Before I move on, I want to tell you what happened when I returned to Walthamstow Girls’ High School that one last time to sit my two early ‘O’ Levels. I stayed with my Dad the night before the exams – luckily I was able to sit them both on the same day – and presented myself at the Admin Office bright and early. While I was sitting outside the office waiting to be taken into the examination room, a steady stream of my former class-mates were finding excuses to pass through the front hall and make eye contact with me. One or two said “Hi!” or nodded as they passed but I felt a chill between my shoulder-blades all the same.
Then Lesley hove into view and approached me asking what I was doing at lunch-time. I told her I was meeting my Dad for lunch and she wandered off with a weird look on her face. The first exam was French and I polished it off relatively easily and was able to get out of the school grounds before any of the rest of the school broke for lunch. I can’t remember where I went – only that I put as much distance between me and the school as possible until it was time to return for the History exam in the afternoon.
Once again, I was seated in the entrance hall waiting to be conducted into the examination room when Lesley and her clique came up to me, trying to appear friendly but with menace and malice written all over them. They wanted me to meet them at the school gates before I went home. I knew Dad was coming to collect me and prayed that there would be no delay as I agreed to meet them, having no intention of still being around when they got out if I could possibly help it!
I’m sure the anxiety about what might happen when I left the school grounds contributed to my oh-so marginal failure in the History exam. I was absolutely terrified. As soon as the exam was over I sprinted out to the front of the school and was unutterably relieved to see Dad waiting for me. As I looked back at the school for the last time, I saw the “gang” assembling in the front courtyard, with faces like thunder as I walked away from them with Dad beside me. I tried to appear casual and normal but my heart was pounding and my knees were trembling as we left. I had never been so glad of Dad’s presence and his somewhat intimidating aura!
We come now to the finale of my far-from-glorious academic career. As I mentioned at the end of my last blog-post, by the time Miss Nimmo had stymied all my options regarding ‘A’ Level choices and subsequent University courses, I began to lose interest altogether in matters academic. Besides which – my personal life was beginning to be of greater interest than anything school had to offer!
Not long after we moved to Yorkshire I began attending a Church youth group with June. It was there that I met a really lovely young man called Peter Rose. He was the same age as me and attended BGGS’ brother school, Batley Boys’ Grammar School. He was over 6ft tall, very athletic in build, clean cut and clean living and I fell for him hook, line and sinker. Now all this time I was still writing to Del in Dover – and he to me. He was determined to make a clean break from the life he had been leading prior to his arrest and after much soul-searching, Mum agreed that on his release he could come and stay with us in Yorkshire. Mum was much smarter than Dad when it came to dealing with my burgeoning adolescence. She went along with me in the matter of my smoking, provided that I got a Saturday job and paid for my cigarettes out of my own earnings. And in the matter of Del she saw which way the wind was blowing between Peter and I and banked heavily on me changing my mind about Del coming to live with us when she agreed that he could do so!
As the day of Del’s release grew steadily nearer Mum was proved absolutely right – I began to panic. I suddenly realised that I didn’t want to resume my relationship with him after all, I wanted to go on seeing Peter and basking in the warmth of a normal relationship that both Mum and Dad could approve of! Mum made me write to Del myself to tell him that he could not, after all, come to live with us. It was the hardest thing I had yet had to do and I hated myself for weeks. Del wrote me a bitter, angry letter in reply which did nothing to improve my self-esteem and for many years I felt a huge sense of guilt at letting him down the way I did.
However, I got on with life, the way one does. I had a Saturday job at a local supermarket which, strangely, I quite enjoyed; I teamed up with two other girls from BGGS to form a folk group called “Oak, Ash and Thorn” playing quite a lot of local gigs; I studied half-heartedly for my ‘O’ Levels and I continued to spend as much of my free time as possible with Peter. For quite a while everything went smoothly and life was good. I sailed through the mock exams with very little in the way of effort and then came the real thing. For no reason that I can think of, I failed my Latin ‘O’ Level, having passed the mock exam with an A grade! When it was all done and dusted I managed to secure just 5 passes, one of which was the French exam – I’m the only person I know who has two French ‘O’ Levels, the second one with a lower grade than the first!
It was decided (I can’t say it was agreed, because I didn’t have much of a say in the matter) that I would study English and French at ‘A’ Level, with a couple of “filler” courses like General Studies thrown in for good measure. To be honest, I didn’t much care at this point but I was prepared to stay on through the Sixth Form and sit the ‘A’ Levels, even though I had no clear idea of what would come after that. I had always loved – and excelled at – English, so that would be no problem, I thought, and as for French – well, it would likely be more interesting now that we would learn French Literature as well as Language.
Our English Mistress up to the Fifth Form had been an amazingly good teacher who really managed to draw you into the likes of Shakespeare, Keats and Jane Austen. I loved learning from her and consequently learned to love the works we studied – Macbeth, various Keats odes and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I doubt I could have stomached Jane Austen without Miss Barraclough’s expert teaching but she was so good that she even made that interesting.
Our teacher in the Sixth Form was a very different kettle of fish. She seemed as disinterested in her subject as she was in us, her students. Our first book was Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” which I absolutely hated! The hero was a prig and the heroine a wimp – liking neither of them, it was well nigh impossible to take an interest in what happened to them in the course of the novel. Mrs Cox did not have the knack of bringing these bland, boring characters to life in the way that Miss Barraclough might have done. I was bored and miserable.
As for French – well that was so gripping that I can’t remember a single thing we studied in that first term of the Sixth Form! To make matters worse, June and I were in separate streams for the first time and I saw much less of her during actual classes. If that were all I might have gritted my teeth and hung on but life at home was also becoming more fraught. Mum and I had begun to argue a lot more, Peter had started work at a local factory as a trainee manager and although we saw a lot of each other he was naturally more absorbed in his working life.
He and I were also both “growing up” fast and had discovered the joys of an active sex life. Back in the late 1960s birth control was something only available to married women so that the responsibility for avoiding an unwanted pregnancy fell largely to the male of the species. It wasn’t very long before I had my first bad “scare” in this regard. My period was so late that I had to grit my teeth and tell Mum that I feared I might be pregnant. Not unnaturally, she went ballistic and slapped me (something she rarely if ever did). The resulting row between us was of Titanic proportions causing me to pack a bag and march out.
I had become very friendly with a much older woman called Marjorie, married with six children, who was a colleague at Moneysave, the supermarket where I worked on Saturdays. For some reason, it was to Marjorie that I turned and she – having a heart as big as all outdoors – kindly took me in. In her view, what was one more in a family of eight? If I was going to stay with her, I decided, I would have to get a job and pay my way. I applied to Moneysave for a full-time position and was employed on the spot as a check-out operator for the then princely wage of £10.00 per week. At that time this was very good money – clerical jobs were offering an average of £5.00 a week – but the hours were long and the work was far from inspiring! However, I was highly chuffed with myself and felt that I was “grown up” at last.
All the emotional turmoil and upheaval of these events had its physical effect and my overdue period arrived, to my enormous relief! However, I was enjoying earning my own living and being free from the restrictions of the scholastic regime. While I was away from home, Miss Nimmo was in constant touch with Mum, wanting to know where I was and when I was going back to school. Mum, having learned through the grapevine that I was working at Moneysave and living with Marjorie, explained that she thought it very unlikely I would be returning to school at all. Miss Nimmo was all for calling the police and having me returned home by force, completely forgetting that by law, at the age of 16, I was entitled to leave home, get a job, get married if I chose and generally (in her view) “go to Hell in a handcart” without let or hindrance!
Life at Marjorie’s was one huge, loving, chaotic muddle and I was very happy to fit in until one night, a couple of weeks into my stay, everything changed. I was fast asleep and woke suddenly to find Sean, Marjorie’s husband, in the room. He sat on my bed and started whispering to me in a highly inappropriate manner with the obvious intention of climbing into bed with me. This was something entirely beyond my ken! I didn’t know what to do – if I screamed, Marjorie would undoubtedly be hurt and might even blame me for what was happening. If I didn’t scream Sean was quite likely to “have his wicked way with me”, which didn’t bear thinking about. Somehow, between threats and cajolery, I was able to talk him out of it and make him go away. I spent the rest of the night wide awake, ears pricked, in case of a repeat performance.
In the morning, I told Marjorie that I was homesick and wanted to go back to Mum’s. I thanked her for being so kind to me and for her help in my hour of need and after work, I took my suitcase home to Mum, tail firmly between legs!