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Bravely, My Diligence

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On First Day, everyone feels like they’re sloughing off their home selves. Sometimes it was actually possible to see it happen. Leaning against a chimney-stack, looking up at Nicola perched leg-danglingly insouciant on the balustrade eighty feet above messy certain death (imagine the row!) Miranda saw what she privately called Nick’s littlest midshipman look fall away, to be replaced by something more—girlish. Oddly, it was when she was talking about home, about her new brother-in-law. Something I’ll never have, Miranda thought, then caught herself, for who was to say she mightn’t one day—but it seemed impossible. As for herself, Miranda was aware that she was not just shedding home, but buckling on school, nothing heavy, a bit like her fencing plaston and jacket. She didn’t even notice the weight once she got moving.

And this term Miranda reckoned she’d be glad of a bit of protection. She’d been mildly dashed by Kempe’s letter, which obliged her to learn off reams of Ariel while making tactlessly clear that the best she could hope for was to understudy Lawrie-with-Nicola-as-noises-off. That was such a feeble idea, typical of Kempe’s indecision: though Miranda admitted freely she was a worse actress than Lawrie and a worse singer than Nicola, at least she could sing and act without having to be split in two. Towards the end of the interminable extended holiday, she buckled down to learning the lines, found to her surprise that it was no chore: she could almost instinctively match the speeches with gestures and movements that slid them smoothly into her memory. She thought she understood Ariel: how it felt to be constrained by other people’s plans for one’s continued edification, shunted from music to ballet to skating to fencing to Greece and Israel and being expected all the while to be grateful for it, and she was grateful, mostly, she knew she was rich, privileged and lucky, that wasn’t quite it—it was more that she never seemed to have a moment just to be, to do blissful nothing. She enjoyed her little rehearsals, usually stolen from her violin-practice time, up to a point: and then she would be brought up short, reminded that she would never get to act this properly; that titanic goop Lawrie Marlow would do it instead, and everyone would say how terrific she was, and to be fair, Lawrie probably would be terrific.

Still, there wasn’t just the Play. There were games, cricket and tennis: Miranda herself, she considered without undue modesty, was Lower IVA’s only chance of reaching the second round of the inter-form Tennis Shield, but they might last out the third in the Cricket Cup. There was music, she would take Grade 8 this term and she was reasonably confident of passing; that would be an end to tedious music exams—and schoolwork could sometimes be a pleasure of sorts—no, who was she kidding? It was not looking like a promising term at all.

The intelligence that Jan Scott was a probable candidate for Prospero had been a torment since First Day. Of course, she wanted Jan to get the part, because she’d be simply super: miles better than anyone else on the list. But if she did, Miranda was not at all sure she would be able to resist the impulse to push Lawrie under a bus. She grinned at the suddenly vivid image of herself as the mustachioed, top-hatted and cloaked villain of a silent-film melodrama, and Lawrie as the ingenue with a wavy bob and Cupid’s-bow lips: A Future Star of Stage And Screen Is Preserved By the Fortuitous Cancellation of Shopping Saturdays!

Miranda’s wait was cut short by of, all things, stormy weather. Kempe took advantage of the cancellation of games one Friday to call the auditions and so, after a lunch that might as well have been made of formica and woodchip for all the three of them tasted of it, Miranda, studiedly casual, accompanied a grim, not at all ingenuous Lawrie and a visibly quivering Esther to the theatre.
Jan, seated on the aisle a couple of rows from the front, looked around quizzically at Lawrie’s entry, but being Jan, didn’t pursue it further than a table-prefectly smile and nod. The auditions began with the dancers: Miranda noted with some surprise that Pomona was among the best of them, her bulk making her look all the more quick-footed, rather than hippo ballerina. Then it was the singers’ turn. They went in alphabetical order, so Helen Bagshaw was first, making a tuneful but mundane fist of ‘Come unto these yellow sands.' Then Esther. She scrambled up the stairs beside the inconveniently high stage and stood in the spotlight, her Fra Angelico looks marred by an odd, blotchy flush creeping from her collar. Ussher played the introductory bars and—

Kempe snapped, ‘Esther—you come in there. Don’t tell me you haven’t learnt the song. From the top, please, Miss Ussher.’

Esther nodded, gulping. There had been no noise in the auditorium before, but the quality of silence somehow changed, from legitimate interest to morbid fascination. Ussher played again.

‘Cuh—cuh—’ Esther choked.

‘Really, now. You have a perfectly serviceable voice. Come along, let’s use it, shall we? Once more.’

‘Please—’

But the piano drowned her plea, and she muffed it again, managing only a feeble, throaty squeak. Miranda risked a glance at Jan, who remained her imperturbable self, and then at Lawrie, who showed every sign of cheerfully and callously enjoying the spectacle.

‘I don’t think we need put Esther through this again, Miss Kempe,’ Ussher interjected. ‘Come down, child.’

Esther all but ran down the steps and out of the auditorium. Fleeing was something she was rather good at, Miranda thought, and then regretted her contempt, because Esther’s aptitude for flight had led to the unlikely circumstance of Miranda’s appearance in the Christmas Play, and that had been well worth all the huha.

‘I say,’ Lawrie whispered gleefully, ‘wasn’t that ghastly? Maybe if Nick got bubonic plague and—’

‘Oh do belt up, Lawrie. It’s so fantastically improb it’s not true.’

‘Huh. Just because I—’

A loud hushing from Kempe silenced this potentially unedifying reflection. After an interval of feminine classical deities, Adrians and Franciscoes, it was the turn of those chosen to read for Ariel. Resigning herself to the suspense peculiar to alphabet tail-enders, Miranda was surprised to be called forward first, and to her dismay, asked to play against Val Longstreet. So she wasn’t even to get one try at acting it with Jan—she leapt furiously up the stage steps and was left feeling horribly exposed and loose-endish as Val trudged patiently down the aisle.

Rather than join her on stage, though, Val approached Kempe. Miranda couldn’t hear Val’s discreet mutter, but Kempe’s voice rose, shrill with irritation, ‘Oh, Valentine, how vexing. I suppose it does take priority. Well, could you make absolutely sure you are back here by half past three sharp? Have we another Prospero here? Janice—thank you, Act One, Scene Two please.’

Miranda hadn’t time to think—All hail, great master! and if she were to be asked how it had gone, she honestly couldn’t have told. That, in her experience of performing music, was usually a good thing, but she’d wanted to savour this, making a deep courtesy at Jan’s feet, Walter-Raleigh-and-his-cloak—to thy strong bidding—wreathing around her so close that she could see the pale, almost white, downy hair at her temples and nape and smell the lemony soap she used—then meet and join—imitating Ferdinand leaping into the waves, all comical panicky-brave, declining by degrees to a melancholy that was as much Ariel’s own as the son of the King of Naples’—folding her limbs into a sad knot

‘Thank you, Miranda. That’s quite enough for me to judge. I don’t think we need hear you sing.’

So, that was it. She wasn’t going ever to do it again, even if she were cast, the understudy rehearsals would be with whoever the Prospero understudy was—please, not Val—and Lawrie was absolutely the original trouper anyway. She could barely believe it; felt the absurd impulse to ask for another go. Miranda resumed her seat, miming to Lawrie something she hoped conveyed sorry for crunching earlier, I was just nervous, and well, that was rather sublimely pointless since you’re so clearly going to do him better, but a bit of fun, anyway. Lawrie looked stonily back, almost—angry. It was, she supposed, rather a lot to expect a smile and a shrug to communicate.

The casting took days: there were second and third calls for Sebastian and Antonio, for Prospero even—Kempe all over, Miranda thought, unable even to see how vastly superior Jan was to the other four—though Val hadn’t done funny-old-man-with-a-beard-and-bag-of-tricks at all: she’d more or less done herself, and her hollow voice and heavy tread made Prospero seem both creepy and weary; after Jan (though a long way after) she was probably the best. It would be wildly crushing not to be the Ariel understudy in any case, of course, but if Jan got Prospero it might be better in the long run, get all the misery out of the way in one go, rather than going through term with the futile hope that something, just something, might happen to Lawrie. Miranda found herself entertaining the idiotic idea that somehow, despite Kempe’s ferocious reaction to Lawrie’s pleas for Caliban, there might be some sort of fluke—she sat on that thought, hard. Both she and Lawrie had outworn their quotas of thespian fluke for this school year—probably for a lifetime.

And then the cast list was up. There was no chance of escape and return at a quieter moment: she was in Nicola’s company, and there were hordes of people about, including Ginty Marlow, studying the noticeboard rather too intently for someone who hadn’t made much of a showing in the audition. She was lovely-looking, Miranda conceded, but she coasted on it: there was scant intelligence and no—she remembered something she’d read once about Dr Johnson saying Mrs So-and-so had a bottom of good sense and Boswell thinking it was simply stupendously funny he’d said bottom about a lady in someone’s drawing room. But that was Ginty, no bottom, of good sense or anything else. Miranda suppressed a Boswellian bubble of merriment—Ginty, like all her sisters, was not only slender but boyishly uncurvaceous—by thinking she’d much rather look at Nick’s hardier features, lit up with some earnest enthusiasm, than Ginty’s complaisant, mercurial beauty.

She turned to see those same features looking querying and wary.

‘Look—’ Nicola pointed to the list, ‘you’re understudy for L—Ariel—’

Miranda nodded intently, sufficiently confident of this to leave it until she’d checked for Prospero—and, oh, it was. A ragged black pain opened just under her ribcage, and it suddenly became imperative that Nick should see this in terms of Jan being her person, of it being—not a pash in any yucky roses-and-kirbigrips way—but a school thing, a pastime for confined circumstances and company, instead of what it really was. She opted for fourth-form flamboyance, let out an exaggerated sigh which was at least half compounded of genuine tension and exclaimed in her best John Gielgud,

‘—and look who’s Prospero! And it won’t mean a thing to Lawrie! Isn’t it absolutely dreggissimus!’

She must have pulled it off, because Nicola grinned, cuffed her shoulder and said, ‘Makes you weep, m’dear.’

*

‘Look here, I do think Tim was rather foul. It sounds silly for me to say sorry—but you know what I mean. I’m sorry it was me she was using to be foul, if you see what I mean.’

‘Yep. ’s all right. I don’t think she—when it’s theatre stuff—really understands that people might mind. Not that I do. You’d probably be better anyway.’

‘Not at the acting.’

‘You’ve never seen me act!’

‘No, but—you sort of understand Ariel. You can tell from the way you talk about him. And you want to—act with Jan.’

‘You can’t always get what you want, as the poet said.’

‘What? Oh, funny. Well, I suppose. Lawrie too.’ Nicola turned back with a sigh to her book.

‘I say, Nick. I’ve been meaning to ask—well, you’ve been reading all these madly strenuous things for weeks. I thought you hated Dickens.’

‘Oh, lor’. Do you promise not to tell?’

‘Who would I tell?’

‘Anyone. Tim.’

Not likely.’

So Nicola told about smuggling The Mask of Apollo and Miss Cromwell’s bread-and-butter list.

‘Blimey. But why’s it Limited? It sounds ace, especially the Hamlet bit, but it’s hardly Lady Chatterley, is it?’

‘Crommie asked me that. I mean, why I thought it was Limited, not Lady Chatterley. I said the battles maybe—but I don’t think anyone who was old enough to understand the rest would be thrown by them. And because Niko—you know—likes men. But she didn’t say anything to that.’

‘Didn’t they all, back in those days?’

‘Who, sorry, when?’ said Nicola, vaguely thinking of the youth of Miss Cromwell, the Middle Pleistocene at the latest.

‘The Ancient Greeks. I mean, they thought that marriages were just, you know, for having children and that, and real friendships—real love—could only happen between two men? Women were just sort of—’ inspired, Miranda finished, ‘brood mares.’

‘Huh. Charming. No, but—hang on, there’s this other character, she’s fairly fab. Axiothea. She goes to study with Plato, and does all the things the men do, and even wears men’s clothes—’

‘Much more practical—’

‘—and near the end she and Niko are in Syracuse, and it’s sacked—but the two of them scare the raiders off using the thunderboard in the theatre and then afterwards they’re all giggly—sort of hysterical that they’ve got away with it—and they kiss and—sleep together, but it’s queer because she prefers girls—but anyway they agree to say nothing and it’s just all a one-off. I mean, most authors would have made it all soppy—but he goes back to Thettalos and she—anyway, I mean she was real life, it said in the note. So they can’t have been, I mean, just—what you said. Not all of them.’

‘Vanishingly rare, though, I bet.’

‘Well, yes, though the note said that the other girl who went to Plato’s Academy was real too. Wouldn’t you want to be?’

Miranda started slightly. ‘Want to be what?’

‘I mean, I wouldn’t have just wanted to get married—they did awfully young, you know, not much older than us—and to men twice their age—I don’t know about studying with Plato though—’

‘You’d have to be a fearsome intellectual—’

‘Form prize material—’ They started to giggle.

‘Imagine—Meg Hopkins in a toga—or whatever it was they called them that the women wore—’

Nicola’s face suddenly fell. ‘Chitons. I think they were called chitons,’ she said in an odd, strangled voice.

‘Are you OK? Was it something I—’

‘No. No, really not—oh, gosh, there’s the gong—race you for cake—’ Nicola leapt up and dashed, forgetting her copy of Hard Times. Miranda grabbed it and chased.

‘Can’t have cake if you don’t finish your bread-and-butter—’

*

Jan flicked on the kettle, spooned Nescafé and sugar liberally into a mug, and thought, not for the first time, how absolutely hysterical this bloody nunnery was. Not in the way that Phil said, when he was trying in vain to embarrass her in front of his hairy, sniggering mates—micro-gymslips and frilly garters, lesbian orgies, dildos and birching, to which Janice’s reply was always brother dearest, you don’t know the half, saying but leaving unsaid exactly what he rather amusingly didn’t twig about his self-possessed younger sister—but just plain scatter-brained, addle-pated daft. Craven and Redmond allowing Lois Sanger to run rings around them; Keith’s odd notions about maturity, community and setting examples, as if she’d never clocked that pour encourager les autres was grim irony; Kempe letting thirteen-year-olds make her casting decisions for her with barely a fortnight to go before the Play. Not that a school play mattered, or that Janice wasn’t finding the West child a good deal easier to act with than a petulant Lawrie Marlow, though their rehearsals had confirmed to her satisfaction an uneasy suspicion she’d had all term—not just cracked, but actually—well, she wouldn’t exactly miss having to tilt Miranda’s chin and say Dearly, my delicate Ariel into those dignity-mustering, self-mastering blue eyes. Come Wednesday that would be done for the last time, and then Friday—thou shalt ere long be free, she thought with a chuckle, and if she wasn’t at all sure about chemistry and Manchester if her A-Levels did go all right, or clerking for Uncle Clive if they didn’t, whatever happened there would at least be mixed and adult company.

The kettle clicked off. Jan poured and stirred. The common room was blissfully empty; this last Saturday, exams over, most people were out sunbathing. A tribe of youngsters, including Nicola Marlow, trooped past the window to catch the bus into town—form prizes. (Jan remembered the pleasure of her own, back in IIIA, marred by an odd private screed from Redmond, then their form mistress, to the effect that although protocol demanded it was given to the first in form order, she would much rather have seen it go to someone who didn’t have Jan’s natural ability and privileged upbringing. Jan, to whom it was news that her blamelessly middle-middle-class family of engineers, small-town solicitors and nurses was any loftier than any other Kingscote girl’s—probably rather less—had nodded dumbly—what on earth did one say to that?) Poor Nick, so shattered at having to leave, and what a barmy decision of her parents’, to separate the twins to teach Lawrie self-reliance—very Keith-ish, when you thought about it. Nicola would probably thank them for the grammar school in the long run, though. The door opened behind her.

‘I say, Jan—’

‘Lois, how nice of you to drop by. The kettle’s just boiled.’

Lois glowered. ‘I can’t stop. Cromwell wants you, in the staff room.’

Cromwell? What could this possibly be about? She was Lower IVA’s form mistress, so she supposed it must in some way be related to her table-prefect—oh, crikey, she wasn’t going to be scoped out about the Prosser, was she? Chummy nattering with staff about the moral fibre of the lower forms was rather emphatically not her style—leave that to Val, and indeed, Lois. Miss Cromwell, of course, was notoriously dismissive of the office of prefect, an attitude with which Janice could have summoned considerable sympathy had Crommie not tended to take her disdain out on its holders. It was not going to be a comfortable interview, though it would probably have the advantage of brevity, unless by some horrible mischance it had slipped out about her being there when Nicola was on the roof—she could quite seriously do without that clouding her last week. No evidence of this ratiocination showed on Janice’s impassive countenance.

‘Righto, cheers. I’ll trot along right away.’

She sloshed her barely-tasted coffee into the sink—waste—and made her way to the staff room.

It proved—like all the best delicate situations—wholly unexpected, and really rather shattering. It just sounded so utterly unlikely: so Before The War, apart from the Top of the Pops detail, entirely the sort of thing a forgotten great-aunt might have succumbed to. She had not known Marie Dobson except by sight, and to form the impression she was roundly disliked; disliked for no better or worse reason than she was none too likeable, but Janice knew only too well how others’ perceptions of a person were likely to fulfil themselves in her character. Lower IVA seemed subdued at supper, but their patchy chatter was mostly of cricket, the Play, upcoming holiday plans. Marie was not mentioned, it was as if she had never been. Janice retreated gratefully to her study and her books.

*

Miranda hesitated at the base of the fire escape and waved up at the distant blonde-and-blue figure up on the balustrade. She felt like she’d shed her school carapace a mite too early, and while of course she wanted to say goodbye to Nick, she wanted to do so in schoolgirl guise, not as her more louche, but also more vulnerable, private person. She fingered the scrap of paper on which she'd written Jan's address, making sure it was safely tucked deep in her hip pocket, and started to climb. After all, there was plenty to celebrate. For a term that had started off looking so gruesome, it had been a pretty unqualified triumph at the end. She’d managed to break the news about her dismal exam showing to Daddy while he was basking in the glow of Ariel, and he’d just said that it was rather peculiar and officer-class of them and that Mummy would likely be indignant on her behalf rather than otherwise, if that worried her at all, and she’d said gosh no, thinking she could actually probably deal with Mummy’s disapproval better than her righteous indignation.

‘Well, there went Lower Four.’

‘I hadn’t even thought of that, what with everything. We are getting altogether too elderly. Well, it wasn’t the worst of terms. We did rather manage to save it from the wrack.’

Why, that’s my dainty Ariel—I shall miss thee—’ Nick said unexpectedly, with quite Janice’s warm, gravelly tonality.

‘—and yet thou shalt have freedom—we both shall—six glorious weeks—so, so, so.’

‘Blissy. Well, I suppose this is au revoir.’

‘This year we celebrate here, but next year—well here as well, actually.’

‘What's that?’

‘Oh, nothing—just something we say—at home. Come on!'

They sauntered along the leaded paths and down the fire-escape, elaborately jaunty, arm-in-arm.