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Authors: Eliza Graham

The History Room

BOOK: The History Room
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For Matthew Day

 
Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Twenty-five

Twenty-six

Twenty-seven

Twenty-eight

Twenty-nine

Thirty

Thirty-one

Thirty-two

Thirty-three

Thirty-four

Thirty-five

Thirty-six

Thirty-seven

Thirty-eight

Thirty-nine

Forty

Forty-one

Forty-two

Forty-three

 
One

Meredith

We didn’t mean to vandalize the mural. The thrill of scraping away the paint and seeing the image underneath intoxicated me. I should have stopped. I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t know what I was exposing.

We were ten and eleven so it must have been the autumn of 1991. A wet Saturday morning. Dad was showing prospective parents around the school. Mum was covering a domestic science lesson for a
sick teacher. At that time everyone at Letchford had Saturday morning lessons, boarders and day pupils alike. Clara and I, too young to be pupils here, had done the homework set by the village
school. We’d finished our piano practice as well, even the scales. Hours and hours to fill until Saturday school finished at lunchtime. Too wet to ride our bikes around on the drive, even if
it had been allowed during school hours. I’d read all my library books. Clara never was much of a reader. We tried to play a game of Snakes and Ladders but both of us kept sliding down the
snakes and we started to squabble, accusing one another of nudging the board.

It was ages until we could go and buy Wagon Wheels or cheese and onion crisps from the school tuck shop at break.

So we drank the milk and ate the biscuits Mum had left out for us. Still only ten o’clock.

‘We could paint something.’ Clara screwed her face into a hopeful expression.

‘I hate painting.’ In fact I loved it, but my efforts were never as good as my sister’s so I avoided putting brush to paper when she was around.

‘I am soooo bored.’

‘Me too.’ It wouldn’t be much better when Mum and Dad returned at lunchtime, I decided. Dad was up to his ears in managing the building project. He’d spend all afternoon
in his office, going through paperwork, muttering about delays and paying bills. Mum would be trying to help him. Then they’d need to walk around the new boarding houses and gym to make sure
everything looked right. They wouldn’t let us go with them as the building sites were supposed to be dangerous for people our age.

Clara stood on a chair and put her ear to the clock to make sure it hadn’t stopped. She said it was still ticking. Half an hour until morning break, when Mum would come back to see how we
were. On Saturday mornings in term time we dropped down the priority list like pebbles in a pond. Sometimes I hated sharing Letchford with everyone else; sharing my parents, too. Mum and Dad were
always quick to remind us that we had the holidays to ourselves, give or take the odd student or teacher who couldn’t make it home to the other side of the world. ‘And this house would
have been sold decades ago if we hadn’t turned it into a school,’ Mum reminded us, with a quick glance around the oak-panelled rooms we lived in. ‘This is the price we
pay.’

‘You don’t know how lucky you are to have this stability,’ my father would say, a faraway look in his eyes.

Sometimes I wished we lived in a semi in the village like my friend Janet at primary school. TV always on. Just the four of us. No other children. A mother who was either in the kitchen or out
in the garden. No strange teachers creeping around at night with their mothball-smelling tweeds and reading glasses. No sharing of our parents with three hundred other youngsters. And now Dad was
going to take boarders. Great. Even less time for us.

‘You wouldn’t make us board, would you?’ I’d asked my mother.

‘No.’ The answer came back swiftly and firmly.

‘So why do you let those other parents leave their children?’

She put down the pile of washing she was carrying. ‘It’s not that simple.’ She spoke slowly now. ‘Some of them work abroad. Or they have long working days. They have no
choice.’

‘Their children could go to school in the other countries. They’d learn foreign languages. That would be good for them. Or the parents could work shorter days.’

She made low demurring noises but I could tell her heart wasn’t in the rebuttal.

‘Won’t the boarders miss home?’ I knew I would.

‘I don’t know.’ She’d held out a bundle of socks and I’d known the subject was closed. ‘Pair these for me, darling.’

‘Mum and Dad are always so busy, busy, busy,’ I complained now to my sister.

Clara gave me a sidelong look. ‘Something’s going on.’ She drew a circle with her finger on the kitchen table.

‘Have the builders done something silly?’ Only last night, I’d heard Dad exclaiming over the stupidity of anyone who thought that a door frame could be built a half-inch too
narrow and expect to get away with it.

She shrugged. ‘Not sure. It’s to do with Mr Collins.’

Mr Collins was the bursar. I never knew what a bursar did. Something to do with counting money. Mr Collins gave us chocolate digestive biscuits and let us write
ShELLOIL
on his calculator
using the numbers. I’d noticed my father going into the bursar’s office last night with Mr Andrews. Mr Andrews was Dad’s old friend, almost a father to him, Dad said. He’d
helped Dad when Dad had left Czechoslovakia. Mr Andrews and Dad sat together in the evenings and examined sheets of figures, muttering about the cost of tiles and bricks.

‘Perhaps the adding up was wrong,’ I suggested.

‘Perhaps.’ Clara contemplated her invisible circle. ‘Mr Collins’s new baby is poorly. I heard him talking to his wife on the phone about him.’ She yawned.

Minutes passed; plodding eternities. Clara suggested creeping downstairs with the scooters and whizzing round the marbled-floored hallway, another pastime forbidden during term time, but there
was nobody around to see us now.

We’d invented a game that was a cross between polo and ice hockey. It involved passing one another a rolled-up sock, using brooms as sticks. We were proud of our skill; it wasn’t
easy to steer a scooter with just one hand. The hall housed the famous Letchford Mural, doubly special to our family because Dad was the painter and Mum his model. He’d painted her in an
old-fashioned long blue velvet dress with the house behind her, hair tied in a ribbon with one piece falling over her neck. She was as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer. Dad was a good painter.
Sometimes visitors came here specially to look at the mural. Some of them said it was a shame that Dad hadn’t stayed an artist. He’d ruffle his hair and smile his funny, almost shy
smile, that made him look sad rather than happy.

Clara knocked an ace towards me, which I saved, nearly falling sideways off the scooter as I did so. I hurled my broom at the sock and sent it flying towards the mural. Clara was already hard on
it. She intercepted the sock before it hit the wall but leaned too far forward, only saving herself from going over the handlebars by slamming a hand against the wall. The scooter fell, its rubber
handle scoring the wall with a red mark. And not just any old part of the wall, either. It had scraped our mother’s image, making her look as though a knife had cut her from her neck
downwards.

We looked at one another. The bell would ring for break within minutes. Mum would come to check on us. I remembered the dishcloth by our kitchen sink and bounded upstairs, leaving Clara still
standing staring at the wall. She probably thought I’d abandoned her. I grabbed a bottle of Harpic from the cupboard under the sink and dampened the cloth. I was back with Clara in
seconds.

‘Here.’ I took a stab at the red mark. It seemed to lift very quickly. Clara’s expression lifted, too.

‘That bit’s still marked.’ She pointed at the impact point where the scooter handle had left a crimson gash. I squirted more Harpic onto the cloth and applied it to the wall
with vigour. A citrus smell permeated the hall.

The bell trilled.

‘Quick!’ Clara hissed. ‘One more go. Here.’ She grabbed the cloth. ‘Let me.’ She attacked the wall. The last bit of the red mark from the handlebars came
away. As did the top layer of paint.

‘Oh.’ The single word seemed the only one suitable for expressing my surprise. I looked more closely at what Clara had exposed. ‘Oh,’ I said again. Beneath the dark blue
of our mother’s dress I could make out a white undercoat. And something else. Brighter tones.

‘What is it?’ Clara asked. ‘What’s under there?’

We could have stepped away from the wall then. It was only a small patch of damaged paint; it could have been overlooked. Or explained away as an accident. But something about that vivid hue had
caught my imagination.

‘Give me that.’ I reclaimed the cloth from Clara and scrubbed at my mother’s blue dress. More of the white paint appeared. I attacked it. Little flecks of purple and orange
appeared. Even then I could have stopped, made some excuse for what I’d done, used the falling scooter as the excuse. But I couldn’t stop now.

‘Merry,’ said my sister. ‘What are you doing?’

I shook my head, not really knowing myself, possessed by a demon that insisted I find out what was underneath the surface. On I rubbed, revealing flesh-coloured tints.

‘Arms,’ said Clara, sounding fascinated despite her earlier caution. ‘And look, those bits are hair.’ She sounded almost awestruck. ‘It’s another lady –
a girl.’

Behind me I heard footsteps. Heels clattered over the stones. The prospective parents coming back inside with Dad. Someone drew in a sharp breath.

‘Meredith.’ My father’s voice could have frozen a boiling kettle. ‘What have you done?’

 
Two

Twenty years later

A Letchford late-September day. Light the colour of champagne. Leaves turning amber and bronze.

I sat in the window seat of the staffroom on the second floor feeling so cut off from the bright scene outside that I might have been wearing a sign round my neck saying
Outsider
. Even a
homesick first-year boarder couldn’t have felt more separated from the general cheeriness outside. But I couldn’t be homesick because this was still my home.

I was watching my father escort a small group of parents around the school grounds. They passed a bed of gold roses and I heard one of the mothers exclaim at the scent. Pupils, newly returned
from Turkey, Thailand and the South of France, showed off tanned faces and limbs lithe in games shorts as they escorted parents to the gymnasium, squash courts and indoor swimming pool. At that age
I’d never felt as at ease in my skin as these sleek teenagers. Out on the hockey pitch a match was in progress. A hand punched the air in triumph and a cheer erupted, the players framed by
the green curve of the Downs to the south.

My father was wearing his light-grey Italian summer-weight suit. I was looking for my mother, who ought to be beside him in her blue linen shift dress, simple and perfectly cut, with an ivory
cashmere cardigan over it. A pair of models for a life insurance policy or pension plan. Middle England: playing fields and nice manners. But of course my mother wasn’t here. She’d died
in the summer holidays. I blinked several times and forced myself to look at the sixth-formers in the group: a boy and girl, each of them gilded by the soft light. The mothers were darting looks at
the boy. Probably wondering whether their own sons would gain that poise, that feline sleekness, if they sent them to Letchford. The fathers were trying not to gawp at the slender sixth-form girl
with her mane of hair and long golden legs. Perhaps we should insist that girls wore tracksuits on open days.

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