‘Everyone wants to be rich,’ said the woman opposite me.
Sometimes I don’t get irony so I replied as though she’d been serious, ‘I don’t.’
Here’s the reason why.
During my gap year I worked as an assistant matron at a boarding school for the un-academic daughters of the so-called great and good.
I’d just left an all girls’ fee-paying school where I hadn’t been popular but I’d never been bullied. I have no memory of bullying among my peers. I didn’t expect the new school to be different. The scale and the viciousness of bullying there came as a shock.
I’d been raised to believe that the aristocracy were my betters in every respect, yet two of the worst bullies were the daughters of hereditary peers.
They were able to run rampant because the headmistress’s interpretation of the rules was so capricious that her staff could not rely on her to back them up in matters of discipline and punishment.
The one person able to exert any authority over them was the senior matron. As well-informed about the girls’ backgrounds as a racing correspondent on the subject of the bloodlines of Derby runners, she used to regale her staff with stories: Olivia’s mother had eloped with an Argentinian polo player; Arabella’s father was to be prosecuted for causing death by dangerous driving while under the influence of alcohol; Camilla’s parents were in the throes of a very messy divorce.
I recorded the gossip and details of unpleasant incidents in my diary. My judgements were harsh. I was horrified by the mother who refused to let her daughter hug her goodbye at the start of term. She asked her husband ‘to get the brat off me,’ presumably because she was too vain to admit that she was old enough to have a 14 year old child. I hated the countess who reduced me to tears on the phone and myself for letting her intimidate me. I was appalled by the fifth form gang who tortured the first and second years by making them drink peppered coffee.
Some years later, I saw the ringleader of the gang on a street corner in Notting Hill. In the middle of the afternoon, she was off her head on drink or drugs. At the time I had little sympathy for her.
These days I’m mellower and kinder. Although she, like the other 199 girls at that school, had everything that money could buy, she, like many of her fellow pupils, came from a dysfunctional family. Had she been born on a council estate instead of in a castle, she would probably have been referred to the social work department of her local authority.
Her father, depressive and alcoholic though he was, ran a large and influential company. Most of the parents of girls at that school were in positions where their decisions affected thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people they regarded as lesser than themselves. Having witnessed the callousness, sometimes the cruelty, with which they treated their children, I lost all respect for and trust in them and their ilk.
I do not envy the rich. I do not aspire to join their ranks. I would rather try to stay in my integrity.