The room feels very big. There are no familiar faces aside from Ari’s, the little girl who lives with her parents, in the bed and breakfast hotel up the street. Carrie recognises at once that this is no comfort; Ari looks more alone and scared than she herself feels, her dark eyes are enormous and owl-like behind the thick, putty-pink, plastic-framed glasses. Ari doesn’t make any move towards Carrie, so she doesn’t either.
She doesn’t quite understand what they’re doing there in this vast room with huge windows and so many, many other children. There’s a woman walking about amongst them, long hair hanging either side of her face. Carrie wonders if it’s soft. As she walks past Carrie’s table the woman pauses a moment to lean over another child’s activity.
“Oh, Samantha, that’s very nice gluing, well done. Who’s that? Mummy? Good girl. And that’s Daddy? Well done. Very nice.” She turns abruptly and starts to say something to Carrie.
“I don’t know,” Carrie blurts, before the words are even finished.
The woman laughs and looks around at the other children. They laugh too. Carrie rubs the purple fabric of her school tunic between her fingers, clutching and grasping rhythmically, until she hears a voice call out with a shriek of laughter,
“She’s showing her knickers!”
Carrie sits small in her chair, the heat swelling inside her until she thinks her skin will burst.
At the end of this bewildering day of firsts, Carrie waits in the entrance hall watching the mass of girls and mistresses crowding and parting, hears girls’ names being called out, their laughter and chat. The room begins to thin out, her heart starts to beat harder; she might not come, what if she’s forgotten?
“Macaria Whitaker!” she is so unused to hearing her full name that for a moment she does nothing. Then, unsure, but knowing something is expected of her, she makes her careful way towards the open oak doors that lead to the small concrete play area and the gates to home.
“Excuse me, young lady.”
Carrie turns towards the voice and sees an outstretched hand. She is frozen. An older girl taking the stairs two at a time pushes in front of her and says, not unkindly, “You have to take-your-leave.” Before she shakes the outstretched hand and dips a curtsy. “Good afternoon, Miss Jackson.”
“Good afternoon, Miranda,” says the owner of the outstretched hand. “No running, please. Next time you’ll have an Order Mark.”
“Yes Miss Jackson, sorry.”
Carrie holds Miss Jackson’s hand and looks into her eyes. Now what?
“Please tell nanny, she must be on time. It’s very rude, not to say inconvenient, to keep people waiting. Good afternoon, Macaria.”
Carrie says good afternoon and tries to draw her hand away, but Miss Jackson holds on.
“You’ve forgotten something,” she says in a sing song voice.
Carrie knows that now she will cry and she’s tried so hard all day.
“Don’t be silly, dear, there’s nothing to cry about.” She throws a laughing look towards the only other person left in the room, the silky haired woman from Carrie’s classroom. She laughs with Miss Jackson and comes over.
“It’s all very new, isn’t it, Macaria? Before you know it, you’ll have settled in and you’ll be telling everyone else what to do!” The two women laugh together. Carrie thinks she should say something.
“Don’t use slang, it’s very unbecoming.”
As she steps carefully down the pale stone steps towards her au pair, whose smooth, round face seems almost blank, Carrie hears Miss Jackson say,
“Her father’s an American.”
“Ahhh…” comes the reply.
“Sonja,” Carrie asks after they’ve been walking for a while. “What’s slang?”
“Sleng? I don’t know this word. You must ask your Daddy. He comes back to home tonight. But after you are sleeping.”
“Do you mean I won’t see him?”
“In the morning.”
“Sonja? Why weren’t you there?”
“Of course, I was there! Why you didn’t come?”
Carrie looks up at Sonja and sees something fleeting but familiar in her expression; the one that reminds her that grownups can get in trouble too. This worries her.
“They won’t let you. You have to have someone. You have to ask for me and tell who you are and then they call your name and…”
“Why they are calling my name? I am there, Carrie, and if you don’t come, how you can see me?”
At supper the following night, after Sonja had left the table to run her bath, Carrie looked at her father for a long moment before she said.
“Daddy? How old were you when you went to school on yourself?”
“By myself?” he met her gaze. “I was a little boy. Around about your age. Why?”
“Can I come home by myself? Sonja doesn’t understand.”
The school bell is ringing for the end of the day. It is A Privilege to ring the bell. Carrie wonders how you get chosen. Majda, the girl who sits in the desk in front of her and wiggles her bottom as though she’s settling onto a sand dune, said she had rung the bell once, but Carrie doesn’t believe her; she looks too small to lift it and Carrie knows that her hair is too long. It is another one of those rules that everyone but Carrie seems to know without having to be told. She cannot work out why; if girls have to have long blonde hair, what makes Majda’s wrong?
Katie and Victoria had tried to explain, “It’s just showing off to have it that long.”
They gave up when they realised Carrie was too stupid to understand. It wasn’t long after that that they told Carrie, regretfully, that they couldn’t be friends any more.
“We’re really sorry you can’t be our friend anymore. It’s not your fault, but you don’t have the same things as us.”
Carrie is confused, hot with shame. Without them she’ll be alone.
“You can’t cry about it. Best friends are the same. You’re not the same.”
Katie and Victoria exchange glances. Victoria keeps looking at Katie, staring hard. Katie speaks. It’s always Katie in the end. Everyone relies on Katie to say things because she’s so kind.
“We have the same shoes. Look, Mary Janes.” Carrie looks at the navy blue, beautifully polished shoes on both their feet.
Carrie looks down at her own shoes. Brown slip ons. How is it that she has never seen them before?
“You have man’s shoes. You have man’s hair.”
“I don’t! I don’t have man’s hair.” But Carrie thinks they must be right. Her father takes her to the barbers with him. It’s sensible. She doesn’t know what that means, but she’s heard it a lot. Sensible.
“You don’t have the same nose as us.” Carrie is desolate.
Katie and Victoria compare their small snub noses and giggle delightedly. “We have these noses, they’re the same.” They sound so joyful. “Yours is the wrong shape. It doesn’t turn up. We checked.”
Then Katie says, “We’re really sorry.” And she looks so sweet and regretful, that for the briefest moment Carrie thinks it will be okay, they’ll go on as before. They’ll teach her some more French Elastic moves, they’ll play the skipping game, she may even get invited over to play on the weekend and see Katie’s rocking horse in true life not just her dreams.
“We have to go now,” Victoria says and they walk off together, shining bobs leaning towards each other, arms linked.
Carrie is left by the big Plane tree in the corner of the playground. She squeezes behind it and disappears. She cries and doesn’t quite know what she is crying for. She’s angry, and sad and confused.
She sits at the small, red glossed table that her father built for her and pokes at the bright, orange, pappy bread, moves her head imperceptibly from side to side to see how the light catches and moves on the surface of the beans.
“Eat up. It’s nearly bath time.”
“I’m having my bath when daddy gets back.”
“He’s away on business, you know that.”
Carrie sighs and pokes at the bread again.
“Do you want me to cut it for you?” The new au pair asks, leaning over from behind Carrie and attacking the beans on toast. Carrie makes herself small, shrinking into herself like a snail into its shell. Jan smells of cigarette smoke and something else thick and heavy that she doesn’t like; it fills her little nostrils and makes them feel wrinkled inside. She rubs at it and then remembers that her nose is the wrong shape.