Nameless Souls on Sepia

This was a piece I wrote a few years back. I was lucky enough to have its included in a lovely Anthology titled ‘More Voices on the Verandah’ which was the final in a series of works by Anglo-Indians and those of Anglo-Indian descent. The Anthology is available still and is edited by Lionel Lumb

They were just nameless souls on sepia, staring out seemingly into space:  a peer into a time long since past and now, not often remembered with any degree of regularity. With its jagged edges, it was evident that part of the photograph had been torn away, why is a mystery. Someone in the family, though I cannot recall who, had once mentioned that there had been a rift within the family back in the days when they used to gather at the beautiful hill station of Mussoorie, when escaping the harrowing heat of the city. That was as much as was known. There was no accompanying documentation and nothing written down to suggest who the people in the picture may have been. That they were ancestors seemed a little more than likely. The photograph depicted a wedding scene. Three people remained in the frame. Two seated and one standing or rather two standing but as one had been unceremoniously decapitated he could not be counted. He could have been anyone. The bride wore a lavish wedding gown of lace with what appeared to be a full layered veil laid lightly and carefully, so as not to interfere with her elegant upswept hair which was so fashionable in the early 1900s. Seated beside her was an older man with a head of thick snow white wavy hair, and sporting a long white beard: a little like Santa Claus in a suit. Beneath the hairy façade was a man not unlike my father. In fact, but for the beard it could have been my father sitting beside the bride.  It was the eyes that gave it away. They were the same eyes that had watched over me all my life. Only my father’s eyes had seen different things to those of the apparently stoic figure of the man pictured here. Their worlds were far apart but their narrative of origin was one and the same.

Aunty Paddy had been a gifted and animated storyteller who had a penchant for making colourless characters come to life. She would captivate us with stories of heroes, heroines and travellers tales. “Children….are you listening carefully?” would be our queue to gather round to hear how our ancestors had sailed across oceans in search of fame and fortune. The story told so eloquently and consistently by Aunty Paddy, revealed that long ago when great vessels with billowing sails ruled the waves, travelling the trade routes carrying spices, silks and other luxury commodities, and when George III was King; two or possibly three brothers had set sail from bonny Scotland for the far off and exotic land of India. One of them or maybe all of them had been seduced by what the East had to offer, fallen madly in love with and married an Indian princess, and lived out his days happily ever after in India. This was perhaps a rather romanticised account but this was how the story had been told and retold. One brother had perhaps been a doctor, one a sea captain and the third, if indeed there was a third could have been anything Paddy decided him to be. Such is the power of the narrator. The stories were most likely a mixture of myth and reality but to us as children they were fact rather than fiction, impressing upon our imagination that we were indelibly connected to this mysterious and mystical other world, where gods were more than one, and princes were one and many; a world that had captured the hearts and souls of our forefathers and that was forever in our blood.

Shared experiences, cultures, customs and habits all go some way to forging our identities. What we are told as children often stays with us as adults. However, there are other commonalities that can engender an inherent sense of identity and belonging, such as the idea of shared stories and myths. There is no hard definition of myth. Myth is sometimes seen as being synonymous with fantasy and fairy stories, and little to do with fact. The notion of myth often conjures up images of superheroes and superhuman beings that create an idealised view of where we come from, therefore adding to our sense of worth. To us, these pioneers were real life superheroes; they represented the true to life fodder of fairy tales and fiction, that filled our minds with the machinations of an ‘Other’ world. 

Linking myth to the narrative form is relevant, especially when considering Anglo-Indian narratives of origin because their change in circumstances, and the transitions they underwent in adapting to a colonial and a post colonial era both in Indian and in British society is shrouded with princesses both real and imagined. Of particular interest is what has become known as the princess myth which seems to circulate in many Anglo-Indian families. The myth suggests the presence of a noble ancestral connection and more specifically an Indian princess. What is of importance is why this myth has been created and the reason why some families lay claim to a princess in their midst.

Aunty Paddy’s version of events is echoed in a letter dated 19th December 2004 written by Marjorie Williams to her niece;

     …thank you so much for sending me a copy of the family tree…It’s very interesting that so many Howatsons lived in India. Where does the Scottish side come in? I suppose Thomas Howatson who was originally married to (an Indian Princess)? So I heard. My story was that two brothers, Thomas and George set sail from Scotland – one a doctor and the other a sailor or captain of a ship. I can’t tell you where I got this story from – maybe Paddy…

The letter demonstrates firstly, that we find our narratives of origin appealing at any age. Marjorie Williams was 81 when she wrote the letter. She is unable to remember where she got the story from, ‘…maybe Paddy’ she asserts. Paddy was her elder sister who had died some years earlier and who it is purported knew more about the history of the family than anyone else. When Paddy past away, so too did much of the family narrative.

In addition the letter typifies the element of the ‘Indian princess’ myth that circulates in many Anglo-Indian families. Marjorie Williams is Anglo-Indian. Her father was Hugh William Howatson born in Calcutta, India, in 1886, habitually resident in India until about 1900 when he was sent to Britain to finish his education and later to follow a successful career in medicine. It was in Scotland that he met, fell in love with and married his own princess. His princess was Annie. It was close to one hundred years earlier, when Hugh William’s great grandfather Thomas Howatson had set sail for India. What Thomas would have thought of the Britain that his great grandson Hugh returned to can only be guessed at. It is known that following an irregular marriage in Glasgow, Hugh and Annie journeyed to India and travelled about with their young family for a few years, only to return permanently to Britain later. The reasons for their movements between these two great lands, is unknown. The Diaspora to other lands following partition and independence is well documented but what of those who returned to the fatherland beforehand. What are their stories? Our sense of ‘self’ is governed by what is going on the world and is in a constant state of flux. 

It is only by telling our stories and passing them on to our children that we can preserve the memories and myths of past lives. Many stories are passed down between one generation and another, while other stories remain untold and are lost forever. So next time, when you are gathered cosily around the dining table after a sumptuous Sunday lunch as is quite common among families, laughing at the crazy antics of dad’s schooldays,  finding out about grandma’s culinary gifts or hearing of an aunt’s penchant for telling tales, take note and listen very carefully to the snippets and anecdotes of your elders for these are your stories, your narratives of origin: savour every word and share!

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Memoirs ~ Head Sore

Head sore 

Class six proved as ineffectual educationally as class four. I don’t really remember learning that much in either class, as most of the time the teacher was shouting at the class trying to gain control. It was a losing battle for the teacher most of the time. She was soft, and the kids knew it! Miss Lawrie mentioned previously, was far too nice to be teaching at Kelvin Grove. She might have been safer teaching the infants! What her memories of Kelvin Grove Junior School must be, can only be guessed at but it is my guess that when she left, it was like being set free from a horrible period of punishment.  

At this time in educational establishments boys were still given the cane if they were really naughty. I often remember taking the register up to the Head Teacher’s office, and seeing a queue of boys sitting outside waiting to be caned. It was just accepted as the norm. I was glad I was a girl at such times as boys really did seem to have a much harder time at school. Mind you, I always felt that they shouldn’t be naughty then. Whether the punishment fitted the crimes committed is debateable. 

One day, a day like any other at Kelvin Grove but not like any day I had ever had Miss Lawrie left the classroom, a common occurrence, to fetch assistance from another teacher to help calm the class down as it was beyond her skills to achieve this. While she was away from the classroom a boy named Paul took a ball of hardened plastacine and hurled it hard at the windows between the classrooms; a good throw if he had been playing cricket. One of the windows smashed. There’d be trouble now. Paul hurriedly went round the classroom threatening that anyone who told on him would get it. By that he meant he would hurt them. Even in class six Paul was the best fighter in the school and not someone you upset intentionally, at least not if you had any common sense. He was a volatile and unpredictable boy who could be charming one day and a monster the next. Paul was blond, blue eyed and athletically built. He had a nice voice that gave little indication of the stormy nature that brewed within but he was a troubled boy who was just dismissed as naughty. That was the thing if you misbehaved you were quickly labelled and the label would stick and over time you lived up to the label as if you had decided to give people what they expected.

My mistake that day was being little Miss Goody Two Shoes. Rather than say I knew nothing about the window I told the truth and told the teacher that it was Paul who broke the window. I am sure he got the cane for that, not something that I had given any thought to at the time. I found out later that Paul used to get beaten by his dad at home not because his dad was necessarily a bad man but because that was how he viewed fatherhood and had probably had a similar upbringing himself by his own father. I think if I had known that about Paul I might not have said anything but as it was I thought it was the right thing to do.  With hindsight I know that I was more scared of getting in trouble from lying than I was of anything Paul could do to me. I had been brought up to tell the truth and shame the devil. It was better to admit to a lie than to prolong the lie and get found out that you were lying. I paid the price for informing on Paul. He waited until dinner play when there was the minimum of staff supervision. It didn’t matter that I was a girl. At that age boys rarely think that they mustn’t hit girls. Paul took my bag off me which I recall quite clearly was a dark maroon colour with a white rim or edging that I took off my toy shopping trolley. He roughly snatched that bag, swung it high above his head and then brought it down hard on mine with forceful anger. The pain was excruciating. How my neck didn’t break I don’t know. No one did anything to protect me as they were all too afraid to stand up against him. They could only help and support me in the aftermath when I cried my eyes out. It seems that very few people stand up to bullies, not because they are cowards necessarily but just because they are trying to survive in a tough world and let’s face it they are scared of getting hurt themselves.  At these times you don’t always think about standing together and uniting against the bullies not when you’re children anyway; not always even when you’re an adult.  

I only ever remember one person standing up to Paul. The girl’s name was Sharon. I don’t remember why they fought, just that they did. As the fight started, cheers of “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” could be heard chanted across the playground. The children descended on the fight as vultures to a rotting carcass, surrounding the two figures in the middle. No child present tried to stop the fight; it was n’t the done thing. Paul repeatedly punched Sharon with precision to the head while Sharon’s flailing fists tried to fight back. She did n’t, would n’t back down. Never before have I seen such determination to stand one’s ground. Whether she was brave or stupid depends on where you are standing but on that day in my opinion that girl was the bravest person that I had ever seen. She had no way of beating him; her tear stained face was red with crying but she kept going. She was the first person I ever saw stand up to a bully even though she was scared. Whether he ever felt any remorse for hurting me, Sharon or anyone else I have no idea or whether he felt he was justified in punishing me for telling, again I have no idea. I had been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and either way I would lose. I didn’t ever tell on Paul again. That was the first time anyone had really hurt me physically. It wasn’t to be the last. I got over it and Paul  forgot about it, even being kind to me when he kicked a football against my head.  He was a strange boy who puzzled me. 

Paul was one of those boys always in trouble for fighting, and losing his temper, yet it was unheard of to involve Educational Psychologists back then. The boy would get in trouble, possibly get the cane, maybe a letter home. At home he would probably get a smack from his mum, even worse from his dad. Parents knew that kids could do wrong, and invariably did do wrong. If the child was in trouble it was a case of “What did you do. You must have done something”. Parents did not go in, and accuse the teachers of unreasonable behaviour. Parents let the teachers do the teaching, and the teachers left parents to do the parenting. There was no overlap. Parents didn’t crowd the playground at the beginning or end of the school day. The minute children entered the school gate ,the kids became the school’s responsibility. Each understood their role in the development of the child, and neither interfered with the other. That’s just how it was.

In Kelvin Grove it was better to just flow and fit in with the main crowd, if you didn’t want trouble. Back then it didn’t do to be too different. The kids that were different were the ones that tended to get picked on. I remember some of the kids that were given a hard time. Among them I remember a boy by the name of Sinclair Hart. What were his parents thinking giving him a name like that, then sending him to a like school like Kelvin Grove.  Personally I think it is a beautiful name! A film star’s name! His name was different, and he himself was a little eccentric to our rather limited life experience. In fourth year juniors he was still wearing grey knee length shorts, another no-no. On top he would wear a tank top over his shirt and sport a bow tie; no kidding, a bow tie. He wore his hair short and smart unlike the other boys who had longer, messier hair that was typical of the 1970’s.  Sinclair looked out of place, and his appearance along with his name made him stand out as did his beautifully pronounced diction. I do not know what became of him but think that maybe his parents eventually withdrew him from the school and sent him elsewhere. With retrospect I now think he was a real character but never attempted to be friendly as it would have brought trouble on me. Yet earlier on in the school my younger sister and I had been among only a few pupils who bothered to wear school uniform. So maybe we were not that different after all. That didn’t last long when we saw that wearing uniform didn’t fit in with the other kids. As I grew up I decided that I did n’t want to be the same as everyone else and tried my best to be different. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I did n’t. It would get me into trouble from time to time but by the time I was an adult, I had learned that it is okay to be different, although to be honest there were plenty of times when I chose to be different just to be awkward, and not because it was the right thing to do for me. Mostly it was because I did n’t like being told what to do.

Another pupil who was treated with disrespect was a young South East Asian boy by the name of Barrett. I think he too was friendly and decent, and never remember him doing anything to hurt anyone else. Yet he was berated at times, which looking back was not only unfair but pretty dehumanising. Children can be heartless at times, and demonstrate a ruthlessness one would not usually associate with childhood. It is often not until we are adults that we realise how cruel, and thoughtless we have been and even though we have been so thoughtless ,we brush it aside as just part of growing up. 

For the most part I managed well enough, just every now and then would I do something that landed me in trouble with those kids, I would have rather steered clear of. Even the nicer kids could sometimes be cruel. Maybe they didn’t realise it at the time. I know that in Secondary School I was guilty of being inadvertently cruel in a secondary sort of way. That in a way is even worse than the ones being overtly nasty. 

I look back, and know that I could have made a difference to the likes of Elaine and Kay  who at secondary school were often the butt of cruel and snide remarks. Both girls acted like they did n’t realise it but I am sure they knew it and felt hurt. Elaine was a skinny girl with blond hair and freckles who reminded me of a pop star called Clodagh Rodgers, a winner of the Eurovision song contest with a song titled  I’ll be your Jack in the Box.  She used to be picked on, and called skinny ribs but it’s Elaine who’s had the last laugh now as I am sure that many of those who made these remarks are overweight with middle-aged spread, and would now die for a figure like Elaine’s.  Then Kay who was very short and busty was given a hard time for being big chested. Some of the girls used to taunt her about having greasy hair as they did Elaine, and yet don’t the majority of teenage girls suffer with greasy hair from time to time. What was the big deal? Kay actually looked to me like a young Liza Minelli, although her hair wasn’t as dark. I never told her or anyone that but had I let her know that she was like the famous caberet star then it may have helped her self- esteem. Instead I watched in silence from the sidelines minding my own business. As an adult I know now what I ought to have done but growing up is difficult. No one tells us how to do it. We just do it the only way we know how.

Today is the day ~ A Little Princess

Today is the day’ …was a collection of musings I wrote during the Peri menopause years. It’s spoken in the first person, and was based largely on my journal entries written around that time. Journalling is a wonderful way to express this, that and whatever else needs to be said whether aloud or silently…

The truth is kids grow into teenagers arriving at that crossroads in life when they are neither child nor adult not fitting neatly into one camp or another and my god, do they let you know it at every given opportunity. They are a breed apart from mainstream human society. I do not use the term breed lightly as I believe there is a certain animal quality inherent in any individual between 13 and 19. They think they know it all, they accuse you of not caring and tell you constantly that you do not understand them. They are constantly bored, always critical, totally self-obsessed, self opinionated and make it their aim in life to get on your nerves on a daily basis. Where once they were endearing and cuddly, suddenly they are obnoxious and rude to the point where you really cannot believe that they are yours and that you actually gave birth to them. It seems strange that at this moment I should recall Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein. I guess she was not the only one to create a monster. Perhaps I am being too hard on the little darlings and they are not the least bit like monsters but with retrospect, I sincerely think not. There is definitely some connection. Teenagers really do exist. We as parents often ask ourselves what is it that we did to deserve such treatment from our offspring, when all we ever have is their best interests at heart. Surely they should be grateful to us for putting a roof over their heads, food on the table, clothes on their backs and giving lifts to concerts, clubs, parties, friend’s houses, school, shopping and of course the school run which would not have been too bad but with my middle child that meant to school and from school until he left at 16 and doing the same for his mates was a bonus for me on most days. And what about holding their hands at the dentist, the orthodontist, doctors and in the school playground, well at least until they got too embarrassed by you and would rather you kept your distance. This last observance about distance seems to last well into their teens. God forbid that their friends, most of whom you have known since infants should see them with you, their parents. On the rare occurrence where our daughter granted us with her presence, on the premise that she would get a new iPhone saw her walk several paces behind with her hood up so as to avoid recognition by any of her friends that may be loitering in the vicinity.  In my own particular case the list also included daily trips to the stable yard, and weekly trips to the local golf club. Did I mention the ballet classes and the weekly football? Yet all we get in return for our considerateness is eyes up to heaven, monosyllabic grunts, tuts, shakes of the head  and mutterings under the breath to indicate how irritating they find you. You are old and are not the least bit clued up about where they are coming from or where they are going. They speak a whole new language…’you get what I’m saying like’ and so on and so forth. I have given up correcting speech and grammar in favour of a peaceful life by simply turning a deaf ear when they do speak. However, by doing this I get accused of never listening but then why should I when the language I grew up with has been murdered and mutilated beyond all recognition. I am on my third and final teenager now. My first two are now in their 20s and parents themselves. If what goes around comes around then I will take great pleasure in watching my children suffer the storms and strops of the turbulent teens in turn, a sort of divine retribution shall we say where the Piper is paid back in kind, and when mum can sit back with a smug smirk on her face in an all knowing way. 

Just now our baby girl, currently 16 going on 26, is uppermost in my thoughts. It has been like that a lot lately. Until a few short months ago she was a wild unkempt tom boy who resembled a pikey rather than a little princess. For instance, if I had mentioned the word bra to her she would have recoiled in mock disgust at the thought of it. It was all I could do to broach the subject when she eventually developed sufficiently ample bosoms to require one. I remember one time watching Trinny and Susannah unashamedly grab the breasts of a woman they were restyling on their makeover tv show only to be accused by my daughter of exposing her to pornography. If she had seen a couple kissing on television she would have looked away, genuinely embarrassed. How times change, now she has realised that she has a fine pair of what my husband terms man magnets, a really cringe worthy image, he is a builder and such terminology frequently finds its way into the house, and she is more than a little proud of what she has in common with Jordan and not the least bit shy or modest even. Oh yes, times have certainly changed. My little girl has gone and grown up on me without warning. She is no longer my chicken in the library or my ferocious lion with sharp teeth and claws but has donned the appearance of a diva come rock chick right down to her perfectly pointed stilettos. On the subject of stilettos, she did insist on wearing them the other day to go shopping with her mates. I did warn her. My exact words were, I think “ Are you sure you want to wear those shoes?” well of course she was sure, she liked them and they looked ‘dead good’. I had to agree they looked great but mentioned that she might feel differently about them after wearing them for a few hours around the shopping centre. I was of course proved right, and there was no need to rub it in by saying ‘I told you so’. It did not need to be said…the pain in her feet and legs said it all. I do not believe she has worn those shoes since. To think that we use to watch From Ladette to Lady on television, and laugh laboriously at the dreadful pits to which these young girls would sink. It never occurred to me that I was harbouring a ladette in the making, although I like to think that she still has a few ladylike leanings but that is most probably wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps it is just a passing phase, just one of many. I thought it would be easier this time, firstly because I have done this before with two boys both delightful little cherubs when they were born, well at least for the first few weeks. They do not remain babies for long, and before you know it they soon grow into the men they are to become albeit bit by bit. If the law of attraction is true and I have no reason to believe that it is not the old saying many a true word spoken in jest takes on an entirely new meaning. Why oh why did I ever jokingly liken my sons to notorious twins. What was I thinking? Actually, I clearly was not thinking at all. How was I to know that by saying such things I was tempting providence, and unknowingly urging the Universe to accommodate me.

© Liola Lee 2010

(image is one I took of my lovely daughter who is and will always be my Little Princess)

Memoirs ~ Ping…”Oh no not my knicker elastic”

Ping!! Oh No, not my knicker elastic

If you have ever had your knicker elastic break then read on. This is the story of one child’s harrowing experience! The girl was in Class 6 at the time or Year 5 as it is now called. The teacher was a lovely lady with long mid- brown hair, and a kind warm-hearted smile. Her name was Miss Lawrie. She wore short skirts and long suede boots which were in keeping with the fashion at the time. She was an attractive woman, and far too nice to be working in a school like Kelvin Grove Junior. The school was rough and not for the faint hearted. Try as she would Miss Lawrie could not control the class. You had to be as tough as old boots to work in this school. Miss Lawrie was out of her depth, and drowning in a sea of chaos and child led conflict. By now you’re probably thinking that it was Miss Lawrie’s knicker elastic that snapped. Not so. To understand the enormity of the impending situation, one has to have some idea as to the establishment in which the event took place. The teacher, as has been noted was lovely, the school was not! The children or at least some of them were as you’ve probably guessed by now lacking in social skills, and in training for a future stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.  Some of the boys were scary and some of the girls even scarier still. Hopefully by now you are a little clearer as to how things were.

‘PING’ -” Oh no not my knicker elastic ” thought the girl who was instantly thrown into a state of shock, horror and disbelief all rolled into one. Everything that ensued was the result of a nine year olds race to rescue herself from ridicule and embarrassment. The girl put her hand up to gain the teachers attention, for it would be fair to say that she was a good girl, and liked to adhere to the rules, at least most of the time and to have shouted for attention would have been quite rude. Miss Lawrie saw the child’s raised hand and asked what it was the girl wanted. The child asked to be excused to go to the toilet. The teacher agreed to her request, and simply said not to be too long. Oh, she was so nice, that Miss Lawrie! Holding tightly onto her knickers as discreetly as she could manage through her clothes, the girl stood up to leave the classroom and make her way to the toilet. She hoped that no one would notice how nervous she was, and how red in the face from embarrassment. She hoped no one would question her. If they did she would feign a stomach ache. That is what she would do. This would explain why she appeared to be holding her tummy; just to be on the safe side the girl pulled a few good faces as well, as if by screwing hers eyes up, and opening and closing her mouth in mock pain she would appear more convincingly unwell. Luckily the toilets were only a little way down the corridor but nevertheless the walk to the toilets seemed to take forever. She walked slowly, trying to appear as though she were in great physical discomfort. After all, if one must pretend to have a stomach ache then it went without saying that one should look and act the part. Whether she looked the part or not remains a mystery. At the time she felt that she gave an Oscar winning performance.

Arriving at the girl’s cloakroom, for that was where the toilets were the girl looked about to make sure that she was quite on her own. There were two toilets in the cloakroom adjacent to each other both with the walls painted a pale understated shabby pink . There were grey slightly chequered melamine doors. Children observe the strangest of things at the strangest of times. The girl turned to tackling the problem of her falling down knickers. The knickers were nylon and had a purple design with a sprinkling of orange flowers. The girl never forgot those knickers. The girl got so involved in fastening the offending garment that she failed to hear someone enter the cloakroom quietly, and oh so sneakily. What was worse, the girl did not notice that she was being watched. There was a gap of some six maybe eight inches between the toilets in the single window recess which served both small rooms. The toilets were not original features but had been added much later and the builders had clearly not thought to fit the dividing panel flush to the window, so that generations of girls could enjoy at least a modicum of privacy. Why should they care?

Back to those knickers. Fortunately, the girl was quite practical, and had a good head for solving problems. She was wearing lace- up shoes. Good strong laces should be just fine to fix things for now, the girl thought. She unlaced one shoe and gathered up the loose material on the waist of her knickers, and tied the lace as securely as she could. This done, the girl returned to her classroom, still unaware that she had been spied on. She was actually feeling quite pleased with herself for her ingenuity and immediate improvisation. She wondered if others would have thought of so clever a solution. With hindsight it would probably have been easier to discreetly let the teacher know of her predicament, and she might have simply been given a pair of spare clean  knickers. The school always had spares of everything, including knickers, just in case of emergencies, and this was most definitely an emergency. Yes it would surely have been easier but then when you are nine, something like this is difficult to talk about. You’re not thinking in the same way you do as an adult.

The girl returned to the classroom relieved that her knickers were now tied securely. However, she moved about carefully just in case the lace worked itself loose. The fear of her knickers falling down was too awful to contemplate. It just didn’t bear thinking about. Returning to the classroom the girl carried on as normal until lunchtime. No one need ever know. Thank goodness for that she thought. After lunch the children gathered in the playground for play, before the afternoon session got underway. Anyone who noticed the missing shoelace was told how one minute it was there, and the next minute it was gone. Children often take things at face value. No one questioned that it seemed odd, and indeed unlikely.

Then, the girl’s worst nightmare happened in the guise of Wendy. Wendy was really not a nice girl. In fact she was a mean and nasty individual who ran a good line in bullying. Even some of the boys were afraid of her! She was someone to be avoided at all costs was Wendy, best to stay out of her way. Wendy made it quite clear that she had seen the girl in the toilets tying her shoe lace around her knickers. Wendy said it in an all knowing smug way, her weasly face looking even more weasly than usual; it seemed to empower her, and give her satisfaction that she had the upper hand in this situation should she wish to exercise any control over her involuntary victim. The girl felt her world crumble about her! She wanted the ground beneath her to open up and swallow her whole. Soon she would be made the laughing stock in the playground. The tears welled up inside her, and she could feel a knot forming in her throat that was making it difficult to breathe. It took all her effort to hold the tears back. She felt sick to her stomach and totally panic stricken. The girl wished that Wendy would get it over and done with! Wendy was cruel and hateful! Never before had the girl hated anyone, not really anyway but today she thought she hated Wendy. Today was the worst of all days, and the girl felt sure that there was worse yet to come. 

Wendy made the girl’s life a misery on a daily basis. Wendy and her partner in crime Robert used to wait for the girl and her little sister after school skulking in the shadows, only to appear from nowhere or so it it seemed. They would push and shove the girl along the road, taunting her and spitting at her, making fun of the fact that her and her sister were the only kids in the school who wore the correct uniform. The girl did nothing. She let them push her, she let them shove her, and let them call her names. She did nothing, and she felt that by doing nothing they would leave her sister alone. She was right. They never lifted a finger against her little sister. Whether the girl was right or wrong is a matter for debate. Some would say that she should have hit those bullies as hard as she could. Others might say that she was right to turn the other cheek. Some would say, ‘Well, that’s kids for you’. What was strange that year was that Wendy could have pointed the finger at the girl, and told the entire school what she had seen that day in the toilet. She could have let everyone laugh at the girl’s expense but she didn’t. If she told anyone, they never said anything. Childhood can be a tough journey for some. Children try to find their way in the world. Some seem to sail through with ease while others have many challenges and obstacles to overcome. It was a long time ago now and the girl has grown and dealt with far worse! Yet at the time those feelings of panic, and the fear of being ridiculed were very real. 

This really happened. The bullies were really called Wendy and Robert. I would have named and shamed them but decided to omit surnames to protect others. They know who they are and I can only hope that they changed and that if they didn’t, well that is for the Universe to decide. 

Memoirs ~ Kelvin Grove

The best days of your life or not?

How often have you heard adults say that your school days are the best days of your life. I am sure that Tom Brown in the novel of the same name would argue against that assumption. Looking back I can honestly say that at times I enjoyed school, and at others I hated it. School for me was just something that you had to go to. There was no choice, it was compulsory or so that is what we believed. Things were very different in the 1970’s. For a start, few parents dropped the kids of at school; there just wasn’t any need to do so; children made their own way, either with brothers and sisters or with friends or both. Parents didn’t group in the playground, cluttering the place up with pushchairs and toddlers, clucking around like broody hens. You were trusted and expected to take yourselves to school, and trusted to get yourself back home again from a very young age. Parents just didn’t have the same fear factor that faces modern parents, well, at least not to the same degree. Parents didn’t have to get that involved with the school apart from making an appearance at Parent’s Evening every now and then. Once you were at school the teachers were in charge of you. That’s how it was. If you did wrong at school, the teachers would punish you as they saw fit; maybe with a smack or a shout or if you were a boy, you could get sent to the Head Teacher for the cane. I can recall taking the register up to the Head Mistress’s office as that was where they went once the register had been called. It was not unusual to see a queue of boys waiting to be given the cane.

My school days began as a rising five at Kelvin Grove Junior School in Kirkdale, South East London. It wasn’t reputed as a particularly good school but it could have been worse and it could certainly have been better. Would have passed an Ofsted inspection these days? Highly unlikely! Maureen, my eldest sister had started her school career at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Primary School. One lunch time she refused to eat an apple so the Nuns locked her in a cupboard, in the dark. I have never been locked away in a dark cupboard. For a five year old it must have been terrifying. If that was done to a child today it would be considered child abuse. Mummy took her away from St Joseph’s immediately, and found an available place at Kelvin Grove, which is how we all got to go there.  Perhaps that early trauma in Maureen’s life left an unseen scar. 

We used to walk to school form Hillcrest Road, down through Well’s Park to the other side, where we came out at the top of Taylor’s Lane and then into Well’s Park Road. At the top end of Taylor’s Lane there was a tiny house. In fact I think even now it was the tiniest house I have ever seen. It stood adjacent to the park’s entrance. Rumour had it that a witch lived in the house. Everyone knew it. It was common knowledge; therein lived the Witch of Taylor’s Lane in her witch’s hovel.  Many children used to shout out “witch” as they ran past screaming. Everyone was terrified of her in case she cast an evil spell on them or cast them a look with her evil eye.  Now, when I heard about the Witch I simply believed what I was told. Why should anyone lie about the presence of a witch? Far be it for me to argue with a fact that had been established as true by those who professed to know more about these things then the likes of me. Why question the fact? She must have been called a witch for some reason or at least that’s what I thought at the time. These days I question everything, and have no time for witch hunts or witch-finder generals of which there are still many, all eager to fill the post

One day when still very young, I was walking by and I actually caught a glimpse of the  so-called Witch of Taylor’s Lane.  The Witch was very short, tiny in fact with hair like thistledown. It was surprisingly neat and tidy hair for a witch or so I thought at the time.  My image of Witches at the time was based very much in Grimm’s Brothers fairytales.  Her skin was crepe like and wrinkled as one would expect to see on one so old. It was said that she was a hundred years old, maybe even as much as a hundred and two. She did n’t look as scary as I had expected. Witches were supposed to look scary or so I thought. In fact she did n’t look scary at all. It was n’t until much later that I realised that the Witch was no witch at all.  She was just a tiny frail old lady living in a tiny cottage alone, probably lonely, and persecuted. Why someone had decided on some day at some time to call her a witch is unknown to me. Children can be so cruel! The old lady’s life was one of persecution and taunts by so-called innocents. She must have lived in constant fear! Some children would dare others to knock on her door,  and then run away. Others would be more brazen and even wait for her to answer the door before calling her names. There were others who would throw eggs at her house. I look back and curse myself for never having stopped what I saw. The old lady cruelly dubbed  thew Witch of Taylor’s Lane must have died a long time ago but there are many adults out there who must know that they did a terrible thing. I can only hope they are sorry for what they did. Me, I am sorry for what I did n’t do.We remember things at the strangest of times. Until now I had forgotten about that poor old lady. 

Going back to the subject of school, we would walk along Well’s Park Road until we got to the school gates on the Well’s Park side. I have many memories of playing in Well’s Park with my sisters and friends, and over the years it doesn’t seemed to have changed that much, not to look at anyway.  We were never worried about walking through the Park, never concerned that there might be some danger lurking behind the bushes in dark spaces; either because there wasn’t any danger or because we didn’t think about things like that which is more likely. Of course we were always told not to talk to strangers, and to go straight to school or straight home and not to dawdle; we were always told there was safety in numbers. Evidently, parents had similar fears to those felt by parents today, and yet, they still gave us room to grow and be independent. I have often asked myself why I have been so over-protective of my own children. Have times really changed so much that we dare not let our children out of our sight for fear that something terrible should befall them. Where and when did we learn to be so fearful?

My first teacher was Mrs Redgrave who appeared to me to be tall but then I was only four and a half so I expect all grown ups looked tall to me back then. Mrs Redgrave had silver shiny wavy hair that was neat and tidy, which she wore close to the nape of her neck. Mrs Redgrave had small piercing blue eyes that seemed to see right through you and know what you were thinking.  She was a teacher who demanded respect even from such young children. One of my earliest memories of starting school was sitting down in my classroom and wetting myself. It was possibly my first day at school. The boy next to me who I remember only too well for all manner of reasons raised his hand to seek attention from the teacher, “Please Miss, she’s wet herself” pointing at me. There were laughter and giggles all around.  I can hear it now echoing down through the corridors of time.  I don’t think I was told off as I believe that Mrs Redgrave quite liked me but I was escorted to the staff room and given some dry knickers to change into. I am not sure if I cried or not?  There was a good chance that I did as I was able to turn on the tears if the need arose even though I was only four. If I did cry, I have erased it from my memory. Either that or I didn’t cry. It was in this class that I made friends with Angela Ham. Angela was a pretty girl with big soft brown eyes and long black curled lashes. Angela Ham became my first best friend at school. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I discovered Angela was black or maybe mixed race but then so was I mixed race being Anglo-Indian on my dad’s side, something I did not really know until much later in life. The same was true of my friends Angela and Charmaine. Angela’s roots lay in Jamaica and Charmaine’s in the West Indies. Of course they had always been the same colour, nothing had changed but what did change was that when I was a fair bit older my attention was drawn to it: not by anything they had done or that I had done but by politicians, people who should have known better. When I was growing up our friends were neither black, white or mixed race or anything else, they were just our friends. It didn’t matter the colour of our skin back then, and as small children we didn’t notice that there was any difference.  

 The only other incident that sticks in my mind is when after PE we were all changing back into our own clothes and Debbie who was to be another of my best friends was putting on her pink crocheted cardigan. While stretching up and out her arm into the sleeve, she knocked over a vase that was standing on the window sill. It fell and smashed in pieces on the floor. It was an accident but she still got smacked by the teacher for being careless. I think it was that incident in those first few days in school that encouraged me to be a good girl, at least for most of the time. Today my husband and daughter refer to me as a goody two shoes when I mention that I was well behaved at school. However, there were times later on when my halo slipped, and I became a survivor in a jungle, that jungle being school.  

From Mrs Redgrave’s class I found myself being taught by Mrs Riley who although she had an Irish name was not Irish. She too had silver hair but tinged with blue which she wore short. Mrs Riley had a rich mellow voice with an accent which was neither English nor Indian but which I am now certain to have been a mixture of the two. I feel fairly sure that she was Anglo-Indian which is where my own heritage lies on my paternal side. Of course I will never find out if I am right unless someone who remembers or someone who knew her is able to tell me if I am. Mrs Riley also seemed to quite like me, and never said a cross word to me. My time in her class passed without incident or at least without any that sticks in my mind, although one other thing has suddenly sprung to mind. The infants finished at a quarter past three while the juniors finished a little later. For those of us who had older siblings in the school we had to wait in the infant school hall until we were collected by our older brothers and sisters. During that time we would be read a story which was quite enjoyable as we were at an age where being read to was still very much a pleasure. On this particular occasion the teacher reading was Miss Marion. Miss Marion was I felt very pretty and fair. She wore long suade boots and short skirts as was the trend at that time. One afternoon my sisters were late collecting me from the hall. They got into so much trouble and were told off by Miss Marion in no uncertain terms. They were never late fetching me again. They were only little girls themselves but back then if you were older you were expected to take responsibility for your younger brothers and sisters.

Those were my years spent in the infants, next came the juniors.

In class two I was still best friends with Debbie who had superceded Angela Ham in that role. I had been devastated for a short while when Angela left the school but soon replaced her with Debbie who proved to be a great best friend. Children can be quite fickle. Debbie was a brilliant swimmer if my memory serves me right, and had beautiful long nails which I envied, as even at that young age I was a nail biter of the highest degree, and could bite my nails right down to the quick. Debbie also had pierced ears, something else I wished I had but did n’t.  Although to be fair I don’t ever remember making that wish known to my parents. It was while in class two that we moved out of Hillcrest Road and into Kent House Lane in Beckenham. We were no longer the Howatsons of Hillcrest. We were now the Kids of Kent House.

It was in class two that I met another but equally lovely Angela and beautiful Charmaine who were to become good friends throughout my school years. The class teacher was Miss Marcham who made a tremendous impact on me as a young girl. Miss Marcham was an attractive woman with short wavy bordering on curly reddish brown hair most likely auburn. Her voice was clear and crisp as fresh morning air in Spring. She had a nice figure, wore nice clothes and was engaged to Mr Shelbrook who was Maureen’s teacher, I think the first one that she had a crush on. Mrs Shelbrook like most teachers seemed to have favourites ,and we, all us girls in the class vied for that position. I don’t think girls are any different today at that age. It’s just so unfair on those children that don’t ever feel that they are among the favoured few. Me, I was one of the lucky ones and often felt I was up there with the best of them. Miss Marcham, later  to be Mrs Shelbrook was one of my favourite teachers of all time, and yet I can’t actually remember why this was so. Although later on in the school she was relegated to position of most unfavourite teacher, explanation to follow later.

It was also while in class two that I went down with tortecollis for a few weeks. At the time tortecollis sounded to my ears like a tortoise in the stomach which is what I told my horror stricken friends who believed every word as did I, and sympathised accordingly with oohs and ahhs. I had to stay off school for a few weeks to recover as it was very painful, and almost impossible for me to move my neck. I had a wonderful time staying at home being pampered, and nursed better by mummy. I eventually recovered from the tortoise in my stomach and returned to the jungle that was Kelvin Grove Primary School.

The junior years were as far as I was aware not unlike the junior years of anyone else but they were my junior years, and this is how I saw them looking back now as an adult. Class four followed class two and was taught by Mr Anderson. Mr Anderson was my first male teacher. He was middle aged I think, and bald on top with grey wispy hair to the sides. He wore casually smart trousers and corduroy jackets in dark greens and browns with checked shirts and a tie. He wore a hearing aid and dentures. The hearing aid was visible but the dentures were not and were only noticed when they fell from his mouth one time as he was shouting at the class. The class naturally laughed at the teacher’s expense and probable humiliation. That would teach him for shouting at us. He seemed to be always shouting and had little control over the class and yet he wasn’t a mean teacher at all. He was just a man doing the best job that he could to the best of his ability. We were a noisy class after all, that needed someone who could control us better or more correctly someone who could handle the boys more effectively for it would be true to say that the girls were pretty well behaved most of the time, and the boys or at least a few of them were as badly behaved as they came.  I am sure a few would be the fodder for her majesty’s prison system later on.  And so, I continued to move from one class to another, from one year to the next.

© Liola Lee 2010