Authors: Kit Pearson
The matron led Eliza back into the hall. “Look, here's your hook, with your towel and washcloth on it.” She pointed to a closed door across from the bathroom. “Your matron sleeps next door.”
my matron?” Eliza asked, as she was whisked from the bathroom into the dorm again.
“Me? Oh no, I'm the school nurse, and I also take care of the juniors. We're on the top floor. Your matron is Miss Bixley. You'll like herâshe and I aren't as fussy as some of the others.”
Miss Monaghan had an odd, twanging accent. “Are you English?” Eliza asked her.
The matron shook her mop of hair vigorously. “Heavens, no, I'm an Aussie! Over here for a few years to see your beautiful country. Now I really must be off. It's my half-day and I'm meeting some friends downtown. Will you be all right by yourself? The others will be back soon.” Eliza nodded, and the energetic young woman almost ran down the hall.
Eliza climbed up onto her bed. It slumped in the middle but had a good view. She didn't mind sleeping up here. It made her feel safe, being so high above the floor.
The Yellow Dorm.
dorm. The room looked much as she had imagined it: four narrow beds pushed against the walls, one with her bunk above it. They were neatly made with worn blue bedspreads. Stuffed animalsâa bushy white dog and a purple hippoâwere perched on two of them. So
was all right. Eliza hopped down, opened her suitcase and pulled out John, her small furless bear, whom she had hidden under her clothes. She positioned him carefully on her pillow and immediately felt more at home.
She walked around and looked at everyone's things. A sheaf of bright ribbons was knotted together and fanned across someone's dresser. Someone else had a tennis racquet and a mysterious-looking curved stick lying on her bed. On the pillow with the dog on it lay
The Incredible Journey,
a book Eliza had read many times.
The bed under hers had a string of nametapes strewn over it; a uniform blouse had been abandoned in the middle of sewing one on. “Helen Beauchamp,” the tapes said. Eliza felt sorry for this person. All her own clothes were neatly labelled. It had been a mistake to use her full name, although now that Miss Tavistock was calling her by it, it seemed appropriate. “Elizabeth Norah Chapman” in Cash's Woven Nametapes was two and a half inches long. Stitching each strip into place on every sock and piece of underwear was an endless task, and Eliza's mother had ended up doing most of them herself.
Eliza looked at her watchâtwenty more minutes. She might as well unpack. First she put on her dresser the picture her mother had framed for her: Mum, Dad and the Demons, smiling in the snow. They were in Toronto now, unpacking in
new place. Unexpected tears swelled in Eliza's eyes, but she blinked them away. “Silly,” she told herself, “you
to come here.”
She stuck a photograph of Jessie under the frame of the dresser mirror. The golden labrador's adoring eyes gazed out at her. To stop more tears, Eliza shifted her glance to her own face instead.
The back-to-school haircut she had just had was too short: her straight light brown hair looked ridiculous, like an inverted bowl on her head. She examined her grey eyes and snubby nose nervously. The others would probably think she looked really young.
Tumbling her clothes helter-skelter into the drawers, Eliza shut them with a bang and clambered onto her bed again. If only the time would go faster. The longer she waited for her new dorm-mates to arrive, the more frightened she became. What if she didn't like them? Or, worse, what if they didn't like her? Leaning back against her pillow with John in her arms, she tried to think of something else.
HE HAD ALWAYS WANTED
to go to boarding school. Her English grandmother had sent her many books over the years with titles like
Fiona of the Fifth
The Turbulent Term at St. Theresa's.
They depicted a dramatic world of odd rituals, ordered busyness and loyal friends. Of course,
a Canadian boarding school might be different, but there must be some similarities.
Her mother had said that Eliza might be able to go away to school in grade ten. There was a girls' school in Vancouver with an excellent reputation. Her father, however, wasn't so sure; he thought private schools were snobbish.
“Am I a snob?” Mum teased him. “After all, I went to one in Toronto.” But Dad would only say that, although he wanted Eliza to have a good education, they had lots of time before they even had to consider it.
Then Eliza's father, who was an ophthalmologist, had been asked to help start an eye clinic at the Toronto General Hospital. They were all supposed to move east for a year: Eliza, her parents and the Demons, her two-year-old twin brothers. Her mother was excited about going back to the city where she'd grown up and where her parents still lived; her father had been waiting for an opportunity like this for years.
But Eliza didn't want to go. For weeks she had fought a campaign to go to Ashdown Academy in Vancouver instead.
“You're much too young,” her parents both said at once. “You'll be terribly homesick and we'll miss you too much.”
too young,” insisted Eliza. Some of the girls in her books were even younger than eleven. “Of course we'll miss each other, but it's only for a year. And Aunt Susan and Uncle Adrian are there. And I would have had to change schools this year anyway.”
She didn't tell them how the prospect of attending the huge junior high school terrified her. Eliza didn't want to become a teenager. She was the youngest, although the tallest, in her class, and all her friends were changing. Already they were talking about movie stars and back-combing and dating.
“Eliza, sweetheart, are you sure it's not because of the twins?” her mother asked anxiously. Eliza sighed. Ever since the Demons had been born, she'd had to keep convincing her parents she wasn't jealous of them. She loved her brothers, but she wished they would hurry up and become normal people instead of two screaming tornadoes who kept getting into her room. She couldn't tell her mother it would be a rest to be away from them for a while.
She argued and argued, and finally her parents agreed. “I don't know how I'll last so long without you, Lizabel,” said her father, “but maybe you'll get it out of your system if we let you go now. And at least you have Adrian and Susan to keep an eye on you.”
“If you're the least bit unhappy you must let us know at once,” said her mother.
They had to apply right away. Eliza wrote the entrance exam in the principal's office at her elementary school and was accepted two weeks later. Then the clothing list arrived. She pored over it for hours.
1 regulation grey pleated skirt
6 regulation blue blouses
1 navy-blue blazer
6 pairs of navy-blue knee socks
3 pairs of navy-blue bloomers
1 pair of black oxford shoes
1 navy-blue gabardine raincoat
1 regulation blue beret
1 grey V-neck sweater
2 pairs of navy-blue gloves
1 pair of white gloves
This certainly sounded like her books. The requirements continued for pages and included items she'd never owned beforeâa sewing basket, a shoe-shining kit and an umbrella.
Eliza's mother laughed at the bloomers. “I haven't heard of those for years!” They ordered the uniform from a store in Vancouver. When it arrived, Eliza tried everything on and examined herself in the hall mirror.
She looked like one of the girls in the illustrations in her English booksâvery neat, all grey and blue. Eliza liked things that matched, and blue was her favourite colour. The bloomers, which were like long serge shorts with gathered bottoms, were soft and cosy. The black lace-up shoes were ugly, but felt secure and substantial on her feet. “I'm going to Ashdown,” she said importantly to her reflection.
August flashed by in a blur of packing and goodbyes. The Chapmans had to be in Toronto by the beginning of September. Aunt Susan arrived with her new baby to help pack and to take Eliza back to Vancouver. Eliza's parents
had taken the train east the same day she and her aunt had taken it west.
OW SHE HEARD
two buses pull up below the window, and she instantly wished this time alone wasn't about to end. She hid behind the curtains and watched as a chattering swarm of girls emerged from the buses and spread out onto the pavement. From above they looked like a sea of coats, light blue berets bobbing on navy-blue waves.
Half the crowd melted around the corner; Eliza assumed they were the seniors, whom she knew lived in a separate building. The rest advanced towards her, and she hid even farther back. At once the quiet old house was filled with high voices and thumping feet.
The din grew louder as it came up the stairs to the second floor. One set of footsteps pounded quickly down the hall, followed by slower ones, and a mild voice calling, “Walk, please, Helen.”
Eliza turned and faced the door.
The Yellow Dorm
he clamour stopped. Four pairs of curious eyes and four motionless bodies surrounded her. The first thing she noticed, with relief, was that they all wore socks.
A small woman with wispy yellowy-white hair stepped around from behind them. “Now, girls, don't stare at poor Eliza like that. Eliza, these are your dorm-matesâCarrie, Pam, Jean and Helen. I'm Miss Bixley. We're so glad you finally got here. I'll leave you all now to get acquainted.”
Then they crowded her even more. I'm the tallest, Eliza thought frantically. I'm not afraid.
“Nice to meet you,” said Pam, pulling her white gloves off one long finger at a time. Her hands were smooth and tanned, and each nail was filed into a perfect arc. She examined Eliza coolly. Eliza at once felt babyish in her short tartan dress.
Jean smiled timidly, revealing a mouth full of braces, but she looked as if she wanted to run away and hide.
Helen sent her beret skimming across the room. Eliza shrank as the other girl stepped closer and peered at her.
She resembled an angry owl. Her round face was chalk-white, and her short hair stood straight up in rusty red tufts. The large circles of her glasses made Eliza feel as if Helen could see right inside her.
“Well, well, well â¦ so you're Eliza. Welcome to prison.”
Eliza didn't know what to reply to this. She turned with gratitude to the beaming fourth girl, Carrie, who had a heavy blond braid hanging down her back. “Oh, Eliza, I'm so glad you're here! Now we're really complete. You're from Edmonton, aren't you? I'm from Seattle.”
“If there's anything you want to know, just ask me,” said Pam. “I'm the dorm head.”
“Only because you and I are the only two old girls, and I didn't want to do it,” retorted Helen.
Pam ignored this. “I was a day-girl last year, but my father was transferred to Geneva for a year. That's in Switzerland, you know.”
“If you don't want the top bunk I'll trade with you,” offered Carrie.
Eliza knew she should respond to the volley of comments that were being hurled at her, but her tongue seemed glued to the roof of her mouth, and words wouldn't come out of her parched throat. All she could manage was to stand there foolishly and try to smile.
Miss Bixley bustled back in. “Helen, you have time before lunch to sew on some more nametapes. Come on, I'll help you.”
“Miss Bixley,” said Pam, “shouldn't Eliza put on her Sunday uniform?”
“Oh, that's not necessary, not when she'd just be changing out of it again after lunch.”
Eliza found her voice: “Please, couldn't I?” It would be terrible to be the only one at lunch not in uniform.
“Very well, if you really want to. On Sundays you wear your white blouse, navy-blue pleated skirt and blazer. The black pumps you have on will be fine.”
Too late, Eliza realized that now she'd have to change in front of all these eyes. But each girl became occupied with something in her own corner of the room, although they still kept throwing her information.
“We aren't allowed to wear nylons until eighth grade,” said Carrie, knotting a white ribbon carefully on the end of her braid.
“We can on Saturdays, though,” said Pam. “On Saturdays and in the evenings we can wear whatever we wantâas long as it's a skirt. And on Sunday afternoons we can wear slacks.”
Helen glowered from the midst of her nametapes. “Clothes, clothes, that's all you ever think about, P.J.” She jabbed her needle into her blouse, then thrust her thumb into her mouth with a curse. Jean looked up from her book fearfully.
Pam turned pink. “Don't call me P.J.âI don't like it!”
“Now, you two, stop your bickering,” said Miss Bixley calmly. “Here, Helen, give me thatâyou're getting blood all over it.”
CLANG A CLANG A CLANG A CLANG A CLANG! Eliza jumped as someone downstairs rang a
handbell vigorously. Its harsh metal voice vibrated painfully in her ears.
“Sunday dinner! The best meal of the week!” Helen pushed past her and ran out of the dorm.
“Come on, Eliza!” Eliza quickly turned her blouse collar over her blazer collar, so she looked like the others, and followed Carrie down the corridor.
she was relieved to find herself assigned to the same table as Carrie. Trying to make herself invisible, she watched an older girl at the head of the table carve the roast efficiently. Then the senior introduced Eliza to everyone. Eliza didn't say a word, just gulped down her meat and vegetables hungrily when they were allowed to begin. Five long tables of boarders around her kept up such a roar of conversation that it was easy to remain silent.
After lunch they all trooped up and down the stairs many times, carrying the contents of their trunks from the veranda to the dorms. When they had finished putting everything away, Eliza and Carrie went outside to explore. It had finally stopped raining, but their feet got soaked as they trekked through the wet grass.