I had only ever seen my roommate twice since I’d arrived in July: once when I’d woken up in the middle of the night, and once when I’d entered Professor Carver’s office as she’d been leaving. As she passed I caught the scent of heather. Now it was August and I had yet to see her in classes, but through her absences on the roll I learned that her name was Cecilia, which stuck with me the moment I’d first heard it, only because it rolled off the tongue so pleasantly.
In our room her side was bare, scant of possessions. But she possessed a few things that gave me a strong impression of her, and I thought that perhaps a smaller number of things was much more suggestible anyway, rather than a multitude that could never represent one wholly and entirely. A dark, oak cello stood at the foot of her bed, and she had a little collection of shiny things on top of a wooden stool, which I was too afraid to go near, but from a distance, I could see a little metal rouge case, a round, silver pocket mirror and a glass flask of perfume that glittered like amber and gold when the sunlight approached it.
The things she owned were much more luxurious than I’d ever seen before, and I only knew what they were because I saw them often throughout my life as drawings rendered meticulously in watercolour and pencil, but never materialised as the real thing. The stories that arose from these things amounted to little on their own, but they piled on top of each other to create a greater narrative, which I recognised could only be considered mine more than it was hers. Nevertheless, it was through these things that I became well-acquainted with Cecilia, only I mean by the presence she left behind in the room, rather than the person herself, the latter of which was unfailingly elusive. Eventually the initial loneliness of moving away from home left me in this way, though not through an intention I had set to do so, but as a phenomenon that occurred as I moved from childhood to adolescence; from melancholy to liveliness.
We lived in the smallest dorm, on top of a wide, flowering moor and the furthest away from the main campus. Cecilia and I had a large window in the centre of our room, in between our beds, that opened us up to the field of wild heather, which for a mile ahead coloured the landscape in varying hues of purple, and which would sometimes turn blue when the sun was setting and the sky was pink. But I noticed the scent first before I comprehended the colour: it emitted a deep, earthy aroma that cleared my mind of anxieties I had grown accustomed to back in the city, yet it cleared my mind also of other things, of feelings and thoughts. By the time I had noticed, these had already left me, leaving a hole where they once were, and presently I fail to name these things I lost and may never regain.
Apart from Cecilia and I, there were six other girls in our building, all of whom I was still getting to know, though I was in no rush. I was closest to Daisy because we shared Literature together. She adored Professor Carver, who appeared younger than his title suggested on paper, and who often provided excuses for Cecilia’s absences out of kindness and generosity, which Daisy loathed. I generally tried to refrain from asking questions about Cecilia out of politeness, but I saw the opportunity arise for me to ask with good timing. If done too early, I would be labelled a gossip, and if done too late, I would be questioned about my prolonged interest. There was no other time and I feared missing the chance as I saw it, shining in front of my eyes, within my grasp.
After Literature ended and as we walked to Greek, I asked Daisy quietly what she knew about Cecilia, if anything at all. This was, I assured her, out of a genuine curiosity and concern for my absent roommate.
She is lazy, Daisy said curtly. Only because she is just a little bit pretty. That is all.
Before I could ask her to elaborate, Professor Carver approached us and both Daisy and I shut up at once. He was not wearing his glasses now, as he usually did when he taught our class.
We addressed him, bowing our heads simultaneously as we addressed his title, as Daisy had taught me to do on my first day here. Rise, he said. We did so and only then did I notice how tall he was, now that we were proximate to each other outside of the classroom. He without fail wore a tailored, black suit to teach and as a result it made him look lean, otherworldly when situated next to the other professors, who seemed to age instantaneously and as if by magic when they and Professor Carver stood side by side. When he opened his mouth to speak, he uttered my name, and I was surprised at the way my name seemed to transform when spoken in his voice, as if evocative of something.
Matilda, he said. When convenient, I would like to have you in my office to discuss the matter of Cecilia. Neither of you are in trouble.
Of course, Professor Carver. May I ask, is it urgent?
Not at all.
He explained he was leaving the school now to go home, so perhaps it would be best to see him in the morning, before Literature started at nine o’clock. We parted ways and naturally Daisy was curious about the affair, but I assured her I knew nothing outside of what she herself already knew, save for the fact that Cecilia rarely came back to our room to sleep, much less to do anything at all. I thought perhaps it was the combination of these two observations that the professor wanted to discuss, although I didn’t understand why I had been called upon as well. I had only learned her name from hearing it said by other people, whereas I wasn’t quite sure she knew me at all, by face nor by name.
After school that day, I walked with Daisy and her roommate, Eliza, back to our building on the top of the moor. The sky was bright still and we took our time walking through the overgrown fields. All around us was the smell of the heather, nearing their fullest heady blossom at the height of the summer, and we chased each other through the grass, which felt spiky against our bare legs and made small pink scratches on them, though they never bled. The air was balmy and warm, and we quickly tired of running around, growing hot in our uniforms.
Daisy taught us how to pick the flowers to make little heather crowns, by making a dainty cut in the stem and carefully threading the flower in between the holes, stringing them together one by one until we had about twenty flowers for the each of us. We wore these on our heads and raced each other to the top of a smaller hill, not quite as high as the one our building stood on, but one a bit down below so that we were in our dorm’s shadow. We collapsed in a messy row, the three of us, and before our eyes we saw the whole field and the sun setting on the left of our vision, tainted a dark orange but still too bright to look at directly.
We stayed there until the flowers turned to dusk and the mosquitoes came out, and we chased them away as we ran up the hill to our building not far away, which emanated a warm, yellow glow from the light inside. Then I noticed at once that it was Cecilia and I’s window that was lit, and my heart raced with expectation. I didn’t say a word to either Daisy or Eliza, as it seemed that they hadn’t yet caught on, and from the moment the heavy door to the building closed behind us, I retired to my room immediately, complaining about my sticky skin and expressing my urgent desire to shower.
The door was already ajar and I knocked thrice before entering, breathless from our frolic in the fields and also from anticipation. The word came out of me without me wanting it, and I said, Cecilia.
There she stood like a vision in the centre of my room, and she seemed to have no reaction to my being here, which suggested nothing about whether she was aware of my existence, or if she cared for it at all. She wore a long, black chemise and she stood barefoot. Her hair was wet and messy, and water slowly dripped from the ends and onto the wooden floors. We both said nothing for a while but we looked at each other, she to me with an undecipherable expression and me to her with, I suspect, a comic amazement.
Then she spoke: You’re Matilda, aren’t you?
Yes, I replied. How did you learn my name?
We live together, she said. It’s only natural.
Cecilia invited me to sit in the common room. She explained she had planned ahead for our first formal meeting and so she had prepared something in advance. I had never been in the common room before to lounge, but there was a small kitchenette at the entrance with a spout for hot water where I could make tea, which I used from time to time.
Cecilia led me wordlessly through the hallway to the common room at the very end, and when we turned the corner to go inside she stepped into the darkness without fear, finding the lights quickly and turning them on in single, fluid motions. Then she shut the door behind us once I’d entered and she motioned for me to sit down on one of the chaise lounges, which I did, and then she followed, sitting on the one opposite me. In between us was a low, varnished table, and true to her word she had prepared two small plates of sweet biscuits decorated with large sugar granules, sparkling in the dim light. An elaborate, painted teapot and matching teacups also sat on the table, and presently she poured the tea into the cups, first for me and then for herself. It was a dark and solid colour, and the fragrance was sweet and light. In an effort to relax my nerves I picked up my cup and blew on the steaming tea.
Matilda, she started. I will not ask you what has been said of me.
Her voice was cool and steady, unexpectedly low. Immediately I felt like I had been caught and the intention I had initially thought pure and well-meaning at once gained a more sinister tone merely by her implication. My face became hot and I was aware of my body, my skin damp underneath my clothing. I said nothing and allowed her to continue, which she did.
But I have duties toward you, she said. And to the other girls who go here, which I feel indebted to perform even though it brings me nothing but pain.
I am finding it hard to understand what you mean, I said.
I only have one thing to say, she said. I am aware of the invitation Professor Carver extended to you for tomorrow morning. He informed me of this meeting himself, and I have my own suspicions about his intentions, which I believe you will think unsavoury.
Cecilia seemed to withholding something and it intrigued me, but moreso it bothered me. Her words were esoteric and consequently the distance she created between us was chasmic, as if enunciating the differences between us that were plain for everyone to see. Daisy had been correct, not just about Cecilia, but about the whole group of peoples with which she belonged, the ones who resembled mirages more than they did solid beings: the beautiful ones gave themselves licence to act however they wished. An evil intent, small and black inside me, arose and I replied with a harshness that took even myself by surprise.
Frankly, I cannot feel the duty of which you describe to me, seeing as how we do not seem to cross each other’s paths often, and so I find it interesting that the moment in which our fates finally seem to entangle with one another’s, you appear before me with grandiose and vague statements of which I simply do not feel a strong desire to heed.
You are right to be confused, she said. But I come to you with a fair warning, and it would be in your best interest to take my words earnestly and with precaution, lest you regret it in the future.
To be clear, Cecilia, the professor informed me we would be discussing matters pertaining to you.
That is what he says, but the things men say do not always align with what they intend.
Thank you for your candour. Forgive me, but I think I will still be needing to show up tomorrow morning. The professor is expecting me and I have been brought up to keep my promises.
She said nothing this time and as I stood up to leave she made no movement. I lingered a while, waiting for something, maybe the last word, which I presumed she would give and so I was waiting. But perhaps out of pity, or kindness, or defeat, she had already fallen silent completely and I left her in the common room. She had left her things in our room however, and they were new things that were unfamiliar to me, but they didn’t excite me anymore as the other things once did, and in fact they had taken on an ominous colour to them, which discomforted me. In the end she didn’t come back that night and I dispelled all thoughts of her before I slept, wanting to avoid her in my dreams as well.
In the morning I awoke with a newfound vitality, as if something had transformed within me overnight. As I put my uniform on and brushed my hair, I saw the arrangement of her things still had not changed from when we had left the room yesterday, and in a mad stroke of fever I plucked the rouge from her little vanity and held it in my own hand. It was heavy in my hand and I could tell instantly it was a thing of money, of modernity, of beauty, all of which were previously inaccessible to me through direct means but were now mine, for the time being, through the surrogate that was Cecilia.
I opened the cap, which slid off smoothly, the sound of metal against metal faint but melodious to my ears. When unsheathed, the rouge was finally revealed, and against the golden tint of the case, it seemed to glow a bright, hot red, unlike anything in nature I had ever seen before. It tempted me and so I pressed it against my lips, a new power overcoming me as I did so, which emboldened me, but at the same time embarrassed me slightly. I raced to the bathroom to see myself in the reflection and I was taken aback by the sight. The colour was strong and my lips, pursed together, resembled a single, ripe cherry.
I made my descent down the moor and breathed in the heather, still wet with morning dew, the scent of which I had grown fond of over my time here thus far and which now gave me a new confidence as I wore Cecilia’s rouge. I hurried down to the school and before long I arrived at Professor Carver’s office door. I gave it three knocks, my heart thumping in my chest, and languid footsteps sounded from behind the walls and the door opened, revealing his slim, warm face half hidden behind the frosted glass. He smiled and beckoned for me to come in, and I excused myself before I entered. Then the door clicked shut behind me and I heard him turn the key to lock it.
Don’t be alarmed, he said. I only wish to discuss a sensitive matter with you.
The professor invited me to sit and so I did. Then he asked me if I would like any tea or coffee, and I declined out of politeness.
I wonder if Cecilia came to you last night, he said.
No, I said. I did not see her.
Ah, I do worry for her.
He made a movement that suggested he would also take his seat on the other side of the table, but he stopped abruptly and turned back to me instead. All at once I sensed something in the air changing but I remained frozen where I sat, the rouge feeling sticky and heavy on my lips. He came close to me and presently sat on the edge of his table, the tip of his shoes inches from my own. Then he leaned in again, and in an instant all illusions fell; I felt his age at once, as if a spell had been broken finally.
Matilda, he said. Thank you for coming in so early in the morning.
I said nothing and he drew closer. That rouge looks very pretty on you.
In all that followed I thought of nothing but Cecilia, and when the rouge stained my hand, I thought it might be blood, but it was too beautiful to be blood, creamy and bright on my skin, and despite everything I felt no tears, but I mourned, not for myself, but for her, for Cecilia, who smelt of heather.