At sixteen we are asked to say what we thought our world would be and then whether or not it turned out that way.
At sixteen I was very self-assured (drama classes possibly contributed to this). I was working in a solicitors office in Oxford Circus – in the West End of London – just where I wanted to be when I started work. So I commuted by steam train and Underground to London. I was not at all interested in working in the City or, even worse, in Southend – our nearest town to home and where I went to school.
I started as a junior shorthand typist and was quite horrified to realise I was expected, with the office junior, to make the tea for the whole office. I pretended I didn`t drink tea in the vain hopes that it would get me out of the task – it didn`t. But for all of my working life, I didn`t drink tea – I think the taste of it being stirred with a pencil (in the days when I still took sugar) and the rank smell of summertime milk (no fridge at work) really finished me off.
The other secretaries were very kind to me and one in particular, Rita, could read my shorthand a sight better than me – thank you Rita x. Occasionally the Senior Partner would send for me to take dictation – I would creep into his large office and sit down meekly opposite side of the desk – with my two freshly sharpened pencils and shorthand notebook. He would begin dictating and then – ping – my pencil point would break and he touched his cheek, looking at me and said `Don`t press so hard Miss Cooper`. He terrified me!
Lunch times were my own – I would head off down Regent Street and into that lovely shop – Liberty`s. Then further on to the large toy shop Hamleys where, on paydays I would buy a surprise for my young brother. In Oxford Street was a branch of the chain store C & A and they had a marvellous hat department. Trays and trays of increasingly tatty and battered hats on the counters with large mirrors above – so the office junior and I were free, with hordes of others, to try on all the hats and look at our reflections. We then learned that the better models were kept in drawers under the self-service displays. We used to wait until the assistant had her back turned and then slip out a `model` hat or two to try on. Great treat and much giggling. Mind you we all wore hats in those days so we did buy sometimes.
I had a very serious boyfriend – he was six years older than me – training to be an accountant. He used to catch the same commuting train as me but he lived further up the line so I would get into his compartment when the train pulled into my station. If I missed my train (not an uncommon occurrence) he would get off at my station and wait for me and the next train. Ah. The steam trains were coming to the end of their useful life and were becoming very unreliable. I can remember the whole commuting journey (about 45 minutes) with ice still on the windows of the carriage when the train reached the terminal. My boyfriend used to bring a hot water bottle for me in his leather briefcase – I was spoiled.
Fashion – oh yes. Hat and white gloves – high heeled shoes – small waist – full skirts and lots and lots of petticoats to make the skirt stand out. I remember I used to wash the petticoats in a sugar solution to stiffen the net and how the really stiff under petticoat snagged my stockings unless I wore another, softer, petticoat underneath. Italian hairstyle suited my thick, black hair.
My only ambition was to marry and have lots of children. I did marry (but not the devoted boyfriend) at nearly 20 but only had two sons – I didn`t make a very good job of childbirth unfortunately and our life changed …
I won`t go any further there. Suffice to say that I became a career woman through changes in circumstances – so I had children but only two and married – not once, but three times! Excessive as ever
In retrospect I am a little ashamed of that self-assured, self-centred madam that was me but, again, I suppose I needed to be like that in order to take what life had in store for me later on.