Countisbury School

A small, one storey, grey brick Victorian building came into view, incongruous like a cuckoo’s egg in a nest of surrounding fields. For the first time that morning, I felt fear. Setting off down the lane from my aunt’s house, with my two cousins, I had no idea what was to come. ‘Here’s an apple for Nigel,’ my aunt had said.  I had no idea who Nigel was or why he needed an apple, but I held onto it for dear life.  I had no wish to get on the wrong side of Nigel.  Who knew what he could do to a small six-year-old.  

We continued to walk along the narrow lane, the only traffic being stray sheep and a tractor about his business. Trevor, who was seven, opened a gate and Pat, who was six like me, and I followed him through into a field lush with corn.  We stuck to the hedgerows and walked on for what seemed ages, until we came to another gate leading into an adjacent field.  We clambered over it and without any hurry on our part, ambled until the next gate appeared.  And there stood Nigel. 

‘Give him the apple,’ Trevor ordered.  Nigel towered over all three of us and I stretched out my hand with the apple on my palm. ‘Not like that, stupid,’ Trevor said, ‘go up and give it to him.’

I’d never seen a real horse.  Living on a large sprawling, newly built council estate in Edgware, Middlesex, you didn’t see horses.  We had fields behind our back gardens which grew corn, and my younger brothers and I would watch as the farmer harvested it and then we’d play – with the other neighbourhood kids – in the spikey stalks, our camps made in the hedges which bordered each field.

NigelNigel leaned his head over the gate as if to say: ‘I’m waiting, little girl.’  To my surprise, and without fear, I climbed up one or two of the rungs and then held my hand out. With the gentlest of nudges, he picked the apple from my palm and munched.  With more bravery than I felt, I stroked his mane and his face. His eyes looked kind and that’s when my love of animals began.

‘Come on,’ Trevor said, ‘we’ll be late.’

Pat and I trudged after him as he led us through more fields and over gates until we could see the school in the distance.  I have no idea how far we walked but to us tiny children, it seemed miles.  I don’t even remember what time we set off. We weren’t given any instructions – other than giving an apple to Nigel – to hurry up and not be late. As children, we plodded along with no sense of time. For me, it was a huge adventure.

My two younger brothers and I were staying with our aunt and uncle in a beautiful part of Devon. My brothers, at four and two, were too young to go to school so they stayed at home with our younger cousin, Chris, who was also about four years old.

‘I don’t want to go,’ I told Trevor and Pat, as we neared the school.  ‘It looks … scary.’

‘You’ll be alright,’ Trevor said, ‘although the other kids might take the mickey out of you because of your London accent.’

‘I don’t live in London,’ I yelled. ‘I live in Middlesex.’ Not having any concept of where places were it still felt as if I had to defend my ‘roots’.

We entered the brick building and Pat showed me the girls’ toilets.  There was a row of pegs but as the weather was clement, there were no coats on them.  Taking me by the hand, she led me into the classroom, a high, airy room with a dozen desks and chairs, six on one side of the room and six on the other. There was one large window almost covering one wall, its panes sparkling in the autumn sunshine, the light dappled across the heavy oak wooden floor.

The teacher, Miss Penny, was short, stout, with greying hair and an odd whisker or two sprouting from her face. A thin pink cardigan was stretched over an unrestrained bosom and I watched, fascinated as each breast seemed as if it had a life of its own. I hadn’t seen bosoms that big before.

‘Hello,’ she said, holding out both hands to me. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Pauline,’ I said, not knowing which hand I was supposed to take, so I took both.  She led me to a desk at the front, Pat sat in the one next to me.  I noticed Trevor went to the other side of the room where there were already a couple of boys and a girl sitting at their desks.

‘Pat will help you if you need it,’ Miss Penny said.

I looked up at the blackboard which stretched across one wall, divided by a chalk line, on our side was the two times table, the other had hieroglyphs which turned out to be algebra.  I was thankful for the two times table which we began once the register had been taken.

‘Once two is two, two twos are four, three twos are six ….’ 

Trevor and his fellow students had their heads down, copying the symbols on the blackboard, working out the answers.

In no time at all, it was break time and we were let loose in the playground, after a glass of milk, fresh from a nearby farm.

Returning, the maths had disappeared from the blackboard and history was in its place.  Miss Penny went from side to side instructing each little group effortlessly and that’s when my life-long interest in the Tudors was born.

Before we knew it, lunch appeared, and we sat at little tables in a different part of the building.  Another stout lady came round with a plate of home cooked food followed by a bowl of steaming ground rice pudding for each of us. I don’t know if they knew that I would be there as an extra mouth to feed, but there was enough food for everyone and even Miss Penny sat with us to eat her dinner.

That afternoon was spent, enthralled, as she told us stories before setting us a homework assignment to write an essay for the following day. Then we were released into the bright sunshine for our long trek home, past Nigel who wasn’t expecting an apple, through all the fields, back down the lane to our siblings who wanted to know about my adventures into the unknown.

The following morning, in class, having given in our homework before Miss Penny called the register, my face burned red with a mixture of pride and embarrassment as she chose my story to read out first.  The older children looked at me.  My cousins looked at me. Who was I, a kid from a council estate in London – it’s NOT London, it’s MIDDLESEX – writing stories like that? 

‘Pauline,’ she said, ‘that was wonderful.  Where did you learn to write like that?’

Still burning red, head down, ‘I don’t know, Miss.’

Miss Penny read out the other stories, some good, others less so, but I was given a gold star on my essay.

Having no real concept of time, I don’t know how long my brothers, Ken, Tony and I stayed in Devon. It was a few months because I remember the snows coming and we were cut off.  The lane we walked partway to the fields, was filled with snow as high as the tops of the hedgerows.  I worried about Nigel, not getting his apple a day and if he was alright.  Trevor told me that he would be in a nice warm barn getting oats. Unable to go to school, I spent my time writing stories and reading books, in between building snowmen and having snowball fights with my brothers and cousins.

My uncle and various farmhands worked tirelessly to cut paths through the deep snow from the few houses dotted around the farm so that we could continue to get fresh milk and butter. Before the snows came, my brothers, cousins, and I raided my uncle’s garden and pulled up and ate carrots, fresh from the soil.  He was furious because they were baby carrots and needed to grow. I was often sent to the farm, a short walk from my uncle and aunt’s house, to get eggs. The farmer’s wife showed me how to look carefully in the straw for the eggs before placing them in a wicker basket.  I always thanked the chickens which made the farmer’s wife laugh. ‘You’re a strange ‘un,’ she’d say.    

fallen tree across a riverThen came the day when my brothers and I went back home.  We wanted to, of course, but we’d had the best adventures any child could have, roaming the countryside, out all day, enjoying nature, walking crablike along fallen trees that crossed rivers, and going to a quaint little Victorian school with the most amazing teacher – even if she had untameable bosoms. I missed it all when I was back home.  But most of all, I wondered if Nigel would remember the little six-year-old girl from the council estate in Middlesex.  

            

A Cats Prayer

Lead me down all the right paths,
Keep me from fleas, bees, and baths.
Let me in should it storm,
Keep me safe, fed, and warm.

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