My grandmother then decided she was in need of a housekeeping
companion and that her daughter-in-law could fill this position. There would
be no pay as such, but food for the young widow and her children would be
provided, sparingly as it turned out, and even more sparingly, clothes.
Children's garments could be made from oddments, sewn, knitted and
handed down. As for my mother, now that she was a widow and would wear
black for the rest of her life as Queen Victoria had done, she could inherit the
old lady's cast-offs, suitably trimmed to size and shape.
This was how my family came to live in a large, cold Victorian
house in a small township on the north Somersetshire coast. My mother
brought with her all that she possessed in the world. A few items of bedroom
furniture. A dressing table and a little jewellery, a few books and a Colt
revolver with six rounds of ammunition. What desperate resolve prompted her
to bring these last two items I do not know, nor did I ever inquire.
The year after our arrival, 1914, the Great War broke out. Perhaps
the atmosphere of emergency and the heavy emotional demands made upon
most of the young women of her generation helped my mother resign herself,
at least temporarily, to living the routine of her elderly mother-in-law.
As children we were happy enough, fitting ourselves, as children
do, into the circumstances that surrounded us, but mother had to suppress
much of her natural jollity, acting as a buffer between her often noisy children
at the top of the house and the solemn, easily disturbed downstairs of our
Grandmother did not believe in the classless society. Indeed, so
convinced was she of her own social superiority that there was not one single
person in that Somersetshire township who could justifiably be invited to take
tea with her. Ranged behind her in defence of her position were several dukes
and other aristocrats, closely followed by admirals, generals and the like,
some of whom gazed down at us from the walls of the stairways and
downstairs rooms. This meant that there was very little social life to enliven
the dull days for mother.
A room at the top of the house was set aside to be used as a
school, and armed with a selection of rather aged textbooks, the young
widow began the education of her children, my eldest brother being already
over four years old. The knowledge contained in these textbooks was
rigorously drummed into our heads, for mother was aware of the necessity of
obtaining an education of a higher standard than that offered by the free
schools, if one was to prosper, and the only way to do this would be by
gaining scholarships or similar awards.
One day a visitor called who had heard about a well-known
boarding school that had been established with the sole aim of educating
suitable children whose parents did not have the available funds. A great
number of good people contributed money to the school, and if their
contribution was sufficiently large, they were allowed to place an approved
child there. I think mother must have written to every single benefactor in
order to gain places for her children, and she eventually succeeded in
obtaining one for each of us, three boys at the boys' school and our sister at
the girls' establishment.
The schooling provided was sound, practical and aimed at
producing adaptable adults, able to use such common sense as they
possessed. Aware of the undoubted benefits of such an education, I would
like to be able to record that this was a happy period of my life. Alas, this
was not so. From the very start, the school was like some sort of prison. On
my second day I quite unwittingly broke some obscure rule, for which the
housemaster, no doubt a brilliant mathematician, but lacking in any
noticeably human attributes, accorded me a public beating. A suitably sour
start to a relationship which was to lack warmth for the next seven years.
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