Authors: Cassandra Golds
And as they crossed the misty street together it was as if they were wading into that ancient subterranean river â the one that flows through all of us, so close to the surface and yet so impossibly deep â that marks the border between the present and the past, the land of forgetting, and the land of remembering.
Deirdre had known Gal twice in her life â first, for several fateful months, when they were five, and then, again, for a tumultuous period when they were twelve. If she had been in contact with him since then, she couldn't remember it, or not coherently anyway. But since her grandmother's death, her memory had become confused. She supposed it was the shock.
There had been long years when she had not seen him at all. And yet he had remained the most important person in her life. He was the only one who had ever offered her any hope, any bridge to the world outside Corbenic, and his voice, still and small though it was â still and small like God's â had been the only contradiction to the voice of her grandmother.
He meant everything to her.
The last day she remembered seeing him was one of the worst in her life. It was the day she had almost been burned at the stake.
For in her brief, disastrous time six years ago at the local school, everybody had thought she was a witch. And Gal had been the only one who had tried to defend her.
It had begun â the road towards the burning at the stake â on their first day of high school.
Gal had been going to school since he was five, like everyÂbody else. But it was twelve-year-old Deirdre's first day of school ever.
The only person she knew in the school was Gal, although she hadn't seen him since they were five. But they weren't allowed to speak to each other. Deirdre's grandmother had forbidden it.
Deirdre had up till then been educated at home. She had been enrolled in the correspondence school, and her grandmother had taught her from the lessons they sent out, in neat packages, through the post. She had been accustomed to a life of tasks set remotely, completed calmly in solitude, checked off by her grandmother, then sent back by post and marked by someone she never met. The teachers at the correspondence school had always seemed nice. They would write kind notes, and make little jokes in the margins of her work. And they always complimented her on her imagination. She had lots of imagination. But education had always been something she had done by herself.
Why was it that she did not go to school like other children? She was not really sure. All she knew was that she was different, and that this difference had earned her a dispensation. There was a kind of guilt attached to the arrangement â she had the vague idea that it was connected to being somehow worse than other children. Or weirder, anyway. And there was a memory she always avoided, about something that had happened when she was five, just before school would ordinarily have begun for her. That was the year she had first met Gal, and that was the reason she wasn't allowed to speak to him now, seven years later. But she didn't remember the details and her grandmother wouldn't discuss them.
Still, despite all this, she was not unhappy about missing school; she liked working on her own and had always feared other children. She had had so little to do with them.
But all of this changed the February after she turned twelve. Her grandmother never told her why.
Perhaps the mysterious dispensation had expired?
Perhaps she had grown out of her weirdness, like a childhood disease?
Perhaps she was not so very different after all?
One day at school cured her of that hope.
On that terrible first day, Deirdre was deposited unceremoniously by her grandmother at the front gate, in time to join the initiation of Year Seven. Her very fair hair was in two long plaits, her haunted dark eyes were big with fear, her face had a pallor that somehow suggested that she did not sleep, and she looked like a child from fifty years before.
From the moment she first arrived, people were staring at her.
Everybody knew who she was.
She was the child from Corbenic, who had never been to school.
Her arrival had been a rumour from the moment her grandmother had enrolled her. It was a small town; her grandmother had lived in it all her life. Corbenic, the block of holiday flats her great-grandfather had built, was a local landmark, and it was well known that Deirdre's grandmother was mad.
And here she was at last, at their mercy.
She edged closer to her grandmother.
Then realised her grandmother had gone.
They had not taken three steps inside the gate, but Deirdre had been so distracted, so overwhelmed by the strangeness around her, that by the time she turned back to her guardian she was already walking briskly away. She had opened her mouth to say a brave goodbye; now, watching her grandmother's strangely girlish figure growing smaller as she went back down the street to Corbenic, she shut it.
Deirdre could hardly have felt more abandoned. She felt like she had been left at an orphanage.
She turned forlornly back to the many children buzzing like bees around a disturbed hive in the asphalt playground outside the assembly hall in front of her. She was trying desperately not to cry, for she knew how important that was in front of kids who were already staring and whispering about her. She was trying so hard that she was actually smiling stiffly, and her fists were clenched so tightly against her sides that her fingernails were biting into her palms.
It was then she saw Gal.
He was alone, leaning against the red brick of the outside wall of the assembly hall. He was staring absently into the middle distance, looking, it seemed, at nothing, and unaffected by the disturbance around him, or indeed by the fact that this was his first day at high school too.
He did not turn and look at her. And yet she was certain that he knew she was there. And looking at him across the chaos of the quadrangle felt to her like looking at a lighthouse from a small boat tossed by hostile waves.
A buzzer sounded, and the children began to mill into the hall. Everybody else seemed to know what to do. On shaking legs, Deirdre followed them â through the open double doors, and crab-like, sideways, along the rows and rows of portable wooden chairs, until everyone was uncomfortably seated.
Deirdre's heart was thudding louder than anything that was going on outside her. She felt like she was in a fever dream.
There was a stage in front of them with curtains at either side, there was a teacher at a microphone welcoming them and briefing them on what was about to happen. Her fellow Year Seven students, drawn from primary schools around the district, were all experiencing their first day at the central high school with scores of children they did not know. As they were divided into classes â the teacher at the microphone reading out name after name, and mispronouncing them â there were gasps of disappointment when friends from the same primary school were placed in different groups, for purely alphabetical reasons.
But Deirdre was remote from these poignant little dramas: all the students were strangers to her, except one.
Once separated into one or another of seven classes, they were herded out of the assembly hall up stairways and down corridors into rollcall classrooms, where each child would have to call out his or her name and spell it for the allocated teacher as she noted it down. Deirdre was obedient to a fault and could follow directions, no matter how hard they were to hear over her pounding heart, so she got that far without incident.
But of course she knew no one â no one except Gal, and she wasn't allowed to speak to him. So while the other children walked in tight little groups, clinging to acquaintances from their last school, she walked alone.
Once in the classroom, she drifted naturally to the front row, just as everyone else seemed to drift naturally as far back as they could get. Everybody, that is, except Gal.
For of course they had been placed in the same class. They had the same surname.
Feeling his eyes on her as she hovered near a vacant desk, she gazed across the classroom at him.
It was the first time she had met his eyes in seven years.
He had been five the last time she had seen him; he was twelve now, and yet they looked at one another as if they had spoken only five minutes ago.
He smiled slightly, sadly, at her. And all at once she knew something terrible and wonderful. She knew that, after all, she was as important to him as he was to her.
Her grandmother had spent seven years persuading her that this was not so; and Deirdre had almost come to believe her. She had told herself that seeing her again at school would mean nothing to him, that after all these years it wouldn't matter to him whether they were allowed to speak or not.
But she had only to look into his eyes to know that it did. If only, if only they could sit together! Looking at him made her feel an almost unbearable stab of homesickness, although it wasn't for the home she shared with her grandmother.
He was the lighthouse, she was in the little boat tossed on the stormy sea. But she could not get to him, the small journey had been made impossible. It was hopeless, and so she looked away. Her eyes swimming, she sat at the desk next to the door with a sudden irrational desire to be as close as possible to the exit. He sat in the desk nearest the window. And so in that first ritual of the calling out of names, she had to go first.
It was all so strange. She had read about classrooms â in
Anne of Green Gables
and the Little House books â but she had never been in one in her life before. In fact she had never been in the same room with so many people her own age. From the beginning, she felt simultaneously younger than everybody else, and much, much older. Suddenly she was afraid of saying her name, afraid she wouldn't be able to get it out, and in her panic she made herself conspicuous: she said it too loudly, pronounced it too carefully.
' she announced, when the teacher indicated her.
And the moment she did it â calling over the thudding of her heart, speaking with difficulty through her fever dream â she knew she had done something wrong, something that transgressed, not the written rules, but the unwritten ones â the most important rules of all. There was a slight pause. Then someone mimicked her softly, and immediately a sniggering broke like a wave across the room.
The teacher lifted her head and stared at them, waiting. The sniggering petered out. But everyone who said his or her name after that did it, just a little, like Deirdre had.
Her reputation as the mad granddaughter of her mad grandmother had preceded her. They already had a reason to regard Deirdre with suspicion, especially as she had never been seen at school before. Then there were her odd looks. And now the saying of the name.
There was a vacancy for the most unpopular child in the class. There always is. She slotted into it like a square peg broken to fit into a round hole.
She felt hot and clumsy and conspicuous, unbearably conspicuous. And she felt sick with doom, with a sense that she had done something that she could never undo, something that had begun a dreadful chain of events that would never be able to be halted.
And in a way she was right.
But then there was Gal.
Sitting in the front row on the opposite side from her, next to the window, it was he who went last. When the teacher wearily nodded at him it took a split-second before he could drag himself back from the remote place he had apparently been dwelling in. But then, in a completely neutral voice, he said, âGalahad.'
The class went still. Suddenly Deirdre was not so interesting any more.
The teacher looked up sharply. Surely this was insolence; surely the boy's name was not Galahad. But it was impossible not to believe he was serious. If anything â although his intensely blue eyes were turned towards her â he looked absent, as if he were thinking about something else. Something so far from the here and now that it might have been in another world.
Every eye was upon him. Except Deirdre's. She was looking at the floorboards.
He had saved her. Again. For the time being.
She had known he would never mock her. Not even if every other child in the class did it first. And she already knew his name. Her grandmother had named them both.
âAnd your surname?'
âDark,' said Gal quickly, as if it were obvious.
âSo we have two Darks,' said the teacher.
She was from out of town. It didn't occur to her that they were related.
For Deirdre, as the weeks passed, things got worse and worse. For Gal they did not change. Except that, for Gal, things getting worse for Deirdre was the same as things getting worse for him.
Neither of them had any friends. But people hated her. They respected him. And secretly feared him. Perhaps they feared her too. In a different way.
On that first day, despite her long plaits and her strangely dark eyes, she had not looked so very different from the rest of them â just old-fashioned. Nobody had worked out what they were supposed to wear yet. But as the weeks passed, the other girls began to acquire the uniform of adolescence â as conceived in that time and place â no doubt the result of arguments their mothers lost.