A Short Story About My Boarding School Days
by Caroline Kennedy
Mary Lyneham was 16 and a Senior.
I was 12 and a Junior.
She was already a young woman with hints of curves in all the right places.
Me? I was still just a child with no curves at all except around my thighs.
“Puppy fat!” the grown-ups called it. Or, worse still, “chubby”. But most offensive of them all was “pleasingly plump”, as if anything “plump” could ever be “pleasing” to me.
“Don’t worry,” they said. “It will just disappear when you’re a bit older, you’ll see!”
Truth was I inherited my thighs from my Jugoslav mother and, even though I willed them away every single day throughout my growing years, they never miraculously “disappeared” when I moved out of my “puppy” phase and officially became a “young woman”.
So slender Mary and “pleasingly plump” me ended up on the school swimming team together. Because swimming was my “thing”, you see. And, like I frequently had to point out to those skeptical of my aquatic skills, elephant seals, walruses and manatees are recognized as swift, agile and graceful swimmers so why not me with my “pleasingly plump” thighs?
In fact, if it wasn’t for swimming, Mary and I would never have met. In those days the Seniors hardly ever mixed with the Juniors. Unless, of course, they happened to be sisters, when they got special dispensation.
But that summer Mary and I were destined to meet every day at lunch hour and, again, after class. While our friends dug into their meat and two veg at lunch or slaved over their trigonometry homework at the end of the day the two of us, along with ten other strong swimmers from the Senior School, honed our skills in the pool, coached by the ever-popular Miss Hockney, or “Hockers” as we most often referred to her.
That summer was not actually the first time Mary and I had met. We had spent a week, lying side by side in adjoining beds in the school sanitarium earlier in the year when we had both succumbed to a winter outbreak of mumps. Nursing painfully swollen jaws and feeling desperately sorry for ourselves we had hardly exchanged a word between us.
And we had also stood in silence, side-by-side, on the makeshift podium beside the pool the previous summer, the Senior and Junior champions at freestyle. Although Mary, the tall, rugged honey-blond with the statuesque legs and the broad tanned shoulders, could always beat me in speed, I always beat her in style. So we had stood on the makeshift podium, side by side, adorned by our respective medals, acknowledging each other and smiling triumphantly but not exchanging more than a congratulatory nod.
Our boarding school, Tortington Park, took swimming very seriously. It had been the annual champion among schools across the southwest of England for several years. It had even produced two British Commonwealth champions and one Olympic champion. And part of that success was due the arrival at the school eight years earlier of the incomparable Miss Hockney, or “Hockers” as she came to be known. Miss Hockney truly had a knack for picking and training young champions. And now this year, 1956, I was the first ever Junior she had selected for the school swimming team.
“I’m taking a big gamble with you, Caroline” Miss Hockney cautioned me. “If you let me down, you let yourself down, you let the team down and, most of all, you let the school down, you understand?”
“This is a great honour, I hope you treat it as such,” she continued. “I’ve been watching you closely the last two years and I believe you are good enough to take part in all the swimming and diving events.”
“Thank you, Miss.” I was truly flattered.
“Normally,” Miss Hockney added, “we only select the strongest swimmers and divers among the Seniors. But this year, I am happy to inform you, young lady, you have made the grade.”
I wasn’t quite sure whether to curtsey, to shake her hand or to kiss her. So I simply blushed awkwardly and smiled.
“Thank you, Miss.” I replied again, attempting unsuccessfully to hide my excitement. Members of the school swimming team were stars that everyone in the school looked up to. They had respect. They received privileges. They were indulged. They even had their own table in the dining room. And now I was going to be one of them. I couldn’t quite believe it.
“And before you think you will not have to do any homework,” she cautioned, “you will have to find time to do that, either early morning or before lights out. Otherwise you will be off the team in no time. Understand?”
I gritted my teeth to prevent myself from groaning out loud. Indulgence, admiration, privilege and a coveted place at the swimmers’ table in the dining hall obviously did not extend to being absolved of homework. That was a huge disappointment. What was the point of being on the swimming team and receiving special treatment if I still had to go through the dreary motions of doing my maths homework every night like everyone else?
“Be grateful for small mercies!” my stepmother would have said at a moment like this. And this was no “small” mercy. This was a huge one. So I thanked Miss Hockney again and let the thought go.
Miss Hockney was the most popular among the school faculty. She was boyish, slim and athletic, with a tangle of thick black shiny curls framing her heart-shaped face, unblemished porcelain skin, thick sensuous lips expertly plastered in glossy ruby-red lipstick, symmetrically dimpled cheeks and an undeniably seductive smile.
In locker room gossip after gym class one day I had been told she “liked girls”. That didn’t strike me as odd. I liked girls too. It seemed I had no choice in the matter I was surrounded by them 24 hours a day. The only men we might possibly come into contact with during the school term was Bill, the geriatric gardener/pool maintenance chap with a stammer, Mr Latham, the Biology teacher with two rows of teeth on his upper jaw and the local Sussex vicar, the blithering Reverend Nigel Hoskins-Smythe whose gammy leg was his only source of conversation other than God’s work on Earth. So there was no alternative. We had to like the company of girls.
“Not just ‘likes’ girls,” Bronwen Farr, the precocious niece of the former British heavyweight-boxing champion, Tommy Farr, nudged me conspiratorially as I threw my gym kit in my locker, “but, you know, really ‘likes’ girls!”
I nodded sagely. I had no idea what Bronwen was going on about. But I couldn’t admit it. After all, unlike Bronwen, I was now on the Senior swimming team so, despite her famous uncle, I was bound to be infused with superior knowledge to her. Knowledge that no Junior, even the over-precocious Bronwen should ever, or would ever, be privy to.
“Don’t tell anyone!” Bronwen whispered. “It’s a secret. Cross your heart and hope to die!”
“Would I ever?” I retorted while reluctantly going through the rather feeble motion of crossing my heart.
“Hockers “likes” girls,” I announced importantly to my dorm-mate, Emma, later that evening, with the same emphasis on the word “like” as Bronwen had used in our earlier conversation. I tried my best to sound like the imparter of some deep, dark secret but, in truth, I hoped Emma would be able to shed some light on what this news actually meant. But she too, it seemed, was totally in the dark. She simply nodded.
“I like Miss Cunningham the best,” she said without looking up from her well-thumbed library copy of The Whiteoaks of Jalna. “She told my Mum I was good at history.”
“Well, I like Hockers.” I retorted, “She chose me for the swimming team today! So I probably won’t have to do prep for a while.”
I lied, of course. I thought that would make Emma very jealous. But sweet, jolly little Emma, little Emma with the perpetual smile and the permanently good nature, would never be jealous of anyone. It was just not in her make-up.
“You will, too!” Emma was not so dumb as to think I would get away with doing no homework for the next few weeks. She snapped the book shut. “We’ve got exams at the end of the term. You’ll have to find time to do it.” She yawned loudly, turned off the bedside light and rolled over. “Besides,” she added sleepily, “your algebra is terrible.”
I decided to ignore that remark.
“Lots of the Seniors like Hockers too,” I persisted, determined to get to the bottom of the secret. But Emma was already feigning sleep.
It was true – Miss Hockney was very popular. I could see her now, huddled in the corner of the locker room, her arm placed casually around Mary’s shoulder, whispering and giggling with some of the most attractive girls from the Sixth Form. We Juniors looked on enviously, wondering why she didn’t huddle in a corner with us the same way.
“It’s the cat!” Emma’s sleepy voice broke my thoughts.
“What? What on earth are you talking about?” At first I thought she was talking in her sleep.
“She’s got a cat.” Emma rolled over to face me.
“Who? Who’s got a cat? What do you mean?” I asked.
“How would you know?” I noticed the first hint of jealousy in my voice.
“I’ve seen it.” Emma sat up and yawned again. “That’s probably why Mary Lyneham, likes her so much.”
I pretended to be disinterested. I started to undress, throwing my clothes messily over the back of my chair.
“How could Hockers have a cat?” I asked nonchalantly, “It’s illegal to have a pet inside the school.”
“I know,” Emma rubbed her eyes and lay back on her pillow. “But she’s got one. I saw it when I passed her door one day. Mary was just coming out of Hockers’ room and I saw a cat peeping round the door! And she bent down and pushed it back inside.”
“I don’t believe you!” I said. But actually I did believe her because sweet, jolly little Emma, little Emma with the perpetual smile and the permanently good nature was also very honest. She would never tell a lie.
I was determined to get to the bottom of this. I loved cats. We had two at home and I always missed them during term time. Why were Mary Lyneham and some of the other Seniors allowed to know about the cat and not the Juniors? It didn’t make sense. I threw myself down on my bed, pulled the covers up to my neck and fell asleep. I think I dreamt of cats, swimming pools and the imagined interior of Miss Hockney’s room.
A few days later Bronwen approached me again and, with the same air of self-satisfaction that I had learned to despise, whispered loudly in my ear.
“Hockers “invites” Mary and some of the other Seniors into her rooms for what she calls “fireside chats”. I’ll bet you didn’t know that!”
I didn’t. But, naturally, I said, “Of course I knew that, Bronwen! I’m not a dummy, you know! Everyone knows that!”
“You couldn’t possibly know it,” Bronwen retorted, flicking her long blond hair and shrugging her broad shoulders, “I was only just told by Fiona Mackenzie a minute ago. She had just been told by one of the Seniors. She said nobody else knew. So you can’t have known!”
Shouting out, “Booh, snubs!” she swaggered off down the corridor.
I called out after her. “I did, too!” And then I couldn’t resist adding, “It’s the cat!”
It seemed like every girl in the bustling corridor froze at that very second, stopped in her tracks, turned around and stared at me. I immediately regretted blurting it out so publicly. I desperately hoped no one knew what I was talking about.
Bronwen also whipped around, walked back towards me and stuck her tongue out at me.
“You’re mad, you know that?” she shouted in my face, “You’d say anything to get noticed!” With that she waltzed off to Latin class. But, as she opened the classroom door, she couldn’t resist a final put-down. “Next time my Uncle Tommy comes to visit, I’ll get him to teach you a lesson! He’s not called the Tonypandy Terror for nothing, you’ll see!” With a gloating look over her broad Welsh shoulders, she disappeared into the classroom.
Although Bronwen didn’t realize it at the time, her reaction to my outburst had fortunately saved me from publicly having to confirm the existence of Miss Hockney’s cat to the other girls milling around me. I smiled at them sweetly, shrugged my shoulders and explained, “That’s Bronwen for you. You know what she’s like!”
As I hurried towards Latin class, I realized I really hated Bronwen at that moment. I couldn’t help thinking what on earth was Fiona Mackenzie, a Senior from Fifth, doing telling secrets to a Junior, particularly Bronwen Farr? That made me really mad. I mean, didn’t Fiona know Bronwen was the exact opposite of sweet, jolly little Emma, sweet, jolly truthful little Emma? Bronwen could never keep a secret. Everyone in the school knew that.
“She’s only jealous of you because you’re on the swimming team and she’s not,” Emma said as she sauntered up to me heading towards the classroom. “She really thought she was going to make it herself this year. She put in a lot of effort. And you beat her to it. She’s never going to forgive you for that.”
It was true. If any Junior deserved to be on the team it was Bronwen. With her broad heavyweight boxing shoulders, inherited from her famous Uncle, she was a powerful swimmer and my only serious rival among the Juniors. But, for some reason, Hockers had chosen me. At that moment I could sort of understand Bronwen’s resentment.
I desperately hoped that now I was a member of the swimming team Miss Hockney would invite me to attend one of her “fireside chats” when, like a few of the Seniors, I too might get a chance to smoke an illegal cigarette, play some of my favourite records, read a few “uncensored” books and play with her cat. I waited patiently for my invitation, certain that one day after our team’s expected wins against our main rivals, Cobham Hall, Priorsfield or Benenden , it would be my turn and I would finally find out what went on behind the locked door of Miss Hockney’s room.
“I think I’m going to team you up with Mary,” Miss Hockney said to me when I arrived poolside on our first day of team practice.
It hadn’t gone unnoticed by me, or any of the other girls for that matter, that Mary Lyneham was Miss Hockney’s pet and was the only Senior who had an open invitation at any time to Miss Hockney’s room. So I was delighted with this news. Perhaps now the mystery of what went on behind her locked door would be solved.
“So let’s see what you can do,” Miss Hockney said. “Let’s check out your dives first.”
As Miss Hockney and Mary stood side by side at the edge of the pool and watched, I felt like a racehorse going through its paces to attract potential investors.
From the high board I performed forward, reverse, swallow, jackknife and pike dives, all to perfection, I thought. I followed this with several lengths of the pool using breaststroke, backstroke, freestyle and butterfly, all of which would be necessary for the individual medleys and relay races.
“Benenden very nearly won the relay race last year,” Mary told me as I clambered out of the pool. “We’re not going to allow that to happen again, are we?”
“No, not if I can help it,” I answered.
“Your butterfly will need improvement!” Miss Hockney shouted to me as I approached her at the edge of the deep end. “Your timing’s too slow and your style’s a bit erratic! If you don’t whip yourself into shape in the next few weeks Benenden will run away with the medal!”
For the second time Mary’s piercing grey eyes looked straight at me. “You’re not going to let us all down, are you Caroline?”
“Certainly not,” I said, faking confidence. “I will train very hard, I promise you.”
She was right, of course. The butterfly was my least favourite stroke and I had never really made any attempt to improve it. That would have to change now if I was to keep my coveted place on the school team and prevent the snooty, severely over-privileged girls from Benenden stealing our Sussex Schools Champsionship medal. And I most definitely was not about to go through the humiliation of being kicked off the team. I would never hear the end of it, especially from Bronwen Farr. I could imagine her gloating.
“Not good enough for the team?” she’d ask, sneering just a little. “Never mind, maybe they’ll give you another chance next year!” She’d flip her long blond hair in that annoying way she had while pushing past me and, just within earshot, she’d add, “Or maybe not!”
“Mary has agreed to train you in lunch break every day!” Miss Hockney said. “And you will need to practice all your strokes in time to the music we have selected. Understood?”
I nodded. The pool was filling up with the rest of the team as, one by one, they plunged in from the deep end and started warming up.
“Good. Now we must get on with team practice.” She turned to Mary, squeezing her gently on the shoulder. “You’ll be in charge of the music we selected.”
They walked towards the tape deck together, their bodies almost touching. Mary picked up the cord, bent down and plugged it into the exterior socket outside the changing room door. She pressed the play button and player sprang to life. Soon the scratchy sounds of Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” wafted across the pool.
As Mary stood up, Miss Hockney leaned in towards her and whispered something in her ear. Mary threw her head back and laughed. Her cheeks slightly flushed, her lips mouthing words I couldn’t quite hear, her eyes casting a sideways glance towards Hockers, Mary looked happier, more at ease and more radiant than I had ever seen her. Perhaps Mary’s happiness was the result of the “fireside chats” in Miss Hockney’s room, I thought. If so, I wanted some of it too.
And so the summer passed. Mantovani’s “Theme from the Moulin Rouge”, Petula Clark’s “Mallorca, Isle of Love” and Winifred Atwell’s “Let’s Have Another Party” became permanently etched in my brain as they were repeated time and time again during our daily practice.
Under Mary’s coaching I improved on the speed of all my strokes for the relay races, picking up a good 10-15 precious seconds per lap that brought me up to par with all the Senior members of the team. At the same time, Mary’s friendship with Miss Hockney grew and their closeness became more than a whisper around the Senior and Junior classrooms.
“You’re doing well,” Mary smiled encouragingly as she clicked the stopwatch at the end of an arduous ten lengths of butterfly one evening. “Hockers is going to be delighted!”
I heaved myself out of the water, still panting from the effort of the butterfly, and sat on the edge of the pool to recover my breath, my legs dangling in the shallow end. Mary dropped down beside me.
“She really is going to be pleased with your timings,” she continued.
I smiled. “I do hope so.”
I wanted to break the ice, talk about something other than swimming but was hesitant to do so. I still wasn’t sure how Juniors were supposed to act around Seniors. And Mary was one of those Seniors who left me in awe. I mean she seemed to have all the enviable attributes I wished for – she was popular, she was not actually beautiful but very striking, she had olive-hued skin, dark grey eyes, sun-kissed hair and not a sign of “pleasingly plump thighs”. In fact, she possessed a pair of enviably long, permanently tanned legs I would have been prepared to die for. On top of that, of course, she was Miss Hockney’s favourite.
But Mary was also something of an enigma. None of us could help but notice that her parents never came to visit her. It seems she rarely received a letter from home. She was one of a handful of girls who always stayed at school during half terms. And nobody seemed to know where she disappeared to during the holidays. It was suspected she flew off to join her military parents in the North West Frontier, in India or in Nigeria but these were only rumours. I wanted to ask her about all of this. I wanted to ask her about the “fireside chats” in Miss Hockney’s room. But, most of all, I wanted to ask her about Miss Hockney’s cat.
“Well?” she asked, brushing a strand of damp hair back from her forehead. “You look like you were going to ask me a question.”
“It’s nothing,” I shrugged.
“I hear your friend Bronwen has been spreading rumours about Hockers and me. Is that right?”
“She’s not my friend!” I retorted.
“But she is saying bad things about us, isn’t she?” Mary sounded earnest.
I shrugged. “Nobody pays any attention to what Bronwen says.” I lied. “She’s always spreading rumours.”
Now I guess I should be grateful to Bronwen Farr. Here I was with a perfect opportunity to ask Mary what went on behind Miss Hockney’s door, what “fireside chats” meant and, more importantly, if Hockers really owned a cat.
“Does Hockers have a cat?” I blurted out before I could stop myself. I didn’t dare look at her so I concentrated my gaze on the flowering rose bush on the far side of the pool.
“What makes you think that?” Mary asked, forcing me to turn and face her.
“I was told,” I started, defensively.
“Who would have told you?”
“I promised not to say.” I lied again. I hadn’t promised. But then I didn’t want to get sweet, jolly, truthful, little Emma, little Emma with the perpetual smile and the permanently good nature, into whole heaps of trouble.
“Can you keep your mouth shut?” Mary asked. “Can I trust you?”
I nodded vigorously.
“Of course! Cross my heart!” I said. And this time I meant it.
“Well, I guess you’ll find out soon enough,” Mary lowered her voice. “She does have a cat. A beautiful black kitten named “Mickey” after Mickey Mantle, the famous American baseball player.”
“You mean rounders, don’t you?” I asked.
Mary smiled. “Yes, same game, sort of. But the Americans call it baseball. You see Hockers was in love with an American baseball player once but he left her and she was completely devastated.”
Mary suddenly jumped up probably realizing she had given away a bit too much information to a Junior.
“Come on, we better get back to change for supper. You won’t whisper a word of this to anyone, will you?”
I shook my head vigorously. “Of course not!” And I wouldn’t. Because I wouldn’t dream of getting Mary Lyneham into trouble. And besides, it made me feel important to keep a secret conveyed to me by such a popular Sixth Former.
“Don’t forget to pick up your stuff from the changing room,” Mary said, walking in step with me towards the pool house. As we approached the door, she bent down to unplug the tape deck. “Pick up my stuff too, please, while you’re in there. Miss Hockney put me in charge of the tape deck and speakers so I have to box them up and return them to her room.”
I did as I was told. I felt a strange sensation of pride. Mary was really beginning to treat me like an equal. As I said, a friendship between a Senior Sixth Former and a second year Junior like me was almost non-existent and certainly wasn’t encouraged. But suddenly Mary was treating me like a friend, a confidante and an equal. I couldn’t wait to tell Emma and then let the word spread to Bronwen. I could only imagine what Bronwen’s reaction would be.
We walked back together towards the school. I followed her into the main building, down a maze of corridors, past the common room, the chemistry lab and the library, until we got to Miss Hockney’s room at the far end of the school annex. Mary knocked on the door.
“It’s only me – Mary!” she announced.
The door opened a fraction. Miss Hockney’s porcelain face appeared. She looked up and down the passage, probably to make sure no one was about. But everyone had gone into the dining hall by now.
“I’ve brought the tape deck, Shirley,” Mary handed the large box containing the tape deck and speakers to Miss Hockney.
“Shirley”, I thought, I actually heard Mary call Miss Hockney “Shirley”. Up to that point I had no idea what her name was. I don’t think it had even occurred to me that she had a name other than Miss Hockney or Hockers.
“Thanks, luv!” She took the box from Mary’s hands, her full, glossy ruby-red lips puckering into a silent kiss. “Now hurry up and change otherwise you’ll miss second sitting. I’ll see you there!” She was about to close the door. But then added, “You did well this afternoon, Caroline. I was really pleased with how you’re coming along!”
I felt a rush of blood to my face.
“Thanks, Miss,” I stammered.
“I thought so too,” Mary squeezed my shoulder. “You should have seen her, Shirley. After you’d gone she even beat Claire and Abigail.”
“Well, you’ve done wonders in your coaching, Mary, my luv. Keep it up!” Miss Hockney closed the door.
“Did you mean that?” I asked, as though I hadn’t had enough praise for one day.
“Of course I meant it.” Mary smiled indulgently. “Now off you go and change quickly. You can join Hockers and me on the swimmers’ table, the one at the far end, on the right, under the window.”
“Oh, I know the one,” I said. “Am I really allowed to sit there?”
“Of course. You’re a member of the swimming team, aren’t you?” she laughed, grabbed her clothes off me and headed off back down the corridor and up the central staircase to the Senior dorm.
I floated on air back to “Hawthorne”, one of the Junior Houses I shared with Emma, fifteen other Juniors and our House Mistress, the humorless spinster Miss Cheney.
My head was reeling. Mary and I had sat out so long at the poolside that I was already dry so I simply threw on my clothes and rushed back to the Main Building for supper.
A few of the Juniors waved to me to join their table. But most of them had finished their meal already and, amid a deafening clatter and high-pitched chatter, were busy clearing their plates away and filing out of the dining hall. I saw Mary and Miss Hockney, along with other members of the swimming team, at the designated table by the corner window. Mary beckoned me over.
I grabbed my plate of food at the counter. Though, if the truth be told, I was far too excited to eat. Mary had saved me a place between her and Miss Hockney. If I wasn’t yet “the teacher’s pet”, I mused as I sat down beside her, there was no doubt I was certainly becoming Mary’s favourite.
And so the rhythm of that summer had been set. One day rolled into the next. Most of them spent in or around the pool. Every lunchtime Mary and I grabbed prepared sandwiches from the kitchen and rushed off to practice for an hour. Sometimes Miss Hockney would join us to see how I was progressing and, I suspect, to spend a little extra time with Mary. Every afternoon, after class, our team headed for the pool and rehearsed our relay races, our diving skills and our individual medleys. And every evening Mary and I remained poolside chatting until it got dark.
As it turned out, Mary’s life was every bit as enigmatic as the whispers had suggested.
“My Dad is in the British Army,” she revealed one evening. “My Mum is a typical Army wife. She follows him wherever he is stationed. Right now they’re in Jaipur. But I don’t know how long they’ll be staying there.”
“Do they ever come back to England?” I asked.
Mary shook her head wistfully. “No, very rarely. Not since my brother died. England has bad memories for them.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “But they still have you. Don’t they want to visit you?”
“They can’t afford it.”
Mary sounded really sad. I wanted to reach out and hug her.
“And they can seldom afford to fly me out to them. So I don’t see them that much,” she continued. “I stay with my grandparents mostly. But they can’t have me every holiday.”
“That’s terribly sad,” I said. I felt truly sorry for her at that moment and was about to burst into tears myself.
“I might even have to stay at school for the summer holiday,” Mary stared out over the pool. I noticed the tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
I couldn’t imagine any girl staying at school alone during any holiday, particularly the long summer one. What would she feel like watching all the other girls excitedly chattering while they packed their bags, embraced their parents and drove off to their homes or, like me, to a family villa in Mallorca?
“Haven’t any of your friends invited you to stay with them for the holidays?” I asked.
She shook her head slowly.
I don’t know what made me say what I did next. Maybe it was because I felt so sorry for her at that moment. Or maybe I felt guilty for what I had and for what she obviously lacked – a loving family.
“I would suggest you come and stay with us but I would have to ask my parents first. We live in a bungalow and there are already five of us children, if you include my baby brother.”
Mary smiled, reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s very sweet of you. But I couldn’t impose. And, besides,” she said, cheering up a bit, “Hockers has suggested I go and stay with her.”
“That would be nice,” I said. “Do you think you will?”
“Yes, I expect so. Certainly better than staying here alone. And she’s always very kind to me.”
“She really likes you a lot,” I said, not quite knowing what I meant by that.
Mary blushed. “Well, she said she wants to look after me.”
“You mean like a foster mum?” I asked, suddenly delighted for her.
Mary smiled at me indulgently. “Something like that, yes.” She leapt to her feet to avoid further discussion of the topic, “Now, I think it’s time for you to meet Mickey Mantle, don’t you?”
I wasn’t expecting this. “Really?” I stammered. “Do you think Miss Hockney would be OK with that?”
“She was the one who suggested it,” Mary laughed, presenting a brave face, her sadness suddenly evaporated.
I got up and followed her to the changing rooms. She unplugged the tape deck, and boxed it up with the two speakers. I collected our clothes and we sauntered back to the school building, a comfortable ritual that had now become a normal part of our everyday lives.
Mary knocked on Miss Hockney’s door. “It’s me, Mary,” she called out.
Miss Hockney opened the door a fraction. “Come in,” she ushered us inside.
And there I was suddenly, inside the salum sanctorum, the room that held so much intrigue, that had dominated my thoughts for so many weeks and that had even featured in my dreams.
The room itself was disappointing, not quite what I expected. It was large and airy and dark with oak-paneled walls. The heavy brocade curtains were already draped over the windows, the only light emanating from an elaborate metal standard lamp placed in the corner of the room nearest the hearth. A large antique walnut desk sat open under the window, its surface littered with files and papers. A sofa and a couple of distressed-looking armchairs, covered in faded flowered chintz, circled the fireplace. The mantelpiece was stocked, end-to-end, with medals, cups and trophies, a living testament to Miss Hockney’s impressive career in swimming. And, in front of the fireplace, stretched out on a white thick pile rug, was Mickey Mantle, a beautiful 6-month-old black kitten with huge yellow eyes and a feather boa tail.
“Can I?” I asked, already making my way towards him.
Mary and Miss Hockney, falling onto the sofa side by side, laughed in unison.
“Of course,” Miss Hockney said, lighting up a Craven “A” and offering it to Mary. “Mary’s been telling me how much you wanted to meet him.”
“I love cats,” I said simply. “We have two at home. And I miss them terribly.”
I reached out towards Mickey Mantle. He rose immediately, arching his back and purring loudly as I stroked him under his chin. He rubbed up against me. I sat on the rug beside him and he stepped onto my lap and, after a couple of slow turns to find a comfortable spot, curled himself up into a ball and fell asleep.
“Well, he’s certainly taken to you,” Miss Hockney laughed. “He doesn’t trust everyone that way. In fact, apart from me, he only allows Mary to touch him. He shies away from everyone else.”
“He’s adorable,” I said, stroking him gently along his back. “I just wish he was allowed out of this room so everyone could get a chance to enjoy him.”
“Maybe. One day.” Miss Hockney sounded wistful. “I just have to pluck up the courage to speak with the Head about him.”
“I keep telling her to,” Mary added, flicking her cigarette ash into the crystal ash-tray balancing precariously on the arm of the sofa. “But so far she hasn’t listened to me!” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hockers fingers reaching out for Mary’s hand and squeezing it gently.
After a minute or two, Miss Hockney got up, walked towards the gramophone in the corner under the standard lamp, took a 78 record from the top of the pile, gently put it on the turntable and carefully placed the needle in the groove.
“Do you like Elvis, Caroline?” she asked.
Well, Elvis was my latest heartthrob. All the Juniors loved him. But we weren’t allowed to play “Heartbreak Hotel” in the Common Room because Miss Flanagan thought Elvis was, in her words, “an unwelcome influence on young ladies”!!
“I love him, Miss,” I replied, thrilled that I could sit with the two people I liked best in the school, with Mickey Mantle on my lap and listen to my favourite singer. As the record played, Miss Hockney stroked Mary’s cheek gently. Mary smiled at her, laid her head back on the sofa and closed her eyes. We all sat in silence until the record ended and needle came to a halt in the final groove.
“If you introduced Mickey Mantle to Miss Flanagan, Miss, I’m sure she would melt,” I suggested, breaking the silence. “I mean how could anyone resist him?”
“And besides,” Mary abruptly opened her eyes. “I do keep telling you, Shirley, Miss Flanagan used to have a cat of her own not too long ago, didn’t she? And she misses it dreadfully.”
Miss Hockney leant towards Mary and brushed her lips against her neck. “You’re right. I’ll do it, I promise, Mary!” she whispered. Mary turned towards her and, for a split second, buried her face in Miss Hockney’s head of thick black curls.
When the time came to go back to Hawthorne and change for dinner, I was pretty sure I understood about Miss Hockney’s fireside chats. I think they had to do with breaking school regulations by illegal smoking and playing unauthorized records. And it was also about Miss Hockney wanting to become Mary’s mum and about enjoying a long cuddle with Mickey Mantle. Well, that’s what I thought it was.
“Now you swear you won’t breathe a word about anything you’ve seen in here,” Miss Hockney cautioned me as I reluctantly put Mickey Mantle back on the rug and headed towards the door.
“Never,” I reassured her. And I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t dream of getting her and Mary into trouble about smoking cigarettes, about holding hands or about kissing. And I wouldn’t want to ruin Mary’s chances of finally having her own substitute mother. On top of that I didn’t want to risk Miss Flanagan refusing to allow Mickey Mantle to officially become the school cat.
It was hard keeping it all a secret. But I had distractions. There was swimming, of course, there were our daily lessons and there was cramming for end of the year exams. So all my free moments were fully occupied which left me little time to fraternize and gossip with my friends. I was also now permanently seated on the “Swimming Team” table at meal times so even then I had little chance to break my pledge of secrecy.
I was tempted to tell Emma. But, fortunately, she was so determined to read the entire16 books in The Whiteoaks Heritage series before the end of term that she had little time for gossip which was probably just as well.
On the following Saturday a coach came to pick up the swimming team and we drove over an hour to Gravesend to compete against our first rival, Cobham Hall. In the end we only lost one race, the breaststroke, to their home team so Tortington Park retained the championship. The excitement on the bus on the way home couldn’t have been more of a contrast to our journey out there when we all sat, without talking, anxious, nervous and fidgeting, concentrating on the task ahead of us. Miss Hockney had tried to jolly our spirits by cracking jokes and telling us how much faith she had in our abilities. When she saw she was losing the battle she opened the large basket beside her. I assumed she was going to offer us sandwiches and soft drinks. My stomach was churning. If I ate something I knew I would not be able to keep it down.
Carefully Miss Hockney reached into the basket and pulled out, not a sandwich or a bottle of Lemon Barley Water but Mickey Mantle. He acted as an immediate charm. Our collective nerves were immediately forgotten as he was passed around the coach for a cuddle by each of us.
“Mickey Mantle is now our official mascot,” Mary said and we all chorused our agreement.
“And he will bring us luck,” I added with more confidence than I felt.
Suddenly, our nerves evaporated, our spirits buoyed, we started chattering. We even managed a song or two, including Heartbreak Hotel. Just because it was banned in school didn’t mean we couldn’t sing it on the bus. So, by the time we arrived at Cobham Hall we were ready for battle.
After Cobham Hall the other schools were easy to beat. Our reputation grew as we accumulated medal after medal that summer, in both the team and individual events. And every time Mickey Mantle would come along for the ride, to raise our spirits and imbue us with confidence.
I had feared that once we were actually competing against the other schools that my coaching sessions with Mary would cease. But maybe she enjoyed them as much as I did so they just continued, twice a day, throughout the rest of the term. And every evening after dinner we would join Miss Hockney and Mickey Mantle in Miss Hockney’s room.
Miss Hockney was as good as her word. She did speak to the Head about Mickey Mantle, citing his morale-boosting talents in the successes of the school swimming team. And in a rare display of good humour, Miss Flanagan agreed to allow the kitten to roam freely around the school as long as he didn’t enter the kitchen, the classrooms or the dorms.
From then on Mickey Mantle became a familiar sight around the school grounds. He was designated the official school mascot. Everyone loved him but, of course, I believed I loved him most.
One day, during our swimming practice, Miss Hockney brought Mickey Mantle up to the pool area.
He delighted everyone as he sat at the poolside, his tail flicking from side to side, as he watched us practice. At one point he spotted a butterfly and started chasing it. He disappeared around the back of the pool-house.
“Right,” said Miss Hockney, “that’s enough for this evening. Tomorrow it’s a new school – Kent College. They’re supposed to be excellent. But I know you can beat them. You won’t let me down, will you?”
We all shouted “No!” so loudly that I was sure our voices must have carried all the way to the school dining room where my classmates were already eating their dinner.
“Good!” said Hockers, “You are the best! I am so proud of you!”
One by one we scrambled out of the pool, chattering excitedly. Mary smiled at me.
“And I’m proud of you,” she said. “You’ve done wonders!”
Miss Hockney approached us. As had become her habit, she casually put her arm around Mary’s shoulder. By doing this so openly, demonstrated how comfortable she was among her swimming team and that she trusted us implicitly.
“And you’ve done wonders with her, Mary!” she said, kissing her on the cheek. “You’ll be after my job next!” They both laughed. They appeared so comfortable and happy together. At that moment I was really glad Mary was going to stay with Miss Hockney, her foster mother, during the long summer holiday.
We started walking towards the pool-house. Mary bent down to unplug the tape deck. Just at that moment Mickey Mantle reappeared around the corner of the pool-house. For a split second Mary’s attention was diverted. And then it happened. Her wet fingers came into contact with the live pins of the plug as it came away from the wall. Her body went into severe spasms, her beautiful dark grey eyes bulged in their sockets and her limbs went rigid until she finally sank into a shaking heap onto the wet terracotta tiles.
At first we stood transfixed, unable to move. Then someone screamed for an ambulance as Miss Hockney bent down and started to reach out to Mary. Then someone else shouted, “Don’t touch her! Don’t touch her! She still has the live plug in her hand!” And, with a look of sheer terror, Miss Hockney jumped back away from Mary’s body.
“Call for an ambulance! Quick!” she shouted, her fists clenched, her eyes welling up in tears.
I can’t remember exactly what I did or how I reacted. All I can remember of that moment was desperately willing Mary to live. Over and over again in my mind I was saying,
“Please Mary, please don’t die!”
But fate had decided otherwise. Mary did die. According to Hockers, there was nothing the doctors at the local hospital could do for her. As Miss Hockney sat by her bedside for five days, Mary clinging on to life, blind, deaf and dumb, until her heart finally gave out.
I was 12. I was just a child, a child with “pleasingly plump” thighs. I was also a good swimmer. During the summer, under Mary’s dedicated guidance, I had become a far better swimmer. But, more importantly to me, I had become Mary’s friend, her friend, her equal and her confidante. And together, with Micky Mantle dividing his attention between us, we had enjoyed many firesides chats with Miss Hockney.
This was the first time in my young life that I had seen death up close. Before this death had never been real, just something people spoke about with sad expressions and muffled voices. And for decades following that dreadful day I suffered nightmares about that moment, the fatal moment that Mickey Mantle appeared around the corner of the pool-house and Mary Lyneham, her still wet fingers gripping the live electric plug, looked at him one last time and smiled.
The saddest thing of all was that Mary’s parents did not even fly home from Jaipur to attend the funeral. Mary was buried in the small abandoned churchyard next to the school, not even in the same graveyard in Plymouth where her older brother was buried a few years earlier. Only the school faculty, Mary’s classmates, members of the swimming team and I were allowed to attend.
Throughout the service I watched Miss Hockney’s face. It seemed to me she was trying desperately to conceal her true feelings. To show her grief would be to announce to Miss Flanagan and to the rest of the school faculty, that Mary Lyneham was special to her. That Mary Lyneham was, indeed, the swimming teacher’s pet. That Mary Lyneham meant more to her than she did to her own parents who failed to even attend their daughter’s burial.
In that moment I suddenly realized that Shirley Hockney truly loved Mary Lyneham, not as a mother but as something more, something that, at the age of 12, I could neither figure out nor understand. And that Mary Lyneham, the girl without a family, the girl craving for affection, accepted that gift of love with immense gratitude.