When they left for school an hour later, Dante was quiet. He’d been quiet all through breakfast, stirring his porridge without eating it, scrunched up small on the bench. Matron Salma had crammed him between Darren and Walt to act as a buffer, but the two boys kept reaching across him to slap each other and have aggressive thumb wars. He’d ended up with juice knocked down his front.
He was still sticky now, trailing behind Hildegarde as she hopped down the zigzagging steps to the garden gate. She chatted as she walked, pointing at telephone wires, roofs opposite, trees lining the road, counting up a tally of the birds she spotted.
“You look too,” Hildegarde said, digging Dante in the ribs with her elbow. “I want to beat my record.”
At her best, she’d seen 56 birds in one day, the bulk of which had been pigeons (they’d had a rare trip to the city). Dante usually acted as a second lookout. Now, his eyes were on the pavement.
“You’re not going to see any down there,” Hildegarde said, grabbing his cheeks and tilting his face upwards.
His eyes were wet. She released her hands.
“Ooh, did I elbow you too hard?” she said. “You can do it back if you want. Go on, really whack me!”
She spread her arms out, making a target of herself, but Dante pushed a fist across his eyes and shook his head. She let her arms drop.
“What is it, then?”
“Nothing,” Dante said, pushing past her.
Hildegarde had to scurry to keep up. “Even you don’t cry at nothing. Is it school? Did Jordan—”
“No, it’s not—”
“Then what? Darren and Walt? They didn’t mean to knock the juice over, but I’ll give them a thump next time they start—”
“Yes, and then you’ll get paddled for it!” Dante said, rounding on her. He gave her a small push. “Why are you like this? You just get into trouble and they smack you and you act like you don’t even care. You just do it all over again, like this morning.”
His eyes were brimming, an angry flush pooling over his cheeks. Hildegarde’s mouth turned dry.
“What’s it matter?” she said. “She whacked me, not you. And she didn’t even do it that hard.”
Dante rubbed his eyes under his glasses. “She said nobody would have you. I heard it.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like she means it,” Hildegarde said. She poked his shoulder, making him stumble a little. “You’re such a worryguts.”
He batted her hand away. “But what if she does? They’ll be looking for positions for us by now. If you don’t get one, what then?”
Hildegarde opened her mouth to laugh, to say that she had loads of time to become a goody-goody like him, to call him a little old woman with the glasses to match, but something doused the words. They’d turned twelve last August, both of them. Since Florence left, they’d been the oldest children at the House. And now her brain drifted back to those outfits: the daffodil silk and the black suit, cut to children’s sizes…
“You need to stop flapping,” she said, after a beat. “I’ll be extra nice and help her do all the washing up later. Then I bet she won’t even tell old Grump-Humps about the attic. Okay?”
It took Dante a moment to nod. They carried on walking, twisting down the steep roads into the cramped sprawl of the village centre, where motorcars hummed and horses clopped and the emporiums were just starting to wake up. Neither of them spoke much, except to keep track of the bird tally, though Hildegarde’s attention kept drifting from the trees and telephone masts where they usually clustered. She’d never understood why Dante got so upset on her behalf. When they’d been very little, he’d cried if the matrons so much as shouted at her, even though the words slid right off her. Louise had fancied that it was because of a psychic twin connection.
“Or maybe God just messed the proportions up when He made you both,” she’d said, kneading pastry. “You get all the guts, while Dante gets enough tears and manners for the both of you.”
Cast away with her thoughts, Hildegarde didn’t notice the motorcar rumbling up to the curb until Dante held a hand out to stop her. They’d left the village centre now, meandering down the long, oak-flanked road that led to the school. Here, the houses were cliff-white and ivy-snarled, fronted by broad gardens and rippling ponds. A place for the retired, the landowning, the rich.
And the degas.
They were about six feet from where the motorcar stopped, and watched quietly as the driver scuttled out to open the back door for the passengers. First came the degas, whose name Hildegarde didn’t know. She’d seen them on her way to school before – she recognised the embroidered gown, the headscarf, the mask the colour of ivory. They held out a gloved arm as a girl climbed out after them. She was fair-haired, dressed in green, just a few years older than Hildegarde herself.
Hildegarde watched as she linked her arm through the degas’, as the pair of them ambled through the gate and into the garden. Dante kept his head bowed, as per custom. Enough manners for the both of you.
When they had disappeared behind the gate, he lifted it again, and they set off walking without comment. Halfway down the street, he pointed out a pair of magpies to her, but Hildegarde hardly heard. She kept thinking about the girl’s arm nestled in the crook of the degas’, her fine dress and spun-sugar hair.
“Race you to school,” she blurted. “Last one there has to do the other’s maths homework for a week.”
Then she set off running, until the burn in her lungs blanketed everything.
Because it was a comprehensive, all of the teachers at Hildegarde’s school were human beings, and she didn’t rate any of them. Mrs Lipsett took her for maths. She had appropriately puffy fish lips that she liked to purse whenever Hildegarde did something impertinent – which was always, apparently. Mr Mosely took her for English, and he had a nervous voice and permanent damp patches under his arms. There were a flurry of other teachers for history and geography and games, whose names she would deliberately mix up just to irritate them. She wasn’t academically promising, they had decided.
Dante was. She’d meant to ‘encourage’ him into doing her history homework for her, but between the lock-picking and the clothes and his teary outburst, it had slipped her mind. Ten minutes into the first lesson, this earned her a slippering. She took it with the same nonchalance as the paddling earlier, then rubbed the soreness from her hands under the desk, watching through the window for birds.
Again, again, again, her brain looped back to the yellow dress, to how soft it had felt under her fingertips. She could feel a bumpy row of questions at the back of her mind like a line of stiches. To unpick one would free another – better to never ask, to just pile other thoughts in front of it, but there never seemed to be enough. She thought of that weird story about the princess and the pea, and how it—
The slipper slapped the desk, making her jump. She looked up into the face of Mr Peters, who was actually Mr Andrews, but she hadn’t called him that for weeks.
“Am I distracting you, Sneal?”
His eyes were almost lost under the bush of his frowning monobrow. In the corner of her eye, she could see Dante giving her one of his pleading looks.
“No,” she said. “You’ve got my full attention, sir.”
“I have?” he said. “So I suppose, seeing as you were listening so closely, you can tell the whole class about Anschluss?”
“It was a World War Two thing, wasn’t it?” Hildegarde said. “Germany got Austria and they united and became one thing. Sort of like your eyebrows have.”
She had just enough time to see Dante wince before the slipper landed.
The corridor outside the headmaster’s office wasn’t unfamiliar to Hildegarde, but she visited infrequently enough for it to still bring a prickle of excitement. They didn’t often drag her here for insolence. It was mostly for scrapping with people who picked on Dante, though she was never the one to throw the first punch. She was more creative than that. Beetles in their schoolbag, sour milk in their gym shoes. It was worth getting throttled, sometimes.
The door opened. Mr Loxley leaned on the doorframe, cigarette in his mouth, and appraised Hildegarde.
“What was it this time?” he said.
Hildegarde shrugged. “I said Mr Andrews had a monobrow.”
He sighed. “In you come, then.”
She slid into Mr Loxley’s office like a cat, sinking into the chair opposite his. The desk between them was heaped with papers, files, a pair of overflowing ashtrays, and the room was stale with the smell of cigarettes. Hildegarde breathed it in happily.
“Right,” Mr Loxley said. “How do I punish you this time? I’ve run out of the good ones.”
“You could expel me,” Hildegarde said.
Mr Loxley laughed. “And inflict you on some other school? I’m not that heartless. I suppose Andrews slippered you, did he?”
Hildegarde held up her red palms, shimmying them in a small jazz hands. Mr Loxley peered hard at her, leaning back in his chair. He wasn’t yet an old man, but grey had started to ease up through the hair at his temples.
“What do you find so disagreeable about school, Sneal?” he asked.
Hildegarde jolted one shoulder. “Dunno. The matrons say it’s ‘cause I don’t like doing what I’m told.”
“Well, that much is obvious,” he said. “But you’re a sharp child. You can do the work. Why do you make everything so difficult for yourself?”
Dante’s voice rang in her head: why are you like this? She shrugged again.
“Perhaps you feel like it doesn’t matter?” Mr Loxley offered. “That a posie-to-be has no need for an education?”
Hildegarde’s chest tightened. The teachers never talked about her future, not to her face. They skirted around it like a hole in the floor. Yet here was Mr Loxley, staring straight into it.
“Perhaps it would help—” he started.
A knock at the door silenced him. He heaved himself out of his seat and jarred it open. The school secretary, Miss Brent, stood outside, and her eyes caught on Hildegarde at once.
“Sorry to interrupt, sir,” she said. “There’s a Mrs Humphreys at reception, saying she needs the Sneals out and with her ASAP. Don’t know what it is, but she’s creating. Mind if I take her?”
Mr Loxley glanced back. “Not at all,” he said. “There you go, Sneal. Out of my clutches once again.”
Hildegarde laughed a little, but her heart was thudding. Mrs Humphreys, at reception? Now?
“What does she want?” Hildegarde said.
“Lord knows,” Miss Brent said. “Wouldn’t keep her waiting, though. Quick-sharp.”
Hildegarde looked to Mr Loxley, as if to read the truth in his face, but found nothing. Steadily, carefully, as if edging around a hole in the ground, she got to her feet and followed Miss Brent out of the room.