Mrs. S arrives last. The Girls try not to care. Look at her quickly, flicking from her shoes to her hair, they like to see how she dresses. The library is warm. She stands by the door and removes her jumper, green. We all watch, we all want to be the only one watching. She recognizes her audience. Smiles. Their unofficial welfare officer. Involved in the intimate aspects of their lives, out of choice, not duty, it seems to me. The Girls are spread across the room. Leaning on bookcases, sitting cross-legged on the patterned carpet. Some have dared to loosen their ties, undo a top button. The Nurse is impatient. As if she has been waiting a century to speak. She stands in front of them all. Her hands move in and out of fists, heavy at her sides. Taps her foot. Mrs. S apologizes for her lateness, though it’s only by a few minutes. The Nurse forces an enormous smile. Right. She claps her hands. Right, enough chitter-chatter, listen up Girls, or should I say Ladies? They do not know it is meant as a question. The Nurse presses her lips together. Hmmmmmm? Now they understand. Ladies, The Girls respond softly, reluctantly.
Mrs. S moves through the room. Knots the green jumper around her shoulders. An example. Finds me at the far wall. Decides to stand as I do, tilted forward, lower back pressed against stone. She whispers something I can’t catch. I should whisper too, ask her to repeat what she said. I can’t. I will spend a lifetime wondering. Another smile. The Nurse goes on. Ladies, as we all know, your first social is upon us. The Girls bite the insides of their cheeks. They do not want to give away their excitement, not to her. I could learn from their determination. Mrs. S, her bare forearm, only a centimetre from mine. I’d like her to realize. She doesn’t. The Nurse is not awkward. Power comes naturally to her, she seeks it out. There are, of course, a few things worth bearing in mind, the same things I’ve told the Ladies before you, and the Ladies before them. The Girls release their cheeks. First, the rules, no skirts above the knees. One of The Girls can’t help it. She groans, other heads whip to find her. The Nurse’s hand, no longer a fist, hits the skin above her heart. The Girls closest flinch. Any more outbursts like that and I shall make sure none of you go, do you hear? Mrs. S turns to me, raises her eyebrows so only I will notice. Where did she grow up? Has she broken any bones? The impulse to know all of her, the idea that I could, the accidental promise of her raised eyebrows. Shameful, how easily I am trapped. The Nurse is relentless. I tune back in. Any skirts above the knee and you’ll be sent back to your dorms, when dancing you shall be at least a foot apart, I won’t bring my ruler because I shan’t need it. Her tongue clacks. You’re dealing with boys, they age differently, good manners do not occur to boys. The Girls look through her. Focus on the wall behind, I can feel their thinking: what does she know about these boys, their boys? You must be in charge, they don’t think with their heads. The Nurse pauses for effect. It works. Shame settles on The Girls like snow, they blink, a few scrunch their eyes. Beside me Mrs. S shifts, places her hands between the small of her back and the wall. The Nurse senses her win, the success of her applied pressure. So, you must do the thinking for them. She paces out of pleasure. Three steps to the left, to the right. You will remain where you can be seen, you may not leave the building until the lights are up, teachers shall be stationed at the doors, I expect you to be sensible, Ladies, to not let the side down, can I count on you? This time The Girls know to answer. Yes, they draw out the s. But it is not enough, The Nurse needs to them to nod, to sign her verbal contract with their bodies. Any idiocy shall ruin it for the rest, am I clear? Yes. They are louder, almost comical, heads bobbing. Jolly good, that’s it, you’re free to go.
They save their secrets, file out in silence. The boys will arrive from the nearest private school, in pressed shirts and ties, breath freshened, knees touching on the coaches that drive them down the country lanes. Ridiculous. And yet, it is all there is. Things start to make sense. This one event, the anticipation they must make last. The Girls understand how to propel themselves forward. I go to leave, I will have to walk them back to their dorms, to monitor them as they eat dinner, as they get ready for bed. Mrs. S stays at my side. I expect you find all of this quite strange. Me? Yes. I guess it’s not what I’m used to. No, I don’t imagine that it is. She stops before the door. I do the same. Must seem a rather extraordinary way to find a boyfriend, I expect you had simpler methods? Sure, something like that. I hold back, too exhilarated by the question, it could mean nothing. Not so old-fashioned where you’re from. Maybe more than you think. Is that so? Yeh, it was conservative in its own way, there were dances, a bit like this, there were shorter skirts, though, definitely above the knee. I see myself at fourteen, legs bare, an outfit loaned to me by a girl I would do anything for.
The Nurse stands behind me and clears her throat. She needs to be noticed. Mrs. S uses her first name, touches her arm, she stiffens under her grip. Thank you for doing that. Yes, good, some of it sank in, can’t trust them at this age, all those hormones making them daft. Well, I’m sure they’ll do their best. We’ll see. Her drama, the reach of her sigh, her chest restrained by the starch of her uniform. She wants them to fail. She doesn’t acknowledge me, I like to think I frighten her. Well, can’t stand around all day, this won’t do, I shall be seeing you. Screeches away, rubberized soles planted heavily on the wooden floor.
You know, she’s not really the tyrant she seems. The Nurse, Mrs. S wants me to forgive her. I’ll take your word for it. I find myself echoing her speech, wanting to seem grander, wanting to seem worthy. Yes, you’ll have to, I suppose you don’t have a choice. Her final smile, her hand already on the door handle. She doesn’t say goodbye. Unknots the green jumper. Slips it over her head. Corrects her hair, fixes the sleeves. Turns once as she walks down the corridor. Finds me exactly where she left me, as she knew she would.
From Mrs. S by K Patrick. Used with permission of the publisher, Europa. Copyright © 2023 by K Patrick.