‘The rudeness of those Middle School children beggars belief!’ someone was saying in a particularly annoying nasal voice, and Jan, perched on the windowsill with a book, raised her eyes to see the new Head Girl walk into the Sixth Form common room and immediately settle herself into the best chair. She was closely followed by a couple of their fellow Upper VI types and Lois Sanger of all people, who arranged themselves around Val on the mismatched chairs and stools which ended up here from various corners of the school, nodding and murmuring their agreement.
Jan eyed the new Games Captain, who looked as though she was sucking on a particularly sour boiled sweet but at the same time appeared somewhat delighted about the eyes. Of course, Lois was a Big Name now, wasn’t she, and quite good enough to befriend the Head Girl. Jan hid a smile in her book.
‘Well naturally,’ Lois was saying in her smooth way, not at all phased by her audience, ‘It was Nicola Marlow. One has to make allowances for family loyalty compromising her judgement, I suppose.’
Ah, this was about how Rowan wasn’t Games Captain after all, and Lois was. Had Nicola said something? Jan, nose still in her book, kept an eye and two ears fixed on the group as they chatted in case they revealed anything about the why. She’d been pondering this herself ever since she’d seen the list, barely an hour ago, and maybe also not-quite-waiting here to see if Rowan made an appearance, because of course one wondered if she was okay…
Just then one of Lois’s Lower VI friends walked in – Angela? Andrea? – flapping noisily. Honestly, Jan thought, barely even pretending to read now. She seemed to remember not creeping in, exactly, but certainly entering with caution the first time she’d come to the common room as a new member of the Sixth. This batch of Lower VI seemed to have no respect for the wishes of their Elders to read and eavesdrop on the odd conversation in peace.
‘Lois,’ Angela/Andrea was saying, quite pink all over. ‘I saw. Congrats, you do deserve it.’
‘Thank you.’ Lois smiled, clearly gratified. ‘I didn’t think I had a hope.’
And so you wouldn’t have, thought Jan, if not for whatever Rowan’s done to upset them. It was then that a terrible idea struck her for the first time, and she pushed it away quickly, heat rising into her cheeks. But no one could possibly know, could they? No. Of course they couldn’t. There was nothing to know, for one thing. Well, almost nothing.
‘Rowan’s left,’ Angela said then, and she sounded positively gleeful. ‘Taking over the family farm or something, I overheard young Nicola telling Miranda in the corridor.’
It was important not to get up at once, just in case some bright spark – not that the Sixth contained many – connected that last sentence with her departure. Instead Jan sat very still, casually turned the page and stared at text that swam before her eyes.
‘I knew she’d left, but farming? Oh really.’ Lois laughed, and it was obvious to Jan, if no one else, that Lois considered potential Games Captain to mere farmer a very great fall indeed.
‘Well, I did not see that coming,’ commented Val. ‘I suppose she had to, for whatever reason. What did Nicola say, Angela?’
‘Oh, not much. I got the impression she was holding back a little. Sounded very family, if you know what I mean.’
‘Yes,’ Val nodded. The conversation moved on, and now it was safe to leave, Jan thought, which was good, because she very much needed to be away from people.
She closed her book and got up, drifting away and out into the corridor, which was empty just at that moment. She took the opportunity to slip across and into an empty classroom, closing the door quietly behind her.
She turned the key – a monstrous crime if discovered, but who would think to check today? – and settled down on the edge of a desk. The classroom was only dimly lit by sunshine filtering through the lowered blinds, and still unnaturally spick and span from the pre-holiday scrub. More importantly it provided a rare solitude, which was what she needed more than ever just now.
So Rowan had left, to run a farm of all things. Jan could quite well imagine her lifting great forkfuls of hay and hauling lambs around, or whatever one did, just as last term she’d wielded a cricket bat or dragged twenty five tennis rackets in each hand into the games cupboard while Jan walked alongside, carrying two and laughing at herself.
She hadn’t realised she would miss it until now.
They’d never been friends exactly, just met in teams. The things she knew about Rowan were the same things everyone else knew; she was brilliant at games, exuded confidence, was occasionally blunt, friendly but not affectionate, and often kind in an off-hand, almost gruff way, especially to those younger than herself.
But there was just that one extra thing that she knew about Rowan, that they knew about each other in fact, that was far from public knowledge. Jan had never actually told her in so many words, though. They hadn’t needed to, in the end.
It had only happened a handful of times, but the first had been years ago, which made it feel like more. Perhaps only two years, Jan corrected herself, although that still meant it had been a rather precocious fifteen-year-old Rowan who had persuaded her into the games cupboard that first time, with a look in her eyes that told Jan she knew exactly what she was doing and there was to be no argument. Jan hadn’t wanted to try anyway.
How very Rowan though, to just up and leave, displaying no apparent sentimental attachment to a place that had been her home for eight years. She’d been poised to become Games Captain for almost as long. Didn’t she care, about any of it?
Apparently not, Jan thought, pulling her knees up to rest her feet on the desk chair and wrapping her arms around them. Probably Rowan hadn’t minded leaving it all behind her. She prodded that a little, to see if it stung.
Maybe it wasn’t supposed to hurt. They’d never actually been anything, of course. It was impossible to travel that road in a girl’s school, or at least at Kingscote. Crushes were perfectly fine up to a point, one that Miranda had probably passed, Jan thought, not for the first time. After that one was expected to leave such nonsense behind and become very, very serious about one’s schoolwork until one had left. Then perhaps, once in a job or at university, one might consider stepping out occasionally with a nice young man, and not before.
Rowan wouldn’t be doing that. Farming was a full time job, surely, no time left for meeting eligible bachelors – except perhaps other farmers, who would not be at all suitable for a middle class Marlow daughter. Had she done it on purpose? Jan rested her chin on her knee. It was an idea. But maybe it wasn’t even that complicated. Maybe – for whatever reason – there just hadn’t been anyone else handy for the job. There were brothers, she remembered, but one was Navy and the other presumably too young. And certainly farming wasn’t Karen Marlow’s thing. Jan managed a smile at that idea.
She pictured Rowan again, alone on a tractor, surveying her land, perhaps. Would she be happy? She’d never seemed to enjoy school all that much, having no real friends that Jan could identify while at the same time being one of the school’s successes, good at exams, excellent at all games, seamlessly fitting in without drawing undue attention to herself. They were quite similar in some ways, although of course, Jan thought wryly, with no trace of false modesty, Rowan had been far better than her at all of it. But then, it was difficult to care much about fitting in at school when one had enough to worry about at home.
At least there was only one year left to get through, although the shine on it had slightly diminished now. Maybe it was time she tried to cooperate a little more, now that the only person who actually understood her a little was no longer here. Jan sighed. There was also Miranda to consider. Once she had entertained the idea that they could be friends - of a kind - but for now at least it was impossible. The age gap was too great and Miranda’s feelings too fragile. More than this, her freshly chosen new best friend was one Nicola Marlow, who from what Jan had seen so far, was essentially a miniature Rowan.
It was getting dark, and sudden loud voices outside in the corridor broke into Jan's thoughts, bringing her out of herself and back into the gloomy classroom. She got up, stretched and went to the door, aware of her rumbling stomach. She put her hand on the key and paused for a moment, considering.
She could do something there, perhaps. Nicola and Lawrie had got into a fair number of scrapes in their first year, from what Jan had heard and Rowan had rather worriedly confided on occasion. Nicola was clearly a favourite of Rowan’s, and no wonder if they were so similar. Jan was certainly not the type to go wading in where things did not concern her, but it was possible to keep an eye – even just half an eye – from a distance, and see what one might do to help. And there was the remote possibility that Nicola might mention this to Rowan at some point, and remind her sister of Jan’s existence...
It wasn’t much, but aside from actually writing – and what on earth would one say? – there didn’t seem much else she could do for now. It would have to suffice.