I was homeschooled by paper dolls and an amber-eyed dog

Hilary Fannin: I lived in a cottage on the edge of a cliff with my warring parents

‘Untethered from the constraints of the school day, I was free to feed jam on toast to the brilliantly enthusiastic dog for weeks and weeks of empty mornings.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Untethered from the constraints of the school day, I was free to feed jam on toast to the brilliantly enthusiastic dog for weeks and weeks of empty mornings.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

I listened to a warmly practical academic speaking on the radio the other week on the subject of homeschooling. Bear with me while I paraphrase her observations here with the gay abandon of a dancing Hussar.

Essentially, she seemed to say, the sterling efforts of teachers and parents throughout the country to deliver the curriculum during a pandemic is not actually homeschooling (an active decision some families make on how to educate their offspring), but a kind of education crisis management.

To that end, if I understood her correctly, she advised the immediate lowering of expectations and an acceptance that your best is always good enough. 

Untethered from the constraints of the school day, I was free to feed jam on toast to the brilliantly enthusiastic dog for weeks and weeks of empty mornings

I’m tempted to take the discussion a step further and say that failing to keep up with the curriculum can sometimes bring its own rewards. 

When I was about 12 and in sixth class, I got caught in the crossfire of parental strife, insurmountable impecunity, ravening bailiffs and discombobulated nuns, and found myself plucked out of the life I’d known. 

School ended abruptly – fees had gone unpaid – with no time even to say goodbye to friends. Quite suddenly, I found myself living in an isolated rented cottage on the edge of a cliff, alone with my warring parents and an amber-eyed dog.

Untethered from the constraints of the school day, I was free to feed jam on toast to the brilliantly enthusiastic dog for weeks and weeks of empty mornings.

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The cottage we rented was part of a four-acre estate that spiralled down from the road above, all the way to the sea. Loneliness drove me to explore its domains, the dog by my side.

When it rained, I cut the paper dolls out of their pages and made homes for them along the laddered bookcase in the cottage

Our landlady’s property, it turned out, also included an orchard, a vegetable garden, a Roman garden, a sun dial, long, verdant lawns and a patio with stone seating. There was a potting shed where Dennis, the gardener, who also lived in the grounds in a red house with a corrugated tin roof, sat in the warmth, smoking his untipped cigarettes and talking to the dogs.

A line of Scots pines ran along the perimeter of the estate, on the other side of which was the cliff path and an iron gate, almost hidden by dense foliage, that led to a descending cliffside track and a mosaic-tiled swimming area, hand-crafted decades earlier by our landlady’s deceased husband and his archaeology students.

I had come from a road of identical semi-detached houses. My friends there whizzed up and down long, dry pavements on scooters. I felt like I had changed planet.

My mother had dressmaking catalogues. When it rained, I cut the paper dolls out of their pages and made homes for them along the laddered bookcase in the cottage.

Sometimes the cutout dolls, due to the limitations of their illustrations, were missing limbs. It didn’t matter. I populated every shelf with paper people, gave each of them names and occupations, imbued the limbless with tragic backstories and valiant deeds, while the elegant, well-drawn and fully realised ones were given dire personal problems (married lovers, angry bank managers, empty pockets and broken cars). 

It being the 1970s, there was a distinct shortage of men in my imagined world; most of the dressmaking catalogues featuring woman in boleros and dirndl skirts.

For months and months and months, the wild external world, the storms and moons and seas, along with the intricate interior world of the paper dolls – the Vanessas and Sophias and Arabellas and Petulas – and the loyal company of the yellow-eyed dog (who sometimes forgot the rules and ate the Vanessas) were my life, my education.

No one, it seemed, was granted the power to stay too long in that verdant, peaceful garden

With hindsight, it’s easy to speculate that those months, empty of schoolwork or pressure or the fear of failure – I’d always struggled with school – were among the most formative of my existence. In that strange, lonely, sea-salt setting, with everything else silenced and suspended, I found a way to shimmy down the track to my own imagination.

It’s a time for which I remain truly grateful. It’s a place I find myself thinking about. I’d love to walk backwards through the decades and see the cottage again, not as it is now – opulent, modernised, sleek – but as it was then: a place to be still, to play and imagine.  

We didn’t stay long in that house. It was just a couple of years before our landlady died unexpectedly and the new owners made other plans. The estate passed through various hands over the years, all of which attempted in some way to tame the place. But no one, it seemed, was granted the power to stay too long in that verdant, peaceful garden.

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