Sunday, April 28, 2013
ANNE EYRE (modern Jane Eyre) Chapter One: Journey
I have always wanted to live in the South of England. In my dreams I imagined one day I would live near the sea. Water is transient yet eternal. Sometimes I think my existence at Thornton Hall was just a mirage, an excuse to visit the ocean.
The day my aunt handed me over to Social Services, I suspected life was not meant to be easy. I was only eight. Afterwards, I endured a series of foster homes and finally an expensive school paid for by my unknown benefactor. I ended up flung out onto a busy street at eighteen, wearing last year’s jeans and carrying every possession I owned on my back. I knew I had to get out of London: the city; the congested streets; the strangers moving past me as if I was air; the sheer bustle, scope and majesty of the place would swamp me if I didn’t.
I need to go somewhere solitary, I thought, somewhere safe.
I’d started searching the internet a few weeks before my final exams and just after I’d completed my university interviews. If I got in (and my final marks suggested I would), I’d still have more than three months (and nowhere to live) before classes started. I’d applied to at least six different employment agencies for a job but I had few practical skills. My benefactor had paid for me to have a proper education at an exclusive school in South Kensington. Lockwood was filled with rich, abandoned girls - girls who rated you on looks and pulling power and girls who committed various minor classroom crimes, then pointed at you for the blame. The students in their checked uniforms were rich girls from good families, girls who hated povvies (short for poverty stricken ones). Girls like me. Let’s just say, I did not fit in, but I made the most of the experience. My expensive education and ability to speak French were what led me to Thornton Hall and the job of caring for six-year-old Sophie Varens.
Now that I’m eighteen and officially an adult, solid work is hard to find. I see endless advertisements for Girls Wanted and Dance Clubs. It makes my stomach churn when I realize that no matter how hard I study, the only opportunities for me to earn a full salary without a university degree can be found in the final classified pages of a free newspaper.
I feel older than my years. You may wonder how that is possible, but let’s face it, after the kind of life I’ve led already, it is. I’m finished with Lockwood School and grateful for my thorough knowledge of English, French, History, Music and Mathematics. I got very high marks in all my subjects but I’ve learnt already that finishing school in the middle of a recession was not the wisest choice – as if I had one. Every advertisement screams experience. Which kind would they like?
Would they like the experience of being abandoned by my birth mother on my aunt’s doorstep, aged two? Being fostered out six years later because my aunt disliked me? Realizing I’d never be adopted and have a real family because my mother wouldn’t sign the release forms? I was too old by then to be anyone’s first choice. This led me to eight different foster homes in as many years.
Yes, I’ve had quite an education. And yet, I have no contact with my birth parents but I’m not bitter. I have raised myself, in many ways, and I do not believe I have done a bad job. It is true, my expectations for happiness are not high but for the first time, I feel free and that is a joy in and of itself.
A few days after I’d finished school I found work. The job was with an older couple who worked in the City, in banking. The father, a dour accountant, had taken the morning off to show me his three-year-old’s routine. He was fighting with his wife and she had stormed out. This should have been my warning. During nap time, the father tried to kiss me and when I pulled away, he rang my agency and said I couldn’t cope with the demands of the position. He was a valuable client, so they didn’t want to hear my side of the story.
As I grabbed my coat and left, I mentally put a line through that agency on my list. The experience made me wary of taking agency jobs again. I thought I might do better seeking work independently.
A week later, I was very low on funds and my room was only paid up for another night. I was beginning to wonder if sleeping rough in central London would suit me (obviously, it wouldn’t) when I saw an advertisement in a women’s magazine: Governess wanted for remote stately home in Devon. I searched the old-fashioned word and realized a governess was like a nanny but she wasn’t expected to do domestic tasks, just to tutor the child in schoolwork. The contact details for a Mrs Fairfax at Thornton Hall in Cornwall, a seaside town in the South of England, were displayed. I immediately found enough money to use my pay phone and dialled Thornton Hall. I spoke to the woman on the telephone, Mrs Edwina Fairfax, and I assumed the child who might be in my care, was her daughter.
Mrs Fairfax was polite and well-spoken on the phone. Just her voice was like a balm to me. Street thugs and wayward teenagers ditching school loitered around my depressing borough. I emailed Mrs Fairfax my school results and references almost immediately. A day later, I had the job.
It was a huge relief to me. I’d been approaching the summer holidays with little money and no prospects. I took what was left of my savings to go to an enormous department store on Oxford Street to choose a new summer jacket and shoes. I chose a cobalt blue coat and red Mary Jane style flats to go with my black opaque stockings. I would look the part; even if I wasn’t sure I felt it. Cornwall would not be cold this time of year, but Thornton Hall was an ancient property situated alongside the coastline, so it would likely be breezy; English weather was always changeable. I packed my few unwanted belongings into a garbage bag and left them on the street outside my flat, after I’d returned my keys to my dodgy landlord. He looked me up and down and smirked as I announced I would be leaving. I walked out the door with my new bag declaring I would not be coming back.
I was excited, anticipating the start of a new adventure, a new life. Who wouldn’t be after the one I’d already had? I’d been warned that there was a weak internet signal at Thornton, but this almost pleased me. There was no one I wanted to keep in touch with. My so-called friends had all gone off on summer holidays bankrolled by their parents. I couldn’t join them even if I had been invited. I didn’t mind solitude that much, not really. I’d learnt to create worlds inside my head, the ones of my own learning.
Perhaps I had an over-active imagination, but it would stand me in good stead where I was going. I assumed there would be few people and little else to do apart from looking after Sophie.
I’d seen a picture of the child and had spoken a few words to her over the telephone – in French. Sophie had squealed with delight when I described to her some of the places I’d seen on the school trip I’d taken to Paris – one of the most exciting moments of my life so far. The entire senior French class had been packed into a bus and herded across the English Channel via ferry only to arrive in another country, another world, one with fresh bread and cakes and a whole new exotic language.
At the station, I bought an extra mobile phone card with what remained of my savings. Taking on board the isolation I might be facing at Thornton, it seemed a smart idea to arrive prepared. In the photograph I’d been emailed, Thornton Hall was situated at the end of a long windy road on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I could almost hear the waves crashing against the rocks.
I clutched my phone card as I boarded the carriage. I’d need it, I thought; although I wondered if so far out in the country, there would even be a reception. On the train, I read through my formal letter of employment, emailed to me and signed by the housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax. Prior to this, she had been sent references from two of my teachers at school and another from the head mistress. I suppose the school felt it was their duty to say some good things about me. I’d always had remarkable academic results, considering my troublesome attitude, one teacher had told me.
I stood at the changeover station after a few hours’ journey wearing my new coat and carrying every item I possessed in the world. There wasn’t much. I didn’t want to keep too many things, as I said: just a spare cardigan, some jeans, new underwear, socks (lots of socks), and an extra scarf. I was raised in England and though it was summer, I doubted even a hint of fine weather.
I read during the second part of my journey: first, a magazine, then the news on my smart phone; I listened to some music, the latest band that I’d liked; house music; it reminded me of my best friend from school, Irma.
Irma had taken me under her wing when I’d arrived at Lockwood. She had gone out of her way to befriend me when I was at my loneliest and for that, and so much more, I will never forget her.
Irma also disliked authority and we crept out one night to go clubbing in Soho. It was the one demerit of our school careers but the ramifications had been far reaching. The noisy club in central London was packed with people when we arrived and we felt safe in the cover of darkness and anonymity. The band was loud, louder than my ears could stand but Irma and I loved it. We rocked out all night, lost in the noise and energy of the place.
In the early hours of the morning, we took a mini-cab back to school hoping against hope that none of the boarding supervisors would have noticed our absence. Unbeknown to us, someone had slipped an illegal substance into Irma’s drink, too much, and Irma collapsed. Later, she was expelled. I was kept on out of charity because I had nowhere else to go and the school authorities couldn’t prove I’d taken anything of my own volition. Irma’s parents have refused to allow us to speak to each other since the incident.
The experience left me friendless in my senior year. It could have happened to anyone but, of course, we never should have been in that club in the first place. Though we hadn’t been drinking alcohol and the whole escape had been Irma’s idea, I felt responsible. I was responsible. It was the one moment, the one lack of clarity in my teenage life; a huge mistake and Irma paid for it. I owed it to her now that I was out of that school, to live the best life possible. I posted a card of apology to her from the post office in Devon, and wished her well. I’d heard she’d finished off her final year elsewhere and was doing fine. Irma’s parents couldn’t stop us from communicating now that we were legally adults but I didn’t expect a response.
It was near the end of the year when this happened and somehow, the scandal was hushed up. Irma had sisters at the school and the other parents thought getting the press involved would only be detrimental. Perhaps they were right. An air of hostility surrounded me though Irma had texted that she held no grudge and wished me all the best. That was before her mobile was disconnected. The police even caught the guy who spiked her drink on CCTV; the drink could’ve just as easily been mine. If it was mine, apart from Irma, let’s face it, who’d have cared? Her sister and the other students left at school had told me as much. I couldn’t blame them. In some ways it was unfair that I’d been allowed to stay; nothing was ever the same at Lockwood after that and I was glad when the school year ended.
Every night, since I was little, after saying the Lord’s Prayer that I was taught, I prayed to turn eighteen, as if that could somehow happen overnight. But it made the time go faster. Our father who art in heaven… please make me turn eighteen.
Irma knew all about this. She had prayed for our escape too, prayed for our freedom. At eighteen we could do everything legally: vote, drink, and get married (a ridiculous notion to me since I’d barely been allowed to speak to anyone male who wasn’t a teacher in all my teenage years at Lockwood).
And now, here I was, truly on my own for the first time. I felt the rush of excitement as the train moved out from the station near Devon and the conductor came to check my ticket. I imagined I was on some glamorous train, like the Orient Express, a train I used to watch leave Victoria Station – packed with tourists heading to Europe. That was when I lived near Brixton, and Victoria Station was my nearest changeover. That was Foster Family Six.
I had planned to make a stop at a little town called Lyme Regis, but to do that I would need a car and I would need to learn to drive. All things come in time; isn’t that what I was taught? I could hardly wait for my life to begin. My real life had been all too real already.