Graham Reid | | 4 min read
It wasn't until I met Miss Havisham on the pages of Great Expectations that I understood what a spinster was.
Which is strange because growing up there were two unmarried, elderly women – probably only in their Fifties – who lived next door with their mother.
The Gillards – “the girls” as my older sister sometimes cruelly referred to them – were there for as long as I can remember, probably still there when I left home.
But in all those years I don't think I ever saw them in their huge back garden and can only recall going into their house once.
My mum had some reason to go and I – about 10 perhaps – went with her and stood at the start of the long hallway in the villa which was musty and had huge unused furniture.
They rarely had visitors and the place was dark, curtains always drawn.
I tried to imagine what the place must have been like when, probably before the war, the sisters might have had many young suitors arriving and the huge villa would have been full of life, light and gaiety.
I don't know why I thought of those sad, lonely and isolated sisters but then I moved on to another spinster: Miss Spencer.
The famous Miss Spencer ran a dancing school on Symond Street in a huge ballroom beneath her apartment in the Symondsville block just up from St Paul's Church.
By the time I went there in the Sixties, generations of young gentlemen and ladies had passed through her doors and onto the dancefloor to learn the waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and whatever else she tried to teach them.
She had been there since the Thirties bringing sophistication to young people, some of whom probably caught the infection but most – like me – left no wiser nor able to dance any better than when we'd arrived.
It was a serious business getting in to Miss Spencer's Symondsville dancing school however. You had to be interviewed.
I can still remember my mother getting dressed in stylish clothes and me putting on my first suit, a dark blue three-piece which I grew to love because I saw a photo of the Beatles in something similar.
We went to Miss Spencer's one afternoon after school and were ushered in to her apartment lounge by a young woman where we sat uncomfortably on her large settee and waited for her entry.
She was a poised and formidable woman and had doubtless interviewed hundreds of spotty nervous teenagers like me, and seemed to suspect us all of being capable of recalcitrant behaviour if we weren't watched carefully.
She must have asked me a few questions which I doubtless answered politely but my memory of the place was of claustrophobia and a strange smell of faded flowers or stale perfume.
The curtains were drawn, there were doilies on the incidental tables, those lace protective covers on the armrests of the chairs and just a vague shimmer of late afternoon light came through the windows.
I think she might have called mum later to say that I'd been accepted and so every Friday after school I would dress in my suit and put my white gloves neatly folded in my pocket – yes, white gloves were mandatory for ballroom dancing – and get the bus into town, which stopped conveniently opposite Symondsville.
I wasn't alone because dozens of boys I knew from school were also there for the session which I think was an hour from 6pm.
Of course it wasn't about dancing, it was a chance to nervously meet girls from Epsom Grammar, Auckland Girls, Baradene, St Cuths and so on. Any match-up was going to be useful because you needed a partner to take to the school ball.
So our time there was just a blur of young men and ladies, hairpins and hairspray, pimples and teenage anxieties squeezed into gowns and suits.
Afterwards we'd gather in small groups outside and see who wanted to go into town and get a coffee or Coke at Chequers on Queen St or, as became more and more common, go to The Loft record store up three precipitous flights from Vulcan Lane to listen to the new singles by Donovan, the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, Simon and Garfunkel and so on.
Miss Spencer and Symondsville are long gone but one day recently while walking up from university I saw that long set of familiar concrete steps leading down from the street and so I went to have a look.
And sure enough there, about two flights down the graffiti-scarred stairway, was the door that opened into the area which had been the ballroom.
Might have even still been there.
I don't remember any of the dance steps they taught at Symondsville, but I do remember thinking at a time – when the Rolling Stones turned the tame I Wanna Be Your Man into a shiver of menacing sexuality – that the world of the Gillards and Miss Spencer, the time of doilies, white gloves and drawn curtains, was coming to an end.
These entries are of little consequence to anyone other than me Graham Reid, the author of this site, and maybe my family, researchers and those with too much time on their hands.
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