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IN MY RED BLAZER with a buttoned white blouse tucked into the waistband of a pleated navy blue skirt, with my clear eyes, my hair in a long plait down to the middle of my back and a straw hat with a ribbon resting on my knees, I was everything the neat clean schoolgirl ought to be.
My uniform combined the colours of the Union Jack and, despite my Mediterranean inclinations, a sense of triumph touched me when I glimpsed the flag waving from the chapel spire at the Convent of Saint Sebastian the Holy Martyr. I was sure we were going to be happy together.
We had driven for an hour through the Kent countryside to the coast. The convent stood on grass-trimmed chalk cliffs, a yellow brick building laced with ivy and protected behind high walls that made me wonder if they were designed to keep people out or the girls in. Why we were forced to dress in uniform I had no idea, it was so 20th century, but the nuns had their habits, and it was thought that students were more obedient and learned more in traditional dress.
We passed through the open gates and crunched over the gravel drive below tall trees that were shedding their golden leaves along the way. It was the end of September, the smell of change drifting in from the sea as I stepped from the car. Mother marched off to the Bursar’s office and the nun waiting at the entrance with her hands gripped behind her bustled down the steps with an intense expression and guided us to the dorms. ‘Sister Theresa, geography,’ she said in introduction and leaned forward to gain traction like a duck racing across the surface of a pond.
She led the way as we circled the building beneath an arched colonnade. Girls in the same red jackets gazed at me as I passed with a mixture of interest and hostility. I was late starting at the school because I had been in Italy for a memorial service and then stayed on with my grandparents at La Montepietra, their lovely old palazzo. Mother had returned home early to be comforted by Mr Daviditz.
Although Sister Theresa was small and cumbersome, she moved at a furious pace and Mr Daviditz became pink and breathless as he followed with my bags. We entered the building and climbed a narrow flight of stairs to a sunny room that smelled of deodorant and looked out over the sea. There were four beds, four large cupboards, a table with chairs and a general air of neatness of which I approved. On the walls were posters from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, there was Brad Pitt with rippling muscles and Dallas McTee looking awfully common in an animal print bra and not much else. Next to the dorm there was a bathroom and shower, shelves of thick white towels and the lamentable lack of a full-length mirror.
‘Here we are,’ said Sister Theresa. ‘I’ll leave you to your goodbyes,’ and she was gone.
‘It’s lovely here,’ said Mr Daviditz, glancing at the beds as he dropped the bags.
‘Thank you, Mr Daviditz.’
‘Simon,’ he said.
I stood looking out the window for a moment and turned as he approached for his kiss which I planted, fairy like, one on each side of his mouth, the tip of my tongue darting out to brush his lips. Beads of perspiration broke on his brow and his cheeks grew redder.
He pulled at his moustache and sighed. ‘I’m going to miss you,’ he said, and I knew it was true. He’d been missing me for a week because I’d been so busy preparing for school there had been no time to sunbathe in the garden in spite of his frequently whispered suggestions that for the sake of my health I should do so. I thought for the sake of his health it was probably better that I didn’t.
We heard a pair of feet tapping up the stairs and he stood back as Mother entered with a girl I would have thought was a boy if she hadn’t been wearing the school uniform. Mother glanced at her watch.
‘Bye, Mother,’ I said. We touched cheeks and I turned away. ‘Bye, Mr Daviditz, thank you,’ I said again, shaking his hand this time.
‘Just, you know,’ said Mother. ‘Just work hard.’
‘Oh but I will.’
‘It’s the right atmosphere,’ said Mr Daviditz.
The strange girl who looked like a boy stood with her arms folded watching as if this were a play and, as the director, she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the performance.
‘Goodbye,’ she said in a loud deep voice, urging them on their way, and we listened as Mother and Mr Daviditz descended the stairs.
The girl shut the door and leaned against the woodwork, one foot behind her, arms still folded. As I looked more closely it was obvious that she didn’t look like a boy at all, except for her hair sticking up in the same silly way as the boys in the village at home. There was a fierce look about her mouth.
‘Your stepfather?’ she asked.
‘How did you guess?’
‘Because I know things. I am in charge of this room. You will do everything I say.’
‘Hang your jacket in that cupboard,’ she instructed, pointing. I did so and she looked enormously satisfied. ‘Do you always do as you’re told?’
I hooked my finger in my mouth to think about that. ‘Almost never,’ I said. ‘Unless it’s amusing.’
‘I suppose it depends on what you call amusing.’
‘How old are you?’ she demanded.
‘Same as me. You don’t look it,’ she said and paused. ‘I suppose you failed all your A-levels?’
‘No, actually. I was living in Italy. I didn’t take any. How about you?’
‘Never you mind.’ She took a step closer. ‘Pull your skirt up, so I can see.’
This was somewhat abrupt, but I was new to Saint Sebastian and assumed this was some sort of initiation. I hesitated for a moment, lowered my eyes, but did as she asked, holding the hem between two fingers. I was wearing really cool white silk knickers that Mr Daviditz had bought when we’d gone shopping one afternoon at Neuhaus & West in Canterbury and Mother was in a different part of the store. He’d been waiting outside the changing room and got all sweaty peering through the narrow gap in the curtains.
‘This top is really much too small,’ I said, and he scurried off to find different colours and designs.
The autumn sun was warming my shoulders through the high window and when I examined my breasts in the mirror I discovered they really had grown bigger since that day in the woodshed.
‘Knock. Knock,’ he said, and I opened the curtains.
Mr Daviditz gasped and reached for his moustache. I slipped in and out of those teeny tiny triangles of silk and his head kept swivelling back and forth as he gazed at me then turned to glance nervously over his shoulder. After I had tried on each bra and pair of knickers, I took them off and stood there demurely as I handed them to him. We bought lots of sets and he pushed a £20 note into my hand just as Mother appeared looking furious clutching a new oven glove. She gritted her teeth as she dashed across the changing room and closed the curtains.
I liked being looked at and admired. It was fun, even standing there with this new girl with a boy’s haircut studying me as if I were quite mad.
‘I suppose you’re a little princess, are you,’ she said, and I didn’t reply. ‘Are you a lesbian?’
I shook my head. ‘No, most certainly not.’
She came closer and placed her hand over my crutch in the careless way of someone who imagines they know the right way to do things when they don’t really know at all.
‘Are you a virgin?’
‘Yes,’ I replied and she sneered like a real woman of the world.
She started rubbing her hand slowly over the fabric between my legs, backwards and forwards, the movement opening the lips of my vagina.
‘What’s your name?’ she demanded.
‘Bella di Millo.’
‘Jacqueline Bennett. Call me Jack.’
My knickers were wet already and my breath caught instantly in my throat. She slipped her hand in the elastic, a finger slid inside me and I shuddered as if an earthquake had suddenly hit the Kent coast.
She took her hand out and put the wet finger between my lips. ‘What’s it taste of, fish?’ she asked.
I sucked her finger.
‘Honey,’ I answered.