We were, at the time, living in Swaziland – Southern Hemisphere, school year beginning in January and ending in December rather than in September and ending in June like they did in Europe and in the West. My father’s contract ran out at a really awkward stage, leaving me dangling mid-school year in Swaziland; I could not, at this point, contemplate returning to graduate High School in my native country because by this stage I had missed out on the critical years of the curriculum there and in any event we were discussing going off to South Africa following the termination of the contract, rather than returning “home” permanently. Things would shake down – but for a little while EVERYTHING was in limbo, and Decisions Needed To Be Made.The decision that was in fact finally made was to send me off to a place called Lowther College, a well-regarded English boarding school, where I would pursue my O-Levels as my school leaving certificate in a British educational system which would hopefully leave me with a sound footing in the Western world.Minor problem – I’d be joining the O-Level class at the beginning of Year 2 of a two-year course of study.
No problem. I could do this – I could catch up on a year’s work in a handful of weeks, easy peasy. Just like that. We also bullied the reluctant headmaster into allowing me a curriculum which was seriously out of whack with what he believed was the right thing to do. In his experience girls picked a more arts-leaning course or a more science-leaning course – and there I arrived with my family insistent on pursuing eight O-Levels: English Language, English Lit, French, German, Maths, BIology, Physics, and Chemistry. SQUARELY split between arts and sciences.
I knuckled down to the job at hand, and worked like a maniac at copying up the previous year’s notes in the sciences, trying valiantly to keep up with everyone else. But as it turned out I was so far ahead of my French class that I was handed French novels to read and parked at the back of the class to do so while they hammered out irregular verbs – and I was given the chance to take my French O-Level exam only two months after I arrived at the school, together with only a handful of other candidates, at least two of whom were actually doing the exam at that time as a remedial repeat kind of thing. But I aced the thing, receiving a straight A. We also did that another O-Level in the November exam slot, my English Language class. There were two streams involved when it came to English Lang – the GCSE stream which gathered in all the girls who might have arrived with English as their second language – a couple of Iranians, a couple of Nigerians, assorted other immigrant-type folks, and their curriculum supposedly reflected this backbround in that it was relatively simpler than the requirements for the actual O-Level stream… which involved British-born girls who were speaking English as their native tongue from the cradle, and, well, yours truly. The O-Level English Lang stream took their final O-Level exam that November… and much to the Headmaster’s somewhat less than completely concealed astonishment, and both astonishment and a trace of resentment from the rest of the class, I was the only candidate who received an A in that exam. Two months after arriving at the school, two O-Level A’s in my pocket. I was doing okay.
Did I mention, by the way, that Lowther College… was situated in a castle?
A REAL castle?
THIS castle, in fact…?
Bodelwyddan Castle was a real honest-to-goodness Victorian pile of a castle, turrets and portcullis gates and wood panelling and all. It was a magnificent place to go to SCHOOL in – and, well, here’s the real reason I’m doing this one first, the place was honest-to-goodness haunted. Yes sir. Real ghost. Using the ghost stories as a basis, the senior girls attempted to scare the junior boarders spitless one year by having one of their number dress up in a trailing white sheet and wander the halls wailing, carrying a pumpkin under her arm as her “head”. Things went swimmingly until the “ghost” turned around and saw… a REAL ghost… standing at the head of the stairs which she was about to go down. Let’s just say the screaming wasn’t just the JUNIOR boarders. But seriously,, folks, the place had odd things happening in it all the time. There would be footsteps in the corridor when nobody was there. And people woke up in the middle of the night in time to see the bedclothes on their beds indent gently, as though somebody had just sat down on the bed, when it was painfully obvious that there was nobody there to have done so. I heard that ghost myself, walking the halls. I swear it. And it ain’t just another happy Halloween tale.
Lowther College folded in 1982, only a few short years after I left it. The castle, from what I could gather, went through an attempt at gentrification where it became a corporate retreat resort, as it were – but that didn’t last, and in the end it became… a museum. The Lowther College years were acknowledged in an exhibit and I suppose I really am a wandering exhibit of that particular section of the museum myself, being a Lowther girl. But the rest of it… has been prettified and restored and redone to the point that I couldn’t really find my way around any more the last time I was there, couldn’t pinpoint which room I had slept in, where exactly the wood-panelled library was where a visiting author came to speak to my class and, with her words, handed me my life wrapped up and beribboned like a CHristmas present, ensuring that I too would become a writer. I could not find the refectory hall, where we ate food completely unlike the Hogwarts feasts of Rowling’s books and where I acquired a lasting and probably PERMANENT aversion to any food which is PINK (and another lasting addiction to Bourbon Creams and Custard Creams and Ginger Snaps and other ENglish cookies with which they graced our English afternoon teas). I could not find any of it, any living trace of that schook, amongst the halls which are now festooned by portaiture and landscapes in ornate gilt frames and period furniture on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Others wander past the Lowther exhibit and peruse it like they would any other. Me, I wander past it and step through it into my own past – and it all comes back to me, ethereal like that drifting ghost whose identity I never learned. There comes the echo of laughter – of my crying into my pillow some nights when my housemistress was particularly mean to me (and she WAS mean to me) – of a room-mate in one of the castle rooms which had been changed into sleeping quarters for the boarders standing on her bed and acting out Helen Reddy’s “I am woman hear me roar”, a song which I still cannot hear without remembering VIVIDLY that girl planted firmly on her bed in her stocking feet, one hand on hip and the other flung out theatrically to point at the rest of us as if in exhortation – of the dusting of first snow, and our running out to take photographs in the winter wonderland with the castle as the backdrop – of the oogy dirty-old-man history teacher who would occasionally preside over a table in the refectory at dinner and offer a plate of exotic fruit around with a leer and a sleazy, “Would you like a date dear?” – of the old-fashioned claw tubs in the bathrooms – of the clock ticking in silence while we all bent over our exam papers in the great hall – of the time the school choir, to which I belonged, took part in a multi-choir and choral society public concert of Benjamin Britten’s “St Nicholas” in St Asaph Cathedral – of the chickenpox scare that threatened a swift and inglorious end to my boarding school year and graduation from high school with a British diploma – of outings to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company (which included Glenda Jackson, Patrick Stewart and Alan Rickman) perform “Antony and Cleopatra” – of days of persistent grey English rain, of games in soaking green fields where you sometimes had to be rather careful of the resident flock of sheep’s “calling cards” in the grass. To today’s visitors, all of this is now part of a museum. To me, it’s part of a life, a life I’ve lived, my own personal history, my own past.
Sometimes, a museum is not just dusty exhibits under glass.
Look at me.
I am a living part of this museum.
Me, and that ghost, who I hope hasn’t been driven away by all the hoopla. I never got the impression that it was malevolent or evil – perhaps it rather enjoyed having the company of all those shrieking young women, something that gave a sense of fun and a sense of purpose to its afterlife.
If you ever visit Bodelwyddan Castle, look out for the ghost. And tell it I said hi.