I went to a small Anglican primary school in a small town.  I lived quite a long way from the school which was near the town centre.  Our home was on an outlying estate of new semi-detached three-bedroomed houses.  I think I walked to school every day but I don’t really remember.  Perhaps my father took us to school in the car.  I remember that my mother used to collect us with her bicycle and we would walk home together, and that on Mondays we would stop off on the way home to see my paternal grandparents.  My grandfather never spoke to me.  He had a two-storey shed at the bottom of the garden.  The bottom of the shed was a greenhouse for growing tabacco.  The top of the shed was a drying area, with rows of tobacco leaves hung on string along the ceiling.  He spent most of his time there, smoking his tabacco.  He died of lung cancer.  But my grandparents had a beautiful garden, full of little corners between old fruit trees and orange chinese lanterns where fairy statues where hidden.  We picked gooseberries and sat on the swinging seat covered in faded flowered cotton and ate chocolate bourbon biscuits.  Always chocolate bourbon biscuits.  The seat used to brush the lavender bushes as it swung.

I didn’t complete my primary school education because the government was in the process of abolishing selective grammar schools country-wide, county by county, and replacing them with comprehensive schools.  Girls who passed the selective 11-plus exam had been bussed to a girls’ grammar school twelve miles away whilst boys had gone to the historic boys’ grammar school in the town.  Those who did not pass the eleven plus all went to the town’s “secondary modern” school.  It did not have a good name but was to form the new comprehensive that replaced the grammar schools in September 1972 when I was ten.

My mother had been to a grammar school and did not want me to go to the old secondary modern school.  So, together with one other girl, I was assessed by an educationalist psychologist and allowed to take the exam a year early.  I also took the exam for the private girls’ school in the much larger town a short bus ride away.  I passed both exams and so I went to the grammar school.  The writing had been on the wall for a long time so the school was starved of money.  We froze in winter in seventeen portacabins and bought our own books.  We used to have to kneel in front of the spinster teachers to have our skirts measured – 4″ from the floor – and we had “outdoor” shoes that we had to change into to walk in a crocodile to the windswept sports pitches more than a mile away behind the fire station or to the church hall where we learnt Scottish country dancing.  Running was forbidden as was walking on the Walnut Tree lawn.  Both offences were punished by being sent to the Headmistress.  She frightened the life out of me.  

There was one other girl younger than me in the year.  She was mouse-like with thick glasses.  I felt very young and very small.  Two years later there was another influx of girls into my class, an influx which I have never really understood.  These were girls who had failed the 11-plus exam, but had been judged at 13 to be sufficiently bright to have a grammar school education.  With one caveat.  They were only allowed to join the class below their correct age-group.  These five or six girls were all middle class children and I suspect a conspiracy.  They all became tall prefects with long hair and had boyfriends.  I was almost two years younger than them and had a lot to prove which I don’t suppose endeared me to anybody.

There was a social divide in the town where I lived.  I and two other girls lived on the wrong side of the town and got on the bus last.  The other girls were all daughters of professional fathers – a headteacher, an accountant, a research scientist.  Looking back on it I think that their fathers were all graduates, though I didn’t realise that at the time.  I just knew that I was different and so was the house I lived in. 

One of the girls in my class was a thalidomide victim and had half of one arm missing.  She lived in the town where the grammar school was, the market town where my mother had been a health visitor until a year before my birth.  I had never thought about that before – that my mother was a health visitor there.  There was one other thalidomide victim in my school and she became head girl.  The girl in my class was the opposite.  She was very disturbed, angry, aggressive and violent.  She used to cut her arms and pierce her body with a stapler.  She was also a tall, striking girl with an unruly man of dark hair and she was very good at sport.  She had a collection of metal arms that she attached to what she had of her arm.  One arm was a basic metal arm, painted flesh colour.  Another, later, was a more realistic rubber flesh-coloured hand with fingers that bent like Sindy’s legs.  When she played hockey she had a stainless steel rod with a hoop on the end which strapped to her arm and which fitted over the stick.  The same with tennis.  Sometimes, in the summer particularly, when it was hot, her arm would be left bare.

Her arm had other uses too.  It was a powerful weapon.  She retained great strength in her shoulder and so could wield the metal arm like a long truncheon.  I remember a fight in the almost empty Geography room between her and two other girls, the only ones who would ever stand up to her.  Her arm flailed around as the three of them turned over desks and kicked over chairs in a terrifying display of rage.  I felt trapped in the room.

I was easy prey.  My aunt was a biology teacher and knew everything.  I overheard her telling my mother that one of her friends had died of an allergic reaction to a wasp sting.  I was too shy to ask any questions.  I just swallowed the information.  At school the thalidomide girl fixed a wasp to the end of her claw and chased me around the school playground with it.  I hated her, but really I was terrified of her and powerless to confort her physical violence.  She worked in an antique shop later on, but I would never go in the shop.

Only two or three years ago I took my daughters to a Halloween sewing class at a quilting shop in another small market town.  She came to the class too with her daughter.  We talked and were nice to each other and I felt proud for her of all that she had achieved and of her lovely, happy daughter.  I can go into the antique shop now.

I paid privately to go and see a skin consultant and he scratched wasp venom into my skin.  I have a framed letter from him confirming that I an not allergic to wasp stings.  I still don’t like them, but I am less afraid and more able to stay in the same room.

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