It was in my eighth year, shortly before my birthday, that my mother took me to live with her mother, Françoise, in Woodhall Spa. In my perception, we were one moment walking along the beach in Skegness, past huge black rocks like giant Tourmaline tumblestones, that I later learned were to stop the sand from being eroded, and the next, we were beside my grandmother’s swimming pool, the clear water azure and alluring. At that time, I did not recognise we had crossed a border between worlds.
I was soon enrolled at St. Cuthbert’s, a private school for girls, situated within acres of green lawns, cricket and football pitches and its own private woodland, where small-leaved limes rubbed shoulders with the wild service tree and where a little wooden pergola displayed a plaque dedicated to the school’s founder.
“Christiana, you and Anne are to share a tent.” So said Brother Joseph, a teacher I disliked on account of his yellow eyes and spots, like boils, that seemed to cover his cheeks.
I was ten years old now, aware of changes in my body that I didn’t completely understand. We were camping in the school arboretum over the weekend. It was June and it seemed like summer would never end. I looked over to Anne and we both smiled. “OK.”
Some of the children were boarders, but as Françoise’s house was only a mile or so away, Adam, the chauffeur, would drive me to school each morning and Françoise, or my mother, would collect me when school was over for the day.
Anne was one such boarder. “Don’t you mind being kept at school, only seeing your parents in the holidays?” I’d asked.
“No, mum’s OK but my dad, he’s not my real dad. My real dad got shot.”
“Honestly, he was outside a bank when some robbers came out. Seems one of them had a shotgun and it kind of went off accidentally. Dad just happened to be in the way.”
I didn’t know what to say. “That’s awful.”
Anne gave a wry smile. “I was only four at the time. I don’t think I realised what’d happened, just my dad seemed to change to a new dad. I didn’t know why. Anyway, seems they want me out of the way, so I’m here at St. Cuthbert’s nine months of the year.”
“What’s it like?”
“When you lot have gone home, we have to do an hour’s prep, then we have an hour before supper. Some girls watch TV, but I like to lie on my bed and listen to music on my headphones. Old stuff, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.”
“Oh, I’ve never heard of them.”
“Then, after lights out, there’s no one around, and sometimes I’ll go out to the wood and sit in that little pergola in the moonlight. There’s no one to tell me off!”
There were six tents, two girls in each of five tents, and Brother Joseph in the other. We had to put the tents up ourselves.
“Look, these pole things slot into each other, I think,” I said.
Ann held up a small plastic disc. “Yes, there’s two of them. Then we put these little saucer things under them. To protect the groundsheet.”
So, there I was with the canvas draped over me, trying to push a pointy bit through a hole in the roof, then put the plastic thing underneath the pole. There was a medicinal smell, like antiseptic. Ann was pulling the tent into shape from outside, then she must have stumbled. The next thing I knew, she was falling against the tent and the pole I was manoeuvring into position crashed against my shoulder blade. Then Anne’s body landed on top of mine, just the thin sheet of canvas separating us.
“Ow!” I yelled. We both began to giggle.
“What on earth are you two girls playing at?” came Brother Joseph’s annoyed voice.
We were laughing so much, neither of us could reply.
I emerged from a dream, a dream of swimming in my grandmother’s pool. Only there was someone else in the pool. A woman I didn’t recognize, with long blonde hair and slim, tanned limbs, about my mother’s age. And naked.
There was no moon, and the tent was in darkness. I felt Anne’s breath on my face. A smell like gravy. “What? I was asleep!”
“I went outside, I wanted to go to the pergola. But there was Brother Joseph, with his trousers around his ankles!”
I came more awake. “What!”
“Yes, he was kind of … kind of jerking his arm in front of him. Then I heard him groaning. I felt scared.”
“What was he doing?”
“Uh, I’m not sure. Christie, do you mind if I get in your sleeping bag, I feel … I feel cold.”
I didn’t know what to say but she must have taken that as a ‘yes,’ as I felt her unzipping the bag, then her body was against mine. She wasn’t wearing anything.
Then her arms were around me and she was hugging me tight.
“How was the camping?” asked Françoise after my mother had brought me home from school on Monday.
It was a warm summer evening and we were sitting by the pool. I watched the turquoise water rippling ever so gently against the bright blue tiles. Had that woman ever swum in there? The one I’d dreamt about the other night. “It was OK.”
“Did you learn anything new?” my grandmother asked, lighting a cigarette, and inhaling the smoke deeply.
“I learned how to put up a tent.”
She exhaled, blowing the smoke up into the clear blue Woodhall Spa air. “That’s good. Anything else?”
“I learned how to light a fire and cook sausages. And toast!”
Grandma looked at me with a strange expression. “Lighting a fire’s easy.” She blew a ring of smoke, which drifted out and over the summer pool. She winked. “It’s putting it out is sometimes the hard part.”