The agony and the ecstasy that a letter can bring

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The Independent Online
Striking a pose straight out of Clueless, Louise Pepper looked like she had just stepped off the set of the teen movie. The tall, blonde18- year-old, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Alicia Silverstone, reached for the ultimate schoolgirl accessory to relay her A-level results to Mum and Dad.

But unlike her screen sister, Louise, 18, was struggling to stay cool; she was dumbfounded but definitely not dumb. "I got three As and a B and I'm hyperventilating," she said as she clutched the crucial slip of paper. "I thought they went OK. Oh, I don't know what to think."

With her A-grades in classical civilization, English literature and general studies and a B in French in one hand and mobile phone in the other, Louise will now be shimmying off to Westminster University to start her media- studies course in autumn.

The real star of The Sacred Heart of Mary comprehensive school, however, was nowhere to be seen. Sobbing in a teacher's back room, far from the celebrating girls in the courtyard, Celia Clarke was inconsolable. Her results couldn't be that bad? ... No. They were that good.

As it turned out, Celia was weeping with delight, not disappointment. She had managed to match Cambridge University's improbable offer of five A-grades. Straight As in chemistry, maths, physics, A/S -level statistics and general studies had sealed her place at Newnham College to read natural sciences.

Celia had spent the morning preparing herself for the hour of reckoning - in church. "I had to go to Mass today," she said, explaining why she had not collected her results on the dot of eleven. "It's a holy day of obligation. I tried to think of God but I was extremely nervous and my stomach was in a knot. Friends expected I'd do it but I didn't. I had a dream last night that I got an F." She finally went outside to fetch her parents. "We wanted to keep out of the firing line," Kenneth Clarke said. "It's an emotional day. It's six months' suspense and one is held by a thread."

There was no doubt in his mind that Celia deserved her grades. "Despite all the talk in the papers, the work still has to be done and this one did it," he said proudly, planting a kiss on his daughter's forehead. But Celia must now turn her attention to practicalities if she is to get anywhere in Cambridge. "I can't ride a bike yet," she said. "I've got to learn." And the family can look forward to their holiday in Gloucestershire without worrying about which route to take. "We're staying three miles from a place called Newnham. It would have been rather ironic and tragic had she not got in. We would have had to do a detour," said Mr Clarke.

Despite the talk of record results this year, yesterday inevitably yielded spills as well as thrills. Sitting on the tarmac, Catherine Clarke was shaking violently. She tried to calm her nerves with a cigarette but her mind would not rest. She had needed an A in history to read it at King's College London, and had only got a B.

"Miss, what do you do if you haven't got you're place?" she asked. Once the teacher had ascertained Catherine had a place at her second choice, Sheffield, she was fairly unsympathetic. "You've got into a very good university to read history, so you haven't got a problem," she replied. Catherine retorted: "It's cold and far away and I'd miss my Dad ... I'm going to give King's a ring and see if they'll take me anyway. If not, I'll probably take a year out and reapply."

The coming and going continued for most of the morning. One girl marched into the school building, declaring: "Let's tell that Miss Saunders I got a B". Another turned to Celia. "How did you do?" she asked. "All As" Celia replied as modestly as she could. "Yeah, I thought so," came the reply and the flushed girl who had failed to make the grade made for the door.