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 clis, 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 eorts. “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 Sheeld steel and Sheeld 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 oered 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 dierentiate. 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 pung 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...