Aim for the stars, gels, and you might hit a windmill…

I must admit, I loathed my last school. I loathed the fact that it wasn’t a grammar school but would have liked to be. “We have the crème de la crème of teaching staff in this school, gels,” said Miss Spinks. It has just occurred to me this may have been inspired by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She was fond of quotes.

On our final day, I can’t remember much, except that we sang Blake’s Jerusalem. That was our school song. We shared it with the Women’s Institute. Of which, come to think of it, Miss Spinks was more than likely a member. And I know she gave an uplifting speech. I am not easily upliftable, and switch off as soon as bored. The only bit I remember was her advice to aim high. “Aim for the stars, gels, and you might hit a windmill. Aim for a windmill and you’ll hit the ground. Now, gels, which famous novel is that from?”

Silence.

She was fond of asking us unanswerable questions. I remember she once demanded to know which was correct – to take the tea-pot to the kettle, or to take the kettle to the pot? Not even the teachers – lined up on hard chairs down the side of the hall like prisoners waiting to be shot – knew what she was talking about. You could tell by the fractionally raised eyebrows and smothered smirks.

Silence.

Silence.

Don Quixote, of course!” Apparently this famous old Spaniard went around tilting at windmills, mistaking them for ‘thirty or forty hulking giants’. Poor chap. Should’ve gone to Specsavers. According to Miss Spinks, Don Quixote said that – about tilting at the stars in order to skewer a windmill. However, I have been searching the internet for half an hour and am unable to verify. I rather suspect she made it up.

Anyway, we were meant to aim high but expect – well, quite a bit less. We were gels, after all, and would most likely be married in a year or two. I remember being sent to see the Careers Advisory lady at one point.

“Do you have any idea what you would like to do after you leave school?” she asked me.

“I thought I might be a newspaper reporter,” I said.

Oh!” she said. Silence.

“Have you thought about the Women’s Army?” she asked, eyeing my tall frame.

People often eye my tall frame. After Dad died I went with a friend to a spiritualist’s meeting, and the visiting medium picked on me. “Your father is in heaven looking down,” she said. “I see him offering a you a rose. Does a rose mean anything to you?”

Silence.

He…” she opened one eye and eyed me with it, “he’s very, very tall…a…powerfully built gentleman, am I right?”

“Or Woolworths?” suggested the Careers Advisor.

I did once try for a Saturday job in Woolworths. It was a very hot day, I remember, and I was still in my school uniform, having walked down the hill after school. Black Watch Tartan in the summer – the zip used to burn a line down your back. Another of Miss Spinks’ inspirations.

I was ushered upstairs to a table in the staff canteen. There, surrounded by nasty-looking girls in Woolworths uniform, I attempted their Simple Arithmetic Test. I remember one of the questions was six cotton-reels at 6d each. Since 6d was half of a shilling (12d – you had to reckon in 12s rather than 10s in those days, just to make things more difficult) presumably I should have put 3 shillings, but I didn’t.

I was escorted back down the stairs and out into the shop, somewhere near the Pick ‘n Mix counter. Confused. Still sweltering in my Blazer, Hat and Black Watch Tartan summer frock; we weren’t supposed to take off either Blazers or Hats until we got home since we were Representing the School.

Even Woolworths couldn’t find a use for me.

Story of my life, really.

The curious incident of the blancmange at the school gates

The question to be answered is: When were you most frightened? I found it on a children’s writing prompt website. I’ve been worrying this idea back and forth for some time. It shouldn’t be that difficult, if children are supposed to be able to manage it. But what have I been frightened of, and which of these frightening things was the most frightening?

I suppose I was frightened of my father, but that wasn’t one particular incident that was all the time. Fear was the natural consequence of being completely the wrong sort of child, and I spent most of my childhood trying to work out how to be the right sort. But I don’t believe I’ve ever been frightened, with that sharp, dramatic fear in real life. What I do feel is a constant, background fear – it’s like that music in lifts, it’s like the clatter of knives and forks in a restaurant, the scraping of chairs, the muffled conversation. Someone once described anxiety as fear-spread-thin – as good a description as any. It’s never not there, but I’ve never known anything else, it’s just the way everything always is. I think I might be very spooked indeed, maybe even miss it if it was suddenly gone.

In dreams, yes. I once dreamt I was driving a bus slowly towards a bottomless ravine. At some point, predictably, the bus slid over the edge, remaining poised there, slow-see-sawing like those runaway lorries in films. It was pretty clear that the dream was meant as a warning, since I was in a dangling-over-the-edge-of-the-ravine situation in real life at the time. And more than once I have dreamt of myself on a ledge at the top of some skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Now that does feel like terror, within the dream, and it stays with you for a long time when you wake up. It’s the indecision. Shall I just jump now and get it over with? Or shall I stay frozen to this ledge, no hope at all of rescue? It was such a very, very, very long way down. I wonder what people think about, on the way down?

But why no acute fear in real life? I was in a car crash once, but remember nothing at all of the twenty minutes leading up to it. Was I afraid when the other car came careering down the hill towards me on the wrong side of the road, as the police described? Ever since then I have expected The Flashback to happen, perhaps when driving – the one where you relive the whole horrible thing in an instant. But it’s never happened, there’s just a generalised sense of…trust having been lost. I imagined the universe was lolloping along beside me, like a large and friendly-ish dog. Then it turned round and bit me, viciously, and who can say when it will decide to bite again.

So what else? I was charged by a barking Alsatian once (we seem to be on a bit of a dog theme). I stood stock still and stared, transmitting terribly dangerous, woman-bites-dog type vibes at it. I’m not that keen on dogs, but I can communicate with them when necessary. The thing landed against my leg with a bump, and open jaws. I must have anticipated being bitten because I remember screaming – faintly and politely, a ladylike British scream, and then being embarrassed for having screamed at all. I must have been frightened, so why can’t I remember how it felt?

I once found myself alone for several days with an acute gallstone attack. I had never been in that much pain before, or felt that cold, sick and shaky. My head was buzzing with imminent unconsciousness. I knew this might possibly kill me – you know when you’re in real danger – but couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the phone to tell anyone, or even the will to make a decision. I just lay down and waited. And waited. Most of the time I was praying it would kill me – very, very, very soon, in fact this instant. I also remember how focussed you get when really under threat, the strength you have to dredge up from somewhere. It’s as if your primative ancestors take over, something else kicks in. I was certainly distressed during those days alone, but not afraid.

No, I think the nearest I came to experiencing actual, animal fear was one evening in my thirteenth year when I dropped a pink blancmange on the school driveway and stood aside helplessly as teachers, queueing to exit the school gates, were one by one compelled to drive through a sea of pink blancmange and broken pudding-dish shards. It was the evil, exasperated, snarly looks on all their faces. They saw me, hovering and horrified, with my now-empty biscuit tin; they linked me to the products of my cookery lesson. I was going to get into so much trouble. I picked up the biggest pudding-dish pieces, put them in the biscuit tin, jammed on the tin-lid and ran. The train home went at ten past four (which was why I’d been sprinting in charge of a blancmange in the first place) and the station was at the bottom of the hill.

I made my getaway but said nothing to my parents and spent an entirely sleepless night visualising tomorrow’s terminal humiliation. It was the headmistress’s habit to ‘mention’ these things in assembly. The dreadful deed would be described in lingering, sarcastic detail and then the girl responsible would be invited to stand – own up to her sins so that everybody could turn, titter and gloat. The one thing I dreaded above all others was becoming the centre of attention – being pointed at, looked at, seen, even glimpsed. I craved invisibility. I would have cheerfully suffered how ever many lashes a dropped blancmange might attract, in private. I would have been so glad to write on the blackboard, alone in an empty classroom, night after night for the next three years, I must not drop my blancmange, I must not drop my blancmange… What I couldn’t abide was being laughed at.

I do believe I tottered into that assembly hall in genuine fear. I do believe I trembled as I sat cross-legged on the floor with several hundred others teenage girls while the headmistress lectured us on the correct way to make a pot of tea (take the kettle to the pot and not the pot to the kettle – or was it the other way round?) and the necessity of wearing sixty-denier Sun Mist stockings at all times, reserving thirty-denier seamless un-Sun-Mist to wear with our Pretty Party Dresses (she was a trifle out of touch – sorry, accidental pun). And after all that, she didn’t mention It. Nobody mentioned It. And I couldn’t even feel relieved because blancmange-terror was now welded into my psyche. And pink blancmange, my favourite. If only it hadn’t been pink.