At 13 I was sent to Bedford School. It had been established in 1552 and was one of the four under the Harper Trust. I had been at Manor House for my prep school and I needed to pass Common Entrance for public school. I duly passed although just I recall and entered this austere school in the cold and what seemed like dreary Midlands. Several generations of Kelly’s had attended and so my father had paid a guinea to them in 1956 as a down payment the decision was made.
Bedford School can be described as a dour place where the ideals of sport ruled. That might have changed but if as I was, not very good at games, life was tough.
The wearing of straw boaters, stiff collars and tail-coats as a uniform in a town inhabited by skinheads lurking around made us new boys a target. “Dance,” they said if they caught us on the way to chapel. We danced on the spot for them in order to save our boaters being crushed and being punched.
Our housemaster at Pemberley, Michael Barlen was a classics scholar. He was bald and caring and his wife made the hot chocolate for the new boys in the evening. School and education were unknown concepts and I was not sure how to study or learn. In fact, these skills were absent from the curriculum.
I had to start my life in the house as a fag to a senior, and I was chosen by the Head of House. His twice hyphenated surname was a testament to his family’s marriage arrangements in the Highlands. My role meant that I had clean his rugby boots, buy his News of the World on Sunday mornings, make him toast and generally absent myself from any evening study in case he needed me. I was paid about £2 a term, but luckily the appointments only lasted a year.
The house consisted of a set of dormitories with some studies for the sixth former and an attic where one boy, Westgarth-Taylor made his den. There he practised making electronic devices and sound systems for the house rock group called Mint. My other friend was Frank Barber who plotted the overthrow of the Government and tinkered with steam engines and the school organ.
The other distraction apart from the education was meeting girls, especially the smarter ones at the High School. My first girlfriend was called Jacky and her parents, like mine lived abroad. I have no recollection of her surname, and only one photograph, which shows her sailing on the Zambezi. It has often intrigued and haunted me, and shows a carefree girl on her father’s boat, with her future ahead and hopefully not a waterfall. We had started to write to each other and at weekends Jacky stayed with a girlfriend. That girl was having a similar discourse with my friend Aidan.
Our letters were long screeds dotted with spelling mistakes, bad grammar and comments about records and fashion. The fact that I had not signed off with enough kisses was noted. I have always kept four of the letters in one of the envelopes that had a floral lining. They are all un-dated and I wonder if they would they have been as innocent if written on an e-mail? I have recently read them again carefully as her letters describe a time in her life when I was important to her. They flow with awkward questions and thoughts about how bad her lessons were, and could we ever meet up in the holidays. We never did and what might have happened, it could have been something to really remember.
However, what might have happened, it could have been something to really remember. That is something to think about.
Jacky is a mystery to me and I will never see her again or experience ageing with as a friend. She always wanted me to write again and soon. Interestingly she thought that her letters were being censored by her house matron, and this was in 1970! They probably were.
In the Middle East at Eid children are given clothes as presents. I thought about this custom as in one letter she writes how she was given a “smashing pair of white wet-look boots” to go with the ‘black ones”, new dresses, skirts and jumpers.
That news was “gossip” to her though I cannot recall what I thought.
Her record collection places her at a time when 45s were so important.“The Witches Promise”, “Venus” and “Love grows where my Rosemary goes” are mentioned. She had “tons of the top ones”, and as for the oldies, writes that “I guess I’ve more than enuff ”.
In another early picture, Jacky’s face looks out with her brother. Keen and oh so English, the cub uniform with shorts and sock flags.
Then suddenly she wrote to ask if my mother had stopped me from writing? Her manners were impeccable as she says if this is so, she will stop writing. Perhaps I stopped by myself, that is lost as a memory and so the letters ceased and our lives went their separate ways.
I sometimes wonder where that river took her, and what happened on her journey.
I hope she is happy and still has my letters.