When I was a very little girl I used to travel quite regularly, with my mother and my big sister, on the train from Exeter to Leicester to visit my grandparents. We would go, one woman, two little girls in white socks and a great big suitcase, on the Big Train to Birmingham New Street where we would change to the Little Train to Leicester. Of course from my perspective, as a little girl, the train to Leicester was no bigger or littler than the other one, except that, for a good few years into the Eighties, when you went on the Little Train, it was possible that you might travel in a carriage with compartments and those bouncy seats upholstered in rectangular scratchy velvet with sliding down windows and red chains you were Not To Pull. One day, there was a man with a flute, which he let me have a go at playing.
Birmingham New Street station always impressed me with its bigness. We used to have to wait for some time there for our connecting train, and my sister and I would take it in turns to sit on our mother’s battered old suitcase, the one she took with her when she went to America, while the other would make the expedition from one end of the bridge to the other. Again, as a child, I was never really sure that the long corridor with downward steps leading off it and paved in ridged black plastic, was actually a bridge (seeing as it differed markedly from what I thought of as a bridge); I used to like scuffing my heels along the ridges, feeling them bump and give slightly as I passed.
How it has changed. I passed through it yesterday, on my way to Primary Rocks Live (only, it wasn’t Leicester I was travelling to, but Manchester). I changed trains (once on the way there, and once on the way back), and, such was the change wrought by posh paving slabs, shiny escalators and aspirational shops, that I had to take a quick turn to the end of the platform, the pointy bit that meets the track and where you can take the fumed air, just to reassure myself that I was, actually, in the right place. We used to make the journey there too, when we were older, and took our dog with us to Granny’s. We used to walk her up to the end so that she could do her Business.
Some days, everything around me seems to have changed, while I wasn’t looking. Often, when I go on a train journey, I play a little game in my mind called, ‘Spot the School’. (This is why it is not a game I play with anyone else.) I can spot them a mile off, through the splattered windows as I trundle through the countryside. Despite being in a multitude of architectural styles, they are distinctive, their purpose immediately obvious to the interested observer.
There is a playground (often painted), a field (although not always), and big, white-rimmed windows, mostly around low buildings. You can usually see the hall and the way that the classrooms cluster around it. A couple of grey mobiles in the yard. Maybe an upstairs if the town is particularly big. The kind of place I thought I was going to.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The school I eventually found my way to (after I got lost in Manchester Picadilly – they REALLY need to sort out their signage, they really do) bore no relation to the school buildings I have become accustomed to, and rather fond of (apart from the fences – no one has chain link any more, it’s all metres tall security jobs these days) over the years. There was a playground, yes, but, built in 2008, the school squats, a vast shoebox, an industrial building on an industrial size, unlike anything I have every worked in.
It was strange being in a building that felt more suited to adults than to children. Maybe It’s because there weren’t any children in it, but the ceilings were so tall, the hall, apart from dwarfed wall bars in one corner, equipped for a conference; it was miles away from the environment that has been my workplace for so long. It didn’t even smell even a little bit of that strange, primary perfume made up of washing powder, rubber-soled shoes and wee.
What was NOT strange, however, were the gown ups who were there. Grown ups who reminded me that I am part of something really rather special. That in the way they speak, the words and tone of voice they use, the gentle encouragement of body language held just right for young children, their ability to pretend that they have eyes in the back of their head without even blinking an eye reminded me, that despite my surroundings, I am part of a very special family.
Mind you, I never thought I would ever see the day when I was one of the older members of staff. I was supposed to be the young one, the wide eyed, over-enthusiastic ingénue. Yesterday, though, I was surrounded by colleagues whose fresh, unlined faces and shiny hair betray their youth, and I feel old.
I feel old, and cantankerous, bolshy and, strange as it seems to me to think it, experienced. It’s funny how the shortest of conversations live with you all the way back down the train line, through Birmingham New Street and back to the Victorian platforms of my local station. How, without me realising it, like the lines on my forehead (mummy, what are those?) and the grey hairs appearing at my temple, I seem to have joined the ranks of my foremothers. The ones who were held in suspicion, because they seemed to have escaped or gone beyond the bonds of marriage and motherhood, gained knowledge and power and voices of their own.
The wise women, witches and widows.