A Swede at Malory Towers

Article published on August 9, 2011.

Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself…It is winter in London. Eliza Cummings, a ceramics restorer at the V&A Museum, is leaving work when she receives an unexpected phone call. Standing in the haze of the Christmas lights she hears a voice which draws her back twenty-five years – to the night Rose died. But why does Rose’s father want her to visit him? Why now? And why is he killing her with kindness when they both know that he blames her for what happened to his daughter? Grief and guilt cast terrible shadows, but as this beautifully wrought story unfolds and the scene shifts from London to the fairy tale landscape of the Swedish countryside – and back in time to Eliza’s school days – we learn that generosity, humour and friendship can smooth over and restore even the most broken lives, and that some secrets just can’t be kept hidden…

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I was a thirteen year old Swede from a fiercely anglophile family. I had read the books – all those books full of jolly English children (they were all English to me even if, as in some cases, they were actually Australian) who went to frightfully jolly English schools where they all had a frightfully jolly time. My own brother had been so happy during his stay at an English boarding school that he had returned for a full year. And now at last it was my turn to. I was off to England to a school for girls.

On the train there from London I sat on my regulation blue felt hat but even that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, though I do remember that the middle-aged woman sharing our compartment had looked at me with something like compassion. At the time I thought it was the hat. Now I believe she was an old-timer. She had been where I was going.

Back in Sweden of the seventies I was a fairly typical thirteen year old; a child playing grown-up games, fighting the rules while secretly yearning to be held to them. I went to a nice school. The same mixed day school that all my family had attended. My parents, and those of my friends, had been brought up in the strict post-war years so were determined to give us the freedom they themselves had lacked. They said they trusted us. We thought they were pretty dumb to do so as we inhaled on our Benson and Hedges and toasted our good fortune in illicit beer. And we snogged, sometimes with tongues. But by and large we were good kids and pretty straightforward. Anyway, if you had had a bad day at school, you knew you would be home in time for tea.

My school, being sort of private – well as private as you got in Sweden – was considered smart, but we, the pupils came from varied backgrounds. It was a school that prided itself on its tolerance and liberal values and it had a tradition of taking in refugee children. If your family’s name happened to be in Adelskalendern, a kind of Who’s Who of the Swedish Nobility, you might be aware of it but that was as far as it went. It certainly wasn’t noteworthy. Having big breasts if you were a girl and touching those breasts if you were a boy; now that did matter.

But now I was about to join a very different world. At its entrance I was greeted by Anne and Carrie who had been told to help me settle in. While my parents had tea with the housemistress (who seemed perfectly nice, although Anne and Carrie has already warned me that when she started to grind her teeth it was best to run for cover) I was shown my dorm. I had never shared a bedroom but from my extensive reading I knew all about midnight feasts and other ‘japes.’  I had barely changed out of my tweed travelling suit and into the regulation skirt, blouse and nylons (at home I might smoke the odd cigarette and snog the odd boy, but I still wore knee socks) before I was informed that Carrie was the House beauty and that Anne’s father was a Lord. Did I know what a Lord was?  I did. Did I care? I did not. This proved to be a mistake. I soon realised that pretty well everything I did and said and wore, was a mistake. In fact the place was one big outstretched leg waiting to trip me up. The school had told my parents that, as I was only attending the place for a short time, I could wear some of my own stuff for uniform, as long as it was the right colours. Perhaps, Anne and Carrie suggested, if my parents couldn’t afford the uniform, I might have been ‘happier at the local grammar school?’  I didn’t know what a grammar school was but by the expression on their faces I took it to be a really bad place. Mysteriously though, my brand new pencil case was wrong precisely because it was new and bought especially for school.  The only thing that would do was a biscuit tin. Matron, a kindly war widow, brought me one from town. It was very pretty. Pale blue with some kind of pattern.  I emptied the tin and stashed the biscuits, putting in their place the contents of my despised pencil case. I had got it right hadn’t I?  Of course I hadn’t. It was supposed to be an old, battered and scratched biscuit tin. So I spent hours hand-scratching it. But it was too late. By now everyone knew I had bought a tin especially for the occasion. What next? A confession that my parents had been known to buy their own furniture?

I also learnt that it was bad manners to ask for something to be passed to you at the table. Instead you were to wait for someone to notice that your plate was empty, or that you had potatoes but no meat or meat but no vegetables. It didn’t take a genius to work out that by not noticing you could make someone’s life pretty miserable.

Still there were some good times. I won a running race. I didn’t know I could run. And then there was the time when I got a prize, a Mars Bar, for being able to talk for a full minute without stopping and without hesitation about a subject given to me by the English teacher; boats, in this case.  I learnt to darn nylon tights. And there was my night with Ego. All the junior girls were supposed to have a crush on a senior girl. (A platonic crush of course.) The object of your affections became the superstar of your school life, a kind of Mick Jagger in a blue and white summer dress. The pinnacle of the whole thing was the night before half-term when your ‘crush’ was supposed to break into your dorm and sit by your bed and talk to you for a bit. The girls I thought were nice were all ‘taken,’ so I ended up having my crush on whoever was left; a girl called Ego. She was called Ego because in the game Quiz Ego she always shouted her name the loudest. I can still see her, muttering and swearing to herself as she climbed in through the window. But the chat we had as she perched on my bed that night was lovely and I remember her fondly.

But mostly I perfected the art of smiling while feeling miserable. Don’t let the buggers get you down, eh what. I kept my letters home relentlessly chirpy.  Anything else would have been admitting failure. After all, England was the Promised Land and hadn’t my brother been a huge success at Shrewsbury? So I wrote those chirpy letters, ate anything in sight and counted down the days to end of term on my homemade calendar. And occasionally, and to my eternal shame, I joined in the bullying of the only girl less favoured than myself. Then, when the time came at last for me to leave, I told myself that I would never again set foot in England.

Of course I moved here, voluntarily and only a few years later. I love this country. I find it a kind and tolerant place, in many ways more so than Sweden and I wouldn’t wish to live anywhere else. I have that early taste of English boarding school life to thank for my grounding in English and for much of the material for my novel, Drowning Rose. Of course no one was actually drowned at Queen Anne’s, though that might simply have been due to the absence of water.

Marika Cobbold

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