The headmistress of New College was Miss Hearfield. In 1969 she announced her intention to retire, but was anxious to ensure continuity of the school in her absence. She invited mum to buy it from her, building and all. It was a spectacularly generous offer.
My parents were able to buy New College School for £12,000 on the basis of a 10 year interest-free loan. Miss Hearfield was to receive £600 every 6 months for 10 years. I don’t know for sure, but the agreement probably contained a provision to prevent them from closing the school and selling the property within that period.
Of course, they also had an upmarket house to sell, thanks to the generosity of dad’s family. It must have been reassuring to have a financial buffer against uncertainty when taking over a business.
We moved into New College on 1st January 1970. It was a 3-storey Victorian mansion on the extreme edge of town. The lower two floors were exclusively geared up for school life, but the top floor was all bedrooms. Mum and dad converted one of the first floor rooms into a TV/sitting-room, so there was a passing nod to ordinary domestic life.
No doubt it was daunting for them, taking on the responsibility of running a school, having to hit the ground running. But there was a loyal teaching staff, and mum was always able to call upon her parents, Nana & Grandad, whenever she needed additional help and support.
We’d only been there a few months when dad obviously realised this move had been a mistake. I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry between my parents, but something was clearly going seriously wrong.
His Moods had intensified to the point where they were unbearable. They could last up to a couple of weeks during which he would radiate hatred and menace. If you were to tell him about some misfortune that had happened to you, he would say “Good!”. Alternatively, if you were to look for praise by describing a personal achievement he would say “So What!”. He would spit these words rather than say them.
It was best to avoid him completely.
One night, after Marianne and I had gone to bed, we heard the sound of crashing and splintering wood coming from downstairs. Mum came up to our bedroom to tell us how dad was threatening to “chop up the school with an axe”. She gave us an exercise book in which she had documented all the terrible things he had done over the years, and we were instructed to take this to the Police if anything happened to her.
Then she went back downstairs, leaving us with the impression that an axe-wielding maniac was rampaging through the house.
There’s a popular theme in horror fiction where the house is the main character. It isn’t necessarily haunted, but it’s malevolent, evil. It distorts and corrupts the lives of its residents in imaginatively nasty ways. I hadn’t actually read that kind of stuff at the age of 13, but it was how I began to feel about New College. I often thought about investigating the history of the place, to look for mysterious disappearances or unexplained deaths.
I suppose that’s the effect dad’s behaviour had on me. It was almost supernatural, his ability to seethe with such pure, boiling hatred. In fairness, he wasn’t physically violent (although a great many household objects would disagree about that), but it seemed to be only a microscopically thin membrane holding him back. He gave the impression that if this membrane were to break, then his violence would be absolute and fatal.
His outlet was to do ‘damage’ in other ways. For example, he had a remarkable gift for deploying words as weapons. For stripping away all the colour and ambiguity of language, just to leave you with raw, indigestible mouthfuls of venom. He knew how to put you down, or make you feel worthless.