I vomited in the bathroom sink before leaving for school. The accident had forced me to drop back a year. Today I joined the new sixth-formers as they began their A levels. I dreaded it. Not the study. The social aspect. I was incredibly self-conscious. My friends, now in upper sixth, began their final year.
My classmates were friendly to me but they weren’t my friends. I was an outsider. The isolation was tough socially, but academically it was disastrous. A levels are much more demanding than O Levels. More learning takes place outside of the classroom, studying with peers. Working through problems together. I didn’t have that.
My subjects were Mathematics, Economics and Geography
The first year was bad, but at least I could hang out with my friends during breaks. In the second year they had gone; moved on to university or employment. Desperately unhappy, l began applying for jobs so I could leave school. I passed the entry test for employment at Hull Central Post Office, but was then disqualified. I’d be unable to fulfil the physical requirements of the role, they said. My first experience of discrimination.
Abandoning A levels for a job at the Post Office was a terrible idea. That was the opinion of the Head of Sixth Form (Mr Kerr-Delworth*, affectionately known as ‘KD’). Nevertheless, he championed my case. Berating the post office recruitment person for their discriminatory decision. Quite reasonably, he suggested they set a practical test rather than dismiss my application out of hand. They wouldn’t budge. I was angry about the injustice. I realise now of course, I dodged a bullet. Big time. I would have missed out on so many experiences that were to come later.
Those sixth form years were the worst of my life (things got significantly better). The school wasn’t to blame; they were supportive. Unfortunate circumstances created a perfect storm of misery. A shit storm.
Recently, via Facebook, I was reminded of a surreal incident in the common room. Sixth formers conspired to get Mr Lucas, the Sociology teacher, a surprise birthday gift. Moments after he arrived in the common room, lured there for a bogus meeting by other teachers, a peroxide-haired woman in a raincoat appeared. She sat him on a chair in the middle of the room. Raincoat discarded, she wore a white basque, stockings and suspenders. A kissogram. She had him remove the garter from her leg, then stretched it to fit around his head. A ‘custard pie’ of squirty cream went in his face. All of the usual embarrassing kissogram rituals.
This incident – teachers colluding with pupils for an ambush by a barely clothed kissogram – could be written off as a sign of the times. When culture and values were different; less politically correct. WRONG. Even in 1984 this was hilariously, breathtakingly, inappropriate.
The case for compensation for my injuries moved along slowly. I’d still have to wait 5 years to settle the case. Even though tests showed almost zero chance of recovery in the arm. The rationale? Damaged nerves sometimes repair themselves. The accepted timescale is 5 years. Liability wasn’t in doubt however, the driver was on the wrong side of the road, so an interim payment was granted. Enough to buy a small car. So I did. A new, top-of-the-range Austin miniMetro – the exotic sounding Vanden Plas model – with walnut dashboard, sunroof and electric windows. I thought it was The Dog’s Bollocks.
When I stopped at traffic lights, my friend Rich pressed the button to open the passenger window. Deadpan, he’d start a conversation with waiting pedestrians.‘This has got electric windows you know?’ Nodding and raising his eyebrows, as if they should be impressed. Bewildered pedestrians stared back blankly.
We took turns at being designated driver, enduring a car full of drunk friends. One friend tried to vomit out of my rear passenger window. I heard him retching but it was too late to stop. Child locks stopped the rear windows from opening fully. Panicked, he pushed his face out through the gap horizontally. He hurled but with insufficient propulsion to clear the car. Worse still, he’d added blackcurrant cordial to his beer that night. I spent the next morning scraping sticky, purple puke from along the bottom rim of the window.
Two friends came along for the drive home when I forgot my school sports gear. We opened the kitchen door to find my mother sat on the linoleum, her shoulders against the washing machine. Hands and feet pressed firmly to the floor. She looked up, startled. ‘If I don’t do this it walks out across the kitchen floor!’ she said laughing. The washing machine had a particularly violent spin cycle. ‘It’ll stop in a minute!’ My friends looked at me quizzically. ‘This is my Mam’ I said, by way of an introduction. ‘Hiya!’ she shouted, her head and shoulders vibrating.
I’d occasionally be sent to an appointment with an Orthopaedic consultant for assessment, the insurance company wanted my injuries validated by their own appointed health professional. We met a particularly pompous character at his private practice in Derby. The decor was ultra-traditional. The waiting room furnished with heavy wooden furniture to convey gravitas. Chintz everywhere. Copies of Country life magazine fanned perfectly across the coffee table.
The format of these meetings always the same. I’d be sat in a chair directly in front of the consultant’s big, imposing desk. My mother and Fred were seated behind me, out of my eye line. This arrangement was, I assume, to ensure I answered questions without interference from family members. For 17-year-old-me it was intimidating. His tone was superior, condescending. He was on a power trip. But somehow still needed this absurdly big desk and all the other trappings as props. He was overcompensating perhaps? In the same way some men need a sports car to compensate for below-average sized penis.
His bedside manner was that of a grumpy barrister:
Cantankerous Consultant: ‘Did you suffer a head injury as a result of the accident?’
Me: ‘No. Not that I’m aware of. I was wearing a helmet.’
Cantankerous Consultant: ‘Did you lose consciousness?’
Cantankerous Consultant (Impatiently, voice raised slightly):‘Then you did have a head injury!’
This man was a Grand Master in the art of making someone feel small. He used a variation of a shame-based technique common in the medical profession. Termed Pimping, older, experienced medics use it on juniors. I was the Pimpee and he was the Pimper. Don’t believe me? Look at this British Medical Journal Blog.
*I’d like to publicly thank KD for the support and kindness he showed me during my Sixth Form years. It wasn’t fun but it could have been so much worse. Thank you.