Sometimes I think of the portable record player sitting open on top of the tall wooden radiator cover in the far corner of the large hall, 5 or 6 or 7 girls in school uniforms dancing beside it. It was the first place I danced to rock & roll.
When I first came to that hall I was 9 years old and I played Addams Family there, continuing a game that had been going on the year before in 3rd grade, at a different school in a different country. Now we had moved to England, but it was just another new school.
I knew the feeling of new school, knew the feeling of not knowing anyone yet, of having to pretend I knew more than I did, the feeling of keeping my shyness and uncertainty tucked away where it couldn’t be seen and instead doing my best to appear part of the same fabric as the others though I knew I stood out as new and different. Still, I knew no other way to be new than to resist and insist until I wasn’t new anymore, until the place felt like my place.
The hall was where the nuns let us loose after dinner and homework and before bed. There weren’t many rules in the hall. You could run. You could yell.
Sister Felicity sat in the semi-circle of window seat, plying her black rosary beads, watching over us, shaking the wooden-handled bell when playtime was over. Sometimes other girls sat beside her, the ones who weren’t running around.
In the evening hall crowd I didn’t notice the other girls much though I knew each one by sight and name. I played with complete focus with my small gang – Lucy Ann, Ann, Nicola and Madeleine. Very rarely did we let anyone else in.
After Addams Family we moved on to Jacks. From there to Stones, which was harder. Playing horses moved in and out of all of it – being the horses sometimes because Nicola was so good at being a horse that we all had to try. She made it look so much fun. Not on all fours, but bending over, knees bent, palms on the floor, skimming across the floor on hands and crepe-soled, buckled brown leather sandals – snorting, neighing, tossing our heads – and sometimes playing the rider, the owner of three horses – girls in the books we read often had three horses, and then you could name them, my favorite part. In one book I’d read the horses were called Symphony, Sonata and Serenade and I liked the prettiness and symmetry of those names and often named my make-believe horses with those three beautiful names.
Play horses were much more fun than real ones. It was my dirty secret I dared not share that I often dreaded our Friday afternoon riding sessions with Colonel Plowman who came to pick us up in a small square green car with wood strips cross-hatching the green and took us to his rough and ragged, windswept little farm where the ponies were strong and rugged and usually knew exactly what they wanted – they wanted the wide open spaces and as soon as they stepped into them – into the cold windy fields, away from the stable yard or the hedge-lined lanes, they ran and nothing could hold them back. I knew it was coming and the fear would be like a rock inside of me. And the anger of Colonel Plowman when you couldn’t control your horse and the scariness of being on the back of a creature who might do anything at any moment – and to be surrounded by girls who said horses were wonderful and wasn’t riding wonderful and why couldn’t we do it every day.