Yes, yes, I know. Hopefully you’ve been on tenterhooks for the new chapter. Swear to god, twice weekly updates from now on. I had my head turned by an experiment with a couple of other blogging platforms that really didn’t work out. My hair is now shorter and grayer than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Aaaanyway. Chapter three.
I woke into flickering, butter-warm light. Focus came slowly, hazing in from the edges of my vision. I was laid out on a small chaise longue, covered in a rough blanket that carried a distinct tang of goat about it. I sat up, instantly regretting it as the room spun about me. I tried to catch details as they swam by.
Book-lined walls. Candles everywhere. A desk, monolithic, carved out of a single massive oak trunk. Three figures, coming out of the gloom as I rose into a semi-sitting position.
“There she is.” The driver, his voice warm, rough, a cat’s tongue across my face.
“Mph.” My father. Disdain, anger, disappointment, that sharp hint of fear still, all in a single phenome.
“So, the child finally decides to grace us with her presence.” This was new. A hard, bright voice. A chrome sphere, pitiless, impenetrable. The owner of that voice moved into my line of sight, and for the first time I saw the face of my tormentor.
She was beautiful. Sharp, perfectly carved features, a wide warm mouth with a touch of a smile at the corners. Eyes as blue as a summer Oxford sky. Even in the nun’s habit that imprisoned her, there were hints of a firm womanly figure that only became more apparent as she bent down towards me. The faintest hint of corn-blonde hair escaped the confines of her wimple. She came close, close enough to whisper in my ear, her breath heated, fragrant.
“I already know what a disappointment you’ve been to your father. Don’t make the mistake of doing the same with me. Stand before your elders, you truculent little bitch.”
She moved away sharply, and I scrambled to my feet, obeying out of utter astonishment. Swaying slightly, I tried to regain my composure, as the three adults stood around me, watching me silently.
“You are aware, I’m sure, why you are here.” The nun again, her eyes calm and wide, her voice brutal as a vice.
“I…” All of a sudden I wanted to explain, to tell her what an awful mistake this had all been, that surely there was another way than this.
“No. You do not behave that way here.” In one swift, smooth movement, the nun moved forward again, and struck me once, hard, across the face. The crack of the slap was like a gunshot in the tiny room. I put my hand to my cheek, already warming under the blow. My father looked on, impassively. The driver’s jaw tightened, but he too did nothing.
“Here is your first lesson in this school.” The nun was back in place, her slim hands folded serenely in front of her. “You speak to an adult only when you are given permission to do so. You obey any and all instructions given to you by an adult instantly and without question. You adhere strictly to the timetables and strictures given to you, again without question. You eat when we tell you. You sleep when we tell you. You learn when we tell you. Within this structure, you will learn obedience, and eventually become rehabilitated to your home and your parents. Do you understand?”
She had used the same voice, the same intonation that my father had always used when scolding me. Here, though, while he had always blazed with anger, the nun’s tone was cold, controlled. There was no respite here, and it was abundantly clear that she meant every word. I looked around frantically. There was no comfort, no support in any of the three faces that looked so intently at me. For now, I had no choice.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. You were unaware of the restrictions placed on you when you entered this establishment, which is why you got off as lightly as you did. If you disobey me again, you will find me considerably less lenient. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Very well.” She motioned to the driver. “You’ve already met McCaffrey, our groundsman. He’s doubtless tried to ingratiate himself with you.”
McCaffrey winked at me. I nodded, unsure as to whether I had been asked a direct question or not.
“Don’t be fooled by him. McCaffrey’s responsibilities include the security of our perimeter. He views any potential escapee from the school in a very dim light.”
McCaffrey shrugged. “She docks my pay if I let any of you brats oot. Nothin’ personal, hen. But no schoolgirl stands between me and my paycheck.”
“Besides which,” the nun continued, “there is nowhere for you to go. The nearest village is Pitlochery, back along the path you’ve just come from. Ten miles on a very bad road. We’re surrounded on three sides by gorse land and swamp, and on the other we’re facing, well…”
She tilted her head, and the booming cannonade I’d heard earlier thrummed again, low, almost a vibration rather than sound. It had been there since I’d woken, but I’d only noticed it now that it was brought to my attention.
“That’s the Atlantic Ocean,” the nun said. “This school is situated on Cape Wrath, as nor-westerly as it gets.” She waved a hand at the wide bay window that dominated one end of her room. Heavy serge curtains were pulled across it, and they moved faintly in an unfelt breeze.
“There’s an escape route for you, child. You have two choices. Iceland or America. You may need a swimming costume.”
She smiled. It was a sharp thing, as thin as my chances, ugly as a knife slash on her beautiful face.
“Now, it’s late. You chose a most inconvenient time to arrive. The rest of the school is asleep, and I see no reason to disturb your classmates unnecessarily. You will sleep here tonight, and I will introduce you to the school at morning assembly.” She indicated the chaise longue. “It’ll be the last night in a while that you enjoy such luxury.”
My father shifted abruptly, swinging his coat, which he had been carrying in one crooked arm, back across his shoulder. “Well, if that’s everything. I understand the train back to Inverness arrives at dawn. I can sleep at the station until then. I’m sure we’d all like to get some sleep. It’s been a long day.”
The nun looked quizzically at him. “You’re sure you won’t stay here? McCaffrey could put you up at the lodge.” There was a hint of amusement there, and I suddenly noticed how discomforted my father was. He was desperate to get away. From the school. From me.
“I couldn’t intrude. Although I’d beg mister McCaffrey’s indulgence if he could give me a lift back to Pitlochery.”
“Nae bother,” McCaffrey deadpanned. “I love driving a dirt track at night. Maybe it’ll rain, just tae add spice.”
They were mocking him. They saw that all he wanted was to dump me and run, and they were making him squirm for it. The nun and the driver had as little respect for the man as I did.
The difference being, they could show it without fear of the consequences.
“Very well, then.” The nun turned away slightly, and my father’s shoulder’s sagged in relief. “Child? Do you have anything you wish to say before your father leaves?”
Of course I did. Why are you doing this? What have I done? Why do you hate me? What can I do to make you forgive me, to get you to scoop me up and take me away from this awful place?
But I was a good, and respectful daughter. I did only what I was told.
He looked at me then. There was something there, in the corners of the unreadable expression he wore, a glimmer of emotion that I rarely saw in him. I like to think it was regret.
Thinking back, it’s more likely to have been relief.
And he was gone. A brisk handshake with McCaffrey. He held out a hand to the nun, and she looked at it with the same sense of quiet amusement. After a moment, he realised, and snatched it away. McCaffrey stifled a grin.
As he walked away, I willed him to stop, to turn, to look back, to acknowledge what he was leaving behind. He never did.
His bowed, receding back was the last I would see of him through innocent eyes.
The nun dimmed the lights in her room, gave me back the goaty blanket and a hard bolster, and put me to bed. She tucked me up with an almost tender gesture.
“And despite all that, we were never formally introduced,” she said. You should know the name of your mistress. And you should tell me yours.”
“My name is Nell,” I said. “Nell Thorne.”
“Good evening, Nell. You will call me by my married name. I am Sister Serenity.”
I nodded. It was an appropriate name. I could see in those luminous blue eyes the things she was capable of, and how little they would affect her. She would drift on the surface of her atrocities like a swan, and they would be faint ripples in the water. She knew she was correct in all things, and that any threat to that certainty would be met, judged and punished mercilessly. In many ways I would prefer that to my father’s anger, his cant, his insecurity. He had never known how to deal with me.
Sister Serenity would have no such problem.
“Nell, try to rest,” Sister Serenity said. “Your first day at school will be draining. I can promise you that.”
And with that, to my utter astonishment, she lent over, and kissed me on the forehead. “Goodnight, Nell,” she said. “Welcome to your new home. Welcome to St. Anne’s School For Wayward Girls.”
That night, I dreamed of my mother. The boom of the Atlantic outside the huge bay window lulled me into a strange half doze, and the shadows drifted into unsettling shapes. Faces, hands, a masque of shade and dim light.
Through it all, mother came to me, her face bright with tears. Her hair drifted around her pale thin face as if she was underwater. Her eyes were empty hollows. She reached out to me, calling my name, her voice a far-off echo.
“Forgive me,” she said. “Forgive me, I made you like this. I brought this on you.”
I woke, sobbing, to dawn light. She had refused to see me when we left the Maidenhead house. She had not said goodbye. All I had heard as we left was the sound of her weeping.