Chapter 3 – the village
Si sta come
(“ One is/as in autumn/on the trees/the leaves”, ‘soldati’/’soldiers’ by Giuseppe Ungaretti, translation as found in Harrison, ‘dominion of the dead’, p. 125)
Her eyes flung wide open. It took her a minute to realize that she was staring at the ceiling and then another to recognize the annoying beep in the background as the alarm clock. She turned to look daggers at it, but as the thing refused to explode she extended her arm to the fullest to reach it. No more denying it was already morning...
With the new year, her senior year, about to start, the holidays were irrevocably over. She rolled herself out of bed half-heartedly and went to knock on Julian’s door. No reply. Nearly tripping over the alarm clock that had “miraculously” smacked on the floor still peeping, she made her way to the sleeping boy.
“Come on, sport, time to wake up!”
He groaned and hid his face below the covers.
She tickled him, he tried to fight her hands off and snored merrily along.
“Come on, Julian, it’s time for school! You don’t want to be late on your first day, do you? That’s no way to make new friends.”
“Aren’t you the expert?” He muttered under his breath.
“Well, that’s not nice!”
Julian wrestled himself back under the sheets she’d pulled away and mumbled something close to “shut up” and then yawned “go away” and sunk back into his little dream world.
“Honey, get up!”
In a single cruel jerk, she pulled all of his sheets off despite his whining and opened the curtains. The poor boy tried to shield his eyes from the hostile light as well as he could, but to no avail.
She went back to her room to shower. What would this new school be like? She picked up her backpack and threw some random stuff in it she thought she might need, writing materials, a scrapbook, wallet. What would these people be like? If they were anything like all the others, she wouldn’t fit in at all. At least she wouldn’t be worse off here than before.
She opened her abnormally large wardrobe to marvel at how little was in it. This was her first day as an imposter among childhood friends, and today she would have to make that first impression that her entire social life for the coming year would depend on...
No. No! No, no, no! One after the other outfit landed on the bed. Too black, too pinkish, too short, too long, too colourful, too formal... Is there absolutely nothing in here I can use?
She sighed and flung herself amidst the heaps of clothes scattered across the spread. It’s hopeless.
And what was worse, was the weather. She looked at the dreary sight and instantly felt listless. Might as well stay home... Rain drizzled down and every now and then a lonely snowflake would even float by. It was cold and so windy that it shook the trees till they surrendered their very last leaf. It was definitely winter. Forget the appropriate, she’d just go for something warm to wear.
She moved over to the kitchen to have a quick breakfast and make a bowl of cereal for Julian, who stumbled in yawning a few minutes later.
They spooned on in silence till they heard deep humming from the hall. Their uncle came in with a newspaper under his arm.
The atmosphere grew more tense with the three of them together, each staring ahead of themselves, wondering what to say.
“Horrible weather we’re having.”
“Yes, and the sky so gray, I think it’s gonna...”
“Gonna pour today.”, Henry agreed stuttering along. “I could drive you up to school, if you like?”
“That would be...”
“That will not be necessary, thank you, uncle.”, Eliza answered in the opposite in Julian’s stead. “It’s walking distance and we have to learn how to get there ourselves. It would be nice to have a look around in the village on the way on foot.”
“Just make sure to be home before dusk. The sun sets early this time of year and the paths are hard to follow in the dark, especially if they’re muddy.”
Julian was still toying with and sometimes even eating his cereal, when she went back to her room to brush her teeth and search for extra clothes to keep them warm.
With a glance at her alarm clock, she rushed downstairs with a bundle of cloth in her arms. They ought to get going.
While he was still spooning along and heavily resisting, she wrapped Julian in his coat.
“You have to wear a shawl and a hood today, honey.”
“I’m not a dressing doll, Eliza!”
“Quit jumping around and stand still! Its friezing outside!”
“Eliza, stop mothering the boy!”
Both of them looked at Henry. There was an awkward silence. Henry twitched the corner of his mouth in what seemed to be a wordless apology and left to read his newspaper somewhere else.
“Fine then.” Eliza said. “Then freeze to death if you prefer it.” Maybe she was exaggerating, at least in Julian’s eyes, but she was aiming at someone else’s approval, someone who might not even be watching, yet had to be.
“Come on, let’s go.”
They went downhill in silence. Julian’s backpack seemed a bit too broad for his tiny body, she hoped they wouldn’t laugh at him. He could get a new one any time he wanted to, but mum gave it to him for his last birthday. They’d like him, everybody liked Julian, these little boys and girls would be no different.
So this was the village? They passed a “supermarket”, which was little more than an informal grocery shop, where an old lady was looking out the window at the passersby, which seemed to be national sport. Every window hid at least someone glaring at the street from behind the curtains. There was hardly anyone outside. Every now and then another high school student or school kid would turn into a street headed for school, but it was hardly a flock like in her old town. Where were the young people? Couldn’t blame them for leaving a place like this, she would too as soon as she got the chance.
They passed a bakery, a butcher’s place and a café and before making it to school. Guess that was it. So much for the town centre...
She brought Julian to the gate of the elementary school, which was right next to high school and gave him some money to buy lunch. She bent down to hug him and tried to kiss his cheek, but he just said “Eliza, please!” and wiggled himself out of her arms, looking nervously from left to right to make sure none of his future friends had seen it.
“See you later, sis!”
She waved and watched him walk away.
In her own school, students went in sporadically in twos and threes, babbling on about their holiday. Should she approach them? Better not, she’d try the ones she was in class with later. She’d have to find the secretariat in this labyrinth first.
The secretary was a decent looking (previously) blond lady in her early fifties with a pair of glasses low on the tip of her nose. She could easily pass for a prototype librarian. She shuffled at the door nervously and knocked on the glass, though the door was open.
“Yes?” The woman asked, in a clear voice. She went in. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Eliza Lenore Haywood, I’m new here?”
“Haywood.”, the lady said pensively as she went through a pile of files on her desk. “Ah, here we are, Haywood. Senior, are you?”
“So you’ve come to live with mister Haywood in the old castle, have you?”
“That’s right, he’s my uncle.”
“Ah, decent man, that.” The woman said in a friendly manner.
She smiled in response. She didn’t know the man half as well as this woman probably did, so who was she to say something about his decency?
“So here is your class journal.”, she handed her an ugly black booklet.
“Thanks, ma’am.” The woman beamed. Not a good sign; if you please the old, you’ll probably fall out with the young.
“And this is your class schedule, a map of the school grounds and here are some of your books.” She looked at the woman doubtfully. “It’s alright, dear, your uncle already paid for all of your school equipment when he heard you were coming.”
“How considerate of him.” She carefully balanced the pile of books on her arm.
“I hope you’ll find your place here soon and if you have any school related problems, feel free to come see me and for problems of other kinds, you can always contact the school counsellor.” Guess she actually read the file. Fabulous. So much for clean slate.
“By the way, my name is Mrs. Taylor.” She struggled with the books to shake the lady’s hand along with a conventional smile. “Welcome to our high school, miss Haywood.”
She mumbled another “thank you, ma’am” and set out to find her class room and locker.
In the hallway she carefully supported the books with one knee while checking the map to see where the room was, when one of the young boys, excited about seeing his friends again – probably because he had stories that would stupefy them and glorify himself – burst into a sprint and crashed into Eliza. He mumbled a sorry, she thought and hoped to discern and just kept running. The bell rang. Great. She bent down to retrieve all of the fallen books in the middle of the hallway while students passed her from the left and the right either staring or whispering. How could I be so damn clumsy? Someone stopped and with quick movements handed her some of her books.
“You’re welcome. New?”
“Does it show?”
She smiled. “Maybe a little. Where are you headed?”
“Room... Uhm... A 5, or something.”
“Math? Great way to start your first day.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Can I see your schedule?”
She handed her the sheet.
“Ah, just follow me. We’re in the same group, so our schedules are practically identical.”
“Thank God, I’m a total disaster with directions.”
“Come along, then.”
“My name is Eliza, by the way. Eliza Lenore Haywood.”
“I didn’t pick it.”
“I’m Ann. So you’re the new castle freak?”
“Never mind. News travels faster than people here. Welcome to nowhere, capital of boredom.”
She lasted for nearly two hours, crunching numbers in math and listening to a dry English teacher going on and on about the English renaissance when she started to wander off. Despite her character, she picked a seat next to the window and knew her attention would be lost, not that she didn’t already know what the prosaic man was trying to sell them. He could teach them facts and dates, but he didn’t know the first thing about poetry.
And so she turned away and watched the leaves fall off the trees one by one, first shaking, than loosening, then swaying in the wind before crashing to the ground and becoming part of the indiscriminate brown-greyish humus. Trampled on, lifeless, mere nutrition for the trees they grew on or worse, flattened to nothing underneath car tires.
She heard the chalk scratching across the blackboard, so harshly it hurt her ears. Without looking she knew the words the teacher scribbled in the green, felt them as if they were inscribed into her heart and burned a hole through her stomach:
One is as
on the trees
Note: hey guys! Sorry I haven't been able to reply to comments yet, I just stopped by to schedule a new post. I know the chapters are in (too) rapid succession, but I have some fear of failing issues to deal with that increase exponentially during exams and tend to spiral out of control. I find that publishing something the day of a tricky exam helps counter that, you know, some Heraclitean (tomorrow: philosophy from Antiquity exam ;) ) battle of a negative/destructive and a positive/creative force that will hopefully cancel each other out. It's comforting to think that somewhere in the world, someone will be reading this. It worked last time. So call me superstitious...
Anyways, I really enjoy all the support you've all been giving me, it really brightens my day. Enjoy the chapter.