I left school having taken my A levels just before I was eighteen. I spent my eighteenth birthday babysitting for a friend of my mother’s who desperately needed my help and left me to care for her one year old and five year old. I couldn’t have been less interested and it was only the thought of the money I would get that kept me going. Oh, and the help of her lodger, who actually knew what to do with the children, because I really didn’t have a clue.
I was trying to get myself enrolled somewhere so I could take the entrance exams to Cambridge. I should have been starting at Sheffield University, but my A level results were better than I expected so I was persuaded by my parents to try for Oxbridge. Trouble was I had left school and there was no one there to prepare me anyway. In those days people usually spent a seventh term at school if they wanted to try. Private colleges were fearfully expensive so I had to go it alone. That birthday I spent trying to find out syllabuses and specifications and for some reason I seem to remember panicking about Latin, in between feeding hungry squalling mouths and wiping bottoms and playing with the toddlers. Oh, and talking to the lodger, of course.
It was a terrible day. My parents seemed to have had no time for me – it was just my eighteenth and they did not consider this the start of adulthood, though we had just been given the vote. (and vote I did, a month or two later in the local by-elections.) I would have to wait until I was twenty-one for the big party. But for now I was suffering.
At five o’clock my mum’s friend returned , very grateful and delighted and handed me my reward. It seems dreadful now to feel so ungrateful – but a bar of Helena Rubinstein’s Apple Blossom soap, though very nice, was just not what I wanted. I needed money – I had no job and no allowance. What a crashing disappointment.
To cut a long story short I went home and rethought my life.
Babysitting was obviously not the answer. What was?
In the end, the next two months were spent in Kensington Library working my way through the syllabus for French and Spanish on my own and going for the exams in November. I took them at my old school, in my old bedroom, in fact, where I was given a desk and a glass of water and told to get on with it. Seven papers in French and Spanish – I had had no idea that I would be expected to write in those languages. A level questions had all been in English. Somehow I managed, though my writing may well have had a renaissance feel to it as everything I had been reading was in 17th century French and Spanish! But I passed and eventually was called up for interview. New Hall, Cambridge.
Another dreadful day, but that’s another story. I went to Sheffield in the end, as originally planned and had a marvellous five years!