“Life is a series of stepping stones”
It was an August day and I lay on the rock staring up at the clouds in the sky. As they sailed above me, I saw a dark grey cloud, looking like a dragon; its huge nostrils blowing smoky spirals over the long sandy beach, which then faded into the pale blue mist over the sea. I dozed off, “Neishe, Neishe, wake up, come and help us!” Caroline cried. “You are daydreaming again, you haven’t caught anything yet.” I woke up realizing that the sun’s heat had made my eyelids droop with sleep. The beach was ten kilometers long, stretching out to the southern part of the island. I could see the pale green sea shimmering in the far distance. “Hurry up Neishe,” she shouted. “If you fill your bucket, try at least to get some winkles if you can’t catch the shrimps.” Standing up, I trod gingerly over the slippery seaweed on the rocks and dipped my feet into the warm pool, spying some black winkles hiding between cracks in the pink granite rock. I start gathering them up and dropped them into my brightly coloured bucket which was decorated with pictures of seahorses and star fish. Looking into Caroline’s pail I saw, to my amazement, that she had managed to catch at least twenty shrimps and two little crabs. They were all merrily swimming around in her bucket! Caroline was still only seven years old. She loved to wear these little French red polka dot bikinis and was as brown as a button, for she took any excuse to take her shoes and off and run around the garden in the sun. We called her the “terrible Tats” – Taties being a short version of Tato. Jersey was not only famous for milk, but also for its ‘new potatoes’ which Caroline had a habit of picking out of the ground and eating raw! Hence her nickname, Taties.
“This is my last summer at home,” I thought, and I was getting a little nervous. “I don’t really want to go away to school; I want to stay here with you all!” I cried.
“It’s not that bad you know, you’ll soon get used to it! My first term I got homesick, but after a while it just became my normal life” Charles reassured me. “Neishe, don’t be thinking about that now, you still have another two weeks before you have to go. Why don’t you write another one of your plays? And we can act in it and make some pocket money before you go.”
”Let’s do that,” piped up Caroline, trying to cheer me up. I realized that they were right. I would get used to it, and Charles had been going away to a boarding prep school since he was seven! The school he went to was in Broad stairs in Kent. This school was a stepping stone towards Eton, one of the most famous boy’s high school in England and the most difficult to get into. He had to pass the common entrance exam when he became eleven, for my mother told him that, if he failed, then he was doomed for life. My father, grandfather, great-grandfather had all gone to Eton so imagine the family shame if he didn’t manage to get in. My mother was also convinced that, unlike her sister’s children, her children were all endowed with academic qualities inherited from her! So therefore we were special, and so she was determined that not only should Charles eventually enter Eton, which he fortunately did, but that I should enter Heathfield School, which was one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in England. In those days, members of the Royal families of England, Europe and Asia sent their daughters there with enormous pride. My mother made us study very hard, notwithstanding her constant threats if we didn’t pass the examinations. Luckily for us, all her daughters and Charles managed to be accepted into the school she was hoping for.
I had been going to Jersey College for girls for 5 years, and at last managed to make some friends. As I was a skinny, spindly un-athletic child, I wasn’t the most popular girl in class, and my intense shyness stopped me from making the first step to make friends. I had been given mortifying nicknames like ‘Boney bum’ and ‘Pinky’, one due to my protruding bone structure and one due to my nose always turning a cherry pink in the cold. However, little by little I had got close to Susan Simon and now I was very sad to have to say goodbye to her and have to make friends all over again.
During the spring vacation, my mother had taken me to London by plane, and waltzed me off to Debenham & Freebody. This was a very posh, traditional department store, where I had to be fitted out for my new school uniform. My mother never stopped talking about my future social training! She told me that this school was the first step on the social ladder to success, and filled me with stories of how she had become Debutante of the Year and also Miss Ascot in 1947. How much of this was true? I still wonder.
I remember being very nervous, for this was the first time to be traveling alone with my mother. We stayed at the Ritz Hotel in London, where I was introduced to the Head Hall-porter, James. My mother said that if ever I was in any trouble with travel arrangements, or pocket money, I was to be sure to come here to the Ritz. James would look after me, as he had also taken care of my mother when she was young. James turned out to be an invaluable friend as my mother frequently forgot to make proper travel arrangements to and from school. Often I had to take a taxi to the Ritz and ask James to come to my rescue.
The next event on my mother’s list was to have cocktails before lunch in the Pink Saloon at the Ritz. I sat down on the exquisite tapestry Louis 15th chairs and I gazed up at the peach coloured cherubs and Greek goddesses painted on the ceiling. My mother ordered us both a drink and told me to behave like a real lady. While I sipped tomato juice, my mother met her friends in the lobby and brought them to our table, and chattered with them about the latest London gossip - who had got married and who was getting a divorce in the near future and any other news! As they chatted, I thought about what she had told me on the airplane. With boarding school on the horizon, I wasn’t a child anymore. I had better learn the social graces as quickly as possible. The social graces were, as far as she was concerned, how to open an oyster correctly, ride a horse well, enjoy fox-hunting, to be able to swim, dive and water-ski and to be a strong bridge player. Above all, I should be the wittiest person at any social occasion.
I seemed to fail in all of these except for maybe being able to open an oyster! Hopeless at any water or snow sports, I’d much rather get curled up in a sofa before a roaring fire and devour books. I could go through two or three novels in a week before Dingding had to force me to go outside and get some fresh air.
My mother and her friends all began to play their favorite card game, Bridge. I sat on the sofa nearby and read a book. ‘Bridge’ was a game I never managed to master. Nor any other card game for that matter. I was just not interested. As for being witty, I was always being accused of being a wet blanket by talking about the serious side of life. My tomato juice finished, I watched my mother laughing and entertaining her friends. I realized how our worlds were so far apart. I felt as if I had been given the wrong mother and she had been given wrong child. We both disappointed each other. As he chattered away about ‘Lord’ this and ‘Lady’ that, I realized she measured everyone on a scale of how famous their family was, or how successful they were in being invited to all the events on the social calendar. You had to be seen at certain events, starting in June with Royal Ascot; Henley Regatta, the fourth of June at Eton, the Chelsea Flower Show, summer vacations in the South of France and Monaco, followed by the Crestar Ball in London; Christmas at home and the Après-ski season in St Moritz in Winter from January to March. It seemed that only in April and May could you take a rest and relax at home!
Ever since I was a child I had hardly spent any time with my mother so to suddenly experience four days with her in London, turned out to be a traumatic experience. I couldn’t communicate with her. Saying goodbye to her friends, we went to the Curzon House Club in Curzon Street for dinner. Very aware she was a Curzon, she sailed into the dining room, demanding the best table for lunch. The waiter, perplexed, asked her if she had a booking. “A booking?” she cried, “Don’t you realize who I am” and she promptly called Head Waiter. The Head Waiter appeared feverishly wringing his hands saying “Of course Madam, her ladyship, we will get you the best table.”
Feeling sorry for the waiter who didn’t recognize her, I slipped him a smile and lifted my eyebrows and sighed. Catching my smile my mother reprimanded me, “Venetia, remember who you are! It’s not done to talk to the servants.” Blushing red to the roots, I realized I had made it worse for the poor waiter to be called a servant and so decided the best thing I could do was to ignore that anything happened. I began to let my eyes wander around the dining room, looking at the decorations. Long blue satin curtains with fringes framed the white bay window overlooking the courtyard garden. A pale turquoise carpet covered the floor with a flowery border motif at the edges of the room. I wished that the floor would fold up and I could disappear into the safety and comfort of the Nursery in Jersey. My mother leaned over and said, “Darling, let’s not fight. Uncle Dudley will be here soon and he wouldn’t like to see you unhappy.” Relieved to hear that Dudley was coming, I managed to wring out a smile and realized that she couldn’t help being the way she was, because that’s the way she was brought up. However my next thought was, how come I was so different? Why was it that I didn’t fit in? Pondering that question, I watched my mother order lunch, deciding on Steak Tartare, Salad Nicoise and Vichysoisse soup for herself. She tried to cheer me up by saying, “Today is special darling, you can order anything you like!“ Looking at the menu, I decided to have all my favourites. “Corn on the cob, Sole Meiniere with chips, and Poire Belle Helene please” I told the waiter. “Certainly young lady, anything to drink?” “Water please” I said. “No, she’ll have some wine,” said my mother. “She’s going to boarding school soon, so she’s soon going to be grown up and so must learn to drink wine.” The waiter left the table and I sighed thinking, “Why must she always be in control?” Again I was reprimanded. “Darling I told you before, you mustn’t order dessert with your main dish. You must wait until the waiter comes to take your order again later. It’s improper. Do you understand?” “Yes, Mummy, I’ll try to remember.”
“Hidey Hi!” Uncle Dudley came into the club smiling. He sat down and they began to talk about last night’s gambling at Crockfords with Tim Holland. “We had a good night. I’ve just woken up.” He had stayed over at the club. A few days later we flew back to Jersey.
The days began to grow shorter and I realized that summer was coming to an end. The swallows began to gather on the telephone line as if they were all getting ready for a huge check in for a flight to South Africa. It has always amazed me that birds manage to find their way to other countries and somehow miraculously come back to the same place. Ding Ding was busy sewing embroidered Cash’s name tape on all my clothes. A gleaming black trunk with my initials V.S.S. emblazoned on it sat in the corner of my room. Piles of clothes were folded carefully on the bed and as Ding Ding read out the things I needed on the school list and checked them I picked them up and packed them neatly in the trunk: six vests, eight pairs of white socks, two nightdresses, a dressing gown… the list went on and on. “Almost finished!” Ding Ding said. “Yes I think that’s everything. All we have to remember to do, is to put your toothbrush in tomorrow and we are all set,” she smiled. “I’m going to miss you a lot Neishe!”
I don’t remember when Ding Ding first joined our family but I must have been about two. She had brought me up, loved me, taught me and encouraged me, and now I was going away. I was only eleven but I felt as if I was on a new threshold of my life. “I wish you could come too,” I said softly. “Don’t be silly,” she laughed, “What would all the other children do, if I wasn’t here?” Caroline, Charles, Juliet and her own daughter Alexina I knew wouldn’t be able to survive without her. I started wondering how did Alexina come about. All I knew was at the same time my mother was pregnant with Juliet, Ding Ding’s tummy too had been growing bigger and bigger and then suddenly she went away for a month and she came back with her own little baby. I was afraid to ask her what had happened but she just said, that although she loved us most in all of the world, she had wanted to make her own baby. Alexina was born a few months after Juliet and so she had both of them to take care of. It must have been hard work. They were each quite different. Juliet had a chubby round face like her father’s with fair, curly hair and blue eyes. She looked like an angel and was nicknamed ‘Dreamy’. Alexina was petite with dark brown straight hair and velvety, dark brown eyes. She was a quiet baby, a little shy and a very easy child to please. “Yes I suppose you’re right. You have to stay here,” I sighed.
“We are going out to have dinner on your last night. Put on your prettiest dress, we’re leaving in an hour!” Ding Ding got up and left me to change. I looked around my bedroom: the white and pink fleur-de-lys patterned wallpaper, the pink curtains, my small dressing table with its matching chest of drawers. My mother always had impeccable taste. Realizing that I wouldn't be back until Christmas, my throat choked up and I fought to stop tears welling up in my eyes. Pulling out my blue Vyella, daisy patterned smocked dress from the wardrobe, I hurriedly dressed and rushed downstairs.
“Cheer up, we are all going down to the ‘Lobster Pot’ for dinner tonight!” Uncle Dudley was there and so we all enjoyed my last dinner before I went away to boarding school. The view from the restaurant was beautiful. St Oven’s Bay was the longest beach on the island. The sun began to set, and I went outside to look at it. The sky was filled with pink clouds. I stayed there until the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Feeling an inner peace, I looked at my family, eating fresh lobsters and seafood. Everyone was happily laughing as they enjoyed their dinner. My mother was happy and seemed to be excited that I was going away to a boarding school in England. I knew that somehow I was going to start a new chapter in my life. What would it bring? I wondered. I went inside and sat down to eat the delicious freshly caught lobster. Uncle Dudley smiled at me and said, “We will all miss you Neishe!” I smiled back at him and laughed, “I will be back soon don’t worry”.