Lois Sanger was late at the station. Since, as far as Lois was concerned, nothing ever went wrong alone - it was never a single rolling pebble for her, always the beginning of an avalanche - the prickly conviction that she was going to miss the train burgeoned into a chapter of imagined future disasters. Everything from the folded newspaper on the taxi's front seat to the itchiness of her own, very new string gloves to the fishbelly grey sky beyond the sunken road seemed a portent of doom. She stared resentfully at the back of the taxi-driver's broad neck, and at the ticking meter, which took, so it seemed to Lois, a malevolent delight in clicking every upwards and taking with it another bite out of her less than generous allowance.
"One and sixpence," announced the driver with unnecessary cheer as he brought the cab flourishingly up towards the front of the station. It was an undistinguished redbrick building with an irrelevant clock-tower crusted with scrolled brickwork, looking part police station and part school (and Lois's thoughts turned flinchingly away from school, even at such an anodyne reminder, unable to bear the thought of what she could no longer have).
Lois paid the one and sixpence. That only left a half-crown for another cab at the other end, supposing there was such a thing. Her thoughts jumped flinchingly ahead to another station at the end of the long railway line that curved like a backbone parallel to the east coast. She imagined an empty road and nothing for it but to walk, and arriving hours late to find a lighted house and no supper and everyone else already settled into friendly twos and threes and herself a politely treated extra one. Or, converse and parallel horror, a plush taxi waiting with near-silent engine and plump leather seats, and a driver in a braided cap, who drew up outside Leys College of Physical Training and loudly demanded five shillings she hadn't got.
And, damn, damn, the man was standing there beside her suitcase looking expectant. Lois opened her purse again and disbursed another threepence. That meant that lunch on the train would just be the unappetising sandwiches her aunt had packed, cold fatty ham and a scrape of butter on the strange rye bread whose virtues Aunt Elsa explained earnestly at each meal, with no coffee from the buffet-car to wash it down, or even to warm her hands on. It was cold for September. Lois had felt chilled at breakfast - which Aunt Elsa had enlivened, as she did all her meals, by throwing the windows wide open to aid her digestion - and she felt even more chilled now.
She always felt the cold. She always felt everything, she thought, more intensely than other people. Her father had once said that she behaved as if she'd had the top layer of of her skin scraped off. She'd remembered it, the night before, when going over her first-year physiology textbook.
The station clock chimed nine o'clock. Lois realised that she had no idea which platform she was supposed to be on for the nine-oh-three. She asked a kindly-looking man in uniform, who pushed his peaked cap back over his sweaty forehead and took a paralysing age explaining to her, with a digression to deal with the clamorous demands of a smart-looking woman in a green suit with a red setter on a lead. Lois, not very fond of dogs, put a polite smile on her face at the creature's antics. She supposed her own hand-me-down tweeds didn't merit half such courtesy. Now she wasn't in uniform any more - apart from the two pairs of overalls for medical work, and the netball and hockey strip that it had been such a scrape to provide, and thank heaven her hockey boots still fit - she supposed her clothes would wear out even quicker. It wasn't a cheering prospect.
The man in uniform finally allowed as it was platform four she wanted and started casting about for a porter. Lois gave him a quick smile and picked up her suitcase, hurrying away before the porter could present himself. Thankfully, overalls and hockey-boots, textbooks and Sunday tussore frock had all gone ahead in her trunk, and she only had herself and the suitcase to hustle onto the train. A man in a homburg was just shutting the out-bowed, enamelled compartment door as she arrived, and a busy person with flags was beginning some business in the misty cold at the other end of the platform.
Lois grabbed desperately at the door-handle. The man in the homburg pulled the door open again and took her suitcase without asking. For a horrid moment she thought he was stealing it. Then her foot stubbed - fumbled - and found its way onto the beaten tin step and then into the compartment itself, and she was pulling herself up after it. The man smiled at her and lifted his hat with his other hand. Lois, used to being regarded as nothing but a schoolgirl nuisance by strangers on trains, was very startled indeed to see the courteously appreciative smile on his face. "Going far?"
"Larborough." Perhaps, if we got talking, he'd buy me a cup of coffee, Lois found herself thinking, and flushed with embarrassment that she could have thought it at all. The blush sank her back into schoolgirldom again; he heaved the suitcase onto the overhead rack, sat down in the opposite corner and opened a copy of the tabloid newspaper the Ack-Emma, and Lois hurried herself into a space beside a fat woman with a protesting cat in a basket and sat rigidly upright until he got out at the next station.
The station after that belonged to a bustling market town. The woman got out, taking the cat with her, and was replaced by a gaggle of rosy-faced girls who picked up the discarded copy of the Ack-Emma and giggled over it, all whilst beautifying themselves by removing their coats and scarves, back-combing each other's hair, and in one adventurous case, climbing out of her skirt and into a pair of thoroughly unsuitable trousers whilst her friends made an impromptu cubicle with their discarded coats and very nearly giggled themselves sick. Lois moved her legs to one side and gave them a preoccupied smile, and wished she had the nerve to treat them like the bumptious juniors they resembled.
The copy of the Ack-Emma bobbed around between them, presenting the photograph on the front from different angles. Despite herself, Lois found herself craning to look at it. The train bumped on, past dull back gardens and duller canal cuttings, and eventually puffed its way gladly into a big city station, full of lights and lacquerwork and general civic pride at having been built by self-made men on the back of wool and iron. The girls piled out, still laughing - how could anyone bear to laugh so much, Lois wondered? and accusing one of their number of a G.P for an actor called Edward Adrian.
Lois picked up the paper. The photograph stared innocently back at her. It was a girl, fair, wide-eyed, her set of brow and lip copiously childish in a way that surely no one between thirteen and sixteen ever set out to be without some ulterior motive. Lois was sharply reminded of Lawrie Marlow, and thought spitefully to herself that she wouldn't believe a word that face said.
And yet, the story seemed a cut-and-dried one. The girl had been left at a bus stop by a bus that hadn't come - Lois felt her stomach wince in sympathy at that - and two old women living in a big house (the Marlows again, Lois thought, cross at the reminder, except now they were on the other side of the equation) had picked her up in a car and offered her a cup of tea in the back kitchen, and then shut her in an attic and beaten her.
"A shame it wasn't the Marlow child," said Lois, aloud, as she put the newspaper down again. She thought both Marlow twins could use a course of being starved and beaten in an attic. She remembered a day of sunlight, and those two infuriating, identical horrors scuttling to and fro - ruining her last cricket match, ruining her last day, ruining her whole year, ruining all of her memories of Kingscote, where she had found a happiness and order that the rest of her life had signally lacked and still did.
They had come out of abundance, the whole appalling pack of them - a Marlow a year, it seemed like, until she wondered that even their mother and that glamorous naval father weren't sick of them - and intruded on what was hers, and she'd hated them for it. Though she supposed Lawrie wasn't as bad as the rest - she, at least, had come round after The Prince And The Pauper, whilst Nicola remained stubborn, more like a carved stone gargoyle than a child in Lois' estimation, even if the rest of the Sixth were inclined to make a pet of her.
The door banged open. Another girl swung herself into the carriage, a suitcase and a hockey-stick flying after her at the end of one competent arm. She looked forbiddingly solid-built, but she moved with a muscular grace that made part of Lois sit up and notice; if that had walked into the Sixth-form common room the year before, post-O-level transfer from a convent, or reluctant victim of parents gone abroad, Lois would have whisked her out to the hockey field or the tennis nets before she'd had time to introduce herself, and made quite sure she knew that Lois herself was Games Captain and therefore patron, not rival.
The newcomer's face was nothing like as impressive as her calf-muscles, which made Lois, only slightly guiltily, like her more. She had uninteresting hair, clipped short in a style that, if it never aspired to elegance, would at least resist the depredations of sweat, mud and constant showers; pale blue eyes, narrow lips and a disastrous abundance of freckles. She smelt of soap. She gave Lois a flat-eyed, incurious glance. She shoved her suitcase up into the rack, sat down opposite, and opened a brown paper bag that seemed to contain almost the exact twin of Lois's dispiriting packed lunch; only with white shop bread instead of Aunt Elsa's rye, and an orange instead of a banana.
"D'you mind?" the newcomer asked in a flat, north-country voice that made her sound like the rightful heir of all those magnates and mill-owners whose money had built the station. Lois, startled, wondered what she had done wrong, and summoned her most charming expression; only to find the other girl indicating the orange. "Some people don't like the smell."
"I don't mind." The smell woke sharp hunger; Lois unpacked her own sandwiches and they ate, if not in companionable silence, at least in the same sort of atmosphere as one might expect of a meal with Jan Scott.
The freckled girl stood up again to straighten her hockey-stick in the rack, and noticed the label on Lois's suitcase. She looked from the suitcase to Lois and back again; wary, not expecting to make friends. "Are you going to Leys too?"
Lois nodded and stuck her hand out. "Lois Sanger."
"Junior or senior?"
"Me too." Lois proffered her most accomodating smile. Rouse looked at it as if it was a suspect half-crown that she wasn't sure whether or not to bite. There was a long hooting whistle. The train gave a convulsive jerk forward. Rouse looked out of the window and wiped a smut off the small patch of exposed, freckled skin between her glove and her wrist. She closed her eyes briefly. Lois could see the blue veins in her eyelids. She looked exhausted.
"I've been on trains since five this morning," Rouse explained, as if conscious of Lois' scrutiny. She stared out of the window again. "I miss school," she said suddenly and deeply, looking as if she was only comfortable talking if she didn't look at the person she was talking to.
"Me too," said Lois again, feeling a sudden leap of kinship. "I was Games Captain. I suppose - I mean, it'll be interesting to play at my level - " It wouldn't be interesting. It would be a matter of life and death. She would sooner, she thought, go over the top of a trench armed with nothing but a pistol like something out of the horrid war poetry they'd had to study in the Upper Fifth, than step out onto a cold pitch and face a lot of girls who had also been the best their schools had. And who hadn't, damn it, been humiliated on the last day of their last term by a foul little stiff-backed blonde object who didn't even know that she had the world at her feet. If Lois could have swapped places with Nicola Marlow, and been Lower IVA again with all the glories of Senior teams to come, she would have done it in a heartbeat.
But Rouse was nodding. Lois found herself relieved; she had said something someone agreed with, someone new, and not, so far, inclined to be friendly, and that was better by several orders of magnitude than having been truthful. "Netball? Tennis?"
"Yes, and hockey," said Lois, not mentioning cricket.
"I play half-back, or centre-half."
They discussed games for a while, feeling gradually more comfortable with each other, though Rouse was still prone to flat statements; rather in Val Longstreet's mode, except that Val, given the opportunity, would pronounce ex cathedra on everything from foreign affairs to modern art, whereas Rouse kept solely to nets and gymnasium and pitch. "Do you think we'll swim, much?" she wondered, asking a rare question.
Lois shrugged. "I suppose we might get some diving."
"I hope so. I like diving." Looking at her, Lois could see that Rouse was speaking no more than the flat truth. She liked flinging herself off a high board and putting her body through its very well-trained paces, and nerves had clearly never assaulted her in all her days. Nor, Lois thought, would she ever twist her ankle before a match. Lois found herself somewhat relieved; that avenue of retreat was still open to her then, so far. It would be awful if she limped onto the field (just a slight limp, not enough that people could say she was selfish to play and should have let the reserve have her chance, certainly not enough to merit the involvement of Matron) and found someone else cradling a wrist and a so-what-are-you-going-to-make-of-it expression.
They changed trains in London, and, by common consent, found a carriage again together. It was already occupied by two girls of about their own age. Lois was about to go back, and see whether she could find another that was empty; but Rouse propelled them forward. One of the girls looked up with a forbiddingly unsmiling expression, the expression of someone to whom it had never occurred that a smile might placate the world; and at the sight of those dark eyebrows drawn together in a face whose pallor and haughtiness and what Aunt Elsa had always referred to as good bones reminded Lois horribly of a young Miss Cromwell, Lois felt her own smile dry up like an orange-skin.
The other girl was radiantly blonde and very well-dressed in blue linen, and had such an air of effortless superiority that for a horrible moment Lois thought it was Rowan Marlow. Then she blinked, and the illusion was gone; this girl was to Rowan as a Hollywood remake was to a church-hall production, and Lois was secretly glad of it.
The blonde girl rose. "If you don't mind, we..." she began, in what Lois thought of as the sort of tones that went with a seat on a stage and a bunch of flowers, as if to order them very politely but definitely out. She paused, noticing the hockey-stick, and her face broke into a suddenly engaging grin. "Oh! Are you for Leys too? Juniors?"
Evidently the hockey-stick made a difference. The girl in blue sat down, moving bags and packages to make room for them, and making sure her friend remained settled in a corner-seat with her back to the engine. Not that the darker-haired girl showed any sign of moving out of it. She shifted her elegant legs to one side, just as Lois had earlier when confronted with the girls from the market town; Lois was quite certain that she and Rouse had been classed in the same category of undesirables, and, buoyed up with courage for herself and Rouse that she would never have had for herself alone, began to indulge in resentment about it.
The blonde girl was handing round squares of expensive chocolate. "I'm Pamela Nash. This is Mary Innes. We were at school together." Though that was obvious enough; the only other explanation for such uncompromising closeness would be that they were sisters, and they didn't look like sisters. Innes nodded to them, shook her head to the chocolate, and opened a book.
A final girl flung herself in, shrieking farewells to a tribe of tow-haired, handsomely pony-faced wellwishers ranging from two elderly ladies in fox-fur stoles to an almost spherical schoolboy in a striped cap.
"Oh, my dears! she announced dramatically, pinning a dull, well-bred hat on top of her bun with scant attention, and dropping like a stone into the seat next to Rouse. "My brother dropped a tin of toffees onto the tracks, and I was convinced the train wouldn't go and we'd all be tipped into the Tower of London. I say, are you going to Leys College? Do say you are! My hockey-stick went with the trunk. I thought I'd better, or I'd forget it. I've already forgotten my umbrella. They used to make us pay fines at the old place, if we lost umbrellas. I'm Dakers. Joan."
Lois shook hands, relieved that Dakers at least stirred up no troubling memories of Kingscote. If these were a sample of her companions for the next two years, it might, she dared to let herself hope, be all right.
If she didn't think about things too hard, it would be just like being at school. Only with no Marlows, and no too-coolly-knowing Miss Craven, and... As the train began its long eastward loop towards Larborough, she was inclined to think that it would all be triumph and not disaster, after all.
"Did Miss Rouse have any special friends?" asked the stolid Inspector, on the terrible morning two years later when Rouse's body was discovered lifeless in the gymnasium. It was also the morning of the final Senior Demonstration; the Dem, as it was called, a morning which would normally have been full of last-minute panics that were half hysteria and half bluff, and now was instead full of scrappy attempts to rework routines that had relied on Rouse, and silences in corridors.
"O'Donnell, I suppose, since she put the beams up for her," said Miss Lux, who taught Theory, without looking up. There was silence. The rest of the room would have much preferred it if she had not mentioned the beam. "It used to be Sanger, but she and Rouse fell out in their second year. They were two loners together and then they were two loners apart. Something to do with a match, I think."
"She had a grudge against Miss Rouse, then, this Miss Sanger?" asked the Inspector, licking his pencil.
Miss Lux looked up, regarding him with grey, sardonic eyes behind spectacles. "I doubt she would have dropped a beam on her."
Miss Wragg, the Junior Gymnast, shuddered at the mention of the beam.
Madame Lefevre, who taught ballet, uncoiled her long legs from underneath her on the sofa and made play with an amber necklace until she was quite sure everyone was watching. "She wouldn't have the nerve," she opined in a deep, thrilling voice. "And it is of no use you talking to her, Inspector. She will lie, and say what it is that you wish to hear. She always lies."
"Really, Marie!" exclaimed Miss Hodge, the Headmistress. "Forgive us, Inspector. We have all had a most unpleasant shock. Certainly I will call Sanger and O'Donnell, if you think..."
"I think it best, ma'am," said the Inspector, sitting down heavily beside the fireplace.
O'Donnell was dealt with quickly; she explained again the tale of how she had put up the beam, more fluently than she had earlier that morning; was released and went.
Lois sat there, heart beating. It reminded her, irrationally, of the conference in the staff-room at Kingscote, when she had - when Nicola Marlow had taken to being late for matches. She answered the Inspector properly. No, she hadn't seen Rouse that morning. She hadn't seen anyone - she'd tried to borrow a safety-pin from Nash, but Nash wasn't in her room, and she'd gone down to breakfast and hoped to borrow from someone there. Yes, she needed the safety-pin for her costume, for the folk-dancing. No, she was sure of the time she'd called into Nash's room - she had seen Nash's alarm-clock. Oh, that was all? Good morning, Inspector. Good morning, Miss Hodge. Good morning.
The Inspector's face furrowed. "It's a serious charge, there, against Miss Nash," he said, testing the waters and wishing himself a sergeant again and not the one who had to make decisions like this.
"Oh, nonsense," said Miss Hodge. "She must have been in the showers, or changing her shoes or something. Or perhaps she called in on Innes. Call her in and ask her."
"I beg your pardon, Miss Hodge." The Inspector wished even more heartily that this was a simple matter of a car parked where it oughtn't to be and another car banged into it outside the teashop, and not anything to do with young women whose parents might easily make trouble for a hard-working police officer. "You remember the matter a few years back, of the young lady with the stolen watches?"
"She was mentally ill, of course," said Miss Hodge, as if daring the room to believe that there was any other reason for her to shelter a kleptomaniac under her roof.
"Is there - Can you tell me whether there's anything similar, in the case of Miss Sanger? Mrs Lefevre..." he bowed politely to Madame, who looked daggers at him, "was saying..."
"She lies," said Madame again, clearly. "She lies and she dislikes Nash. Something to do with a girl at her old school whom Nash has the misfortune to resemble."
"I wouldn't call it a misfortune to look like Beau Nash," said Miss Wragg with a high giggle.
The Inspector looked at Miss Hodge, who gave a final, magisterial nod.
"Ah. Well. I'm grateful for the information," said the Inspector, feeling more out of his depth by the minute, and wishing that this murder, if murder it even was, could have been the work of a known old lag with a switch-knife. "Now, if I could speak to Miss Nash..."
Nash was with Innes, so she claimed; and Innes, with shadows not only under her eyes but in the hollows of cheekbone and temple, agreed with her; and as far as the Inspector was concerned, there was no more to be said.
The Coroner concurred with the Inspector; the newspapers, to everyone's relief, didn't pick the story up; and Lois left by the London train, alone amongst the clamour, with no one in particular to whom she wished to say goodbye.
She would not be going back to Leys as an Old Girl, she thought, just as she would not be going back to Kingscote. And really, she thought, her brain busily smoothing and rewriting over slights and missteps that had, at the time, been mountain-sized, even though she had been... her mind jumped over the words a failure and substituted not quite at home there, she had her diploma, and a post to go to next year. A letter in her pocket, addressed to 'Miss Sanger'. A kind letter. And girls, there would be girls, she supposed, some of whom would like her, and even if they didn't, she would be staff-room and not Sixth, which made a difference.
Something still niggled at her, about that morning of the Dem. Footprints in the grass that had no business there. Innes, all resilience gone, looking like a death's-head as she left; left, without saying goodbye to Nash, from whom she had been inseparable.
Lois shrugged and settled back against the unyielding seat. Murders didn't happen at places like girls' schools and Colleges of Physical Training. Worse things, yes; things said or unsaid, that haunted one for years after; miseries, loneliness, disappearances, even deaths, like that child who had played Junior Netball - what was her name, Hobson, Robinson? Like Rouse. But not murder. Not even negligence, really. Nothing drawn with so clumsy a hand as that. It had been an accident. It must have been an accident.
All the same, she thought she wouldn't think about Nash, comfortably ensconced in First Class. Not for any reason, really, just that Nash belonged to Leys, and Leys, like Kingscote, was behind her.
The train stopped. A man got into the carriage with a newspaper under his arm. He was youngish and well-dressed, with hair of the clean pale brown common only to small boys and men of a certain social class, and the look he gave her was definitely assessing.
Lois patted her hair, and gave him a slight, preoccupied, sideways return smile that wasn't quite welcoming; one didn't want to look like the Nut Tart. But one didn't want to be a games teacher all one's life, either.
"Oh, may I look at your Ack-Emma?" she asked when he'd finished it.
He looked back at her, amusement in his face, as if he knew the game she was playing and was inclined to play it too, at least for a round or so. His eyes were grey and clear as glass, with a very dark ring around the iris, as if drawn in in watery ink.
His name was Simon Ashby; he was charming; he owned a stables; did she ride?
By the time they arrived in London, it only seemed natural for him to carry her bag off the train, and to buy her a cup of coffee.