What a return!

28th August 1998 at 01:00

I meet 10-year-old Edward at my south London tennis club when he's picked as my partner. His muted antipodean twang marks him out as a fellow Kiwi - it turns out we both come from Palmerston North, a New Zealand city of about 70,000. And we went to the same primary school.

I've been in London 20 years: Edward came a year or so ago. He's here because his parents have bought a pub; I'm no longer sure why I'm here.

My match with Edward prompts a visit to Russell Street Primary - and 35 years melt away. I can barely remember the people - classmates or teacher. But the coat hooks. Those I remember.

Mum took me on my first day at the beginning of 1957 but from then on I was on my own. Through the neighbour's yard and then up Rongopai or Matamau Streets, first on my tricycle then secondhand two-wheeler. Miss Archibald, she of the wayward bun and waistline, was my first teacher, followed by the severe Miss Beatson, a cold, prim woman.

I would rush past the dental clinic at the school gate - we called it the "murder house" and it's still there - and hare up the hill to the bike sheds before the bell sounded.

John Tannock taught me in my last year in 1962; his son now runs a local sports shop. These things matter in New Zealand - the country really is just a large city with everyone liking to know what everyone else is up to.So John Tannock's son is running a sports shop down the road.

Russell Street's headteacher, Bryce Mills, tells me the school's in the midst of a $700,000 refurbishment (think pounds for dollars, purchasing power is about the same) and the bike sheds have gone. The coat hooks will soon follow, but for the moment they're still outside my Standard l classroom. And the wall; it's old tounge and groove in that shade that could be called regulation mud. The hooks have had generations of names pasted next to them and it's Standard l no more. Now it's Year 3 or 4.

I remember Standard l. Most of all I remember writing plays, always with Jill Craven as the princess, heroine, fairy, generally good person. And always with the most lines. Standard l's teacher remembers me - she's now Bryce Mills's wife. "I was a forward child, pretty ghastly really," I tell him. He grins and just says his wife remembers me.

The school bell and small tower have gone, replaced by an electronic buzzer. The old staffroom is about to go too - part of the refit - as is its small kitchen. One of the perks of being 10, in Standard 4 and a girl, was the chance to do the staff dishes after morning tea. Our reward? Two shop-bought biscuits. A treat because every New Zealand mum baked.

We go into the school hall. It no longer seems a vast auditorium. This is where class photos were taken; where mums helped us to learn to sew (girls only again); where we had the annual concert for parents.

There's new classrooms, remodelled classrooms and the "shelters" have gone. How to explain shelters? They were large three-sided sheds with benches around the walls and provided a covered small play area - or "shelter" - on wet days. Sandwich swaps were part of the order of play. ("A lettuce and Vegemite for peanut butter.") Russell Street with its motto Ake Runga - "onward and upward" - opened in 1929. I loved it.

I loved my next school too. Ross Intermediate (a middle school) still has its bike sheds, although the pool is new. The dairy (corner shop) which sold Cobblestone mince pies - two for lunch; some boys had three - has been replaced by the Quickie Launderette, and the house at the bottom of the hil1 which belonged to the then Mayor has an old people's home in its front garden.

The hill is the greatest shock. I struggled up it on my gearless bike every day. But it isn't a hill - how could I ever have thought of it as a hill? It's no more than a hiccup.

Jack Griffiths, who took us through the two years that New Zealand kids spend at intermediate, was the best teacher I ever had. He was short, plump, slightly unkempt (his fly was held together with a safety pin on some days) and a chainsmoker. Even in class. He also had a fearsome temper which could have been because he was finishing his degree while teaching full-time.

But he was inspirational; I wanted to learn, wanted to find out more about what he was talking about. Life was interesting when we were taught by Jack Griffiths.

Things went downhill from there. I don't go back to my high school. But I play tennis on the courts next door with my back to its office block. It still fills me with a sinking dread, the stuff of knots in the pit of the stomach. I stopped achieving when I was 15. Full stop. No one asked me why.I knew what I was up to; I knew how little I could do and get away with.

Would it have made much of a difference if someone had said something? Probably not, says the grown-up. But the teenager is angry. Very.

Palmerston North Girls High looks different: the old vine-covered elegant main block has gone, replaced by an earthquake-safe structure. Ah...earthquake drills. The bell would sound three times, we'd dive under our desks and the teacher would stand in the door well, theory being that the desks and door frame would protect heads. Then we'd file into the main quad for a roll call. The real thing never came but a major quake in 1931 (my Mum was in it) killed several hundred about 100 miles north of Palmerston North.

So that was Girls' High.

My tennis opponent is an old mate, son of a truck driver and now an assistant professor of education, as is (or was) the way in New Zealand. I tell him how the school still makes me shudder; tell him how angry I am that I'd been allowed to slip through. "It's that old thing," he says. "In primaries they teach pupils, in secondaries they teach subjects."

I see Ron Eaton when I'm playing tennis. I remember him as Kay's dad, mid-40ish, fit, tanned - a little dashing, actually. He's still tanned but moves achingly around the court, his bow legs locked solid. He must be in his seventies now. That's when I realise how old I am. Hang in there mate.

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