I caught it quite by chance. I was idly channel-flicking in the hotel bedroom, trying to decide whether to go down for a drink in the bar before dinner. Not (as you know) that I had any objections to a glass or two, but I did occasionally value my privacy. The paparazzi were hugely useful in keeping my profile current, but sometimes they could be intrusive. I wasn’t feeling much like intrusion at that particular time. On the other hand, neither was I feeling much like drinking alone in an impersonal hotel room, no matter how glamorous that room might be.
The programme made my decision for me. There it was, on BBC 2’s ‘Restoration Village’, Pennoyer’s School at Pulham St Mary. I could hardly believe my eyes. I was immediately transported back to the end desk of the middle row, a thin, anxious child with long, straggly hair, constantly worried about getting into trouble. That school mistress – what was her name? – with the sharp, malicious eyes, peering intently for any sign of weakness so that she could pounce. I lost count of the number of times I was hauled out to the front of the class to have my awful hair dragged back into a rubber band. I swear she kept a selection in her desk just for me. She never picked on Maud Camber, but then, Maud had gorgeous blond hair and more importantly, wealthy parents. At least, that’s how it seemed to me then. Now, of course, I realise that the Cambers were only a notch or so above us, but at the time Maud’s family was the most alluring group of people I’d ever seen.
I missed most of the television programme with my descent into instant-reverie-land, but I did catch the advert for a road show in the village on the Sunday. I was on my mobile in seconds, making arrangements to travel to Norfolk. I couldn’t help it. Something was dragging me back to Pulham St Mary, something from my roots, from the childhood I thought I’d left behind for good. Of course, I had to cover my tracks to avoid the paparazzi, but I’d grown skilled at that over the years. I had outfits from charity shops to suit every occasion and with a pair of dark glasses and a headscarf, I was pretty sure nobody would clock me. Anyway, who would associate little Izzy Webber from the farm worker’s cottage with the great Isobella Hyde, star of stage and screen? Nobody, and I mean nobody, knew about my origins and I wasn’t about to allow that to change.
It was a shock, reaching the village again after so many years. I parked by the green in Pulham Market and walked the last mile in case I was spotted. Just as well I did, for the village was heaving. There were people everywhere in their shorts and T-shirts and sun tops. I hadn’t expected that. Somehow, even though I knew it was a road show, I’d expected Pulham St Mary to be practically empty; the slow, sleepy village I remembered where everything occurred at half speed.
I pushed my way into the school yard and received my second shock, for the school was boarded up and even from the outside, looked to be tottering into oblivion. There was plenty going on in the school yard, with plasterers and wood turners and stone masons all plying their various trades and a stall making and selling straw hats just inside the gates. I thought that was a neat move, for I had vague memories of something about a ‘Guild of Hatters’, associated with the Guild Chapel which formed the major part of the school. Apparently the Guild Chapel was the interesting element which had ensured a place on the TV programme. The rest was the usual redbrick Victorian monstrosity built in the late eighteen hundreds, although I was amused to see that the loos had been moved inside since my time. Pity, really. The outside loos had been an escape route for me on more than one occasion.
By now I was prepared for the throng of people inside the school, all oohing and aahing over the farsightedness of that old Puritan, William Pennoyer, who had endowed the Guild Chapel as a free school back in the sixteen hundreds. Personally I can’t imagine how the Guild Chapel had been his to endow in the first place, since it had stood there since 1401. I suppose he was simply such a wealthy merchant that he was able to buy it. But what really took me by surprise were the school reunions going on all over the place.
‘Hetty, darling! Haven’t seen you for twenty years!’
‘Blast me, Bill Knights! Well, I’m damned! You haven’t changed a scrap!’ (That must have been a stretch, he looked nearly as old as me.)
‘Mrs Taylor! You were my first teacher. How I loved school with you there. You really set me on my way.’ (Lucky her. Obviously things improved over the years.)
I didn’t see anyone I recognised, which wasn’t surprising since we all left at the age of eleven and that was fifty years ago, but I felt a bit deflated, nonetheless. It was as though I was back home, but the house was somehow vacant for me. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but a wave of nostalgia swept over me when I read some of the comments on the graffiti board. School hadn’t been brilliant for me, but it had been solid and dependable and I’d felt safe there. Somebody had remembered the old lady who used to live next door, handing us mugs of cocoa over the wall, and in a flash I was back in the fifties, shivering in the school yard but warming my hands on that cocoa.
When unwelcome tears threatened to choke me I made a hasty exit from the school and wandered over to the church, noting en route that The Grange was open with stalls and sideshows and more importantly, large glasses of Pimms. That mapped out the remainder of my day rather well. Naturally I had never been inside The Grange, for in my day it was a mansion with servants and huge grounds. It was still a mansion with huge grounds, but nobody had servants any more and clearly the present owners were much more approachable than the squire had been. I remember having to curtsey every time his car drove past the school. It was the only car in the village and I guarantee it was a Rolls.
I had a funny feeling when I reached the church. I remembered it as this massive, awe-inspiring building where we had to sit in silence and never move a muscle. Today, I was greeted with a notice which said, ‘Thieves beware! You will be caught’ and a picture of a CCTV camera underneath. I felt a little sick. That safe feeling began to wobble precariously with this stark reminder of real life. I wandered in, an anonymous pilgrim among many other anonymous pilgrims, and stood gazing sadly at the green mould, evidence of water damage on the wall just inside the door. I plinked a couple of pound coins into the glass jar to ease my conscience, then meandered around the old photos. To my consternation, there were several that featured me between the ages of five and eleven. They were less than flattering and I drew up my collar a little higher. Life would not be worth living if the Press got hold of any of those pictures.
It rocked me a bit to discover that even the church had changed. If the church changes, what can you rely on in these days when life is so often a succession of rapid, quick-fire lurches from crisis to crisis? It seemed to me that the old, austere atmosphere that I recalled so well had gone. The smell of musty hymnbooks had been replaced by the scent of flowers and there was even a Children’s Corner complete with books and toys. And on the altar in the Ladychapel was a model maypole with ribbons and pipe-cleaner figures, inviting visitors to join the dance by writing a prayer and laying it on the altar. For a moment I was tempted. There had been something familiar and strengthening about that old rhythm of Day School and Sunday School, no matter how much I complained at the time. But I’d moved well away from any notion of God and besides, why would God want to do anything to help me? Despite my luxury life-style, I knew I’d messed up my life. I’d lost contact with Robert and Catriona, the only people who had ever really loved me. No wonder Catriona had chosen Robert when we divorced. Who would want to live with a mother who was practically alcoholic and whose raison d’etre was to stay young at any cost? Anyway, that was years ago. Why in God’s name was I getting so maudlin now?
But I found myself slipping into a pew, well away from the small crowd gathered around the video of the Pulham Pigs airships. Thankfully people were too engrossed in ancient footage of the war and Pulham St Mary’s place in it to take any notice of me. I felt the warm wetness of tears on my cheeks before I realised I was weeping, but once I became aware of them, the tears refused to stop. I sobbed and sobbed, as silently as I could, wondering what on earth it was all about and wondering whether I would ever cease crying.
It must have been fully five minutes before I became aware that someone was sitting beside me. She offered me a clean, white handkerchief as I scrabbled for a tissue and I heard myself sniff noisily as I took it.
Then she said quietly in a broad Norfolk accent, ‘Izzy Webber. I thought you might show up.’
My heart jumped and my jaw must have dropped as I gaped at her in astonishment. ‘Who -? How do you - ? How did you find out who I am?’
She was quite pretty in an elderly, matronly sort of way. Plump of course, but looking comfortable with it; white hair set in curls which fringed her strong face rather attractively.
She laughed, a rich, melodious, genuine laugh. ‘I’ve followed your career from the day you made your first stage appearance. Did you think I wouldn’t? I know all about you, Izzy, and I knew you’d come home one day.’
I recognised her, then. ‘Maud Camber, as I live and die! You still live here?’
I was certain she detected the slight sneer in my voice, but she was unmoved. She gazed at me with clear eyes which were almost as blue as they had been all those years ago, and I saw only love and kindness in their depths. She said, ‘Come back. Come back home to live. Come back where you’ll be enclosed within a village which has always loved you. Leave your terrible, destructive life behind. Come back and absorb the healing peace of this place.’
And suddenly I saw my frantic efforts to retain my youth and beauty for the tawdry things they were. I looked at her, so serene and deeply happy and instantly knew that I’d been chasing a rainbow all these years. Deep inside myself I knew that money and fame were immaterial beside the love and healing this place could offer me.
I acted on impulse. I came home. I stayed. I’m really, deeply, properly happy for the first time in years.
Naturally, I bought The Grange.