Sunday, 1 August 2010

Seven people or things that changed my life (2) Mr Brooks

You thought Mr Brooks was going to be the name of an inspirational teacher, didn't you?  Anyone with any luck in life has had one of those, and I did, but that teacher was not called Mr Brooks.  No, Mr Brooks is someone (he is quite likely dead by now) who spoke to me perhaps once and whom I saw perhaps three times, but unknowingly he was part of a change in my life whose effects are still there today.

My father always looked for interesting or unconventional holidays for us to take as a family.  He didn't like crowded beaches or places where you might meet a family from the same town as you.  Nowadays he would probably have taken his family to Bratislava or Tirana for their annual holiday, but back then "foreign travel" as it was still called, was too expensive.  My family went abroad on holiday, to Majorca, for the first time in 1970.  I was 16 and too old really, but went with them because I had never been abroad either.  His children didn't protest about this attitude of his, though privately at least two of us would have rather liked crowded beaches and meeting your mates from school.

When I was twelve my father announced that we were going to Sark for our holiday.  None of us had ever heard of it, and my mother had to explain to all her friends, time after time, that Sark was in the Channel Islands, that it was ruled by a Dame, and that no cars were allowed on the island.  We flew to Guernsey and took the small ferry from there.  None of us had flown before, and it was all terrifically exciting.  When exciting things are happening my mother usually develops a health problem, and this time it was agonising pain in the ears.  She got over it quite quickly, which is usual for her too.

We stayed at a hotel called La Sablonnerie , which is still there.  My sister and I were housed in a kind of annexe, away from parents, and although we didn't get on (we never really have) we both liked the feeling of independence that gave us, as if we were living in our own house.  There were cats in the garden, which we let into our room although the hotel management told us not to, and some paperback books for guests to read, ancient and dog-eared, probably left behind by other guests, but crucially they were in our annexe so the parents didn't see them.  There were hibiscus flowers outside our window, and the scent of thyme and, faintly, of drains, thrillingly exotic for a girl from Bedfordshire.

We were at breakfast on the first morning, and my physics teacher, Miss Haynes, walked into the room.  She was on her honeymoon.  She took it quite well, considering.  Most teachers would have their holiday quite spoiled by having to share a small hotel (Sark does not have much in the way of amenities, or buildings of any sort) with a 12-year-old pupil who was not over-keen on physics and was likely to do inappropriate things with bunsen burners given half a chance.  I had referred to that teacher at home as "Ma Haynes" and my parents had imagined a crabbed virago aged about 56, my age now - but she was a lively, attractive twenty-something who perhaps was as happy then and there in Sark as she would ever be in her life.  Teacher's whisky, a popular drink with the adults on that holiday, was promptly dubbed "Ma Haynes", and my father called it that to the end of his life.  All the hotel guests had dinner there, and the adults gathered in the garden for drinks in the evenings, after our generation had been banished to their rooms.  We could hear their voices and the clink of glasses and the click and flare of cigarette lighters (this was 1966) late into the night.

The first night I picked up a book I had never heard of before.  It was Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex", in English translation.  I knew my mother would not approve, whether she knew the book or not, because it had "Sex" in the title.  I read it every night, and stole it at the end of the holiday.  I didn't understand that much of what I read, but I knew that it was important.  It also referred to women's, you know, bits and pieces, as if they were, you know, normal and stuff. For a twelve-year-old this was electrifying.  If you ask most people when they experienced puberty they become jocular and a little embarrassed, but some will tell you that it wasn't an event, but a process.  For girls of course it happens more quickly than it does for boys - at twelve I was a child and at thirteen I was being followed in the street by men and whistled at by lorry drivers - but for most people puberty is not a moment.  It was for me.  It happened that week.  And I don't mean my first period.  That happened months later.

Mr Brooks (you were wondering when I was going to get to him, weren't you?) was a guest in the hotel.  I think he was there alone.  He wore a jacket and tie to dinner, which the other men did not, because they were on holiday.  I remember him as - saturnine might be the word.  Perhaps he was in his forties.  He never smiled.  I looked across the room at him as we were taking our places for dinner on the second night and just for a moment he looked straight at me.  At dinner my parents mentioned him, quietly.  They knew his name (which is how I did) presumably because he had joined them for drinks the evening before.  I think they were a little curious about him, as he was there alone.  I was more than curious.  But I did not know what the feelings I was having were.  This was the first time I had had them.  And they were linked in a way in my head and body with The Second Sex, which had somehow told me I was allowed to be a woman.

As we were finishing our main courses (we children had been heavily briefed, with warnings of savage reprisals for transgression, on how to behave in a hotel dining room, which mostly meant not speaking) a waiter came to the table, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly, with a half-bottle of wine.  It had been sent to us, he said, by Mr Brooks, who was very impressed by how well-behaved we children were.  I was sitting next to my father, and we were facing Mr Brooks, who silently raised his own glass to us.

We were allowed a little of the wine each, as it had been sent to us rather than to our parents.  It made me feel powerful.  I was powerful.  The power of a woman is feared by men.  That is what Simone de Beauvoir said, and that is what Mr Brooks knew, and together they began me as a woman.


Mr London Street said...

Jane, this is simply terrific. I for one would love to hear less about Mr Salter and more about Mr Brooks.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful story, well told. Thanks.

(I wish an inspirational teacher had featured somewhere in my life - the Top 10 influences on me are notably devoid of pedagogues. I wonder why.)

jane said...

let's hear the top 10!

Jonny said...

Super stuff, though putting myself in the place of Mr Brooks, I wouldn't have thought of the power of women, but of well-behaved children.
I like the opening of the antepenultimate paragraph, it reminded me of Arlo Guthrie: "Then Alice, remember Alice? this is a song about Alice."

Mr London Street said...

Check my blog out. You've won something.

Jennifer said...

This was a really great blog post. I got here by Mr. London Street, by the way, and I'm glad I took his advice and looked at this post. :)

Jeannie said...

I'm here from MrLS.

You have a knack for setting. It was a rich tale of quick blossoming and I felt I was there in the story.

Well done!

Shruthi said...

I've been directed here by MLS :)
Loved reading this post and especially that moment you described about Mr Brooks looking directly at you... fantastic! :)

Technogran said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this. I could picture it all in my minds eye, a time of awakening, its so wonderful that you can remember it all and how these incidents, seeming so unimportant at the time can stick in our memories

Ana K. said...


I, too, am here courtesy of Mr. LS. I have learned that his TWTWTB award-winning bloggers are always interesting, thought-provoking and usually lyrical writers. Your piece on Mr. Brooks is wonderful - thank you. Looking forward to reading more.

jupiter said...

I love the description of such a private moment in such a public place...

Thanks Mr London Street for directing me here

Lindsay said...

Found you via MLS and I'm so glad I did. This is fantastic. I love it.