A couple of weeks ago I went on a road trip with GMB. I’ve mentioned before how we were incarcerated together in a torturous juvenile jail, forced to suffer under the harsh regime of an evil dictator. Well, some time ago we were having a reminisce about the ‘good old days’ and suddenly someone (casting no blame, but it was her fault!) had the magnificent idea of heading off back there for a visit – probably aided by a couple of bottles of wine.
At the same time we got notified that this fortress of cruelty and horror was having an open day, to welcome prospective new parents in and convince them that delivering their precious babies into the hands of the uncaring and heinous hands of the wardens was a great plan for future enlightenment.
Fate had spoken – we had to return and face our demons.
We decided to head back in style. After all, nothing shoves it in the face of your oppressors more than showing them that you can make it big, following your escape. Right?
(Ignoring the fact that, actually, these evil oppressors joined the establishment solely to unleash the potential greatness of their charges from their hormone suppressed brains and would probably celebrate the fact that the odd one or two managed to break out and do something astounding.)
So, we took Mr G’s shiny new sports car – cos nothing says ‘check us out’ like a Porsche! We dressed for the occasion in our most flattering, most expensive looking outfits, with primped hair and polished faces (yes, we polished up quite well!) and pretended that actually, every day is designer shopping day for us, darhling!
Off we went. A 3 hour drive to the other side of the country. We stopped for coffee. We sang along to some wonder hits from the 80’s, 90’s and onwards, sometimes even hitting the right note and mostly just settling for screeching, humming and creatively adding new words that seemed to fit. Kinda like this . . .
I love road trips. I love the camaraderie, the anticipation and just whizzing along having fun. So – the day started out pretty darn well.
And then – we were almost there.
Time to pull out the big guns. Suitably intense music was found – you can’t drive into the lair of the enemy to a theme of “Girls just wanna have fun”, can you!
We put the roof down, donned our sunglasses and re-primped our hair. Armed and dangerous – we drove on.
Twenty years ago, the last time we were there, the road went in through the top gate, round to the left and past the first detention block.
Since then, someone had stuck a roundabout right inside the grounds, that did not link up to the same road. We drove in through the gate, went round the roundabout and drove
straight back out.
On the 2nd attempt we went slightly slower and picked up the old road at the right turnoff. We were in!
After parking the Porsche (and sending over 20 text messages to Mr G to assure him we had taken suitable care of his pride and joy, but did have a small issue with roadkill that would need cleaning off the wheels) we set off to our old cellblock.
Twenty or so years ago, at the tender ages of 11, the walk between buildings down a long dirt track, with exercise yards on one side and wasteland on the other, had seemed likes miles. We would walk this path at least 6 times a day as we moved between our rooms, the dining block and the classrooms. In snow, howling rain, sleet and blazing sun, we trudged along that path, alone, in groups, but with no where to run to. It was the endless hill of Sisyphus.
Now, tarmac’d, with fresh new car parks on one side and green grassy playing fields on the other, it seemed so short a stroll.
We approached the cell block with trepidation, only to find in its place a pleasant old building, fronted with beautiful brickwork and surrounded by majestic old trees.
As we entered through what was previously the wardens entrance, we found the rooms where we had once roamed, trapped and without purpose, were bright, colourful and warm classrooms for pre-schoolers. The long, cold space, once filled with desks, were we were made to work on homework (prep time) was now filled with sandpits, easels and child sized cookery gear.
Here, where once we would meet after school for toast and jam, was now a teacher’s staff room. Over there, the place were all the girls would gather each evening to joke over Eastenders, play games and read books, was now split into separate rooms.
The window upstairs that I had climbed through at night to sit out on the porch roof for a sneaky ciggie was now an open doorway into an extension and computer lab. My bunk bed was gone, replaced with tables and teaching paraphernalia. The wooden floors, carpeted; the baths replaced with cubicles; the place where Claire had dropped a wooden shelf on my head; the space where we lay to write out hymns 20 times each as punishment for talking in church; the place where Jo’s white wristwatch style wall clock had hung; the door to the housemaster’s home, once locked, now open to everyone; floorspace where we had danced in the sunshine on a summer weekend to the Bangles ‘Eternal Flame’; the tiny prefect’s bedchambers; the smelly locker room, the spider filled tuck room . . .
All gone, all changed.
As I walked through these bright, new spaces, I remembered the camaraderie of living in a house full of girls. I recalled the fun of having someone to whisper to after light’s out, the excitement of fire alarms at night. Like distant whispers, memories of laughter and conversations brushed my ears. There was always company for dinner, there was always music playing somewhere.
I remember who brushed their hair 100 times every night, who had the fluffiest dressing gown and who would sometimes cry because their mum was oversea, whereas mine was always just an hour or so away. Sometimes I took friends home at weekends, sometimes we stayed in the dormitory so we could wander down by the river on a Sunday.
Over there was the place I had my first drink (a lot of it, straight Bacardi because no one thought to bring mixers!) Under that bus shelter I had my heart ripped out and stamped on as dramatically as only 15 year olds can be. By that bench I reached the heights of cringeworthy teenagerdom by begging some spotty, no doubt highly embarrassed, youth to love me back.
Oh – the memories. Thank God they are all locked away in my head where no one can ever see them again. (Oh!)
As we drove away, I felt some level of peace. Boarding school was not the prison I had imagined, and built up in my head. Of course there were bad days – living with 30 other girls is bound to bring problems, bitchiness, fights and tensions. Living away from parents can be daunting.
It’s true that the lady who was our housemistress was not a comforting or cuddly presence. But with the eye of an adult, it’s fair to say I may have been a prickly child to manage. I could also point out that I didn’t walk away with rafts of lifelong friends (apart from GMB, of course), but then, it does take two to make a relationship.
We were not beaten, abused or maltreated. We had great opportunities, as children in a well-equipped school. We left with an education and with a self-assurance, a confidence and independence that only other boarders can understand.
It hasn’t changed my mind on one front – my kids will not board. But, I don’t think it was the worst thing that ever happened to me!
I may have left that school 20 years ago – but it’s only now I think I am finally done with it.