Do you remember the first time in your life where you did something and although it frightened you to half to death, you faced up to it, completed it and felt victorious? For some of you that might be diving off a board (any board and in particular the highest, most scariest board) at the swimming baths, or perhaps taking the training wheels off your bicycle.
For me, the memory that sticks in my mind of a moment like this, is one that also baffles me with the thought, “What the hell was she thinking?” Actually, it’s a thought that was going through my mind at the time and yet, being only five years old I didn’t have the option of saying that to her face.
I had started primary school at 4. It seems awfully young now but back then it was what we did.
For the first year of my schooling I was kept apart from the other children during lessons. I was too bright, apparently. I could read and write when I was two, almost three and so the school, in their infinite wisdom, after checking my birth certificate and passport to certify that I was actually only 4 years of age, decided that the best place for me was the headmaster’s office. The other 4 and 5 year olds needed an opportunity to catch up and of course, I needed to be slowed down to their level. You see how this world works?
My abilities were not celebrated in any way. I was the problem and clearly teachers who could read and write were not able to incorporate me and my abilities into their classrooms, so they effectively put me in solitary confinement. With Mr Barklamb.
Mr Barklamb was a jolly old soul with a balding head. Reminded me of Mr Rumbold in Are You Being Served? I think he was as baffled as to why I spent as much of my time with him as I did.
Eventually, I do remember that I was allowed to resume my place amongst my classmates and clearly life went on, with the lesson learned that to excel at anything would leave me out in the cold.
Within a year or so, at the grand old age of 6, our classroom activities were increased and one of the things we were given to do was a sewing project. Our task was to make a cushion out of scraps of left over fabric and mine had a cut out elephant, made of contrasting coloured felt, on the front. I think we were making these cushions for Mother’s Day, which would explain why the memory has come strongly flooding back to me at this moment in time. Which mother it was for I cannot remember, but I suspect it was for my ‘Mother,’ with a capital ‘M.’
I remember sitting on the stool next to my foster mother of an evening, with my sewing project on my tiny knees. She would be happily playing Scrabble and I would be forever asking about how to do this or that, interrupting her game to get practical help with blanket stitch and so on.
I was dedicated to my project and wanted to finish it before the weekend. Before Mother’s Day. Pretty soon the actual sewing part was complete. I had stitched the elephant to the front and then the two sides of the cushion together (inside out of course so that you couldn’t see the stitches), leaving a gap of a few inches where the stuffing could be put in and then finally adding the last few stitches to join it all up.
Problem. We realised that we didn’t have any stuffing and I only had tomorrow to complete my gift.
The following morning, which I can only surmise was a Friday, was my last chance to get this cushion finished. Apparently.
The fact was that I would also have the first part of Saturday morning to get the job done as my Mother wouldn’t arrive before 11am.
I was assured by my foster mother that I would get it done in time and so off I went to school feeling confident that my project was almost completed. I guess that as a 6 year old, I understood that during the day, my foster mother would jump in her car and head up to the shop and buy some stuffing so that when I got in from school I could get the job done.
But that’s not how my day panned out.
When I got home from school there was no Kapok. Perhaps she had forgotten to get it? I have no idea. What I do know was that when I came through the front door all excited to finish my cushion that afternoon, my enthusiasm was met with anger. I was told off. I was then threatened with this:
“If you want to finish the cushion so badly then you go and get the Kapok.”
I said I would.
So at the age of 6, I was handed some money and instructions and sent off into the big wide world. I had to walk quite a distance to the main road and wait for a bus that would take me into the town. It was a journey of over one and a half miles each way.
I was terrified. Who wouldn’t be? I was five!
I was terrified about getting lost. Of getting it all wrong. Of not understanding the money, or of losing it. Of not finding the right shop. Of having to cross the road. Of not being able to find the bus stop to come back. Of dying. Oh, the list of my fears was endless and my heart beat palpable. The one thought going around and around in my head was, “I am only 6!”
Well, I did it. The bus came. I got off where I had been told to. I walked to the shop and when I had plucked up enough courage, I showed someone the note I had been given that said what I needed. I paid. I waited at the crossing and safely made it to the other side. I got on the right bus heading home. Crossed the road again and entered the house triumphantly wielding the Kapok.
I didn’t feel triumphant.
The immense fear of what I had just done finally swept through me and left me a wreck.
This isn’t a memory that has just come back to me. It’s a memory that is always close to the surface and I have often mentioned it to friends, especially those who have small children. It’s unthinkable, especially in this day and age, that a child of 6 would be sent off on a bus by themselves, isn’t it?
I am sure it was also unthinkable in the 70s but then, most of the things I lived through back then were.
*For all the posts in this series, please click here: