When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me, and it wasn’t far from true. I had one friend, Roxane Weaver, but her affection was easy to discount because she was so good natured. She would be critical of girls who smelt of sweat or had greasy hair, or spots, but that was because her mother deplored uncouthness so strongly rather than from dislike. Mrs Weaver had French ancestors. They were far back but she thought of them as being close in spirit, which was why she had given her daughter a French name. She used to say, ‘If Roxane starts talking hockey in the holidays I shall know I have failed. I shall go instantly into a nunnery.’ Mrs Weaver had a face like a monkey and wore scent, while my mother had a face like a pretty, tired horse, and for a week or two after Christmas put eau-de-Cologne on her handkerchief because my father gave it to her every year. When I watched them exchanging polite talk for a moment, at half-term, I understood why Roxane admired her mother more than I did mine.
One other person at school liked me, or seemed to: the headmistress. I was flattered by her interest, enjoyed the books she lent me, and found her impressive, but I was a hypocrite when I was with her because I didn’t want to resemble her. She was a scrupulous and austere woman with a Gothic face like Edith Sitwell’s, an admirer of pure scholarship and of dedication to causes, and she wanted her school to tum out girls who would do great but unselfish things. I could see that she hoped I might be such a girl, and I knew that she was wrong.
Miss Potter’s favours did me no good with the other girls, nor with the mistresses, and I knew that the adjectives most often used in connection with my name were ‘conceited’, ‘superior’, and ‘affected’. That was why Mrs Fitzgerald was a comfort. She rolled down from London twice a week like a great whale, to teach us painting, and she was oblivious of the currents of feeling within the school.
Mrs Fitz smelt so strongly of cigarettes, and sometimes of gin, that you knew she had come if you crossed the hall fifteen minutes after she had passed through it. People used to think it open-minded of Miss Potter to employ someone so unlike a schoolmistress. ‘She looks very odd,’ parents said, ‘but she is an RA.’ Mrs Fitz regularly had two small canvases hung in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, but although Miss Potter realized the value of this in the eyes of parents, she had probably thought beyond it and recognized the truth that the old woman was a good teacher.
I liked the smell of Mrs Fitz because of its incongruity with the smells of school, and I liked her appearance. She wore robe-like black garments, not as an affectation but because she had become too bulky for vivid colours and fashion. She knew that she was huge and ugly and didn’t want to offend the sight, but because she loved gaiety she couldn’t resist draping bright things on the shapeless black: scarves, handkerchiefs, stoles of peasant embroidery, chains and necklaces. She displayed them without coquetry, for their own sakes, not hers, and the effect was both comic and splendid. She was patient with her class in the half-embarrassed, half-indulgent way in which a big dog is patient with puppies, but she was bored by most of the girls she taught, and I was gratified that she was less bored by me than she was by the others. It pleased me more than Miss Potter’s more elaborate interest.
I enjoyed painting and drawing, but I didn’t paint as Mrs Fitz wanted me to, so to begin with we were at loggerheads. She equipped us with large sheets of paper, broad brushes, and a few pots of poster paint, trying to tempt us into breadth and freedom, and I couldn’t work like that. I liked outline and intricacy. ‘Painting is painting, girl, not story-telling,’ she used to say when I was still too young and ignorant to see what she meant, but for me painting was day-dreaming. I needed to paint because certain things gave me a vague ache in my stomach and a feeling of longing combined with an itch to do something about them: groups of people seen from far away did it, and walled gardens, and the idea of forests, or rather of going quietly through a forest and coming on a small sunlit clearing; animals did it too, especially cats and birds, and most fairy-tale imagery – moated castles, glass mountains, and so on. For years my favourite painting – and I still love it – was Benozzo Gozzoli’s Nativity in the Medici chapel, although I had only seen bad reproductions of it then.
So I did my fanciful fairy-tale paintings, and Mrs Fitz used to rage at me. Few of the other girls could make their hands obey them so well as I could, or could manage their medium so well, and she thought it a waste that I was deft to such ends. I used to tease her. Instead of ‘blocking in’ a painting (she was a great one for ‘blocking in’) I would start at the top left-hand corner and work down and across, detail by finished detail. The results were not good paintings but they were odd, and they were decorative because I did have a knack for pattern and colour and I did have (or where would I be now?) this funny kind of imagination.
Mrs Fitz used to end by laughing her wheezy laugh, which always submerged in a fit of coughing, and saying, ‘What am I to do with this girl?’ She was too good a teacher to go on bullying. She saw that whatever kind of talent I had, it was my own, and since few of the others had any talent at all she finally let me get on with it and became mildly fond of me, which I knew because she let down her guard with me a little – inadvertently said ‘bloody’, or told a story with the word ‘mistress’ in it. I didn’t want to resemble Mrs Fitz any more than I wanted to resemble Miss Potter, but I did suspect that the life from which she surfaced each week was a life I might enjoy.
This is an extract from the novel Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, originally published in 1967 and reissued this year by Granta Books. Buy a copy now.
Image © Granta Books