The Worst of Times: I had never used a bathroom before: Mavis Nicholson talks to Danny Danziger

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I LEFT home at 17 to go to Swansea University. I was quite excited in a way. It was when I got a letter saying 'You're sharing a room with a doctor's daughter . . .' that I began to realise that this was going to be a step into another part of society, and I was terrified because I'd never been out of my circle of working-class people.

Briton Ferry, Glamorgan, no longer has a station, but it did then. The porter, Dave Evans, was very handsome. We were all in love with him . . . but he was in love with the librarian. He said to me: 'Education, that's it. You have a chance now, Mave, of really making it.'

My mother was on the platform to say goodbye. I tried not to cry, but you wave and wave and wave, and you see the figures going smaller and smaller, and suddenly that's it, you've really cut the umbilical cord.

I hadn't been out of my area very much, so a train ride was a big proposition. I stayed with all my luggage around me; I didn't dare put it on a rack in case the train suddenly stopped and I had to get out. And I remember that I kept my ticket clenched in my hand so as not to lose it, and there was a great big mark imprinted on my glove forever after.

At Swansea station, the porter was very sweet. I remember him teasing me: 'You can't be shy, you've got gypsy eyes.' Then he called out: 'Anybody going up to the university?' He was looking after me, he said. 'You may as well share taxis, you young ladies. You haven't got money to burn, you know.' And one girl put up her hand, and I shared with her.

When I arrived at Beck Hall, the hostel for girls, there were six girls on my landing. Mary Davis, my room-mate, was there already, and she'd already unpacked. She was dark brown, because she'd been sunning herself abroad (]), which was enough to put me on edge.

She was warm and confident; in fact, all the girls seemed easy-

going with each other. I couldn't be confident straightaway. I was happy to be friendly, but I felt more subdued.

They seemed very Angela Brazil to me; I noticed they all had lovely luggage, and one had a pair of leather boots that I stared at, fascinated, because they were signs of wealth and poshness. And I couldn't believe that anyone could have so many clothes as these girls.

After a while they went off to 'bagsy' the bathroom. I waited. I had never used a bathroom before. We had a tin bath on a nail outside the scullery that you brought inside, shaking out the woodlice and the spiders before filling it with hot water from endless kettles.

This took place by the fire in the kitchen, which had no lock on the door, and my mother would keep guard so that grandfather didn't burst in, drunkenly. You'd be very hot on your left side, facing the fire, and very cold on your right side; and the water went icy very quickly. But I got to like the tin bath once I saw a film with a cowboy bathing in one.

Eventually, I went along to the bathroom and ran the water. I was quite excited. I thought, this is going to be good, I'm going to enjoy this. I got the temperature right, then lowered myself into the water . . . and just at that moment, my room-mate flung open the door and came in.

'Oh hurry up, hurry up,' she said. She took her clothes off waiting for me, and stood there in front of me. I'd never seen a nude body before, and tried to cover myself with my towel, which had trailed into the bath and was completely soaked.

Then she said something I have never forgotten - 'How strange, sitting with your back to the tap' - and I realised I was not sitting the right way.

That really was like a dagger. You know how you walk down a street, and suddenly you stop because you remember an embarrassment? That happened to me for a few years after, and I still think about it now.

'Martha Jane & Me', published by Corgi, is the first part of Mavis Nicholson's autobiography.

(Photograph omitted)

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