VI. Leaving School

On the evening of 30 April, 1979, towards the end of my first year in the Sixth Form, my father collapsed suddenly at home and died a few hours later. He was fifty years old, and a post-mortem established that he had been suffering from heart disease for some time. His mother had died of thrombosis and his brother had suffered a heart attack at the same age (although after prompt medical treatment and open heart surgery, my uncle lived for another fifteen years), so there was clearly a genetic factor involved, probably exacerbated by my father's constant pipe smoking. A week or two before my father died, he had pulled a young mother and child out of their car when they had crashed into a water-filled ditch on the marshes which bordered my home town, and the physical strain may have precipitated the heart attack which finally killed him.

The shock of my father's death was made worse by the circumstances in which he died. My mother was a qualified nurse, but although she phoned our GP repeatedly and told him that my father had had a heart attack, the doctor refused to come out, instead diagnosing an upset stomach. (The same doctor three weeks previously had recommended that my father buy a bottle of whisky and take a couple of days off work when he visited the surgery complaining of a heavy chest; at no point was my father examined.) We lived ten miles away from the nearest hospital, neither my mother nor I could drive, and the ambulance service required a doctor's summons before coming out. We were therefore unable to summon help, and were left to watch my father die (thankfully my younger sister and brother went to sleep without realising that anything was wrong). Only afterwards did the doctor arrive to misdiagnose a pulmonary embolism, claiming until the results of the postmortem arrived that the outcome would not have been affected by his presence. This experience left my mother and myself suffering from what I would later recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I was initially unsure whether I would be able to afford to return to school, but in fact our family income was higher with state benefits than it had been previously. Given my father's experience of unemployment, and seeking some stability, it seemed sensible to continue with my education. I therefore returned to school two weeks later to find all mention of my bereavement conspicuous by its absence, with the staff treating me as if I had been off sick (the only member of staff who subsequently discussed the situation with me was the head of the Art department, who was extremely kind). With a few, thankfully notable exceptions, the other pupils were uncomfortable with my grief, becoming hostile as time went on. I was the visible reminder of a truth with which they could not cope; that what had happened to me would one day happen to them. Inevitably it was easier to blame me for my own inadequacies because I did not "cheer up".

Later the school administration was extremely unsympathetic, refusing to let me arrive a few minutes late in the mornings in order to allow me to help my family before leaving home each day. Inevitably I became exhausted and ill some months later, whereupon they wrote to my mother, thoroughly upsetting her when she was already very disturbed. Still no-one discussed what had happened with me, leaving me to relive the night of my father's death over and over again (I later discovered that this was a symptom of PTSD).

My feelings of isolation were increased by the fact that I now thought of myself as an adult. My father had died just over a day before my seventeenth birthday, and on my birthday I decided that, in the circumstances, I would have to reach adulthood a year early. I felt that there was now a yawning gulf between my experiences and those of my fellow pupils, and I had no one to whom I could turn for advice, whether it was on how to apply to University, how a non-cook could feed a family of four, or how to fight off my father's lecherous friends, so my last four terms at school were not happy ones.

Unsurprisingly, I did badly in my final examinations. That I was able to continue with my education at my first choice of university regardless was thanks to my university interviewer, David Punter, who took the circumstances into account and judged me on my interview performance. (I doubt that I would have been so lucky today, with the much greater pressure on places.) The fact that I later received grief counselling and so completed the degree successfully was also due to the much more understanding attitude at the University.

Nothing, however, could restrain my joy at leaving school, as our final days gradually dissolved into anarchy. The Sixth Form was expected to give a tea party for the staff, and the drinks were duly heavily spiked with vodka. (In retrospect, I assume that the staff were quite aware of and happy about this; they certainly didn't complain at the time.) The boyfriends of some of my friends, from the neighbouring boy's grammar school, tried unsuccessfully to gatecrash the event, and later they did manage to penetrate the school during our farewell assembly, much to the alarm of the games teacher who found them hiding in her locker room.

On our final afternoon, there was a mass rush to the school's windows after the grammar school's head boy - now a well-known writer - was stripped to his underpants by his friends, tied to a chair and left on the grass under the staff room window. The staff quickly lost interest when they discovered that he was not entirely naked, and eventually the boys took mercy on him and returned. To my continuing satisfaction, I ended my school career by leaving in the same car, along with two of my friends.

Next: VII. Afterthoughts
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