The Reluctant Boarder by Valerie Poore
I looked dismally at my exam results: three A Levels, all passes, but none good enough to get me onto the archaeology programme I'd been dreaming of following.
"Well, you'll have to do something else, darling," my mother said, always pragmatic, ever insistent and with more than a slightly unyielding gleam in her eye.
I nodded. I knew that, but what?
I'd been so determined to become an archaeologist. History had long been my favourite subject, and the school history master, Mr Fairly, was also my favourite teacher. We'd clicked in our mutual enthusiasm for a subject most of the other pupils found as interesting as bread dough. He'd even encouraged me to take my final A-level exam early, but it was a mistake. I didn't do well. Although not a fail, it was hardly the grade my parents wanted to shout about.
“Don’t worry, Val,” Mr Fairly said, living up to his name. “At least you can take it again. I know you’ll do well next time.”
Armed with his confidence rather than my own, I took it again along with my other two A-Level subjects. But looking at the piece of paper in front of me, I'd only improved the grade, not aced it, and that wasn't enough.
Earlier in the year, I'd applied to three universities: Liverpool, Southampton and Exeter. All of them had offered me a place based on my interview and school record, but conditional on satisfactory exam results. And there was the rub. Because archaeology wasn't the kind of career where job openings were three a penny, the demands tended to be high to discourage any but the best.
What was quite clear to me now was that I wasn't anywhere near the best when it came to taking exams. My end-of-year school reports were all encouraging; in history I'd always gained top marks. I'd even been on archaeological digs during my school holidays as proof of my passion. But in the 1970s, university places weren't based on continuous assessment reports; nor were the admission departments interested in my unbounded enthusiasm, however eloquently I expressed it. What they required, and I evidently failed to have, were good A-Level results.
“What went wrong, darling?” my mother asked in a rare moment of sympathy.
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” I replied, lying fervently. Of course I knew.
I'd stressed about my exams to the point of exhaustion, quite literally. Drinking strong coffee, smoking cheap Carlton cigarettes and staying up all night to swot didn’t prove to be a good idea as it turned out. During one of my exams I actually fell asleep; during another, my brain froze and I couldn't remember anything, resulting in answers I had no recollection of writing. How I managed to pass them at all was quite a miracle when I think about it.
Naturally, I wasn't confessing any of this to my mother. She'd had great expectations of sending me off to one of aforesaid universities so I'd leave her in peace again. I almost felt sorry for her as I'd given her a hard time one way and another. She'd never made a secret of the fact she'd only had children for my father, who was an only child, and she definitely didn't want any of us hanging around at home; not at that stage, anyway.
The problem was that both my parents believed in boarding school. Sending their offspring off to work out their teenage angst as far away from home as possible probably had its merits, but I didn’t agree. My two older brothers went to a Catholic church school as boarders somewhere in the depths of Surrey and were, as far as I was aware, perfectly happy. It was thus assumed that my sister and I would be equally content to be ‘sent away’. So when my parents moved the family home from London to the West Country in 1967, we girls, aged fourteen and twelve respectively, were installed in the boarding house for our dance and drama school in Swiss Cottage.
I hated it – the boarding part, that is. Terrified of the house mistress, who was a bully with a drink problem, I made myself anorexic in protest. Over the next year, I systematically starved myself and, oddly enough, remember my tactics with disturbing clarity. All foods I categorised as ‘fattening’ were methodically eliminated one at a time until I was only eating dry crispbread for breakfast and lunch and then the smallest portions of the evening meal I could get away with. I added no butter, no dressings, and no extras to my food at all. It was remarkably effective.
I dropped from a comfortably padded nine stone to an emaciated six and a half stone within a few months. In response to the current Indian famine crisis of the time, my school friends called me ‘Biafra kid’ as a slightly dark way of telling me I was taking this starvation thing too far. I, on the other hand, took perverse pleasure in alarming everyone, but that was a symptom of my anorexia. It was, after all, a way of gaining control.
Our house mistress emerged sufficiently from her sozzled fog to realise it simply wasn’t normal for a thirteen-year-old girl to shrink quite so dramatically and marched me off to the doctor, a kind and reassuring man with insights way ahead of his time. Anorexia wasn’t even a condition anyone recognised in those days. He, however, saw clearly what was happening and advised my immediate extraction from the school, giving my mother a dressing-down in the process.
“If you don’t remove your child from this school immediately, she’s going to end up in hospital and might never leave,” he said with impressive force. I was dumbstruck with admiration.
Frightened by his dire warnings, she packed up my things and took me home, which made me crow with triumph. Result! I’d won – well, for a while anyway.
After spending the best part of a year recovering, my unsympathetic parent packed me off to boarding school yet again. Admittedly, this one was much closer. Lyme Regis was just fourteen miles from our west Dorset house, but I still only got to go home for the odd weekend and the holidays. The school might as well have been in the outer Hebrides for all the feeling of being near my parents it gave me.
Without wallowing in self-pity, I can simply say I was utterly miserable, and this time I felt an outcast as well. Prejudice can take many forms and children can be cruel, as we all know. Because I didn’t speak with a Dorset accent, I didn’t belong. What made it worse was that I’d done ballet for years instead of sport, so when I had to play netball for the first time in my life, I was ribbed mercilessly because I pointed my toes when I jumped. It must have looked very funny – I can see that now – but being ostracised for my differences didn’t help me to accept my new situation.
So, I reasoned, since I'd already managed to get out of school once by making myself ill, why not try again? My next ploy was to feign a fever so I could spend some time in the school ‘sick bay’. Oh dear. What a calamity that turned into.
It was 1969 during the second wave of the Hong Kong Flu pandemic and we had an outbreak at our school – not that I was aware of it; oddly, in those days, the news was played down, not up. From being just pretend sick I soon became very ill indeed. I was holed up in a room full of highly contagious children, so not only did I catch the flu virus, I managed to couple it with a secondary infection that was so severe I couldn’t keep anything down, not even water, and passed out every time I tried to sit up. In fact, I was in such a bad way the school matron was certain I was dying and called my mother in, convinced she would just manage to see me before I expired. If it hadn’t been so worrying, it would have been comical; I mean talk about serving myself right.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, my mother was a formidable soul and didn’t appear to be alarmed at all. She had some medical knowledge, courtesy of her pharmacist father and she peremptorily summoned the school doctor. She instructed him (and he complied) to give me a good shot of penicillin, an experience I'll never forget because it was excruciatingly painful. I had to have it in my somewhat skinny bottom for some reason; I suppose that due to the huge amount of weight I’d lost, it was the only part of my body with enough flesh to sink a needle in. I can still remember the pain of the fluid coursing down my leg. Nevertheless, it worked so I can say in all honesty that my mother probably saved my life.
After that, I started the road to recovery, and joy of all joys, I was sent home to recuperate. My plan had succeeded; at some cost, I'll admit, but I'd escaped boarding school again. My long-suffering parents had to put up with having me around again until I regained my strength, which this time was only three months or so. Then back to school I was sent again.
“You can’t stay home forever, darling,” my mother told me with that familiar steel glinting in her eyes.
“Can’t I be a day girl? I know other kids from around here who take the bus every day,” I whined.
“Oh no. That wouldn’t work at all. Either your father or I would have to spend far too much time being your taxi driver to the bus stop. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
Of course I did, but I was no match for my mother’s determination so didn’t dare to contradict her. She was far more skilled at emotional blackmail than I was and I could already hear the diatribe telling me how self-centred I was, and asking if I ever thought of anyone but myself. She’d have been right too, a niggling thought of which I was uncomfortably aware.
In any event, the Hong Kong Flu experience was a lesson to me. I never pulled the illness trick again and managed to endure boarding school until the 6th form, when I finally started to enjoy it. Having eventually made a few good friends, I was at the age when time spent with them was infinitely more desirable than hanging around at home with my matriarchal parent.
One of the benefits of being a sixteen-year-old 6th former was having our own flat in the boarding house. Actually, calling it a house is something of an understatement. We boarders lived in an old mansion set in the most beautiful grounds. There were stable buildings too, and this was where we 6th formers lived. The accommodation above the old horses’ stalls was converted into a large apartment with two bathrooms and eight bedrooms. The stalls below were removed and the remaining large area became our common room with sofas, chairs and a large TV.
We had a ball and, given our distance from the main house, we got up to all the usual teenage shenanigans: climbing out of windows at night into the adjacent country lane to meet the boyfriends waiting for us; smoking and drinking; experimenting with cannabis, which was freely available at the time. If it was illicit, it was exciting, and so we did it. At last, I didn’t mind being a boarder and could stop putting pressure on my parents to let me leave.
But none of this had anything much to do with my failure to do well in my A-Levels. Despite the teenage antics, I worked hard, so my dismal results could only be attributed to my academic shortcomings, not late nights and truancy. Still, it does perhaps explain the urgency for me not to remain in my mother’s all-powerful orbit for longer than either of us wanted. What to do, though? That was the real question.
In those days, it was the norm that if you didn't get the university place you wanted, you could apply for one of the 'leftover' places through UCCA, the University Central Council on admissions, otherwise known as the university clearing house. Given the sorry pile of rejection letters I was about to receive, and knowing my mother wouldn't brook any attempt from me to opt out, or just get a job, I duly threw my name and results into the UCCA hat and drew what turned out to be the best straw life could have handed me: a place on a degree course for teachers at the University of London, but at an external faculty in Bournemouth, sixty or so miles from home.
As luck would have it, the daughter of one of our neighbours – if someone who lived half a mile up the hill could actually be a neighbour – had enrolled at Bournemouth College of Art and was beginning her Diploma in Art and Design at the same time as I was embarking on my degree in History, English and French. Lizzie and I were good friends already so our delight in being able to flat share was genuine. I don’t recall who found our bedsit first – I think it was my mother – but we ended up with a room in a suburban home somewhere in the peripheral and middle-class area of Boscombe. In the 1970s, it was a safe bet in more ways than one: conservative, respectable and very unhip; just what any mother might have ordered.
Our landlady was consequently as rigid as her lacquered hair and reeked of talcum powder. Her demeanour was correspondingly stiff and I often wonder why she ever chose to let out a room to students, especially in the free-loving, hippy days of the twentieth century’s decade of decadence. Nevertheless, the room was cheap (four pounds a week); we had a cooker and washbasin; we had beds, cupboards and drawers. But we had no space for anything else and navigating our way around our room was good exercise for our stomach muscles. What mattered, though, was that we were blissfully free of parental control.
And so started three of the most memorable years of my life.