When I was at school, I wasn’t always at school. I didn’t consider myself a truant, I still don’t, but life being both hard and complicated meant that occasional lunchtime jaunts into town for pots of tea and endless cigarettes resulted in missed afternoons of maths and German.
Maths was never my strong point, but I was close to fluent in German. It felt like a waste of time in both directions, and the lure of a pot of tea, a round or two of heavily buttered toast and a couple of hours chatter and acrid, smoky gossip with my friend, Maria, felt like a decent enough reason to leave early. Of course, we had to sign out.
I think my form tutor might well have believed that I had needed a lot of root canal work; probably not on a weekly basis.
It was around this time that I invented the half-shirt, for which I have never received an ounce of credit or a single penny.
The half-shirt was created by necessity. I had the standard white shirts of both era and area, but I cut them in half across the bust, and then snipped the sleeves off at the shoulder. In effect, I had a collar and what might be termed the décolletage of a shirt front. Enough shirt was visible to suggest I was wearing one, and I was never disciplined for having my shirt tails hanging loose and scruffily, which would have, naturally enough, given a bad impression of the school.
We had a uniform which consisted of the aforementioned white shirt (more regularly whole), red and gold tie, black trousers and either a maroon jumper or black blazer. I felt the cold, so along with all the other accoutrements of conformity, opted for a non-uniform C&A jumper teamed with the standard jacket.
When it came to Maths (and therefore time for tea), I would sign out and nip to the girls’ bathroom. Rather than actually changing clothes, I would lose the tie in a pocket, undo two buttons of the shirt, and whip it out from under the jumper. Done. Jacket, trousers, jumper. Not especially uniform. And obviously, I was just like any other young woman about town. The fact that I looked about twelve until I was every day of seventeen was immaterial.
One day, Maria and I were a bit brave, gave up on the tearoom and instead went into the city.
It was the penultimate day of the autumn term, so we weren’t actually missing anything. Perhaps our form tutor would have shown a film for the afternoon. On reflection, it might have been better if we’d stayed in school. Hindsight is irritating.
We took the bus and found ourselves quite quickly in a pub. Maria looked older than I did and struck up a conversation with a couple of older lads. I suppose they were in their mid-twenties. Perhaps I’m being a bit charitable there. In any case, they spent a good deal of money and their afternoon buying us drinks. Luckily, they were perfect gentlemen, with the exception of getting us drunk, and helped us to the train station.
It was late. This was sudden and perplexing. We had gone into the pub in drowning daylight. It was a time of indoor smoking, so we had no need of outside. When we stepped out into the street, there was a crisp dusting of snow, like glitter on the pavement. The air snapped and whistled. The sky was black and bruised.
Maria had told her mother that there was an open day at the college, and we’d be attending that with a view to enrolling in something important. I hadn’t said anything to my mother. She would have been insanely worried, given that I was two hours late from school and the buses had stopped so there was little chance I’d be home any time soon. Also, when I rang her, I was slurring.
For reasons I don’t begin to explain, we decided to take the train to the closest village to ours that had a railway station. This would still result in our being five or six miles of deadly dark and deep-set gullies away from home, but it seemed like a better idea than staying in the city.
I threw up repeatedly on the train.
Maria taught me the most vital phrase and best excuse ever associated with toxic levels of drink: food poisoning.
This got me past the guard’s questioning and even in my own mind, I started to blame a tuna sandwich from a week or two before.
When we got to the wrong village, we called our parents for a second time. Maria removed any trace of sliding vowel from her voice and explained to her father that I’d called her from the wrong village, sounding a little worse for wear, and I’d need a lift home. Her father was a great guy and headed straight for the car to collect me.
Swiftly, she called her boyfriend and had him pick her up about thirty seconds before her father pulled up. I don’t suppose he ever knew she had been stood with me, swaying madly, singing an Abba medley, within minutes of his arrival.
He got me home. My mother was both apologetic and livid, in differing directions, and I spent the night wondering if I might die from Bacardi Breezers. My mother assured me I would.
On the first day of the Spring term, my mother passed me an envelope she’d had one of the carers address for her. It was a note to explain my absence from school for the last two days of the previous term, she told me.
“What have you said?” I asked, sheepishly.
“Food poisoning,” she answered.
In fact, what she had dictated was this:
“Many apologies for Petrina’s absence towards the end of last term. On the final school day before Christmas, she was hungover.
“I trust you can imagine what she was doing on the second to last day.
“I take small pride in the fact that she has had to hear about it from that day to this.”