A sound wakes me from sleep and my eyes open, unseeing in the darkness. My stomach churns. I’m sure someone was crying? My ears strain for more, any further hint of sound that could act as a clue. But it’s quiet. Crying in itself is not that unusual around here. People cry all the time. After a bollocking from the duty teacher, it’s not unusual to cry yourself to sleep. But this whimper happened in the dead of night for no apparent reason. And it sounded like a girl’s cry. Which can’t be right. This is the boy’s floor.
I listen hard but there is only silence. I start to relax in my bed. There are all sorts of sounds in this place. A grand old Victorian building turned boarding school. It has an expanse of floorboards that withstood generations of students. Antiques as those boards were, they would creak frequently with minor temperature changes, and that would freak me out. My imagination conjured monstrosities tiptoeing in the night. Maybe even the ghost of Lady Grey, whose very look could kill the unlucky boarder brave enough to make eye contact. Sometimes it was the duty teacher doing a round to check everyone was asleep. But there were other sounds that I enjoyed listening to. The grandfather clock that dutifully chimed every hour. Or the mail train rumbling along miles away.
Snoring erupts beside me. I turn to see Max’s silhouette and I frown at him. Usually, I don’t mind his snoring. He is my best friend after all. I’m not sure why, he’s generally considered the biggest loser in the school. Which I think is unfair, but still, most people wouldn’t hang out with him. But he’s not that bad. He’s just unlucky to be the first person to wear glasses. People call them his binoculars and ask what time it is on Big Ben. His constant pushing the glasses up his nose doesn’t help. And when he reads the Beano, he analyses it like reading a textbook. He even does that with his mother’s letters. Like he can file away his emotions. But we have fun together. That’s why I like him. In a place where we don’t fit in, we're in it together. But right now, his snoring is bothering me. I won't be able to hear the whimpering if it returns.
I carefully extend my legs out from beneath the duvet, rest one foot on the floor as a pivot, and jab him in the hip with my other foot. I retreat quickly, in case he wakes and asks what the hell I’m doing. But he doesn’t. And he stops snoring. Crisis averted.
A floorboard creaks and I almost pass a bowel motion. Maybe Lady Grey is on the prowl and the crying was one of her victims who will never see their loved ones again? My body tenses and I dare not move in case I attract attention to myself. I shake my head. If I keep thinking like this I’ll never fall back to sleep. I turn onto my side and look through the doorway that opens into a central room that is best described as a chamber, because of its lavish decorations and paintings that adorn every spare space on the walls. Thankfully, there are always lights on in that central chamber, although they’re dim, they splash onto the only painting I can see from my bed. It’s a stately woman on a golden chair that could be a throne, but it’s not the queen. I’m not sure who it is. Maybe an old matriarch of the estate before it became a school? She looks so sure, so confident. I like to stare at her if I’m scared. Her confidence relaxes me. Stiff upper lip. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Keep calm and fall asleep.
There’s a discernible sob and I sit bolt upright. I’m not scared now. That was an earthly phenomenon. I’m just curious. I creep past Max’s bed and the empty bed by the doorway that neither of us wanted, and peer out into the central chamber. Nothing looks out of place. The doors to the other three dorms are dark, the boys from the years above me must be asleep. The other two walls of the chamber, one which leads to the sink room where we brush our teeth, and the other with an archway that leads to a hallway that leads to the stairs to the girls landing – both are dark and still. Inside the chamber, there is lavish carpets and expensive wooden tables with ornate vases. The ceiling lines have ornamental mouldings that I’ve never seen elsewhere. I shake my head. Even posh buildings abide by rules that I don't seem to understand.
There is another sob, coming from the shadow under the small table beside me. I kneel and look into the gloom and see her. Lucy.
I’ve fancied Lucy since I started at this school. She’s cute, obviously, with short brown hair and is slight in build. I’ve even talked to her a handful of times. Truth be told, she started most of those interactions. Like when we were in the Bell room trying to see our grades for the previous Saturday’s tests. I was ranked bottom. She told me not to worry, everyone fails their first Latin test. It’s a dead language after all. She was top of the class though. She seems to be good at everything and even seemed to be the headmistresses’ favourite. She’d talk to Lucy and the rest of us would feel invisible. Maybe that was the other reason I liked Lucy. She seemed to fit in so well in this establishment that was a mystery to me.
My mouth gapes open and for a moment I don’t know what to say. To see her like this, sobbing and shivering in the shadows is hard to understand.
“They'll expel you if they find you here,” I finally say. I want to hold her, hug her, ask her what's wrong. But all I did was point out the obvious punishment she’ll get. I’m sure that made her feel much better.
She doesn’t answer. She looks defeated. Like she doesn’t care if they find her.
I move next to her, uncomfortable on my knees.
“Lucy, what happened,” I ask.
“He dumped me.”
“Jason. He said I was too frigid.”
"Well… he's a complete nob-head then."
Light catches my eye, and I see a torch beam flashing down the stairs from the girl’s landing. That’s not good. It must be Mr Reed. He's on duty tonight and one of the strictest teachers. The man who grabbed me by my ear because I was late for dinner and dragged me from the common room to the refectory. He must be doing his night-time rounds. She’s noticed too. Her eyes widen as reality sinks in. She can’t run back to her dorm as the teacher is in the way. And she can’t go elsewhere without being caught and questioned.
“This can’t be happening,” she says.
“I’ll hide you,” I say.
I grab her hand and pull her with me into my dorm, and we hurry back to my bed.
“How are you going to hide me, there are no cupboards. There’s nowhere to hide!”
“Get in my bed. Make yourself small.”
She hesitates for a second, but then the beam of light plays on the doorway to my dorm and she dives into the bed. I get in as well. I cover her with the duvet. She hugs my body, her face against the side of my torso, and I feel her legs wrap around mine. I take my spare pillow and hold it on my chest and hug it like it's a teddy bear. Then I close my eyes.
Mr Reed creaks into the room and I hear the light switch being flicked. The light stings as I open my eyes and turn my head toward him.
“Everything alright, Sir?” I ask, heart pounding. I suddenly realise how bad this would also be for me. If he finds a girl in my bed. We’d both be expelled. My parents would be crushed. And I brought it all on myself.
He scans his eyes over me and the other beds. He crouches at the doorway briefly and looks under the beds, stands, looks at me one more time and switches out the light.
“Go to sleep,” he says.
I hear him check the other three rooms and then lurch to the sink room and off into the night.
I realise it must just be a routine round of checks and let out the breath I’d been holding.
“I think he’s gone,” I say.
She unfurls herself from my body, and we creep to the doorway. The central chamber is dimly lit and undisturbed once more.
“I owe you big time,” Lucy says, eyeing me intently.
“This is your best chance to get back to your room.”
She kisses me. It's just a quick kiss, onto the lips mind you, and then she goes. She’s spritely. The floorboards don’t make a sound. She pauses at the bottom of the steps, looks back, and then darts away, up to the girl’s landing.
I go back to bed. I lay awake on my back and gaze into the dark.
“Did she kiss you?” Max asks.
He must have been awake for the whole thing. What a legend for not giving us away.
“Yeah,” I say.
“That’s really cool,” he says.
Yeah, it was, it was super cool. And that kiss was all for me. She wanted to kiss me. Because in this crazy weird place I'd finally done something right. And for a moment I felt like I belonged.
The sounds continue: the grandfather clock chimes, a mail train rattles, and floor-boards creak, but the stately lady in the painting stays silent as I fall fast asleep.