Stranger Than Fiction: Tales From The Dining Room

An army marches on its stomach – well so, it turns out, do students. One of the first things we showed prospective parents on open days was the dining room. It wasn’t about showing off the architecture, or the nice windows, or even talking about how well your allergies were catered for – it was about telling them about the little lunchtime rituals that gave your house its character, about the prefects who chewed toast over their essays late in to the night  while the Lower Fifth clamoured for help with their Hamlet essays, and about pointing out the names of your friends on the trophies, shields and honorary placards.

The dining hall is large and characterful enough to be full of memories and stories, particularly when its inhabited almost full-time by something that could be an army if you gave us enough sharp sticks and pointed us at something worthy of being whacked with them.

So here, dear friends, are is a tale from this cavern of wonders that has stuck with me long after I left the dining hall – and the memories – behind.

– – – – –

Imagine the scene: it’s the first week of term, and your first time taking the reins on the most prominent of your Sixth Form duties – serving food at the head of the lunchtime table.

I am far from the world’s most co-ordinated human being, and just to spite me, we were dealing with one of the slipperiest meals known to schoolgirl kind. Spaghetti bolognaise. Or, as I thought of it, Slippery Oily Splishy Splashy Deathtrap.

Clutching the tongs in one hand and a ladle the size of a small county in the other, I braced myself for the arrival of my foe. Being the first week of term, of course, the Lower Fifth were just beginnng to catch onto their duties of fetching the food, and so things were a little chaotic between the tables; chairs were dodged, legs were tangled, and fingers were burned from underestimating just how hot the “hot plates” were.

Everyone knows it is the sworn duty of Responsible Sixth Former to remain an achorage of calm and decorum in the midst of this madness, so I tucked my chair in, and opened up a conversation with a new student about how she was finding her first day.

Then, quite suddenly, the world turned to squidge.

Unbeknownst to me, I had not quite pulled my chair in far enough, and one of the Lower Fifth had lost her footing in the gap – and with it, her grip on a pot of warm, oily spaghetti.

I would attempt to describe the scene, but sadly it would be purely an imaginary construct, for it was a rather deep pan, and rather a lot of spaghetti. All I was aware of at the time was the sudden outward rush of stunned, horrified, and (on the part of the perpetrator) monumentally embarrassed silence.

Quite calmly, I prized the pot off my head, set it on the table … and proceeded to sit there looking faintly confused for a few minutes while  my ex-lunch slithered down the back of my shirt.

It was only when I skittered out of the dining hall on my way to a shower that I heard the laughter begin. Some even had enough energy left to giggle when I returned twenty minutes later.

The event was clearly even more momentous than I gave it credit for, for not only was it the talk of the house – and a deeply mortifying running joke – for just short of a week, but the event was immortalised in that year’s Christmas house skit, with a real pot of spahetti being upended over the bonce of the very Lower Fifth who had administered that unfortunate fate to me several months before.

Revenge may be a dish served cold, but there’s no matching the lukewarm and slightly-clingy glory of an immortalised embarrassment.

Stranger Than Fiction: The Shed Story

At the end of Chapter 50 of St Mallory’s Forever!, there lurks an innocuous reference to just the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in a comic YA mystery set among the hi-jinx of an all-girls boarding school.

Someone got themselves locked in the gardening shed a couple of years back, and there was complete pandemonium until she turned up in the dining hall about an hour later.

Fun fact: that’s not an amusing comic interlude invented purely for a quick giggle and a pleasant sense of irony. It’s a true story.

One of mine, actually. And here’s how it happened.

Back in the Upper Fourth (Year 8 to all you ‘normal’ people out there), someone decided it would be a good idea to have one of our Latin lessons swapped out, bi-weekly, for an hour spent in the greenhouse out the back of the boarding houses. Why this decision was made – and why the first lessons began in the frostiest November since Jack Frost went on a year-long bender – I will never know.

I’ll confess here and now that I’m no great horticulturalist (read: wouldn’t know her geraniums from her marigolds on a good day), but the lessons themselves weren’t so bad. We never actually managed to grow anything, but it was nice to get outside and have a chance to talk about something other than the finer points of Ovid for an hour.

This particular debacle fell in about the fifth week of term. As was my wont, I had been relegated to digging bulbs out of what we hoped would become the tomato patch, and so was rather keen to rid myself of dirt and debris before heading off for lunch.

The sink in the greenhouse stood behind the door. Yes, there was a sink in the greenhouse. Yes, it was strange. Yes, it was bizarrely placed.

Yes, I blame the sink for everything.

Sorry, I digress. I was at the sink, washing my hands and contemplating the prospect of the lasagne waiting for me in the dining room. So engrossed was I in these mouth-watering fantasies, that I did not hear the fateful click. The click, that is, of a key exiting a lock.

By the time I turned back to the door, teacher and class both had vanished, and I was stuck.

What followed was a fairly bizarre thirty minute interlude of jumping up and down in the middle of the greenhouse (hoping to get the attention of the lunchgoers through the window in the boarding house beside the gardening patch), searching in vain for something to use as a lock pick, using anything I could find in the hopes it would make a decent lock pick, discovering that trying to take the lock apart with a screwdriver was no more useful than the previous strategy … and charging the door with a pitchfork.

The last option came to me purely in the hopes that the sound would carry to the grounds staff clipping the hedges off the main road. It didn’t work, but it made me feel a lot better. From what I can tell, the marks were still in the door until the greenhouse was taken down last year.

In the end, I resorted to James Bonding it out of a window – a highly inelegant process, given that I was fairly tall for a 12-year-old and the window was not designed with escape attempts in mind.

The best part of the story? There had not been any debacle whatsoever over my disappearance. On the contrary, no one had even noticed I had gone. I’d been ticked off on the lunch register on the assumption I’d gone to wash my hands – oh the irony – and no one had thought to wonder why the dining room was so oddly quiet.

Suffice to say it was a bit of a surprise for all involved when I came talking in an hour later and declared to the room at large: “I’ve been locked in the garden shed for forty five minutes!”

I did not notice the innaccuracy of my measurement of time. What I did notice, just a moment too late, was that there were three people sitting at my housemistress’ side at the main table. Two parents, and an eight-year-old prospective student.

The fact that I was taken out of the room and sternly told off for upsetting the guests seems reasonable, but I was still rather indignant about it. It wasn’t exactly my fault, after all.

Suffice to say, it was no great surprise to anyone that these gardening lessons were discontinued at the end of that year.

Curse that conniving sink.

* * *

Well, what do you make of that, readers? Reckon any of your stories, from school days or otherwise, can match up to the strangeness factor of The Great Shed Debacle?

There are, of course, plenty more little easter eggs just like this one lurking behind many a line of St Mall’s. Reckon you can spot any more? Suggest them in the comments, and I might just make a little series out of them. Or I might just do that anyway, because I think they’re funny.

~ Charley R