Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Girls' school reunion

We wore dark, light green and brown stripey blazers and Fred Perry shirts, lace up shoes and dark green skirts, brown leather gloves. In summer, the skirts of our pale green cotton dresses ballooned with yards of fabric, harking back to the 1950s. They went with white cotton gloves. Our berries had red pom-poms on. These uniforms came from Dickens and Jones where, in the old fashioned school uniform section, we were measured and assessed. Luckier parents secured hand-me-downs.

After hockey, our thigh muscles burning, we dragged our sticks up the hill from the bottom field. We fought in the locker rooms. On the bus home we shared gelatine sweets shaped like milk bottles and cough candy twist. I can so easily spin myself back to the wooden-floored corridors smelling of dust and polish, the assembly room stage, the fabric seated tubular chairs put out in rows for the audiences, and the nuns in procession on a Friday along the chapel corridor.

A portrait of Empress Eugenie hung in the old part of the school, her eyes following each girl that walked the long corridor to the beautiful wood-panelled library. It was in that corridor, with its sweeping staircase up, where the parents of boarders arrived for visits and their children said goodbye again.

This week's reunion week - one old school friend tomorrow night, another three on Saturday afternoon. We were at Farnborough Hill Convent College between 1966 and 1973 - all of us 11 plus girls, sharing playing fields and lessons with the daughters of diplomats and more, certainly a lot wealthier than us.

In this week, I had an email too from the Old Girls' Association. In a moment of sentimentality I signed up for a lifetime's subscription to the Old Girls' newsletter and occasionally I recognise a name, its news of weddings, births and deaths the most universal truth.

Even in 1966, the resident nuns were dressed in floor length black robes, their hair covered, their faces framed in stiff white bands. At some stage, brown below the knee skirts were brought in and the younger nuns who decided to wear this new uniform were also allowed to show a couple of inches of hair.

Helen, Kathy, Angela, Dee - we have been in and out of each others' lives in different degrees since 1973. I must be two stone heavier than I was then. I am wrinkled, my hair is grey. Angela and I have witnessed each other ageing, Dee and Helen I only caught up with last year, Kathy I haven't seen for at least 10 years and then only briefly. All of us now past the big landmark birthday - the next (in the time it took us to go through secondary school and start our lives) will be 70.

Which leads me to browse the websites of the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poets and the final verse of a poem by the much neglected Rosemary Tonks, from her poem 'Oath', published in Bedouin of the London Evening, Collected Poems, by Bloodaxe Books (2014). Mindfulness - that's the order of the day, as a newer friend, Mary, and I were reminding ourselves over an careful January supper of beans and water.

And not for the waterpools would I go back
To a Universe unreal as breath – although I use
The great muscle of my heart
To thirst like a drunkard for the scent-storm of the trees.