Sunday, April 28, 2013
ANNE EYRE (modern Jane Eyre) Chapter Two: An Education
I pulled out my folder, packed with documents relating to the first year school syllabus that I would need to be familiar with. I continued reading over standards and child development for the first part of my journey. Eventually, I let the endlessly lush scenery take over as I lolled against the window with music blaring in my ears. This time it was soft and classical, like the songs I’d taught myself on the keyboard in music class.
Because it was summer, Mrs Fairfax said she was not too strict about schooling but the small, French child was the ward of a Mr Nathanial Rochester and he did not wish her to be behind when the new school year started. It was clear Sophie did not belong to Mrs Fairfax as I’d originally thought. Prior to her attendance in school she was used to being cared for at home when she had lived mysteriously with her mother - in Paris, the city of light.
‘Anne, you will not be expected to do any cooking or cleaning; there is staff for that. Your responsibility is improving Sophie’s English.’ Mrs Fairfax’s words had resonated in my ear over the telephone. Hardly anyone speaks on the telephone these days; it’s all texts and social networking. Those telephone calls really did make me feel special. I hoped my inexperience and youth would not be considered a disadvantage. As it turned out it was for exactly those qualities that I was hired.
I was proficient in French, although I had been instructed to speak to Sophie mostly in English. I hoped she wasn’t as unruly as some of the previous children I’d babysat.
There were also younger children in my foster families - all eight of them - until I finally hit the jackpot and was sent to Lockwood to board. My benefactor had decided he didn’t want anything to do with me but to appease his conscience I was sent to this select boarding school. I assume my benefactor was a he but the actual person could have just as easily been a woman, I suppose. The lawyer who signed my school cheques was male. I knew nothing more about my benefactor (who insisted on a confidentiality clause), other than who his lawyer was.
Lockwood School was not the friendliest place, as you may have guessed. It was there that we froze away the winters and, after Irma left, I tried to make friends with girls who’d invite me to vacation with them over endless summers. It almost worked but usually they tossed me to the curb after a few weeks when they found out I could never return the favour. Inevitably, I spent the last weeks of summer tucked up at school, learning the syllabus for the following year. That’s really how I became academically gifted; I had nothing better to do. And of course, I liked to read and draw; qualities which helped me inhabit my own little world.
I was surprised in some ways, that when I turned eighteen, I had nowhere to go and my benefactor didn’t want to meet me. It would have been upsetting but I was so ready to embrace my freedom I put this unnecessary slight out of my mind and resolved to get on with my life, now that I could finally, legally, make some decisions for myself.
I arrived in the village near Thornton Hall at night. I was to stay at an inn. Next morning I would get a lift to Hay Lane which led to the vast estate of Thornton. Mrs Fairfax had arranged for some neighbours to meet me.
The inn was small, friendly and comforting. I ate my dinner (sausages, mashed potato and beans) and drank a glass of lemonade. I pushed my food around on my plate. It reminded me of some of the worst excesses of boarding school – food fights and eating competitions. When the teachers were absent, the older girls and prefects made the rules. (Some of the older girls locked us in a room in one of the sports houses…) The prefects were the worst in that school. You were nothing when you first arrived. There were all sorts of standards and anti-bullying messages but the younger students were still bullied to within an inch of their lives by the older ones. If you were bullied and spoke up, it only made things worse. I was twelve when I arrived at the school and I had to prove myself until I was older and became a prefect myself. Our group tried to install a different set of rules and I’d like to think the younger students that followed us were a little less feral than the older ones who’d been the original bullies at Lockwood. However, boarding school was ultimately better than some of the foster care I’d been allocated. I shuddered at the memory of strange people and unfamiliar beds.
My room at the inn that night was warm. I heard the crash of the sea in the distance. I was getting closer to the cliffs of Cornwall and I couldn’t wait to see them, especially now that I could hear the ocean. Is there any sleep deeper or more luxurious than one where you listen to the folding waves nearby? I doubted it.
The next morning, the sky shone brilliant with sun. I heard a voice from downstairs.
‘Anne? Anne Eyre?’
I walked down to the foyer, sleepy eyed.
A youngish man with blonde hair spoke from the first floor.
‘My name is Connor Rivers. I’m a friend of Mrs Fairfax; we are from the same church. My sisters and I are visiting Devon and we’ve offered to drive you to Thornton since we wanted to see that part of the coastline anyway.’
I looked perplexed.
Connor smiled, welcomingly.
‘Mrs Fairfax said she’d left you a message.’
I checked my phone; sure enough, there it was.
‘Oh yes,’ I said, remembering. ‘Just a minute.’ I wasn’t used to such hospitality in London.
‘My sisters and I live in Devon but we’ve come to visit friends on a neighbouring property, not far from Thornton.’
Connor introduced his sisters who were young and pretty and suited their names, Rainbow and Daisy.
I did a double take. The girls wore flowing skirts, bare feet and flowers in their hair. All of the siblings looked alike and the girls waved to me as if we already knew each other. They seemed friendly and safe.
‘I’m with my sisters, we’re about to leave. We have a church christening to go to….’ And he spoke on.
Connor seemed nice enough. He could not have been more than twenty-one and I’d say his sisters were younger than me. As we drove, the siblings talked about how they were raising money for a local country fair to be held in a few months. They were also building a school in India and talked animatedly about this.
I stared out the window as I listened. I admired their enthusiasm for helping others. As I’d just escaped from school, the idea of helping to build another one, didn’t capture my imagination. Tutoring one pupil in a spacious country home, however, would be different. Rainbow and Daisy chatted away about their new home in Devon and the church youth group they enjoyed as Connor loaded my meagre belongings into the car.
The girls conversed with me warmly during the long drive.
‘And you finished school in London?’ Daisy asked, ‘Oh, it’s such a big city. My sister and I prefer the country, but we’ve been shopping in Oxford Street a few times and it was so much fun.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Rainbow said, ‘I adore department stores.’
‘My sisters sound far more materialistic than they are,’ Connor assured me.
‘That’s alright,’ I said, ‘I also love shopping in London. Where do you think I bought my new coat?’
Rainbow and Daisy both admired the fabric.
‘Even so,’ Connor said, ‘we were in town for a church picnic in Hyde Park. It was a lovely day and I’m sure we all remember it more for the new friends we made than the items we bought.’
Connor’s sisters giggled and Rainbow raised her eyebrow at her brother’s seriousness.
‘Of course,’ Daisy said, smiling at me.
‘I like Hyde Park and St James’ Park. They are beautiful in summer or winter,’ I added.
The sisters nodded in agreement.
I fell asleep during the second half of the journey. When I woke up, the girls were singing and I could see Thornton Hall in the distance.
‘Here we are,’ Connor announced.
Thornton was a large, majestic building that towered over the lush farming fields surrounding it.
‘Anne?’ Daisy’s voice rang out.
‘Wake up, Anne,’ Rainbow sang prettily.
‘Miles away,’ Daisy said, tugging my shoulder.
Apart from being tired, I slept because I slept got motion sickness and this had always been my body’s way of preventing it. The movement of the car helped make me drowsy but the singing woke me. I listened to the distant sound of the water lapping the shore. We were driving along the highest cliff, not far from where Thornton Hall was situated. To reach the driveway that led to the main house, we rambled along Hay Lane in the brilliant morning light. It had been a long journey from my London bedsit to here.
The car stopped and so did the tuneful but high pitched singing of the sisters.
I rolled out of the car to see an imposing mansion up close. Because it was warm for this time of year, there was no mist but a light film of salty air greeted my lips as I stepped out from the car.
‘Can I take your bag, Anne?’ Connor asked me. ‘Normally we’d come in for tea with Mrs Fairfax but we’re running a bit behind schedule.’
The boy smiled. There is no way I should have referred to him as the boy in my mind, since he was actually three years older than me. For some reason, his trusting glance made him seem sheltered, unlike me.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, embarrassed I had so few belongings.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said. I hoped somehow I hadn’t offended him. ‘This place used to have tons of racehorses when Lord Rochester was alive. The money this family had - still has, would buy a small country. I only hope they use some of it for good purposes. I’ve heard tons of stories about the new owner, Nate Rochester.’
‘You mean Nathanial Fairfax Rochester?’
‘Yes, he sometimes uses a shortened version of his first name. He’s very modern, for an aristocrat.’ Connor looked into my eyes and smiled. He seemed to want to tell me something.
‘You really have never travelled anywhere, have you Anne?’
‘Not unless you count all over London.’
‘Well, out here in the country, things may seem kinder, but we have our fair share of secrets.’
I wondered what he meant.
‘Anyway, we’re heading back to the village now for the christening. At the end of the year, my sisters and I are going to India.’
I realized Connor intended to travel the world. He seemed to want to delay my departure, glancing at me as he jumped into the car.
‘Just a tip - the owner of Thornton has a bit of trouble keeping his staff now that the old man’s gone. I’ve heard strange stories about this place. Just remember, Anne, in the modern world, no one has slaves anymore. Tell Mrs Fairfax I’m leaving the car to be collected from the station.’
Is that what I was to become? A paid slave?
A soft chill air wafted across the threshold as the Rivers siblings drove off. I walked towards Thornton Hall and knocked on the heavy door, apprehensively.