(An extract from a chapter from some story or other... So it might be abrupt and not very good but I can't be bothered to go redoing it all. Not to mention long...)
The bell rang at this junction, so the five girls sauntered inside to the furthest classroom, which was used for the eldest children of the school. The nearest classroom held the youngest children and the nursery, and the room between held Levels One to Five, since there was no Level Six this year. The furthest classroom consisted of the remainder of the school. When there was a Sixth Form, as there sometimes was, the Staffroom was pressed into use, and converted into a fourth classroom where the students were often left to their independent study.
Already inside the classroom were Patricia Williams, Morag Edwards and Elaine Fisher, the Level Eleven students and the oldest in the school. They all smiled at the group’s entrance, and the girls smiled back. They knew one other well, yet these three sixteen-year-olds made up a special trio in the school, and Millie’s coterie held aloof for the greater part, being on average a whole two years younger. Actually, Dawn was fifteen and a half, and Celia at the other extreme at just thirteen, but nevertheless it was a tightly-bound faction now seated together around a table in the East corner of the end classroom.
“There’s no spare seats in here for the new girl,” Dawn pointed out as the two fifteen-year-old boys entered. “She must be in here, I’m guessing, unless she wants to spend her time with kids like Nathaniel and Peter—no offence, Millie.”
“None taken,” Millie replied. She had suffered long and hard with her brother that Easter holiday, and it had not been a pleasure to drag him across the road to school that morning, accompanied by moans and groans punctuated by the frequent yawn.
Just then the Senior teacher, that year Miss Merr, who was also the head of languages at the GEF, came in, and Persis inquired as to when the new girl might be coming, supposing that she was to be in their class.
“She’ll be here in just a few minutes, I believe,” Miss Merr responded amiably. At this stage the students had no fear of asking questions, and she had no qualms in answering them.
“Shall I fetch her a chair from the next classroom?” Celia offered.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Miss Merr said, much to the bewilderment of the ten students assembled before her.
Miss Merr took the register and issued a few messages; then there came a knock at the door and the school secretary shuffled inside.
“Excuse me, Miss Merr. The new girl, Melika Cooper, has arrived.” The secretary moved to one side and held the door open, and the class looked on in astonishment as a beautiful girl edged inside. She had a torrent of fair hair, and startling emerald-coloured eyes framed by long dark lashes. Her countenance had a look of meek gentility; her gestures of softness. And she was wheeling herself in a wheelchair!
The class stared in surprise, and though most of them had the sense to hide it, the girl blushed. A pretty rosy colour rushed to her smooth pale cheeks, and they all knew at once that she was by far the prettiest girl in the room.
“Hello, Melika. Come in. We’ll put you at this big table, I think, between Celia and Millie, if they will move up a little. Thank you, Mrs Morgan,” Miss Merr said to the secretary, who smiled and sauntered back to her office. “Now, I’m just going to get your new geography textbooks. Tricia, Elaine and Morag, would you please come and help me for a few moments?”
The three girls, shooting welcoming smiles at the new girl, followed the teacher out of the room. The door closed with a sharp click, and all eyes fixed on the girl in the wheelchair.
Celia tipped the flow of conversation. “Did Miss Merr call you Melika?” she queried. “What a pretty name!”
“I’m usually Mel,” owned the girl in the gentlest voice Millie had ever heard. “Three syllables are too many for everyday use.”
“It’s a very pretty name—Melika,” complimented Millie. “Where does it come from?”
“Trust Millie to ask that,” Dawn laughed. “She’s dead nuts on names.”
“It’s nice that you like it. It’s the Hawaiian form of Melissa. I was going to be called Melody, but my parents spent their honeymoon in Hawaii and my mother’s friend was called Melika. They liked the name, so they decided that there was little difference between that and Melody, so that was what I was called. My second name is Sylvia after my Mum.”
“Melika Sylvia Cooper.” Millie tried it out, relishing the taste of such a name. “I love it! What’s your sister’s name? Surely she has a perfectly delicious name too.”
“Asha Iolana. Iolana is Hawaiian too.”
“Melika Sylvia and Asha Iolana,” murmured Millie, her voice tinged with something almost reverent. The others grinned.
“How old are you?” Dawn said.
“Eleven, nearly twelve,” Mel said with a blush, as if she felt the sympathy in all those eyes staring at her. There was a small silence, and she held her head high, emerald eyes flashing.
“Are you in Level Seven, then?” Millie inquired.
“Apparently. I was in Year Seven at my old school, and was going to go to Harrington High, but they thought I’d do better at a smaller school. All the huge high schools have two or three floors, and that gets dull and difficult after a while. I think I’m going to like it here, though. Is there anyone else in Level Seven?”
“Celia here is in Level Eight, though only just. She would have been in Level Nine if she’d been born a day earlier. And she’s as clever as us lot, anyway, and more so in most cases,” Persis explained. “Then there are three boys in Level Five, but you won’t care about them. Me and my cousin Millie, and Ashleigh, here, are in Level Nine, and Dawn, who is also Millie’s cousin, is in Level Ten with Patrick and Barney, those two boys on the other table. Then Tricia, Elaine and Morag are in Level Eleven; and that’s all our class.”
Mel beamed. “I like how small this place is. How many people in the whole school, then?”
“We’ve got about ten teachers, but none of them are full time. Then there’s thirty-one at school, now, I think,” Millie replied. “We’ve never had more, in all the time I’ve been here. Thirty-one! We could be almost sixty when Blue Island School joins up with us.”
Mel glanced at her with a question in her bright eyes.
“Blue Island School? The GEF—here—is twinned with them, and once in a while they all come down here in a big bus and we have lessons and so on together. One of my best friends, Charlie, goes to Blue Island School. Why do they come here? We’re slightly bigger, and we have more space. Also, we have hundreds of tables and chairs in store, whereas if we went to their school half the company would have to sit on the floor. Not that the Junior people would object to that,” she said with a laugh.
Dawn deigned to explain the laugh. “Whenever we have some event in the village hall we have to carry our chairs down the road, because it costs too much to hire the ones they have. Therefore for that day and any surrounding we have to sit on the floor. And of course the boys in the middle classroom sit under the tables. And then last time Luke Manley bashed his head and made it bleed—so that was banned.”
Mel just smiled.
“You know,” Millie said thoughtfully, “I think you’d like my second cousin Faith. She’s your age. She’s a lovely little girl, but maybe I shouldn’t call her that as she is twelve by now. She’s quite quiet and really friendly. I should try and get you two together some time.”
Mel nodded her head once. “I’d like to meet her.”
“She’s an orphan,” added Millie, frowning to herself. “Her dad died a long time ago in the army and her mum died the best part of two years ago. And her sister is still just a kid, and likely to remain so for most of her life, unless she carries out her dream to be a doctor. Faith says she wants to be a doctor too. So that could be two potential doctors in our family, if they get beyond the nurse stage. I’d say Myra’s more suited to be a nurse, myself, but she’s one of the most stubborn and most obstinate people I’ve ever met. You should’ve seen her when she set her mind to carry a huge box of dustsheets into the shed. Myra may be frail, but she’s impossibly strong. Faith isn’t so, but I suppose I’m boring you with my rambling by now! Anyway, I’ll invite you round next time Faithie’s in Grange,” she promised. “Now, have you any questions about the school or Grange or anything in general?”
“How are the teachers?” said Mel.
“Well, all the teachers are okay apart from our scary maths teacher Mr Watson. He’s really absent-minded but he slays you if you get anything like forty-eight percent in your maths homework,” Persis said. “I should know.”
“And don’t try to be funny with him, either,” advised Dawn. “Millie!”
Millie looked embarrassed.
“What did you do?” queried Mel.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny! I was being truthful!” protested Millie. “Well, Mel, we were doing square and cube numbers a while ago. While trying to memorize them I discovered a very interesting pattern and formula, prompted by my mum.—No, Celia! I won’t go off on a tangent like I did when I found out that time-travelling into the future was possible!—So I went to school the next day, and Mr Watson wonders whether anyone has found patterns to square numbers. I say that I have, and he asks me what made me think of it. ‘My mum was looking for a pattern and she found it first,’ I say truthfully. He asks if my mum is mathematical.—By the way, she is not!—‘No—she just likes patterns,’ says I, and while most of the class are wetting themselves with suppressed laughter, Mr Watson decides that I am trying to make a joke, and puts me through a week of long detentions that leave me breathless, hungry and tragically devoid of the will to live.”
The whole group laughed at this one, including the victim herself, but their laughter was short-lived. Elaine Fisher returned with a big pile of textbooks, and she hissed that Miss Merr was coming back.
When the teacher re-entered, the class was sitting properly in their seats, not talking and certainly not giggling. But Miss Merr only smiled to herself. She knew better.
“Hand these books out, please, Elaine,” instructed Miss Merr, as she exited the room to get the history textbooks.
But the class did not dare talk again in case she came in with another armful of books while they were in the thick of their discussion. It was only when Tricia and Morag returned with the information that Miss Merr had gone to find a stepladder in order to reach the geography books that they turned back to Mel and demanded to know where she was from. But before she could answer, a boy no younger than ten years old burst into the room in a flurry of personified haste.
“The teacher said to tell you that…” Peter Piccadilly began.
“Peter!” Millie muttered, making a face.
“Where is your teacher? I have a message which…”
All of a sudden Peter caught sight of Mel in her wheelchair, and he gawped at her with more insolence than interest. Millie saw a mixture of fascination and horror in that gaze. And then something resembling admiration, as he absorbed her long wavy hair, her emerald-green eyes, her high cheekbones set in a perfect face beneath rosy cheeks.
“Holy knickerbockers! Another one?” he cried.
Then he stopped short, turned crimson and shot a horrified expression at his sister. The class exchanged glances.
Mel herself informed them. “He means me,” she said in a clear, fearless voice, still portraying the forgiving gentleness that the class had noted at first. “My sister Asha must be in his class. She also uses a wheelchair.”
This time the girls did not dare look at one another, and one or two of them flushed bright red, appallingly embarrassed. As for Millie, she determined to get hold of Peter as soon as she could do so, and teach him a lesson he’d never forget.
“Are you always in a wheelchair?” asked Celia quietly.
“I hope not!” Mel almost laughed. “They hope to operate when I’m in my twenties. And Asha is the same. But probably she will be first, because my condition is worse. I hope to walk and be quite normal by the time I am thirty. And I’m quite normal and I’ll prove it to you!” she added fiercely.
Millie’s eyes misted over, but she blinked the tears away with the obscure idea that Mel would prefer her sympathy to be without demonstration.
“We’ve got no reason to believe you’re not normal.” This was Peter, of all people, and for once he did not use his customary whine. Instead his tone was serious and matter-of-fact, faintly scornful of her folly in supposing that they needed proof of such a thing, definite, and almost commanding.
Millie jumped as he spoke. Was her irresponsible brother actually growing up, even just a tiny bit? That cool, grave voice was not the voice of a child. Nor was it characteristic of Peter Piccadilly, the young hooligan who wasted his brilliant brains—in some ways more brilliant than any of the rest of his family—on creating original naughtiness, as opposed to producing good accurate school-work.
She was even more astounded when Mel flashed a simply beautiful smile at him, showing perfectly even teeth and, even more becoming, a dimple on either cheek. Millie thought enviously of the girl’s beauty, as Peter, with a quick grin, ran from the room, evidently forgetting the message he had been sent to impart to Miss Merr.
That woman came back in a few moments later to find her class once again sitting properly, a pile of four textbooks beside each student.
“The rest are in my own cupboard here, and we’ll get them out during the day. Meanwhile, please write your name and the date in the front of these textbooks and put them in your lockers.” Besides the pegs in the hall, which served additionally as a cloakroom, the nursery had cubby-holes for its pupils, and inside the primary classroom were trays; but the privileged Seniors had lockers to keep their books and various school objects in. These lockers were things highly coveted by the Juniors, who looked forward to going into the end classroom with perhaps the sole incentive of a locker of their own.
“I’m seriously sorry about my brother,” Millie whispered to Mel, who turned a face on her that was sweetly lenient.
“Oh, I don’t mind at all. Children can be thoughtless in what they say, but they don’t mean to be unkind, as some people our age can be.”
Millie flushed up. “Are we…?”
“No, no, not at all. Sorry, I didn’t mean that. I was just stating a fact. You’re the nicest set of teenagers I’ve met in a long time.”
Meanwhile, in the Junior classroom, Peter returned with a red face and a confused air. He confided to his own friends what had taken place, taking care that the pretty eight-year-old on the girls’ table did not hear him. She did not hear, perchance mercifully, because she was already making firm friends with the other girls of her age.
“My friend Jane’s aunt is Molly Cooper, who works at the shop,” Savannah was saying.
“We’re on her husband’s side, but he died,” brown-haired, brown-eyed Ella told them. “My sister Tasmin told me the story. Basically, there were the four Cooper brothers, and three of them married. The first one had Tasmin and me, and the second didn’t marry, and the third had Asha and her sister Mel, and then Auntie Molly was the last one’s wife, but he died, and she had no children. But I didn’t know she had other nieces and nephews too.”
“Yes, there is Jane, Charlie, Matthew, Anna and Jenny, who is at University,” Shia listed. “And perhaps there are others. Jane comes here sometimes. You will meet her soon.”
“Are you from Africa?” Asha asked her.
“Yes, and Jane is too,” Shia answered.
“Wow! I’ve always wanted to visit Egypt, because the pyramids look so interesting. I’m going to be an archaeologist when I’m out of my wheelchair,” Asha said proudly, and a volley of interested and congratulatory noises such as ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ greeted her.
“What a great thing. I always watch the exca…excav…those programmes where they dig stuff up,” Serena said.
“Excavation,” corrected Asha importantly.
“I want to be a doctor, but my brother says I’m not clever enough,” six-year-old Carla Blacke piped up.
“I’m sure you are,” Asha said with a little of her sister’s gentle kindness. Yet in spite of appearances, the sisters were not identical. Asha possessed less of the patient solemnity in her manner, and more of the childishness matching her age.
So none of the awkwardness that existed in the Senior classroom had contaminated the Junior room, mainly because they were too young to understand what it meant to be unable to use your legs.
Asha had never had many difficulties with her schoolmates, but, as the Seniors found out later, Mel had been severely bullied for the past two terms at her old school. She had been sent to the GEF as a relief cure, in theory, where it was hoped that she would make some good friends among a small group of girls, where any violent bullies or devious troublemakers were sat on so hard they never bounced up again.
In any case, bullies don’t get far without allies and admirers, and there was precious little chance of those select and nasty coteries breaking out in the GEF, where everyone of the same age had to be friends as a matter of course, or else they had no friends.
By the time Millie came to be walking home with Shia and Peter, she knew that she had made yet another friend in Mel Cooper, the pretty blonde girl in the wheelchair. Shia had made a friend of Asha, and also in Ella, the girl who had been sent to assist Asha. Asha needed little help, it is true, but Ella gave her confidence, and it was plain that the two cousins were best friends.
As for Peter, he got such a lecture from Millie about speaking his mind that he went to bed that night much chastened—for once! That striking smile of Mel’s just before he had fled from the room had completely bowled him over, too, so it was a subdued brother of Millie’s who did not break out in any attacks of laziness or mischief for the next few days.
After that, as Millie said, the new attitude could not be expected to continue. Peter was rarely ‘knocked’ for long, and that very Friday he handed in a piece of homework that looked as if it had been trodden on by a horse. Indeed, he had somehow ‘accidentally’ wiped it in a scuff of mud in the garden, and also spilt lemonade all over it, finishing off the job quite nicely by feeding a corner to one of Vi’s rabbits.