Issue 145, Winter 1997
Fiamma fainted in chapel this morning. The teachers do not know we make ourselves do it, though they suspect we do. They even had a doctor brought in to examine us, but he said there was nothing wrong with us. He said he had never seen such a healthy group of growing girls. We do look healthy.
Our skins are gold with all the sunshine, and our hair and teeth look very white in contrast. Weekdays we wear short-sleeved white blouses and green tunics with their big Rs embroidered on our chests and our short green socks. Our tunics are worn four inches from the ground, measured kneeling, so you can see our knobby knees.
Perhaps Fiamma did not make herself faint. Perhaps she just fainted. The girls on the swimming team take turns fainting in chapel. We all know how to do it. Before Communion, while you are on your knees and have not had any breakfast, you breathe hard a few times, and then you hold your breath and close your eyes. You sweat and start to see diamonds in the dark. You feel yourself rush out of yourself, out and out.
Then you come back to the squelch of Miss G’s crepe shoes, as she strides along the blue-carpeted aisle to rescue you. She makes you put your head down between your knee s, and then she lifts you up and squeezes your arm. Miss G is our swimming reacher, and she is super strong.
You lean against her as you go down the aisle and feel her breath on your cheek, and the soft swell of her boosie. Your heart flutters, and you see the light streaming in aslant through the narrow, stained-glass windows: red and blue and yellow like a rain bow.
Miss G leads you out into the cool of the garden. You sit on the whitewashed wall under the loquat tree in your white Sunday dress and undo the mother-of-pearl button at your neck. Miss G sits on the wall beside you and smokes a cigarette, holding it under her hand, so Miss Nieven, our headmistress, who has an M.A. from Oxford, will not notice if she comes upon her suddenly. When Miss G tells you to, you take off your panama hat and set it down on the wall. Then you lean your head against her shoulder. You get to sit there under the cool dark leaves of the loquat tree and feel the breeze lift the hem of your tunic very gently and watch Miss G blow smoke rings until she asks if you feel all right now. Her voice is deep and a little hoarse, like a man’s.
Meg Donovan, who is a beauty and comes from Barbeton, says she thinks Fiamma might be preggie. Meg’s mother often fainted when she was preggie. One time Meg saw her mother fall down from the table where she was turning around, having a hem pinned up. Meg has five sisters, and they are all at our school. She says her father says they should name a wing of our school after him because of all the tuition he has had to pay.
Di Radfield, whose thin lips dip at the corner ever since her father committed suicide in the bath, says Meg must be mad. Fiamma has not even got the curse, so how could she be preggie? Ann Lindt wonders who the father could be. There are no men around here except for the night watchman.John Mazaboko, and the servants, and Sir George’s bones and those of his dog, Jock. Fuzzie, who wants to be an opera singer like Mimi Coetzee, says, “Maybe you can do it to yourself in the dark if you cross your legs and rock the bed.”
In our school the only snow we have at Christmas time is made from cotton wool, and the holly is made of plastic. It is so hot we sweat when we eat the roast turkey and the roast potatoes and the gem squash, and when they flame the Christmas pudding, the light outside is so bright you can hardly see the flame. The poem we read does not make much sense to us, as April is not the cruelest month and it breeds nothing out of the dead.
Our school is surrounded by farmland. No one is here except the teachers, who are mostly spinsters from England, and the girls. The teachers clasp their hands to their hearts and look across the dun veld to the distant horizon and talk about the lilac in May. The girls loll in the leather chairs in the common room and talk about boys. They lie out on the lawn and listen to Elvis Presley singing “Nothin’ but a houn’ dog” on the gramophone. They sleep over sums in the classrooms or whisper in the library, as they pretend to look up Latin words.
They move their mouths in silent prayer in the chapel and ask God, please, please, let Miss G choose me for the swimming team.
Near the school a few mangy cows graze, and mud huts stand, and wattle trees line the riverbanks, casting their thin shade. The river is hardly a river, just a few pools of dark, trapped water where the mozzies breed. Sometimes it does not rain for months. The earth cracks, and the soil strangles the roots of the flowers. The dust roads lie dry and white as shells, and in the afternoons when we walk, there is dust on our lace-up shoes. No fan-shaped sprinklers wave back and forth in the evenings to cool the air, and we are not allowed to take baths. The smell of sweat mingles with that of sweet dusting powder and Mum’s deodorant and the 4711 that we splash behind our ears and pour down our fronts. Once the thatched roofs of the rondavels caught fire and the night watchman, John Mazaboko, had to come running with his hose.
The graves of Sir George Harrow and his faithful bull terrier, Jock, rest in the shade of a frangipani tree. The school once belonged to Sir George. There is a portrait of him in the library, wearing a monocle and looking old and dried out.
Under his portrait it says he was a High Commissioner. The graves are out of bounds, but we sometimes run there to lie down on the cool marble slab and fold our hands on our chests and play dead.
Fuzzie was playing “All things bright and beautiful” loudly on the upright piano when Fiamma fainted. Fuzzie thumps when she plays the piano, and we make the gesture for an organ grinder behind her back. Even so, you could hear the dull thud when Fiamma ’s head hit the back of the pew. Then you could hear Miss G advancing down the aisle, her starched khaki jumpsuit rustling and her crepe-soled boots squelching, coming on valiantly, head held high, like a knight in armor.
Miss G looked beautiful and brave, and the chapel looked like a castle. Fuzzie says Miss G has an aquiline nose, which means she looks like an eagle.
Miss G is lots of girls’ crack. When you have a crack you see things more clearly: the thick dark of the shadows and the transparence of the leaves in the light and the soft glow of the pink magnolia petals against the waxy leaves. You want to lie down alone in the dark in the music room and listen to Rachmaninoff and the summer rains rushing hard down the gutters. You leave notes for your crack in her mug next to her toothbrush on the shelf in the bathroom. If you accidentally brush up against your crack, and feel her boosie, you come close to fainting.
Sometimes Miss G calls the twelve of us on the swimming team into her room and tells us to shut the windows and shutters. We sit in the half-light and listen to her talk. She tells us to watch men in their bathing costumes, how they swell when they come near a girl. She makes us feel we are the snake charmers. She says Miss Nieven is a lezzie with Miss Lacey, the English teacher, whom Yeats once loved. Miss G has seen them in the moonlight in Miss Lacey’s square green Chevrolet.
Fiamma has misty gray eyes and pale freckles and thick dark hair. She walks very straight, as if her head were a crystal vase she was balancing on her shoulders. Fiamma comes from the lake district in Italy, and she is the only girl in the school who is an R.C. They let her into our school, but she has to come to chapel with us.
She lives in a big villa with many servants. She is supposed to be a princess or something like that, and before she arrived, Miss Nieven told us to be polite and treat her kindly.
We learned about Bloody Mary in history and how she killed lots of people. She was an R. C. We read a poem by the greatest poet in the English language, according to Miss Lacey, and he asks God to avenge the saints slaughtered by the R.C.s.
Perhaps Fiamma saw someone slaughtered, and she was thinking about it when she fainted in chapel. Perhaps that is why they have sent her away from her lovely villa, which is near a blue lake and mountains.
Fiamma has very white skin and suffers terribly from the mozzies. Fuzzie says Fiamma bathes in champagne to keep her skin so white. Di Radfield says it is milk. Maybe that is why it attracts the mozzies. Fiamma has big red welts on her calves and her arms. She spits on her mozzie bites and says the mozzies are eating her alive. Ann Lindt told her to use repellent, but Fiamma says it stings too much.
Fuzzie says Fiamma fainted because someone gave her the Black Spot. The Black Spot frightened Fiamma because she believes in vendettas like all Italians. Fuzzie can sing “La Donna e mobile” from Rigoletto.
We torture all new girls. We make them eat bitter aloe or swallow cod-liver oil. Sheila Kohler tried to make a new girl put her head down the toilet, but the girl refused. Sheila Kohler said, “But you have to,” but the girl just walked away.
Ann Lindt says she does not think Fiamma would have fainted because of the Black Spot. Ann Lindt knows everything . She reads The Manchester Guardian, which is sent to us from England on special thin airmail paper and pinned to the bulletin board, where it flaps about in the breeze that comes in through the open windows. Ann Lindt told us we were in danger of war over a crisis in the Suez Canal. She asked Miss Nieven why the natives do not have the vote. Miss Nieven said democracy takes a long time to develop.
Ann Lindt has to wear thick glasses because she is always reading. She reads books by Winston Churchill, who was attacked in an armored train in the Boer War. She sits in the windowsill in the early morning before we get up and reads Winston Churchill’s Great Contemporan бes and looks up the words she does not know, words like internecine and belligerent.
She says they do not read Treasure Island in Italy and so Fiamma would not even know that if someone gives you a piece of paper with a round blackened circle on it, it means they are going to kill you.
Most of us came here as boarders at five or six because there were no proper schools where we lived. We left our parents on distant farms or small towns. We traveled alone or in little groups for days on dusty trains through the dry veld. We arrived exhausted and confused, stumbling through the long, narrow dormitories, lit only by Matron ’s torch, and finding our beds among strange sleeping girls. The sheets smelled damp and funny. We lay awake listening to the dry wind clashing in the palm trees and tried to count the stars.
We cried for our mothers until Matron came and told us to be quiet, we would wake the other girls. When we got to the hiccupy stage she took our temperature with a thermometer that she keeps in a small glass of Dettol. Her name is Mrs.
Looney, and we think she is, too.
Even now sometimes, we lie awake sniffing and hiccuping and imagining our mothers: they come to us in the half-dark, their soft breaths on our cheeks as they sing us familiar songs or recite rhymes we know : She shall have music wherever she goes.
At first we saw our mothers’ faces as we tried to untangle the knots in our hair, or when we left our soap in the big bath with the feet in the bathroom under the stairs. We thought we heard our mothers calling our names, and we ran down into the bamboo at the end of the garden, catching glimpses of them parting the bamboo and stepping toward us in green silk dresses, but it was the cry of a sparrow hawk or the wind in the leaves.
We made up imaginary friends. Fuzzie’s is called Margaret, which is her real name. We call her Fuzzie because of her curly hair. She runs around the hockey field until the breath rasps in her chest, talking to Margaret. At night in the dormitory Fuzzie tells us stories of Chinese girls who have blue eyes and blond hair, and Zulu maidens as pale as lilies. Ann Lindt interrupts and says such things are not possible. But we like to fall asleep to the sound of Fuzzie’s voice. We feel ourselves spin out into the darkness, round and round, like a leaf on a lake.
Before she fainted in chapel this morning, Fiamma rose at dawn and went to swimming practice. Fiamma may be an R.C., but she is an excellent swimmer. Miss G says she can teach anyone to swim fast. All you have to do is to desire it.
Miss G says desire is everything. We all like the way she says desire.
Miss G made us all race this year, now that we are in the senior school. She said we could choose any stroke we liked.
She made us wait forever on the grass in our thin black costumes , while she strode up and down the edge of the pool with the yellow whistle in her mouth. Miss G’s hair is glossy as a blackbird ’s and cropped so short you can see the bristles at the back. When she strides up and down you can see the shimmer of sweat on her strong arms and the dark shadow of the shaved hair between her strong, brown legs.
We felt the sun burning the skin on our shoulders puce.
We licked powdered sugar from the flat of our palms for energy.
Then Miss G called out our names and had us line up.
Our legs felt watery, like the reflections of legs in water. We giggled and squirmed and pulled the straps of our green plastic caps away from our chins.
She lifted her black gun in the white air and fired. We heard the crack of the gun. Birds shot up in the air. We flung ourselves across the water for the two lengths. We splashed and kicked into one another. Fiamma left the rest of us behind after a few strokes. When Sheila Kohler saw she was not winning she threw her hands up in the air and sank down into the water.
Fiamma says her house is surrounded by regular gardens with gravel paths and ancient trees and a stone wall by the lake. She says the house is old and large and filled with flowers, and the cannas flame red and orange at the edge of the lawns.
There are flowers in every room - roses and sweet peas and strelitzias. There are lilies and peonies and baby’s breath. There are flowers everywhere, she says-on every table and cabinet and inlaid chest, on every marble mantle piece and even on the tops of bookcases. In the entrance hall there is a forest of flowers. Fiamma maintains the whole house looks like a hothouse.
She says there are many old paintings lit up with little lamps over the gold frames. Mostly, they are so dark you can hardly see the half-peeled fruit or bleeding hares. In one of the paintings she says there are two women staring at you, face-on, with a sort of dead expression. Their hair is done up high on their heads and their stiff boosies are bare. One of the women holds a nipple of the other gently between her long white finger and thumb.
Di Radfield says she woke up early, too, before chapel this morning and saw Fiamma hunting for her swimming costume.
Fiamma is always losing things. She is used to having servants pick up her clothes from the marble floors of her big villa.
Fiamma brushes her cheeks with a toothbrush every night before she goes to bed to make them glow. She adds an Alka Seltzer to the flat water to make it fizz. She curtsies when she shakes hands with a grown-up.
Miss G says that no one will tell us the truth about life, certainly not that bunch of spinsters who know nothing about it. She says, “Think of the water as your home. Learn to do without breath. Stay light. ” She tells us not to roll about or twist our shoulders or lift our heads too high in the water, but to suck a little air from the side of our mouths. She tells us not to make any splash, to slice silently through the water.
We all wore our panama hats and our white Sunday dresses with the mother-of-pearl buttons down the front for confirmation, because Miss Nieven said this was not a fashion show.
When we were confirmed, we had to go to confession for the first and the last time in our lives. Sheila Kohler cried afterwards. She said she had told the minister she had read banned books, but she was not sorry, because they told the truth. Ann Lindt said Sheila Kohler was just trying to get Miss G’s attention.
We know who has the curse and who does not because we play Truth in the dormitory at night. We put our hands into a pile and then pull them out. Someone sits on the sidelines and calls out Stop, and whoever has her hand at the bottom of the pile has to tell the truth. That’s how we learned that Meg Donovan let a boy put his finger up her winkie. Di said she was jealous of Meg and followed her around for days like a dog. Di says we get the curse early because we live in such a hot country, but Fiamma is an aristocrat and they do not get the curse as early as commoners, because they have blue blood.
Di Radfield says she had finished swimming practice chis morning before anyone else arrived. She says she saw the whole thing. Miss G was at the swimming pool early, striding up and down the edge of the pool. Then Fiamma got out of the pool and did a perfect swallow dive from the high board, opening her arms on the rising sun and orange sky for Miss G.
Di Radfield says she remained silently in the shadows in the changing room, waiting to see what would happen. She watched Miss G follow Fiamma into the changing room, going toward Fiamma with the light behind her. Di could not see Fiamma’s face, because her back was turned toward Di. Slowly Fiamma slipped her arms out of her swimming suit straps and folded down the top of her bathing costume. She spread her arms out on either side and shook her shoulders in a sort of dance. Little drops of water fell onto the concrete floor from the tips of her fluttering fingers. She stepped out of her swimming costume. Di saw her naked back, the bare white shoulders, the damp skin, only the cool morning air clothing her. All the while Miss G was watching Fiamma, and her face looked red and wet, her mouth slightly open. Then Miss G moved toward Fiamma slowly, put her arms gently around her. Miss Glowered her dark head to Fiamma’s boosie and sucked. Di could hear her sucking like a baby.
When they had finished, Fiamma floated out of the changing room, leaving the door open. Through the open door Di saw the grass shining white in the early morning light and the soft yellow flowers on the mimosa trees like snow on the thin branches. Di Rad.field put on her tunic quickly and picked up her panama hat and ran down the bank toward the school.
Di Rad.field says she wanted to cry, because Miss G has never even grabbed her boosie, but instead she decided to tell Miss Nieven what had happened.
At evensong in chapel Fuzzie plays “Now the day has ended / Night is drawing near” on the upright piano, but she gets stuck on the first two lines and plays them over and over. The odor of incense is in our nostrils. Our sunburned faces float like pink petals in the dim light. We are worn out with the sun and talking about Fiamma. It is the sad time on Sunday night, and we cannot recall our homes.
Miss Nieven rises for the sermon. Her shadow looms long and thin on the wall. She tells us Fiamma will have to stay in the san for a while, that the doctor has to check her out.
She has sent Fiamma our good wishes, as she knows we would have wanted her to. She says that this is the sort of thing that happens when you behave in a foolish way. She reads “When I was a child I spake as a child...”
On our knees we watch Di Radfield Rip her hair back from her face and breathe out hard. She holds her breath and closes her eyes. We look for Miss G but we already know she is not there. We know what has happened to her and that she will not be back. Miss Nieven is coming to the end of the prayers, and Di’s time is running out. She is beginning to sweat, and she turns pale, but we know she will not be able to slump sideways into the aisle. She will not see diamonds in the dark.