When my last laptop died it took with it a lot of photographs, some of which were of my old school. These were garnered on a trip back to school organised by old classmates. Not everyone was able to go, so I shared online with the absentees, who, to a gel, made comment on one particular photograph, of an empty room with a couple of cardboard boxes in it. Everyone loved that photograph, it laid ghosts for many people.
It used to be room 101.
The building in which I went to a school which no longer exists was, in fact, two buildings, both of which had been built as private houses for wealthy people before they had fallen on hard times and the absence of servants and been bought and turned into schools. They were some way apart, necessitating a walk from main school, which accommodated those over ten years of age, back to the prep school, which had more underground rooms that housed the kitchens, expert at turning out stodge with a skin on top and the playing fields, expert at turning out skinned knees. One way or another they were going to skin you, never more so than in main school in room 101.
It was not designated as such in its day, indeed it had a carved name plate on the door. The name belonged to the headmistress, as did your soul.
Main school was accessed, but never by the girls, by a set of imposing steps that ran up to the front door. Entering the massive portal, surmounted by the knocker of doom, that was never knocked (or the world would have ended, obviously,) one had a choice. Across your line of vision going left to right was a corridor. If you took about ten steps forward and turned left you would encounter a classroom. If you turned right the cloakrooms. These were not the friendly little row of coat pegs with the picture on them, of prep school, so you could find your coat among millions of other, identical coats. My picture was an umbrella, up, which I sometimes feel has defined the rest of my life. I bet I can guess who got the picture of a trophy, and which gel got a treasure chest. Behind the coat hooks were the cupboards where the hyacinths were forced in the autumn to be produced like magic tricks in flower at Christmas.
Big school was not fluffy like that. The coat hooks were on metal frames, like army coat hooks, stretching in an endless dystopian vista to the far wall. There were no numbers or identification. Gels would remember the location of their coat, or else. You may place your indoor shoes in the metal box below, neatly. The bench is only to be sat upon if changing the shoes, otherwise not.
Beyond the cross corridor an archway led to other rooms. To the right the blessed library with more books than you could read, ever. To the right another classroom, where I struggled avec French. Up the stairs more classrooms and over the entrance hall and corridor below, the school hall with a stage at one end, a classroom behind it, (where I enjoyed grammar, it was, after all, a grammar school) and carved boards on the wall of gels who had gone on to glory in various universities. I regarded these as the pinnacle of achievement. little knowing that my dear mother was going to send me loopy and lock me up to prevent me escaping from home. As an adult, looking back, they strike me as what they were, an advert for the school to impress touring parents. maybe they were a bit of both, I wonder what happened to them when the school was disbanded? The bonfire of the vanities? Chopped into named sticks and dispatched to the relevant gel?
On the floor above were the attics where we had art, did art, produced art and sewing.
In the basement were the toilets. They smelled awful due to the presence of a Bunny Brand incinerator, for incinerating young gels’ necessary sanitary supplies. It did not smell like a cosy bonfire, it smelled like a hospital incinerator, when the wind is in the wrong direction, constantly. The lower corridors were permeated with the smell.
School days are such happy days.
Never more so than in room 101.
As you entered the school up the forbidden steps, to the right was a small room housing the school secretary, responsible for the parental SOS, keeping tabs on everything and helping gels. She was grizzled like a small terrier, fearlessly efficient and mostly neutral.
In the room opposite, 101, the Head lurked like a spider on the periphery of a web, ready to pounce, wrap you in fluting scorn, torture you with a barrage of accusations off a crib sheet and eventually suck the blood out of you and discard you into the corridor with the mangled remnants of a soul and a massively swollen conscience for some miniscule misdemeanour. It is a wonder the space between the two small rooms was not littered with sucked dry corpses. The room felt airless as you entered it, you almost certainly were not allowed to breathe unless given permission and your socks must be at the same level and your hair under control or a ribbon and your handkerchief folded and your shoes polished, or else.
My friend A was none of these things.
She and I shared a birthday, a similar taste in shoes and difficult parents. Her difficult parent was her father, a lone GP, who, like many in his profession, sought to cure the intolerable burden of looking after the health of hundreds of patients, all alone, by self medication with alcohol, once the surgery was closed. By seven in the evening he was unable to stand unaided and mostly propped himself up on the mahogany mantelpiece of his Edwardian lounge. I thought he was quite glamorous as a child and his little, plump, apologetic wife was motherly. From the other side of eleven years on Al-Anon I can see exactly what they were and why their child was a bit wild, often a little cruel to her long-suffering dog and rebellious in small ways. If someone had pulled A’s socks up level she would have pushed one down. If she ate a chocolate biscuit it was in a grasped fist with the chocolate oozing out between the fingers. She loved Garibaldi biscuits but picked the raisins out and left the rest and I don’t remember her ever brushing her hair. Her blouse was buttoned up wrong and her buckled school mackintosh belt was only ever worn tied in a knot.
My mother was my mother, so, naturally, I appreciated subversion. We were, therefore, friends.
However, her parents were basically benign, if intoxicated or worried, whereas mine were basically deranged. So, while A was lovely she lacked the iron core that was developing in me.
When we all got up to big school there were unfathomable rules, numerous regulations and power-crazed prefects who were allowed to report you to a teacher, your school house head, anyone older than you and the Head. In such an authoritarian atmosphere the prefects proliferated. Some modelled themselves on the Head, some were merely right wing government agents, all were self-important and vindictive. Everyone said when they became prefects they would buck the trend and be lovely but no one did. As soon as prefecture was attained they paid the miseries of the past down into the upcoming future.
In such an interesting society it took me a good five minutes to come out subversive. Although, to be fair to myself, after motherly training I could suck-up with the best of them. I had survival written through me like the lettering in seaside rock. Einstein remarked that one decides early in life whether the universe is benign or not and behaves accordingly. I had already come to the conclusion that the universe was malign and accordingly came out fighting, smarm in one hand, stiletto in the other.
I quickly formed The Dirty Jokes club. We met at lunchtime on the side entrance steps. Entry was by subversive dirty joke. I capped every joke with a better one. As we were young repressed ladies of a certain age, some of us had been parentally provided with a book purporting to relate the Facts Of Life, which was called Knowledge for the Growing Girl. This was singularly devoid of any kind of knowledge at all. It mainly told you to pray a lot and wash the back of your neck. However, one of our number had a brother and he got Knowledge For The Growing Boy. Aha! Passed from gel to gel in The Dirty Jokes Club we swiftly put two and two together and made approximately nineteen and five eighths.
And we told dirty jokes, and we laughed a lot (on school premises) and every time someone passed on the way to the real school entrance round the back of the building we chirped: Lovely day! Lovely day!
It would have to be said at this point that the dirty jokes were not very dirty at all. We were eleven and half of us thought babies were brought by storks from under a bush. I was the only one who had ever had alcohol, which I was force-fed diluted with water on a Sunday, in case, as I had come from an orphanage, I turned out to be Easily Lead. No one had any idea of the mechanics of reproduction and we all had a better vocabulary in Latin than we did in English. The dirty jokes, which mainly originated with me, were about plumbing, by which I mean actual drains, as my father was a builder.
The down fall, which, I’m sure you’ve already spotted, was the cry of: Lovely day! Lovely day!
Cries attract attention.
We were by turns summoned into the Spider’s Den.
They broke A.
She blabbed, then blubbed and proved to have total recall and extra bits.
I was nearly expelled, having been fingered as the instigator.
The Head looked up as I entered and would probably have cracked her knuckles had they not been so fat. From behind her round black glasses she peered first at me and then at the hand written charge sheet, two, count them two, leaves of foolscap, filled edge to edge with faultless copperplate, with curly points and underlining in a different colour.
The walls in room 101 dripped anguish and misery. Every curlicue of the Victorian mantelpiece behind the Head was rammed with skinned glances and ocular meanderings.
The Dirty Jokes Club, which died there on a Wilton rug on a parquet floor was not alone in its suffering. Countless gels were tormented and some, like A, were broken in that room.
Fifty years later I sent the image of it, now a store room, round by Tinternet and every viewing leached another little bit of its power away until it was just a store room. Every forwarded email broke another web, each viewing shone light upon what was just a Victorian fireplace and the fluting venom of the Fat Black Spinster was rinsed away by the laughter of generations.
And joy was unconfined.