As our time at Wombwell Hall drew to a close we Girls Of 2SC were all given Important Letters to take home to our parents. Miss Eatch clutched the slim white envelopes to her person, just beneath her ample and somewhat wobbly bosom that we were inclined rather unkindly, to snigger at. She had some concerns about the following year, she explained, and wanted to tell us what the letters contained. We learned that the majority of parents were informed that their daughter had been an enthusiastic and pleasant class member who would do well in the workplace, and positively thrive in a nice clean, well run Typing Pool. They were daughters any parent could be proud of. Several students were cautiously nominated for possibly enrolling for a further year because with focus and commitment they might well find themselves able to pass the new-fangled GCSE Ordinary Level Examination and that would undoubtedly lead on to an even bigger and brighter Typing Pool. A select few of the white envelopes generously praised the intellectual potential of the girl named within and strongly recommended the extra school year as there was little doubt that she was made of the stuff that passed exams. Such girls might well become Personal Assistants to Managing Directors in far flung places like Maidstone.
But most exciting of all - one of us was actually considered to be capable of Getting A Proper Degree at some stage in the future. She shouldn’t really be one of us at all because she belonged in a Grammar School. Valerie was University Material Without A Shadow Of A Doubt. When Yvonne who had once been my friend and was now Valerie’s friend heard this she turned and gave the whole class the kind of smile that almost blinded us with its radiance, then bowed her head just a little. Valerie’s success was also her success. I couldn’t help thinking just a little regretfully that it was a good thing she had shed my friendship whilst we were in the early stages of that first Wombwell Hall year as I would never have been capable of instilling such pride in her teenage breast.
Miss Eatch was encouraging us to applaud Valerie’s success and whilst we did so I wondered what A Degree might be and how one went about getting one because judging by Yvonne’s reaction the idea should bring any normal person close to ecstasy and indeed the unusually deferential manner of Miss Eatch herself indicated it was clearly something worth striving for. Valerie, cheeks flushed with pleasure was talking about the relative benefits of Oxford because that’s where Daddy had wanted to go before his education had been interrupted, and Cambridge which her mother favoured. I wondered what form the interruption that she was managing to make sound like a tragedy of gigantic proportion, had taken. And what was to happen to Yvonne whilst Valerie was involved in furthering her education in places that sounded even further from Gravesend than either Maidstone or London?
After school, walking down the driveway, past the badger setts in the bankside and into Hall Road itself, Joyce Williams who had recently become a half-hearted Close Friend, asked what I thought the attitude of Those At Home might be at the thought of me enrolling in the Exam Year. We had both been included in Miss Eatch’s second category and so were cautious nominees for exam passing. This was all very flattering in that it plucked us just a little from The Herd, but it had to be borne in mind that when handing over the envelopes Miss Eatch had hesitated before both of us and said that in our case the suggestion carried with it some concern as to our Actual Ability To Apply Ourselves and we should talk it through with our families very thoroughly, Remembering these words and the tone in which they had been uttered I shrugged and said to Joyce that I Couldn’t Care Less which was the 1956 equivalent of Do I Look Bovvered? Joyce said well she cared because she was very keen to get a job. I was still contemplating the various forms a Degree might take and why it couldn’t be taken for example, in London which, had I been Valerie, would have made all the difference in the world.
When I got home with my white envelope it seemed somehow inevitable that my Grandmother would be at the kitchen table with my mother. The large brown teapot covered by the crochet crinoline lady sat between them. Old Nan sniffed and folded her arms across her chest which indicated that she was even more anxious than my mother to know what was inside the envelope and when the contents were read aloud to her there was a silence whilst I looked from one to the other with almost a tinge of excitement. To fill the silence I advised with as much authority I could muster that a lot of the girls were definitely staying on for an extra year and that Valerie had even been told she was University Material and could get a Degree. She might be going to Oxford or even Cambridge but apparently not London.
Old Nan sniffed again and said she wasn’t partial to either of them places. In fact she could never bring herself to trust any place to do with boats and water and it stood to reason. My mother looked uncertain, shaking her head from side to side and suddenly dropping the letter on the table almost as if it was no longer safe to touch it. She said that more school at my age seemed all wrong to her. I was nearly sixteen after all. But my Grandmother, dragging the crinoline lady from the pot so savagely that she almost decapitated her and pouring herself a very full cup, had no doubts whatsoever. She thought that the whole lot of them schoolteachers must be Stark Bleeding Mad and they wanted shooting for even suggesting such a Damn Fool Idea. If she had her way she’d line up the whole lot of them outside that school and Shoot Them soon as look at them. More Schooling? More? For a great girl like me? The only thing I needed in her opinion, and she wasn’t one to give opinions where they wasn’t asked for, was to get up off my Fat Arse and bring in some money.
I softly but courageously asked if that money might be made in the pea fields and she responded with the fact that beans and taters were starting soon and gave me the kind of look that crushed the possibility of further daring comment. What was wrong with me and a fair number of my cousins was that we’d been Molly-coddled, Spoilt Rotten and had too much schooling to put fool ideas into our noddles. She’d never had a day of schooling and yet nobody could say the lack of it had held her back. My mother said little but glanced at the kitchen clock from time to time.
When she left for the 480 bus back to Crayford, me walking beside her to the bus stop and carrying the newspaper parcel of flounder and shrimps that had been purchased during the afternoon, my Grandmother looked sideways at me from time to time, lips pursed and saying nothing. Back at York Road there was a little more sluggish discussion on the benefits of examinations that would ensure a bigger typing pool. In general terms, however, it was decided that at the end of that term I would join the majority of girls in my class and head towards the workplace. To be fair I was not completely against the idea because the thought of becoming a regular wage earner and able to buy a blue Orlon twin set from Marks & Spencer’s if I so wished, greatly appealed to me. And it wasn’t even as if it would be for long because there were of course plans to be made about my Glorious Future. Evaluations to be considered, important decisions weighed up concerning the correct path towards stardom on stage and screen for instance and how I would be able to find enough time to write the best-selling novels I already had planned. Glittering futures needed an enormous amount of forward planning.