Having a 6 foot 4 inch high father, I suppose I should have anticipated it. My little sister once described herself to a potential blind date as ‘a giantess’ and that was exactly how I felt on my first day at Neptune Road. I was the giantess and this place was inhabited by nasty, noisy midgets.
Throughout my schooldays, but particularly at the Infants, there seemed to be a set of rules for survival which had been vouchsafed to all but me. I struggled in vain to roll pointless little sausages out of rock-hard, child-resistant modelling clay. The cotton wool tails dropped off my Easter Bunnies and my Christmas cards lost their glitter.
I remember galloping around the school attempting to be a butterfly because the lady on the radio was ordering me to.
‘Now children, just flap your wings. Flitter-flutter, that’s right. You are going to take a sip of nectar from that nice honeysuckle flower over there. Sippety-sip, that’s right…’
What nice honeysuckle? I panicked. I flitted and fluttered. I fell over.
Education had few consolations but learning to read was one of them. Words, even big words like ‘garden’ and ‘nasturtium’ began to attach themselves to objects, with the help of the brightly-coloured pictures in Janet and John. Janet and John themselves were as dull as ditchwater. They looked like no little boy and girl we had ever seen and they seemed to spend all day throwing a ball to one another or the dog and conversing like this:
Throw the ball, John. / I throw the ball, Janet. / Thank you, John. Here is the ball, John. / Thank you, Janet. / Mind the nasturtiums, John.
I remember Miss Atkins the headmistress solemnly demonstrating in assembly how the earth went around the sun, using an orange for the sun and a walnut for the earth. She also warned us that if we ate oranges and drank milk at the same time we would be sick. I tried this later on, hoping to get out of a maths test, but it didn’t work.
The classrooms, cosy and noisy with high windows, smelling of chalk dust and urine, sunshine and milk, surrounded the assembly hall. A crateful of half-pint bottles was delivered to each classroom every morning and sat under the window until playtime when the Milk Monitor would importantly poke a straw through each tinfoil lid. It was warm, slightly sour and delicious.
There were four classes, starting from the Babies and working round anti-clockwise to the Big Children. Big Children were about to ‘go up’ to the Juniors in Walklyn Road. They were only two years older than the Babies but to us that was the equivalent of a century. I couldn’t believe I would ever be seven.
Before we went up we were given an intelligence test. I remember wondering who could get the wrong answer to questions like
Q: How many legs has a three-legged stool? / (A: Sixteen)
Q: If a white cow gives white milk, what colour milk does a black cow give? / (A: Pink, naturally)
Playtime. A tidal wave of kids crashing out through two identical doors, one with BOYS carved in stone above it, the other with GIRLS. Although the sexes were no longer forced to remain separate, the playground was still divided into two halves, with fences and a wooden door between them, now wedged open. And there remained well-defined boys’ and girls’ territories – Skipping games to the left, Cowboys and Indians to the right, even a Doctors and Nurses area by the canteen steps.
The canteen was a wooden building in the middle of the playground. It was here that I learned to loathe rice-pudding, strawberry jam, rhubarb and liver. Beyond the canteen was the boundary fence and beyond that the railway line. Towards the end of my time at Neptune Road the railway track suddenly became the scene of great activity. Men were spaced out all along it, calling to one another and striking at the rails with hammers. They were electrifying the line. I recall the steam itself rather than the steam engines. A great cloud of it would rise up and swallow you, damp and choking, if you happened to be standing on the bridge in Station Road.
The crossing gates were opened and shut by the turning of a huge red wheel in the signal box. The signalman stood up there like a ship’s captain on the bridge of a ship, stern-faced with the responsibility of it all. The pedestrian’s only responsibility was not to get caught inside the gates as they closed. There was always time to scuttle, roller-skate or wheel one’s bicycle up the slope to the platform to safety before the train came – it was just the embarrassment.
At one end of the line was London and at the other end The Seaside – tin buckets and spades; last year’s sand caught in the ruches of a purple swimsuit; sandwiches in greaseproof paper; a bottle of Tizer fizzed up to danger-level by all the jolting; the smell of seaweed through the carriage window.
Beyond the railway line lay the Rec. We visited it as a class in springtime, for Nature Study. Crocodiled and woolly-mittened, we fingered catkins and learned that the bark of the silver birch was silver. But the real Rec was the one we inhabited after school, at weekends and throughout the summer holidays, when our rules applied.