The canteen with its wobbly-legged tables covered in sheets of blue PVC, and little chairs (colour coded for size with a red, green or blue spot), was a noisy place between 12 and 1pm as 200 children aged between five and ten were herded in to get our plates of lumpy Shepherd’s Pie and bowls of gooey Rhubarb Crumble. We drank lukewarm tap water from lightweight, slightly dented beakers, possibly made from titanium, in not-quite-shiny gold, silver and – if you were lucky – pink. There were far fewer pink ones than gold and silver and so they took on some kind of special status, making the water in them taste just that little bit better.
Dishing out the servings from behind the hatch and taking away our empty plates (as well as supervising at playtime) were the Dinner Ladies. Some were surly and authoritative, others kind and maternal. We soon knew which ones to turn to and which ones to avoid. Mrs Bird was one of the ones who’d give you a cuddle if you fell over and got those little bits of playground grit embedded in your freshly grazed knees. I can still remember every detail of how she looked: tall and slender, she had dyed hair the colour of copper piping which she backcombed up in an elaborate and outdated beehive, wore a gold letter M around her neck and the shortest skirts I’d ever seen on anyone not on TV. We loved Mrs Bird. Whereas Mrs Cann...I can see her hard, lined face now, her sallow complexion and her pencilled-on eyebrows resembling wasp antennae, several dozen shades darker than her hair... no, Mrs Cann was not the kind of woman you'd get - or want - a cuddle from.
Unfortunately Mrs Cann frequently made my dinner times a source of great stress. She was a stickler when it came to checking that we’d consumed everything on our plates. “You mustn’t waste it” was the motto. Under her watchful eye we felt forced to swallow every last crumb. However, we also learned that there were cunning ways to make it look as if you’d eaten more than you had. The easiest way was to smear your leftover bits of hard mashed potato and bullet-like peas around the perimeter of your plate, making sure to leave a nice, clean space in the middle. There was quite an art to it. Or you could make little piles out of the mushy sprouts and watery carrot slices and hide them skilfully under your strategically placed knife and fork. Alternatively, you could just be a messy eater and drop half the contents of your spoon onto the table or floor. But I had an additional problem. It wasn't just a few last mouthfuls of boiled cabbage or a burnt pastry crust I wanted to leave - I didn’t want to eat any meat. This wasn't something that was ever taken into account at my school back then. The feeling was that everybody had to eat meat; in fact, didn't everyone want to eat meat? There was no saying "no" to it. I spent most of the morning dreading dinner time, and most of the afternoon recovering from it. Occasionally I’d be relieved to find there was Macaroni Cheese or Egg & Chips on offer and lunchtime would be a breeze. But most of the time there were meaty things – flabby, greasy sausages, grey slabs of lamb, unidentifiable brown chewy lumps in brown slimey sauce. I’d ask for the smallest portion I could get, then spend the entire mealtime finding ways to avoid having to swallow it. If the smearing round plate, hiding under cutlery or dropping onto table ruse didn’t work, I'd put it in my mouth and then conveniently ‘cough’ it into a hanky which I’d shove back in my pocket. It would stay there leaking gravy or fat into my pleated skirt until playtime, when I'd drop it nervously into one of the deep wire bins, dreading that one day I'd get caught. I don't know what I thought would happen if I did, but in my head it would be a punishment just too awful to contemplate.
Only the lovely Mrs Bird was sympathetic. If she was on duty I could always ask her if it was okay to leave some food on my plate, and without fail she would nod kindly, and maybe wink one of her pastel blue-shadowed eyes, as she discreetly took the gristly remains of my dinner and scraped them into the slops bin. To this day I don't think I've experienced a more reassuring sight than that of the long-legged, beehived Mrs Bird in her mini-skirt, walking away from me with my plate of uneaten liver and kidneys.