Tom is to meet me at Victoria at 1 pm sharp. I wait for 45 minutes, trying desperately not to let the growing alarm show on my face. Instead, I pretend to be sullenly irritated, and when I catch him moving towards me through the crowd, I turn and inspect a basket of roses clutched in a young girls arm.
"Would you care for a rose, miss?"
I am about to speak when Tom takes me by the arm and says to the child, "No, she would not." He leads me away through the bustling throng, towards a carriage waiting outside.
"Terribly sorry to be so late, Gemma, but the traffic was simple horrendous."
I say nothing, and he takes this as a sign of my forgiveness. He moves onto other things.
"How are you? You look well."
"Do I?" I answer sullenly, hoping he will take offence and stop trying to be so bloody amicable.
"Yes, you do, Gemma." He begins to help me into the carriage, but I tear my arm from his and climb in myself. I can hear him sigh under his breath, the patient, kindhearted brother, trying so desperately to aid that savage sister of his. The way he twists everything to suit himself infuriates me, and I find that I am glowering by the time I sit down.
"Gemma, I know that this move has come at a traumatic time for you ... for all of us ... but, if you give it a chance, I know that you will fall in love with England, just as I have. India is a fine place for young children, but young ladies ought to be here, where they can learn about the important things in life. I'm sure you agree."
I say nothing; instead, gaze out of the window at the cobbled streets of London. The sky is steely grey and an oily rain smears the windows of the carriage.
"Honestly, father says that you have been desperate to come to London ever since your 14th birthday, and now that you're finally here, you look so sullen!"
Again, I say nothing. What is there to say? That, yes, I have always wanted to come to London, but never like this? Never as the result of my mothers death? I am furious that he is making me feel guilty for my behaviour, which is, I have been told, a natural reaction to my mother's unexpected death. My eyes sting and blur, and I can feel, with frustration at my own body, tears pooling in my eyes. I remain staring unseeingly out of the window, hoping that Tom will not notice.
"Gemma, Spence is a highly respected finishing school."
"I've no doubt it is."
"Many of England's finest gentlemen send their daughters there."
"I'm sure they do."
"You will be amongst fine company ... you will be invited to balls, banquets ... it will be a wonderful step forward for the Doyle family.
"Because that's all you're really concerned about, isn't it? The status of the blasted Doyle family! I wish I wasn't a bloody Doyle." My language is appalling, but I am too irate to care. Tom's face shows no sign of shock or disgust at my cursing; instead, he gazes coldly at me and his upper lip curls slightly. I know he has been practising this expression ever since he came to England, and, I am sorry to say, he has perfected it. I swear because I want to sound, to act, to feel like an adult, and I wanted to be treated as one, but his upper lip is all it takes for me to be 6 again, and blushing foolishly in front of guests at one of father's dinner parties, hideously embarrassed at my behaviour, hating the men and women laughing at me, mocking me. I am no more than a child in his eyes, and it stings so. I turn away, and the tears run like broken waterfalls down my cheeks.
I'm approaching the school, the carriage bumping over the gravel drive. Tom is checking at his watch, tutting meaningfully, and occasionally muttering something to himself about how late we are.
I care very little. My mother is dead.
Oh dear. He wants to talk.
"Tom." I can play this game too. I'm not going to sit around like some meek little child, obeying everyone just because they expect me to. I'm going to make his life hell.
"Gemma ... I understand that this has all come as a bit of a shock to you."
"Well, no-one expects their mother to suddenly take her life, with no warning beforehand." I know this isn't what he's talking about. He sighs, glances out of the window, and then turns his gaze to me. His eyes are cold and hard.
"Gemma, cholera took mother, you know that. What I'm talking about is ... the school, the move. I know it must have been difficult for you. All I'm saying is that, however much you resent me at this moment in time, however much you hate Spence, however much you hate England ..."
What is he going to say? That he is sorry? That he loves me, wishes the best for me, only wants good things for me?"
"Please ... try not to embarrass yourself."
A snigger escapes my mouth at this point. How could I have been so naive? Tom, caring about me? Good gracious, no.
"What is so funny, Gemma Doyle?" He turns on me, with that strict fatherly tone I have never had to bear.
"What you mean to say is, don't embarrass you. Or father, or Grandmama, or the Doyle family as a whole. You don't care about me, you've made that pretty obvious, Thomas, darling."
My patronising tone stings him, it is clear. He winces, then reaches forward and grabs at my wrists. "Gemma, I'm afraid that that impertinent tone is going to have to be dropped here. They don't have to have you, not like us. We're stuck with you, unfortunately."
Although this hurts, I'm not going to let him have to satisfaction of seeing me weakened. I smirk, turn away, and gaze out of the window. Tom says nothing more, and we approach the school in silence.
I care very little. My mother is dead.
"Miss Doyle ... Gemma Doyle?"
"Mrs Nightwing, thank you."
"Yes, Mrs Nightwing." I smile politely, morose at having been chided so early on in my time here at Spence. Her greying hair is tied loosely at the nape of her neck into an austere looking bun. Her gold rimmed spectacles perch precariously on the end of her nose as she pores over my papers. Tom shifts slightly, sitting next to me. With her displaying no sign of ever finishing reading, Tom stands awkwardly, and coughs.
"Ah, yes. I am afraid I must take my leave now, Mrs Nightwing. I am urgently needed back in the city tomorrow morning."
"Of course you are. Would you like a minute to say your goodbyes?"
"No, that won't be necessary."
That's that part that hurts the most.
"Goodbye, Gemma. Be good."
And with that, he has gone.
I sit in silence a few minutes longer, marvelling at how, a moment ago, I was irritated by Tom's very presence, but yet now, when he has departed, I miss him, miss the security of his tall form beside me. It has accompanied me practically wherever I have gone, these past two months. I breathe in deeply, trying not to appear too curious or impatient.
"I am terribly sorry for your mothers death, Miss Doyle."
Why? It's not your fault. You didn't kill her.
"Thank you for your condolences."
I even irritate myself.
"I hope that your time at Spence here will help ease the loss somewhat."
"I am sure that it will." I smile wanly, the perfect grieving daughter.
"You will be with several girls of your age. There is one, ah, scholarship student, Ann Bradshaw. I thought I should let you know before there were any ... misunderstandings or awkward complications."
"I also feel compelled to tell you that ... the woods, at the edge of Spence, do not belong to us. You may enter whenever you desire, but there are often gypsies camping there. I understand that several of the girls would feel uncomfortable at being ... amongst them, so they do not enter the woods at all. There is no obligation for you to; similarly, you are not forbidden."
I don't care about gypsies. I watched the darkness consume my mother, watched her wrench free from it at the last moment and plunge the dagger into her stomach. I watched the blood pool around her lifeless body, her blank eyes gazing unseeingly on my face. I remember the hem of her green dress drink up the ruby red liquid hungrily, like an animal, like a monster. I remember the screams, the cries, the shrieks.
I am not scared of the gypsies.
I am led silently to my room by a squat, bad tempered housekeeper. She points to the door, and then begins her way back downstairs. I sigh, shake my head, to disturb the panic growing in my throat, and approach my new home.
"Who are you?"
There's a girl sitting there, in front of a tiny chipped mirror, brushing her lank hair. Her watery eyes take me in, without displaying any sign of interest, of friendliness.
"I'm terribly sorry, I must have got the wrong room."
it." She turns back to the mirror, lets out an almost inaudible
sigh, and places the old hairbrush down on the worn dressing table in
front of her. Now that I am over my shock, I do notice that there are
two beds in the drab room. I know that my disbelief is showing on my
face when the girl smirks, and says "You clearly must be used to
silk and diamonds."
I find this impertinent, but say nothing. "Which bed is yours?"
She does not answer, only points to the one next to the window. My new bed is in perhaps the darkest corner of all England.
"May I ask who you are, and what you are doing here?" She surveys my face impassively, clearly believing she has the upper hand.
"Gemma Doyle. And you are...?"
The charity case. Sorry, scholarship student. And, even though she has not been what can be described as pleasant to me so far, I still feel a little twinge of guilt. Mother always told me never to mock people for their wealth. Well, actually, she told me it was best never to mock people, if I could help it.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bradshaw."
She says nothing, watching me unpack my belongings. My red hair falls over my shoulder, obscuring my face from her scrutiny.
"Where have you come from?" she asks suddenly, her fingers toying with the blanket on her bed. I sit down on mine, grateful for the friendly tone in her voice. Maybe she was just shy before.
"India. Bombay. You know it?" As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I realise how ridiculous they sound. A scholarship student, travelling to India? Of course not. Norfolk, perhaps. Never India.
"I can't say that I do." Although her face is pinched and pale, and her hair lies flat and lank against her head, she says this with a grace that astounds me.
"How long have you attended Spence, may I enquire?" I smile at her, but she drops her head and breaks the gaze. Her cheeks flush.
"Since my mother died. She was a maid here, and ... the circumstances of her death meant that it would have been churlish of Spence to turn me away." There is a bitterness in her voice, matched by the smile on her lips, which makes me immediately uncomfortable.
"My mother is dead too."
"Is that why you've come?"
I suppose it is. I was never to be sent away to England beforehand, as much as I wanted to be. And now, here I am, and I couldn't be more miserable.
"How did she die?"
I am shocked by the brazenness of her question. It hardly seems the thing that young ladies talk about. No, we are supposed to be interested in the weather, the health of the queen, who is getting married. We gossip over cream teas and cucumber sandwiches. Is this not how it is in England?
"The cholera took her."
Although I know this to be a lie, I am not going to tell this Ann creature the true circumstances of my mother's death. I can't say that I have taken to her. I can see Tom smiling smugly, pleased at this seeming to prove him right for what he has insisted to me ever since he came to London. They are of a lower class, Gemma. A lower breed. You can't expect them to be like us. You can't expect them to like you.
"I am terribly sorry to hear that, Miss Doyle. My mother died in a fire. At this school. 16 years ago now."
Her frankness, once more, throws me. "You must have been very young."
"3 months. So, you see, I never knew her."
Lucky thing. I wished I had never known my mother. Then the grief would not push down on me, restricting my breathing, making any attempt at anything seem futile and pathetic.
And then she changes. Smoothly, almost imperceptibly.
"We shall have to go for vespers soon."
We gather in the hall. Ann has instructed me to change into the school uniform. A long cream dress, complete with corset. I must confess, although not to any of the other girls, I never wore a one in India. My mother did, sometimes, but her and father saw no need for me to. I was never aware of how much I valued my ribcage until Ann yanked at the ribbons of my corset and practically punctured my lungs.
I spy a group of girls who look to be my age. There are 5 or so of them, in one crevice of the circular room. Most of them look the same, not unpleasant, but nothing special. They were identical expressions on their faces, ones of restrained boredom. They must have been practising in front of their mirrors. There is one girl who catches my eye first. She is achingly pretty, with violet eyes and sleek brown ringlets. I can feel Ann gazing enviously at this girl, and I finally understand what it is to be jealous.
As I approach, I see a flurry of white blonde hair, and one girl emerges from the darkness. She is slighter than the others, and her hair, long and wild, flows like moonlight down her back. Her skin is china white, and her eyes, huge and grey, catch mine. She stops, for a moment, sizing me up. She smiles, a mocking smile, and then turns her back on me and returns to the catty laughter coming from within the nook. I sigh, and move on. Although her friend is beautiful, I can clearly see that this is the one I am supposed to look to, this is the one who I am to allow to lead me.
Ann catches me staring in their direction, and a smirk of resignation plays around her lips. "That's Felicity. Felicity Worthington. And her friend, with the dark hair, is Pippa Cross."
I pretend as though the girls bore me, when really I want nothing more than to be over there, with them, accepted, liked, wanted.
"Don't waste your time on them. They'll never look at you twice."
Although I think she meant it in a helpful, advice-giving manner, the bluntness of her words sting. I turn away, survey the rest of the room.
It is huge, with a marble flagstone floor, curving round to meet a grand staircase, leading the balcony overlooking the scene. The walkway stretches round the entire perimeter of the room, and I can see a number of girls up there, staring down below, and giggling at someone's hair, someone's dress. One girl leans over, topples precariously, and squeals. Her friend pulls her back with a thump, and laughter rings out once more.
There are several crevices in the room, like the one that seems to belong to the girls. Some are empty, but others have statues or flowers there, and others still are occupied by groups of girls, all younger than me. It really is a marvellous room, but what is curious is that I seem to remember it from somewhere. I frown, blink, and try to recall, but it is like trying to capture water with a net. The memory flits ahead of me, teasing me, mocking me, and I find I have to turn back. I feel a presence near me, and glance to my right, only to find the girl named Felicity standing there.
"You're new." The coolness in her voice makes me immediately defensive. It's like a challenge. You're new. Prove to me that you're worth something. Prove to me that you're different.
I gaze back impassively, trying to match her expression, and agree.
"Indeed. I expect you already know my name."
"No, I'm sorry. Who are you?"
I expect this to rile her, to make her flinch and feel snubbed, but instead she smiles, and laughs slightly. "Felicity Worthington. Of Admiral Worthington."
"Ah." I nod, and then add, "And who would that be?"
She laughs louder now, attracting the attention of several of the girls around us. The beautiful Pippa glances this way, and her eyes widen with what looks like pain when she sees Felicity talking to me. She turns back to her acolytes, who all seem to notice her distress, but, like proper English ladies, pretend they haven't, and go back to discussing something as interesting as drying paint.
"Ah, Miss Doyle, I think I'm going to like you." She smiles, and begins to walk back to her group. I notice that Miss Bradshaw has been watching this exchange with her mouth hanging open. Quite unattractive. I smile slightly at her, feeling childishly smug at having proved her wrong. She smiles uncertainly back, and then walks over.
"Goodness." Her tone is flat, expressionless, but I can see the disbelief, and the thing that looks like jealousy, in her eyes.
"Goodness gracious." I match her tone.
And I think I am going to like Felicity too.
That evening, during free time, I expect Felicity to approach me again, but it is like our conversation never happened. She does not look twice at me, which seems to pacify her Pippa somewhat. The great hall is stiflingly hot, and so I decide to leave my reading and wander outside, exploring the grounds. I ask Ann if she wants to join me, but she shakes her head, mumbling something about feeling the cold, and so I leave.
I glance towards the forest, remembering the warning given to me by Mrs Nightwing earlier. Gypsies. I saw gypsies in India, and mother and I often use to visit them, exchanging money for handcrafted jewellery and beautiful scarves. Mother had no qualms about visiting such people, and she was as comfortable around them as she was around father's dinner guests. As I grew older, I tried to mimic her sense of tranquillity and affability, but it seemed affected and false. To be truthful, I was more comfortable around the gypsies than I was around dinner guests.
I wander into the woods, running my fingers over rough back and velvety moss. I hear twigs crack and snap beneath my shoes, and I can feel the sunlight, like silk, on my skin. It takes me an instant to react when a warm hand places itself over my mouth and a strong arm grabs my waist and pulls me behind a tree. I instantly scold myself for being arrogant enough to believe that these gypsies would accept me, that they were anything other than savages. I used to eavesdrop at my father study door, listening to the takes of poor women, unaccompanied and attacked by vile men. I know what happened to them, why no man would take them as a wife. This is what is to become of me. I try to scream, but the hand clamps tighter over my mouth. And then he speaks.
"Shh, please, I mean you no harm. I will release you if you promise not to scream. I have news, important news, concerning your mothers death."
My legs give way beneath me, and he tightens the arm around my waist. The heat slinks through my dress and reaches my skin, feeling like the dappled sunlight I had earlier been basking in.
"Gemma Doyle, listen to me. You are in grave danger..."
I know he says more, but I can feel myself slipping through his grasp, pulled under by some invisible current, floating in a warm cotton haze of feathered fish and flying dreams. I feel intensely calm, smooth as silk, fluid as water, nothing more than a dandelion clock, at the mercy of the winds. I know he is shouting my name desperately, shaking my ragdoll body, the fear sharp as daggers points in his eyes, but I do not care. I cannot care. The light from the lake pierces my skin, feeling as though I should melt, and I can feel it flooding my body, dragging me down into it's velvet depths. And I am here, and I am there, and I am gone.