July 18 2010
Sophie Rees-Morton was in her final year at Rowlea House College (fees £27,390 per annum). And so far it was not going that well. The dyed-blonde Sloane had twice been caught smoking by the much-loathed headmaster’s wife, was reported for using a fake ID in the local pub and then failed a school breathalyser, which in turn resulted in a “hair strand” drugs test. That led her to panic that the school might discover that she had smoked a bit of “weed” over the Christmas holidays. It was a close call but, despite protestations from the headmaster’s wife, she just held on to her place on the Leavers’ Ball Committee.
The Leavers’ Ball was held on the last day of the summer term. It was the highlight of the year at Rowlea House, a mixed school set in an 18th-century Palladian manor originally converted into a boarding school in the 1870s for the sons of Christian gentlemen. Other schools spent money on speech days and school plays but, as far as Rowlea House was concerned, the Leavers’ Ball was its annual PR exercise.
Parents were invited (at £100 a ticket) to accompany their sons or daughters to the ball and share a table of 12 with their various offsprings’ best friends and parents. It was a black-tie affair held in a large marquee on the lawns outside the chapel. It was, in theory, a “coming out” ball for the 18-year-old children of the moneyed guardians – mummies and daddies who seemed to be completely unaware of the fact that their teenage kids had long since discovered the joys of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
From the start of the Easter term the dance was the focus for the upper sixth who, after seven years in the prison of public school, looked upon it as the time the torpor and tyranny of institutional life ended and the bacchanalian debauchery of the gap year kicked in.
A committee of 10 pupils, including Sophie, had been elected in early January to decide the night’s theme and choose the band, food and fireworks. They were mostly left to their own devices, although the headmaster, Mr Patterson, did on occasion drop by to see that the spending did not rival the country’s budget deficit.
At the first meeting, it was suggested by the male members of the committee that it should be a “Sex Pistols Ball” with prearranged food fights and invitations sent out like blackmail notes. Some of the girls preferred a water theme with ice sculptures and seafood. The compromise, insisted on by Sophie, was “The Circus”. Instead of a marquee there would be a Big Top and the headmaster was asked to dress up as the ringmaster (he refused). The food would include popcorn as a starter and toffee apples for pudding and the welcoming drink would be a garishly-coloured alcoholic punch.
The night before the ball the pupils, who had been sent home after their A-levels, returned to school laden with contraband stolen from parental houses. Sophie smuggled in a large bottle of Cointreau and a carton of Marlboro Lights and every sixth-form boarder’s bedroom was turned into a den of dissipation worthy of Studio 54.
The next morning a hungover committee had their final meeting and then adjourned for a pub lunch, which meant that by the time the first guests arrived, Sophie was somewhat unsteady. The punch took a further toll on her sensibilities and when she disappeared to get the traditional bouquet for the headmaster’s wife, she was already more than several sheets to the wind.
To the surprise of the committee, Sophie returned clumsily made up to look like Coco the Clown, brandishing a huge bunch of very bright flowers and looking comical next to the buttoned-up and coiffed Mrs Patterson.
“What lovely flowers,” said Mrs Patterson, as a wild-eyed Sophie rocked drunkenly before her. But it was too late. Sophie pressed the hitherto hidden rubber bulb in her hand and from a plastic rose in the centre of the bunch came a jet of sticky Cointreau that caught Mrs Patterson squarely between the eyes.