Doncaster is a great place to come from but not such a great place to go to. It’s on the mainline between Kings Cross and Edinburgh and the only notable thing about the station is the large engineering shed alongside the commuter lines. My father was employed in the shed as an electrician’s mate – the ‘appie’ who holds the tools. He didn’t earn much but it was more than the disability grant the government gave him after he had a nose bleed so severe he never worked again.
Sometimes my brothers and I would sit on the bridge trainspotting – usually a very dull pastime unless the Flying Scotsman whistled through on its way to Edinburgh. The train line represented a line of escape – a ticket out of working class mediocrity into the big city – London or a more exotic location like Bristol or Bath. When Dad was still employed we got a free ticket to take the family on holiday every year – to Bridlington or Blackpool. One year we were bold enough to venture abroad – the ticket could be exchanged at Dover for a ferry to the Isle of Wight.
All through High School I dreamed of that ticket out of town – and by the time I was sitting my A levels I had set my sights on the dreaming spires of Oxford. The Oxbridge Entrance Exam was not high on the educational priorities of a Comprehensive school in a largely mining community. I bullied my mum into asking the Deputy Principal about it at my lower sixth parents’ evening. He was somewhat taken aback but said they would support me if that’s what I really wanted to do – practical support like extra French lessons for the translation paper. As far as the English was concerned – that was pretty much down to my own talents. I am not sure who was the most shocked when I was called for an interview.
It was the first time I had boarded a train on my own – even today I feel a pang of terror when a train pulls up and I have to decide if it’s the right one. It was a grey week in early December. My father was in the hospital – he’d had a stroke and then another one. Lonely and homesick, I struggled through the terrifying interviews and arrived home to the pinched lines of my mother’s brow and the grim scowls of my siblings. I felt even more determined that I was on my way out of this town.
I don’t think my mother ever really wanted me to go but my dad was proud. “She’ll be alright Mary – the lass has ambition, she’ll go further than us.” He was right, though he never knew it.
It was 7.30 in the morning when the hospital rang. We sat in stunned silence for an hour or more until the phone rang again. This time it was Jesus College – I’d been offered a place. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.