New Sherwood School, Worple Road, Epsom, Surrey.
Dad takes the day off work and I climb past the tipping front seat into the back of the red Morris Minor. Mum, in smart Jaeger frock and new perm, sits in the front. At first the landscape is familiar – roads and avenues lined with bulky semi-detached mock Tudor houses, privet hedges, sculpted shrubs and green baize lawns. This is my territory, safe, secure and familiar as a chanted rhyme. Tiny landmarks tick each turning in the old narrative: the street name loosened from its wooden supports; the peeling ad for Sharp’s toffees on a neglected billboard; the pub sign with the wall-eyed red lion forever dancing westwards; the electricity sub-station behind its barred metal fence.
Beyond the Worcester Park roundabout, I’m in an alien land of unfamiliar shop fronts, a car showroom displaying the new Austin Somerset, a railway station hosting a shuffling tank engine behind a line of trucks, a castellated church tower behind a shrill sign – Christ is coming. Are you ready? There’s fear now. Familiar settings but seen through the veil of a dream. Somewhere within this tilted landscape is the school I am to visit. Wrought-iron gates will loom suddenly and behind them red brick walls binding steel framed windows and scuffed swing-doors. And behind them the rush and blunder of uniformed bodies and, moving amongst them, teachers, booming and gesticulating.
A crooked lane off a main road. A ramshackle fence flanking a scruffy two-acre paddock. Then a square wooden board like an estate agent’s sign bearing the words ‘New Sherwood School – 5 to 18’. Immediately beyond it, two high spiked wooden gates, anchored open, letting onto a short unmadeup drive. To the right, a spreading oak tree with a tractor tyre hanging to just above ground level on a long rope. To the left a long, slate-roofed house with a scuffed front door and whitewash flaking from its walls.
Dad parks the car on a patch of cinders and gravel under the oak tree and the three of us clamber out onto the uneven ground. There is the scent of new mown grass and from behind the big house the sound of children’s voices. All is still, suspended in the moment. Then the front door opens and a tall man with thick black hair and a full beard comes striding towards us. He is wearing an open necked shirt, a kilt, knee socks and sandals. He greets me directly in a soft Highland Scots accent, saying his name – John Wood – and asking me for mine. Then he guides us towards an open area beneath a huge beech. There is a small, round swimming pool painted blue, a climbing frame and a pair of ancient steel-tyred cartwheels horizontally attached to posts as primitive roundabouts. John lifts himself up onto the edge of one of them and, with a leg resting on the ground, gently moves himself from side to side as he talks. He ignores Mum and Dad and addresses only me, asking questions in a quiet voice and listening with absolute attention to my stilted answers. He wants to know why I am unhappy at my present school. What is it that scares me? (Long queues; being jabbed in my ribs from behind; the fetid fug of assembly and the grinding hymns that rise out of us like steam; beetroot and parsnips for lunch and Miss Danks keeping me behind until I’ve eaten all mine; sums and the way my hesitation makes Mr. Rossiter shout…) Who are my friends? (Alan Christmas and Clifford Bennett, sword-wielders, train-drivers, word-hoarders, lost souls like me…) Which teachers do you like and why? (Mr. Leary, who laughs a lot but not at you and kneels by your desk…) What would you like school to be like? (Empty. No, closed forever…) What could make school bearable..?
At first my answers are brief and vague, trailing by minutes at a time the voice that speaks so readily inside my head. So I shrug a lot. I look up into the branches of the overhanging beech, squinting against the light between the leaves and let the head-voice dwindle into silence. But it’s too late now and tears fill my eyes. Here are things that I have never allowed to rise to the surface, even when at my most wretched with Mum and Dad either side of me on the sofa, baffled and helpless. What could make school bearable? For there to be no long pipeline corridors full of ragged, jostling queues or tumbling two-way animal traffic; no echoing rooms with blockboard floors and high narrow windows, their quarterlights tipped open to the outside world; no senseless violence in corners of the playground – moments choking against a forearm squeezing my windpipe; no barked commands for hands on heads in the dining room because the babel voices have reached crescendo; no swirling compound signature odour of chalkdust, flower-and-water paste, boiled and steaming food, warm tar, pencil shavings, wet vaporous clothing after rain, baking dust rising from gurgling radiators. No dread before, no fear within. No suffocating sense of sinking deep and drowning, each and every day…
The sun is warm; blackbirds are singing. John Wood watches me gravely. I take a deep shuddering breath. Mum and Dad are watching me too, heads on one side, smiling uncertainly. John asks: “Do you think you might like to come here? Just to try us out for a day?” I look around the untidy campus – an overgrown tennis court, a long rectangular sandpit, two old caravans in the lee of a high brick wall, a ramshackle gabled workshop, trees and bushes. I think that – perhaps, maybe – I might. Just for a day…
New Sherwood kids.