The Visit – Chapter One -1983

 This story follows three third years at Old Palace school —————————

The blonde, regally beautiful Catherine Mayhew sat at a desk in the room known as QER, flipped back her fringe in a casual, practiced gesture and then – when she was sure she had everyone’s attention, raised her hand.  Normally Jo couldn’t stand the girl, but she wasn’t the only one perking up at the prospect of distracting their elderly teacher Miss Armitage, better known to most of the girls as ‘Boobie’ – well, for obvious reasons actually.

‘Yes, Catherine, what is it?’  Their teacher smiled.

‘Miss Armitage, you know how Queen Elizabeth I actually stayed in this room; well is it true that they actually found her chamber pot in here, and was there actually still a poo in it?’  The picture of wide-eyed innocence, Catherine smirked across at her pack of friends, meanwhile everyone else tried and failed to hide their smiles.

‘No Catherine,’ sighed their history mistress patiently, ‘as I may have mentioned before, there is a garde-robe over there behind you.  The little door…?’  Everyone turned round to look.  ‘This was the fore-runner of a modern toilet although obviously there was no running water at that time.  And it’s quite improbable that a chamber pot would have been left there for nearly four hundred years, even if it did belong to her majesty. However if you look at this wall here…’  She pointed to tbannerhe wall with the large poster advertising next week’s debate against the boys at Whitgift.  ‘A recent architect’s survey has turned up some very interesting facts, which inform our thoughts about the sanitation of the time…’  Her rosy cheeks were positively glowing with enthusiasm.  ‘…It’s well known that the Queen’s father … anyone? … Oh honestly ladies!  It was Henry VIII!  Yes dear, “the fat one”… well he disliked staying in Croydon, saying it was a most unhealthy place…’

‘So it was a dump even then?’ brayed Serena Addlington, Catherine’s second-in-command to accompanying laughter from the rest of the pack.

‘She can always move!’ muttered Jo with a side-long glance at her friend sitting at the next desk, who nodded and grinned.

‘Though of course that could be something to do with his wife Katherine of Aragon having spent so much time here…’ continued the teacher, her eyes lighting up behind her big glasses with the joy of imparting knowledge, and seemingly oblivious to the chatter crisscrossing the classroom.   ‘Also scholars believe that the queen would have been advised not to sleep near the window – even though her visit was in the middle of July and it would have been stifling in here.  Remember there was a canal running beyond the gatehouse and that would have been quite polluted.  The thing that I find really fascinating …’

Success!  It was really easy to distract some teachers and waste half the lesson. Sometimes they were so busy rattling on, that they forgot to set any homework.   Don’t try it in maths or with any of the science teachers – they never get distracted, but in History, English … sometimes Music, it’s always worth a try – anything to put off the effort of actually having to think.

Jo Harrington had been at Old Palace for three years now, and it was during her first history lesson, as the teacher chirped on about the thrill of discovering the past, that she came to the conclusion that History was so boring!   Why bother with what people did four hundred years ago, when her main priority was getting the tall boy on the bus to notice her – today?  Though to be honest it wasn’t only history; none of her lessons were nearly as important as the four vital ingredients in any teenage girl’s life in the eighties; boys, music, magazines and hanging out with her friends in the Whitgift Centre – so they could talk about the boys and music in the magazines.

‘…which is why my research leads me to believe that both sisters married, and one of them continued to live close by.  Parish records really are a fascinating source of information ladies, so easy to access now we have all the records catalogued in the library in the reference section.  Just think, in my day you had to get permission from the parish priest to look at the actual ledgers and they were so dusty and heavy…’  Just then the bell rang in the distance and the girls started packing up.  ‘In fact, for your homework this weekend…’ muted groans, ‘I’d like you to imagine what the procession would have looked like when Queen Elizabeth and her entourage arrived in July 1573.  Remember they packed up her entire court, and sometimes had as many as four hundred carts following.  Try to imagine the sights and smells as they wound their way through the great gatehouse which was beyond where the banqueting hall is now.  A thousand words, hand it in after the holidays please, that gives you time to do a little research!’ She called out hopefully over the shuffling and clattering of chairs.

‘Great!  At least it’s better than last week’s homework thought Jo, “Draw a picture of a Tudor maid-servant in a large house and imagine what her daily life would have been like compared to yours.”  She’d made the mistake of reading about a Tudor comb that had just been discovered: complete with a set of medieval nits – disgusting.

‘Thank you girls, you can go.’ Miss Armitage said as they were trailing out of the classroom.  At least she didn’t go through the ritual speech about the bell being for her information and making them wait until she’d dismissed them like the old bag who taught them for the next double period.

At break time Jo stood under the arches with her two friends Lisa and Jen sharing a bag of crisps in the sunshine.

The three of them had been close friends since their first day at The Old Palace School for Girls; everyone had been waiting outside the huts in the far playground in identical new brown uniforms carrying an assortment of school-bags and their lacrosse sticks.  None of her friends had passed the entrance exam so she was the only girl from her old school there, and she was beginning to feel sick with nerves as she watched girls from the prep school loudly swarming backwards and forwards – everyone appeared to know each other.

‘I like your bag’ Jo had said tentatively to the pale girl with the curly, dark hair who was also standing quietly watching everyone.

‘Thanks, yours is nice too.  My name’s Lisa, do you know anyone?’ she’d replied.

Jo shook her head.  ‘I’m Joanna but my friends call me Jo.’ They both smiled and learned that they lived near each other.   A moment later a short, pretty girl with ‘Jennifer Martin’ embroidered in red on her P.E. bag timidly approached them and they’d been friends ever since.  Affectionate teachers called them “the terrible trio”, Catherine Mayhew and her gang preferred “the three losers”.

‘What is old Boobie like!’ said Lisa, rolling her eyes dramatically.  ‘The trouble with her squeaky little voice and all that talking about beds, I really thought I might doze off!’

‘Don’t do that Lise!’ exclaimed Jen, ‘Remember last week?  I was just resting my eyes for a moment in Miss James’ Maths lesson and Catherine “I May spew” calls out, “Jennifer Martin is asleep Miss James, wake up Jennifer Martin” and shoved me so hard that all my stuff fell off the desk.  How do they manage to say your whole name like that and make it sound like an insult?  Everyone was laughing!  Even Miss James’ lips were twitching.  She is such a cow!’

‘At least she gets your name right’ laughed Jo.  ‘I mean since when does “Harrington” sound anything like “Crappington”?’

‘I like it.’ Said Jen innocently ‘Suits you, in fact I think I might call you that too.  Hey Crappy?  Ok…ok… maybe not!’ She grinned, narrowly avoiding being hit by a schoolbag.

‘I thought Miss was so sweet when she was talking about that young soldier in the lesson,’ said Jo, who had obviously been paying more attention in History than she’d admit to.

‘Why, what happened?’ asked the other two, interest piqued by the mention of young soldiers.

‘She said that she’d found out some interesting facts about a group of people who worked at the palace during Tudor times, and one of them fell for a soldier.  I swear she was blushing.  Poor old thing it’s probably the nearest she gets to a love-life.  Bet she’s never even done it!’ the three girls dissolved into giggles as the bell went and they all began to move off to their next lessons.

The next day after she’d had lunch, while the other two were at choir practice in the chapel, Jo walked through the library.  Huge wooden tables that seated six people comfortably round each one filled the floor.  Then there were bookshelves reaching half way up the whitewashed walls encircling the room apart from the fireplace on one side, and on the other, a glass display case under the window with an assortment of relics found by a former teacher many years ago.  Or were they the relics of a former teacher found many years ago?  Jo couldn’t be sure.  She felt quite self-conscious, usually third years only went into the library at lunchtime to get out of the rain.  She didn’t want anyone accusing her of being a creep.

She looked up the dates she needed – ‘Croydon: July 14th 1573’, took out the flimsy blue microfiche from the drawer, placed it under the reader, and started trawling through to see what information she could find out.  ‘Excellent – this’ll be perfect!’ she thought as she found a wonderful piece about a poor harassed bloke trying to organize rooms for everyone.

‘For the Queen’s wayghters, I cannot as yet synde any convenient romes to place them in, but I will do the best that I can to place them elsewhere; but yf it plese you Sir that I doo remove them, the gromes of the privye chamber, nor Mr. Drewrye, have no other waye to their chambers, but to pass throw that waye.’

‘His spelling’s worse than mine!’ she laughed. ‘Oh, it’s a hard life – not having enough convenient romes for the wayghters!’ she grinned to herself.  ‘Right, now I need to find out what order they arrived in the procession.  Were most of them on horseback or carriages?  ‘If they’d waited til 1901 they could have got the first electric tram … where on earth do I know that from?’  She thought idly.  Having got unusually engrossed in her work she realised when the bell went that she needed to dash to registration.  Scooting along the narrow passageway to their creaky classroom she could have sworn someone was behind her, but when she turned round, there was no-one there.  She mentioned it to Lisa and Jen later as they walked up Crown Hill to catch their bus home outside Allders.

‘Maybe it’s was that soldier, hoping to propose to you as well!’ teased Jen.

‘Doesn’t matter.  How could he be a patch on the boy with the floppy hair?  Even if he does always eye you up instead of me!’

Laughing and jostling each other, the three girls climbed on board the back of the 190 towards Purley and held their breath as they walked to the front of the bus, past the boy with the floppy hair, willing him to look up at one of them at least.  Jen was the last one past and was rewarded with a sideways glance from a pair of brown eyes flecked with little bits of green, and enticingly, the faintest hint of a smile.

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