A knot of anxiety pressed at Hildegarde's stomach, and her hands still ached from earlier – Mrs Humphreys had paddled her when she saw the gap in her portfolio, thrice on the palms, thrice on the knuckles.
“We’re posting the lot tomorrow,” she’d said, her face patchy with rage. “If you want to ruin your chances, that’s your lookout.”
It was her lookout.
Hildegarde’s sat up, the bedsprings creaking softly beneath her. Dante’s essay still sat on her bedside table, unfolded now and angled towards her. The paper – crisp, good quality, better than the stuff in their school notebooks – crackled as she lifted it. She got to her feet, felt her way towards the door and went downstairs.
In the kitchen, she lit a stub of candle – Grumps-Humps would belt her all over again if she caught her wasting electricity – and sat down at the table with Dante’s essay on her left and one of her notebooks on the right. She twiddled a pen, squinting over Dante’s copperplate. The candlelight was warm down her left hand. She read the essay again. And again.
She put her pen to the notebook. Interests. Hobbies. What was she good at? Backchat. Making trouble. Breaking into the attic. She didn’t think any of these things would endear her to degas. Then again, she didn’t have any clue what endeared degas in the first place.
A memory drifted back to her – Mr Loxley, calling her ‘sharp’. She liked the way that sounded. She leaned over her notepaper and wrote:
My name is Hildegarde and I am sharp.
She sat back in her chair again. Next to Dante’s flowing hand, her handwriting was a spidery scrawl. She ripped the sheet of notepaper away and tried again, printing more slowly.
I am Hildegarde and I will make a fantastic posie because I am sharp.
No, that sounded stupid. How about—
Hi, I’m Hildegarde and I’m sharp as a tack.
What even was a tack? She ripped the sheet out, balled it up and threw it. Heart thumping now, she lifted Dante’s statement and read through it again, her finger tracing the words as if she might find new meaning trapped between the lines. But there were no chinks in the armour, no gaps; the sentences fitted seamlessly, curling tight around each other and flowing together so stupidly, stupidly well—
And then her grip had tightened around the essay, her hands poised to wrench downwards, rip the whole stupid thing into bits. Hildegarde felt the urge pressing up through her, the same way it had at the lunch, when she’d almost asked Thelsadore where her posie was. Her knuckles were white.
“Hilde? What are you doing up?”
Hildegarde dropped the essay as if scalded. Louise stood in the kitchen doorway, hair hanging loose, her massive nightgown making her look like an overblown lily. She stepped towards the table, pulling the essay towards her with one finger.
“That’s been written up lovely. Is it your statement?”
“No,” Hildegarde said.
And then she burst into tears.
She hadn’t cried for years, not even when she tripped running down the stairs and cut her head on the shoe rack, and she seemed to have forgotten how to do it properly. She was gulping air, heaving up sobs, and the tears wouldn’t stop even when she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. Louise, she realised dimly, was talking to her.
“…don’t cry, no need to cry,” she was saying. “I’m not angry at you! Though of course- I mean, you should be in bed, and I don’t think Matron Salma would want you using up the candles – but never mind, obviously! Ignore that! What’s upsetting you?”
Explanations slid out of Hildegarde’s grip. The posie’s face flashed in her mind, melting into Thelsadore’s mask, then into the long, biting comments on her school report, then into Dante’s perfect handwriting, all of it crushing against her like a vice. She shook her head and cried harder.
“How about I- I’ll tell you a joke, shall I, see if I can cheer you up?” Louise said, a little desperately. “My brother told me good one the other day. It goes like...okay, so there’s a blonde lady in New York, and she goes to a bank and says…hang on, I can’t remember what she— she’s got a very expensive motorcar, and she wants to take out a loan. Then she…she takes out a loan and they keep the car and…it’s supposed to be a bit of a twist on those blonde jokes, and it basically ends up—oh, I’m lousy at this. It’s funny the way my brother says it. I’ll have to ring him up and get him to tell you.”
She fumbled in the breast pocket of her nightgown and found a flowery hankie, which she held out to Hildegarde the way you might offer food to a wild animal. Hildegarde took it, breathing in its soft peppermint smell. Within a minute or two, she felt calmer.
“So,” Louise said awkwardly. “What’s up? Is it about your statement?”
“Sort of,” Hildegarde mumbled. She flicked one of her balled-up attempts onto the floor. “Humphreys is sending them tomorrow and I’ve not done any of mine. Everything I write sounds stupid. I don’t know what to put.”
“Well, you can just write about your hobbies and your interests, can’t you?”
“Why, though?” Hildegarde said, more aggressively than she intended. “I don’t get it. What’s it matter if I like watching birds or- or anything? What’s it got to do with being a posie?”
Louise nibbled her lip. “I don’t suppose you really need to get it, as long as you—”
“No,” Hildegarde said, and something flared in her – she had to ask this, had to find an answer. “I want to understand it. Because everyone here gets to be a posie, don’t they? When they’re old enough. But nobody even tells us what a posie’s supposed to do.”
She wondered if this, perhaps, was the question that had been boiling in her since she’d seen that posie in the bathroom – or maybe longer still, though she’d always drowned it out with birds and bad behaviour and her own voice. She’d always been hurtling towards this fate. She’d watched the older children disappear from the House, swept north or south to be posies, and had known since toddlerhood that she would follow in their footsteps if she was good and lucky enough. But nobody had ever stopped to tell her what it would involve, outside of wearing nice clothes and hanging from a degas’ arm.
Louise was nibbling her lip again.
“I don’t know lots about it,” she said. “But you’ll act sort of like a personal assistant. Very…what’s the word? Attentive. You'll look after their needs, run little errands for them, stay at their side.”
Hildegarde thought of the degas they’d seen on their way to the school, holding out a gloved hand as their posie climbed from the motorcar. She thought of Thelsadore bowling down the street, arm entwined with Heidi’s.
“But that’d make posies like servants,” she said slowly. “And they don’t treat them like servants.”
“No, not really,” Louise said. She fiddled with the crucifix around her neck. “Degas do like to – to make pets of their posies, you could say. They’ll treat you lovely – all the clothes you’ll get, the food and the parties.” She swallowed. “They don’t got family, degas, not the way people have, so you’ll be the closest friend they’ve got. They’ll tell you all their secrets and trust you to keep them.”
Hildegarde leaned forwards on her hands. “I still don’t get why they need a human for that. Can’t degas be posies?”
“Not really,” Louise said, a bit too quickly. “Look, it’s sort of- degas aren’t human, you’ve got to remember. And though they’re clever as a cartload of monkeys and they’ve got all that magic at their fingertips, they’re not very good at understanding emotions. It’s hard for them to move in human circles, see, because they don’t always know how to act, or how other people will act.” Her voice lowered a notch. “That’s what a posie’s for, really. They need a human to tell them – to advise them on how to behave, because they’re not good at knowing on their own.”
Hildegarde was silent, trying to fit the information around everything else she knew. Thelsadore had seemed to know exactly how to behave, even though Heidi had been absent for most of the meal. But maybe she was practiced enough at conversation to not need her all the time. Maybe Heidi had already taught her everything she needed to know…
“Think of it like – like you and Dante, maybe,” Louise said. “You’re really very different, but you balance each other out, don’t you? That’s what a posie does for a degas. They help them be their best self.”
Hildegarde said nothing for a little while longer. It seemed to fit well enough, except…
“There’s something else I don’t get,” Hildegarde said, all in a rush. “When I- when we were at that meal a few weeks ago, I went into the bogs and I saw Thelsadore’s posie standing at the mirrors. She was sort of- she’d got all these boutique bags she’d got for Thelsadore, and she was getting ready and stuff, but she looked really blank, like she was half asleep or something. And then she just smiled really suddenly and didn’t let it drop.” Hildegarde clenched her fingers around the pen. “It was like she’d just pinned it on or something.”
Perhaps it was a trick of the dimming lamplight, but Hildegarde thought she saw Louise’s eyes flicker.
“Well, I think we all feel like that sometimes,” she said. “If she’d been shopping, she might’ve been tired and worn out, but – well, it was a lunch, wasn’t it? She had to be polite and look friendly. It’s the same for you, isn’t it? You probably went to that lunch feeling scared and sick, but you had to smile and curtsey because you’re a polite little girl.” Louise gave her a small smile. “We all have to do things we don’t feel in the mood for sometimes.”
Hildegarde considered, twiddling the pen. It was an answer, but it didn’t ease the itch at the back of her mind.