Authors: Gina Wilson
For Marion, Lewis and Harriet
, and the way I wrote it, reminds me of the saying that there’s at least one book inside all of us. One afternoon in the later stages of my third pregnancy, I sat down on the floor with my back to the settee, drew my knees up to the ‘bump,’ laid an A4 pad across the resulting ‘ledge’ and wrote the first chapter. It culminates in a scene where four young girls lay a ‘curse’ on another. I didn’t, at the time, have any idea as to why they were doing that. I spent the rest of the book working it out. It took a grip on me.
The manuscript of this book, which I still have, fascinates me in its total dissimilarity to the first drafts (all hand-written) of my other books. These are barely legible for deletions and insertions, but the
manuscript is unmarked, written straight out, just once. It looks almost as if I’m copying it down from a version already set in stone. No planning, pondering, experimenting. This is it.
You’d think writing of this sort must be strongly autobiographical but, at the time of composition, I didn’t feel as if I was writing about myself. True, I have two brothers, but they are older not younger. True, I lived briefly in a Buckinghamshire village and went to a little school like Okington, but I lived for far longer on the outskirts of a small town in Cheshire and went to Manchester High School. True, I had friends who were not popular, but I never had a totally secret friend.
I thought that the nearest I came to writing directly from my own life was in recounting the episode of the fire in the air-raid shelter. I was once nearly trapped in a similar incident. I also consciously brought myself into the story in the character of Georgia Jamieson (my name was Georgina Jones), though my father did not beat me.
However, now, as I look back, I can see that the story draws very deeply on my childhood – not so much concrete events and characters, but my experience of the first intoxicating rush of independence.
To this day, I carry a clear, visual memory of when it first struck me that I was a fully autonomous being. I was nearly twelve, dawdling home in sunshine, trailing my hand through a long privet hedge when, with an almighty clap, it dawned on me that there was, now, nothing I couldn’t understand or try to do. I might not know all there was to know educationally but I could grasp what was happening to myself and other people, how I felt about things, why I made the choices I made and, most importantly, I could react to unfairness in my world. I could weigh things up, come to my own conclusions, act on them.
This new awareness is at the heart of
as Becky sees, for the first time, that adults – even trusted and admired ones – might not always be wholly right, and so begins to follow instincts and intuitions of her own. The opening sentence is the key: ‘The school where I first met Cora Ravenwing was called Okington School, and I was just beginning to have real ideas and opinions of my own when I first went there.’
HE SCHOOL WHERE I FIRST MET CORA RAVENWING WAS
called Okington School, and I was just beginning to have real ideas and opinions of my own when I first went there. There were seventeen of us in the class—all girls.
I was the oldest of three children. My name was Rebecca Stokes; some people called me Becky, some Stokie, and the teachers always stuck to Rebecca in full. My brother Joseph was six when I started at Okington, and little Dorian was two. My father was a businessman, in textiles, and my mother, who had been a teacher, was now at home all the time looking after us.
It didn’t take me long to feel settled at Okington, though I hadn’t wanted to move schools. We’d moved house
of my father’s work and I just had to move schools too. My best friends at Okington were Hermione Phillips, Barbara Foster and Susan Spenser. We had our desks in a block near the front of the class and usually we worked quite hard at the lessons and didn’t get into much trouble.
Hermione and I were clever at English, Barbara was best at Maths and Susan was very artistic. She always felt stupid at school but, actually, after we all grew up, she was the only one to make much of a career; she became a dress-designer and I’m always seeing her name in the papers, though we’re not friendly any more. In fact, I’m not friendly with any of them any more, which sometimes seems regrettable but isn’t surprising in the light of events all those years ago.
Hermione and I used to walk to school together. Our homes, in the little Buckinghamshire village of Okefield, were fairly near each other and I usually met her coming down her drive as I passed. I was quite plump, with short, black hair and a pink face which people used to say looked very healthy. Hermione was rather thin and nervous-
, with blonde, curly hair cut very short. I was envious of her appearance because I thought she was much more sensitive-looking than I was. The only bad thing about her was that she bit her nails and was always having to bend her fingers round awkwardly so people wouldn’t see the chewed ends. So I could at least console myself that my hands were nicer than hers. We used to write a lot of poetry together but, though she never said anything herself, I always felt that I was just pretending while she was the real poetess. She used to screw her face up and say such thoughtful things, while I just systematically plodded through the alphabet, trying to think of rhyming words. Once we had our poems in the school magazine, and I was sure that people were thinking that, really, Hermione, so beautiful and so intense, was responsible for it all and had helped me with mine because we were friends.
Once, instead of going to school, we bought bars of
and apples and went off to the common. It was a
spring day and the idea shot into my head out of the
blue. I just said: “Let’s not go today! Let’s keep on
“Not go!” said Hermione. “Don’t be silly. Miss Dingwall would be terribly cross and our parents would find out …”
“We could say we’d been sick. Lots of people are being sick; there’s something going round. Mary Jacobs was sick yesterday and I felt queasy myself. I told Miss Dingwall I did, so she’d be bound to believe me. And I’m always with you, so you’d be likely to catch it too.” Hermione still looked scared and started biting a nail. “Oh, come on! Don’t be spineless. We never do anything unusual. We need
for our poetry, anyway. How’re we ever going to write anything interesting if we never do anything
That argument seemed to carry some weight. “All right,” Hermione said. “We’ll go. But what about lunch? We can’t just wander off with no plan in mind at all.”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. “Why not just wander off and see what happens?”
“No, I can’t do that,” said Hermione. “It’s too
I thought she might change her mind altogether, so I just said: “All right, you organize us. I don’t care what we do as long as we miss school and stay outside all day.”
Hermione decided we’d have to go to the common; that was the nearest bit of real countryside. She began to get into the spirit of the thing. “It’s wide and free,” she said. “We can observe the flowers, listen to bird-song, ramble through nature, become a part of it.”
“Let’s get chocolate from Copcutt’s,” I said. Copcutt’s was the village shop. Hermione wanted something more natural and health-giving; she bought apples and a piece of cheese. We put our supplies in our satchels along with our
ties and hats, and we unbuttoned the necks of our blouses and struck out for the common, full of exhilaration at our daring.
We had to pass St. Matthew’s Church on the way and, as we approached, a little stick-like figure appeared, running unevenly down the road, her satchel bumping her knees at every step.
“It’s Cora Ravenwing!” hissed Hermione. “Now what do we do?”
“Just keep walking,” I said. “We never usually speak to her anyway. She won’t dare ask where we’re going.”
The figure stopped running and proceeded towards us at walking pace.
“She’s seen us,” said Hermione. “We’ll have to go back. She’s bound to tell everyone she’s seen us here.”
“No. Keep walking,” I said. “Ignore her. I’m not going to let Cora Ravenwing ruin everything—her of all people!”
Hermione didn’t really know what to do, but I just plodded on firmly, looking straight ahead, and she followed me. I didn’t look at Cora as she passed us, but I think she had a good stare at us. I sensed her beady eyes and jerking little head, with the flapping, black fringe, turned in our direction. After we’d gone on a few yards we heard her running feet again and glanced quickly round. She was
off down the road, arms and legs going in all
, blazer flying open.
“There,” I said. “Told you she wouldn’t speak.”
“I bet she’ll say plenty at school,” said Hermione. “I must say that’s cast a blight on things.”
“Oh, rubbish! I’m not letting her wreck the day. And I don’t think she’ll say a word to anyone. After all, nobody ever wants to hear what she’s got to say anyway.”
After that we really did have a marvellous day. The sun
brought the best warm smells out of the grass and gorse, and small, bright birds darted in and out of the bushes, and larks sang overhead. We found clear water to paddle in and ate our lunch in a sunny hollow where the grass was silky and smooth. We went home at half-past three, as we would have done from school, and Hermione’s mother asked me in for tea at their house as my mother was still there having called in earlier. The two mothers sat in the garden on deck-chairs after Mrs. Phillips had made scrambled eggs and stewed apple for Hermione and me to eat at the kitchen table.
“I think the day’s been a total success, don’t you?” I said when Mrs. Phillips went outside to rejoin my mother.
“Not bad,” said Hermione. “Just as long as that ghastly Ravenwing girl hasn’t spilt the beans.”
“I’m not going to give it a thought,” I said. “We’ll just tell Miss Dingwall that we weren’t well and that’ll be that.”
“What about sick-notes?” said Hermione. We were supposed to take notes from our parents if we stayed away from school.
“One day’s not going to matter,” I said. “We can say we’ve forgotten them, anyway.” I wasn’t at all worried.
But all hell broke out at school the next day. Miss
called us up to her desk as soon as we arrived in the class-room. She asked for our sick-notes, and when we muttered excuses she said she didn’t believe us, and then Hermione started crying and confessed the whole thing with no attempt at a cover-up. I hadn’t been for lying exactly, but a certain amount of evasion might not have come amiss. Miss Dingwall looked all pinched and stuffy and sent us to the headmistress, Miss Todd, who said some really
things about dishonesty and idleness which I thought we hadn’t deserved. I felt like crying with rage.
Hermione wept non-stop all the time Miss Todd was talking to us and, thereafter, on and off all day. She was
that we should be in such disgrace with the teachers. Barbara and Susan had to be told the story then, and felt hurt that we hadn’t confided in them beforehand, far less included them in the day’s truancy. I think they eventually believed me when I insisted that the idea had come to me and been acted upon entirely spontaneously.
I kept looking across at Cora Ravenwing all day and
those black, beady eyes of hers. Had she really told Miss Dingwall she’d seen us heading for the common? Barbara and Susan said they hadn’t heard her say a word, but it was just possible that she had darted up to Miss Dingwall unobserved and said just enough to cast doubt and suspicion in her mind. Hermione was sure that that was what must have happened.
In the art class during the afternoon Susan made a little figure with odd bits of clay that were left over from our coil pots and she sneaked it out of the art room in her satchel. She became very mysterious about it and said we’d see what it was for after school. We left school together, the four of us, and wandered towards the village centre, waiting for Susan to explain herself. She eventually hopped over a gate into a field. “Come on,” she said. “This is a good place. Nobody’ll see us here.” Her smooth little freckled face was quite hard and mean-looking as she pulled the soft clay figure out of her satchel and straightened out its limbs. She laid it on the grass and we gathered round and looked down at it. “That is Cora Ravenwing,” she said and glanced at each of us in turn with bright, excited eyes, “and she is
Do you all agree?”
The others said definitely that they did agree and I said I thought it was possible. “Right,” said Susan, “then I’ll show
you what we do to bad people.” She ran over to the hedge, which was thick with brambles and thorns, and stripped off a handful of prickles and spikes of one sort and another. Then she ran back and, with her teeth bared and her eyes staring straight out of her head, she began to stick them into the figure, saying: “This is for you, Cora Ravenwing, and so is this and this and this …”
I was taken aback at the spectacle, but Hermione caught fire in seconds. “Wait for me! Wait! Wait!” she cried and tore thorns by the handful from the hedge herself,
to the scratches she received in the process. Then she was down on her knees beside Susan, plunging them into the figure. After a while, with no obvious enthusiasm but almost for the sake of form, Barbara followed suit and I was left standing there by myself.
“Come on, Becky! Hurry up! There’s hardly any more room,” called Hermione, looking up at me, her cheeks all flushed and her eyes still red from the day’s weeping. She held out some thorns for me to stick in too—and I did.
When the little figure was packed tight with thorns and looked more like a rolled-up hedgehog than anything else, Susan called a halt. She picked the thing up and held it aloft. “Cora Ravenwing,” she screamed shrilly, “we cast you from our midst for ever!” Then she hurled the prickly figure into the middle of a nearby thicket. “There, that should settle her for a bit,” she said to the rest of us. “That’ll teach her to make trouble for any of us.”
“Oh, Susan, thank you,” said Hermione fervently. “That was just what was needed. I feel ever so much better now—as if justice has been done, somehow.”
“Well, I hope it was justice,” I said grumpily. I wished I’d had the strength of mind not to add my share of thorns. “We don’t know for a fact that Cora did tell Miss Dingwall.”
Barbara spoke then. She hadn’t had much to say on the topic hitherto. “I think it’s only logical to assume that she did. How else could Miss Dingwall have known?”
“I don’t think she
know till Hermione broke down and told her,” I said. “She was just suspicious of our having no sick-notes. But Hermione felt so guilty she started crying and confessing straight away.”
Hermione started sobbing again at this point.
“Look what you’ve done,” said Susan crossly. “She was just feeling better after the most miserable day, and now you’ve got to start blaming her for the whole thing. Of course it was Cora. Miss Dingwall landed on you as soon as you came in this morning—she jolly well knew that you’d been doing something naughty.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s go home, anyway, and get the rest of it over with. I’ve still got my parents to tell. I might as well get my excuses in before Miss Todd gets in touch with them.”
“Oh, Heavens!” wept Hermione. “What on earth will Mummy and Daddy say? I’ve never been in trouble
“I expect they’ll say it’s
influence,” I said testily. I knew the Phillipses weren’t entirely enthusiastic about my friendship with Hermione despite displays of great
and hospitality to my whole family. I thought it was because we were newcomers to the village and hadn’t proved our worth yet, our house wasn’t very grand, and my accent had a distinct Birmingham twang to it. I always came away from their house feeling that I hadn’t quite come up to scratch. I picked my satchel up and stumped off towards the gate, leaving Susan in charge of mopping up Hermione.
As I went on down the road Barbara caught me up.
“Listen,” she said. “Don’t take it all so personally. Nobody’s blaming you.”
“I didn’t think they were,” I retorted. “I thought we were all blaming Cora.”
“Well, that’s probably the right thing to do,” said
. “She’s a bad lot. She always has been. We keep telling you that.”
“I don’t understand …”
“No, it’s difficult if you haven’t always lived here, but remember we’ve known her for years. Our mothers knew her mother. It’s just something we all know about—she was born bad.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “I’ve heard some of the stories, but it’s just malicious gossip; it doesn’t amount to anything. My parents think that really too.”