Raffaella Barker: the year I was 17
Writer Raffaella Barker recalls tumbling head over heels in love with an art student at 17.
I dreamed about being 17 years old through the preceding 16 years of gawkiness and it spelled freedom to me. As well as being a glamorous curvaceous word, the age of 17 represented boyfriends, fast cars, Fiorucci bikinis and a glittering future. It had nothing to do with the life I lived as a schoolgirl in rural Norfolk and everything to do with urbane sophistication. I was sure I would fall in love when I was 17. I would learn to drive, I would cease to be burdened by A-levels and travel somewhere fascinating involving extreme weather conditions. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Seventeen lived up to almost all my hopes and dreams. A week after my birthday I tumbled head over heels in love with an art student I met in the bar at a flamingo sanctuary near Holt. What were we doing there? Come to think of it, what were the flamingos doing there? Was it meant to be? I certainly thought so. I passed my driving test and hit the roads in a pea-green Citroën Deux Chevaux. It looked like a frog and had a broken passenger seat and no roof.
My companions had to lie back and watch the sky pass as I drove. For a child brought up 10 miles from a station, six from a town and 17 from my school, the driving test was truly as good as falling in love. I think it slightly went to my head.
Something told me that freedom would taste sweeter if I marched into the headmistress’s office at my demure girls’ school and announced that I was leaving. I said I would come back to do my exams the next summer. It was not the most sensible decision of my career, but I learnt a lot by living through the repercussions. And I got shingles. Through the enforced isolation of the illness and the icy winter, I skated obsessively in pink dungarees on a frozen lake near my house as I attempted to learn metaphysical poetry off by heart. My parents were frustrated, furious and effective. They wasted no time but found me extraordinary tutors in the wilds of Norfolk – for Latin a Penguin Classics translator, for English a Whitbread prize-winner. My work did not suffer from anything but my own sabotaging skills. The exams came and I returned to school for them. I didn’t wear my uniform – it had become part of a dog bed – but I did feel I had lost out on the hysteria of leaving school with my year group.
The Fiorucci bikini emerged later on our first ever family holiday abroad.
I invited four of my friends; they hitch-hiked to Florence and were at the house when we arrived by camper van and two cars after a three-day journey. My parents were appalled. The house was already overflowing; four wolfishly hungry teenagers were not wanted.
What did I care? We drank sambuca in the piazza in Siena, watched the Palio and bet on the darkest, handsomest horse, and swam in the local lido. I wore my new bikini, bought in Florence; it came out of a tin covered in angels in sunglasses and was sublime.
The glittering future I had imagined became the limpid present. Everything had changed. I had a lot of fun when
I was 17. And I was pretty silly. I put blue streaks in my hair and refused to go to university because I wanted to hang out with my boyfriend. I was not a good example to the children I would have. And when the halcyon year ended and I was 18 and supposedly grown up I found life more ordinary. I began to dream about another glamorous year where everything would change once more… 24… a story for another time.