Throughout her first few weeks at Cherryworth Hill School for Girls, little Elizabeth Greenwich could not focus at all. In English lessons, she kept dropping her pen, and ruining her work with great globules of ink. In Mathematics, her times tables refused to lodge in her mind- and almost every day she earned herself a caning, a thrash on her calves that burnt like a flame and put tears in her little blue eyes. In French, hours were wasted, as none of the words ever made any sense to her at all. In Gymnastics, she couldn’t stop tripping over her own feet, and ended up in the infirmary twice with twisted ankles.
It was September 18th when Effy finally gave up. She lay on her bed- tummy-side down, for the backs of her calves still stung from Mrs Oxford’s latest punishments- cursing over Science coursework, and decided that enough was enough.
Margo’s dorm was on the next floor down from Effy’s. She made her way down the stairs and along the balcony, before knocking twice on the door.
Effy didn’t know the girl who answered, but she said hello anyway.
“What do you want?” asked the girl, looking Effy up and down in a rather arrogant sort of way. “We don’t do coursework anymore, try the third years.”
“Um, I was wondering if I could speak to Margaret Greenwich,” Effy replied.
“Were you now?”
“Margo doesn’t talk to first years. Come back when you’ve grown a little, Thumbelina.”
“Leave her be, Polly,” Margo sighed, appearing behind the girls shoulder. “She’s my sister.” The girl raised her eyebrows, but left them to it. “Now, what did you need?” asked Margo, looking very much like she had somewhere better to be.
“Well,” Effy said, looking at her shoes. “I need your help.”
Miss Oliver was ill in the infirmary, so Margo snuck Effy along the balcony into her thus empty History classroom.
“What’s going on then?” she asked, sitting in Miss Oliver’s chair and crossing her legs in a business-like manner.
Effy fidgeted under her sister’s glare, and once again found her own eyes on her shoes. “I need directions to St Christopher’s.”
“You’ve a boy? Already?” Margo’s mouth gaped open. “You work quicker than me.”
“No!” objected Effy, feeling her cheeks go red at the very thought. “I just wanted to see Tommy. Even for five minutes. I miss him too much. I miss Mamma, and Father, and Robert. But I miss Tommy the most. I miss him every single minute of every single day and I can’t stand it!”
Margo had now closed her mouth, and her face had mellowed into a sad smile.
“I can’t pretend to know how you feel, Effy,” she said. “I was never very close to Robert, and you and Tom always keep yourselves to yourselves. But I’ll see what I can do. Alright?”
Within twenty-four hours, Margo had a map drawn up on paper ripped from her notebook. She also gathered a small silver torch, a butter knife from the Home Economics classroom, and a coat borrowed from Emilia Kipleyson (who was the largest girl in the school). After supper, she took them under pretence of laundry in a bundle of sheets to Effy, who had done her part in the escapade by collecting up all the skipping ropes she could find, and tying them together.
“Whatever are you doing?” asked Victoria, a snobby nosed girl who slept in the bed opposite Effy’s, as she watched Margo leave the dorm.
“Mind your own!” scolded Tabby.
“Something very iffy is going on,” she continued. “I shall tell Miss Brown you know.”
“Miss Brown is as feeble as a house fly,” said Tabby. She was right. Miss Brown was the dorm mistress, the one who sorted out the changing of sheets every Sunday evening, and was to ensure the girls behaved themselves at night. But she was a small woman, and stuttered and flustered like anything if she ever had to confront one of her charges. “She won’t do anything, even if you were to tell her.”
“What about Mrs Dorchester? She would be thrilled to hear of this.”
“I’m going to St Christopher’s,” Effy sighed, tugging at her knots to check they were quite tight enough. “Just for a little while.”
“But you are not allowed a sweetheart!”
“She hasn’t got a sweetheart, you fool!” Tabby’s face grew red in annoyance with it all.
“Then why on earth are you going to St Christopher’s?”
“While I do not have a sweetheart,” said Effy. “I do have a brother. And I miss him very dearly. Very dearly indeed.”
“Do you?” Victoria asked, a little surprised. It was not the fact that Effy had a brother that surprised her; it was the fact that she missed him. “I don’t long for mine in the slightest, it has to be said. He’s a ghastly fellow, really. He’s almost eighteen. He smokes, gambles, and drinks. And he teases me like anything.”
“Well mine is a twin,” said Effy. “And he isn’t ghastly in the slightest.”
“From what you’ve told me,” Tabby said. “He sounds like a darling.”
She then blushed profusely, and kept her mouth shut.
At the price of five rather nice marbles and red hair ribbon, Victoria agreed to let the whole affair drop.
“Infact,” she said, after a moment. “Keep your things. Call it a favour amongst… friends?”
Tabby did not at all look pleased with this new version of events. But Effy and Mary had no problems, and so she didn’t put up a fuss.
The bundle, along with the ropes, was kept hidden under Effy’s bed when Miss Brown came in at half past seven to order them all to bed. She turned off the lamps and shut the curtains, while Effy lay rigid, willing her not to look down. To everyone’s relief, the dorm mistress did not, and left as promptly as she came.
It was ten o’clock before Effy dared get out of bed. She had listened intently, hunched on the ground with her ear pressed to the cold floorboard, to the dwindling footsteps of teachers and sixth years on the floors below, and then left another good half hour or so.
“Come along then Tabby,” she said. But Tabitha was fast asleep, snoring away. “Typical.”
And so Effy was left to set the thing in to motion on her own. Margo had told her exactly what to do- right down to the tiniest of details. Her main point had been to not go out in school uniform, mainly because, if it were damaged, it would cause too much attention in classes come the next day. So Effy had pulled up her weekend socks, and laced up her boots. She took of her nightdress, and replaced it with her least favourite frock- a rather bland peach coloured one bought by her Auntie Constance for her last birthday. Then came Emilia’s coat, which near drowned the girl, and could therefore acts as a cloak, hiding her more from sight. The butter knife was secreted in the sleeve of the dress, which covered her wrist but was much too tight, and held things neatly in place. The torch was put in one of the large coat pockets, and, finally, the rather scribbled map was placed in there too- just in case directions slipped Effy’s mind, as information was till so prone to do.
The moon that night was hidden between thick clouds, and so the dorm remained almost black as pitch when Effy pushed aside the curtains. As she pushed up the window, and let the cool air sting her cheeks, there was a moment of hesitation. There was a moment when she thought about ending the whole escape here, and getting back into bed. But, just through the treetops and the cloud, she saw the buildings of St Christopher’s, and in her mind’s eye came the image of Tommy, sleeping in his bunk, and the hesitation was gone.
Mittens, Effy thought to herself, as she made her perilous descent down the walls of the school, would have been a splendid idea. For her cold little hands ached no end as they grabbed at the coarse rope. Her booted feet were equally as cold, as they lodged themselves on protruding bricks and somewhat steered the drop. But eventually, despite having to jump the last four feet or so when the rope ran out, Effy made the ground in one piece, and a grin of accomplishment tugged at her cheeks. And no teachers had been woken from their much needed beauty sleep, which was a major plus on the whole thing.
However, the hard bit was still to come. Effy- little, tiny, eleven year old Effy- now had to navigate the vast fields that lay between Cherryworth Hill and St Christopher’s. The hill itself was conquered within minutes. Then she switched on her torch, quickly checked the map, and set out into the long crops- each just weeks away from harvest.
An owl hooted in the trees- acres away and yet clear as a whistle in the silence of night. Effy pulled the coat tighter around her shoulders, and looked up at the monotonous grey cubes of St Christopher’s. She took a deep lungful of air, and ploughed on. Her whole body ached already- every molecule, from the hairs of her head to the toes of her feet.
But soon enough, St Christopher’s was reached. There it loomed, even huger in the flesh. Dim lamps cast out golden glows from one or two narrow windows- teachers working late, most probably, for no boy would have the audacity to have a light on after bedtime. Effy stuck close to the cold stone walls, so that she might remain hidden as possible. Her heart beat fast inside her chest- so fast and hard that it boomed in her ears, and she was quite sure it would pump straight through her ribs at any moment. Never has a little girl known true, unadulterated fear, until she stands all alone, in the deep blackness of the midnight hours, in the grounds of a foreign place, the threat of discovery just a quick window-ward glance away.
The gravel crunched terribly. Effy crept like a mouse yet the stones still crackled beneath her boots.
Tommy’s dormitory (‘1B’) was in the West Block, with the rest of his House. Effy closed her eyes for a moment, and recalled Margo’s map. Some details had already blurred in her mind, but it was enough. Dormitory 1B was at the back of West Block, and, thankfully, just one floor up. Effy turned the torch off, for a small light on the top floor of the building illuminated quite enough. Then, ensuring to stay with her back pressed tightly to the walls, crept behind North Block, around the central courtyard, and into the shadows of West.
St Christopher’s was a very old-fashioned school, and still used fireplaces in just about every room. Therefore, large black coal bunkers stood all over the place. Rather conveniently, one such bunker was right beneath the window of 1B. Effy thought it jolly convenient, and with a grateful shade of glee, scrambled up onto the lid.
No curtains hung at the dormitory windows, and when she stood on tiptoe Effy could peer right in. The dorm was far less spacious than the one she knew. It seemed as though hundreds upon hundreds of boys were crammed in- stacked one above the other in grey iron bunk beds. They were all sound asleep- some tossed and turned, others still wore their uniform, but all were most surely asleep. She pressed her nose to the glass and searched the figures for Tommy.
A redhead, two blondes, a couple of brunettes…
Mousy, blonde, not dark enough…
Right colour- too curly…
There he was.
A small boy on a bottom bunk, curled up around his pillow like a baby mouse. Pale skinned, black haired, with a tiny smile on his lips. Oh, Effy could have cried!
She hurried to get the knife from her sleeve, fumbling a little with the hefty coat at first. Her hands shook, but soon the knife was pushed under the window frame. A small silver catch was on the other side and, with just a little experimental wiggling, it gave a satisfying click. The window weighed more than Effy expected, but with a few heaves it slid up, and clicked into place.
A few boys stirred at the noise, and the cool breeze. They twitched their noses, or grunted, or shifted beneath the blankets. But they were all used to noises in the night- the old water boiler that creaked, and the house master downstairs who snored like a dying elephant- so didn’t wake up. With little more than the odd “Oof!” Effy managed to clamber up onto the window sill. Her knees caught on the brickwork, but were already grazed to high heaven, so she didn’t really mind so much.
After a small hop down, Effy’s feet landed on the floorboards. She took another quick look around, and once she had located her brother once more, crept softly along to him.
He looked so frail up close. The strict and meagre school diet had not been kind to him- his elbows stuck out sharply under his thin cotton pyjamas, and his cheekbones protruded harshly.
“Tommy,” Effy whispered, laying a hand gently upon his shoulder. “Tommy it’s me!”
Tommy’s eyes snapped open, and he sat up in a flash. In the blink of an eye, he had grabbed his cricket bat from under the bunk, and held it forth.
“Get out!” he hissed.
Effy’s lip began to tremble. “Bu-but Tommy, it’s me. I only came to see you!”
Tommy blinked, and peered up. It took him another moment before he slowly lowered the bat, and patted the space next to his feet for Effy to sit down. She did so.
“Why on earth are you here?” he asked.
“I miss you,” Effy said. “Why else? I needed to see you.”
Tommy sighed, and shook his head. “You silly thing. Do you not know what they’ll do to you if they find out?”
Effy nodded. “Of course I do. I get caned every day as it is.”
Again, Tommy shook his head.
“How are you?” Effy asked. “Do you like it here?”
“I’m fine,” replied Tommy.
“But do they treat you well?”
Tommy gave an aggressive shush. “Quiet. The house master has ears like you’ll never know.”
Effy did indeed go quiet. A few moments passed before she spoke again. “I’m sorry Tommy.”
Sorry for coming. Sorry for not doing well in school. Sorry for risking you getting into trouble. Sorry for making a fuss. Sorry for being me.
“Don’t be,” Tommy said sincerely. “I’ve missed you so much. It was great to see you. But you can’t risk this again. Never. Alright?”
Effy sniffed. “Alright,” she said tearfully. When Tommy put his thin arms around her, the strength drained from every muscle. She let herself fall into his embrace, close her eyes, and imagine just for a moment that they were back home.
“Greenwich!” came a sudden gasp. Tommy dropped Effy like a hot stone.
“It’s not what you think Wiggins,” he groaned, his face crumpling into creases of frustration.
“You’ve got a sweetheart!”
Effy looked to the bunk beside Tommy’s, where a boy stood in total disbelief. He was quite short, with mousy hair in a neat basin cut, and dark brown eyes.
“No, I haven’t…”
“She’s very pretty,” Wiggins continued. “How on earth did you get her?”
Effy felt her cheeks burn red. Barely had she even spoken to a boy who wasn’t her brother, let alone been called ‘pretty’ by one.
“Um, I’m really not his sweetheart,” she said. The initial annoyance of yet another assumption that she and Tommy were in some sort of relationship was clouded by her blushes, and she found herself speaking to Wiggins in a tone not half as harsh as she had intended. “Honestly.”
“Oh,” said Wiggins. Then after a moment, “Who are you then?”
“She’s my sister,” Tommy replied. “Now go to bed will you.”
“Oh,” Wiggins said again. He was a most eloquent person, Effy could tell. There was another pause. “Do you have a sweetheart?” he asked Effy. She blushed again.
“No,” she said.
“Wiggins!” Tommy hissed in outrage. “Go to bed.”
The boy huffed. “Bye then, um… I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Effy,” she answered. Wiggins smiled a little.
“Oh. I’m Jack.”
“It was very nice to meet you.”
Effy chuckled. “I’d better go,” she said. “I’ve stayed too long already.”
“Yes,” Tommy sighed. “You probably have. It was lovely to see you again, but goodness knows what trouble you’ll be in.”
Effy shrugged. “It’ll be fine. They rarely check on us. No one will know I was gone.”
Hugs were again shared between the twins, and Effy said a rather shy goodbye to Jack, before leaping from the window- Tommy closing it behind her- and making her way back to bed.
Effy had jogged across the fields on the return journey, and sped up the hill. She reached the school without problems¸ to her utter relief, and began to haul herself up the skipping ropes.
Effy look down, tentatively, over her shoulder, to see a rather disgruntled Mrs Oxford, standing on the ground in her silk dressing gown and curlers.
“Just what on earth do you think you are doing?”
Yet no excuse came to mind.
“GET DOWN THIS INSTANCE!!”
It was fifty lashings of the cane, extra hours in the chapel, a lack of desert for a month, and all free time for a term spent helping Miss Brown with the housework before Mrs Oxford finally let the whole escapade go.
Yet she still gave Effy a glare whenever they passed in the corridor.