I had passed the building called The School many times, and it had meant nothing. There was a new shop on the Westlands Estate and my mother had started doing her shopping there instead of the village shop, because it was cheaper. We passed a lot of things on the way - the Swings on the other side of the road, the Oak Tree on the corner, the Bus Stop, and the Green. The School was the least notable thing. It had nothing to do with me.
My sister Jennifer went to a school in the town. Like most things she did, it was mysterious. She did it because she was bigger than me and knew more.
In the mornings, after Jennifer had left, my mother would say, 'What are you going to do today?' and I'd say, 'Play.'
Playing was everything, the whole world with only me in it. My mother was a background figure, passing me the soap suds, spreading the rug on the lawn, fetching the dress up bag. She did not intrude. A day lasted forever. Time didn't matter, I had so much of it. I was a millionaire of time.
I needed nothing. The stairs were a ship sailing to Madagascar; the dog was a huge barking shark. Or, the stairs could be the battlements of a castle, and I was besieged, the hallway was a moat and the dog the besieging army. The flowers in the garden were food for the fairies, who lived everywhere. The roof of the old air raid shelter was a stage. The apple trees were a forest. Across the wasteland on the other side of the garden fence, I could see the Cowboys and Indians of North America riding their horses.
I didn't know I was in Paradise. How could I, when I had nothing to compare? It bloomed all around me, and I knew its every detail. I knew the tunes the blackbirds sang, and all their variations. I knew the stickiness of buds before they opened. I knew the patterns of veins in leaves. I knew the sound of ice cracking in your hands when you lifted it out of the bird bath on a freezing morning. I knew the musty smell of hawthorn blossom, and mown grass, and hay. I knew that an acorn fitted perfectly into one cup only, and that was the one it had grown up in.
Sometimes, when I was playing in the garden, I could hear the wild noise of many children's voices, shouting for a little while, and then absolutely silent again. They were nobody I knew. They were the voices of savages, foreigners, barbarians. They were not of my world.
And so...one day, my mother says I am to go to school. Everybody acts as if this is something very important. People talk to me like they talk on Christmas Day - and what did Santa Claus bring you? only it's, what a big girl you are to be going to school!
On the Big Morning, I have new sandals, and a brown satchel. My mother puts a jam sandwich wrapped in greaseproof paper in the satchel. She helps me put first one arm and then the other through the straps. It sits on my back, feeling strange and uncomfortable.
We set out like we set out any morning, to go for a walk, or to the new shop, or over to the Swings. My mother is wearing her pink and white striped dress with the pink belt, and her white sandals that her toes peep through. She looks pretty, her hair is shining, and she's got her white daisy earrings on that are my favourite. She holds my hand, and as we walk up the road, she says cheering things to me about how exciting school is.
'You have a head start,' she says, 'because you can read already.'
I'm glad about this, even though I don't know what a head start is.
'Don't forget to do everything the teacher tells you. You must pay attention when she is talking, you can't float off into fairyland all the time when you're at school.'
She's walking a bit too quickly, and I have to give little runs to keep up. 'Come on, we can't be late for school,' she says.
And we get to the building at the end of the road, and this time we're not walking past, we're going in, through the black, iron railing gate.
There are more children than I knew existed, and they are all running, shouting, crying, or pushing each other. I am frightened that one of them is going to bump into me, and I press closer to my mother. But she has dropped my hand. She is taking off my satchel and hanging it on a peg. She is bending to kiss me, and I smell her Yardley Lavender perfume.
'Be a good girl,' she says, 'I'll be here when school finishes.' And she walks away, does not look back, through the iron railing gate she goes, and it clangs shut behind her.
I am going to run after her, but a hand on my back pushes me inside the building. It's a grey lady, with creamy wrinkled skin, and a tight grey bun at the back of her head.
There are books inside, and puzzles to do. There is a girl called Janet who says I can be her friend if I want. There are easels for painting, and filthy, paint covered smocks to put on. There are stories about Jesus. I am indifferent to all of it.
It's not that I'm unfamiliar with dungeons, and traps, and capture, and prisons. Who can call herself a princess who has not sometime been imprisoned, separated from all she knows and loves? But this is not playing. The blunt, dirty crayons, the wobbly little wooden chairs, the threadbare, faded mat on the very cold, hard floor, none of it has anything to do with me. Its a horrible interruption, a mistake.
At lunchtime, I take out my jam sandwich. The jam has soaked into the bread in a way I have not experienced before, and it doesn't taste nice. I go to the railings, and press my face against them, trying to see down the road. I can almost see my house. I stay like that all lunchtime.
When my mother comes for me at the end of the day, and I am at last walking home, holding her hand, she says, 'Well, how was school then?'
Some instinct tells me that a measured, grown up response is called for, that the stakes are very high.
'I've tried it now,' I say, 'and I don't think I'll bother.'
She laughs, and later she tells my father what I said, and he laughs uproariously. In fact, my words are repeated so many times to so many people that they become a family joke that follows me down the decades.
It's many years before I realise that I have been thrown out of Paradise permanently, that there is no going back, and by then, it's a distant memory, an occasional ache, carried on a whiff of hawthorn blossom, or the dark shine of a sheet of ice cracking onto the ground. Finding it again becomes an elusive quest, that no matter how many ways I put the elements together, there is something missing. It is the Not Knowing, the unawareness, the complete immersion in it all. It was knowledge, of course, that sealed Adam and Eve's fate. Once a thing is known, it cannot be unknown. The wide world impinges, and never goes away
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