As part of National Novel Writing Month, (#NaNoWriMo) I've set myself the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel (1700 words a day), consisting of short stories about my memories of primary school. Just so that you know, all names of people have been changed unless they are publically known. Each story is based on my own memory, so may not be an exact representation of events, especially since I am writing this over 40 years after things happened! But I hope you will enjoy each story all the same, and that perhaps it will spark your own memories of life at primary school.
Before mum and dad got divorced, they had one final attempt at saving their marriage and decided to go away on a holiday together for a bit. My brother was just a baby, and everyone loved him so he was very easy to find people to look after him whilst they were away, but I was 7 years old and a bit more of a challenge so it was harder to find someone to mind me.
Mum and dad went on holiday to a place far away called Morocco, and they found a special place for me to go on holiday on my own if I thought I would like to. They had never been anywhere together before, and I had no memories of them even being in the same room at the same time, let alone away on their own. I didn't really understand that this was a last ditch attempt to save their marriage, I just figured it was something new we would be doing every year from now on because dad's new job was going well and so we had a bit more money.
I was very excited, and best of all, was that the two of them drove me in the car all the way to a far away place called Ross-on-Wye. I hadn't been with the two of them on my own since I was born, and we had never done anything together just the three of us, and to get time to hang out with my dad was amazing. Ross on Wye is a county in England, on the River Wye, close to the borders of Wales, which for me made it more exciting because I had never been to Wales before, and I felt like we were going somewhere really exotic.
We arrived at the PGL adventure centre in Ross on Wye, and we took my bags to a dormitory with loads of bunk beds. I couldn't wait for mum and dad to leave so that I could get on with my adventures. Being homesick never occurred to me, and I couldn't imagine that any other 7 year old would feel any different to the excitement I felt right now. It was just like being at boarding school, something I imagined my hero Roald Dahl would have done in one of his books, and I couldn't wait for midnight feasts and hanging out with my new friends in the dorm.
I had never seen a bunk bed before, and I was ecstatic to find that I was allowed to sleep on the top bunk, plus I was one of the first people to arrive so I got to choose which bed to have, and was already brave and settled in and able to welcome all the other children, most of whom seemed to be a bit scared or shy, or anxious about their parents leaving.
It was one of the best things I have ever experienced and not only that, but the girls didn't just stand about being boring, they actually wanted to swing across the mud, dangling from a rope, and they enjoyed the same things as me. I made actual, proper friends, ones who I enjoyed spending time with, ones who were like me, not just girly girls.
I didn't feel like the odd one out now, instead I was the ring leader. I could be brave and lead the way and be confident and proud at who I was, not afraid all the time. I wasn't scared about getting into trouble. I made people laugh and people wanted to be friends with me. I felt very proud.
One day we went kayaking on the River Wye. It was so beautiful. I had never been on the river before, and it was the most magical thing ever. There were no roads or footpaths, so the only way to get to where we were going was by boat. We were proper explorers. The water was clear, and you could see the bottom of the river. It looked very deep, but no one told us off or told us not to do things because it was dangerous.
Instead, the instructions asked us if we were brave enough to get out of our boat, run across the top of all the boats, and then to jump into the water. So we all huddled together, forming a raft, and linked arms so that the raft would stay together. Then we each took it in turns, to jump in the water, to pull each other out, and then to climb back into our boats. I got to go first and the feel of the water was the best thing ever when I landed in it. Cool and refreshing and like I was home. I was full of happiness and friendship, life could not get any better than that moment, at one with the world. Even when I spotted a dead sheep below our raft, at the bottom of the river. It just made the experience more spine tinglingly adventurous. How cool was I, not even afraid of a dead sheep.
Another time, we went walking to a cave, wearing caving suits and hard hats. We were each given a torch to carry in our hands. It was a long walk, but we loved every moment because we were told to sing and shout as loudly as we could so that everyone would know we were coming. Normally I would be told off for being noisy, but now by being noisy, I was being good.
'Everywhere we go-oh, people want to know-oh, who we are, where we come from. So we always tell them, we're from Hillcrest. The mighty, mighty, mighty, mighty, mighty, mighty hillcrest. and if they can't hear us, then we shout a little louder'. Sound off, one, two, three, four. Hillcrest'.
Usually followed by 'oggy, oggy, oggy, oy, oy, oy, oggy, oy, oggy, oy'.
It was our own secret chant, that only members of our group and the 'Hillcrest' dorm would know. Not even my friends in school were a part of this very special adventure gang, it was all mine, and just for once, when it came to writing our 'what I did at the weekend' or 'what I did during the holidays' diary back at school, I would actually have something nice to write. Lately I had started to make up stories because I didn't want to write the truth.
'Mum left home this weekend because her and dad had a big row, and then they ended up fighting because mum didn't want to take me with her, and dad didn't want me to stay with him because he had work, and gran didn't want me, because well, what about school'. You were supposed to write the truth in your 'what I did at the weekend diary' but I didn't want to write about those horrible things, so instead I made up adventures in my head and wrote about those instead. Or else I copied what Ben had written and added my own twist on it. Ben did really lovely things with his mum at the weekend. She wrote him little notes and made cakes for him that she packed in his lunch box. He always smelt like cakes, and his mum always gave him a big kiss at the school gates. I wished my mum was like that, and made me cakes, and kissed me goodbye, or wrote me letters to say that she loved me and to have a nice day at school. But we weren't like that in my family. We loved each other, but none of us liked to show any emotion for the most part, we were always too busy being grown up and serious.
I did write about my PGL adventures in my diary, and about mum and dad going to Morocco and how dad showed me photos of goats that had climbed up the orange tree in the desert and were now sat on the branches eating oranges and figs or dates or some other fruit I had never heard of. How dad bought me back a brilliant blue and turquoise stone he had found, and a wooden box that smelt like musk and all foreign and exciting like from a real adventure. I wrote about how I took my boat along the river, and sang across the mud by holding onto a rope, and how I went climbing and abseiling down a mountain. But my teacher Mrs D didn't believe me, and wrote a comment in my book that said 'is this really true Sarah. I think it might be your imagination'. But I didn't care because I didn't like her anyway and I knew it was true and so did my mum and dad and my friends.
When we got inside the cave, we went right underground. It was dark and all you could hear was the drip, drip, drip of the water falling from the stalagmites. Some of the other children were a bit scared, but I wasn't and I was really happy that the leaders let me go first. I never got chosen for anything good in school but here it was different and for once I was one of the most popular kids. I wasn't just a kid off that horrible council estate anymore, I was just myself, no one was judging me.
After walking through a narrow passageway and having to duck a lot so that we didn't bang our heads on the cave rocks, we suddenly entered a massive room, like the inside of a cathedral, with big tall ceilings, beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, and rocks on the floor around a big puddle. So we all sat on the stones and looked at our leader who promised to tell us a ghost story as long as we turned off our torches and sat quietly.
I loved the silence and the darkness so much, in fact I could have happily curled up on the floor, even in the puddle and just listened to the drips of the water and the sound of the air humming as it circulated around the echoing walls. I had always loved nothing more than being in a space on my own, just being, and just listening. It was my happy place for sure. And best of all, I felt safe and full on happiness, and loved. Such a rare feeling these days. Some of the other children didn't like it because they were afraid of the dark and of the scary story, but I just sat there, my bony bum on a not very comfortable rock, with a big grin across my face, because I was in my element and I didn't ever want it to end.
At the end of every day, and in between our sessions, we would all eat together, probably in a canteen or somewhere but I don't remember those details at all now. Sometimes we probably had plastic bags filled with packets of crisps and sandwiches but I don't recall those either. But food was by far one my biggest pleasures and biggest memories of my time at the PGL centre. I remember having things like spotted dick for the first time, and all of us giggling at what a silly name to give a pudding, and I remember having sticky toffee pudding and custard for the first time in my life. We never had things like that at home because my mum was always on a diet, and then after my dad left us, we were really poor and only had school dinners and horrible cornflakes that just tasted like stale cardboard. Granny was rich, but she wouldn't let us have sweets and puddings and nice things like that because she said we could get fat or our teeth would fall out, or it wasn't good for your cholesterol. Which was a shame, because granny was a home economics teacher and her food was really scrummy, but there was never enough of it, and never puddings or treats.
Even on Christmas day, granny would give everyone one potato, and one tiny bit of stuffing, and the bowls and all the food were always gone at the end of the meal, and sometimes our tummies would still be rumbling. She got a bit less worried when she got older thank goodness but it wasn't like the Christmas at nan's house or at our friends houses, because they always had big tins of sweets called Quality Street or Roses, and when you played at their houses, you could always find an escapee sweet down the back of the sofa or under the bed because they were still eating their Christmas tins, even by the time it got to the next Christmas. And they said they got bored of turkey and leftovers because they had to eat it for days and days after Christmas Day.
When mum and dad left me at the PGL centre, the lady said that parents could leave some money for the children, so that they could use it in the tuck shop. I didn't know what a tuck shop was, so dad explained it to me, and told me he had left some money that I could spend on anything I wanted but not to spend it all at once. I think it was about £50 but it might have been about £5, but either way it seemed like a lot of money to me, and I felt like a millionaire because I'd never had that much money just for me before.
There was nothing that I really wanted or needed from the tuck shop, so by the time they came to pick me up at the end of the holiday I hadn't spent much at all, so dad suggested that I get myself a t-shirt which said PGL. Wow, no one had ever given me permission to spend money before, and I felt like I was a princess, especially because I still had change, so I put the rest of the money in my bank when I got home. In those days you could get a lot of sweets for your money, because half a penny coins still existed and that would buy you a whole bag of sweets to chew on. A large pack of polo mints would be about 5p or 10p and a bag of crisps about 15p. I didn't like crisps that much, and I was so full from the extra big helpings of sponge and custard at tea time, that I couldn't eat any chocolate bars. So the only thing I bought was packets of spearmint sweets. I'd never had mints before but they tasted exactly like toothpaste.
And that was it, they tasted like toothpaste, therefore they must be toothpaste, and even better, they were far cheaper than the money mum and dad spent on buying toothpaste, and what's more children really enjoyed eating them.
It was the start of a revolution, and before long I had the whole dorm buying packs of mints and ditching their toothpaste tubes. Their parents would be delighted because not only had I saved them all money, but their children would have sparkly white teeth from eating these toothpaste sweets. I was a hero. And every night before bed, instead of cleaning our teeth, we would sit on our bunk beds, and eat at least a pack each of mint sweets.
When mum and dad came to pick me up at the end of the week, dad was really happy to see me and said he had missed me. He said I would have really enjoyed the place they went to as well. I was really happy to see him too but sad to be leaving a place that had felt so homely to me and full of adventures every day.
Dad helped me pack up my things in the dorm, and made sure I hadn't left anything behind, and was a bit surprised to find that that my toothpaste tube still had the seal on it, and my toothbrush looked brand new. So I explained to him my cunning plan and how I had got all the children in the dorm to look after their teeth by eating mint sweets instead. Dad went very pale, and told me not to tell anyone else, at least until we had left the building. In hindsight I guess he was imagining that he would soon being getting dental bills and letters of complaint from all of the parents with children whose teeth has rotted and fallen out! I just thought he didn't want anyone else to know what a genius I was, and that he wanted to go and invent some mint sweets we could sell as our special invention, so none else would steal the idea.