By Sarah Jayne, age 20, County Durham, England
That first day they gave away her identity. Mother had good-naturedly enveloped the headmaster in a bear-hug; father had deftly pocketed a waylaid copper coin. The sight of her parents in the crowded room had wounded Molly. Preened beyond perfection; over-ready, graceless smiles and rabbit-frenzied eyes immediately familiar and yet foreign amid the poised throng.
She did not begrudge them it, though. Rather, she was nettled by the umber mink coat the headmistress was wearing. Its large pockets gaped and bulged, like eyeless sockets, and Molly thought to deposit her pups from home inside them so that a dozen clear eyes might be passed back and forth, clacking, to each of her equine clops.
And when the headmistress asked, "Where are you from?" with a sympathetic incline of her head, Molly knew immediately that they had come from nothing, nowhere, a hollow gourd stricken handless in the earth.
It was Molly that had wanted to leave home, Molly that had lusted after the elegance and rigor of a 19th century Catholic school. But now, after having seen so many unfamiliar faces and places, her eyes unfocused, as though burst. She would only listen, could only bear to, so she closed her eyes, but the babble of alien voices - "What a flippant girl that Joanna is ... Clarissa is never to be found skulking senselessly outside boys' dormitory windows mooning opportunity away ... sometimes she skips recreation to read ... Clarissa is a God-fearing girl ... Isn't your Deborah?" - made her feel small.
Her parents had waved her into her first class, grinning inanely. The hall was dark, like a timeworn cave. She said goodbye to them in the same way she might take leave of a bereaved couple. "There, there," she lulled, as their smiles ebbed away, leaving bare imploring eyes and agitated mouths. She was methodical and her mouth flat. She smoothed mother's face, laughter lines embellished with powder, like cracked clay. She then patted father's densely veined hands that always reminded her of the trailing maypop above her front door.
But even as she did this her father lifted her into his hug, so that only her toes grazed the floor, and she crumpled into his arms.
The oversized maroon blazer her parents had meticulously saved for lacked the yield to sculpt her, suddenly swan-like, into not-daughter-anymore. She fell shapelessly down the shadowy corridor in her taut new shoes and two-strata blazer.
"Remember to sit at the front," mother said, attempting a smile.
"Yes, mother." Molly waved back.
As she entered the classroom the shadow-caul was peeled fast from her eyes.
A hundred more wide eyes peeked out at her from behind pink, enquiring noses.
The teacher, a young woman whose smile was effortlessly cheering, greeted her. "Hullo, I'm Miss Webb. Please take a seat." She rested her hands quietly on her desk as she spoke, directing Molly's attention towards a framed monochrome photograph of a young boy; dark toes grabbled earth; back arched, imitating trout-stroke; lemonade drained from a glass. He looked nothing like the woman standing before Molly. It made her wonder if perhaps Miss Webb's kitchen windows were lined with cartons of cress, and her neighbours called her 'Sally' or 'Wendy' or 'Dee' - and not 'Miss Webb', not 'Miss, thank you Miss,' at all. The photo mesmerised her, and she must have stared at it overlong because, after a pause, Miss Webb spoke again. "Now would you prefer a window or an aisle seat?" Her voice was kindly and reassuring.
"Window, please," Molly whispered.
At this Miss Webb laughed stridently, and everybody else laughed, too, and for a flitting moment Molly wondered if perhaps they knew she had chosen the window seat because it was closest to the front, as her mother had counselled, and this was what was so ridiculous. At once she was aware of her hands and their largeness, muddling with the straps of her satchel. She felt her face growing hot.
"You can sit with me, if you like," a voice bubbled by Molly's side.
Molly slid onto the bench gratefully. The girl that had spoken introduced herself as Rebecca. She spoke to Molly in whispers. "What's your name?"
"I'm in Alderwood House too - Alderwood girls together!" The girl giggled, pointing at the base of Molly's throat.
Molly followed Rebecca's pointing finger to the tip of the House crest on her mauve tie. Only last night her mother had sewn 'Molly' on its underside in shaky, blown-up lettering, crude like some caricature hastily drawn up by the seaside, accompanied by her likeness in a pool, or a field, or a pitch - or some other such place that outlined her in brief. Molly had not paid much attention to the over-side of her tie previously, and so did not know she was to be in a specific house, let alone sharing it with the tittering Rebecca. She did not learn much more of Rebecca, however, as before even telling Molly so much as her hometown, she launched straight into an excited skirmish of whispers about the boy planted on Miss Webb's desk.
"Isn't he just ravishing?" Her round face beamed. "I saw him sitting in the passenger seat of Miss' car once when the girls and I had come back from buying Dolly Beads and Fizz Whizzes. I wonder where he comes from, and, if we were all to go there, there would be one of him for each for us?"
Molly simply nodded. But she couldn't help but wonder if the boy on the teacher's desk was made astral by his purely being there; hundreds of girls would attend this class every day after having recited the Stations of the Cross under withered asexual reign.
And yet - despite herself, her triumphant psychology - she was drawn to him.
"You - you, young girl that just got here." Miss Webb's voice cut into her thoughts. "You would make a good Athene. Do you know the story of Athene?" She examined Molly from behind a lowered book.
Molly started. "I understand she is the goddess of war, miss. And in that respect not a bit like me."
Miss Webb smiled. She wore fuchsia lipstick, and the colour opened and ran in the grey of the classroom. "The Greek goddesses rarely lazed on a single branch. Athene was also the goddess of agriculture, arts - handicrafts! See! Even your hands have a water personality. This signals great creativity." She paused dramatically, lips parted, eyes gleaming. "And you look like you might have conceivably sprouted from Zeus' forehead!" She laughed at her pun. She laughed like Molly's mother. Deep and sprawling.
She settled the book she had been holding before Molly, still smiling, and, after hesitating, Molly began to read aloud. It was a writer's take on the Odyssey, and it did not serenade Athene's ferocity, or the head she had fixed so fondly - as one would a bauble - to her shield, but instead the fact that she had never had a mother. Born of Zeus, she had wombed attired in armour and with the brittle film of eggshell over her eyes. The dialogue was that between her maritime avatar, the eagle, and the sea.
Perhaps good for me I did not stir
To the circle of a breast, or arms
'Else I should not rift roost, and soar,
To the ocean's palm.
And, although Molly read on, try as she might, after the first line all she could think of was her mother, and the round of her blackberry pies.
Molly had slept fitfully on her first night. Several times she had awoken to the far and near inhalations and exhalations of the three girls with whom she shared her bedroom, including Rebecca, who had secured the bed at Molly's side with a handful of strawberry bonbons and a slide whistle. Molly was flattered.
And, by her second day, Molly was tentatively looking forward to another lesson with the peculiar Miss Webb.
When she entered the classroom, however, she was met with the black, puffed out hump of a nun's bending back, which somehow still managed to appear haughty.
The nun bent at the front desk with her back to the class did not notice Molly's arrival. A nun..."I thought we were learning about Ancient Greece? Where's Miss Webb today?" Molly whispered from behind the vulture-like apparition, too loudly, it seemed.
Rebecca opened her mouth to reply, but no sooner had it filled with air, than the nun had spun around, eyeing Molly sharply.
"It is not for you to speculate, little one!"
Molly and Rebecca gasped, for before them stood the very same woman that had spoken so enthusiastically of ancient Greece and the merits of arts and handicrafts the day before, only today her face had been scoured free of any vestige of the former fuchsia lips. Yesterday they had appeared as a magma fissure, threatening at any moment to splinter and spread. Her strawberry blond locks were imperceptible behind her tight headdress, and a deep furrow knotted her brows together.
Molly felt her cheeks redden at having been addressed so directly.
The changed Miss Webb clapped her hands. A cloud of chalk dust formed, as though she were made of flour. "Genesis two, verse eighteen. Come on, no time to spare. You there! Come now! The good Lord will not reschedule the appointed hour for tardy schoolgirls."
Molly looked up. She had no Bible! Why didn't she have a Bible? Perhaps she could improvise...no! She had never so much as touched a Bible before; the summation of her knowledge consisted of the Nativity story. And that wasn't in Genesis ... was it?
The very walls seemed to pound.
Hesitantly, delicately, Molly attempted to find the words. "I- I- ... left my Bible at home, Sister Mathilde."
The woman appeared to puff out, and her head retreat into the caverns of her headdress, as though she were a ruffled hen. She spoke with an unsettling calm. "My name is Sister Mathilde. It's the second lesson of term. You should know by now to ..." Suddenly her eyes shone and lifted, as though stirred by some celestial divination. Glassy eyed and quiet now, she spoke as though in response to some unseen agent that unearthed thoughts instead of documents, that had hopped from Sister Mathilde's shoulder to Molly's and then back again. "I see. Your Biblical studies have been neglected somewhat, have they not? Ancient Greece has been de rigeur, no doubt?"
And, when none replied, she spoke to Molly with a suddenly changed tone of nonchalance. "Here, borrow mine this time. Purchase a small, leather-bound copy by tomorrow...Authorised King James Version." She glanced down at Molly. "Your hands are of an idle shape. Don't you even think about writing in it."
"Yes, sister." Molly could not help but be acutely aware of the too-straight backs, too-quiet chairs; the obedient yellow ribbons dividing every Genesis, but wayward-turned eyes of the rest of the class. She turned to the girl beside her for support; the other girl seemed not to notice.
Another girl was reading the passage already. Molly mustn't have noticed the passage of time after being chastised. "... not good for the man to be alone ..."
Molly remembered this story. Embryo images of a plasticine man and woman surfaced, weaving animals, herbs and, she imagined, each others' hair into a rudimentary tapestry of domestic order. She thought again of home. Something occurred to her.
"Miss - I mean - Sister Mathilde ... Are men short one rib since God had to use one to create Eve?" Molly blurted unthinkingly.
The Sister looked at her sharply, eyes ablaze. The girl who had been reading sucked in a breath, but Sister Mathilde held up a hand up to silence her. But just as suddenly as her eyes had quickened to fire, they relaxed. "Ah! The male anatomy! Now that, dear child," she smiled now, but thinly, "is a question no doubt to be expected from a girl that shirks her devotional readings in favour of the carnal of pleasures of Ancient Greece!"
That night, Molly wrote a letter composed of a single sentence to her parents. But the following morning, having slept through her initial resentment, and returned to a her former state of homesickness, she decided not to send the note - Why did you never teach me the Bible? - after all.
Instead, she wondered about Miss Webb and Sister Mathilde, and how two women could appear so alike and yet be so different. It quickly occurred to her that school was not unlike a splitting of herself; the crease-grin, knock-knee Molly of the farm; the maroon-matched, buckle-shoe Molly of Alderwood. She wondered if the two could ever possibly coincide.
Sarah Jayne invites you to read her blog: http://travellingbyturtle.com