From here we drove down to Burgess Hill, ten minutes away. The distances seemed shorter than they used to, the roads narrower. We pulled into the drive of our old school, the one neither of us had set foot in since we walked out for the last time in 1979, thirty years ago. If I pull my mind back to those days, they are now so long ago that I have the impression that I was once part of some Malory Towers scenario. At the time, it was as normal as my own children heading off to school in their school bus, blazers on, rucksacks on back. But seeing the changes that have taken place in those 30 years emphasizes that it was a totally different era – part of a world that no longer exists, except in my mind.
I had not expected to go to a girls’ private school, but changes in state education in the 70s forced the situation. I knew it was a stretch for my parents and I worried about that greatly. Maybe, though, this plays a part in why I have such strong imprints on my memory of this collection of buildings, the landscape they nestled in and the time I spent among them. And it is only now, going back, that I realise many of my night-time dreams are placed in locations approximating to these buildings and gardens. A small mystery solved, at least.
In those days it was a classic old school made up of Victorian houses with lovely gardens and little gravel paths edged with wood leading through trees and grass from one house to another. The floors were polished parquet, the stairs wide, or small and rickety in the parts that would have been servants’ quarters. Some corridors were wide, some were narrow and all had their own special smells. In contrast, there were also some very new state of the art buildings which made a big impression on me too. A particular favourite was the Assembly Hall – a magnificently incongruous structure attached to the main old house. It was 60s architecture at its very best (and, I noted with foolish pleasure, completed on 6th June 1963 just two days before my very birth) – a large, almost square, structure which had the stage at one end then floor to ceiling glass on the three remaining sides. It was a room filled with light and sun from which one’s eye could take in the gardens all around. Where better place to start one’s day. Inevitably the stranglehold of Health and Safety has ripped the heart out of it by insisting that those beautiful life-affirming glass panels be blacked out. Funny how we played badminton and volleyball in there for all those years and never once was there any cause for concern…
A little group of us, just six friends, had come together for this day: three I had stayed in touch with, two I had not seen for 30 years. We peered through windows and wandered into rooms we’d lived and breathed in as children. Names and faces, long forgotten, came flooding back as their ghosts walked with us. Memories abounded of hurtling around the Lacrosse pitch, playing netball matches on the top courts, or rounders on the bottom field (I was always terrified of being put in ‘deep field’ as I could never through the ball straight – oh, the agonies). We reminisced about the long trails of white loo paper we threaded through the rose garden on our last day at school, lamented the disappearance of the grass tennis court (a favourite place for me) and tried to embrace the new buildings everywhere which threatened to change this place in our minds forever.
As I wandered around, I was desperately clinging to the key memories I had, all brought to the fore by this return to something long left behind. I remembered my mother parking her car on the crunchy drive one hot summer afternoon, that first day that I met the headmistress with the bandy leg and wiry grey hair tied up in a chinon. It all felt so exciting, so different for the child straight from the country primary school in the middle of a cornfield. This was sophisticated, smart and not a little daunting. I remembered rummaging through the second hand uniform on the school stage, walking down the little steps (now gone) into the Assembly Hall for my Chemistry ‘O’ level, ginger-haired Mrs Ayers handing me my papers. I remember setting out my pencil case and my lucky charm on my desk and walking out at the end of my Biology ‘O’ level – the first ‘O’ level that I took. I remember the freedom of getting to and from school by train, juxtaposed with crunching into the school driveway and knowing that was where the freedom stopped and the Double Physics in the gloomy lab began. I always hated Tuesdays.
I remembered the blue winter berets, the beige felt summer hats and the nasty brown sandals which flew off when running (as the scars of gravel in my knee bear witness). I remembered Sophie with the long white plaster cast from a nasty accident on the school ski trip hobbling around at break time – a picture of her is frozen in my mind – and my friend reminded me of my own trials and tribulations with a large cast and crutches from that wretched skateboard accident.
I remembered slapping my Latin teacher in the face by mistake as I waved my hands around over-expansively while talking, and seeing the French teacher’s knickers as she sat swinging her little legs on the front desk while dictating some aspect of grammar.
Precious memories all, long buried but uniting the now disparate lives of us six friends in their resurrection. Time moving on, yet standing still, pasted on our mind’s eye for the rest of our lives.
Someone had brought photos of us at the end of our time there: that shot of ‘The Class of ‘79’ with us all poking our heads out of the branches of a small weeping tree (lost when they expanded the hard courts). We’d taken another on the steps outside the Assembly Hall. These were still there, so before we parted, we took one more photo for the record. Just some of The Malory Towers girls, thirty years on - berets long lost, all grown up.
I am, I can, I ought, I will. That was our school motto, and the Skylark was our emblem – encouraging us to reach for the skies and fly ever higher. Not bad really, when you come to think about it.