The years rolled on. My brother was gone, but although I maintained a keen interest in paranormal matters and continued to read widely on the subject, I felt no need to visit mediums. My ex-husband and I were still in touch, and I was over the moon for him when he called to say he was remarrying. We met for one last time, hugged each other and wished each other well. My own new relationship with George went from strength to strength too, and I knew I’d found the man I wanted to live the rest of my life with.
Things were ticking along nicely. I enjoyed my job as a PA in an international company, although I’d always felt I’d been held back from promotion due to my lack of A Levels or a degree. Most jobs I liked the look of and thought I would be good at required at least 5 GCSE passes or equivalent, but I only had 4 O Levels. I began to wonder if I should upgrade my qualifications, maybe get a couple of A Levels, and that would enable me to progress a few more rungs up the career ladder.
I talked to the local college about courses and it was suggested I do an Access course, an ideal starting point for developing study skills and building confidence for adults who have been out of education for a long time. To help me decide what to do, I registered for a 6-week taster course in Humanities, and I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying it and doing well in the assignments. Once completed, I told the tutor that my plan had been to do A-Levels. She said, and I remember this word for word, “Have you ever thought of going to university?”
With a measly four O Levels, of course I hadn’t! But the tutor explained that the full Access course would give me the qualifications to apply to a University as a mature student.
There was only one university in the world I wanted to go to, a place I had known and loved since I was a child. My next door neighbour was a year above me in secondary school, but we were friends and spent a lot of time together. Her father was professor of botany at Royal Holloway, University of London, and he would often take us there in the holidays. We were allowed to wander through the laboratories, and I clearly remember being fascinated by red-dyed skeletal specimens of small animals in glass jars. I even learned to swim in their indoor pool. I loved that place so much; I was sure its incredible Victorian architecture, the beautiful grounds, the amazing atmosphere would be educationally enhancing – why would I want to go anywhere else?
But it was just a dream. I discussed it endlessly with George, all the pros and cons of doing the Access course and then three years full time university study. Was it possible?
“Why don’t you give it a try?” he said. “What have you got to lose?”
I laughed, but I began to wonder if it really could be a possibility, once I got the Access course under my belt. Not having the first idea about getting into university, I wrote to Royal Holloway about what I would need to do in order to apply for the English degree. I received a reply very quickly, offering me an appointment to go to the English department. Wonderful, I thought. It still seemed impossible that I could ever get there, but once it was all explained to me I could at least plan my strategy.
Not knowing any other way, I treated the appointment as I would a business one, and arrived at the college in my smart suit, my CV in my bag. I was shown into a small room, crammed floor to ceiling with books, and invited to sit on the other side of a very cluttered desk from a man I guessed to be in his mid-forties. I shall call him Dr Martin. He handed me a book of poetry, open to a certain poem, and asked me to read it.
Taken aback, I asked if I was meant to read it out loud.
“Whatever you prefer,” replied Dr Martin.
Confused, I quickly scanned ‘The Card Players’ and then recited it:
Jan van Hogspuew staggers to the door
and pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
courses in the car-ruts down the steep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
towards the ham-hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.
Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!
Dr Martin leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and, fixing his gaze to the ceiling, asked for my thoughts.
I was completely baffled. I had gone there expecting to be told about the application process. Had there been some misunderstanding? What was I supposed to say? I knew nothing of this particular poem, and my brain felt so addled I didn’t know what my thoughts were! Stressed, I read it through again in my mind and then tried to offer an analysis, but even today I honestly can’t remember what I came up with! I was then asked what I was currently reading, who my favourite authors and poets were, and did I like Shakespeare?
You know that moment when your mind goes completely and utterly blank and you can do nothing but gape like a goldfish? I was there; that was me — goldfish girl! I tried to picture the book on my bedside table, my favourite novels on the bookshelves, but my mind stayed blank. I tried to remember any titles of William Shakespeare’s plays, a single poem that I could offer as evidence that I really did read. I somehow stumbled through the interview, and was further thrown when he asked if I’d applied through UCAS? I didn’t know what this was. Had I organised my grant? Um, no, what grant would that be?
By the time I staggered from that room I thought I’d never set foot in those glorious Victorian halls of learning again. My interviewer must have thought I was a complete ignoramus, and had wasted a valuable hour of his time on that sunny July day.
That evening, I drowned my sorrows in a glass or two of wine, and then decided to put the whole sorry episode behind me. Why even bother to do A Levels? Why not stay in the job I had and not seek further advancement in the corporate world? It was a blow, but hardly the end of the world.
A couple of weeks later I received a letter from the university. During breakfast I opened it, read it, gaped at George across the table, and read it again. Then I handed it to George who quickly scanned it and the pair of us sat there with stupid grins all over our faces: I had been accepted by the Faculty of English at the Royal Holloway.
I was to be an Honours Degree student, starting at the end of September.
J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.