Long, long ago, it was Easter and the quiet that comes over country places came over the town I lived in. It was on the edge of Salisbury Plain and Easter was on the edge of summer. I remember two Easters really well, both of them for their near-silence, the same silence I felt this year, before the birds really start singing for Spring again.
The first one was a real awakening. I was fourteen, at school, and although we had the traditional fetishisation of football, cricket and rugby, we also had two utterly cool teachers who took Games too. They did Other Stuff. Like Sailing. Like taking me gliding. Encouraging me to do tennis lessons.
Which I did, in my own time, and loved it, to the extent that a decade later I bought one of the very last wooden racquets, living in London, to play mixed doubles in Clissold Park. It seemed to me a very normal thing to do, but looking back I’m not really so sure that in fact it was, then or now. Not buying a wooden racquet – I’ve still got it and I still think it’s better than any awful metal twangy thing. It’s more controllable and it still gave enough punch to make the utter arse who was serving straight at my eight year-old partner, the host’s daughter, one Suffolk summer weekend extremely sorry when he tried the same thing with me and got the ball straight back in his face. Not that, but the whole “I say chaps, let’s play tennis, me, the girl I was at uni with who lives round the corner now, her brother and his girlfriend, who I rather fancy and who may well, I dare say, be moderately impressed by my rather spiffing new racquet.” Not that she seemed to be, but it was worth a shot.
The cool Other Games Stuff teachers, both of whom are probably dead by now, were Mrs Shearn (Physics, normally) and Joe Collins (P.E.). Not that you’d call him anything except Sir to his face. There were two P.E. teachers, Joe Collins and a horrible runty one with a brand new tracksuit and immaculate trainers who tried so very, very hard to be cool and hard and fit and PE-teachery and who could never in a million years be as cool as Mr Collins in the fit/hard/Proper Teacher stakes, however hard he tried. And he did. He drove around the town in his new Ford Escort slowing down at every pub and peering through the windows to see if he could spot anyone from school inside, which in those long-ago days was a thing. But it didn’t make any difference.
Whatever he did he could never in a million years be as cool/fit/hard/see above for other adjectives as Mr Collins because Mr Collins had been a paratrooper. And of an age – and this was so long ago – that that meant he’d been a paratrooper in what was then called The War. You know. Arnhem. Crossing The Rhine. Probably not the invasion of Crete, given that was the other lot. But still so far from anything the runty one could do to ever match-up. These days I almost feel sorry for him, looking back. But not much.
Somehow Mr Collins and Mrs Shearn had carved themselves out a niche looking out for kids like me, kids who didn’t like games much. Apart from sailing, which they took us to every Wednesday through all of Summer term and Autumn term until ice covered the lake where we kept our boats and they were put away until Easter, stored under the Edwardian parquet floor of the old Girls School dining room, where my friend Phil and I went to paint them one Easter. Every year around this time, while I’m getting my own boat ready, making mistakes with the paint the same way Phil and I did back then, but now on my own, in a boatyard by the water, 200 miles and far too many years away from that time, I think of it still. Back then we bought the wrong colour paint; now, using a roller instead of a brush I’ve managed to speckle my boat with flecks of dried paint stuck in the liquid paint from the tin, giving it a clean finish only slightly marred by the bright white topsides pebble-dash effect. That was the second Easter I remember a lot.
The first one involved Mrs Shearn as well. She’d driven I think three of us up to Nympsfield, near Stroud, where unbelievably we went gliding. We didn’t go to Eton or anything out of the very ordinary type of school in rural Wiltshire, but somehow we went there and flew, just for one day. A hugely odd thing happened after the flight that I can’t explain. It wasn’t a dream or a memory thing because I remember talking about it immediately after it happened. We did our flights and went to the gliding club, marvelling slightly at the wooden propellor on the wall and the handlebar moustache of the man behind the bar, then after we’d had our Cokes we walked back across the field that served as the airstrip. I could see us walking across the field, but from about 200 feet up, as I was walking. I’ve never been able to explain it. After that, Mrs Shearn drove us the hour or so back to Trowbridge in the school Ford Transit bus we used for the weekly sailing trips. I remember sitting in the bus waiting for I can’t recall what when we got back. The Budget was being broadcast on the van’s radio, as the Spring built its strength up in the shade of the big trees on Wingfield Road.
I think I remember these silences because they were beginnings. And because I loved the people there, even though I didn’t know it or anything like it. Beginnings are always special times. Those two Easters always will be, for me.