Fairfield High School for Girls owed its existence to the next-door Moravian settlement in Droylsden – around seven or so miles nearer to Manchester proper than Mossley. And a veritable Arcady by comparison with the grimness of that Pennine setting.
The Moravian church is a Protestant denomination with roots in late 14th century Bohemia. It’s unobtrusive and doesn’t believe in evangelising – but music is an integral part of its traditions.
Ah yes; the music. The school choir used to be specially rehearsed for Christingle every Christmas, when we paraded into the church next to the school, each holding an orange (the world), wrapped around with a red ribbon (the blood of Jesus, given for our sins) and with a candle in the top (Jesus, the light of the world). Such an object is used in many denominations, but its origins are the 18th century German Moravian church. And there we would sing carols by candlelight, the choir performing the descants.
The church’s emblem is the lamb of God with a flag of victory, and it was the school badge too, worn on our blazers. The uniform comprised navy skirts with pale green shirts and ties of green, navy and white diagonal stripes.
I was sent there at the age of 11, having passed my 11+ exam (still the form of selection at the time in some areas of the country). My parents could have chosen to send me to a much nearer school, but Ashton Grammar admitted boys, while Fairfield was not merely single-sex – it also had that religious connection.
It was an outrageously vast building for little me – for the first few days, I couldn’t even find the toilets, and developed the ability to hold myself for a full school day.
No other girls from primary school were there, so I started from scratch. For a brief time, I hung around with a girl called Jayne. My mother enquired, one evening, what her father did. He was an ambulance driver, I replied. My mother, an inveterate snob, wrinkled her nose and advised caution, on the grounds that a Methodist clergyman’s daughter had a responsibility to pick suitable friends, given her father’s high calling. Even then, I was a tad bemused as to why anyone could find fault with ambulance drivers as a class.
After a couple of fairly uneventful years, my parents decided that I didn’t have a social life – and that one therefore had to be created for me. My father was a member of the local Conservative club, which was based just around the corner. Every couple of weeks on a Tuesday, they held a disco for members’ teenage children.
I was therefore sent, with enough change for a bottle of cider. My father, Cornwall born and scrumpy bred, regarded bottled cider as mere pop, thus I was allowed to consume it.
Of course, even then a single small bottle didn’t go far in an evening. My relationships with males of a similar age was not really up to much, but I managed to win regular staring-out contests, with the prize being another bottle.
And of course, I boogied, with a re-issue of Chubby Checker’s The Twist being a particular favourite, as I managed to really ‘get on down’.
I wasn’t allowed to join the local drama group, since they rehearsed on Sundays – the hypocrisy was staggering, since neither parent had any objection to cricket on a Sunday. But then again, perhaps it was more an objection to the suspect morality of the stage.
The school play was acceptable – just. I was already making a reputation for myself in ‘character’ roles.
But as my teens wore very sedately on, and my parents boasted to all and sundry that I was the least rebellious adolescent in history, my greatest freedom came when I babysat for a very respectable and upwardly mobile young couple who lived around the corner.
Those were wonderful Saturday nights. Not only did I get to pocket some cash, I could watch TV – but only if I wanted. And I could watch what I wanted: a revolutionary idea for someone whose Saturday nights had previously involved a formalised sitting-around-the-telly watching what Mater and Pater decreed. So many of my teenage Saturday nights were made up of Dixon of Dock Green, The Generation Game and All Creatures Great and Small.
I could play their records, too.
I could drink the cider they’d leave for me (a large bottle, in the fridge).
And I could read their books.
Ah. Their books. I don’t think for a moment that my parents knew what treasures that little bookshelf contained – or I simply would not have been allowed to pass beneath their portal.
The Joy of Sex and the entire Emmanuelle series are what I remember most. Actually, I remember the first two Emmanuelle books most – I don’t know how many times I read them, mind absolutely boggling. There I was, lying on the sofa, wanking over those masterpieces of smut, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water on the deck, and without any fear of having my privacy invaded.
Oh, the sheer blissful debauchery of it.
Not that masturbation was a new pleasure by then. I don’t know how I ‘discovered’ it, but the first time that I orgasmed, I lay in bed in a state of abject terror, convinced that I’d broken something and was going to be in almighty trouble the next morning.
When the dread day dawned, it brought forth no indication of any such catastrophe, and I soon found myself drawn back to that dirty habit.
It is a complete concidence, I should point out, and down to nothing other than genes, that I am extremely short sighted.
My first masturbatory fantasies, though, were not of local boys from the disco or even pop stars or football players.
They were of women. With tits. Lovely, big tits.
Every weekend, a paper was published in the area called the Saturday Pink. It contained all the sports results from the day, plus reports and articles. And all on pink paper. My father would send me down to the local newsagent to get our copy. What he conveniently ignored was the presence, on page three, of a glamour picture.
One of the models was called Gillian; she remained a regular in my fantasy life for years.
After the paper had been read and thoroughly digested, it was popped into a little woodshed to await collection by the local scouts for whatever they did with them (probably recycled the page three pictures). Occasionally, in a fit of daring, with youthful lechery as the motive and no other outlet, I’d creep down a clip out a picture. The fear of discovery was vast – privacy was difficulty, safe storage of such contraband even harder and my sister was a tell tale – and many were often destroyed quickly to avoid capture. But Gillian’s picture remained for some years, secretly squirreled away for private pleasure.
And there was always the school library. In what I now see was a wonderful subversion of learning and the religious ethos of the school, I actually managed to find masturbatory material in the library. And I don’t mean Chaucer.
I was hopeless at modern languages – perhaps influenced by my father’s anger that, having won the war (personally, you’d think, to listen to him) any English child should have to learn anything other then their mother tongue. French was bad. The announcement that we were starting German in our second year caused dinner table apoplexy. But in the library, for those rather better students, were kept copies of Paris Match.
And these could be guaranteed, in true French fashion, to include within their glossy pages pictures of topless women on French beaches. Or put another way – tits.
So I’d sit at the furthest table from the librarian’s desk, hidden by the high shelves and wedged as carefully as possible behind a desk, staring at pictures of bosoms, hand furtively inside my oh-so-very-unsexy navy knickers and biting my lip to stay mute.
The fear of discovery was always present, but it was an infinitely preferable way of spending a lunch hour than playing chase in the playground.
My mother later decided that I was the youngest spinster in town and dressed me in tweed twinsets (handed down from maiden great aunts), blouses with vast bows at the neck, and even a string of imitation pearls.
If only she’d know what lurked beneath the surface of her placid, respectable daughter, who she probably imagined was destined for life as a virginal singleton, making jam for the WI and attending church at every available opportunity.
C’est la vie, eh?
I’ll tell you one thing, though: if I’m birdwatching these days, it’s still the tits I look out for.