|The school gates are large, looming.
In Mauritius, where I lived until this week, the highest buildings were two storeys. But the red-brick building beyond the dark gates, seem to go up forever.
A flock of pale faced boys nudge past, dressed in black robes, like crows. A few of them take a moment to stare at me.
I must be a strange sight to them. A tiny, skinny boy, with frightened green eyes, staring out from tanned skin.
I give a little shiver. I haven’t been warm, since I stepped off the plane, into the rain and dark clouds, of my father’s native country.
I never imagined that anywhere could be this cold. But my shivers run deeper. They run into the blank, empty space where my mother used to be.
The man beckons me forward, and I follow him, through the school gates, and up the manicured lawns.
I only met this man an hour ago, at the train station. But he is the only person I know, in this country of clouds and chill winds.
He doesn’t understand why I can’t talk.
I’m brought through a huge oak door. It looks to be hundreds of years old. My stomach tightens. I am to live here. In this school.
It looks more like a museum, than a place where people should eat and sleep.
Thick flagstones ring out beneath us, as we walk.
My bare feet, have been pushed and pinched into a pair of shining leather shoes. The rest of me, which had hitherto been clad in shorts and T-shirts, is stuffed into a high-collared shirt. It has already rubbed a red rash across my throat. A pair of starched grey trousers, enclose my legs.
It seems I am to be a prisoner. Both in this thick-walled place, and in my own body.
“This way,” signals the man. He manoeuvres me through a door, and I am in a room, with an enormous desk.
To my surprise, there is a woman in the room. I hadn’t expected to see one. Not in this place. It doesn’t fit.
But she doesn’t match my memory of women from Mauritius. She is not soft, and warm, with deep arms and a kind smile. In fact, she seems to have grown out of this dusty place, like she’s part of the building.
Her hair is iron-grey, and pinned so tightly back, that not even a wisp escapes.
She is wearing a grey suit. Like men wear. But hers has a skirt, instead of trousers. Her legs are clad in thick tan stockings, and she wears a pair of lace-up shoes.
I am bemused, to see a woman dressed so strangely.
“Welcome to your new home, James,” says the woman. There is no smile on her face, or in her voice. “We hope you’ll settle in quickly.”
I stare back at her.
She looks to the man behind me, in confusion.
“He doesn’t talk,” supplies the man. “Hasn’t, I’m told, since his mother’s death.”
The woman raises an eyebrow at me.
“You don’t talk?”
How can I explain? There is a lump of ice, in my throat. It settled there after my mother died. And every step I took away from her, towards this cold land, the ice has grown thicker, and harder. Sometimes it feels as though my neck must snap, with the brittleness of it.
The woman’s mouth sets, as though she’s eaten something unpleasant.
“The boy was brought up in Mauritius, you say?”
I don’t hear the man speak, but I assume by the woman’s face, he must have nodded.
The woman shakes her head.
“A lot of mollycoddling and nonsense goes on, when they’re brought up by foreigners.” She says this last part, with a slight sneer. “Then they send them too old, and spoiled, like this one.”
She fans her hands out, petitioning the man to take her part.
“Seven years old! What are we to do with a seven year old? He should have been sent here three years ago.”
She frowns, and stoops a little, so her weathered face is more in line with mine.
“Your mother spoiled you,” she says, “by keeping you with her. Let’s hope she’s not ruined you entirely.”
The ice in my throat thickens, by another few millimetres.
“None of that cosseting will go on here,” she adds, glaring at me. “If you refuse to talk to your masters, you will be beaten. Do you understand?”
She doesn’t see the fear she’s expecting, in my expression, and it confuses her.
“What a strange child,” she says, straightening up, and shaking her head. “And your father comes from a landed line.”
The woman is addressing the man again now.
“I want you to make it known,” she says. “That Lord Berkeley’s son must be brought into line. He’s of an age now, that he can be caned, like the older boys. I don’t want him afforded any leniency, just because he’s new.”
She purses her lips again. “We’ll try and reverse whatever damage has been done. So Lord Berkeley can be proud of his son.”
I stand rigidly, trying to understand what’s happening around me.
I seem to have done something wrong.
My eyes rest on a row of paintings, just behind the grey lady. They depict a line of unsmiling faces.
I don’t know it yet, but the next time I will be in this room, will be to have my burns inspected. The ones which the other boys make on my legs, when they hold me in front of the fire.
But just now, I have no burns. Not yet.
All that is still to come.
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