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Pearls of Great Price

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“Junior Supper again, Pegs?”

“I can’t help it if the kitchen will serve gammon, can I?” Peggy spread butter carefully on her oatcake and debated a sprinkle of salt.

“You could just eat the spinach—“

“Ugh!” said Marianne Paltrow involuntarily from across the table, and then blushed. “Sorry, Peggy—“

“I feel just the same,” Peggy assured her. “I quite prefer Junior Supper, thanks very much.”

“Lucky you are, gel,” Janet said morosely, next to her. She was jabbing at her plate of gammon and spinach with her fork, as if it had done something to offend her. “Perhaps I’ll convert.”

“Gentiles not wanted, thanks. And you’d have to give up Sunday sausages as well.”

“And get lovely free Sunday mornings with no compulsory chapel, and…”

“…and have to do all your prep then because you can’t do it on Saturday? Be careful what you ask for.”

“Beastly Yid.”

“Horrid goy.”

Marianne’s eyes were very wide—she had only come this term, from a smaller school that stopped at Upper Fifth—but no one else was paying attention specially. Peggy and Janet’s routine was a familiar one, going back to Third Form days. Alphabetic happenstance had placed Levy and Lewis next to one another in the IIIA classroom, and chance had found them equally miserable. Peggy, accustomed to her Golders Green day school where Levy was second only to Cohen as the commonest name in the roster, where classes finished early on Fridays in the winter and if you said “my Bubbe” no one stared, felt cut adrift and terrified. Janet was consistently and unflaggingly furious with her parents, whose ill-tempered divorce had sent Janet and her tiddy sister Judy ricocheting off to boarding school. No one, least of all themselves, had much idea how it had happened, but by the end of their first term Peggy and Janet were the most inseparable of friends, and so they had remained right through the present day and the Lower Sixth.

Ann Marlow, who never felt quite comfortable with the way Peggy and Janet teased each other either, engaged Marianne in conversation about letters from home; Peggy took the opportunity to murmur her broche, and bit into the oatcake with a sigh.

 

The Lower Sixth were, on the whole, a musical bunch, much relieved that this year’s Christmas Play had been replaced by an evening of carols. With Ann Marlow at the piano and Vicky Yeo, an organizing type who was a leading light of Miss Usher’s senior chorus, running the show, they were well on the way to producing some very creditable two- and even three-part harmonies in a sequence of conventionally seasonal songs. For the duration, Form Time meant singing practice.

Peggy receded to the side of the classroom with her Geography and a library book, growing adept at tuning out the words while listening with one ear to the melody. She quite liked watching Ann’s anxious face as she fingered the accompaniment on her desk, Vicky chewing unconsciously on her bottom lip while she tried to make it tactfully clear that Susan Malcolm wasn’t as much of a soprano as she thought she was, or Janet momentarily forgetting her impatience with the whole rigmarole to sing a full-throated alto. Occasionally her eyes met Frances Fryer’s, the other odd one out—tone-deaf Frances would be turning Ann’s pages during the performance, and had nothing much to do in rehearsal without a piano. She was making no effort to hide her yawns.

“Would you all be quiet,” Vicky demanded finally, as a debate over the pronunciation of “tabernacles” drew itself out. “Just sing it with a flat a for now, it’s easier to say. We’ll look it up later, or ask Miss Kempe or something. Look, we’ve only got ten minutes left, let’s go through the whole thing once again.”

She was met with sighs and murmurs of resigned obedience, and the Lower Sixth rearranged itself and stood with feet conscientiously shoulder-width apart. Ann opened her folder of music at the first page again. Vicky struck her borrowed tuning-fork briskly against the staff desk, and then paused, leaving the air to resonate.

“Fran, can you stand at the back for a bit and hear how it sounds from there? I want to know if the altos aren’t too loud.”

Frances, in her own desk two over from Ann, looked up peevishly from her book. “Can’t you go yourself? I won’t know the difference anyway. I’m working.”

“You could help out a bit,” Susan said waspishly, still on edge from Vicky’s comments, or else resenting Frances’ increased time to commit to the Physics problem sets over which Sue was regularly to be found panicking. “It’s a form effort after all, we’ve all got to do something.”

“It’s not my fault I can’t sing, is it? You do it, Vee.”

“Vicky can’t,” Connie Davison, another senior chorister, said impatiently. “She’s got one of the biggest voices, if she’s not singing the balance will be completely different. Oh, all right, Fran, be that way. Peggy, can’t you listen from the back and say how it sounds? You’ve got an all right ear.”

Frances retreated to her Physics with undisguised relief. Peggy found her eyes skittering from face to face. Connie, clearly thinking of nothing but getting on with the rehearsal; Vicky, cautiously hopeful; Ann, distressed and uncertain; Janet…

“I’d rather not if you don’t mind, but I will if I must,” she said, before the look on Janet’s face turned into words. “Only, wouldn’t it be better to wait until you rehearse in the theatre anyway? The acoustics will be all different.”

“Peggy’s quite right,” Ann agreed, visibly relieved. “And it will be different with the piano too. Try it anyhow now, Vee, do, Miss Usher can help us with the balance later on.”

“Oh well, all right, if you insist.” Vicky was disinclined to argue with her two form prefects. “Thanks anyway, Pegs. Here’s the A then—“

Peggy and Janet were the last to leave the classroom before dinner, lingering in unspoken collusion, an old habit gauged to allow a little extra privacy in the boarding school hothouse. Others from other classes had done the same, however, as it turned out.

“—and she’s practically running the show for their form’s carols,” in a high nasal voice clearly pitched to carry.

“I thought that was Tim Keith. Being the Headmistress’ Niece and all,” flatter and less interested.

“No, no. Honestly, you would think that was one thing she could leave to someone else, but you know Jew girls, they’ve got to have their fingers in all the pies…”

Peggy was conscious of relaxing consciously, but not of having tensed to begin with. At the other end of the hall, Miranda West’s elegant dark quiff of hair and straight shoulders moved away, still too close not to have heard. Between them were two more girls from the Upper Fourth, one tall and pale and straw-haired and forgettable, the other plump and permed and pleased with herself, a day girl Peggy had scolded more than once for running in late—Rhonda? Lavender? something like that.

Peggy drew breath, and then forgot to let it out as Janet, beside her, took two angry steps forward. “You’re a bit old to be talking like a stupid little girl, Yvonne McGrory,” she said clearly. “Try something new and think a bit before you speak, why don’t you? If you’re capable of doing so, that is.”

“Yes, Janet,” Yvonne—that was it—responded, obedient to prefectly authority but languid enough to make it sound insincere. “Sorry.” Her eyes cut to Peggy and then away.

“I’ll make you sorrier if I hear you sounding like that again. You too, Joanne. Now get a wiggle on, it’s late.”

“Yes, Janet,” again, this time in a tuneless duet. Janet waited aggressively, arms akimbo, until the two UIVB girls had receded down the corridor.

They stood in silence for a moment. Janet, not Peggy, was the one still quivering with anger.

“What a Righteous Gentile you are, Jan,” Peggy said eventually; and, seeing the crease between Janet’s brows deepen further, added “It’s a good thing to be said. It’s about the greatest compliment we’ve got for one of you, really…”

Janet scowled, cleared her throat noisily, and said rather huskily “I don’t know that I care for being one of you. Righteous or otherwise.”

Well, said Peggy silently to herself, we never have liked it much either. But saying it aloud would hold Janet responsible, and she wasn’t, any more than Peggy was herself. P’rhaps they’d have that conversation some other time—in the Upper Sixth—after they’d left, perhaps—

Here they were side by side, both in scarlet uniform skirts and white blouses, identical down to the color of their tights and the pattern of their ties. Nothing to choose between them, except that Janet was a bit taller and wore her hair in a short bob while Peggy’s was in a thick ponytail. They had just the same hair and eye color, dark chestnut brown hair and lighter brown eyes, one of the things that had drawn them together in the early days. Peggy had even thought Janet might be Jewish at first.

“They’re different from us,” her father would say, reviving the old argument with her mother on some pretext or other. “They haven’t been through what we have, they aren’t the same. Pretending to be one of them won’t get you anywhere. They can’t understand us.”

“Old-fashioned,” Peggy’s mother would sniff. “Shtetl thinking. This is England, we’re not in the ghetto any more.”

There had been one other Jewish girl at Kingscote when Peggy first came, Winnie Teichmann, Upper Fifth then, long gone now of course. Then there was Miranda, three forms below. In either case, they didn’t speak more than a senior would speak to a junior in the normal way of things; Peggy had never shared a dorm with either Winnie or Miranda. Sunday mornings not in chapel were spent apart in their separate common rooms. She and Janet had been told off once by Winnie for running in the corridor; she saw Miranda in the library now and then, more often last year. Did she have more in common, inevitably, with either of them—a red-headed hockey player from Manchester, an elegant only child from London Jewish high society—than with her best friend? And if she did, could she bear it?

She imagined herself and Janet walking side by side again, not down the hallway from the Lower Sixth form room to the dormitories, but along Finchley Road, or down some hazily imagined High Street near Janet’s home in Shrewsbury. Jan would be in jeans and a pullover, or perhaps, far enough in the future, a smart business suit with elegant tight skirt—she didn’t know what she wanted to do once she had her PPE degree, but Peggy couldn’t imagine her a content housewife and mother. And she, Peggy—no, Janet might be the only one still calling her Peggy by then. In notice-board lists at school she appeared as F. Levy. (“No, that’s me. My name isn’t Margaret,” was automatic by this point.) On the roster she was Levy, Frances Pearl. At home she was Feyge, after a long-dead cousin; at primary school this had been casually corrupted to Peggy, and it stuck. In temple she was Pnina, when it mattered, but no one called her that in real life.

Feyge, then, on this uncertain but inevitable day in the future. She would be dressed with the proper modesty, in a long skirt and long sleeves, a head scarf or a wig perhaps if she was married by then and if her father’s family’s traditions won out. (Her mother’s family, responsible for her presence at Kingscote, was far more willing to discard the outward markers of Jewishness.) Coloring notwithstanding, they would not look alike any more. They would not be alike any more.

But I don’t want to be her. There was nothing wrong with Janet, with Kingscote, as far as the Gentiles went. It was an interlude, a time when she was not as Jewish, every day, all the time, as she would be for the rest of her life. It would not shape her life the way it did theirs.

Unexpectedly, it was then that the tears pricked her eyes and hurt the back of her throat.

She thought about not going to dinner, about having a headache instead. She did, honestly, get migraines from time to time, but not quite as often as everyone up to and including Matron (but not Janet) supposed; sometimes it was impossible to resist the chance to “have a headache” and gain a little peaceful space of time for herself. Janet was the fighter; Peggy just wanted a quieter life than she had.

Jan wouldn’t always be around to fight for her, though; and her mother was right, the ghettos and the shtetls were gone. Stand up for yourself, Feygele. Maybe you’ll even have a chance to fight on Janet’s behalf one of these days.

“Let’s go and have dinner and show them all what righteous looks like,” she said out loud, reaching for Janet’s hand. “I’m hungry. And it’s roast beef tonight, I shan’t be eating oatcake.”

Janet squeezed her fingers back, hard enough to make her yelp a little, and they set off down the corridor once again, swinging clasped hands.