My parents divorced when I was nine, and at the age of ten – I believe it was part of the settlement – I was sent to boarding school. I didn’t want to go. I missed my cat and my sister. I didn’t ask to go, and contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t all pillow fights and midnight feasts…
I was a very sad and frightened little girl as my parents drove up the grand driveway to the front doors of an imposing Edwardian house. We got out of the car and my father arranged for my trunk – his old one, from his school days, “personalised” with stickers for me – to be taken up to the room that I was to share with five totally unknown other little girls…
My parents bade me a suitably restrained good bye and left. I promptly burst into tears… and thus began my acquaintance and I would say friendship, with my wonderful headmistress, Mrs. C, a truly great lady in the traditional sense of the word.
That first night, she took me briskly by the arm and ushered me into her study, saying that my parents had told her I liked to look at fossils, and perhaps I’d like to see her collection.
I fell into a different world… this small, dainty lady had travelled to places that so far I’d only dreamed about. She showed me palm leaf crosses, made in the Holy Land, rock samples from the deserts of Egypt, fossils from Russia and delicate porcelain from China, objects that were familiar and friendly in this alien place. Previously only glimpsed in my books, these treasures were now sitting in my hands, while this small, dark-haired lady looked at me gravely and spoke eloquently in her precise, well modulated voice about the things that interested her and what she’d seen on her travels with her husband, who was a vicar.
The first few days sped by in a blur of uniform (A-line tweed skirts – vile) and new lessons. At that time, we were a modest sized school so Mrs. C was very much a hands-on teacher, her subjects being French, Latin and Religious Studies; also taking assembly every day, and as we had our own chapel on the school grounds, attending services with us.
She was always immaculately turned out, black patent high heels, neat skirts and jackets and in cold weather she would wear a grey cashmere cloak, trimmed in black velvet, or paisley shawls, elegantly arranged and pinned with a cameo brooch. We learned etiquette seamlessly, almost by osmosis… the correct way to take off and hold gloves… the proper cutlery to use and how to lay a table… how to wear a shawl convincingly and behave with decorum… like ladies. Of course.
I was expelled at seventeen (sorry Dad) but thanks to Mrs. C’s plea before the Board of Governors, I was allowed to return to take my “A” Levels, and I must thank Mrs. C for that, in allowing the fledgling revolutionary in baseball boots, ripped jeans and patterned shirts to return to her ladylike kingdom…
Years passed, and it was only through our correspondence really that I learned a little more about her personally. She shares my love of cats and cat-themed items, we have an ongoing competition never to repeat a design of writing paper or note card; and I read with total awe of her travels…Nile cruises in a dhow, train tours around the Baltic region, a return trip to China where she taught English as a foreign language when she was younger.
She lived in London as a child and had moved ten times before the end of the war, having been bombed out of various accommodation, but her mother wanted the family to stay together, come what may, and I like to think that this gave Mrs. C her indomitable nerve and spirit of adventure… absolute musts when in charge of three hundred or so girls of varying ages.
I may not have turned out quite as she expected, but I am very grateful for her friendship and support, always. I learned one of the most important lessons in my life from her… “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” And I’d like to respond with a quote I found online, don’t know who it’s by, but thank you as it fits Mrs. C perfectly:
“Being female is a matter of birth. Being a woman is a matter of age. But being a lady – that’s a matter of choice.”