"Maria? Maria, are you all right?" Her mother's voice was tinny in the mobile phone, shrill with fear. "You gave me such a fright when I came to your room and found you gone, no note or anything. Where are you now?"
"In London," Maria replied, her voice weary as she steeled herself for the multitude of questions that would surely come her way. It would be better to end it now, before she found herself dreaming of home and unable to go through with the thing she had come to do. "I can't talk now. I'm sorry..." Her voice cracked. "I'll call you later. It'll be all right. I'll be home soon, I promise. But don't come looking for me..."
"What do you mean by 'soon'? Maria, you can't just run away from home. You're fourteen, for goodness sake."
"I haven't run away. But I knew that you'd try and talk me out of it. I'll be back tomorrow, maybe the day after if I miss the train or something. I've got money; I went to the bank on my way here." The doors were open, she could see them from here. It was half past one, just after lunch. Maria picked up her holdall and mounted the first step, preparing to walk in.
"But where is 'here'?"
"I - I can't tell you. I'm sorry, Mum. I'll be home soon and I'll tell you everything. I love you." She slid the phone closed and took another step, and another, and another. Each one was taking her closer to her dream, so why was she so afraid? With a small shake of her head, Maria mounted another of the stone steps, this time faster. She was almost at the doors. There were people there, she knew that - didn't they run summer schools or something?
"Can I help you?" The receptionist peered at Maria over her glasses, looking a little surprised to see someone so dishevelled (she had slept on the train) and obviously completely out of her depth. But she had made up her mind to be brave, and so she would be.
"Yes, please. I would like to see whoever is in charge of intake. Auditions and applications, that sort of thing. But it's private, so I can't tell you anything more." Her voice seemed confident enough, with hardly a wobble, but it had been foolish coming here without looking it all up first ... the receptionist would throw her out immediately when she knew why she had come.
"I'm sorry, but he's teaching at the moment. You can't see him. We have summer schools, you see. You can talk to his secretary, if you like..."
"It has to be him."
"Well, in that case, you'll just have to wait until he's on his break. You've just missed the last one - the next isn't until three o'clock. I can't help you any more unless you tell me what you want, and you say it's private. Well, I'm not one to pry in." She looked at Maria and seemed to take pity on her. "Have you nowhere to go?"
"I live in Birmingham," replied Maria. "I came here alone; my parents don't know where I am. But I'm prepared to stay as long as it takes to get what I want." She gestured to her holdall. "Whatever it takes."
"Wait here if you like, then. I'll tell Mr Conor that you're here. Perhaps he'll be able to come down. What's your name?"
Maria hesitated. "Maria ... Torrini," she said at last. Well, with her dark hair and tanned skin she could easily pass for Italian and she didn't want her parents finding her so soon. Would the receptionist notice her hesitation? Would she be caught straight away?