Throughout my life I have found it extremely difficult to deal with people who were disposed to bully me. Bullying has been a recurring theme in both my school and my working life, although I am not what you would call the archetypal victim. Again – I’m not sure if this arises from my BPD – or if the bullying is one of the causes of the BPD. I must leave it to you, the reader, to decide.
When I was about 13, the Counsellor who had been seeing Mum and Dad decided that they would benefit from a break from dealing with me and suggested that I go away to boarding school, at the local authority’s expense. When the idea was put to me, I have to admit that I was all in favour. I had read all the Chalet School books and had a very romanticised notion of what life at a boarding school would be like!
Mum’s idea was to send me to one of the “Free” schools which were just then popping up across the country, where there was no uniform, few rules and the students called the teachers by their first names. However, the Free Schools themselves had other ideas and not one was prepared to take on a “problem” child. In the end, they plumped for the City of London Freemen’s School in Ashtead Park, Surrey, which accepted “Charity Boarders” whose fees were paid by the local authority or by a charity. The very fact that kids like me were openly referred to as “Charity Boarders” should have given us a massive clue as to the treatment I could expect.
Not that I had any hassle from the other pupils and boarders – they were pretty cool, all things considered, when this roughy-toughy East-Ender was catapulted into their midst. No, the real nasty pieces of work were all on the staff! With one notable exception they were foul and seemed determined from Day One to crush this working-class upstart who had the temerity to think she could be assimilated into their august establishment. Whenever I hear anyone say that school days are the best time of your life, I remember City of London Freemen’s and could happily run amok with a machete!!
My worst tormentress was the girls’ boarding House Mistress, a Miss Beck, who went by the highly appropriate nickname of “Bruiser“! She was the archetype of the old-fashioned girls’ school mistress – all tweeds, lisle stockings, sensible brogues and a build like a heavyweight wrestler. She also had a nasty, devious streak a mile wide and a tongue that could strip paint. A motherly soul she most certainly was not – although some of the girls who started school at the tender age of 7 or 8 said that she was wonderful with the very young boarders. Personally, I would sooner trust my offspring to the care of a ravening Zombie!
I’ve put off writing this section of my blog for the very good reason that I find it so hard to be objective about my stay at this school. So, if I wander into the realms of exaggeration, please just bear in mind that I was 13 at the time – a very emotional time in any girl’s life – and I was utterly miserable.
In terms of school work, I was put into a group who were a year older than me, there being no “space” for me in my peer group. Needless to say I really struggled academically for the first time in my life. Not only was the curriculum completely different from that followed at Walthamstow but I was put into a stream who were learning German and who had been doing so for more than a year. I, on the other hand, had not one word of German and was more or less left alone to “catch up” in my own time. No effort was made to coach me so that I could cope with this strange language, I was simply thrown in at the deep end and left to flounder – which I did.
The only subject in which I was still able to hold my own was English, at which I had always excelled. The only member of staff who had any time for me at all was the English master, one Andrew Cairncross, who was, even to my untutored eye, as camp as a row of tents! He was also something of a “drama queen” and the things he taught us are fixed in my mind by the waspish and occasionally inappropriate witticisms which were his stock-in-trade. His classes were the only enjoyable times I spent at City of London.
The “home” aspects of the school were far and away the worst and most difficult to adjust to. In one’s first term it was mandatory that one had no contact with parents or family, apart from the weekly (censored) letter home, for the first half. This was supposed to enable first time boarders to “settle in” without interference from well-meaning but over-anxious parents. However, seeing other pupils going out with their parents at weekends whilst being totally cut off from my own family seemed a “cruel and unusual” form of torture to me. And six weeks, when you are 13 years old and floundering both socially and academically, feels like a lifetime.
“Bruiser” seemed to dislike and resent me from the outset. I can only assume that she thought this nasty little East-End brat would be a bad influence on her well-brought-up and uniformly well-to-do girls. She made little effort to help me understand and comply with the myriad rules and shibboleths which applied to life in the Boarding House, leaving this to the other girls who were, by and large, amazingly tolerant and helpful. However, when I did transgress (inadvertently or otherwise) her judgement was swift and merciless. I remember catching my heel in the hem of my uniform skirt one morning just as the breakfast bell rang. Being late for meals was a serious offence, so I hastily pinned up the hem, meaning to stitch it after breakfast and before going to classes.
Bruiser’s eagle-eye was, as usual, upon me and she hauled me up from the breakfast table, bawling me out in front of the entire school for being a lazy slut, too greedy to mend her clothes for fear of missing a meal. I tried to explain that I had intended to mend the hem after breakfast only because I didn’t want to get into trouble for being late to the table, but she was having none of it. I was dismissed back to the dormitory to hem up my skirt and went without breakfast that morning. She seemed to derive a grim satisfaction from showing me up in front of everyone whenever possible.
At this point, I need to go back in time, very briefly, to my last term at Walthamstow. Every Wednesday, we had “double games” during which hapless souls like me (who hated and were very poor at all forms of sport) were relentlessly hounded round a hockey field or a netball or tennis court for a couple of miserable hours. In the company of a couple of other like-minded girls, I took to “bunking off” during games and was usually to be found in a small café behind St Mary’s Church, drinking tea and doing my homework!
It was here that I was befriended by a middle-aged man who seemed very often to be at the café on a Wednesday afternoon when I was there. On reflection, I must have known that something was “not quite right” about his interest in me but I was intrigued and he seemed so avuncular that I put any qualms I may have felt to the back of my mind. When I knew I was going to Boarding School the next term, I told him about it and he asked if he could write to me. I was nothing loath and gave him the address and thus we parted.
Well, once at Boarding School I had so much on my mind that I completely forgot about this gentleman. He had not, after all, figured very large in the landscape of my life to date. I was therefore mystified when summoned to Miss Beck’s lair and questioned about a letter which had been sent to me (but not given to me, I might add). Bruiser was doing her celebrated impression of a Gestapo interrogator and I was so terrified of her that my mind went completely blank at first. Gradually, it dawned on me that someone not known to the school (or my parents – who had apparently been contacted) had written to me asking to meet me one weekend and enclosing a ten shilling note. Bruiser had been using his name (which I didn’t know until then and have long since forgotten) and I hadn’t connected this apparently criminal correspondent with my elderly café swain!
Eventually, the penny dropped and I realised who was behind it all. Obviously, I didn’t want to admit that he was someone I had met while absenting myself from games lessons at Walthamstow, and I was somewhat tongue-tied as a result. Bruiser took this as proof of my complicity and guilt and I was “gated“, i.e. not allowed to leave the school grounds, until further notice. The worst crime, apparently, was in “persuading” him to send me money – something boarders were kept extremely short of unless they met with family who slipped them illicit coinage! Now, as I had completely forgotten his existence until that moment I had not requested him to send me money at all, and was highly indignant at the suggestion. The more I asserted my innocence, the more convinced Bruiser became that I was up to no good.
The matter was referred to the Deputy Head, a lean, dried-up female of uncertain years who rejoiced in the frequently Spoonerised name of Miss Fanny Dart and whose consequent nickname was Danny. Danny was convinced that I was on the point of selling my body to this unknown man for a ten-bob note (which, incidentally, I never did receive)! She tore into me like a buzz saw and said that she would hand me over to the tender mercies of the Headmaster and recommend that I was caned. I can’t remember what intervened to prevent this from happening, but it certainly wasn’t a change of heart on the parts of either Danny or Bruiser!
From then on there was a concerted effort on the part of all staff to “put me in my place“. To use the vernacular, I “couldn’t do right for doing wrong“. When one of the day girls, with whom I had struck up a friend-ship, loaned me a dress in which to attend the end of term dance, I was berated as if I had stolen the dress and no amount of intervention on the owner’s part could change matters. Needless to say, I was not allowed to wear the dress. When at a weekend film show in the school hall I had the temerity to sit next to one of the day boys, who had quite a crush on me at the time, and he Held My Hand(!), as much scandal ensued as if we had had full-blown sex on the podium! On parents’ day Bruiser told my Mum that I was “extremely greedy“, after which I took to absenting myself from meals (to prove a point) and of course that, too, was treated as practically a capital offence.
I spent an awful lot of my free time locked in the boarding house bathroom crying hysterically and refusing to come out. It was while locked in the bath cubicle that I first took to self-harming, which took the form of cutting my arms with a razor blade while lying in a warm bath. I have since learned that this is a method of taking some control over the only thing that is within one’s own control – i.e. one’s body. At the time I just knew that it was the only way to calm myself down.
At the end of term, I was told that, in addition to being “kept down a year” (which would simply mean that I was in a form with my own age group, after all) I was being withdrawn from the language stream altogether. I protested volubly, as I knew very well that languages were – and always had been – my forté, but my “inability to keep up” in the German class had sealed my fate. Instead, I was to be taught needlework! Now, if there is one thing I loathe it is sewing and quite apart from that, as a Grammar School girl I felt that such subjects as needlework and cookery were pretty infra-dig. (OK – I was an academic snob!)
Just before we were due to be collected by our parents for the Summer Vac., we girl boarders were assembled in our Common Room by Bruiser. It appeared that someone’s steamer trunk had gone missing from its usual spot in the store room and Bruiser wanted to find out if anyone knew where it was and why it had been moved. As she drew toward her peroration, I felt a tickle in my throat and coughed. I hadn’t moved my hand away from my face before she spun round and spat at me “Yes! I might have known YOU would have something to do with it!” I was so shocked that I let out a squeak of protest and then burst into tears. To their credit, my fellow boarders leapt instantly to my defence, one girl even going so far as to say “That’s just not fair, Miss Beck!” The trunk was eventually located – it had been moved while the care-taker was looking for something – but no apology was ever forthcoming from Bruiser!
That summer, June came down for the second year running to spend the six-week holiday with me in Woodford Green. We were out from morning until night every day of her stay (or so it seemed) and the horror of returning to Boarding School was pushed out of my butterfly brain until she had returned to Yorkshire. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks! The unalloyed misery of that place was made worse by the absence of Beattie, a fellow boarder who had also been the Head Girl and had stood up for me against Miss Beck on numerous occasions during the previous term. Without Beattie’s support and protection I felt myself completely at Bruiser’s mercy.
During the holidays, I had tried to talk to Mum and Dad about how much I hated the school and how unfairly I was treated. They were both concerned that I had been removed from the ‘language’ stream and promised to write to the Headmaster about it. Naturally, they didn’t believe the things I told them about how I was singled out and victimised and they felt I should try to make a go of it. I was on my own, I thought, there was no-one I could turn to for help or support – I would just have to take matters into my own hands.
I stuck it out for 2 or 3 weeks at most. My new classmates assumed that I was “a thicko” having been told that I had been kept down a year but not that I had been a year younger than my former classmates to begin with. Bruiser – refreshed and re-invigorated by her own Summer Vac. – was at the top of her nasty, spiteful game. There was just no bearing it. One Saturday lunchtime, I borrowed ten shillings from the other Charity Girl (who was just as miserable as I was but had less fight left in her), climbed over the high wall at the back of the grounds and took off.
I made my way cautiously to the railway station where I nipped into the Ladies’ and changed out of the hated uniform and into my own clothes before catching the train up to Waterloo. I crossed the City on the underground and had just about enough money left to take the train from Liverpool Street out to Walthamstow and home turf. I wandered happily around my old stamping ground, hoping to bump into friends before it got too late. I was out of luck and it was going on for 11.00pm when I met a boy I knew from The Monoux – the brother school to Walthamstow Girls’ High School – on his way home. He let me into an empty house next door to where he lived and I spent a very cold and uncomfortable night on an abandoned sofa, surrounded by cobwebs and spiders which had luckily not been visible before I fell asleep the night before! “Pussy“, as the young man in question was nicknamed [don’t ask me – I have no idea why!], hopped over the fence at first light bearing a mug of tea and two slices of toast. What a star! I’ve rarely been so grateful to anyone in my life.
Suitably refreshed, I set off to walk down to where I thought I might meet up with some of my former fellow-pupils from Walthamstow. As luck would have it, I fell in with a group whom I knew, although they were not part of my particular coterie. This would be to my advantage, I thought, as they were unlikely to be the first group anyone would go to if people started looking for me. (If! … Who was I kidding?) This little gang knew of an older boy named Gordon whose parents were away for a few weeks and felt sure that he would put me up while I tried to figure out what to do next.
I was duly introduced to Gordon who agreed that I could stay at his place for a few days. Before long I was comfortably ensconced in his parents’ council flat, somewhere down on Forest Road. Within 24 hours the jungle drums had let many of my old circle know I was back and where I was hiding. Dad had reported me missing and the police were looking for me, questioning everyone I knew. I cowered within Gordon’s flat, not daring to go out in case I was caught. On Monday morning, Gordon went off to work leaving me alone in the flat. About mid-morning, I heard an authoritative rapping at the door, which I chose to ignore. The knocking continued and someone called out the usual cliché “This is the police – we know you’re in there – open the door!” “Not bloody likely!” I thought to myself and stayed right where I was, hardly daring to move.
Eventually, the knocking and calling out ceased and I felt emboldened to tip-toe around collecting my goods and chattels together, ready to make a run for it. I listened at the front door, making sure I was bent below the level of the bubble-glass panel so that I wouldn’t be seen if there was anyone outside. I waited what seemed like ages, hearing and seeing nothing, and finally decided it was safe to move on. Stealthily, I began to open the front door and just as I was about to emerge, a beefy (woman’s) arm in navy blue serge grabbed hold of me and I was collared by a WPC who had been lurking silently just out of my field of vision.
I was unceremoniously hauled off to the nearby Police Station, which happened to be where Dad was stationed at the time! I was held in a cell and strip-searched by a thorough-going bull-dyke of a female Sergeant. She gave me back my clothes but withheld my earrings, for some reason. They were translucent tear-shaped drops with some sparkly substance loose inside – I was later told they smashed them to see if what they were holding was some kind of drug. I waited in the cell for Dad to arrive – as far as I was concerned it might as well have been the condemned cell!