Chapter 5 School for all
The first morning of the school year, when I looked out of the window, I noticed a heavy frost. I forgot that the windscreen would need defrosting. I had actually started the engine when I observed that I could see naught. We rushed inside for warm water and a scraper, cleared the window, then had to rush back for more water for the back.
"In future, we must clean the side windows too, because I can't see what's coming from the side streets. I'll have to open the side window, but only for a second."
The teachers I had met the day before at the staff meeting were all very friendly and helpful. I found the children unsettled and restless, but I soon learnt that they were used to occupying themselves usefully while waiting to read to the teacher. I muddled my way through the day. The children were the same as children anywhere, except that perhaps they are not used to playing outdoors, climbing trees, riding tricycles, as Australian children. They probably spend more time colouring and playing indoor games.
The school building was very new and attractive and specially designed for progressive teaching. All the rooms opened onto an area where the children had a choice of reading library books, dressing up, playing with sand or water or the guinea pig. Each classroom had a sink surrounded by tiles, laminated tables, and a carpeted story area. Adjacent, were toilets and wash basins. The building was so new it had not yet been officially opened.
Jacqueline and David went, according to their ages, to second and fourth grades in the Junior school, where I was teaching. They fitted in much the same as they had done in Australia.
Peter presented a greater problem. He had finished second form in High School in Australia, and had begun a certain amount of specialization. I rang the Department in Gillingham, but they insisted that as we were living in the Maidstone area, I must contact the Department there.
"We are looking for a house in the Gillingham district," I argued.
"That doesn't matter, At present you are in Maidstone, and until you have an address here I cannot help you."
I thought of the house I had looked at in Chatham the afternoon before. It was four thirty when we arrived, and as the electricity had been disconnected, we had to feel our way around. The furniture was sparse, the front door opened directly onto the street, and the minute backyard was full of boxes from the nearby shop. It was so depressing that I decided the house in Maidstone was not so bad.
So I rang Maidstone and was told that Peter should attend the nearest school. When I spoke to the headmaster he said that unfortunately they didn't have the subjects that Peter was doing... German and Technical Drawing.... and that it would be difficult to get both these subjects in any one school. More phone calls and more explanations about his abilities and achievements.
"Perhaps he would be eligible to go to Maidstone Grammar. He could do German there, but he would have to be assessed first."
"I have his school reports. He is a very bright child and attended a special class for intelligent children for two years."
"We would assess him according to English standards."
"Where could I take him for an assessment?"
"He will be tested at the local school in a few days."
Weeks passed. He settled into a routine and made many friends. He was studying German with my help from correspondence lessons we had brought from Australia, in case of difficulty. We were also struggling with French, which he had not learnt before, but which was compulsory in England. My French was more than rusty, but we persevered with a little each night, after he had registered a routine protest.
"What's the use of French to me?"
He then resigned himself to a half-hour of 'torture'.
* * *
Our first expedition in the van was to Dover to collect the rest of our luggage, which had arrived from Germany. At Dover Priory I booked on the car ferry to Europe for the Easter period, not being willing to take a risk about getting a booking in holiday time. At Dover Marine we collected the luggage, changed some German money, and joined the Automobile Association.
The white cliffs were lost in fog, but the castle was open, and we found it very interesting.
"Why is that building nearly falling down?" asked Jacqueline. "It looks different."
"It is different. Most of the castle is much newer and in good repair. That building is very old. It says it is the earliest permanent work of the Romans. An ancient lighthouse."
"I wonder how people lived in those days without heaters or carpets" wondered Peter.
"They had open fires of course, but they must have been cold as soon as they went away from the fire. The rooms are so draughty. I'm glad I didn't live then."
Every Tuesday evening an organization which went by the name of 'Divorced and Separated Club' met in a hotel in Maidstone. The first time I went was a meeting followed by dancing. I met Angela, a tiny person of about twenty four, who lived near me. As this was the first time I had left the children on their own, I didn't stay too long. Peter had refused to be 'baby-sat' at twelve and a half, and as the house was semi-detached and the dividing walls quite thin, I didn't feel they were really alone. The following week I picked up Angela as arranged, and this time stayed long enough to get a few dances. A little normal social life to look forward to each week.
There I met Alan, an electrical engineer, blue-eyed, fair-haired, very quiet and intriguing.
Jacqueline's ninth birthday, 17th January. She and David got up early and went shopping. They spent nearly two pounds on party cakes, a few groceries and some felt pens for her. After I had paid the milkman, there was no money for the washing, so I had to some of the urgent things by hand in the sink, and hang them in the living room, where they took the next two days to dry.
On Monday, my headmistress, Mrs Tamsett, lent me five pounds, but my cheque had arrived when we came home from school. My pay was sent each month by the bank in Australia sometimes taking four days, sometimes over a week. At first the rate of exchange gave a pound for two dollars.
Because of a meeting of the school managers in the staff room, we had our afternoon tea in Anne's classroom, the children having their afternoon play period outside were very curious, and I commented on the 'sticky beaks in the hat room', which puzzled everyone until someone suggested I meant 'nosy parkers in the cloak room'.
"It's surprising how different a lot of things are. What you call 'plimsolls' are sandshoes or tennis shoes to us, and your 'Rice Krispies' we call "Rice Bubbles'."
"How are you finding things at school now?"
"I really don't know," I admitted. "Every time I think I have found out how to organize myself, somebody tells me about something else I should have been doing. The biggest problem is still the i.t.a. reading. I studied the book Margaret left me, but most of the children can read better than I can."
"What about the mixed age groups? Some of us wonder whether it isn't easier to have a whole class of one age."
"Well the new entrants have settled with no problems, they just walked into the room and got on with it. I don't mind the different activities going on at the same time. I'm rather used to that from having composite classes at home."
"What are you doing with yourself at weekends?" asked Marie, a woman in her fifties, who had come from India, married a Swedish man, and was living permanently in England.
"Last Saturday we went to Allington Castle. It surprised me to see a castle in a low position on the river. The river is used as a moat of course. Do you know it? It's between Maidstone and where we live at Larkfield."
"No, I don't know it at all. I think they have conferences or something there?"
"Yes, it's used as a guest house and retreat for Carmelites, brown monks. They have pigeons the same colour as the monk's habits."
"Any luck with housing?"
"No, I got too depressed. I've given up worrying. It's a long way to travel, but it's only for a year."
"My son is getting married this year, and he's been looking everywhere too. You know I've been trying to diet to be nice and slim for the wedding, and I've actually lost four pounds. You've made me feel so big when I look at you. I had to do something about it."
"When I first arrived I noticed that most of the teachers were much bigger than me. In Germany I felt the same. At home I'm just average. I suppose we eat more salads."
"And weren't you trying to get a television?"
"No luck there either. In Maidstone, they wanted a heavy deposit, and a minimum period of twelve months. I stopped at a little shop at Aylesford on the way home the other day, to ask about buying a second hand TV. They haven't got anything at the moment, but said they'd ring me if something comes in."
"Pack up your things now," I said to my class. "Time for P.E. in a few minutes."
To my amazement they started to undress, down to pants and singlets. I was getting used to extraordinary things, at least I had learnt to wait and see what happened. We went to the Assembly Hall where the equipment was set up. Many of the new children were reluctant to climb and jump, and had to be helped, until they gained confidence.
I missed one of the new entrants, who was such an unusual boy, his absence was noticeable. I hurried back to the room, but there was no sign of him. I looked into the toilets. No Frank. So I went and told Mrs Tamsett, thinking he had perhaps decided to quit school.
Then I noticed among the coats, hanging on their pegs, a pair of indoor shoes. When we investigated further, we found a pair of legs and a boy.
"Frank, I've been looking everywhere for you. You must have heard me."
"Yes," he said "But I didn't want to do P.E."
"You mustn't stay in the room by yourself. You won't do that again will you?"
"OK," he agreed.
And that was the end of his protest. He even learnt to enjoy P.E.
One of our first trips was to attend a Welcome Party for all the interchange teachers, held in London.
"Let's go to Buckingham Palace to see the queen first." said Jacqueline, dressed in a warm green outfit I had made before we left Australia. Her coat had been my winter maternity dress. She wore it over a velvet dress, with a large collar and cuffs showing. A woolly hat my sister-in-law had made, warm gloves and tights.
"You can't see the queen," said Peter with his twelve years of wisdom.
"I want to see Big Ben and go inside the clock like we did in Venice. That was great." said David, interested in all things mechanical.
"Well I don't think you can go inside Big Ben, but we'll see," I said. "Buckingham Palace is not too far from here, so we'll go there first."
I had done my homework on the London maps and we were just in time for the Changing of the Guard."
"Imagine how much they must practice to get so exactly in step," observed Peter. "How would they come to get into a band like that in the first place?"
"Look at all the gold on the fence. Is it real gold? Anyone could steal it," thought Jacqueline.
They were all duly impressed with the ceremony and the band. Children were allowed a front row position, so I gave them my camera, hoping that the bright uniforms would result in a colourful picture in spite of the dull skies. The children then wanted to visit a nearby Guards Museum, which contained models of battles from ancient to modern times. We were astonished to see among the exhibits a little gold tin, the same as one I had at home.
"Look at this. It says that the initials M.M. stand for Princess Mary who was seventeen at the time, and that she gave these tins to the soldiers in the First World War. They had cigarettes and chocolates in them."
"That's like your button tin," observed Jacqueline.
I thought I must clean it up and give it a more dignified duty. Also I must trace its origin. It had been my mother's, and had apparently been given to her by one of her older brothers. All four of them had been in the war, but which one had been the original owner? Was it Herbert Andrew, the eldest, who had been killed in France?
"Do you think a museum would buy our button tin?" wondered David while we were having lunch in a kiosk in St James Park.
"If a museum wants it they can have it," I said. It wouldn't be worth much." I sipped my hot soup.
A delightful old snowy-haired gentleman behind us said, "Excuse me please. Are you Australian? How lovely. Visiting England for the first time? I have a nephew in Australia, in Perth."
"Oh really? We come from Wollongong, near Sydney. I was here for a couple of weeks, eleven years ago when the boys were tiny. I was with my husband then. Now I've brought them over to see their grandmother in Germany, and to see what we can of Britain."
"Oh, how fascinating. Perfectly charming. Lovely children. They will certainly learn some history. Are you travelling on your own? Not many women would undertake that."
He was intrigued with our plans to travel and sleep in our van, on which David had already painted a gold Australia to advertise our nationality. The gentleman's eighty-year old boyish interest in our activities removed some of the aches from our legs, and inspired us to press on to see Big Ben... from the outside... much to David's disappointment its internal intestines were not for public inspection.