“You’re not learning properly,” said Alicia. “You don’t have proper teachers or proper books like we have. Drama! What kind of subject is that supposed to be? What do you actually do?” Alicia went to a grammar school but changes in the education system the entrance exam had resulted in the entrance exam being discarded in favour of all-singing, all-dancing, and all-inclusive comprehensives. Old teachers were leaving and new younger ones arriving to deal with bigger class sizes.
“I’m not sure what you’ll be able to do when you leave school.” Alicia was talking to her younger cousin, Amber, a new pupil at a newly converted comprehensive. Amber herself was despondent at losing out on a chance to go to the superior grammar school although secretly glad she had not had to sit an exam. Her school incorporated children from all social backgrounds, abilities, behaviours, and as it turned out smells. She also wondered what she was supposed to do in the Drama class.
Alicia was nearly always at the top of her class and always tried to do her best. Amber was nearly always at the top of her class and always felt embarrassed. Over the early years she stopped trying and as her grades fell she developed a perverse sense of fatalism and inverted snobbery.
Alicia continued her nagging over the weeks, months, and years. She herself was good at reading and reproducing what she had read but somehow was ignorant of anything outside the pages of a book. And in her own mind her superciliousness meant she felt she had the right to take without asking and expected to receive without giving.
“I need a taxi to go to the station,” she once said. Amber was accompanying her and for some reason was paying from her own pocket money. At the station Amber gave the money to Alicia to pay the driver and waited for the change. “I told him to keep the change,” announced Alicia feeling very flush with someone else’s money. The change would have provided a tip for the driver, bus fare home for Amber with still a little bit left over.
It was difficult to work out what made Alicia feel superior. She felt she deserved admiration but the fact of the matter was that she was clumsy, socially inept, overweight, and spotty, with overplucked thin eyebrows. She alternated between a would-be school prefect and a fragile ingénue.
“Mr Dale said I could sing well but when I try to sing in front of others, I just can’t,” she said in a plaintive voice quite audible to Amber. “Mum took me to see a psychologist and told him about a dream I keep having. I keep seeing a little devil at the foot of my bed, it’s really horrible. The psychologist said I was confused.” But overall Alicia was right on all matters. “Mr Palmer said I know a lot but I don’t think so. I don’t know a lot but I have opinions.” That she certainly had, and despite little or no first-hand knowledge of anything, Alicia was not shy of giving her point of view. “You could win a scholarship and transfer to a boarding school, ” was one which even Amber briefly believed and when the opportunity failed to materialise out of thin air she felt even worse.
The two girls lived in the same street in a respectable area and Amber occasionally wondered if the arrival of her less well-to-do family had lowered the tone. The area had rows of houses with gardens, mature trees and a distinctly middle-class air. They often went to town or to the local shops together and sometimes walked back having spent their bus fare on sweets or ice-creams. Between their neighbourhood and the town centre lay a sprawl of streets considered to be rough because of the families who might well have sent their children to Amber’s comprehensive.
One weekend as they were walking back home from the shops they saw two dumpy girls with NHS spectacles coming out of a newsagent’s. Their clothes were ill-fitting and the colours faded. The girls themselves looked sullen and but they had seen in Alicia and Amber a new source of interest and entertainment. The dumpy girls began taunting them and although Amber found it difficult to understand exactly what they were saying she was not really afraid of them.
“’oo a’ you?” said the slightly dumpier of the two. “What’s in y’bag? Gimme it!” The girls blocked the cousins’ path and Amber glanced casually at Alicia expecting her to take the lead as usual. But Alicia remained silent and tried unsuccessfully to walk round one way and then the other round the girls. She looked at the ground, anxiety in her red face, afraid of what the girls would do. Alicia, who always had an opinion and who was always right, was now floundering and scared of a few taunts. The girls became bored with their silent quarry and walked away with a few parting shots.
For some reason they had shown no interest in Amber who, looking at her cousin, was left surprised and embarrassed.