mother, I smirkingly fantasised, believed that to her had been granted special powers to appreciate the seat of learning; savouring it couldn’t be hurried. I don’t know if her reverence for education was born of thwarted ambitions of her own, but she certainly communicated it to you. You unashamedly loved school. It was one of the things that made you uncool.

So when I think of you, I remember someone who was confident and hard to ignore, but in spite of that, had few close friends. We shouldn’t have done it, but we all put the other girls into boxes: brainy, arty, tarty, ‘troubled’, funny, conventional, weird…you were none of these. Yes, you were conventional – but rather than the desire to meet a nice boy and settle down, yours was an intellectual conventionalism: you equated being clever with being good. And yes, you liked the arts – but only, perhaps, because you thought good girls were all-rounders. And of course you were bright – but others were brighter, and to me, your later success had more to do with hard graft and your vicariously ambitious mother. You were a sub-group of one.

I think it was a disappointment to you that school offered few friends with whom you could pursue pure learning. It was the ’70s, and even the swottiest of us had sidelines in Marc Bolan, platform soles and under-age consumption of gassy beer. Did you long to join in? Did you not dare, because your mother wouldn’t like it?

Your mother. ‘Mummy’. Oh my God, you never shut up about her. ‘Mummy says this’ and ‘Mummy says that’. Did you know we were all laughing at you? Half of you was still back at junior school, the other half was already middle-aged. I was surprised that in adulthood, you re-located so far away from her. Did you finally need to get some distance?

In sixth form, you made friends with M – another refugee from the 1950s – who transferred from a secondary modern so she could do ‘A’ levels. Though not your intellectual equal, she shared your unembarrassed studiousness. A misfit in her previous school, she dreamed The Grammar would be a Promised Land of acceptance and friendship based on love of study. She was pathetically mistaken, of course. With her sensible shoes and Famous Five vocabulary (“Golly! You’re right, I reckon!”), most of us regarded her as mildly ridiculous. You were the only one to offer the companionship she so obviously craved.

At Christmas 1979, the school invited back those of us who had left at the end of the summer term, for a social evening. There you were, in a powder blue blouse complete with pussy bow, straight from the wardrobe of the recently-elected Margaret Thatcher. You said you were enjoying Cambridge, and had joined the Christian Union. The Christian Union? FFS girl, it’s Cambridge! You’re mixing with the finest minds of your generation and you join the Christian Union? I turned away. I never saw you again.

I didn’t forget you though. You had numerous, ever-changing career ambitions. Systems analyst was one. Alone amongst us, you scanned the horizon and saw…computers. Over the years, I often wondered if you fulfilled your early promise. Now I learn you died four years ago.

Looking back, I understand a couple of things. One is that secretly, I always recognised that we were kin: in my heart, I too preferred books to boys; and like you, I too longed to be good. The difference was that I couldn’t accept that side of myself or ever show it because I wanted too badly to be one of the gang. You weren’t like that; you were true to yourself and never courted popularity by trying to be someone you weren’t. I think the reason I remembered you is that you were a kind of shadow self to me; I was curious to see where a route I could have taken, but did not, might have led.

Probably you could never in your life have named a T-Rex Number One. But I’m glad you grew into yourself and embraced a role that was so obviously right for you; and I’m glad too that you found people who understood and valued you. In the pictures I saw, there was something in your face there never used to be: fun. The news of your passing has affected me more than I can say. I sincerely regret that a life as good and useful as yours was cut so short.

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From → Odd and Ends

6 Comments
  1. pennyhaswell permalink

    Thanks for coming back to us and making us think! To absent friends and those who could/should have been…

  2. The deaths of people we knew at school bring our own mortality into sharper focus. The person I have written about eventually embarked on a career path that even someone like me, who hadn’t seen her since school, instinctively knew she was born for. So although her life was much too short, I think it must have contained a great sense of fulfilment. I hope that knowledge provided some comfort to her family in the difficult times.

  3. It’s good to see you blogging again. Fine, restrained, thought-provoking writing … as ever.
    Welcome back.

  4. Thanks Tony. Funny to think that I probably spent the morning of the day described in the opening paragraphs sitting in close proximity to you in Miss Davies’ class…

  5. obliquepanic permalink

    Its so good to read your writing. You can’t stop now because I have put links to you in my new books.

  6. Really great to see you writing under this account again – You have such a gift for making people think…. Sorry to hear about your friend’s passing, though. Life always seems so short…

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