The irony (well, apart from the fact that I always used to tell the girls off for overusing or misusing that particular word!) is that so far as many people, both my colleagues and our clients, are concerned, I am the capable one. Oh, not necessarily capable at what you might call individual skills – I’ m not the one who does the trouble shooting when the laptops go wrong, nor the one who has the knack for unblocking the loo and saving us the cost of a plumber. I am just, in some generic sense, the capable one. The sensible one. Sensible Sarah. Darren, who is our computer expert, often jokes that though he is approaching thirty, he still has a great deal t learn about what he calls “adulting”. He lives at home, still, with his mother and his stepfather, and his much younger half siblings. They’re a lovely family. Some gently chide him about it being time he did join the adult world, and he takes it in good part, or at least gives a fair impression of it. But I’m getting on for twice his age, and I’m a lot worse at the adulting stuff than he is. And frankly, not that I’ve ever come out and said it, I want to tell him that he’s no need to rush. That he should hang onto it. That I wish I were in his position, and not just because I would be so much younger. Sometimes my ages seems to stall anyway. I look younger than I am, though not because I have any special skincare regime or whatever. Maybe just because I’m a kind of blank canvas. But I’ve already started to have those aches and pains, that digestion that isn’t as robust as it used to be. Oh, nothing drastic, nothing to get bothered about. The times when I can’t sleep, or in the middle of the working day and I realise just how much time has passed are another matter.
At times I wonder just how odd or unusual I am. Perhaps there are plenty of us. Or perhaps not.
The other day on the radio I heard a play (I like radio plays) about the true story behind that book and film The Nun’s Story. I don’t want to give the wrong impression by saying that I felt a sense of empathy with the heroine. I was never in a convent, never took any vows, never had to observe a vow of silence or anything like that.
I was the only child of older parents, and I liked it that way. I wasn’t exactly a swot, but I was studious and quiet, and never had much interest in rebellion. I think I only escaped being seen as a bit of a prig by my schoolmates due to the fact that I had a funny way with words, and though I would have been horrified at any notion of being the class clown, I could make them laugh. But I was neither popular nor unpopular.
I would have liked to carry on living at home when I went to University, but there wasn’t one near enough, and my parents encouraged me to at least take that step. I realise with retrospect that they were starting to be worried about me, especially as they were very much older parents. But I did go home most weekends, and I lived in hall, though I had a brief spell sharing a flat in town in my second year, and I didn’t enjoy it much. I followed up my degree with a certificate in teaching, and went back to my home town to teach, though not at my old school. And of course I lived at home. Thinking it over, Mum and Dad probably had more than vague unease about my future. Before very long, both of them were ailing, and only a couple of years later, I was an orphan. That’s a funny word to use about an adult, though I find a consolation of sorts in the fact that one of our clients, Michael, who lost both his parents in his forties, confided in me that no matter how old you are, you still feel like an orphan.
Nobody would have said I had a breakdown. After a couple of weeks compassionate leave in both cases I was back in the classroom after each bereavement. But I had started to dread going home at night, to an empty house that was too big for me. As is the way, well meaning advice was offered whether I wanted it or not, and it was conflicting – some saying I wasn’t to act in haste while I was still grieving, others that it was time for a fresh start and – this phrase still sticks in my mind – that I must be “rattling” in that big house.
I didn’t much like being a home owner. I know for some that is the be all and end all of their lives, but to me it was more of a burden. And when I saw a job vacancy for an English teacher at a girls’ boarding school, even though in principle I had some kind of vague objection to private schools, I applied for the job, and was successful.
Meridale Hall was what I think of as one of those in between schools. It wasn’t a celebrated school with ancient traditions like Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies’ College, but it wasn’t one of those “little private schools” that come in very handy when the children of professional parents don’t pass their 11 plus – selection was still prevalent at the time. A girl who wasn’t academic could thrive there, and the talents she did have were nurtured, but a girl who was need not fear being disadvantaged compared to her peers in the state system or at the more famous schools. I loved it from the minute I arrived there. Oh, of course it wasn’t all perfect. Though discipline, if gentle, was good, there were the trouble makers, and the staff accommodation was comfortable enough, but could be a bit cramped. Not that I cared much about the latter. There was room enough for my own books and knick-knacks, and some mementos of my parents. I suppose I was regarded as one of those teachers who isn’t necessarily very charismatic, but who is well liked and respected, and I made friends among my fellow teachers.
I’ve mentioned the strange duality of the passage of time, and that applied to my time at Meridale, too. Years passed. Juniors turned into stately sixth formers, and then started on their own adult journey. I myself stopped being a junior mistress and became a senior one. I wasn’t a wealthy woman, but a combination of the proceeds from the house sale, carefully invested, and a salary that wasn’t that generous in itself, but was more than I needed, specially as bed and board were provided, meant that I was never short of money. I kept thinking that I would get round to buying another house, but it never happened. I found myself volunteering to stay in the school over the holidays with the girls who couldn’t go home for various reasons. Or I treated myself to some nice holidays – sometimes in the UK, sometimes overseas, favouring historic cities or mountains and lakes, middle grade hotels and fellow travellers and guests who were pleasant and friendly, but not over intrusive.
After all, what was so wonderful about having to be bothered with council tax and utility bills, or with having to see to getting your own washing machine repaired, or planning meals, or any of that stuff?
Michael seems to understand this better than most. He was in the military for many years. “It was never really meant to work out like that,” he admitted, “I was just in it to learn a trade. I was never what you might call a really natural soldier, but I got into a routine, and I suppose in a way I became institutionalised.” He didn’t add “like you” but I wondered if he were thinking it. He’d have had good reason.
But I had to realise, much as I tried to bury my head in the sand, that Meridale was past its prime. It was a gradual matter – but the time came when the small classes that were one of our attractions became too small, and the funds didn’t seem to be there to repair crumbling brickwork, and we had to think the unthinkable.
The school closed, and, in that line that never ceased to appeal to my English literature classes, not with a bang but with a whimper.
I was sad but – okay, I may as well come out and admit it, I was also scared. I realised I had no notion of how to run a home. In late middle age, I might as well have been one of those teenagers embarking on adult life whose parents fret about being empty nesters.
And again, nobody would have thought I was having a breakdown or in panic mode. I learnt how to keep up appearances, how to give the right impression. I rented a little bungalow, and I swear (or, at least I like to think) that they had no clue that it was the first time I had entered such a contact in my life.
I thought about trying for another teaching job, but then reality kicked in and I realised that though I had good references, I was rapidly approaching the age when teachers retired, and did not start new posts. I could probably have managed without getting a job at all, or just doing voluntary work in a charity shop or whatever. Sometimes I think I’m deluding myself that I’m really working at all. Though my job at the council offices is paid, it’s part time, and I couldn’t manage without my savings and the few bits and pieces I get from writing. A bit of a sinecure, really.
“Like mine, too, I suppose,” Michael said, when I had, in an unusually confiding mode, told him that I worried about that. He is a welfare office for the local Royal British Legion.
“But you do a lot of good,” I pointed out.
“Sometimes, perhaps, but not as much as I’d like. But don’t think you don’t, for heaven’s sake, Sarah! You’re so easy to talk to and you have this – air about you.”
Normally I would have made some joke about are you saying I need to change my deodorant or the like, but this time I didn’t, and took a compliment gracefully, which is something I can struggle to do.
He’s asked me out for dinner tonight, and we’ve discovered we both love classical music and both are ardent Francophiles.
Perhaps this adulting business has something to be said for it after all!