I have been writing about 1970. A whole chapter is set in that year, and nothing so much invokes the past as becoming immersed in it in this way. I was forced to research the weather, and the internet makes this such an easy task now. My chapter is set in March of that year, when it was cold after a hard winter.
But my thoughts quickly moved on to the warm days of June and July, when the sun seemed to be shining endlessly and in the background to my last weeks at school Mungo Jerry was singing ‘In the Summertime’.
These memories shine with bright colours which time has failed to dim. At eighteen I was full of joy and anticipation, longing for what the future might bring yet terrified of leaving behind everything which seemed so safe and secure. Rooms were familiar, daily haunts: the light-filled Art Room where I applied thick acrylic paint with a spatula to large pieces of manila paper; the Common Room in our Sixth Form house where we lounged in miniskirts whilst the room above became fugged with cigarette smoke. Rules began to be abandoned as we worked our way through our exams. The library…
At this point I have to face the awful memory of what also happened at that time. Tthe morning of my best friend’s Maths ‘A’ Level. Nothing prepared our other friend and me for what was about to transpire, as we turned out of the Sixth Form house and walked along the pavement to the point at which we usually crossed the main road to reach the school. I think we were chatting, I’m not sure, but I remember saying casually,
“How’s your mother, E?” because her mother had been quite ill with something no-one was clear about.
E dropped the bombshell as though she was telling us the exam would be held in a different room.
“Mum died last night. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I don’t remember crossing the road, but I do recall the sensation of the pavement almost falling away from my feet. After that the next memory is of sitting, stunned, in the library. I didn’t have any exams that day. E had walked straight into the Hall and was taking her exam – for which she subsequently received the highest grade. I will never know how she achieved it, but she was – and still is – clever, focussed and extraordinarily determined. I, by contrast, was deeply affected by the whole thing and did not do as well as I might have in my own exams – although who is to say I would have fared any better if E’s mother had not died?
Everything changed after that June day, but there are good memories as well as bad. In the long summer holidays I found a job at Boots the Chemist which I loved so much that it put me off going to Teacher Training College – which probably upset the whole balance of my life at that time, as I only lasted one term at the College. I spent days with E and her bereaved family, and other, more carefree times with my own. The photographs of my cousin's wedding in the September - all the talk of her wearing a hat rather than a veil - are full of laughter and well-remembered faces, many of whom are long dead now and sorely missed.
I feel as though I have been on a journey, not only to another place and time, but revisiting the scared, hopeful young person and her friends trying to make sense of everything being thrown at them by life at a most sensitive time in their lives. Would I go back? Ah, no. Those days are gone.
when the weather is high
You can stretch right up
and touch the sky…”
(If you really want to listen to the song, here is the link. I wouldn't advise watching - it's too painful!)
And yes, it's me in the middle of the school photo...