Thursday, 13 July 2017
A Decent Friendship at Wombwell Hall
I was never very good at making friends as I have made previous comment upon. It can be quite demoralising to invariably be standing at the outer edge of cohesive playground groups, at best tolerated but never accepted. That’s not to say that I was entirely friendless because that simply wasn’t true but generally those who were comfortable with me were not entirely accepted themselves. This fact was not overlooked by my mother who many years later told me that it was because I had been a Quarrelsome Child.
In my last year at St Botolph’s Primary School I became half friendly with Pearl Banfield, who lived at the top of York Road and whose mother was particular regarding those with whom her children associated. It was clear she was anxious about me and that was possibly because of Aunt Freda and the black market stockings that were never delivered in 1943. She became even more exacting after I wrote the poison pen letter when Pearl passed the eleven plus and I didn’t. Unsurprisingly that really put the cat among the pigeons and naturally enough Pearl was to have nothing further to do with me.
I wasn’t too upset by this because I had taken the precaution of becoming half friendly with Margaret Snelling who lived close to Northfleet Station and who let me have rides on her new bike and even invited me to her eleventh birthday party. Our family did not go in for celebrating birthdays and I was not familiar with the protocols. I rather blotted my copy book by not quite realising that guests were expected to be bearers of gifts and it was humiliating to overhear Margaret’s grandmother ask her mother who the strange little girl was who’d come without one. Luckily, Margaret, busy unwrapping jelly babies, hair slides and coloured pencils, didn’t appear to notice this exchange. Our friendship declined anyway when we transferred to the local secondary modern school and found ourselves in different Streams. I had been placed, somewhat surprisingly considering my abject 11 plus failure, in the A Stream. Margaret was a B Stream Girl even though she was much better than me in all aspects of Arithmetic even long division. I thought a mistake had been made and in the first week or two worried a great deal about Arithmetic and how soon it would be before it was discovered that I had not grasped the basics in this subject. I might even have approached the Headmistress, one Miss Dennis, if only she had not chosen to have her office beyond reach in the Senior School which was situated rather inconveniently at least half a mile away.
Miss Dennis had silver hair and pale blue eyes and wore pale blue twin sets and sensible shoes. She held an assembly in the Junior School once a week and talked about Being Happy at Work and Play and Striving to Do One’s Best At All Times. Her Tuesday morning homilies were exceedingly dull and a bit like listening to Father O`Connor’s Sunday sermons.
Molly from number 31, who was in the year ahead of me had been highly excited when she first went to Northfleet Girls’ Secondary Modern and said it was exactly like being at boarding school except you didn’t of course sleep there. You were allocated Houses, she told me and she was a Dame Laura Knight girl and for certain events like Games for instance, you wore a coloured sash that indicated which House you represented. Dame Laura sashes were blue. There were Prefects who stood in the corridors and penalised students for not walking properly or being too talkative and she was very much hoping to become one. I found myself in Helen Keller House and wore a yellow sash and knew for sure I was not destined to ever become a Prefect.
The two years at Northfleet Girls’ were remarkably uneventful. The only spike of interest was when Mrs Rowntree the History teacher proposed that we each make a reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry. However, it turned out to be merely a suggestion and I was the only one who acted upon it which caused a great deal of merriment among the group of twelve year olds who were at that time my loose associates. Shirley Monroe even asked me if I was trying to become a Teacher’s Pet which I vehemently denied. Even the English classes were tedious and I must have somehow coped with Arithmetic, probably by trying hard not to draw attention to myself.
I don’t recall how it happened but somehow or other I was selected for a possible place at Wombwell Hall. I say possible because my entry depended upon an interview with the Headmistress, Miss Fuller. The idea of Wombwell Hall was infinitely more exciting than anything that had gone before and from the moment I first stepped inside the old house it wrapped itself around me and I fell deeply in love with the place. To me the school, humble technical college though it was, had a solid reality about it and seemed to be a Real Place of Learning with staff that were decidedly more dedicated than I was accustomed to and one or two of them ultimately proving to be quite inspirational.
My mother was also impressed and told me that if I Played My Cards Right I might find it was the kind of place where Really Decent Friends could be made, not Fly by Nighters like Pearl for example. I was wholeheartedly in favour of Decent Friends and vowed to become a much friendlier person, accommodating and co-operative in order to attract the exceptional human beings who would undoubtedly change my life for the better.
I met Yvonne from Swanscombe on Day One, a tidy and confident girl wearing a hand knitted dark green cardigan almost a mirror image of my own, rather than the costly regulation version from the Uniform Shop in Gravesend. She also sported a well worn brown leather satchel rather too large for someone of her small stature. We stood side by side at the first Assembly and she told me that she was delighted to be given what she called This Important Chance because her father had died a year or two before and he had really cared about her education. She was keen to become a copy typist. I could have hugged her because suddenly, here before me was another Fatherless Girl, and very likely a Really Decent one. I decided there was already an important link between us and with a modicum of luck in no time at all we could be Best Friends. At last My Cards had been Played Right!
We sat together throughout that day and in fact for the whole of the first week. Yvonne even shared her morning break ginger biscuits with me and told me the details of the workplace accident that had taken the life of her father and how her mother was now really struggling to ensure that she and her younger sister, Doreen, were raised Properly. In fact Yvonne said things that made me positively glow with a quiet serenity even though there were aspects of her personality that were just a tiny bit tedious. It was this little corner of tiresomeness that led to me being almost relieved when a third girl was instructed to join us in the Friday Science Experiment. Valerie Goldsack who had golden hair to match her golden name sat between us and had a lot to say for herself because her father was a Detective Inspector in the local Police Force.
At the conclusion of the science class to our delight we found that our little trio had won the Prize of The Day for our work which was primarily because Valerie had already completed the experiment at her previous school. Nevertheless we were gratified by our success and unlikely though it was I even began to wonder if I might have an aptitude for science as I did not seem to have an aptitude for anything else. The prize was a small bar of Frys’ Mint Chocolate each. As we got ready to go home I made rapid work of demolishing the unexpected sweet treat. Yvonne ate half of hers and said she would save the rest for her sister. Valerie, looking disapprovingly at me as I discarded the blue and silver wrapping in the waste paper basket, said she was saving all of hers for Daddy because Daddy really liked Frys’ Mint Chocolate. Apparently it was his favourite.
I was unsettled on Monday morning when Yvonne suggested we invite golden haired Valerie to join us at morning break. By Wednesday I became further perturbed when Valerie produced her mother’s fairy cakes to supplement the ginger biscuits. To my later humiliation I even protested, tearful and infantile and causing the now hated Golden One much amusement. By Friday they were sitting together in class, sharing secrets and laughing at each other’s jokes. Oh how rapidly I had been relegated to the extreme outer rim of what was to have been my first Decent Friendship. Subsequently it also transpired that I had been quite wrong about having an aptitude for science.