The Ap­pli­ca­tion

Woman & Home (South Africa) - - Contents - by Jenny Col­gan

Ex­clu­sive short story by Jenny Col­gan

Veron­ica Dev­eral could never be sure, as she saw the school­girl tear­ing up the cor­ri­dor, catch sight of her, im­me­di­ately tug down her skirt and slow to a walk­ing pace, quite when she had be­come so ter­ri­fy­ing. Not that she dis­liked it, en­tirely.

“Good morn­ing Is­abel,” Veron­ica said calmly. “Good morn­ing Dr Dev­eral,” the girl breath­lessly par­roted back, ob­vi­ously hop­ing to dodge a bul­let; be­fore scut­tling on her way.

Veron­ica would have rolled her eyes, but of course she was at school, and some­one might have seen her. It was tir­ing, some­times, try­ing to keep up what she knew as ex­pected at Downey Girls, one of the finest girls’ schools in Eng­land.

Eve­lyn, her ad­min­is­tra­tor, took o her glasses as Veron­ica en­tered her o ce; a wood­pan­elled haven, cov­ered in art by tal­ented old girls, and pic­tures of years past. No fam­ily, of course. There was not time for that, as she al­ways ex­plained, when you were mar­ried to your job. She had four hun­dred girls, af­ter all.

“Nearly out!” Eve­lyn said. “They do get so rest­less this time of year.”

“Quite right too,” mur­mured Veron­ica, look­ing out through the arched win­dows. The lawn was a bright green, lead­ing all the way to the edge of the clis, with the sea an invit­ing Cor­nish blue be­yond. As usual the gar­den­ing sta, helped, and oc­ca­sion­ally hin­dered, by the ju­nior gar­den­ing club, had done a mag­nif­i­cent job, and the June gar­den was full of early roses, peonies and bright blue corn­flow­ers.

“Are you go­ing away?” Eve­lyn glanced away, wor­ried as if she’d asked a slightly too per­sonal ques­tion. Veron­ica smiled dis­tract­edly, and ig­nored her, in­stead tak­ing a look at the lat­est sheaf of beg­ging ap­pli­ca­tions on her desk, each sug­gest­ing a more bril­liant, unique and world-beat­ing child than the last.

“I do wish peo­ple would... pos­si­bly not boost their chil­dren’s self-es­teem QUITE so much these days,” she mur­mured, as she plucked the first one o the pile – a vir­tu­oso oboist, no less, as well as a “pro­fes­sional stan­dard rider”.

At 11, won­dered Veron­ica. Com­pe­ti­tion for Downey Girls was ab­so­lutely fierce.

She wanted very much to check through her post to see if her tick­ets had come. But if any­thing had got Veron­ica where she was to­day, it was her iron self-con­trol.

“All right,” she said, run­ning a hand across her al­ready im­mac­u­late steely grey bob and sit­ting up­right at her desk. “Let’s get started.”

The first fam­ily were, Veron­ica checked, on the schol­ar­ship path. The girl did in­deed have ex­cel­lent re­sults, but there was some­thing a lit­tle ex­tra they al­ways looked for at Downey Girls and from the first mo­ment, her heart sank. They’d trav­elled a long way for the in­ter­view too.

The par­ents were anx­ious, ob­vi­ously in their Sun­day best; the fa­ther, short and bald­ing, olive-skinned and tired baggy eyes; the mother, woe­fully over­dressed in a slightly too small flo­ral dress; slightly too much make-up; large cos­tume jewellery ear­rings. She kept fid­dling with a small plas­tic hand­bag. The 14-year-old sat in-be­tween them. She was heavy and pasty-look­ing, in a way that de­noted too many ready-meals; too much time spent in­doors, study­ing, while her par­ents worked long hours. She wore thick glasses and had long wiry hair, braided tight. Her face looked mis­er­able. “Hello… Si­mone,” said Veron­ica, check­ing the file. Si­mone mut­tered some­thing in re­sponse. Her mother nudged her sharply in the leg. “Wel­come to Downey House… did you en­joy the tour?” The girl shrugged and blushed a dark shade of red and Veron­ica men­tally con­sid­ered strik­ing her im­me­di­ately. If a child didn’t want to come to board­ing school, it was noth­ing more than cru­elty to make them.

“It was lovely,” gushed the mother. “We par­tic­u­larly en­joyed...”

Veron­ica cut her o with an icy smile. “I’m just talk­ing to Si­mone just now,” she said with a tight smile. Si­mone got a fierce nudge from her mother for her eorts. “Yeah, it was all right,” she said. Veron­ica sud­denly found her­self perk­ing up. Both of Si­mone’s par­ents sounded Eastern Euro­pean, but Si­mone her­self had the broad­est Liver­pudlian ac­cent. “It says here you’re from Lon­don?” she said look­ing at the form.

“We moved there,” said Si­mone in purest Scouse. “But I was born in Liver­pool.” They never got Liver­pudlian girls down that far. There were plenty of good schools in the North. Also, Veron­ica had al­ways wanted to… get away. “Which part?”

“Down by the docks…”

Sud­denly Veron­ica was back there, just for an in­stant. The seag­ulls caw­ing; the smell of diesel o those big ships that came in.

Her fa­ther had worked there for years.

“But Lon­don is much nicer,” in­ter­jected the mother again. Veron­ica blinked po­litely. “And why do you want to come here?” Si­mone shrugged. Then, mind­ful of her mother’s el­bows she re­cited, “Downey House sets new stan­dards of ex­cel­lence in the field of young women’s ed­u­ca­tion, pre­par­ing them for

chal­lenges in ev­ery walk of life and set­ting them up for a fu­ture they can be proud of…”

Veron­ica’s lips twitched. It was un­de­ni­ably funny to hear their own – pompous, she knew – brochure par­roted back to her in her home­town ac­cent. Si­mone’s fa­ther mis­in­ter­preted her amuse­ment, and bris­tled. “She’s very smart girl,” he said, em­phat­i­cally. “She’s bril­liant. Very smart. Ev­ery­one says so.”

“All our girls are smart, Mr Pri­betch,” said Veron­ica, in her cut-glass ac­cent. She wanted the par­ents to stop talk­ing. “Tell me some­thing you like do­ing in Lon­don, Si­mone?”

Si­mone shrugged. “I don’t re­ally. I liked Liver­pool. Lon­don you just have to stay in all the time. Liver­pool I could wan­der out, down the docks, see the ships come in.”

“It’s a bad en­vi­ron­ment for a young girl,” said Mrs Pri­betch.

“I wouldn’t know,” lied Veron­ica. Oh, but it was flood­ing back now. Veron­ica – Vera then.

Vera’s fa­ther had left his lunch be­hind, and her mother sent her down to the docks with it, skip­ping like Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood. I think that per­haps Vera’s mother had for­got­ten that she was no longer the sweet lit­tle girl whom the other work­ers would pet and give lol­lipops to. In­stead she was grow­ing too quickly into a body she didn’t un­der­stand, full of cu­ri­ous pas­sions and un­ex­plained yearn­ings.

Af­ter she’d found her fa­ther, she’d wan­dered slowly home be­tween the cranes and de­liv­ery trucks on the dock­side.

And then, out had jumped the wolf... or rather, a man, Bert Cromer. An ac­quain­tance of her fa­ther whom she’d no­ticed be­fore, at church with his own fam­ily or stag­ger­ing out of the pub on week­nights. He had dirty, sharp teeth and a snig­ger­ing way of look­ing at her that was un­com­fort­able and un­pleas­ant.

“Well, well, Miss Vera,” he said, step­ping out in-be­tween two large can­is­ters, in a se­cluded part of the ship­yard. “What have we here?”

“Takin’ me da his lunch, mis­ter,” Vera said, look­ing for an easy exit. She couldn’t see one.

“Are you in­deed?” said the man. “So you just hap­pened to be down here, on your own, flounc­ing about dock­side? There’s a name for ladies who do that. Do you know what it is?” He moved closer to her. She could smell him; he smelled of stale beer and bad breath.

“Do you, lit­tle Vera? Is that what you’re go­ing to do for a liv­ing now? They won’t like that down the chapel. Al­ways got your nose in a book, I’ve seen yer. That won’t do yer much good, will it? But maybe it’s taught you a few things.”

And then, shock­ingly he had reached out and put a hand on Vera’s dress. She jumped back, but couldn’t see any­where else to go. He was block­ing the route ahead, and be­hind were only the empty crates, car­ry­ing She’eld steel and She’eld cut­lery all round the world.

Vera let out a lit­tle sound. “New to this, are you? Well, we might make it easy on yer.” He was com­pletely fac­ing her now, push­ing her back­wards to one of the crates.

“Let me go!” said Vera as strongly as she could man­age, sud­denly ter­ri­fied. “Get o— me.” Her voice sounded piti­fully weak and girl­ish.

“Walk­ing down the docks, in clear day­light. Brazen as brass,” said Bert Cromer.

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Veron­ica, putting her hand on a beau­ti­ful bronze pa­per­weight her sixth form had given her four years ago: as if to an­chor her to the care­ful, safe world she lived in now. “I like the mu­seum too,” said Si­mone. “You know they ran the slave ships out of there.”

“They did,” said Veron­ica. “But they built ships too.” Then, sud­denly, he’d been there. She hadn’t even known how he’d got­ten there, nor what he said. It was just a kind of gut­tural, an­gry stream of sounds. But you could tell what he meant all right. And then he hit Bert on the head for good mea­sure. Then he pulled out a span­ner and o—ered to hit him some more with that, if that’s what he wanted.

Bert was a cow­ard re­ally. All bul­lies are. As soon as Piotr hit him, he scarpered o— like a skelped rab­bit. And he stayed well away af­ter that. It had taken her two sec­onds to fall in love. Piotr Petro­vich Ivanov. You had to use his full name. Vera used to think there were so many peo­ple in Rus­sia, you needed to use all the names to di—er­en­ti­ate. But it’s just their pat­ri­mony. That doesn’t mat­ter, of course. She used to roll it round her mouth at night. Piotr Petro­vich Ivanov. It was so beau­ti­ful, so ex­otic.

He wasn’t even meant to be o— his boat. They weren’t al­lowed in those days, do you re­mem­ber? In case he got in­fected with evil Cap­i­tal­ist ideas. He’d come o— for a look around be­cause he never let any­thing like that get in his way. He was pu’ng on one of the stink­ing black Rus­sian cig­a­rettes he smoked – they were ab­so­lutely filthy things. She had adored the smell.

“And there used to be Rus­sians docked there!” said Si­mone, which star­tled Veron­ica, cross­ing straight into her own thoughts.

“A re­ally long time ago though.”

“A re­ally long time ago,” agreed Veron­ica. “So, you love his­tory?”

Si­mone’s round face was start­ing to come in to it­self as she nod­ded, and started to tell Veron­ica more things she al­ready knew about the Cold War. “You couldn’t get in touch with Rus­sia at all! You couldn’t just go there! Or send let­ters or email or any­thing!”

“I don’t think they had email then,” said Veron­ica, gen­tly.

“Oh. No. No, they didn’t.” Si­mone flushed the bright red of the child who is used to get­ting the right an­swer. Veron­ica looked down. Nei­ther Si­mone nor any­one look­ing at her would have guessed for a sec­ond that, in her mind, she was sit­ting on the front of a bi­cy­cle Piotr Petro­vich Ivanov pur­loined one night, rid­ing round the ship­yard at mid­night af­ter she’d crept out of the house, both of them scream­ing with laugh­ter and frozen joy as the black wa­ter of the port lapped at the dock’s edge. “You could write,” said Veron­ica, dream­ily. “But most let­ters from the West were in­ter­cepted… cen­sored. Who knows what ever made it through? You never heard back…” It was the look of amaze­ment on Si­mone’s par­ents’ faces that made Veron­ica re­alise that her ac­cent had slipped; for the first time in decades. Now it was her time to blush.

“We have a won­der­ful his­tory de­part­ment here, Si­mone,” she said, quickly, in RP. “I think you could fol­low any­thing that in­ter­ested you.”

“I saw the library,” nod­ded Si­mone. “The library… the library I did like. We don’t have one at my school. Or in the district, the bizzies shut it. Peo­ple were protest­ing.”

It was “bizzies” that did it. Veron­ica stood up, with a smile; a gen­uine smile. “We’ll be in touch,” she said, shak­ing the par­ents’ hands. “But I will say, I think Si­mone would do very well here.”

Si­mone blinked be­hind her thick glasses as if un­able to be­lieve what she’d just heard. And the smile that broke out on her face changed her un­recog­nis­ably. As soon as the old oak door had shut be­hind them, Veron­ica held o— her next fam­ily and did give in to the temp­ta­tion to check her post. Heathrow­moscow-vladi­vos­tok. And she picked up the thin en­ve­lope of tick­ets, and tucked it safely away into the in­side pocket of her tweed jacket. w&h

They’d trav­elled a long way...

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