Mr Paine, the assistant housemaster who showed me around the school this afternoon, had opened the door, and a nauseating combination of sweet perfume, smoke and death emanated, catching at my chest. Mr Paine told me with a shake of his angular head that my predecessor had died suddenly, soon after watching a closely contested rugby match on the main field. He informed me with an air almost of reverence that she had followed the game keenly.
It would not be wise, I’d thought, to confess that I find rugby puzzling.
Entering my new bedroom, I was relieved to see my suitcase, which had earlier been whisked away from my taxi by the garden boy, lying across the chair. I’d had no reason to believe it was not in safe hands; my relief was entirely due to encountering a pocket of familiarity in a terrifyingly strange landscape. The brown and battered holdall, which had belonged to my father whose work took him all over Africa, was waiting patiently for me. Mr Paine stood fidgeting at the door, closely examining the architrave as I took in my new abode. That suits me. I don’t want his prying eyes inside.
I will have to wash the yellow paisley curtains and the bed covers and get someone to help me carry the carpet downstairs for a good beating. It can’t be too difficult to expurgate death, surely. Yet it took two deaths to bring me here – two! How long, Lord, till You send death for me?
It has not escaped my attention that Mummy’s passing away and my changed circumstances have arrived soon after the time of the year that we honour Your crucifixion, Lord. How much more difficult were Your trials on this earth! Mine are nothing in comparison, so I will stop complaining.
On reflection, it seems a bit harsh to remove immediately all signs of the previous matron, poor thing.
Mr Paine could not contain himself any longer and announced that he was required elsewhere, saying I should present myself at six-twenty sharp at the north entrance of the dining hall where he would introduce me to the other housemasters, Mr Talbot and Mr Leighton, before dinner. I was relieved to see him stalk off on his thin legs; at the same time, I became aware of a further constriction in my chest at being abandoned to my fate. Mercifully, I have my asthma pump for such circumstances, and this journal for comfort, and, of course, You, God.
The room is tiny and painted with the same nauseating enamel green as the sick bay. I note that there is no bookcase, which will have to be remedied shortly, as my books will arrive on Wednesday. There is a bedside table and cupboard containing a few wire hangers that jangled forlornly as I hung up my coat, and a small table at which I am now seated with a rather grimy kettle on top. I have no need of further kitchen paraphernalia, Mr Paine told me as we walked past the dining hall earlier; I am expected to take my meals with the boys as part of my duties.
Once he had gone, I tried out the mattress, which sighed into the shape of the previous owner, exhaling more smoke to catch at my throat. I fear it will also bring nightmares and backache.
There is a consolation, though. From here, where I am sitting, I can see a goodly slice of my beloved mountain framed by the sash window. It is saturated today with the blue and lilac hues of early winter, with clouds curdled round the peak. This view will be an endless source of inspiration if I can find space in this small room for my paints. The lack of space is aggravated by there being two doors to this room, one that leads into the sick bay, and one into the corridor. I do not like this arrangement; it makes me feel as though I could be attacked simultaneously from two sides. I will ask permission to keep one of them locked.
Below the window, I can hear the incessant tumult of young male voices. This is my new and only home.
Recently, my eyes simply won’t stop leaking.
It is with much trepidation that I begin this new life, and with it, this journal. I have not attempted such a record for decades, not since I was a girl. Yet I find myself alone at this table with a pen in my hand and an exercise book in front of me, hoping that these scribblings can help me. This, and also my watercolours, albeit in different ways.
I am the kind of person life happens to. It might appear that I chose to come here, but it wasn’t so. Mummy died, leaving me unexpectedly with no roof over my head because of an unfortunate debt of which I had no prior knowledge. Phoebe came down for the funeral, and happened upon an advert for this position that had miraculously become available. I am fated. God plants my every step.
The irony is that Mummy could not abide the rich, and warned against their pernicious company, yet because of her death I have arrived, hat in hand, at their doorstep. I will, however, take due precautions. Mummy was right in that money is a potential corrupter, particularly in combination with idleness. She need not fear, however, as in this position on my current salary, I will not be susceptible to the vices of the wealthy!
I have a carbon copy of my letter of application, stuck into the back of this journal. Phoebe looked it over before I sent it. She says I have a good handwriting, but I think the loops come out too childishly.
Dear Mr Talbot,
I would like to apply for your advertised position of Matron. I do not have experience directly in the field, but I was a student nurse for a few months after my schooling. Unfortunately, I had to leave before obtaining my diploma as my mother was ill. Thereafter I worked in Mr Lawson’s pharmacy situated in the Main Road for many years; thus I have a knowledge of routine medicines. An aspect of my employment was to attend to people who needed their dressings changed or their blood pressure taken. I have a good manner with people. Mr Lawson’s kind reference is enclosed.
My hobbies are reading and walking. I am in good health, although occasionally troubled by minor episodes of asthma. I am a practising Anglican; Father Evans’s reference is also appended.
I hope very much that you will grant me an interview.
It would be an honour to be associated with your prestigious school.
© Dawn Garisch 2009