Pam never really regretted being kept down, even though the work was too easy for her in the lower form. She knew herself to be, at heart, entirely uninteresting, and her previous form was quite the most interesting in the school. The O'Sullivan twins, who had started off so badly but become, with their bright smiles and subtle Irish charm, in some way the heart of the school as well as joint heads; the Honorable Angela Favorleigh, who was without a doubt the prettiest girl Pam had ever seen, even if she secretly preferred dark beauty; wickedly charmingly Claudine and dashing Bobby, who held the hearts of a good deal of the lower school in her sunburned hands; and Carlotta, who everyone knew but very few people could remember had been briefly Pam's friend.
Pam remembered, even though it had been years ago now. Each time she saw Carlotta's dark flashing eyes, heard her laughter, too loud for an English schoolgirl, caught that wild mane of hair at the edge of her vision, she remembered. Carlotta had been kind, and for a few weeks at least Pam had been close to some kind of flickering, intense magic, worlds apart from her normal school life. She clung to the memory even now, a splash of vivid red in her dull life.
But Carlotta belonged to the higher form and their chosen few. Pam knew herself too plain, too dull to belong to such brilliant company. Amidst the golden girls of the school, she had simply disappeared from view.
In the lower form, Pam was almost someone special. More clever and studious, if not older, than the other girls. They had made her head of the form despite her shy protestations, and she had tackled it in the only way she knew how, earnestly and conscientiously, and it had seemed to work, somehow, well enough that she stayed head of form each time she was promoted. Her cheeks were pink and prickled with heat each time she had to take the lead, but her eyes shone behind her thick glasses. The mistresses nodded together and remarked on how that little Pamela had blossomed once she was given some responsibility and discouraged from studying quite so hard. Shrinking violets, they said wisely, often did.
Pam suspected that even a violet was too spectacular for herself, even if she secretly hankered after something more luminous and exotic.
"That silly Carlotta! Again she has left her hair clip by her desk. I say to myself, this Carlotta, she is nearly grown-up and she is with my so-good Claudine, she will learn to stop behaving like a first form baby. But look!" Mam'zelle waved a clip in the air, so wildly that Pam had to repress the urge to duck in case it flew over her head. "Claudine would never let her hair fly about like a golliwog."
"No, Mam'zelle," Pam agreed, somewhat absentmindedly. She couldn't imagine the mistress' niece looking otherwise than having come out of a band box. But then, she couldn't quite imagine why it hurt her so that Carlotta had chosen Claudine as a study mate. After all, she had to choose someone, and she and Carlotta were both outsiders of a kind in this very English school. But - Claudine! Carlotta was so passionate, so true and so wild. Pam simply couldn't imagine what she'd see in such a purely artificial creature as the demure Claudine.
"Do you want me to take the clip to Carlotta's study?" she said.
Mam'zelle beamed at her. "Always you are a good girl, Pamela. You do not scatter ribbons and clips about you, and you do not hang upside down from the staircase like a monkey, showing everyone what should remain hidden."
"Er... no, Mam'zelle," Pam said, wondering of Carlotta had in fact done such a thing lately or if it came from Mam'zelle's heated imagination. She held out her hand and received the clip, along with a flood of messages to heap onto Claudine's uninterested lap.
She walked quickly to the Sixth form studies, trying not to think about what Carlotta's monkey tricks. Her heart beat a little faster, with what she supposed was envy. What would it be like to be Carlotta, unafraid of what anyone thought, ready at a moment's notice to flame out into the pure joy of her body, her agile strength and grace? Pam's own body only seemed marginally under control at most times, moving heavily and reluctantly to her will. The effortless way Carlotta swung herself around seemed like frightening, fascinating magic by comparison.
She knew she had no right to accept Mam'zelle's praise. True, volunteering to do anything a mistress wanted had become unthinking habit, but Pam was honest enough to admit to herself that she simply wanted to see Carlotta alone. Perhaps, she told herself, her heart speeding up a fraction more, Carlotta would be in a nostalgic mood, enough to remember that they were friends. They could have tea together, and now they were both older, perhaps their friendship could reestablish itself. She chided herself for being silly. Now Carlotta had the exotic Claudine, she would not care to take up again with a dull, well-behaved girl from a lower form. Nevetheless, her steps quickened as she gained the door, and then she stood unmoving a long time, frozen as if she was a lower form babe aspiring to tennis teams and reporting to the terrifying Mirabel for her fate.
Stupid, stupid. She was simply knocking on the door of another girl, not two years older than herself, to return one of her possessions. She was head girl of the Fifth, for heaven's sake. Her knuckles touched the wood of the door, once, twice, with ridiculous timidity.
There was no response, and Pam felt a little sick inside, even though some of it was with relief. She knocked again, deciding that it wasn't answered, she'd turn the handle. If it was locked, she'd come back later, and if not, she could just slip inside and leave it. Better that way. Someone like Carlotta had no place in her life for someone as colourless as Pam, and it was better not to court hurt feelings over casual thanks and dismissal.
The handle turned, and Pam swallowed and pushed the door open.
There was a sudden flurry of skirts inside the room, and a sharp exclamation in Spanish. Pam was in time to see Carlotta leap to her feet and stumble a step backwards, away from the girl in the chair. Pam stared, not quite sure what she had seen. Claudine was seated demurely, ankles crossed and hair neat and shining enough to please her aunt, but Carlotta's hair was loose and disrupted, and her face glowed red.
"I - you didn't answer..." Pam could her face heating in response to Carlotta's own blushes. She was still not quite sure what she had stumbled on, but she felt quite queer, hot and tight and somewhat dizzy, a strangle prickling deep within. Carlotta never looked like that, agonised and guilty, and something about Claudine's smug smile felt like it dragged across Pam's breastbone. She lifted the clip. "I came to return this."
Carlotta stared blankly at it, then her dark eyes refocused. They still seemed quite unlike her own fiery expression, blank and confused. "My hairclip." She patted her loose masses of hair, the movement odd and jerky. "Thanks."
"You are in time for tea, ah...?"
"Pamela," Carlotta filled in, mechanically.
"But I forget. I am to have tea with the twins and Bobbee." Claudine placidly rose to her feet, unnecessarily straightening her tunic. "I think of other things, and that is bad, because Bobbee ordered little cakes. Perhaps you will keep Carlotta company?" She gave Pam an elfin sideways glance, full of meaning that Pam was powerless to decipher, and traipsed unhurriedly out of the room.
"I'm sorry." Pam began to back after her, the clip still clasped in her hand.
"No, don't go!" There was a plea in Carlotta's voice, and Pam was as incapable of resisting as if it had been an order for the mistress. Carlotta looked so desperate and unlike herself that Pam had the insane desire to wrap her in her arms. Or slap her, as she had heard Carlotta had slapped Mirabel for the sake of Allison. Pam had dreamed that night of Carlotta, bright and raging, defending her from unknown attackers.
She held onto the clip so tight it almost cut her hand, as Carlotta made the tea. Pam knew Carlotta, so graceful when it came to gymnastics, was clumsy in small domestic tasks, but even so the way the liquid slopped from side to side was alarming. She wanted quite desperately to comfort her, but she knew something was wrong, something about what she had seen, and the sense of wrongness held her back. She couldn't stop thinking of what she had seen. Carlotta had been so close to Claudine, almost in her lap, and surely there was nothing odd about that -- she had sprung back as if she'd been caught doing something purely wicked. Pam shivered, and wondered why.
They didn't speak until the tea had been poured, and Pam cautiously sipped hers. She never took sugar, for fear of adding to the burdens of her looks with spots, and Carlotta had heaped in three. Pam hadn't liked to say anything.
"I suppose you think I'm disgusting," Carlotta said, swirling her own spoon in her tea.
"No!" Pam still had no idea what was wrong, but she was sure of this thing.
"You don't, do you?" Carlotta stared at her, as if she could see to the back of Pam's head. "You always were a loyal little friend."
"I'm always your friend," Pam said softly. "You can talk to me, you know. I don't tell tales." It was the same thing she told girls in her own form when they came to her in trouble. Carlotta responded to it just as well, unless it was the desperate sincerity she responded to.
"You're such a nice kid, Pam. You know, I'm not used to secrets and lies." Carlotta's voice was shaking as much as her hand, but the words flooded out anyway. "Not since I first came here, and I hated it then. And I still don't think it's so very wrong, I wouldn't do anything if it thought it was dishonorable, but Claudine... she makes it seem so... wrong. Like a game, not important, but wicked."
Pam stared wordlessly back at her. She had no idea what Carlotta was talking about, or the name of the emotions surging about her, only that in her hopeless confusion she wanted to make Carlotta feel better, and didn't know how. The clip was hurting her hand, but somehow it seemed hopelessly awkward to drop it on the table.
"I wouldn't mind at all if I thought she cared for me. That's the worst of it. She doesn't seem to care a pin for anyone, not even her own sister. Not even me."
Pam abruptly wanted to cry. She opened her mouth to reassure Carlotta that no one could help caring for her, but instead asked: "Do you care for her?"
Carlotta laughed, a tight brittle laugh entirely unlike her usual loud laughter, and said something in Spanish. "I don't quite know. Perhaps. Or perhaps I am simply lonely?"
"How can you be lonely? Everyone likes you," said Pam, with the passion of someone who had never really been liked.
"That's not what I mean! Pam, I wish you'd stayed in our form." Pam's eyes widened a little behind her glasses to hear what she'd wanted Carlotta to say but hadn't imagined she would. If only Carlotta hadn't said it so bitterly. "With a friend like you, I might have stayed straight."
"I don't believe you could be anything else! If Claudine is making you be dishonest, then stop!" The unshed tears clogged Pam's voice. " I believe you could. I - I care for you."
Carlotta stood suddenly, and crossed two steps to Pam. She put her hands on the younger girl's shoulders and looked down into her face, with furious intensity. Her eyes were very much her own now, burning in the vivid little face. So lovely... Pam's dizziness increased as Carlotta's hands tightened and her face lowered towards Pam's own. Something... something was going to happen, something to do with Claudine and the fuss in the room, something that made Pam's heart painful in her chest, beating hard with apprehension and something she couldn't define. She closed her eyes, and felt the warmth of Carlotta's breath flutter across her lips as Carlotta's hands clenched and clenched again on her shoulders.
Then warmth and pain were gone, and Pam opened her eyes to see Carlotta halfway across the room. She closed her eyes again, bereft.
"Don't worry," Carlotta said. "I won't play Claudine's silly games again. Pam?"
"Yes?" Pam managed.
"Do you think you could come visit sometimes? That we could be friends again?"
"I'll come often. I promise."
The disappointment faded, replaced with reckless happiness. Pam drained the tea cup and stood. "I need to go now... I'm watching the first form at prep. But I'll come see you tomorrow, if that's not too soon?"
Carlotta smiled at her, the old outflashing of joy that Pam remembered. Before she quite knew what she was doing, she'd stood on tiptoe and kissed Carlotta's cheek.
Carlotta could not have been more stunned if Pam had pulled her own trick and slapped her across the face. "Pam... do you mean...?"
Pam bit her lip, not sure at all what Carlotta was asking. "I - I'll see you tomorrow?" She waited for Carlotta to change her mind after the unasked-for kiss.
"Tomorrow, then." Carlotta grabbed Pam and hugged her once, hard. "Tomorrow!"
Pam fled, fighting the urge to giggle with pure happiness. Outside in the hallway, she unclasped her fingers, looking down at what she was holding. She'd forgotten all about her errand.
Oh, well. She didn't understand much else of what had happened, but she knew she'd give Carlotta back her clip.