Chris and I get off the no 15 bus at the Peak Tower and walk into soggy, heavy fog. So much for the panoramic views; we buy postcards instead.
The fog refuses to clear and it’s drizzling so we take a taxi to my primary school, a mile up the hill and imaginatively named “The Peak School”. It started life in 1911 and moved to this spot in 1954. When I attended it from 1967 to 1973 it was English speaking and private, filled with white privileged ex-pat children of which I was one.
The Peak school sits on a sharp hillside bend and on the corner, in front of some flaky old garages, Pinky, the shoe shiner used to lay out his wares. I have a warm but faded memory of this man and his rippled kind face. My mother and I must have stood there watching as Pinky attended to the shoes, while Ah Fan, our chauffeur, waited in the car. I have no idea why he was called Pinky – he was Chinese, he was old and he certainly didn’t wear pink.
I’m staring at the school gates and Chris tells me to go in – I squirm but she sensibly remarks “what’s the worst they can do? Say they’re busy?” It’s 4pm, the children are gone and the staff are welcoming. As a staff member takes me round the school she asks me who the head teacher was when I was there. I have no idea. Instead I blurt out “I remember that staircase!” A 9 year old ghost runs past.
We walk around the classrooms, gym and hall but although this is the original building nothing prompts a memory except the staircase. I cannot remember a single teacher’s name or any lesson they taught me.
The fog refuses to clear.
Outside, I borrow an umbrella and climb alone up the steps to the big playground. I can see almost nothing but that strange sensation returns, my body remembers. I ‘know’ there are steps on the far side of the playground, steps we used to run up for sports, dressed in little white shorts and T shirts with coloured squares pinned on to them to show which ‘house’ we belonged to.
On one side of the fog is a 9 year old racing around in PE, break or lunch, looking for tadpoles in the ditches or playing kiss chase. On the other side is a 53 year old holding an umbrella in the rain. The 53 year old walks slowly round the perimeter of the playing field, in the footsteps of the 9 year old. Her skin and her heart tingle.
However hard we try, we cannot have a different past. I have been ashamed of mine. As I walk around, like a mother gathering her children into her arms, I gather in that 9 year old that was me – and the 8 year old, the 7 year old, all of them – and I hold them tight.
Together, we walk out of the school gates collecting Chris up as we go. Before we leave, I turn to face those old garages and I bow to the ghost of Pinky.