I was dreading the end of school holidays and as the last week of the break drew nearer I began to feel sick each morning. My stomach was churning so much that I couldn’t eat breakfast and I had to spend a long time in the bathroom.
Mum talked about taking me to see a doctor, but then she decided that a change of school would be good for me. A few days later she told me she had enrolled me in the same high school that Debbie and Rose went to. Once I found that we would be sharing a lot of the same classes I stopped being sick in the morning.
By the time the first day of school came around I was actually excited and looking forward to starting school again. Debbie and Rose met me at the school gate and we walked towards the red brick building together. Debbie seemed to know everybody and she introduced me to all of her friends as we walked along. I didn’t feel like the outsider anymore and nobody laughed at my red hair or freckles. I even found myself smiling and laughing with the other girls.
In the half hour before the bell rang for the first class of the year, Debbie entertained everyone with stories about her holiday at the beach. Some of the stories were so funny that I wondered if we had even been at the same beach together.
As usual, Debbie didn’t stop talking as I followed her down the corridor to the classroom. We sat next to each other for the first lesson and the teacher assigned everyone their lockers and a list of textbooks that we would need for each subject. We were then given ten minutes to find our lockers, take the keys from the lock, and get back to the classroom.
“Come on, Molly, our lockers are just around the corner so we can be quick,” said Debbie. I followed her around the corner to find a group of kids from one of the other classes were already standing at the lockers.
I looked at the piece of paper I had been given with my name on it and saw that I had been assigned locker sixteen. That will be easy to remember, I thought, because that is how old I will be on my next birthday. I walked over to locker sixteen to get my key, but there was a guy standing in the way.
I took a deep breath and said, “Excuse me. I need to get to my locker.” I waited for the nasty remark that would follow as the guy turned around, but instead he bowed and stepped to one side.
“Pardon me, mademoiselle.” His smile was infectious and I couldn’t help but smile back. Then Debbie was right beside me.
“Hurry up, Molly. We need to get back.”
I suddenly felt flustered as I rushed to get my locker key with this guy watching me.
“Hi Deb,” said the guy. “Who’s your cute friend?”
“Hey David, this is Molly. She’s new here, so be nice. Molly this is David.”
David reached out his hand, and I held mine out uncertainly. He took my fingertips gently and raised my hand to kiss the back of it softly.
“Enchanted, mon cheri.” My head was spinning and I felt like I was watching a movie scene from above rather than in my own body.
“Leave her alone, David. She’s already spoken for.” Debbie then grabbed my elbow and hurried me back to the classroom. I turned and looked back over my shoulder before we went around the corner. David was still looking at me and he smiled and waved. I waved too before Debbie jerked me into the classroom.
The morning went quickly and before I knew it we were back in the playground for our recess break. I was trying to find a way to ask Debbie about David but she beat me to it.
“You don’t want to get swept away by David,” she said. “He tries that act on all the girls.”
“Is that why you said I was ‘taken’?”
“Of course, I’m just looking out for you, Molly. Don’t give away your heart too easily.”
She squeezed my arm and smiled, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, of course.” I gave her a little smile back but I couldn’t get the picture of David’s face out of my mind, or the way he kissed my hand.
The next lesson was English and I found myself sitting next to Rose this time because Debbie was in a different class. I had found it hard to get to know Rose, and I wasn’t even sure if she liked me or not because we never talked that much. I kept worrying about it and I wondered if maybe Rose was really shy like me and was just overshadowed by Debbie. I decided to make more of an effort to get Rose to like me, but I wasn’t sure what I should do. Maybe if I tried to be more like Debbie then that would work.
“Isn’t it great being back at school?” I said, trying to sound bright, just like Debbie.
“It’s okay, I guess.”
“Well I’m excited.” Rose looked at me funny and was about to say something when the teacher walked into the classroom.
“Good morning class. I’m sorry that I’m late. For those that don’t know me, my name is Mr Norris.”
I groaned. Why did he have to follow me here when I was trying to start all over again?
“I think I see some familiar faces, so hello to you, and welcome everyone to Year 10 English.”
I looked around the room and all the kids were sitting up straight and paying attention to him. It was completely different from my old high school.
“We have a full program of study this year, but there will be three main strands. First of all, we will be studying the novels of Jane Austen.”
I sat up and suddenly started paying attention. Once again Mr Norris seemed to know exactly what I was interested in.
“There will be a major essay and a creative piece due at the end of Term One. Then we will take what we have learned from Jane Austen into the world of debate. Ultimately, I will be selecting a team to take on our colleagues at that other high school across town.”
He paused and looked around the class, and then his eyes fell on me. I quickly looked down at my desk because I knew there was no way I was ever going to get involved in a debating team, particularly if it meant coming up against those kids from my old school when I had only just escaped from them.
“For the rest of the year after that,” Mr Norris continued, “We will be studying King Lear and then putting on a performance for the Christmas concert.”
He stood and looked at the class with his black beady eyes, but I thought they looked kinder and more eager than I remembered them.
After school, I walked out to the front gate with Debbie and we talked about our first day at school. I told her how excited I was that we were studying Jane Austen, but she was more interested in having been able to catch up with all her friends.
I met Mum at the school gate. “How was your first day of school?” she asked.
“Fantastic!” I replied, and jumped in the car.
All the way home I told her about what we were doing in English for the year, but I didn’t tell her about that boy near my locker.
When I got home that night I finished reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’. My head was so full of Elizabeth and Darcy that I rushed to the library as soon as I got to school the next morning and borrowed a different Jane Austen novel. I was so eager to start reading that I sat at a table in the library and read the first chapter rather than meeting my new friends outside. I loved the way the words were so soft and gentle, and while I enjoyed the romance, I sensed there was some other message in there that I needed to figure out.
The copy of the book I borrowed from the library had illustrations in it and I fell in love immediately with the elegant dresses the characters wore. I thought if I tied a ribbon around the middle of my long white Juliet dress then it would look just like the real thing from a Jane Austen novel. I decided that I would try that with my dress on the weekend and I would have a go at doing my hair in that style as well. I studied the pictures closely and tried to work out how they got their hair tied up on top of the head like that. I could do that with a couple of ribbons as well, and with my naturally curly hair it should be easy to leave a couple of curls dangling down either side of my face. Mum should be able to help because she had lots of ribbons in her sewing room. I just needed to remember to ask her when I got home.
The bell rang and I quickly packed the book in my bag and hurried out of the library. I had five minutes to get some things from my locker before I had to get to my next class so I ran down the stairs as fast as I could.
When I got to my locker I found David was standing in front of it again with his own locker door open. He had the locker next to mine, but he was talking to a friend instead of getting his books out.
“Hi David, can I please get to my locker,” I said quietly.
David turned around and grinned at me, then stepped aside.
“Why if it isn’t mademoiselle,” he said, “What’s the rush, belle petite rousse?”
“I have to get to class,” I blushed.
“So do I. Why don’t you let me walk with you? I can show you the way.”
“It’s okay, I know where to go.” I closed my locker door and started walking away down the corridor, but then David appeared right beside me.
“So what brings you to our fair school?”
“Oh, ummm… we just moved here.” I didn’t really know why I lied, but I also didn’t want to tell him I had been at the other high school before in case he knew some of the kids from there.
“I have to go now,” I said as I reached the door to my classroom.
David put his arm across the door and blocked my way. “I’ll see you later, l’amour de la vie.” He brushed a stray strand of hair from my face and stepped to one side with a bow. I rushed past and sat in my seat feeling flustered.
“Where have you been all morning?” asked Debbie.
“Oh, gosh, ummm… I went to the library to get some books.”
“So that’s why your face is all red?”
“Oh, is it? Ummm… I was just running.” I opened my textbook and pretended to be looking closely at the words, but I was aware that Debbie was still looking at me curiously when the teacher walked into the room.
“Okay ladies and gentleman. Algebra…”
I opened my notebook and wrote down a little verse that had popped into my head,
“In that moment between breaths,
No more clouds, but light
Shining brightly, clear beauty.”
I looked at my words for a moment then closed my notebook and quickly opened my maths book. Then I noticed Debbie look away. ‘Oh my gosh,’ I thought to myself, ‘Did she see what I had written?’ I went red from embarrassment but tried to concentrate on what my maths teacher was saying.
“To solve an equation, you must find the common factors and cancel them…”
I needed to pay attention more, because I really had no idea what he meant. Debbie leant towards me and said, “Don’t worry, Molly. I can help you later.”
I looked at her and smiled. She really was my best friend.
After class, Debbie followed me outside and pounced on me straight away.
“What were you really doing before class?”
“I told you, I was in the library.”
“So how come I saw you walking with David?”
“Oh, ummm… he followed me from my locker. I was trying to get rid of him.”
“That’s not what it looked like to me,” she said. She looked thoughtful for a moment then added, “Say, why don’t you join us on Friday night? Rose and I go to youth group for our church. It’s a lot of fun and hardly religious at all. We play music and do lots of stuff… like reading poetry.”
“Oh, I’d love to Deb. That sounds like fun.” I was glad she had changed the subject.
When Friday night came, I put on my Jane Austen dress and tied my hair in a way I imagined that Elizabeth had worn. Mum then dropped me off at the hall where the youth group was held and kissed me goodbye as I hopped out of the car.
“Have fun, Molly. I will pick you up at eight,” she called behind me. I waved my hand without turning around as I walked toward the old brick building that stood next to the chapel of the church. When I saw a group of kids sitting around the front steps of the hall I suddenly felt really nervous and started to wish I hadn’t dressed so differently from everyone else. I didn’t know any of them and they just stared at me as I walked toward the group.
“Hi, I was looking for Debbie Long,” I said, trying to sound brave and confident but hearing the shaky softness of my own voice and wishing I was stronger.
“She’s inside.” One of the kids pointed inside the doorway, so I said ‘thanks’ and walked between them to go inside.
The hall was a rectangle with wooden floorboards and a stage at one end. There was a picture of the queen on one wall and the other wall was covered in posters that some of the kids must have made. There was a group of about a dozen teenagers sitting around in a circle and holding hands. Their heads were bowed and one of them was saying a prayer. I stood there awkwardly and waited for them to finish.
Debbie noticed me when she lifted her head and came bounding over to take my hand.
“Come and meet the gang,” she said brightly. I followed her nervously, feeling out of place and wishing I had never come. “This is Molly everyone, she’s coming to join us. She sings and writes poetry.” I felt myself blushing from embarrassment. I should have expected something like that from Debbie but I thought she might be gentler for my first time.
“Molly, I want you to meet everyone. You know Rose, of course, and this is Bruce, and Anne…”
Debbie went around the group and introduced me to everyone. Each one of them stood up and said ‘hello’ until there was only one guy left sitting on the ground. I hadn’t noticed him at first because I was so nervous, but now I saw that he had short sandy hair and looked a little shy. “… and this is Andrew. Andrew, this is the Molly I have been telling you about.”
Andrew stood up and I realised he was much taller than I had thought. He made me feel even shorter than usual as he reached out his hand. As our fingers met, I half expected him to kiss my hand like David had done, but instead he shook it gently but firmly. His skin was cool against my hot fingers, and I looked up into the most dazzling blue eyes I had ever seen. They were so hypnotic that I found myself staring into them for longer than I should have. Suddenly Andrew smiled and my heart started racing. “I’m really pleased to meet you, Molly. Debbie has told me so much about you, and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy being part of our group.” I gave a little smile back, but I was too flustered to say anything. His voice was as gentle and smooth as his hand, and I realised that he wasn’t shy at all, just… I searched for the right word, confident? Controlled? Or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He let go of my hand and I stood there awkwardly, realising everyone had been watching us.
Debbie suddenly put her arm around me. “Come and sit, we were just about to do some singing.”
I sat on the floor between Debbie and Rose, and the rest of the group spread around us in a circle. Andrew was sitting directly opposite me and he picked up a guitar and started strumming for a few moments. Then he lifted his head and looked straight at me as he sang. All the others joined in after the first verse, but I didn’t know the song so I just sat there with my eyes hypnotised by Andrew’s gaze.
When the song finished, Andrew held the guitar up. “Who else knows how to play the guitar?”
“Molly can,” Debbie leapt in straight away.
I felt so embarrassed that my face was burning as I tried to explain how I didn’t really know how to play properly, but Andrew stood up and brought the guitar over to me.
“Whatever you do, it will be beautiful,” he said.
I sat with my legs crossed and placed the guitar on my lap. I tried to remember how Shawn’s song went and I tentatively strummed a chord. It sounded okay, so I strummed a few more times and tried to find the rhythm. I was too embarrassed to look up, so I kept my head down and looked at the guitar and tried to pretend that I knew what I was doing. Then the words came to me and I opened my mouth to sing, “Can you imagine anything…”
My voice sounded hollow and thin in my ears and my fingers stumbled a few times, but I managed to get through the song and then looked up. Everyone in the group was staring at me. Some had their mouths open and I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. I could feel the tears coming and I was suddenly upset because I hadn’t been sad in ages and now Debbie had embarrassed me in front of all her friends. I was about to put the guitar down and run out of the hall, when Andrew leant over to take it from my hands.
“That was so beautiful,” he said kindly. Suddenly everyone started clapping and talking all at once and I couldn’t believe that they had actually enjoyed what they’d heard. I thought they were just being nice, but they made it believable and I started to smile as the tears went away.
At school the following week we began reading parts from Jane Austen’s novels. Mr Norris let the group move all the chairs and tables to one side and we sat on the floor in the centre of the room. We each had to read a page and then pass the book to someone else at random to read until everyone had taken a turn.
It was nice hearing the stories being read out loud, but each time the reader got to the end of the page I could feel the tension in the bottom of my stomach as I waited to be the next person picked. The book passed around the room and then it was David’s turn.
He took the book and started reading confidently. It was the ball scene in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Darcy was approaching Elizabeth to ask for a dance. David kept pausing for emphasis, just as though he was acting out the part rather than just reading it, and whenever Darcy spoke to Elizabeth, David would look straight at me. When he reached the bottom of the page, David reached over and handed me the book.
“It’s your turn,” he said.
I opened to the page where he had left the bookmark. I took a deep breath as I looked at the words on the page. Elizabeth and Darcy were still dancing, but Elizabeth had rebutted all of his approaches so far and was saying something about Wickham. I tried to speak but it came out in a whisper. I paused and took another deep breath.
“It’s okay, Molly,” said Mr Norris, “Just take your time.”
I looked up and he was smiling at me kindly. I turned my eyes back down to the book and started reading again, trying to sound confident but I could hear my voice wavering and I knew I wasn’t doing justice to Elizabeth’s remarks.
Eventually I got to the end of the page and looked for Rose and handed her the book. She smiled and squeezed my hand as she took it from me and then started reading.
Once everyone in the class had finished their turn, Mr Norris stood up and asked us what we thought was going on here. David was the first one to put his hand up. “Yes, David?” said Mr Norris.
“I think they both like each other, but neither is willing to admit it yet. Darcy knows he likes her, but she has developed a prejudice against him for some reason and so she is pretending to herself that she doesn’t like him. I think they will get together in the end.” He didn’t take his eyes of me the whole time he spoke.
“Thank you, David. That is pretty insightful, although we should watch out for spoilers. Does anyone else have a view?” He looked around the group, but nobody spoke up. “Molly White, how about you? What do you think is going on here?”
I had to take another deep breath and stop my heart from racing. Why did Mr Norris have to single me out? “Ummm…,” I began hesitantly. I had an idea in my mind but it was hard to form it into words with everyone looking at me. “Ahhhh…, I think, ummm, that Jane Austen is trying to make a statement about, ummm, relationships between men and women.” I started to warm up and feel more confident as the idea solidified in my mind. “I think she is trying to breakdown stereotypes that a woman has to say ‘yes’, just because a man asks her.” I looked up at David and smiled.
“That is an excellent analysis, Molly,” said Mr Norris. “You have struck right at the heart of the theme we will be exploring throughout the term. Now, does anyone else have anything to add?”
Rose leaned over and squeezed my hand again. “Molly, you were wonderful!” she whispered. I smiled at her and felt a flood of warmth in my chest.
“Thanks, Rose,” I whispered back.
“Okay, well I don’t think we have time for any more today. Make sure you have finished ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by the end of the week because next week we are starting ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Now we had better put the chairs and tables back and you can have an early lunch.”
I stood and started to pick up some chairs. “Here, let me carry that for you,” said David as he tried to take the chairs from my hands.
“Thanks, but I can carry them.”
“I know you can, but I just wanted to help.” I let him take one of the chairs off my pile, and while that made it easier to carry, I didn’t want to admit that to him.
The bell rang for the end of the school day and I packed my bag and started walking out to the gate to meet Mum.
She had gotten my bike repaired weeks ago, but I still wasn’t game to ride it again yet. I had ridden it once a couple of weeks ago, but it felt strange and I was worried about falling off and hurting my leg all over again. I rode really slowly, much slower than I used to, and I nearly panicked whenever a car came towards me. Before I went too far I turned around and rode straight back home and put my bike in the shed. I didn’t tell Mum that I was scared of riding my bike, I just asked her if she could pick me up from school each day so that I could spend more time with my friends.
When I was nearly at the gate, Rose came running up behind me and called out my name. I stopped and waited for her, and then she breathlessly asked if it would be okay if she came home with me for the afternoon so that we could study. I was a bit shocked because I hadn’t expected her to want to spend time with me, but I asked Mum if she would be able to drive Rose home later.
Once that was settled we climbed into the car and Rose and I got comfortable in the backseat.
“That was so cool what you did in English today.”
“Oh, ummm… I just didn’t know what else to say.”
“Well, I think you have plenty to say. Are you going to try out for the debating team?” I looked up and saw Mum’s eyes watching me in the rear vision mirror.
“Are you kidding? There’s no way I would ever get picked for the debating team.” Actually, there was no way I would ever want to be anywhere near a debating team. I looked back at the mirror but Mum was looking away.
“You should do it, you would be good at it I think. You know I was on the team last year… with David.” I noticed Mum was looking at me in the mirror again and I blushed.
“So what do you want to study when we get home,” I quickly tried to change the subject.
“Well I was hoping you could help me with English, and I was wondering if you wanted me to help you with maths.”
I said I thought that sounded like a good idea and when we got home we had some afternoon tea and then locked ourselves away in my bedroom.
“What a cool bedroom,” said Rose. “You’ve got so many books in here, I can’t believe it.” I looked proudly at the collection of books spilling out of my bookcase.
“Well… I’ve always liked reading.”
“So what’s through that door there?” She pointed to the door leading to Stephen’s bedroom. My eyes followed her finger and I suddenly thought about all the dreams I’d had about that room over the years. Sometimes I went in there and just sat on the bed and looked out the window. Most of his things were still in their place and I think Mum snuck in every now and then and dusted. But it was my little escape world where I went sometimes when I felt sad or lost or lonely because I could feel his spirit in there more than anywhere else.
“Oh, it’s just a room full of junk,” I said casually. “Do you want to do English or maths first?”
Rose looked at me closely and I hoped she couldn’t see the sadness that had crept into my heart. “English,” she said. “I want you to tell me how you know so much about Jane Austen, because when we met on the train you hadn’t even heard about her.”
We spent an hour talking about how I had been going to the library and reading everything I could find on Jane Austen. There were so many books in there it could take the rest of my life, I told her. She asked if that was why I had changed my hair style and I nodded, feeling a little embarrassed.
“I like it,” she said, “Can you show me how to do it? Then we can be the Jane Austen twins.”
Instead of doing any maths we spent the next hour doing each other’s hair and talking about books. Rose said she had always liked reading more than doing anything else, but she said she hadn’t read as many exciting books as I had, and she always had to go and do the things that Debbie wanted to do and that interrupted her reading time. As I listened I felt my heart go out to her and began to realise why she was always the quiet one.
Eventually it was time for Mum to take her home and Rose gave me a big hug as she climbed out of the car.
“Thank you, Molly. See you at school tomorrow.”
I waved goodbye and hopped into the front seat beside Mum. She put the indicator on and looked over her shoulder as she pulled out into the traffic. We drove up the road in silence for a few minutes, and then Mum turned her head and looked at me.
“So… who is David?”
I looked out the side window so that she couldn’t see my face.
“Oh, he’s just a boy in my class.” When I eventually turned around Mum was looking at the road ahead, but I could see a smile on her lips.