The school was on the crest of a hill that wore a high wall like a stiff collar. Lights shone from second floor windows and an iron fire escape clawed the bricks. Grey stone steps made a beeline up to the building, and half way up the hill, a girl was climbing a step, dragging a case.
She was shown her new bed, narrow and barred but with a good mattress. The yellow candlewick cover draping like marzipan matched all the others in the room they called Birch. All the sleeping rooms were named after trees except the small, empty one, which was called Den. Some ordinary trees were missing, Pine, Willow, Elm. She wondered where these rooms could be. There was no smell to the place. The girls were too young for perfume and the kitchens were three floors below. Over her bed an empty pin board was painted white, pocked with holes. There was a shared wardrobe and an old chest of drawers with a loose swing mirror. Opposite the bed a window faced south-west over the sloping grounds.
Each sleeping room had an Elder whose duty it was to assign nicknames. Hers was Mouse. She didn’t make a fuss. The Elders told them when to wake up and when to go to bed, and lights-out was before dark, at the time when birds line up on wires.
In the mornings they dressed in bottle green and formed a crocodile with the Elders at the front. Mouse’s station was at the tip of the tail, waiting for the line of girls to drag itself through the corridor to breakfast. The corridor was dark and chilly, sparsely furnished: one table, a chair, green linoleum underfoot, stale gloss walls, a yellowy pendant light. This was the heart of the building. From this spot you could hear footfall and the sounds of conversations in all directions, ghostly vowels and hummings, hisses of pipes, taps dripping in rows of sinks.
Breakfast was laid at four octagonal tables. Three tables were set with eight bowls on eight small plates, eight knives, eight spoons, and eight teacups on eight saucers. The fourth table was a place short. In each bowl there was a small box of cereal. Chairs pushed back and the Elders stood.
The toast rule: if you put up one finger, you would get one half slice of toast, cut into a triangle. Two fingers meant you would get two.
The girl beside her liked to talk.
“Once Tigg said I’ll have that, that and that!” She splayed all her fingers and prised open a neighbour’s hand.
“And she really did get fifteen slices and had to eat them all!”
Even when Mouse was hungry enough for two triangles of toast, she made a fist. She had long fingers, and if she stuck them up they looked wrong. They looked rude. The Elders did find her rude. They laughed at her holding her fork like a shovel, told her off for picking grass, and scolded because her hair was tangled. She learnt quickly to do better. It was important to stay out of the way.
Every girl had a way to count time but it wasn’t something they spoke about. Mouse invented a rhyme. It got shorter with each week that passed and that pleased her. She would sit working it out, counting the phrases.
This is the week that is the week, before the week, that is the week, before the week, that is the week, before the week, that is the week before the week that is the very last week.
If you were in trouble, time passed much slower.
Every evening after supper she went down to the bottom of the building and took her instrument from its case. Often she didn’t play. She liked the unheated basement rooms and the quiet, and would sometimes stop half way through a piece just to stare out of the black glass of the windows. She could hear trains leaving if she really listened, and the leaving trains and the humming boiler sounded together like a good chord.
The basement made her think about the missing girl. She imagined her creeping about the Pipes, crouched and scratching in the shadows of the school’s foundations. Everyone knew about the missing girl. Some called her a ghost. Others said she had vanished one night and never been seen again. Tigg swore she was an Elder who had died, and Pips agreed. She said she’d climbed on the roof for a dare and slipped, but Tigg said she had jumped. Everyone believed that if you slept in her bed you would see her on the first night of term, staring at you in the mirror. That was why no one ever slept in Den. No one knew her name though. They could only guess at the names carved into benches around the school grounds.
A piano was anchored in the corner of the basement. During the day it accompanied them as they sung hymns in forms, but at night the lid was shut and it sat glowering. Its keeper, the choir mistress, had no eyebrows. Instead she painted two thin arcs high on her forehead, ice-water shock. It was the same expression that was fixed on a wooden toy that had been found the common room, a Knitting doll with pegs at the top which turned strands of wool into ropes. The Elders passed the toy round at night, one bed to the next. Tigg would knit a bit, then Charlie, then Pips, and so on till the rope got longer and stronger. Changes in colour marked where friends had worked in their own stitches or spools had run out. Kit checked its length each morning. Her way of counting time. Kit was an Elder. She had pretty brown hair that was long and wavy, and she could have been popular, but she spoke quietly and was often taken ill. She would disappear for weeks at a time. She turned up suddenly one evening after a long absence. She found Mouse crying in the basement and tried to comfort her, hanging her arms awkwardly around the shorter girl’s shoulders.
Mostly it was the older girls that got to make the rope, but after that night in the basement Kit had gone to Mouse with the frightened looking peg doll.
“Knit me an inch.”
Mouse was glad. She sat up and took the toy, felt the wooden body still warm from Tigg’s palm and smoothed a finger over the new stitches which were even and tight. Kit tiptoed back to her bed and Tigg turned away from them and into sleep. Already there were dozens of colours and textures woven into the rope. At one end the stitches were less accomplished. They made a random pattern in a thick, old yarn that was rough under the fingertips. In the middle there were sections much longer than an inch, one almost a ruler’s length that was roughly knotted together in muscle-red wool. Other ribs had a silky feel and the newest was done in a delicate blue fibre that went shiny when held to the light.
The cleanliness rule: A sponge-down was timetabled each morning and a bath every evening.
Her skin felt dry and she wondered if the twice-daily soaking was shrinking her. Kit had told her about the small bathroom beside Den. It was cold but private, the only wash room with a lock. And it was always empty, so that was where she went.
Bath pearls were the new thing that year. Everyone had brought some to swap and barter for. There were see-through-me’s and ones with pearly skins in different colours. She loved coddling them in a fist till they were warm and soft, or rolling them on her tongue to taste the sweet soapy skins. When the pearls melted in a hot bath the skins danced like seaweed. She’d stay in after pulling the plug, waiting for the water to drain, and when it reached the level of her heels she’d raise herself to the ledge, hug her knees and let her body tilt. The tub would be so slippy from the oil that she’d skid along it on her back and fly half way up the far end. She’d do this five or six times till the surface felt scratchy on her spine. The steam and the game warmed the room and misted the mirror over the sink.
Eventually the holidays drew close. Trunks were hauled up from the basement and tuck boxes with left-over sweets were handed back. Jubilant now, they had one week left to binge on cola bottles, jelly snakes and strawberry bootlaces. No one thought much about the missing girl, the ghost. It was hot in July and the dorm windows were opened wide. The air was still and baked, sweet with glucose.
Kit took the rope and tied an end to a door handle. She stretched it across the hall to gage how long a term was. Longer than a skipping rope. Kit had been getting stranger about the rope, inspecting it with more care each evening, twisting it, smelling the wool, wrapping it round herself and stroking it against her cheeks. The ritual was so slow it had made her late for lights-out more than once, and she’d been desperate to get stitches added, shaking dorm-sisters from dreams to hand over the wool.
During the last week there were injections, kit checks and nit checks. The cook would use up anything left over, so it was sandwiches for tea. They stood for grace, waiting to chant 'amen', and Mouse stared into the pink mix of shredded carrots and something else, nail-clipping white. Even the name was like gagging. Slaw. The sound of something stirred in a trough. There was a medicine smell, sharp and sour, and she knew the pink fronds would conceal plump raisins, put there to burst between her teeth and make her feel sickened.
The leftovers rule: If a girl didn’t finish, she got it again for breakfast.
Mouse couldn’t sleep. It got dark slowly, but the curtains had been left open and when the moon rose it was low and round and red. She lay awake, amazed by the giant moon. It was like gaping at a deep cut. She could see the pits and lines on the moon’s surface, like a hand print, and she rushed to think the right words for a prayer, wondering if this was actually some kind of god, something looking. That was when she thought she heard a noise. And she noticed that Kit’s bed was empty. She sat up, and as soon as she did she knew it was a mistake. It was the coleslaw, fronds licking her stomach, making chains, slithering through passages. The white bread was sticking in her throat, soaked in the sour slime. The moon was right over her bed, whirring and blazing.
She gathered the marzipan cover round herself and looked in the mirror. Kit’s face was staring at her with her eyes like a bird and a finger pressing on her lips. The rope was coiled all around her. It was even longer now, thousands of nights, not weeks but years counted down, inch by inch. And Kit was ill. In the light of the moon her face was white, as white as if she had just hung herself out, long and white like an icicle.
The most important rule: If a girl died in school she would never go home.
Her insides were out before she could reach the washing area, splattering first the green floor and then three, four sinks in a row, splashing back into her face and dribbling through her mousy hair. The smell of it was strong and sweet. She let her head hang over the sinks and breathed it in, looked into it till more came up, and more again.
The teachers heard the sickness. They came and listened and told her to shush. They carried her outside under the red moon. It was freezing and the air seemed to pull at Mouse's breath. Her body was wrapped in the marzipan bed cover, but the night was cold and damp on her feet and face. Something was gripped tight in her fingers and a teacher prized it from her. It was the wooden knitting doll with the painted seagull eyebrows and blood red lips. They told her it was confiscated so she could rest, and they took it away before dropping her off. They would ask the other girls who it belonged to, and no one would know.
The sleeping rooms were named after trees. Mouse would find the missing rooms now. They were in the sanatorium below the hill, a place designed for recuperation. Pine, Willow, Elm, rooms not lived-in and silent enough to hear a clock that ticked in the Sister’s clinic below. There were whole rooms of empty beds. No toys, only books that had been there for fifty years, ancient copies of Enid Blyton with brightly coloured jackets. Signs on ground floor windows said ‘Don’t tap on the glass’.