Authors: Kit Pearson
For a moment she was distracted by Jean's hair. A brown frizzy halo that looked like a matted bird's nest circled her thin face. “What happened to you?” blurted out Eliza before she had time to be more tactful.
“My mother permed it,” said Jean sadly. “She thought it needed more body.”
“Don't worry,” said Carrie. “Just wash it a lot, and when it grows you can cut all the curl off. It doesn't look that bad. I'll lend you a ribbon to flatten down the top.”
Jean looked grateful, although they all knew there was nothing much she could do about it. Eliza had met Jean's mother several times on Saturday mornings. She was
a brisk, scary woman. It would be hard to resist her if she decided to do something to your hair.
That made her think of her own mother, who had driven her to the airport after they'd dropped off the twins at her grandparents' and her father at work. Before Eliza had boarded the plane she had held her mother close, snuggling into her soft fur jacket and trying not to cry.
She felt like crying now, not joining into the hilarity as Pam stepped into the dorm bearing a gigantic pink rabbit. What's wrong with me? Eliza thought irritably. Why aren't I glad to be back?
Helen arrived last, dumping her bags on the floor with a clatter. “Scotty, what on earth have you done to your hair? We'll have to iron it for you. P.J., get that disgusting rabbit off my bed. Hi, Eliza Doolittleâglad to be back in this dump?”
Eliza shrugged. But Helen's banter cheered her up slightly, and she couldn't help grinning at the other girl's extraordinary appearance. Under her skimpy coat Helen was wearing a purple turtle-neck T-shirt and an unpressed red tartan skirt. Over these hung an orange garment that looked like the top of a set of long underwear. Woolly green tights, with her navy school socks pulled up over them, and brown rubber boots completed the outfit.
It was amazing that Helen's mother would allow her daughter to look so awful. Mothers again â¦ Eliza tried to think of something else.
Miss Bixley, who had a bad cold, hurried them about between sniffs. Eliza found herself resenting the fussy orders. “Come along nowâall suitcases to be unpacked by four-thirty, then a drawer inspection.”
It's like an army, thought Eliza. Ashdown had never seemed like this before.
“Let's apple-pie Bix's bed!” suggested Helen when the matron had left them.
“Not when she's sick,” objected Carrie. “That's mean.”
“No, it's not. She'll just laugh. She always does. Come on, Eliza, before she gets back.”
Eliza agreed with Carrie. Miss Bixley probably just wanted to crawl into her bed early tonight, without having to re-make it. But she
mean. And Helen was her friend now and she obviously expected Eliza to join her.
“Okay.” Eliza laughed recklessly, ignoring Carrie's surprised look. Carrie didn't know yet that Eliza and Helen were friends; the conversation on the wall had happened too near the end of term.
Helen chortled as they tucked in Miss Bixley's top sheet deftly, folding up the bottom of it, and covered it again with the blankets. “You're good at this, Eliza Doolittle! Who taught you?”
“Oh, I don't know.” Eliza surveyed the neatly made bed glumly. It only made her feel worse.
S THE DAY
went on, she realized that the heaviness she felt was a swelling homesickness that filled her until she wanted to explode. But she held it tightly inside her until
Lights Out, until the others had stopped listing their Christmas presents and the dorm was still. Outside the foghorn sounded its two mournful notes:
Eliza couldn't hold back her tears any longer. They streamed down her cheeks and into her ears as she lay on her back and tried not to let the others hear.
Memories of the holidays marched relentlessly through her mind. It had been a perfect Christmas, crammed with treats: visits to grandparents and cousins, skiing at Collingwood, the
at the O'Keefe Centre and explorations of downtown Toronto. Best of all was just sitting around the kitchen of the duplex the Chapmans had rented, fondling Jessie and chattering endlessly to her parents. She had soaked up her family as thirstily as a dry sponge. Even the Demons were tolerable, for they'd begun to talk. They were normal people now, two brothers with whom she could have a real conversation.
They had turned the den into a bedroom for Eliza. She would never forget the first night she had shut the door and recaptured the peace of being utterly alone. The burden of four other people's personalities continually rubbing against hers had dropped away instantly. What was surprising was how little she had missed privacy until she got it back.
Still, all through the two weeks she had thought about returning to Ashdown with happy anticipation and talked eagerly about the school to her parents. She knew they were comfortable now about her being there.
“You've grown up a lot,” said her mother one day. “I think boarding school has made you more confident.”
Everything had been fine until the moment of saying goodbye in the airport, when this overwhelming yearning had flooded her without warning. When the plane rose from the ground she wanted it to turn around and go back. The stewardess had treated her like a small child, telling her when to undo her seat-belt and bringing her special drinks. Eliza
young and, for the whole of the five-hour flight, very alone. As she passed over the snow-bound country, she tried not to think of the family she was leaving behind her. In the fall this had been easy, for she hadn't been able to visualize them anywhere. Their apartment, and Toronto, had been hazy in her mind. But now she could imagine exactly what they would be doing at any moment.
The other four were sleeping quietly. Clasping her hands tightly over John, Eliza pressed him to her chest but wished he were Jessie, something warm and alive. John's button eyes, which she had often imagined full of life, glinted blankly in the dark, offering no help.
She wiped her eyes on John's ears. What should she do? Phone her parents and say she wanted to come back to Toronto? They would be sympathetic, but puzzled. She hated to worry them or to admit she was wrong. There was a horrible certainty inside her that, even if she did return, nothing would ever be the same. She could never be a little girl living at home againâshe'd left home. It was too late to undo that. Why did they let me come? she thought angrily. I
too young for boarding school.
By Toronto time it was very late, but she couldn't sleep, and it was getting more and more difficult to stifle her sobs. She heard Miss Bixley going into her room â¦ the bed!
Eliza got down and padded to the door, startling the matron. “Heavens, Eliza, you gave me a fright! Is something wrong? Here, come into my room so we don't wake the others.”
“Oh, Miss B-Bixley â¦” As the door closed Eliza finally let her wild sobs loose. She tried to talk, but her lips were trembling too much.
“Goodness me, child! Come and sit down.” Miss Bixley sat Eliza on the bed, wrapped her afghan around her, handed her a tissue and took one herself. They both blew their noses.
“We-we apple-pied your bedâand I'm so s-sorryâand I miss my parentsâand I don't like being back here â¦” Eliza sobbed for a few more minutes while the matron made cocoa on her hot-plate.
“Dear me, Eliza, you've certainly taken a long time to get homesick, haven't you?” she said in her matter-of-fact way. “You'd think this was the first term, not the second!”
Eliza snuffled and gasped for air. “Everything was ex-exciting the first term. Now it just seems the same. And I didn't know how much I m-missed them until I saw them.”
“You'll get over it. And you don't know what will happen this termâwhy it's barely begun! Now you wouldn't want your parents to worry about you, would you?” Miss Bixley handed her a steaming cup of cocoa. Eliza curled her cold fingers around it.
She felt disjointed. One part of her was still sobbing, but she was frightened of how much crying was left inside her and forced herself to stop. Another part, strangely detached from her shuddering body, was watching herself sniff and gazing at Miss Bixley's room. It was crowded with small luxuries: fat cushions, shirred pink lampshades and a sheepskin rug.
“I shouldn't tell you this, I suppose,” said the matron, settling down in her wicker rocking chair, “but you're lucky you have a family you feel homesick
I've never met your parents, Eliza, but from the way you talk about them they sound like very nice people. Some girls who come here haven't got such happy home lives.”
“Like Helen,” murmured Eliza. She felt numbed and embarrassed now and was glad to talk about someone other than herself.
“Yes, that poor child has been on her own since she was nine. And Pam isn't so fortunate either.”
“Pam?” Eliza was surprised; Pam's parents seemed to give her anything she wanted.
“I've met her parents, and a snooty pair they are. I don't suppose Pam gets much real affection.”
Eliza's curiosity was aroused, and she hoped the matron would go on. Miss Bixley was gossiping as if Eliza were her own age.
“Now Jean's parents are cold fishâthat's the Scottish in them, I expect. My brother-in-law was the same way. They expect too much of Jean. They think this school is going to turn her into something she isn't. She'd be far
better off living at home. But Jean's a solid person underneath. She'll survive.”
Eliza had no idea that Miss Bixley thought about them all so much. Even through her dazed misery she couldn't help being fascinated. “What about Carrie?” she asked.
“Carrie's got very pleasant, warm parentsâbut you met them on Remembrance Day, didn't you? She's one that boarding school's probably good for, being the youngest of such a large family and a touch spoiled. And she seems to like it here.”
“Is itâis it good for me, do you think?”
“Well, let's see â¦” Miss Bixley looked at Eliza appraisingly. “You're more sensitive, but you're sensible too. A tricky combination.”
She stopped rocking and became Eliza's matron once more. “But goodness me, look at the time! Now, Eliza, the best thing you can do is to be your usual cheerful self. There's nothing wrong with being homesick, but don't you feel better after a good cry?”
Not really, Eliza wanted to say; she hadn't been able to cry long enough to feel better. Because Miss Bixley expected her to, however, she nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Bixley,” she mumbled. “Should I make your bed again?”
“You're bad girls, you and Helen â¦ oh, I know Helen must have helped you. No, I'll make it. You get off to bed.”
HE NEXT MORNING
the familiar Sunday routine grated on Eliza in a way it never had before. It seemed ridiculous to
stand in the Blue Sitting Room and hold up your hands, palms out, for nail inspection. If the Pouncer could see your nails over the tops of your fingers she sent you back upstairs to cut them.
The bus going to the cathedral resounded with eager stories of the holidays, but Eliza barely heard Carrie's account of Disneyland. From the bridge she stared out at the gloomy grey sea. And in church she could not help thinking that, by Toronto time, her parents would have finished lunch and the Demons would be napping.
That afternoon Madeline came over to the Old Residence especially to see Eliza. She asked her to be in charge of collecting the house cards for Cedar this term and smiled as she inquired about Eliza's holidays, but she seemed distracted, as if she were thinking about something else. For the first time, Eliza felt unimportant to Madeline. She's not really interested in me, she thought.
Miss Tavistock stopped Eliza on the stairs after rest with a strong handshake and her usual cheerful greeting: “Welcome back, Elizabeth. How was your holiday? All ready to start a brand-new term?” Eliza had meant to show the headmistress the stamp album she had received for Christmas. But now she was afraid to be too friendly, in case she cried again. There was no point in telling either Madeline or Miss Tavistock about her homesickness. There was nothing they could do about it.
Miss Tavistock was in a very different mood that evening. After supper she made all the Old Residence boarders assemble in the Blue Sitting Room. “I am sorry to
have to begin the term with a lecture,” she said stonily, “but something very upsetting has been brought to my attention. Mrs. Renfrew has informed me that someone has been stealing money from the Pound Box. Since it is kept in your laundry room, it must have been a member of this residence who did it. This is a very serious matter, girls. I want everyone to sit here and think about it while I speak to you individually. If the person responsible has the courage and honesty to confess, I will not divulge her name.”
Eliza had never seen the headmistress like this. Miss Tavistock's eyes were fiery, and her voice was deadly calm. There was truth, then, in the warnings she had heard about her last term.
They had to go one at a time into her study to be questioned. When it was her turn Eliza was irritated that the headmistress made her feel guilty when she had never stolen anything in her life. It was just one more thing to add to her increasing misery. Miss Tavistock was not so perfect after all.
“Are you certain you have not been near the money, Elizabeth?”
“I do have to ask everyone, Elizabeth, so I would appreciate it if you didn't answer as if you were insulted.” The headmistress's voice was strained and her face was white. Eliza whispered an apology, wishing she could just go to bed and cry again.
But she had to return to sit with the rest of the silent boarders. Carrie rolled her eyes, but Eliza wouldn't respond
and pretended not to notice her friend's hurt look. The ticking of the hall clock seemed to fill the whole room.