Chapter 1 - Time for a Change by A.J. Hall
“What sin did I ever commit, to be stuck with a lump like her?”
Pomona never told Mummy she had overheard that wail of despair. Being a Bacchante had been immense fun. The leopard skin had been heavy, splendidly strokable and, testimony to the attic chest from which it had been exhumed, reeked of naphtha, which she had chosen to imagine incense offered to the God. She had devised a spinning, exhilarating dance and several ingenious bits of “business”. But, once the pageant photographs came back from the developer, she had to face up with the truth that she had never come within a thousand miles of looking the part.
Compared to knowing she had let Mummy down, Tim Keith’s needling and sly asides about her shape barely registered. As ever, Pomona covered the hurt under a surface froth of winsome girlishness. No-one suspected she had heard a thing.
Furthermore, August brought the news she had been hoping for ever since finding Girls of the Hamlet Club, A World of Girls, A Fourth Form Friendship and all the others tucked into the bookcase on Gran’s upper story landing, from the days when Aunt Louise and Aunt Irene had been little girls.
Pomona was going away to school, to a proper boarding school with a uniform and adventures; friends and midnight feasts. A structure to her days and plenty of chances to shine: school plays, and orchestras, and dance classes –
She savoured the thought for three whole weeks, dreading Mummy having one of those volte faces which had been a feature of Pomona’s entire life. None occurred. Her uniform was bought, trunks packed, railway tickets propped up against the candelabra on the sideboard.
After supper on the eve of her departure, Mummy dropped the bombshell.
“Such a relief, to think you won’t be on your own at Kingscote,” she drawled, throwing herself backwards onto the sofa.
Pomona sat bolt upright. Questioning Mummy direct never did any good, but this was important.
“Dearest?” Mummy’s tone was carefully careless. She had found the vodka, then.
Pomona had learned over the years. Dogged persistence was the only answer.
“What did you mean, ‘not on my own’?”
Mummy let out a tinkling laugh. “Dearest. Surely I told you earlier? Daddy and I wouldn’t have chosen Kingscote at all if it hadn’t been for this. Ben Keith’s sister is the headmistress. You’ll been in the same form, I expect, with Ben’s daughter. Won’t that be nice?”
In one horrific instant, Pomona realised that her own parents were dimmer, crueller and more completely bonkers than it had occurred to her anyone could possibly be.
“Tim Keith?” she enquired, just in case by some miracle she had misheard.
“Thalia, darling. You know how much I detest nicknames. They always sound so bogus.”
“So I’ll be in the same class at Kingscote as Tim Keith,” Pomona continued doggedly. “And you never told me.”
Mummy made a little fluttering gesture with her fingers and closed her eyes.
“Darling, you aren’t going to be a silly girl and make a fuss, are you?”
What on earth would be the point of making a fuss? There were ways of getting round Mummy if one tackled her in public, in front of people she wanted to impress. No chance at all against Mummy’s whim of iron, expressed in private.
Pomona spent the first forty nights of her first term at Kingscote leaking tears quietly into a harsh pillow-case. There were no midnight feasts, and her talents were made an excuse for further mockery. The intolerable regimentation of the day even limited the opportunities for escape into books, though she discovered a retelling of Greek legends in the school library. It had first piqued her interest because of Mummy’s pageants, but became a lifeline. Prometheus had spent years chained to a crag with an eagle tearing out his liver, and Sisyphus had been doomed to roll a stone uphill for all eternity. Some of her darkest nights at Kingscote became tolerable if she imagined herself Persephone, Queen of Hades: in a position to order condign punishment of one Keith, Thalia, aka “Tim” and see it carried out.
Blissfully, at Christmas, Lawrie and Tim were promoted to the ‘B’ Form and Nicola, on the strength of having the only respectable end-of-term marks in the whole of Third Remove, went direct to IIIA: do not pass IIIB, do not collect £200. There was no obligation to see any of them except distantly, at meals.
The spring term had been the happiest time of her life, marred only by the terror that her marks would improve enough to push her back into Tim Keith’s orbit. More than once, she deliberately fluffed some perfectly easy test, and earned a quizzical glance from Miss Cartwright. Notwithstanding all her worst efforts, she sensed that her time in the Eden of Third Remove was running out. Unless a lucky and most unlikely chance pushed her into the “A” form (Nicola she would take as by far the least of three evils) when Kingscote recalled its pupils for the summer she would be thrown into IIIB and be at Tim and Lawrie’s mercy once more.
That Easter, the Todd family went to the Scilly Isles. Daddy wanted to watch migrating birds, and Mummy was planning a new pageant, to be called Morgan le Fay in Lyonesse, for which the place would provide atmosphere. They rented a cottage on St Mary’s, attached to a flower farm. A winding path led from its back door across a stream and down through a tunnel of gorse, foxgloves and bracken to a tiny beach, a crescent of white sand defined by sloping rocks.
No-one locked their doors on the Scillies. She found it easy to steal from her bed before breakfast and make her way to the beach. She never saw anyone else there. She ambled along the tideline, to see what had been washed up overnight, or teased anenomes in rock pools, like Tom in the Water Babies and hoped against hope that one day she might surprise a Selkie on the rocks, in the act of changing from man to seal, or vice versa.
She took care to return before her parents woke and started planning the day’s activities. The hour or two on the beach, though, was the highlight of the day. No-one with whom she had to speak; no-one to criticise what she did. If not for the nagging worry that the first day of the summer term would see the names Keith, T; Marlow, L and Todd, P all bracketed together in IIIB, she would have considered herself in Paradise.
Pomona’s pre-breakfast wanderings started earlier and earlier. She told herself she was simply taking advantage of unaccustomed freedom from regulation and bells. Even to herself, she did not admit worry was interfering with her sleep.
On Good Friday the family spent the day on the private island, Tresco; ate a lavish meal at the Star Castle in Hugh Town, and only returned to the cottage late that night. In the early hours of Easter Saturday, Pomona woke with an agonising pain in her interior. Indigestion had never felt like this: it must be appendicitis.
The thought, while alarming in a way, felt perversely cheering. Appendicitis would ensure weeks off school, after which she would certainly be kept in Third Remove to make up for lost time. That thought soothed her enough that she dropped into dreamless sleep. When the first light of morning woke her, the pain had gone altogether. In bitter disappointment she pulled on her jersey and skirt, eased open the back door, and stole out into the garden.
The morning had an odd, charged air. The air thrummed, like the lowest note one could play on a cello, more felt than heard. No birds sang. The body of a rabbit, ripped open by some predator, lay limp and discarded on the banks of the stream. Pomona gulped, and averted her eyes as she crossed by the ford and entered the bracken tunnel.
It was airless in there. Panic clawed at her guts. She broke into a trot. Bracken frondsswatted at her face, and she screwed up her eyes, pelting almost blind towards the wild salt smell of the sea. She had almost won free of the tunnel when her foot caught in a gorse root, and she sprawled full length to the sandy ground.
“Don’t feel you have to fall down at my feet and worship me, but full marks for effort, all the same,” a deep voice purred above her head.
She opened her eyes to find her nose inches from a pair of highly polished black leather shoes. The legs to which they belonged were immaculately tailored in charcoal grey, with creases sharp as razors.
A strong hand gripped her shoulder and pulled her to her feet with no apparent effort. Despite knowing it was rude to stare, Pomona found it impossible to take her eyes off the strange man’s face.
Dark lashes framed darker eyes with unnatural precision, as if painted on with kohl. The impression of someone made up for a stage performance was emphasised by the black shadow of beard which outlined rather than obscured the sharp line of his jaw. A faint line of moustache did the same for the full curve of his upper lip. On looks alone, the stranger would have been far better cast as Bacchus in Mummy’s pageant than the weedy curate with a prominent Adam’s apple who had taken the role.
The powerful cologne he wore filled her nostrils. Its scent was utterly different from Daddy’s bay rum, yet oddly familiar, nonetheless.
Her thoughts fragmented into a blaze of images. Autumn: fog and darkness, fresh-cooled toffee splintering beneath a poker, chestnuts roasting on charcoal braziers on London street corners, and – there, she had it – the thick, bitter air of the morning after Guy Fawkes Night.
Blood trickled from Pomona’s skinned knees, but instinct warned her against seeking sympathy. After all, it might have been worse. She thought of the dead rabbit and a wave of empathy with all vulnerable, hunted creatures swept over her. At the back of her mind, a nagging voice pointed out that she and the stranger were alone on the beach, and that Mummy and Daddy had no idea she was anywhere other than in her own bed.
She fell back on the tried and trusted method for dealing with adults. Confiding girlishness suffused her voice.
“I’m so sorry if I startled you. There’s never been anyone here before, so I’d got used to thinking of the beach as my very special place. It is so very special, isn’t it?”
A dim recollection of Mummy socialising with the pageant committee prompted her to add, “Are you having an Easter getaway too?”
The stranger grimaced.
“You could say that. This time of the year I tend to avoid home. Easter reminds me of that time years ago when my youngest brother barged in without a hint of warning, rifled through all my possessions, and helped himself to whichever he fancied. Harrowing.”
Some note of unhealed hurt in his voice struck an answering chord within her. Third Remove classroom, her first term: Nicola Marlow, grim and righteous, throwing Pomona’s books back over her shoulder, without an atom of concern for any collateral damage to books or Pomona’s feelings alike. That was how it must have been.
She was back on the beach, shaken and feeling slightly sick.
“Did I hear you say something?” he asked. She gulped. She must have spoken aloud.
“I said, it must have been. Harrowing, I meant.”
The amused glint in the stranger’s eyes deepened. “Quite so. But let’s come back to you. An Easter getaway too, you said. So what are you getting away from? More to the point, what do you desire to get away from?”
She was drowning in those dark eyes, unable to break his gaze.
“Tim Keith,” Pomona snapped, before she could stop herself.
Somehow she found herself telling him all about Third Remove, and the Anti-Pomona League; the nicknames and the shunning, and, finally, though she had not intended to do so, about her nagging fear that she would be promoted to IIIB, and it would all resume again.
“So,” he interrupted at last, “Pomona Todd, what are you expecting from me?”
She stared indignantly at him. “I was expecting sympathy!”
He yawned. “Then you’ve come to the wrong address. Retribution’s more my bag. Punishment. Judgement. That sort of thing. Sympathy and me don’t even belong in the same sentence. So. Tell me what is it you really want?”
Pomona had spun numerous elaborate fantasies in the dark watches of the night as to what she would do to Tim Keith if she only had the power. The stranger seemed to read every last one of them in her eyes. His smile stirred the hairs on the back of Pomona’s neck. Recollection stirred with them.
Last term, when they mimed ballads, Pomona had been the Boy who Stood, the Boy whom the False Knight on the Road tried to trap with words. The key, she had thought at the time, would be in the Boy’s stance. He must convey both that he suspected what he was dealing with and that the rules of the game required him to treat the Knight as a mortal man, albeit of higher status than himself, until the Knight unequivocally declared himself the enemy.
Pomona found she had dropped into that very stance. Just as her drama teacher had said, holding her body right cleared her mind. She was the Boy; not fearless, but strong enough to look her fears right in the face.
“Mummy took me to see Dr Faustus, in London, at half-term. Have you seen it?”
He looked indecently pleased with himself. “Seen it? I appeared in it. Spontaneous decision, but one for the souvenir book. Many of my greatest moments of genius are like that. But?”
Pomona drew a deep breath. “Didn’t the play make you think Faustus was really, really stupid?”
“I assure you, it didn’t take Chris Marlowe’s defamatory jeu d’esprit to bring me to that conclusion. But it plainly made an impact on you.Tell me more.”
“Faustus does a deal. And he knows that the deal says he’ll go to Hell in twenty-four years. So what’s the point? I mean –” She came to a hiccupping stop.
“Do go on. You enthrall me.”
Her words came out in a rush. “What I mean is, what would be the point of doing a deal with – with Somebody, just to get Tim Keith to stop bullying me? I mean, surely bullies are all going to Hell anyway?”
The stranger, who had seated himself on a convenient rock, was looking at her as if – as if his pet cat had suddenly started reciting Latin declensions.
“Practically true. Though there are bullies in Heaven – look who’s running it, for a start. Or did your scripture teacher gloss over the killing of the firstborn of Egypt and edit out the Book of Job altogether?”
Pomona blinked. Religious studies, as taught at Kingscote, did not include speculating about the moral compass of the Almighty.
The stranger shook his head, as if trying to free himself of a persistent wasp. “So you concluded there was no point in a diabolical pact – assuming, of course, such things exist. Because instead of a term, or two terms, or at the absolute worst seven years of this Keith person, you’d end up in an Old Girls Reunion for all eternity?”
She nodded, wordlessly. He exhaled.
“That, if I may say so, beats Pascal’s wager into a cocked hat.”
“Not come across that one yet? You will. When you do, try this one as a counter: ‘Suppose the one thing He hates worse than an honest unbeliever is a hedger?’ Gets them every time. Oh – and the best bit? Happens to be true.”
Faint and far away, the bell of Old Town church started to strike the hour. He stood up.
“Time to be getting back.”
The words of the ballad stuck in her mind. “Back?”
“No, not back home. But I have a place on Bryher. I would say, ‘Be seeing you’, Pomona Todd, but I rather think I won’t. So I’ll say farewell, not au revoir.”
He was gone. The risen sun glittered on a blue-green sea, and the terns dipped and swooped to the waves.
She handed in her health certificate, declared her pocket money, thrust the letter and postcard which had been awaiting her at Kingscote into the pocket of her school coat unread, and squared her shoulders. There was no point in wasting another minute of First Day. She had to know the worst. Now.
The Todds had been among the first to arrive. There was only a handful of people in front of the notice boards showing the form lists. She barely had to use her elbows to get to the front.
There it was, her own name: Todd, P. IIIB. So that was that. Except –
“Why do you suppose Lawrie Marlow isn’t on the list?” Daphne Morris demanded. “I’ve read it twice, and she’s not there at all. D’you think she’s been expelled?”
To calm her suddenly hammering heart, Pomona re-read the lists, methodically starting from the top: Marlow, K. in the Sixth; Marlow, R. in Upper VA; Marlow, A. in Lower VA, Marlow, V. in Upper IVA – really, no wonder the twins were so difficult, imagine having a sister everywhere you turned, observing your every move. Marlow, N. in IIIA, all present and correct, just below (a sudden wave of relief) Keith, T. – newly promoted and safely out of Pomona’s orbit once again.
Of Marlow, L. there was no sign.
A cold finger stroked down Pomona’s spine.
A horribly familar voice raised in complaint became audible behind her. “Not back until half-term at the earliest? Nick, how could you let her do anything so stupid?”
“Nothing to do with me, Tim. No, honestly. I was miles away at the time. I’ve told you.”
“Well, obviously if you’d been there you’d have paid her bus fare and she wouldn’t have tried to make a dash for it and ended up under a car. But you should have kept an eye on her. You know what she’s like.”
“Not my twin’s keeper. Other things on my plate. Sorrow. Anyway, it’s just the leg now. But They’re bound to shove her into Third Remove when she does get back. So you’ll just have to put up with me and make the best of it.”
They went off arm in arm down the corridor. Pomona, giddy with relief, found a secluded part of the garden and pulled out her mail. The letter was from Aunt Irene, and contained a postal order for ten shillings. The postcard was unsigned, and bore a message scrawled in deep mauve ink: “Have one on me.”
She turned it over. On the back was a photograph of Hell Bay, Bryher.