Authors: Cassandra Golds
No one had ever lost an argument with Deirdre's grandmother. So Deirdre dressed, not like an adolescent, or a twelve year old trying to look like an adolescent, but like a twelve year old dressed by her grandmother. She continued to wear her hair middle parted, in two long plaits with ribbons on the ends; her skirts were longer than they should have been; and all her buttons were done up. She was neat and ironed and mended and dry cleaned, and she was only permitted to wear white underwear. She always did her homework. And she only knew classical music.
All of this was, of course, social death. But it wasn't just the clothes, or even the music or the homework. There were other things, things that were quite beyond her. She didn't fully understand what she was doing wrong.
She did not understand, for example, how important it was not to show that you wanted to learn. Gal understood; he just didn't care. Thus she and Gal were the only two interested-looking students in the class. But although they despised her for it, they left him alone.
Every time they spoke to, or, more often, about her, they said her name in that same way. And they only spoke to her to ask unanswerable questions.
Why do you wear your hair like that? How come you use such big words? Why is your grandmother so strange?
And of course at recess and lunch, and in the classroom, she sat alone.
Once a group of girls called her over to where they were standing in the playground and when she arrived just laughed at her, for minute after minute, as she stood before them, confused about whether she should stay or go â and which choice would make things worse for her.
Then there was the time when one of the most popular boys trailed around after her all day, pretending to have a crush on her as a joke. Much hilarity ensued, for Deirdre was regarded as the least desirable person in the class. There were even lists circulating that always had her at the bottom.
For in some basic way that was too obscure for Deirdre's sheltered mind to grasp, it was all about sex.
And then there was the day when she sat down at her usual desk in the front corner near the door to find something carved into the wood:
Dead-tree Dark is a WITCH
She wasn't sure how the witch thing started. Her grandmother was commonly believed to be mad, and there were rumours, some true, some not true. The true ones bothered her more.
How did they know Deirdre sleepwalked?
âCan't you talk to her? Can't you tell her what's happening? Can't you get her to let you be friends with me â I mean, just at school? If we were friends you'd be okay. That's all you need, you know, Deirdre. Someone to be friends with. It's not as hard as you think.'
The class was in the library, researching witch hunts for their History lesson. Deirdre was in an unfrequented corner, pretending to take notes from an ancient volume of the
, waiting for the others to finish with the real books. She didn't dare wait near them.
School had become hell for her.
This was the first time Gal had spoken to her since her grandmother had forbidden him to do so. He was not looking at her. He was looking at one of the books on a nearby shelf. But his tone was pleading.
âTen minutes more,' said Mrs Shelley, the History teacher.
Deirdre's throat had constricted. She was so afraid she would burst into tears she could not speak.
The lighthouse. The lighthouse. And she, tossed by the waves in her frail little boat. But she couldn't reach him. She couldn't make that journey, not even to save her life. Her grandmother had forbidden it.
He glanced back at her and moved away. But she knew he had understood.
That night, in sheer desperation, she tried her grandmother.
âGrandmother,' she said, âI don't know what to do. I don't have any friends at school.'
Her grandmother looked up.
They were in the lounge room of Mrs Dark's flat. It was a cold night, there was a fire burning in the open fireplace, and Mrs Dark was at the dining table studying architectural plans. She was a small, trim, neat woman whose movements were usually quick and restless. Until Deirdre had spoken she had been jigging one foot under the table as she worked. She was in her sixties, but she looked much younger, and had curious mannerisms for a woman her age, a physical restlessness that was almost like a child's. Her eyes were dark. Her hair was silvery-blonde.
The flat had only two inhabitants, or at least that is what Deirdre's grandmother said on the census.
But reclusive as they were â Mrs Dark had no friends and neither visited nor received visitors, apart from the tenants who pushed their rent in envelopes under her door â Deirdre and her grandmother were not alone in the flat. In fact, the flat was so crowded it was hard to breathe.
Mrs Dark and Deirdre lived their lives under the gaze of dead relatives. They looked on now, through the photographs Mrs Dark had arranged profusely around the flat.
Only one of the pictures was of someone still living. It was a photograph of Mrs Dark as a child. It was behind her on the mantelpiece, and was placed in such a way that Mrs Dark the child appeared to be peering over the shoulder of Mrs Dark the grandmother. Deirdre felt both of their gazes on her at once; two pairs of eyes stared reproachfully at her. She felt beaten already.
It was raining, and the roof was leaking, and so drips were falling in a melodic, syncopated way into the buckets she and her grandmother had set out to catch them. But Mrs Dark had ceased paying any attention to the upkeep of the building â which was old and beset by mysterious structural problems â seven years ago. Instead she was adding a new wing.
That was why people thought she was mad. Well, that was one of the reasons.
âAnd?' said Mrs Dark.
âI'm miserable,' said Deirdre desperately.
âBecause you don't have any friends?' said her grandmother incredulously.
âYes,' said Deirdre. She swallowed. âI was wondering whether you might reconsider, about Galahad.'
Mrs Dark stared at her.
âHe's the only one who likes me, Grandmother. I'm so â
. He's the only one who understands. If you would just let us sit together in class, I would be all right. He would â protect me.'
âHas he spoken to you?'
âNo.' But Deirdre was not a good liar.
âIf he speaks to you again I will ring the school.'
Deirdre's heart sank. For a moment she thought she would be sick with despair. But her grandmother was not looking at her. She was looking down at her architectural plans. For a little while she was silent. Then she took a breath to speak and for one wild moment Deirdre thought she was going to relent. But instead she said, âTell meÂ .Â .Â . does everyone laugh at him because of his name?'
Deirdre was startled. She said nothing. But she didn't need to, for her grandmother answered herself.
âI always thought everyone would laugh at that name. It is so ridiculous. No one could live up to it. No man in real life, anyway. Men are not knights in shining armour, Deirdre. Least of all your Galahad.'
Deirdre went quietly down the long, narrow hall to her bedroom and shut the door. She sat on the bed and listened to the water from the ceiling dripping into the two buckets on either side of the old-fashioned dressing table.
She could have argued, she could have begged, but she knew it was futile. Mrs Dark was impenetrable, indomitable, deaf to pleading or argument, and always certain she was right. Deirdre lived in a totalitarian regime.
Home was ruled by a dictator; school by the mob. Home was almost unbearable. But there was no escape. Her experience of school, which was all she knew of the world outside â was teaching her that. As for the only other hope â Gal â her grandmother had cut that escape route off a long time ago. And every time it opened again, she shut it more firmly.
âDead-tree,' said a girl waiting with a friend by the school gate one morning, as she arrived at school, âcome
up the back
Up the back
was where everyone smoked before school. Deirdre, of course, did not smoke. She was nobody's idea of a rebel.
She did not want to go
up the back
. She knew whatever they had planned would be a nasty surprise. But she felt she had no choice. If she did not cooperate, the consequences would be even worse.
So she ducked her head with a defeated little smile and followed them.
âI heard your grandmother sleeps on a gold bed,' said one of the girls.
âNo,' said Deirdre, surprised. âIt's pink.'
âWhy do you sleepwalk?' said the other.
âI can't help it,' said Deirdre.
âHow come your grandmother's putting on extensions?'
âYeah, how come? Dad says she hasn't got enough tenants as it is!'
Deirdre glanced up nervously, then down again.
âI don't know.'
Up the back
was a scrubby, muddy patch of earth on the other side of a portable classroom at the farthest extreme of the school. Behind it, on the other side of the fence, was wilderness. It was out of bounds, but not very well policed. Especially in the early morning.
There was a dead tree there. They had piled sticks underneath it, and they had several lengths of old, dirty rope. The whole class seemed to be there. Except for Gal.
âWe're doing Joan of Arc,' said one of the girls. âWe want you to be Joan.'
Deirdre felt sick.
âWhy?' she said.
âBecause you hear voices,' said one of the boys, and they all laughed.
âI don't hear voices,' said Deirdre, but nobody listened. And already someone was pulling her towards the dead tree.
âDon't worry. We're going to do it for Mrs Shelley. We want to practise first. She'll love it if you're Joan.'
âYeah,' said somebody else. âShe loves Joan of Arc. And she loves you. And if you play Joan of Arc it'll be, like, double love!'
âLove on wheels,' said somebody else.
âThe Summer of Love.'
Deirdre was miserable. She knew she had been brought there to be mocked. But she didn't know how to talk her way out of it. And, as usual, she felt that if she didn't cooperate, things would be worse for her.
The bell would go soon. She only had to endure until then.
Most of them just watched, sniggering and smoking. About four of them tied her to the tree.
âLook!' said someone. â
is tied to a dead tree!'
Deirdre was devoting every nerve in her body to seeming like a good sport â cooperative, casual and unworried. She was in an agony of humiliation, but felt that the only way she could retain some dignity was by not showing it. However, her feelings were so intense it was almost impossible to suppress them. They were all looking at her. She could not meet their eyes. Her face was flaming.
And she hated them touching her. It was so hard to be touched by people who had contempt for you. It was as if she had some terrible disease; it was as if it was all her fault that she had this terrible disease; it was as if it really was medieval times and she was a leper. She was embarrassed by every part of herself. She wished she could have no body. She wished she had never existed.
It was strange. She didn't hate
, she wasn't angry with
. She feared them. But the only person she hated, the only person she was angry with, was herself. The more they bullied her, the more she lived in dread of them, and the more she hated herself.
âWhy do you wear those long socks?' said one of the girls.
âYeah, why don't you dress like us?' said another.
There was nothing she could say.
Then somebody threw a cigarette butt onto the pile of wood beneath the tree. Nothing happened, but they all laughed, and a few others threw theirs too.
The kindling began to smoke.
A few of the kids got a little worried at that.
âWe better untie her,' said a boy. âThe bell's about to go, anyway.'
âOh, not yet!' said somebody.
âYeah, it looks cool,' said somebody else.
Deirdre was trying not to panic. She was almost more afraid of panicking, or at least, panicking in front of them, than she was of being burned. But nothing would burn. EveryÂthing was so damp, from the rain yesterday.
And yet the smoke increased.
âSo anyway, are you a witch?'
âYeah, admit it, and we'll let you go.'
Deirdre started to cough.
âWhy don't you smoke?' said one of the girls incidentally.
âShe's smoking now,' said one of the boys, and they all laughed.
âCome on, admit you're a witch.'
âI'm not a witch!' said Deirdre.
âYou are a witch. You've got a witch's name. You live in a witch's house. Your grandmother's a witch. And you sleepwalk.'