He came with the snow.
It was the first day of the spring term with no sign of spring. The snow had arrived unexpectedly and banked itself in pillows all over the grounds. It had lain down on the rooftops and blocked up the gutterings. It had crept silently along the footpaths and invited itself on to the window ledges, blanketing the rugby pitches two feet thick. It had silenced even the constant ack, ack of the resident crows. The fir trees lining the drive were drooping with its weight, tired and old. Orla knew how they felt. She guided the little red mini forward gingerly. What was it for snow? Low or high gear? She could not remember. She tried low gear, inching forward, hardly moving.
“Don’t slide,” she told herself sternly.
Just before the main building there was a line of cars: four by fours ground to a halt on the ice. They were blocking Orla’s path, as impregnable as a wall, preventing any further movement forward. The cars reminded Orla of military vehicles; ugly, brutal things you would use in a war rather than to bring children to school. She regarded cars as a necessary evil. An impossibly thin woman with blonde hair had alighted from one of them and was having an animated discussion with a stout, bald man in front. They were dressed in that country set style so beloved of most of the parents: all shiny new Barbours and Hunter wellingtons without a hint of mud. Orla recognised them both vaguely. They were business people, originally from London, now playing at Suffolk rural life. She had noticed that in the main the mothers were always thin to the point of being skeletal while the men just let themselves go to seed, enjoying their good fortune by eating and drinking or perhaps comforting themselves, hiding from their unhappiness. Orla herself fell between these two extremes. She imagined it must be quite miserable to keep yourself that thin though she did admire the result and wished she had the willpower to lose a few pounds. The woman was perfectly coiffed even at this hour of the morning with full make-up and hair tied up in a perfect chignon. This level of grooming was another thing Orla had never been able to manage. The man, typical of his type, held no interest for her. She didn’t find seriously overweight people at all attractive though she felt guilty for this. She was sure they had their reasons. Usually, the men were pretty boring to talk to; self-satisfied and arrogant.
“Don’t mind me, I only work here,” thought Orla.
She felt a flash of anger at them for stopping her progress and a familiar resentment and distaste for the parents rose within her. Why did they have to drive the biggest, most gas guzzling cars available? Hadn’t they heard of global warming? The parents appeared to be in constant competition with each other for status in material things. Cars were one of the ways they could show off their wealth. Orla had never sought riches. She had chosen teaching as she thought it would give her meaning. She had wanted at some distant point in the past to be a good person, to do worthy deeds in the world, to make a difference. She had hoped to find fulfilment in her career. She had not achieved this. Part of her had a suspicion that perhaps the acquisitive parents were right all along. Perhaps she should have sought wealth rather than more lofty ideals. Orla knew though that many of the school’s clients were far from happy. Divorce was common. Money had not given them contentment. Many of them seemed to be in a permanent state of unease, desperate for their rather ordinary children to shine at something. Being ordinary was no longer good enough. She felt guilty for her grouchy thoughts. Mornings made her feel like that these days. Some of the parents were actually very pleasant to her, called her inspirational. She was, in spite of herself. Orla had a gift for interesting children in writing and appreciating poetry. She was hard on herself though and never felt she achieved enough. She was not really aware of the effect she had on the boys she taught and how they remembered her lessons with fondness for years afterwards. She abandoned the car at the side of the drive and tramped determinedly towards the school in her new leather boots which crunched pleasantly on the snow. She looked down at her boots admiringly and felt her spirits lift a little. The air was biting with the cold but there was little wind. The winter day was perfect in its muffled beauty but she was oblivious to it; wrapped in her own thoughts.
Orla rounded the bend and there it was: Northwold. It was, of course, like many others, a grand eighteenth century country house which had been converted into a second rank boarding school for children of the military and the aspiring newly wealthy in 1935. The house had been remodelled in 1900 in a Baroque showy Italian style by the last aristocrat who bought it: the Earl of Cardean. The main doorway was topped by a stone balustrade with urns above. Above those was an asymmetrical tower with a square copper-roofed cupola. On the death of the Earl it had been sold to pay death duties. Northwold had no reputation, no entry requirements, little to recommend it other than the knowledge that one’s children did not have to mix with the hoi polloi of East Anglia. The local state schools out-performed it in examination results every year. Northwold had ideas above its station like most of the nouveau-riche who sent their children to it. Apart from RAF and Army families most of the school’s clientele were local business people: self-made millionaires from gravel, climbing frames, property development, leather goods, scrap metal, hucksterism, security – the strangest things made money. There were also some Ukrainians whose fathers paid their school fees with suitcases of money and some dark-eyed Spanish boys with better manners than the home grown youth. In spite of the school advertising itself as boarding, the actual boarders were few in number. Most of the boys went home at weekends and some were day pupils only. Most people now seemed to regard the practice of boarding out your children from the age of seven as barbaric. Orla would tend to agree with them. Northwold was unusual in resisting the conversion to co-ed: it catered only for the male of the species. The house was fine enough but Orla missed the baronial architecture of her native Scotland. What was a grand house without a turret, faux battlements and impossible towered rooms? It was no Glamis Castle. She missed the Disneyscape of Edinburgh where she had been educated, or half-educated, to be more accurate. Orla’s grandmother had been in service at Glamis at one time and Orla reflected that nothing much had changed. In spite of her university education Orla was still just a servant to rich people.
Orla bypassed the main gate and headed for the side entrance. The English Department was hidden away in the old stable block at the back, as dusty and neglected as the ragged books the children were issued with. She ascended the stairs as if to a gallows, barely noticing the peeling woodwork and the dirty, threadbare carpets. Orla had grown used to the shabbiness of her surroundings. She caught sight of herself reflected in the window. She was small, tiny in fact, not quite scraping five feet. Her hair was long and dark blonde. She wore it for school in a rather staid plait which fell down her shoulder almost to her waist. Her hair would never quite stay in place and tendrils escaped from their prison throughout the day. If she ever wore it loose there were comments from the older members of staff and the old at heart. So she toed the line – a little. She had very little make-up: mascara, a little lipstick. Orla tried to act the schoolmistress though inside it was not who she was. She had never been, not inside. She was thirty-five but looked much younger. Orla felt worn from her work but as yet this did not show in her face which was still free from lines. Her features were small, her cheekbones high and her eyes large and green with long child-like lashes. Orla was striking, beautiful even, though she was unaware of this fact and had never been. She had been brought up by old-fashioned Scots with certain dourness about them. Orla had never been complimented on her looks by her parents. They would regard such a thing as vanity, frivolity. She had an out of fashion figure: full and feminine, not skinny. She had been pitifully thin as a child but in adulthood she had blossomed with a womanly shape: curvaceous. She was like a 1950s pin-up girl: an hourglass. She did not act her age. She still liked to giggle and do silly things on occasion. These qualities of course endeared her to the boys who treated her almost as one of them. They entrusted her with their secrets: girlfriends, biological worries, difficult parental relationships. Orla was the recipient of a thousand confidences.
Usually, she could not help them.
She entered her classroom, heaving the door open with her shoulder because the handle did not work properly. The room was cold, as cold as outside. She flipped on the heater switch but it would take hours to warm the high-ceilinged room. She had brought it herself from home. The ancient oil-fired radiators were not up to the task. They were turned on late and switched off early. Orla could see her breath in front of her as she sighed heavily. She arranged a few things listlessly on her desk. Orla had tried hard to brighten the room. She had displays of work in primary colours and inspirational posters to cover up the dirty magnolia paint. The wooden desks were arranged in rows but the classes were now so large they were squashed together with no room to walk easily between them. The computer on her desk was dated. She paused for a small prayer of desperation.
Please make this term better than the last one. Make things go right. Just this once.
Orla decided on coffee. This meant braving the Common Room but her need for caffeine was greater than her dread of social interaction with the staff. She was scarred with the little jibes against her: she was too loud, too happy, too sad, too Scottish, too intellectual, too popular with the children, too Roman Catholic . . . just too. She was real, not a shell, not a ghost. That was what they really didn’t like. Brooding on these thoughts she headed back outside to the main building.
Outside the office was when she saw him.
He was standing outside the Headmaster’s study looking slightly awkward and out of place, adjusting to the new uniform, fingering the stiff collar repeatedly. He smiled at Orla broadly, too confidently she thought, but it was possibly bravado to mask the nerves of the new boy. He was about fifteen and as promising specimen of humanity as any. He had white blonde hair, unusually very closely cropped as this was not the fashion of the School. The usual game was to grow it out as long as possible, without being marched forcibly into town to the barber. He had tanned skin, a warm brown and turquoise eyes, wide and clear. They seemed like the eyes of a much younger child, giving a boyish quality to the face which was at odds with his six foot tall frame and already expanding chest. He was half-way between boy and man. Orla guessed he was from German or Nordic ancestry. She recognised the features as her own mother was Norwegian originally. She felt a contraction deep in her abdomen as she looked at him. She was surprised. This usually happened when she looked at stunningly attractive adult men. It had not in fact happened to her for a very long time, certainly not since she had moved to rural Suffolk. It was like a visceral animal reaction to a thing of beauty. He reminded her of someone else. Someone she had known long ago. He was perfectly beautiful. He made her think of the marble statue of Eros she had seen in the museum in Naples. She had looked at it for a long time. The Romans had not been afraid of the body, afraid of beauty. Orla dismissed the strange feeling with a slight sense of unease. She had trained herself to be almost professional at school, to act a part, not really to allow herself to be. Her mind registered him as a pupil but an older, more primal part of herself had told her something else. Strange. After all, the school almost specialised in good – looking, Aryan sporty boys. They didn’t usually have any effect on her.
She managed a brisk, “Good morning.”
His reply explained the haircut and the unease with the uniform. He had a slight American twang.
“Morning ma’am,” he greeted her with a wide smile.
Orla’s eyes shone with amusement at the unfamiliar word. She tilted her head back and laughed.
“There’s no need to call me that. I am not one hundred and five!” she replied in mock severity.
He would no doubt find the transition to English public school life difficult. Orla resolved to help him in her I am everybody’s maidservant kind of way. She breezed past him and was surprised as she turned to enter the Common Room to see his eyes still intently looking after her, looking right into her, as if he could see all of her secrets. The eyes seemed to be almost laughing at her, though not unkindly, but with affectionate amusement. Slightly rattled, she pushed her way into the staff cocoon and waited in the interminable coffee queue.
Yes, he came, unexpectedly, with the snow.