“And where are your children?”
The man sitting on my left asked me, and I was feeling bolshy. I knew what he meant, but I affected not to understand his question.
“Do you mean where are my children at this moment, or where do they go to school?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and tilting my head with a smile of challenge.
He looked at me, surprised.  A bit indignant.
“Well, I suppose you could tell me where they are now, but I meant where do they go to school.”
“I know you did”.

And I told him.  That’s what that question always means in that upper middle class environment.   There’s nothing else it could possibly mean.  And my response left him still guessing.  It is a school that is neither one thing nor the other, a social chameleon, a synergy of class.  A school that bridges the divide between me and my husband. 

Earlier that evening I’d been asked the same question of myself, by the man on my right. Where did I go to school?   Perhaps he’s smelt a rat, wanted to make sure I wasn’t a fraud.  I’d replied with the name of the town I’d been bussed to, and the man had expressed surprise. Cognitive dissonance flashing across his face sending his brain into a whirring frenzy as he tried to reconcile my answer with his value system. 

“Ah ha!”, he said,  I must have been one of the first intake of girls.

“No”, I replied. 

I went to the state grammar school in the town, not to the independent boys’ school that hogs the name of the town for itself, and my school only had girls.

“Oh”, the man said flatly, and put me in a pigeonhole.  My school was a reliable marker of my social class, and I now had a badge to wear for the rest of the evening.

So, by the time the second question arrived I was fed up. Fed up with the initial assumption that because I happened to be sitting at that particular dinner table I must have been privately educated and vote Conservative. Fed up with the multiple conclusions drawn about me when those assumptions turned out to be false.

But then a nice thing happened. The man who asked about my children read me correctly, and he dared to take off his disguise and showed me who he really was. A moment of recognition.  I could almost see him peeling off the mask, taking off the garb, and was that a sigh of relief?  A man who’d been educated in a “crap” grammar school in Wales. A state school man under it all, masquerading as something else. 

But then he had also been a spy. An MI6 operative working throughout Europe. A talented linguist fluent in languages that defeat most people, enjoying a retirement re-translating opera librettos and researching the diaries of a gay German cavalier who bequeathed to the world a momentous opera but died unrecognised.

For a while we considered taking our conversation down the Monty Python Hole in the Road street, but nicely agreed a draw. They had both been equally bad.

From his not-very-good grammar school he’d won a place at the usual recruiting ground for men and women like him when our enemies were white and Christian. Oxford and Cambridge University. He’d received the tap on the shoulder from his tutor, had responded to the follow-up letter, passed the Civil Service exams, had been trained, and had taken up a post in the field. His sons had been educated at Eton as a nice gesture of secret state gratitude and he now claimed a place at that dinner table as his own even if he had to hide his real identity. Social mobility and a surprisingly interesting evening.

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