OK, this is not poetry. I have joined a memoir writing group, and the wonderful phrase “uncommon harmony” comes from Faye Benedict who is a really gifted writer in that group. It was that phrase that made me decide to write differently, it seemed to make sense of what writing memoir might be. Though, it is likely to be me, me.
The Red Suitcase
I am 21 years old. My aunt Sybil gave me a red suitcase “in case I want to travel”. It was something like 18 by 12 inches, and 8 inches deep, measurements in inches of course, no-one said centimeters then. It was the kind with one handle on a long side, flanked by spring clips. I think it was taffeta satin inside some kind of pressed cardboard covered by faux leather. That was red, very “mod”. I returned to Belfast, my final year at university, my first year out of “halls”, sharing a rented ‘flat’ that was actually just a large victorian front room with kitchenette carved from the rear and a bathroom shared with other ‘flats’ down the hall. The suitcase went under my bed, a twin facing Jean’s twin on the other side of the room, a wide rug in between. Do you remember 77 Sunset Strip? We were 77 Botanic Avenue, Ground Floor.
The Applied Maths Department was up the hill. five minutes walk to all my classes. Jean was ten minutes further, English Department and Library. There was a table to eat at, but not much space for desk work, so I lay on my stomach on the floor to read, between the beds. Sometimes it was Lord of the Rings, or Georgette Heyer, my wonderful honours english Jean provided the library at number 77. Sometimes it was Quantum Mechanics or relativistic something or other I have long forgotten. Sometimes it was my sort-of-secret indulgence Hardy’s History of Mathematics. There’s a story behind where that came from.
To look back, the suitcase, three or four times as heavy as my current wheelie bag that moves at fingertip touch, was not the only thing that had to change.
That year, there were twenty-one of us in applied maths honours, three girls and eighteen boys. We said girls and boys, not men, women, nor male, female. (And I at least had never heard of LGBT). This number, three girls, was unprecedented. The history love came about through a girl thing too. A few years before, as a fresher straight from a country school, I had happily and dutifully joined the university maths society, as one did if one had arrived to study maths. And, as a girl, I got the privilege of arranging meeting refreshments, the tea and buns. I discharged this duty so faithfully, clearly able to count the cash, that the following year I progressed to being treasurer. (I have never since taken on being a treasurer.) This post put me on the committee with the professors, lecturers and postgrads, who also served. I became part of the welcome for the visiting speakers, possibly the committee showed their modernity with this, I say it myself, quite attractive female person. Then I became the person who arranged for speakers. Being a girl, who knew her place was to serve and agree, in the year before finals, I was asked to be President, President of the University of Belfast Mathematical Society. Yes, said Elspeth, the first ever female undergraduate president.
The following year, Jean also lent me Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. When I read it lying on that floor, I was again saying Yes, Yes, some different kind of yes articulation on its way.
It sounds like I was a with-it achieving person, but the reality was that I did not actually know that the president had to give a presidential address, had to be a speaker offering a topic of interest to the whole of the society. I was an undergrad whose only discovery so far had been that being very clever in a small school didn’t mean I was particularly outstanding among other really clever students, let alone someone who knew enough math to address the society. I didn’t have either a “Beautiful Mind” or a new idea for proof theory. In fact, I didn’t have any idea, but fortunately I had a good friend in the postgrads, who said “Do History”. So I did, with a brief byway into philosophy where the history books took me. I remember only the title “Development of Calculus from Anaxagoras to Newton and Leibnitz”. But, I found a love, the thought and curiosity that led to my life had happened to happen. Or, not yet, as like the Second Sex, it took time for what had been begun to emerge.
Our final year in applied maths produced something else unprecedented in the department history. Four, four students achieved first class honours, in those days something that did not even happen every year, was achieved by two boys, and two girls, Heather Knox and myself. Now I know about the resonance effects of diversity, connection and positive motivation in groups, I wonder, did that achievement we each claimed as our own, which it is, also owe something to the contributions of all twenty one of us feeling some change in the blowin’ in the wind? Dylan’s song recorded first in 1962, our year was 64-65, was frequently sung, along with We Shall Overcome and folk songs from Ireland, not to mention hot debates on the papal encyclical 1965 that repeated the Roman Catholic Church position decrying birth control.
Whatever, the first class boys both joined one of our professors at post-graduate work, exported with him to MIT in Boston, USA. In my final interview with the Head of Faculty, seeking advice, he suggested that teaching was a good career for a girl. Maybe he had seen the ring I proudly carried on my third finger, another clear expectation of going to university being to meet a better class of man, and the ring was the visible sign that I had achieved that too. Maybe he knew I was already pregnant, though at three months in, just finished final exams, and meeting up with my mother to plan the wedding, I had hardly registered the consequences of that finding myself. The man of good class also graduated, though in psychology, second class. We made the local papers as the human interest couple who returned from their honeymoon to be present at the graduation ceremony, in my case in forgivingly covering graduation robe. They all asked an embarrassing “class” question. Nobody noticed that no-one would have cared if the first and second had been the other way round.
I had not registered that after achieving aims, there was a new place to be, a change. I had not registered that ‘being a girl’ was going to have to change. The red suitcase retired to store in my mother’s attic, never again big enough or useful enough for any journey.