“We go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong – Remembered for ever as shoo-bop sha whada whadda yippidy boom da boom”
The film “Grease” came out in 1978, a couple of years before I left school – but its sound track defined an era. At the end of the movie, as everyone sings, Sandy and Danny rise above the school in their 1948 Ford ‘Greased Lightning’ off to the future. This weekend my class of 1980 landed together in the Braes of Balquhidder for our first reunion since we left Oxenfoord Castle School. Lots of people had seen lots of each other since, but this was the first time so many were gathered together at the same time.
The boarding experience we shared was fairly usual for its time – with some extra twists of its own. It’s hard to pick the key defining characteristic, there are several: the cold; the food; being semi-cloistered from the rest of the world; or the priceless Sèvres china collection in the Adam dining room where we ate all our meals.
Cold? We knew about being cold – there was no heating above the ground floor and the radiators in the classrooms were barely effective. Our shampoo, toothpaste and lipgloss regularly froze solid – this is a whole level of cold above having a thin layer of frost on the inside of a window pane. When it snowed the drive got blocked and the oil truck couldn’t make it through. We all remember melting saucepans of snow in the domestic science room to wash our hair. (Though to this day none of us could understand why there was a regime of only washing your hair once a fortnight…the melted snow option was quite a rebellion).
Food? Memories of tipping a plate of mince so that the fat collected in a pool away from the grey meat. Curious combinations never since repeated – crisps and ravioli, yoghurt and digestive biscuits, fish and chips with pickled beetroot. Eating countless baps and golden syrup. And talking about food – whispered conversations between top and bottom bunk about asparagus and melted butter and how many roast potatoes could have been had at home. Sweets from our tuck boxes – we were only allowed 3 single sweets a weekday, 4 on Saturdays and 5 on Sundays… we all got very good at smuggling, it was a real bonus when you got old/big enough for a bra! Sneaking walnuts from the school kitchen, only to be caught as they tumbled out of a hole in a dressing gown pocket. Liberating an egg from the same kitchen and then cooking it by boiling it in the kettle.
Being semi-cloistered had its own impact. It wasn’t just that we didn’t have mobile phones (there was one phone we could use in the evenings – it had a flashing light to signal incoming calls, but answering it was always a bit of a risk because you then had to go and find the person and the castle was quite big). We couldn’t go out very often. In a 13 week term there was an allowance of 3 weekend days and 3 ½ days of half-term. You had to be back by 7pm and I still get the abdabs on a Sunday evening if I hear the Top 40 chart countdown on Radio 1. We just didn’t see anyone much apart from each other – for 6 years. One consequence of this was being able to sort out disputes. If an argument developed, which they did, it had to be resolved quickly because no one could stand living in a crabby atmosphere for long. The second consequence is emotional independence. Back then, children that boarded developed pretty tough outer shells.
And the Sèvres china and Adam architecture? Our school building was originally a tower house built in the 16th century. In 1782 Robert Adam re-designed and extended the building. The Stair family, who still own it, had an extensive collection of art and miscellaneous objects d’art. There was a Watteau in the Drawing Room, displays of cutlasses, epées and swords in the entrance hall and ghosts galore in the turrets and hanging staircases. It was a Georgian Hogwarts – castellations and all.
We got together because we hadn’t for 33 years and because one of our friends is not well and we wanted to see her. We got together at her house and did not stop talking and laughing for 24 hours. My smiling muscles ache. We brought food and drink – enough to last for weeks, after all those years of fantasising about it everyone was always going to bring enough. We brought flowers and photographs – for our friend and for our memories. Memories that began like an individual patchwork with gaps and scraps here and there became a tapestry. The threads of stories repeated and re-enforced by one to another filling in our narrative with many stiches: who had dissected the sheep’s eye ball; who had played piano so well; who had taken a coveted position in the lacrosse team from another; which teacher had warned us about “babies in the air just waiting to be born”; and, of course, who had snogged who at the occasional school dances with Loretto and Fettes.
We shared our individual stories since leaving – men, marriages, children, adventures. We remembered friends not with us at our reunion. And we talked about the future. We worry for our parents and wondered about the next generation. What will they take from the values we share – what will be discarded. We also talk about ourselves and what we will do next – forthcoming art exhibitions, business projects, weddings in the pipeline and expeditions. The ability to resolve disputes has mellowed into an ability to listen and empathise without competing.
You can tell by someone’s gait, or their laugh, that they are still the same girl underneath – but we have become a group of tough, kind, funny and wise women I care for very much.