“Sometimes I think there’s no pleasing that child!” I knew that I wasn’t supposed to hear what my Grandma said (I had come home from my ballet class early because the electricity in the hall was playing up) and I knew beyond any doubt that she was talking about me. She did not say it angrily, or resentfully, and it was not as if she had said that I was unkind or stupid or anything like that. I liked my Grandma. I even fancied we had a special bond. We had the same name, Elizabeth, though she was always called Betty and I was always called Liza.
What hurt was not so much that she had said it, as that it was true, and oh, how I wished it were not. It was not a happy or enviable state of mind.
Nothing was ever right. Nothing was ever how it was supposed to be or how I had imagined it. I’m not sure if I knew the word banal then, even though I had a good vocabulary for a ten year old, but I knew the sensation.
A few years before I had joined the Brownie Guides. But there were no campfires or nights spent in little log cabins, or chances to do heroic things. We didn’t even make cakes that often. It just seemed a lot like school, but in the evening and in a different uniform. I probably preferred school!
The riding lessons were no better. My mother had steadfastly refused them when they meant riding on the roads, and all the comments about “other people’s mothers” were to no avail. But then the little riding school with the paddock opened. I wasn’t stupid and didn’t expect to be at the Horse of the Year show within months, but did expect some fences made with red and white striped poles, and some treks through the woods and a firm but fair teacher in an immaculate riding habit. I thought at the very least I might get to join the pony club and bring home a rosette every now and then. It wasn’t a bit like that. The paddock seemed to defy nature and be muddy even when there’d been a six month drought and the instructor was a taciturn teenager called (or so she claimed) Stacey, who wore distressed jeans and a Simpsons sweatshirt. She wasn’t a bad rider, but she was hardly inspirational, and far from having a spirited and soulful-eyed little chestnut pony I was generally assigned a sluggish creature who managed to be lazy and skittish at the same time. There were rarely any jumps, and if there were, they were just upturned boxes.
It wasn’t how it was supposed to be. It wasn’t how I had imagined it.
The one time nobody had any intention of giving in to me was when I pleaded to go to boarding school. It sounded so wonderful.
“You’re not going to, Liza, and that’s that,” Mum informed me. “In the first place we can’t afford it, and in the second place, though Goodness knows why sometimes, I quite like having you at home.”
Of course I minded the refusal (though somewhere in a treacherous little place in my mind I had mixed feelings about it myself and may even have been half-hoping she’d refuse but I minded what she said and how she said it far more. Looking back I see her words were affectionate and quite touching, but quite apart from the first place and the second place being the wrong way round, it was wrong. She should have hugged me close and wiped away a tear and said that she would miss me so much, or something along those lines. Not that sarcastic sounding throwaway sentence.
At times I was so frustrated I tramped up and down the drive, muttering that nothing was how it was supposed to be, and everything let me down.
But the ballet lessons would be different, wouldn’t they? I was older now. I would be going to secondary school in the autumn. Not for one minute did I imagine that within weeks I’d be wearing a fluffy snowy white tutu and dancing on my pointes to tumultuous applause.
But I expected more than spending what seemed like the larger part of the lesson not dancing and certainly not ballet dancing at all. Our teacher, who let me know in no uncertain terms that she didn’t mind being called either Mrs Riley or Jean, as long as no liberties were taken with the latter, but was NOT going to answer to Madame Jean, let alone Madame Jeanne, was a big believer in limbering up which involved lying on the floor surrounded by a lot of other sweaty little girls and an odd sweaty little boy, kicking our legs in the air and moving our bodies from side to side, not even to a tinkly ancient piano, but to a cassette tape of what, with retrospect, I suppose was something along the lines of Greatest Hits of the 70s. I did wear a leotard, and a couple of the others did, but most were in T-shirts and leggings and quite a few not even in ballet pumps but trainers. The bits of ballet were interspersed with an amorphous dance form that answered to “modern” and tap dancing, that I hated with a veritable passion.
I supposed I would have to hold out at least for a little while longer, and was already wondering if claiming having extra homework when I went to secondary school would serve as a legitimate excuse for giving up the so-called ballet lessons. It seemed a very long way in the future.
So I wasn’t remotely disappointed when we were sent home early because of the electricity failure. But if I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have heard Grandma’s words, and oh how I wished I hadn’t.
She was not a person to bury things under the carpet. That evening she said, “I suppose you heard what I said, Liza.” I thought about lying, but she could see through a lie through a brick wall a mile off. I nodded.
“I’m sorry, chicken.” She had a habit of calling me “chicken”. It wouldn’t have been the endearment I would have chosen – I rather liked the idea of a Grandmother who called me “My Darling” or preferably even some foreign variant of it. But at least she wasn’t one of those adults who thought it was bad for a child’s character if you apologised to them. “I meant no harm, you know,” she said. “But I can see why you thought it was mean.”
At this point, if things had been how they were supposed to be two things could have happened. Either I would have stamped – no, strutted (it was important to keep your dignity) out of the room with my head held high, or I would have thrown myself into my penitent Grandmother’s arms for a grand reconciliation scene. This time I was the one who didn’t make things turn out the way they should. I heard myself muttering, “It’s true, anyway!”
She didn’t answer at once, but though we didn’t fall into each others’ arms, I did, almost without realising it, nestle my head on her shoulder, and she put an arm round me. She was wearing a maroon chenille cardigan, and its fluffy, fuzzy feel was comforting, even if the fabric did get up my nose a bit. “There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations, Eliza,” she said, “And I’m pretty sure it’s not because – you don’t put enough effort in, or because your heart isn’t in it. The opposite, if anything! Would you like a glass of lemonade?” I nodded at once. One thing that I knew wouldn’t be disappointing was Grandma’s lemonade. She wasn’t one of those grandmothers who thought homemade was better on principle and certainly didn’t have shelves of jams and chutneys of her own creation, but she did pride herself on her lemonade. I had been brought up on it, and positively disliked the taste of the shop-bought stuff, though Lilt was another matter. As we sipped our lemonade – served in pretty tumblers with pictures of birds on them – she said, “One thing, at least, your Mum was totally right about you know – that boarding school business. I was just as fixated as you were, though I’d probably read some different stories, and my Mum, your great Grandmother reacted just the same way. But then – what’s that phrase they like in books? Fate took a hand! My Dad was taken seriously ill – TB – and Mum went to be near him at the sanatorium. I was sent to boarding school for a couple of terms, they thought it was probably the best thing to do, and – well, I won’t say I hated it. It was a convent school, though we weren’t Catholics, but the nuns were nice, there was none ….” She broke off, plainly having temporarily half-forgotten that she was talking to a child and there were things it was wholly inappropriate to say – “None of the cruelty you sometimes hear about at convent schools. But it was just basically the same as any other school and without having my own room and my own mum and dad after school. I was so glad when it was over, Dad was cured, and everything went back to normal. But while we’re talking about school – your best subject is English, isn’t it?”
I nodded vigorously. There was nothing I loved more than to read, and I loved writing compositions, too. Even the dreaded “Day in the Life of a Piece of String” and the like held no terrors for me and though my general performance at school tended to be erratic, I always got good marks.
“Then – only a suggestion – but why don’t you try writing things down how you think they ought to be? You don’t just have to read others’ stories, you know – you can write your own!”
Well, I won’t say a lightbulb came on in my head or everything fell into place, but it opened up possibilities I hadn’t thought of before, and I didn’t know why I hadn’t.
Much as I would like to think those early efforts were on a par with the empire-building juvenilia of the Brontes or the precocious social commentary of Daisy Ashton, they weren’t. Even though I did have a pretty wide vocabulary I didn’t always use it, or only used it in contexts that seemed to come ready-made for it. If a girl in one of my favourite books had a “poignantly sweet” singing voice, so she (or sometimes, I!) would have in mine. Likewise, ponies would be “mettlesome” and dancing teachers “dignified”. Maybe they were slightly better written than the usual wish-fulfilment fantasies, but they were no great literature, nor even, not really, had the seeds of it.
I do know my parents had mixed feelings about my sudden passion for writing. It was a hobby they couldn’t possibly disapprove of, and they indulged me with a supply of exercise books (to this day I still use exercise books for first drafts) and pens, and were probably relieved that at last I had found something to amuse me that both satisfied my longings and cost very little! But they intermittently said that my schoolwork shouldn’t suffer because of it, especially when I moved to secondary school.
If my writing itself wasn’t especially precocious, I did have one precocious skill – at eleven I already knew the difference between what I wrote for myself and what I wrote for my English teachers. True, there was some degree of overlap, but I knew where the lines were drawn, and knew that in “school writing” it was wisest not to wax lyrical about a heroine, especially a first person one, winning at a gymkhana despite having a sprained ankle, and that in “my writing” it wasn’t necessary to find new similes or show that I knew the difference between an adverb and an adjective (though I did, perfectly well).
Not wishing to have any brakes put on my writing, I made always to do my homework, and if I didn’t get any better at subjects I was weak at, like science or maths, I didn’t get any worse, either, and reports came with the confirmation that I “tried hard” at these subjects.
One thing my parents had never been over-strict about was “lights out”. My Mum had always been a light sleeper, even when she was a child and had realised I took after her. I was generally expected to get to bed at a reasonable time, but as long as I didn’t seem tired and was doing reasonably well at school, from a relatively early age I had been allowed to decide for myself when I actually went to sleep. True, I had protested about bedtime sometimes because – well, because you just do, but now I could hardly wait to get to my books – and though I was still a keen reader, it was far more likely to mean the ones I was scribbling away in.
The trouble was, that after a few months, as a story (mine or someone else’s!) may have said, things took an unexpected turn. It was one I hadn’t anticipated and one I didn’t like at all. I began to get bored. I began to get sated. Maybe Gran was right all along, I thought, and there’s no pleasing me! But it wasn’t the same sort of feeling I’d had about the Brownies or the riding classes or the ballet. I didn’t always want the shyest girl in the class to stand in at the last moment and wow everyone with her performance in the play, nor for Rudy the Rescue Pony to prove everyone wrong by carrying his young rider to triumph in the Pony Club rally. I was wearying of mothers who always said, “Darling you know we love you and are proud of you no matter what” and big brothers (though I still wished I had a big brother) who patted their little sisters’ shoulders after they’d saved them from drowning and said, “Kid, you’re a real heroine!”
It was all too glib. It was all too stale. But I most certainly didn’t want to admit that! I told myself I was just suffering from what I’d heard called Writer’s Block, though I wasn’t, not really. I had definitely been neglecting my reading. I turned back, as if apologetically, to my favourite books. But it was the same thing!
I did something then that I doubt I’d have the nerve to do (or its equivalent) now. I liked and respected Mrs Norton, who taught most, but not all, of our English language lessons. She wasn’t the stereotypical charismatic teacher – she was small, and had mousy-brown hair in a rather old-fashioned bob – but she had a natural control of her classroom and a genuine interest in her pupils that more than made up for that for most of us. I asked her if she would have the time to read one of my stories – not one originally written for her. Part of me was wishing she’d say “no”, but she didn’t. “You love to write, don’t you, Liza? That’s something we always like to hear!”
I had picked my story fairly carefully, though the fact that it was one where my handwriting was at its most legible also played a part. It was a school story – set at a school of my own invention (though not without similarities to others!) called The Meadow School and concerned a plucky little heroine (third person this time, but let’s just say the fact she was called Laura, which begins with an L and ends with an A was not purely coincidence!) who helped save the school from closure when a property developer (I wasn’t quite sure exactly what they were, but they never boded well!) wanted to buy the land to develop it for “his own profit”. I was never more specific than that.
To use the phrase Mrs Norton herself had only introduced us to the previous week, I had “crossed the Rubicon”. I didn’t know if I’d be disappointed or relieved if, the next day, she passed the book back to me with a vague, “Very nice dear”. But Mrs Norton wasn’t like that. A couple of days later she called me over after class and gestured for me to sit down. “Don’t look so worried,” she said, gently, getting the book out of her bag. “You have a decided flair for writing, Liza, and I’m glad you asked me to read this. It runs along at a good pace, and you’ve set the scene really well, though perhaps you do say that the grass was greener than emeralds just a little too often. I certainly wanted to know what happened to the school, and some of your characters totally came alive – I specially liked Cathy and Mr Henderson.” That surprised me. Laura’s classmate Cathy was meant to be a bit tiresome – the one who always saw the snag in things. And Mr Henderson was the property developer’s slightly less evil sidekick who I’d only put in because villains needed a sidekick. “They’re real people,” she said, “And can see that things aren’t always simple and black and white. Tell me quite frankly, Liza – how would you feel about a girl like Laura in your class?”
The answer shocked me – not least because Laura was an “improved” version of me! “She might get on my nerves,” I admitted.
Though I’ve never (as I suppose I’ve made quite obvious!) been averse to an odd cliché here and there, I suppose that really was a seminal moment. I wasn’t even wholly grateful to Mrs Norton at the time, but I knew she was right. It would be too simple to say that if we’d never had that talk I’d never have been able to earn my living as a writer, and I certainly haven’t lost my taste for dependable fiction – I might as well admit I still have shelves with my childhood favourite school stories, pony stories, and ballet stories, and I’m not averse to reading them on occasion.
I didn’t write a children’s book until ten years after my first book was published, and I was nervous, to put it mildly, as I knew just how difficult it was, and just how much competition there was.
But yes, it was a school story, and yes, the school was called the Meadow School, and there were characters in it called Cathy and Mr Henderson. It was dedicated to the woman who hadn’t been my teacher for 15 years, but was now a firm friend and still a trusted mentor, Valerie Norton.
To Mrs Norton, with love and thanks, and for reasons she knows perfectly well!