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U3A Writing: Higsy

"At school, her nickname was Higsy, but at home my father always referred to her as ‘Hilarious Davies’ because of the number of times I would come home with yet another tale which began: ‘You’ll never guess what Hilary did today…''

Elizabeth Robison writes a sparkling tribute to a school friend who was a joy to know.

When I first thought about this piece I thought it would be about my (rather short) stage career, which began in 1957 as a musician who mimed playing the lute in a school production of The Merchant of Venice, and ended on the back row of the chorus in The Mikado at Leeds University. But as I thought about it, I realised that what I had to write about when recalling memories of about fifty years ago, was the life of my friend, Hilary Davies.

We met on our first day at secondary school in 1955 when we sat in alphabetical order around the form-room. We soon discovered that our fathers probably went to school and Welsh chapel Sunday school together – she was Davies, I was Evans. This did turn out to be true.

We became pretty inseparable and would talk non-stop about all sorts of topics. Hilary was passionate about everything – refugees, euthanasia, capital punishment, injustice – she would talk endlessly as we stood at my street corner on the way home from school until she’d realise that it was almost time for her bus and she’d rush off, clutching her beret, satchel flapping behind her.

At school, her nickname was Higsy, but at home my father always referred to her as ‘Hilarious Davies’ because of the number of times I would come home with yet another tale which began: ‘You’ll never guess what Hilary did today…’

In practical subjects she was a disaster. She once made a jelly in Cookery which she poured into a milk bottle to set. She sieved her lumpy custard – over the sink and then took the lumps in the sieve to show the teacher. Once she was sent into the pantry to get a colander and she kept appearing at the door holding up various utensils, behind the teacher’s back, each time mouthing at us: ‘Is this a colander?’

Sewing lessons were an equal mystery to her. One year we made blouses and when she came to make buttonholes, instead of cutting a slit to stitch around, she folded the fabric into four and cut an arc shape which made an enormous circular hole which it took her about a term to do button-hole stitch around. And then we had to go shopping for a huge button!

On another occasion, I had for some reason, shut myself in a store cupboard and was holding the door shut while Higsy and others knocked and demanded that I open the door. Then I heard a voice saying: ‘Elizabeth Evans, come out of there at once!’ To which I shouted back: ‘Oh, you can’t fool me Higsy, I know you’re pretending to be Daisy.’ Upon which the door flew open and there indeed was the dreaded headmistress, Miss D Wright, ‘Daisy’ to us girls. Higsy and co. were contorted in silent mirth behind her.

On one occasion I was having a one-to-one lesson with a teacher who had a terrible personal hygiene problem, so being cooped up in a hot prep room with her going over Latin verbs was not pleasant. Difficult to keep a straight face on one occasion when the door was ajar and Hilary came popping her head round the door, again, behind the teacher’s back, holding her nose and miming ‘Pooh!’

As kids do, we sometimes had fallouts, such as the time when I told her that our mutual piano teacher had said she did not need to bring any music to her lesson that week. (What a horrid girl I must have been!) When we fell out, I would go off with Pauline Isherwood and Hilary would go off with Olive Pettigrew, but we always gravitated back to each other after a few days.

Hilary was passionate about everything and she threw herself into the small speaking part of Solanio in The Merchant of Venice with great gusto. My role as one of the musicians who came on stage to sing occasional songs was much less demanding, (albeit I had to mime strumming my lute throughout.) We musicians did spend a lot of time in the wings and I can remember us stuffing our mouths to stop us laughing the night Hilary somehow had a wire coat-hanger dangling from the back of her costume as she rushed on stage with some news for Antonio.

By the end of the sixth form we had time to kill after our A level exams and Higsy was the leading light in writing, organising, producing and acting in a revue which we put on for the rest of the school and for parents and friends at the end of term. One sketch was called: ‘Flossie Mopps: This is your Life.’ Where I played charlady Flossie and Hilary played the Eamon Andrews figure, complete with her father’s electric shaver as the microphone.

We kept our friendship going in Leeds – she at training college, I at the university. She organised another great Revue for students of the Congregational and Presbyterian society, (Presbycong soc for short.) In one sketch she was acting out Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene at the front of the stage while strange things connected with TV ads were going on behind her.

For example: Lady M ‘Alone, alone, alone.’

A man in a trench coat walks across the stage, pausing to say enigmatically: ‘You’re never alone with a Strand.’

Lady M: ‘What, will these hands never be clean?’

A be-towelled woman in a shower cap waltzes across the stage behind her, singing: ‘You’ll be a little lovelier each day, with Fabulous pink Camay!’ Unfortunately, Hilary did not have a long life; she died of cancer in her forties. By great good fortune we were on holiday in the USA the summer before she died and we were able to fly from Missouri to Houston, Texas, to visit her and her husband and two sons.

I will always count myself lucky to have known this person, so full of life and exuberance who was the driving force behind an expedition on the day we finally left school to go down and get on the ferry boat, and as the boat chugged across the river, we all frisbeed our hated maroon school berets over the side of the boat, singing at the tops of our voices:

‘Berets, cross the Mersey!’

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