AFTER THE GONG...
Amelia Elliot was halfway down the staircase to the school dining room when her life changed forever.
The dinner gong had sounded twice and she was going to be late. She would always think of
her life now as ‘before the gong’ and ‘after the gong’. Before the gong, everything had been safe and normal: slightly dull, slightly sad, but safe. She was worried about her Latin exam, she missed her father, she hated Perdita Mildbrace. After the gong, nothing would be safe or normal ever again.
Halfway down the stairs she had stopped running, spotting Miss Lancer looking up at her. Running was forbidden, of course, but The Lance’s face was twisted into a tight bud of a smile and Amelia’s heart contracted. She was guided into Miss Mapthorpe’s study to receive the news. Her mouth went dry.
When she saw the headmistress’ face she knew this wasn’t going to be a lecture about running in the corridors. Catastrophe hung in the air like ripe fruit.
It was her father: Fear ran through her head. Sluiced through her bloodstream. The old fear, the worst fear. The nightmare she’d had since infancy.
She fixed her eyes on Miss Mapthorpe’s mouth: “Ship lost at sea…Sunk without trace…Missing, feared drowned.” She’d almost rehearsed this scene in her head as a way to propitiate God and ward off calamity, but now it was actually happening.
Amelia said nothing. The room softened to syrup around her. She came to on the Turkey carpet, roused by The Lance’s smelling salts and was taken to the sanatorium.
So Amelia didn’t need to worry about her Latin exam, or her feud with Perdita Mildbrace. School was over for her. Her Aunt Cora and Uncle Enoch, two complete strangers, would be arriving to take her away. Away from school. Away to their house in London. She was twelve years old and had become that staple figure of storybook openings - an orphan.
Amelia packed her school trunk with the silver-framed photograph of her dead mother and missing-feared-drowned father, covered her pet canary, Miss Lovington’s, cage and waited in a window seat for her uncle and aunt to arrive. Waited, lost and frozen-headed as a porcelain doll.
Through the thick glass of the window she saw them step out of their carriage in the drizzling rain. Uncle Enoch was a gaunt, black-clad figure – so tall, with his dark umbrella, that he seemed to blot out the grey sky. He looked entirely unlike his estranged brother Norton - her kind, beloved father. She’d hoped there might be at least some resemblance. On his arm teetered his tiny wife, frills of lilac lace foaming around her throat.
Aunt Cora had an eager, beseeching expression and ardently-parted pink lips. She clutched Amelia to her small, perfumed bosom.
“You poor, pretty, creature. We are going to love you so much. Love you…like our own. And we’ll have so much amusement together. We’ll get rid of this horrid, plain school dress and you won’t have to worry about anything nasty ever again.”
Aunt Cora stroked Amelia’s plaits. Amelia wanted to snarl and bite her hand. To sink her teeth into the white palm, like a rabid dog, until it streamed with blood, but she curtseyed and lowered her eyes.
“Thank you, Aunt Cora.”
Miss Lancer, sensible sober Miss Lancer, clasped her hand and gave her a parcel of books.
“You have a fine brain, Amelia. Don’t forget that. We are all alone really, you know. But one can make a good life using one’s education. Exercise that brain. With a book you are never lonely. With education you have a solid sense of self-worth.”
Aunt Cora laughed nervously and eyed the drab schoolteacher with veiled dread. What could this plain spinster possibly have that anyone could value? But Amelia thanked Miss Lancer and cradled the books gratefully.
Her classmates peered through the carriage window as she drew away. Amelia hid her face from their pity and excitement at the drama, breathing back tears, expressionless. She chanted inside her head, “Missing- feared-drowned does not mean dead. Missing-feared-drowned does not mean dead.”
Her heart was a flint pebble as she left school behind. The solid Georgian building, which had loomed so large in her life, shrank now to a tiny doll’s house as the carriage cleared the driveway and rumbled on towards London.
If she held her breath for long enough, could she die?