NOT long after Salvador Dali created the Mae West lips sofa in 1963, I experienced something of what it might feel like to be lost in such decadent plushness. I was four and probably knew as much about Dali as did the manufacturers of the Morris Minor that offered up this early cultural experience. No doubt those car assembly workers in Birmingham and Cowley, Oxfordshire, were better acquainted with Ms West than I, though, I have to say, that Morris Minor could shake its perfectly formed booty as well as any silver screen goddess.
Maybe it was a mark of good attachment, or the opposite, but I was not remotely perturbed to be sent off to school for the first time in the company of two women I had never met before and both of whom, especially the younger, wore stern-looking spectacles. We pupils ran through that school on a kind of slowed-down conveyer belt from infancy to sixth, and the old school building eventually surrendered to the superior charms of the low-slung 1960s model to where we all decamped within months of my arrival. But these two teachers, who then constituted the entire staff, remained constant for the duration of my primary education.
They arrived to pick me up on a September morning in that shiny black Morris Minor with its silver trim and blood red interior upholstery. After some delay, Miss Cox (aka Mrs Carre) executed the necessary manoeuvre to cause the back of her front passenger seat to collapse forward, making enough room for me to slip into the rear interior. In an effort to avoid being swallowed up by the scarlet maw of the backseat, which sloped away as a mouth towards a gullet, and to become familiar with my new surroundings, I perched on the edge of that seat like some round-the-world yachtswoman teetering on the edge of the earth. Through the tunnel of space between the two front seats and two wise, permed heads, I watched the crooked, bumpy road unfurl beyond the windscreen as I journeyed into formal education.
That first day at school was unremarkable aside from the little black metal hen who, when you pressed on her back, laid a little wooden yellow egg, and the minor drama of getting a paper clip stuck in the gap between my two front teeth. At the home bell, I duly packed up my new copybook and pencil in my new school bag, collected my coat from the lower rungs of the communal rail in the entrance hall and stood by the car, which had spent the day parked on the roadside, outside the high school wall.
Miss Cox, was first to come along. She repeated the morning manoeuvres to readmit me to the cavern of the back seat, before sitting into the car in front of me. We were all present and ready to go except for the driver, Mrs McMahon. I don’t remember what, if anything Miss Cox and I talked about but eventually it seemed to me that we should be on our way.
Miss Cox turned from an examination of her nails to look at me through the driver rear-view mirror, which she had already turned away from its correct position, which probably didn’t matter too much in 1964 on a quiet country road in north Leitrim at three o’clock in the afternoon. I had moved again to the perch position, the better to see the arrival of Mrs McMahon, but could feel the happy anticipation of getting home ebb away as the wait went on.
Up to that point my life had been successfully governed by a general rule that even when not in sight significant adults should be easy to account for. I imagined Mrs McMahon undertaking some ritual of rounds, such as checking that the guard was in place before the dying embers of the open fire that heated the school, and that no children had been forgotten in the outdoor, long-drop toilets.
Without a watch or much sense of time, all I could see was that all the other pupils had long since disappeared on foot or bicycle. It felt strangely eerie to find myself going nowhere in the back of the car with nothing to say to my company, while my siblings bore down on dinnertime.
Miss Cox again broke into my reverie telling me she didn’t understand what had become of Mrs McMahon and that she thought we would have to leave without her. She was still looking at me through the rear-view mirror and I’m not sure my face registered the significant shock her suggestion had caused me. I wanted to say: “Are you crazy. We cannot leave without her” because it was a strict rule that no matter how trying the person, it was not permitted to return from an outing missing any member of the party.
I could not imagine what my mother would say were she to see me disembark from Mrs McMahon’s car with Miss Cox occupying the pivotal driver’s position. That concern immediately gave way to the next one. Could Miss Cox even drive? I didn’t think so and I certainly had not been delivered to the care of this Morris Minor to be transported by someone whose essential credentials were far from established. However, I’d also learned even at that early age that one must sometimes surrender to the dubious management of adults.
More than anything I was horrified at the idea of being left behind, and to be the one leaving another behind did nothing to comfort me. Horrified that Mrs McMahon would be afraid, alone in the dark of the school. I did not want her to be afraid and I did not want her to be hungry, as I already was, or cold. I hated being cold.
Miss Cox began moving as though to get into the driver’s seat bringing me heavily back to the present. I could hardly forbid her from doing something I knew she should not do, and doubted she was able to do. In another age, about two decades away, the car would have been locked and the ignition key safely in the missing Mrs McMahon’s handbag but on that day not only was the car open but the key had sat in the ignition all day.
In the absence of any reasonable alternative, I felt the first inclination of the day to cry, but before that chasm of disaster could open to devour me, the rusty school gate creaked into life. Mrs McMahon was before us, handbag slung over her arm, coat buttoned to the throat, a far away look on her face as though we were none of her concern. While I half hoped Miss Cox would tell her off for keeping us waiting and worrying us, my sense of relief outweighed all else and I allowed myself to bask in the comforting warmth of Mae West’s smile for the journey home to my mother.