In the second part of Harry Chapman’s story, the girls arrive at school and Laura, resplendent in her new finery, draws some prying and not altogether praise-worthy eyes…
They made it just in time. All the children were gathered in the school-yard, milling about and playing haphazardly in expectation of the bell. Things happened very slowly and deliberately when they entered through the gates. The waves of children seemed to part. The noise subsided like the receding tide. Faces turned to them, mouths open in astonishment, flashing eyes arched in curiosity. Laura gazed dreamily ahead, smiling regally. Bee trembled at having so many eyes on her, knowing how it usually ended. She kept close in to the orbit of her friend, feeling safer there.
The crowd opened at their approach and closed in behind, following on their tale like a herd of curious cows. If Laura had been looking she would have noticed that, although there was no official uniform, the kids were all dressed alike, the boys in light coloured shorts and short sleeved shirts, the girls in homely checked dresses or simple blouses and skirts.
They were nearing the steps to the main building when a ripple passed through the crowd ahead. A girl stepped through the line and stopped in front of them. She was taller than the rest, with the broad shoulders of an adolescent boy. She was wearing slacks which were drab and faded and a shirt which was frayed at collars and cuffs. The most striking thing about her though, was her face. Her eyes were dark, almost black, guarded and cruel, and her mouth declined in a permanent sneer. Laura noticed none of this, so intoxicated was she, but Bee flinched visibly. This was Judith Walker and it was to her that she owed most of her misery.
But at that moment Judith had eyes only for Laura. She reached out, took hold of a fold of the dress and rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. Suddenly she let it drop, as though she had been stung.
“You look…” he voice was low and hard and seemed to reverberate around the space.
There was an intake of breath. It became so quiet that even the creak of leather shoes on asphalt became audible.
The bell went, loud and stark. There was a great communal exhalation of breath and once again the playground burst into noise. Feet scraped, bags swung, voices erupted and in a few minutes the yard was empty. All except for Laura who swam in confusion, trying desperately to catch up, and Bee, who was equally numb but at least had an understanding of that particular society. She tugged Laura’s arm.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
It was school assembly first and Laura soon found herself sitting in the big airy hall with the hard polished floor. The fidgeting and chatter died away when the headmaster strode onto the dais and said a few words. After this there were notices read by an older lady with a stoop who held the microphone as though it were a prize rose. Finally there was a hymn. Laura saw but she didn’t see. She heard but she didn’t hear. She stood and sang the words of the hymn like everyone else but had no idea what she was singing and no recollection of their meaning afterwards. All the time she was chasing after the meaning of the encounter. Had that girl really called her “stupid”? Perhaps she had misheard her. Maybe – and her mind performed an imaginative tumble turn for this – maybe she had called her a “cool kid”. And then she would see the hand holding the fold of her dress drop as if stung. She would see the black eyes sparkling with malice. She would see the curved mouth open slowly and carefully and shoe towards her the word “stupid” like a poisoned gift. Then her mind would recall like a cut muscle, dart away and streak back to the beginning with its hands clamped to its ears, and start all over again. Had that girl really called her “stupid”?
But Bee, sitting next to her on the floor, knew the truth. Or at least the reality. It was hard and stark and…inescapable. The safety she had seen in Laura, the security she had sought, had vanished, like rain off hot tarmac. She was like one of those forest deer with a big red target on her. She glanced round at her friend, saw the soft sheen of her skin, her intelligent eyes, the elegant line of her back encased in the shimmering folds of the dress. That dress. Judith Walker and the others – could no one see its loveliness? But maybe they were right. How could she have been so wrong?
The deep corridor crawled with shadows and wearied the eyes with the light from the high windows. Children surged and eddied in the airless space. Their feet clattered over the chipped tiles. Bags were dragged and dropped. Their voices hummed. The sounds ricocheted and double-backed, finding no escape. Laura and Bee walked along. Laura had convinced herself that nothing bad had happened, or rather, she remained unconvinced but had pulled a blind down over that ugly part and told herself it wasn’t really there. It made no sense otherwise and she couldn’t really bear it. Bee remained attached to her friend by a single golden thread.
A knot of smaller kids scattered by revealing a jump of space and a group huddled against the wall. Judith Walker was in the centre. She was smiling when her gaze fell on Laura. Laura smiled back. Judith’s smile vanished into its customary sneer and she turned away. Laura and Bee walked by. Laura’s smile froze into meaninglessness and gradually dismantled itself. A voice from behind shrilled out in mockery.
It was answered by another, as deep and abrasive as starched velvet. Judith Walker.
There was a simpering cackle of appreciative laughter. Laura stopped and turned but the group was already slouching away, out of the wearying light and back into the crawling shadows.
The day wore on and gradually unraveled around the two girls. Laura began losing the sense of who she was until she no longer recognised herself or the world around her. Bee was beginning to believe that her friend was not who she thought she was. Everywhere they went there seemed to be the same spiteful eyes, the whispered insult, the spread of cruel laughter. It seemed to infect the whole school until Laura winced at every sideways glance, at every burst of laughter. The very walls seemed to shake with mockery. She felt persecuted and alone. Alone except for Bee.
Things came to a head in Mrs Watson’s maths lesson after lunch. Laura sat in the front row, Bee next to her. Judith Walker was at the back, flanked by her pandering caucus. Laura saw the eyes when she came in and felt them from then on, burning holes through the back of her dress, singeing her hair, searing her flesh. She kept herself erect, upright, facing the front, but like a spindly little bird all her focus and attention was directed at her blind spot. Her eyes strained to peel away and rotate back like a chameleon’s. She was aware of every flutter on her periphery. Against this taut and quivering atmosphere, Mrs Watson’s flat voice droned monotonously,
“So, if you take the square root of this number- “
Laura felt the barest flicker of something behind. Her shoulders tensed. They were coming for her.
“-You’ll find that in most instances…”
Laura flinched, almost visibly.
“… the answer that you’re looking for- “
“… is the one that- “
The starched velvet, triumphant. The coup de grâce.
Laura turned, her chair leg scraped, her face white with fear and confusion, the tops of her ears burning with fury.
“Shut up!” She screamed.
“Laura Dundas!” Thundered Mrs Watson.
Everyone was looking at Laura apart from Bee who silently, with the slightest tremor, felt the golden thread break.
Behind her the black eyes laughed.
The cubicle door was locked when Bee came into the washroom. She thought she heard crying but couldn’t be sure. It stopped as soon as she walked in from the corridor. Somehow she knew Laura was beyond that pale blue door with its cracked terrazzo supports. She could see her clearly, crouched at the back, staring back at her through foggy eyes. She wanted to leave but it was for this reason – that she felt she had already been seen – that she stayed, rooted to the spot, half-turned at the sink.
The toilet flushed and the door opened slowly with a whine. Laura stepped out silently. Her eyes were a little red but she was smiling wanly. She drifted over to the sink where Bee was standing and began washing her hands. Bee remained motionless but followed Laura’s movements with her eyes, which were round and staring, as in their first encounter outside the house. Once more she didn’t know what to say or perhaps there was nothing to say. Just as earlier she felt she was visible to Laura through he pale cubicle door, she now felt that her thoughts were plainly on display, despite her efforts to throw a tawdry veil over them. The truth was, she was the one who severed that golden thread, not circumstance. To have stayed attached would have brought her down as well. But there was something else. Something that made her writhe in shame just as it brought her a secret pleasure. She was no longer the outcast. It was Laura. For the first time she sat with the jackals as they laughed at the wounded. She had experienced joy at another’s pain.
Laura padded dry her hands on the lank flannel towel which hung down from a wooden pole. She turned briefly to Bee without really seeing her and the corners of her mouth jerked upwards in a puppet smile. She stepped past and the washroom door banged behind her, admitting a flash of sunlight from the high windows of the corridor.
Laura walked home alone. She was quiet at dinner and a little taciturn about her first day at the new school, but her mother put this down to tiredness so it was no surprise when she went to bed early.
Laura sat up in her narrow hand painted little bed, her knees drawn up under the covers, her arms linked loosely round her shins. It was still light outside and a soft silver sheen snaked past the gap in the curtains and picked out highlights in the room. A bird was singing high up in a tree, a gentle lullaby to the day’s end. Laura hoped that her mother would come but at the same time prayed she wouldn’t. She had been busy in her daughter’s absence and the room was now filled with Laura’s things – objects and bric-a-brac; a giant goose’s egg painted gold, pine cones sprinkled with silver flock, a jewellery chest made out of ancient swamp kowri, toys given to her by neighbours or made by her parents. All things which held special value for her but which now seemed debased, mundane. On entering the room she immediately thought it all needed rearranging. Now it occurred to her that it didn’t really matter. She didn’t care.
The dress hung over the back of a chair by the window. A blade of light fell slantways across it. As the curtains stirred in a breath of breeze the light rolled and twisted as though it were alive – a weaving snake of light.
Laura slipped out of bed and stole towards it like a shadow. She picked up the dress and the snake slithered off and dropped onto the chair. She held it up, stretching it first this way, then that, in the grey twilight of the room. It shimmered and winked at her. Her hands closed into fists about the material. She closed her eyes, bowed her head.
Suddenly she sprang into activity. Clutching the dress with one hand, with the other she delved and rooted through drawers, into boxes. Eventually she found what she was looking for – a heavy pair of tailor’s scissors. Without pausing she plunged the point through the heart of the dress. She worked her fingers into the hole. And ripped.
“Oh darling! What’s wrong?”
Laura lay curled under her bed clothes, sobbing violently. Her mother sat down on the edge of the bed and reached under the covers. She searched for her with strong and gentle fingers and finding her, drew her in.
Laura couldn’t tell her mother what was wrong. She couldn’t begin to list all the indignities and embarrassments and hurt of the day. She couldn’t even admit them to herself. It was all so confusing and shameful. Where would she start? Where would it end?
“Oh Mum… I… I caught the dress on the edge of the table… I think… I think it’s wrecked… I’m sorry.”
“Oh darling. Don’t worry. It can’t be that bad.”
Her mother slid off the bed and stepped over to the dress, which was once again draped over the back of the chair. She held it up and a ray of silver light cut through the hole which gaped obscenely and lit up her face like a jagged scar.
“Laura… Oh Laura…”
“I’m sorry,” Laura whimpered from under the covers. “I didn’t mean to.”
Her mother stepped back and stroked her child’s hair.
“Of course not… It’s okay. It’s only… a dress.”
The first thing Laura saw when she opened her eyes in the morning was the dress, folded neatly over the back of the chair. The edges fluttered like wings, animated by a silent breeze. She got up and picked her way towards it. Trembling minutely she held it up and the material dropped and fanned out sensuously. She gasped. The hole was gone. It was stitched so carefully, so expertly, that it was impossible to see the edges of the tear. It was whole again. Laura hadn’t heard her mother come back in to replace it on the chair. She must have been up for hours repairing it. Laura’s heart dropped. She would have to wear it to school again.
Laura kept on looking out the window as she was getting ready but there never was any sign of Bee. Next door’s house was solid, enclosed, its net curtains mute and unfriendly. Eventually she could delay no longer and with a final glance back, she set off alone.
The walk to school was as drab and barren as the day before had been bright and full of life. The trees seemed limp and skeletal, the birds and insects silent apart from the odd mournful croak. She laboured heavily in the sluggish atmosphere. The dress seemed to weigh her down, to trip her up. The adults that passed appeared to frown and step around her, as if avoiding some distasteful object.
She was nearing the school gates when she heard light footsteps behind.
She turned. It was Bee, running up. Her eyes were wide and round and she was smiling tentatively, apologetically, truly.
“Wait for me!”
The Arbuturian is delighted to be publishing the winning entries in the 2015 Henley Literary Festival’s ‘Story In a Teacup’ short fiction competition, sponsored by Dragonfly Teas. Winners’ stories will be run in the magazine shortly after the announcement of the winners on Sunday 4th October.