The Possible Scientist

My favourite kind of morning, the kind that makes my soul sing, is a fairly typical autumn one. Bright sunshine, a cloudless sky and that thrilling chill in the air, whispering to all with the promise of winter.  I'm probably one of the few that likes winter. I love freezing cold walks, wrapped up in wool, seeing my breath disappear into the frost, followed by cosy evenings with the curtains drawn, eating "one-pot" simple fayre that's been simmering away on the stove, quietly and cleverly assembling itself into a hearty, warming meal.

On a morning just like this, I was giggling and gossiping with my best friend Ellen as we piled out of our school assembly.

The date was 19 October 1988. And like today, it was a Wednesday.

I can't remember what we were talking about. If my likes and dislikes back then were anything to go by, then probably some new single by The Cure or New Model Army, or some new shade of Rimmel lipstick. I seem to recall "Twilight Teaser" was a favourite of my early teens.

What I do remember is this: I remember my Housemaster (yes, I went to a private school) catching up with us both and pulling me away from Ellen to have a talk with me.

It was about Chemistry.

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Some years prior to this, before I took the entrance exam to Woodbridge School, I had said to my parents that perhaps I might be able to win one of the few scholarships on offer.

To this day, I recall the immediate and in hindsight rather hurtful response, "Oh, I doubt it, Jane. Only the REALLY clever people get those."

Just over a year later, I nervously walked up the drive to my new school, in my new uniform and clutching my new school bag.

And, although invisible, I also carried the weight of heavy expectations of me, that were associated with my newly-won scholarship.

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During the next few years, I can safely say I failed to meet those expectations.

True, it had been recognised by my teachers that my time in Woodbridge School, from the very start, had not been easy. My father was diagnosed with cancer and had been terribly ill for years, finally succumbing to it in September 1987, a year before I was to start my GCSEs. He was a stubborn character and didn't want to spend time "mucking around in hospitals". He chose to spend as much of his time at home, often against medical advice. I recall daily visits from doctors and Macmillan nurses. I recall seeing things and smelling things I really didn't want to see or smell. The cancer somehow seemed to permeate all of us. There was no real escape.

I don't think I even acknowledged at the time how upsetting all of this was. I think I was even in denial that he was dying. (This was later confirmed by the breakdown and subsequent therapy I had in my early twenties when my father's death finally hit me.) I think my unhappiness showed in my performance at school. Life was bleak and there seemed little point in trying.

But it's also true to say that, back then, I was never particularly competitive. It was a very competitive environment and I just wasn't interested in faffing about trying to be better than my peers. I was only really motivated to do the things I found interesting or fulfilling.

I had friends, but wasn't part of the "in-crowd". I was a bit of a ring-leader, but seemingly of some kind of alternative faction; of those that really weren't that interested in competing either.

I just coasted along, essentially waiting for school to be over, so that I could get out into the "real world".

In 1987, the year of my father's death, life seemed to take a new, rather more important, direction. As well as mourning my father, it became a time in which choices about what I wanted to spend my pocket money on were replaced by decisions about which subjects I wanted to study. Suddenly I had to think about my future in rather more serious terms than I had been.

At Woodbridge School, as well as English, French and Maths, a science GCSE was obligatory and out of the three, all of which essentially bored me and in which I had shown no promise in the previous two academic years, I chose Chemistry. It was simply a case of the lesser of three evils.

But in that year, in 1988, at the start of GCSEs, something changed. That something was my teacher. Mr Mileham had taught my sister before me and I knew that she had adored him. He was an engaging, dynamic, funny, enthusiastic man. Unlike some of the other teachers, he didn't have that air of someone who had been doing the job too long. He didn't wear the same suit every day. He could often be seen laughing and cracking jokes. He was approachable.

His teaching method was simple. He just didn't have time or patience for anyone in his class who didn't LOVE Chemistry. He made Chemistry interesting, enticing, FUN. It wasn't a choice you understand, he seemed to MAKE us fall in love. I don't even recall a time when he had to tell any of us off for talking in class or not paying the necessary attention. That just didn't happen. NONE of us wanted to sit at the back, or disappear under the radar. His classes were magical.

In just a few weeks of that first Autumn term I had gone from being a "no-hope case" to being one of the top of my class. Chemistry lessons, instead of being dreaded, became my favourite part of my week, along with Art lessons.  I revelled in balancing chemistry equations and carrying out experiments as much as I did painting with acrylics, or clay-sculpting.

And on this crisp October morning, whilst making my way to class after assembly, my Housemaster, after a conversation with Mr Mileham, had broken into an excited run to catch up with me, to pull me over and to congratulate me.

I remember feeling something quite unfamiliar, something I really hadn't felt in some years. I felt happy, as if I'd finally achieved something, and that I mattered.

I'll never forget his words, "It's AMAZING, Jane. Well done! Your father would be very proud of you."

Finally, after fits and starts, after three years of not entirely living up to the expectations others had of me, of feeling unmotivated, of feeling sad, of feeling a bit of a failure…

… finally, I was FLYING.

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That night, my Mum and I ate roast chicken with ALL the trimmings, my absolute favourite meal back then. She had cooked it as a treat for me and she opened some wine for herself. The mood between us was very upbeat, hopeful… happy.

That was the last meal I ate in my "old life" – when I was the "old Jane".

You see, that night, after my Mum and I had finished dinner and whilst my brother and sister were safely back at the new term at their respective Universities, a man calmly walked into our house through an unlocked back door, stood in our kitchen, quietly took out a balaclava from a small bag he was carrying and put it on, armed himself with a large serrated-edge knife he was also carrying in the bag and began the intricately-planned business of fulfilling his dreams and fantasies.

From 7pm until just after 9pm on 19 October 1988, we were held hostage, raped, violated, assaulted, robbed, controlled…

…and our lives fell apart all over again.

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Today marks the 23rd anniversary of that day.

Last night, after my kids went to bed, I was alone in my living room and for some reason, I just started shaking. I felt 14 again and terribly scared. It's hard not to reminisce when something as simple as the change in the weather, the wintry October nights closing in, can bring back such horrific memories. I have to accept that the change from summer to autumn is always going to be a difficult time for me.

But each year, along with the inevitable fear, comes a time of taking stock, of healthy reflection, as I like to call it.

Would life… no, COULD life have ever been any different?

If the rape hadn't happened, I would not have missed a year of school directly after it. I tried to go back, three times, in fact. But I found I couldn't converse with my friends and I just wanted to go home, to relative safety, to my Mum. I basically wanted to disappear. I wanted the world to forget about me.

Finally, after some therapy, I managed to go back a year later. But there were sacrifices. Some subjects I couldn't seem to catch up on had to be dropped, including History and my beloved Chemistry.

I wonder to this day, had I carried on studying Chemistry, with Mr Mileham's enthusiasm and encouragement, would I have gone further with it? Studied it for A-Level perhaps? Even gone on to University?

What would I have become, had I not been raped?

Of course, this really doesn't matter. We can't truly alter the paths our lives take ultimately, we can only direct them, work hard and hope for some luck. We can't postpone when someone dies, we cannot halt the plans of those who wish to do us serious harm.

And sadly, things cannot be undone.

23 years on, however, I honestly feel grateful.

I'm not a scientist. I'm still trying to work on the equation of ME – of "balancing myself".

I never went to University, but I've travelled all over the world.

I'm poor, but I have a plan.

I'm a good friend. I try to be a good daughter and sister.

I'm a Mum to two gorgeous children. I have a lot of love in my life. This in itself is a lot to be grateful for.

I believe you can learn a huge amount from PEOPLE, from being open with others, from not being afraid to talk, from learning to listen, from being fearless, from loving, from trying and from failing.

I don't remember much from school, but I remember Mr Mileham, because he taught me so much more than merely Chemistry.

He taught me to believe in others, but mainly to believe in myself.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & LINKS

If you would like to listen to my conversation with Karl James of The Dialogue Project about my experience of being raped, please visit the Why Not Me? section of this site. Please be aware that it is not easy listening. 

This blog is dedicated to Karl. For him there are simply not enough words.

 

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