From the moment Millfield Hockey Girls 1st XI stepped out onto the astroturf together in the September of 1989, a special kind of magic took hold. By the end of the season, that magical holy grail of human resources – team spirit – had transformed into the ultimate trophy in the land: the Schools National Championships.
With the benefit of that beautiful creature hindsight, it can’t have been easy for Miss Harkness to guide us to victory in six months. We were a disparate set of young women thrown together suddenly by life. At 16, I was living away from home for the first time swimming in a sea of hormones, while desperately trying to figure out a new social group as well as studying for my A-Levels. Fortunately for me, being good at hockey was a passport through this confusing teenage terrain.
Here, I belonged
Captain Kerry ‘Maj’ Major led the team spiritually with her take no prisoners leadership style, while ferocious centre right forward Charlotte Cornwallis (a descendent of General Cornwallis) was our physical spearhead. Time and time again, panther-like Charlotte would pounce on the ball in the circle, wind up her stick with military precision and strike the ball hard. SLAP! BANG! WALLOP! GOAAAAAAAL! Every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon across the south west of England backboards shuddered.
My school friend Tracy Gates (niece of footballer Eric Gates) held us all together like a magnet in the centre of the pitch. When she was on the ball we all moved in unison like clockwork around her. One tactic employed was called the switch. Whenever Tracy shouted ‘platform’ the ball would go backwards and zip around the back four left to right or vice versa to wrongfoot the opposition, meanwhile the forwards realigned accordingly, received the switched ball and executed yet another penetrating surprise attack. In that single move, the telepathic synchronicity of the team was a small slice of sporting heaven. Here, I belonged.
The rising tide of success was reaching its peak
The rising tide of success on the pitch was reaching its peak – the day of the National Championships had arrived. On the surface, to a glancing eye, we appeared to be the quintessential English jolly hockey stick types. Underneath we were a competitive hockey machine feeding hungrily on the raw meat of success. The youngest player was 4th year Clare Mason; the person who most embodied our school motto ‘Molire Molendo’ – to win by striving – was upper sixth Head Girl Keri Glenday. Maj had a bad arm but still played on, vice captain Andi Grant ran her legs down to the ground. For my part, I cut a fluid figure with my slick reverse stick skills going up and down up and down the left wing, setting up and scoring a fair few goals myself.
One of my most vivid memories is just before the final game. Miss Harkness had given her pep talk. ‘Gather round,’ urged Maj as she put her uninjured arm into the centre of the group. I put my hand on top of hers, then Andi’s hand landed on top of mine. Then another and another and another until each of us had one arm reaching into the circle. The pile of hands became the hubcap, the arms the spindles on a human cartwheel. It felt like we were standing on a volcano. Everything in life which had existed up to that point ended at the pitch’s edge. This oblong of green was all I knew, the game was finite, there were lines and limits, a white box 100 by 60 yards, 70 minutes, 22 players, two goals, and one small rock hard plastic ball with a circumference of 23cm that if hit just right could zoom through the air at 80mph and kill you if you weren’t careful. A low growl rushed up from my stomach and flew out of my mouth to join all the other roars erupting around me as we flung our hands high into the air. And someone next to me, Andi I think, said something I have never forgotten. ‘If we win now,’ she said, ‘the memories will last forever.’
Tragically, time has corroded my memory. For instance I can‘t recall the second goal in the hat-trick I scored to help us win outright, nor the venue, nor the other teams, nor the results of the four games we played in a round robin against the other regions – practically the whole meat and bones of the day! While inexplicably minor details – the sticky shinpads, the saliva sodden gumshield, the wet-with-sweat bandana, singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot on the coach on the way back – steadfastly remain, nay, burn brighter the more Dame Memory turns them over in her ageing hands.
If you can find it in your hearts, please forgive me for being sentimental. It is thirty years to the day we won the Nationals and coronavirus self-isolation has unmoored my mind far down memory lane. Earlier I hit a bump in the road and got mired in frustration unable to remember that elusive second goal, so instead I began to wonder: where are they all now? And thought it best to write it all down before the last few memories disappear. From the mists of time, I managed to dredge up that both Tracy and Charlotte went on to play hockey for England. Charlotte also became the Real Tennis World Champion. Maj and I met only once more, at the England university hockey trials. Becky Baines went to Oxford, Andi went to Cambridge, Becky Walker to Sandhurst and the last I heard of Keri was she could speak Mandarin. As for the rest, I hope life has been kind to their fast feet and quick hands.
And it is there we must leave these friendly ghosts with their sand-encrusted grazed knuckles and knees. It is dangerous to get stuck on the island of our youth for too long. One day I might never come back. Still as Faulkner tells us the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even the past. These memories can testify to that. Sometimes, in a much needed hour, these memories can keep the dark storm clouds at bay and fuel the dreams of tomorrow.
Post Script: Here’s what actually happened on the day. Thanks to the Old Millfieldian Facebook page, research assistant Mo McLadin for hoarding the copies of the Millfield Newspaper and Captain Kerry Major for her excellent sports report.