I freely admit that I felt an inkling of jealousy that first morning as I watched Emma saunter into the dining room with a girl of my age by my side.
The girl was ugly, I thought at first, with murky eyes and dark hair tied in stiff plaits and styled with an unbecoming fringe. According to what I had seen of my dormitory-mates so far, and having copied their attitude towards uniform, I saw that the girl’s tie was too tight and her skirt too long. She was too tidy and too neat, but her neatness was of a crooked sort I could not fathom, and her face of the same fashion.
Emma caught me staring, and smiled, but I was not impressed. That smile was unauthorised friendliness, and she could not come into the dining room so calmly with this strange ugly girl so calmly, as if I were not her sister.
Selfish I was and selfish perhaps I still am – but at such an age, I was the centre of my own universe, and Margary Symphorien, as her name was, I soon learned, was not part of my universe.
The first lesson at my new school was French – a subject I had never taken before, though one that every other girl in the class had taken for at least three years.
This fact, as I am sure you will have gleaned, did not bode well for my academic beginning at the Institute.
Our teacher was French-born and French-speaking, for a start. Mademoiselle Renouf conducted the whole of the lesson in French, instructions and all, and the students were expected to understand her.
Moreover, most of them did understand her – it was just me, sitting at the back wedged between Prue and Sophia, who did not comprehend. My new friends had become my faithful informants, plying me with textbooks till I felt frankly surrounded, but not seeming to deem it beneficial to me any insight into what on Earth Mademoiselle could be saying.
Mademoiselle addressed me once or twice, but I forgot her words even as she was saying them, not knowing enough of the language to reply. But she ignored me, once I had either nodded or shaken my head, and continued the lesson.
There was no talking in Mademoiselle Renouf’s lessons, I observed, otherwise I would have appealed to Prue for enlightenment, and I noted that every student, bar one tall cocky lad whose name escapes me, tried admirably hard with their French accents when required to speak.
The following lesson was Geography, which was much more relaxed and accessible to me. Being good at Geography, as I am with most subjects besides the Dreaded Languages of Doom, and having covered the technicalities of tectonic plates with my previous teacher, I was able to join in with the lesson more than many of my classmates, who looked rather bored.
The day’s lessons tired me out, for by bedtime my body was stiff with sitting and my mind whirring with names and faces and facts, and when the dinnerbell rang I was loath to heave myself from the armchair.
I sat opposite Ian, the redhead I had met that morning, at dinner, and soon fell into chatting with him about pets and sports. He was in my class, I had noted, as was the tidy girl, Margary Symphorien, but I had not been granted the chance to talk to him during the day. But as we ate, I felt glad to be chatting to one whom I felt was on the same level as I. He was new, and I was new, and we talked with no boundaries of politeness or restraint. It was as if we had been friends forever.
My sister Emma spoke to me as we were exiting the dining room. We had to go up to bed, but Emma had an extra hour or two, and that I admit I resented. I turned my back on her, recalling my disappointment and envy of the morning, but she would not be pacified with such a gesture.
“Kate!” she said. “What kind of an advertisement is this, and what have I done to you?”
“Nothing,” I replied guiltily, for I saw then that my grievance was measly and quite unjustified.
“Then don’t turn your back on your older sister, who loves you very much,” said she, hugging me. “And, Kate?”
“Be good to Margary.”