My earliest memory is uncannily relevant to the events remembered this week. I was sitting with my elder sister in our ‘tree house’ intrigued by the pulley with a basket at its end. We could lower it to be filled with sandwiches and, if we ate them, down again for a treat in a time of food rationing – a piece of cake. My mother and her tea-party friends sat nearby to keep an eye on us so we would not ‘get up to mischief’. But we did, of a different sort. They thought they were out of earshot – how wrong they were!
‘I chose an all-girls school,’ said one of her friends, ‘because boys can be so rough… and forward, if you know what I mean…’ Yes, I thought, that silly business you go on about girls being ‘dainty’ – a word I hated. I resolved to do as much climbing of forbidden trees and sliding down haystacks as I could, even though I might again be painfully impaled on a pitchfork forgetfully left behind by a farmhand. It was behind a haystack that I learnt the ‘facts of life’, years before my mother embarrassingly started to tell me, aged twelve. She was clearly relieved when I interrupted her to say I already knew.
By then I was attending a private Church of England school that my parents could not afford. It had a mini-bus, and they thought it safer than walking or cycling to the local school. It dropped us at the gates where parents of day pupils had to wait in the afternoon to pick up their daughters. It was there that I noted two women, strangely dressed and standing apart, almost huddled together.
‘I don’t know why the headmistress allows these refugee children to attend the school,’ someone said.
‘Who pays for them?’ asked another of my mother’s friends.
‘I suppose our fees subsidise them,’ my mother might have said, always worried about money. ‘That’s why they are so high. Times are hard now for everyone, what with food rationing…’
This made me curious. Who were the ‘refugee children’ they were talking about?
Miss Green, our headmistress, must have been one of many women who lost their fiances in the first world war. She studied to obtain the required qualifications to open a girls’ school, which over the years acquired a high reputation. By the time I attended it, she was a formidable but gentle elderly woman. She inspired respect.
I first met her on her own when I stupidly tried to walk round the edge of a wastepaper basket in our ground floor classroom. It happened to be close to a low window in the elegant early eighteenth century Regency building. I fell over, pushing the basket through a pane of glass. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, I was in the headmistress’s study stuttering apologies. She put a hand on my shoulder and just suggested it was not a good idea to play around indoors close to windows.
Somewhere in a lost photo album are photos of the sports day. Sitting smiling next to me are my two friends, Regina Stone and Adela Krapps. I do not remember thinking their names were strange or that they were speaking English with an accent. Perhaps young children do not notice this. I do recall that Adela and I won a three-legged race, but not whether we chose to enter it together or whether a teacher paired us off. We won it!
My father, a first world war veteran, went bankrupt and we had to sell our house and move away from the area and the school, probably out of shame. I tried to find out what happened to Regina and Adela. Years passed. Women marry and change surnames.
Later, when at university, I went out briefly with a young man who disconcerted me when he wanted, for some reason, to come up close to examine the seams and buttons on my clothing. He spoke with a slight accent and said he was Polish. The programme on television last night, The Windermere Children, brought it all back to me. He might have been one of the Windermere children? It was haunting, beautiful and tragic – television documentary drama at its best.