At what age do we start to worry ? When do we stop expecting the best to happen and start to contemplate the worst ?
When I was three, I started attending a little school called The Kindergarten. Up until the age of five we were in the Nursery – a room that had the Alphabet along the wall that we would recite phonetically each morning. I can still remember most of it to this day. A for Apple, B for Balloon, C for Cake , D for Duck, E for Elephant , F For FISH….
Life in the nursery was mostly carefree. We finished at midday and activities were informal and play-based. At the age of 5 we moved into the Schoolroom on the other side of the cloakroom and we would stay for the whole school day. With that came school lunches and, at some point early on, Fish Pie.
Fish Pie was salmon pink with potato on top. On its first appearance the enthusiastic school cook, hair in a bun and flushed with heat from the kitchen, dug her spoon into the cooking tray and put a large dollop on my plate, smiling reassuringly. As the steam hit my nostrils the unfamiliar smell of fish turned my stomach as I took my plate back to my seat.
We didn’t really eat fish at home. My parents would occasionally have fish and chips – but I always had a sausage instead. The only other time I remember fish being cooked was when my Dad brought a trout home from a fishing trip. It lay there staring into space, glistening on the kitchen side. Then, my Mum, with a certain reluctance and my my Dad, the proud hunter-gatherer, decided its fate would be in the oven. I stayed in the garden because of the smell and wondered how anyone could eat something like that. In the end, only my Dad partook of the catch.
Yet, here I was, at school, with a plateful of it. I picked some of the potato off the top -but most of it was touching the fishy filling. I could eat no more.
It was customary for us to parade past the teachers’ table with our plates after our first course. It was at this point that it was observed, and a comment made, that I had ‘barely touched’ my food. I wasn’t forced to eat it, and that was all that was said – but for the people-pleaser that I was – and still am to some extent, it shattered my confidence. I had done something wrong. A grown-up was unhappy with me – and Worry fired its first fiery arrow into my life.
From that day forward my whole experience of going to school was over-shadowed by worry that today would be Fish day – and that I wouldn’t get away with not eating it. Up to this point my life had been worry free. I had lived in the moment, not anticipating anything but normality or good things.
Dad used to drop me off at school on his way to work and I was often the first to arrive. I would wait in the little cloakroom and play with the owner’s kids until the others arrived. The lady who owned the school lived upstairs, and one day, after sheer panic on my part in the car on the way there, Dad agreed to go to the bottom of the stairs that led up to her accommodation and shouted up, “Mrs. Hughes, Mrs Hughes – if it’s fish today, Claire doesn’t have to eat it !” The relief I felt was overwhelming . I knew she knew I didn’t have to eat fish- and my Dad knew she knew. I was safe !
But once wasn’t good enough, you see. Adults forget things. Mrs Hughes might forget that I don’t have to eat fish. So EVERY day I made my Dad go through the same ritual and Mrs Hughes would yell down, somewhat impatiently, that she understood.
Nowadays, I suppose a written letter would have solved the problem, or a little meeting to make sure I understood that everyone was onboard with the Fish issue. But somehow, things didn’t work like that back in the seventies.
And so Fish Pie – in fact Fish anything for school lunch became my first real worry. This, in turn, became a kind of phobia that I carried through to my next school, where I ingeniously managed to convince them I had an allergy to it. Instead, they would give me a slab of cheese when it was Fish day – until the time I left some of it on my plate after they had given me a hunk of cheese large enough to make a Ploughman’s lunch for a couple of hungry adults. As I approached the slop bucket, I was shamed in front of the whole dining room and told I was ungrateful and wasteful by the sour-faced dinner lady and cooks. The next day I arrived with a packed lunch.
Growing up brought more pressing worries than Fish and my fear subsided. As a young adult, spending more time in Portugal, Fish even became something I enjoyed. And I knew when my mother-in-law placed a grilled fish head on my plate one lunchtime that my fear had been overcome. “There’s plenty of good fish on that! Here’s another plate for the bones .”