Delphine’s Schooldays – Chapter 4
This is part of a historical serial which I am writing with EveRay. It’s better if read in the right order. If you have missed any earlier episodes they are here:
My humiliation in the gymnasium left a bitter taste in my mouth, I was unaccustomed to being made to look small. Netball seemed a stupid game, yet it would not beat me, I planned to learn it and shine. The other girls united with me, banding together to detest Miss Ranson. As I did. How dare she look at me with scorn?
Gathering round me in the changing room, some girls muttered how unfair it was, but how brave I had been. I changed back to my uniform as quickly as I could, splashing water on my blotched face. I re-fastened my hair in a high ponytail, my scalp was burning where that bitch Lucy Simpson had pulled it.
I observed Lucy’s friends flanking her, as she dabbed her cheek with a wet handkerchief, soothing the scratches I’d made. She’d think twice before crossing Delphine de Lotbinere. That I’d made an enemy – I didn’t give two hoots.
As we hurried from the changing room to the dining hall for afternoon tea, Annette Norris, known as Nettie, sidled up to me.
“Please take care, Bin,” she murmured earnestly. Her face was a mass of pale brown freckles, her eyes looked extra mournful now she was wearing her glasses. “Miss Ranson is not … well it’s not good to be in her bad books.”
I gave a non committal Gallic shrug, I felt anxious about the situation myself, but didn’t intend to let that show.
“I cannot help that I know not about netball.”
We stood in line to collect cups of strong tea. I can’t see why the English like this drink so much, I prefer the fine china tea Mamman serves.
“She can be very cruel.” Nettie kept her voice low, “She’s unpleasantly inventive with her punishments.”
We moved with our teacups to another table loaded with slices of bread, pats of butter and jars of jam. Putting the makings of a sandwich on our plates she guided me to a table distant from the others.
“What does it mean, inventive?” I asked, scraping a thin layer of butter onto my bread before I bit and chewed.
I watched Nettie. Like most of the girls here, she layered sweet conserves onto her bread and spooned sugar into her pale green tea cup. It is no surprise to me, after only a week at this school, that the English are more heavily-built than is considered fashionable in France.
“Oh, she will think of ways to humiliate you, her punishments are more shame than pain.” A blush flooded Nettie’s cheek. She dropped her head as if to study her bread and jam.
Humiliation was something I could not tolerate. I tossed my head as if it was of no consequence.
“Thank you for this warning Nettie. I shall be on guard.”
That evening in my dormitory there was a fuss. All the girls gathered round my bed to see what the parcels delivered to me contained.
My guess was that the larger, more flimsy box held cake, because yesterday had been my eighteenth birthday. My new friends were wide eyed when I cut the string with my nail scissors to reveal a sponge cake decorated with sugar icing. My name was written in pink piping and crystallised rose and violet petals were arranged round the edge. Swelling with pride, I secretly blessed Papa, or his assistant, for ordering something grand.
“It’s beautiful Bin, but how will we cut it?” Arianrod’s question was fair, the dining hall and kitchens would be locked by now.
I considered the metal nail file in my manicure set, but it was too small.
“How about this?” cried the girl with a bob, whose name was Belinda. She produced a palette knife. “I use this for art but it’s clean, I always wash it with soap.”
Dividing the cake up was messy but fun. The delicate frosted icing combined with fragrant vanilla sponge was a welcome treat. I have not been impressed with the stodgy food served at St Faith’s – the desserts in particular are unappealing; railway pudding and semolina, definitely not to my taste.
Feeling like lady bountiful, I offered the slices to the girls who shared my dorm. Everyone had been friendly my first week. I felt a little shy to be a year older than them, but putting more effort into my riding and preparing for competitions than my schooling had quite a negative impact on my studies. I needed to attain my school certificate, hence Papa had sent me here rather than to school in France.
“What’s in the other package?” Belinda asked eagerly. I sensed she had a crush on me. Being a keen horse riding enthusiast, she had watched my dressage routine at the Badminton Horse Trials last year.
“Open it Bin!” another girl exclaimed.
They all crowded round encouragingly. Feeling excited and curious, I used the scissors to cut through the string, then whisked the brown paper off with haste. Inside the box was a beautiful pair of shoes, soft supple leather decorated with a punch detail on their narrowed toes. Not the girlish mary-jane’s I usually wore, these had high, tapered heels.
I was shocked and surprised, but the mouths of my room-mates literally hung open. These shoes were so adult, so sophisticated, the kind of shoes to be worn with an evening gown or a cocktail dress. Nestled in the box alongside them was a pair of 5 denier black silk stockings in a cellophane pouch.
Mamman had taped a note to the pack which said “Now you are a woman …”
The girls were so impressed, they gasped at the gauzy opacity of the silk stockings. I felt less so. Typical of Mamman, thinking everything revolved around catching a man who’d smooth your way in life. While her husbands got older with each re-marriage, Papa dallied with ever younger women. It made me want to scream.
“Try them on!” Arianrod suggested.
“Yes do, Bin!” Belinda sparkled with doe-eyed delight.
Loving the attention I whipped off my flannel pyjama bottoms and fastened a suspender belt round my waist. I took care to gather the first stocking painstakingly with the thumb and fingertips of both hands before I pointed my toes and inserted them, to begin stroking the hosiery carefully up my leg without any snagging en route.
My girls watched with bated breath as my leg was transformed from pale childish flesh to a sleek, contoured dark limb, purely by the presence of the stocking. When I repeated the process with the other stocking on my left leg, you could’ve heard a pin drop. As I reached round to fasten the suspenders at the stocking cuff, I noticed Belinda biting her lip with a faraway look in her eye.
Arianrod took the black leather shoes carefully from the box and placed them reverently by my toes, the double thickness of the stockings making that portion of my small foot a darker black.
“Show us!” she encouraged me. The others chorused in agreement.
So, thrilling from the new sensation of the silky stockings, I wriggled my feet into the constriction of the snug fitting leather. The shoes were a good fit. It’s likely Mamman had tried them on, our feet were the same size.
Oh the rush I felt as I was raised inches higher by the lift of the heel! The pull on the muscles in my legs was fascinating too. My legs are strong from riding, but I felt my calf muscles bunch in an unfamiliar way. I was elegant.
Hanging my handbag from the crook of my arm, I strutted up and down the dormitory to whoops and cries from the other girls. I imagined myself like Marlene Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman. I tried to walk with a glide, despite the unaccustomed way the shoes arched my feet. Sometimes I forgot myself and bounced precariously in the heels.
For full effect, I stood with my back against the dormitory door then began striding, to parade for my friends like a model on the catwalk. I felt attractive and admired, despite the fact that above my silk stockings and high heels I wore only a pyjama jacket. When the girls went eerily silent, with eyes as round as saucers, I finished my walk with a high kick like a showgirl.
“That is quite enough, Miss Lotbiniere.”
The clipped voice washed over me like iced water. Miss Ranson.
“It seems you cannot wait until 9 o’clock tomorrow for your disciplinary action, Mademoiselle.”
Although she did not raise her voice, it was shot through with such disdain that my knees began quaking. Miss Ranson had a similar effect on my room mates, if their expressions were any gauge.
“Come with me, Miss de Lotbiniere,” she instructed. “The rest of you, into bed and lights out immediately. I should not have to remind you that, being in the sixth form of St Faith’s, brings more responsibility to abide by the rules.”
Under her stern glare, the subdued girls scuttled into their beds. I moved towards mine to gather my pyjama trousers and dressing gown.
“As you are, Countess. Now!”
Burning with shame at my state of undress, I tried to hold my head high. I passed my headmistress with unsteady steps in my new high heels. Imbued with a feeling of dread, I left the dorm, taking the stairs down to her study.
[To be continued …]