The twenty-fifth anniversary reunion of Mayland High School would be attended by everyone from the class of ’94 who wasn’t either dead or in jail. Laura said so, and Laura was the queen; the shrieking peacock of Colchester High Street and the dictator behind the reunion mafia. I’d skipped going to the third and fourth reunions, having nothing much to talk about and no interest in my previous classmates - in Year Five, one of Laura’s ladies in waiting was sent to the library to hand over my invitation personally with a pointed question as to whether I had any health issues. Apparently Laura had looked for me the previous year and noted me as missing.
When the invite landed in my inbox, I noted the tone of command in the wording and almost clicked the ‘Reject’ button. I hate being told what to do. Then again, Laura did a better job of seek and destroy than any military weapon. No choice. ‘Accept’ it was. No need for Alicia to come to my office at the library a week later, but she did.
‘Laura wants to see everybody at the reunion,’ she said.
‘I’ve accepted,’ I said. ‘I’ll be there.’
Alicia scowled and put a list on my desk. ‘You have,’ she said. ‘We checked. But Dumbo hasn’t.’ As if it was my fault.
I reached out to take the list and Alicia pinned it to the desk with a polished talon on the one name without a tick or cross by it. Maria Korzenowski. My pal Dumbo.
‘I haven’t heard from Maria in years,’ I said. ‘No idea where she is now.’
‘Laura wants to see everybody from the class of ‘94,’ Alicia said. ‘We’re putting in a huge effort to track down everyone. Flix and Jon are flying over from New Zealand for a month to make sure they’re here, so I can’t see what valid excuse anyone else could give.’
‘Dave Atkinson has a good one,’ I said. ‘He died last year. If you’re determined to have every body there, I know where he's buried and I got a spade at home.’
Alicia huffed. ‘You need to grow up, Stephanie.’ She moved the talon to point to Dave’s name, with a neat cross beside it.
‘Maria hasn’t attended any of the reunions, remember?’ I said. ‘I lost touch with her after High School.’ Thanks to you and your coven, I thought.
‘You have all this,’ Alicia said, flapping a hand at the books and computers in the general office. ‘Your research… stuff. Laura really needs you to find her.’
I knew why Laura was so desperate for everyone to be there. Her eldest daughter had just won a place at a Cambridge college to read Mediaeval History, if she got the right A-level results. One of the most practical skills ever, not; a knowledge of whether it was raining when Henry I was crowned. That girl faced a lifetime on the dole with occasional pub quiz gigs.
I wasn’t going to give one of Laura’s courtiers the pleasure of telling me the amazing news, so I shrugged.
‘I’ll try,’ I said.
Alicia got up and went to the door. ‘Make sure she’s there. We don’t want Laura to be upset. She wants to see everyone.’
‘I bet if I can’t find her, Laura will arrange a nasty accident for me,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll be in hospital and won’t be able to go to the ball. Won’t that be sad?’
‘We’ll set up a Skype call from your hospital bed,’ Alicia said as she left.
The trouble with tracing women is that we leave our teenage names behind us. We marry, and even these days we might change our surnames to make a matching pair with his. We divorce, and sometimes we keep the ex’s surname because it sounds grander than our own. We go on the run from abusive boyfriends and change our name unofficially to Smith or Jones. Not saying this from direct experience, I’m still Stephanie Stevens from Colchester, never bothered marrying and never had a boyfriend who dared risk my dad’s wrath by raising a hand to me. If I ever do marry, the name stays. Stephanie Stevens, got a rhythm to it. There’s published poets out there who’ve never written anything that good.
As senior librarian, I have staff who love a challenge and have made quite a thing of local history research. We get people from Colchester researching who had lived in their houses before them and foreigners – usually Americans – coming to find their English ancestors. We know how to track someone down, however many times they’ve changed their surname. And I wanted her tracked down, fiercely. Maria had been my friend for five years and I let her down by one single minute of stupidity. At least if I found her, I could ask her to forgive me.
I did the search alone, with advice from my team whenever I got stuck. I didn’t want Laura or her ladies to put pressure on my team to tell her where Maria was. Maria might not enjoy hearing from me but she’d be humiliated to get a message from Laura, especially one flouting her daughter’s academic success. Laura would address it to ‘Dumbo’ and make a point of apologising for using long words.
It took me six weeks. I ran searches methodically on our own records and on all the social media pages and ancestry sites. Would have helped if she’d had a middle name to narrow down the search, but her parents lacked imagination. And money. And words. The Korzenowski family rarely spoke whenever I dropped by to visit, except for a toddler sister who hadn’t yet learned not to talk in the presence of strangers. They smiled a lot, though, which was miles better than the constant loud bitching of Laura and her girls.
Maria kept up at school, though you wouldn’t know it unless you watched. She rarely spoke and never raised her hand to offer an answer, but if the teacher homed in on her and asked her a question, she always had a good response ready.
To Laura, though, a big silent girl like Maria was obviously an idiot. From the moment Laura brought her gang from their smart little primary school in the wealthy part of Colchester and swept into Mayland High, they targeted Maria for insults. Maria became Dumbo by that Christmas, and she was introduced as Dumbo to anyone new. I had to sit at the front of the class till I got used to my new glasses, so we ended up sitting together by default. By Year Ten, we were still sitting together and enjoying each other’s company.
We didn’t have school prom back then, which none of my younger staff can quite believe, but we did celebrate. Last day of the school year, it was accepted without saying that the Year Elevens would march out of the gates at lunchtime singing or chanting and take up residence in Castle Park for the afternoon, sitting there till rain or darkness or parents sent us home. When it was our turn, I'd stopped off to pick up a litre of cheap cider from the corner shop – another thing my younger staff don’t believe ever happened – and arrived later than everyone else at the park. Maria was sitting almost hidden at the far edge of the lawn while Laura and her pals were sitting on the bench by the rose garden. As I passed them, Laura said loudly, ‘Stephanie! Come and sit with us,’ pointing to the end of their bench.
I was so surprised, I sat.
‘What are you doing next year?’ Laura asked.
‘Sixth form college,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a place at Durnfields.’
‘Are you going to share that?’ Laura asked, nodding at the bottle.
‘Sure,’ I said, unscrewing the top and handing it to Alicia, next to me. She took a fearsome long swig and passed it to Flix Rogers. ‘I’m taking English Lit and Modern Languages. If I can…’
‘Pass it on,’ Laura snapped at Flix, reaching for the bottle. ‘Go on, Stephanie, what will you be studying?’
About a third of the litre had already gone. ‘I just told you,’ I said.
‘I’m going to Bishopsgate Tech,’ Laura said. ‘Dad thinks Cambridge would be the logical place to take my law degree, and Bishopsgate sent half of its students to Oxbridge last year.’
‘Where’s Oxbridge?’ I asked.
Laura smiled, slow and nasty. ‘Near Cambridge,’ she replied. ‘It’s where they made the oxen cross the river in olden times, so the peasants didn’t get their feet muddy.’
Flix shrieked with laughter and I realised I’d said something daft. Maria must have seen my head go down and heard the laughter, because a minute later she was there, standing silently in front of the girls and glaring at them.
‘Hey, it’s Dumbo!’ Laura said. ‘Come looking for your magic feather?’
Flix hooted again and Alicia sniggered. Sarah was too busy chugging back cider to speak, but she rolled her eyes.
‘Leave Stephanie alone,’ Maria said.
‘Me and Stephanie are having a little chat,’ Laura said. ‘Aren’t we, Stephanie?’
‘Yes,’ I said. Laura had the kind of voice you obeyed.
‘About our brilliant academic futures,’ Laura went on. ‘Not a subject you can say much about, eh, Dumbo? Got a job at Woolworths, or did they have enough dummies?’
From the way Flix wriggled, I think she wet herself laughing.
Maria looked over at me. ‘Let's go,’ she said. ‘This one's just a peacock, pretty clothes and no brains.’
I often wondered later what would have happened if I’d walked away with Maria. Laura would have made my life hell afterwards, but I would have felt better about myself. Instead I shook my head.
‘See?’ Laura said. ‘She wants to stay here. Go on, Dumbo. Fly away.’
Maria looked at me for a minute. A whole minute. I didn’t move, torn between hope of becoming part of Laura’s circle and a need to sit with Maria and tell her my worries about going to college.
‘Here,’ Laura said, handing the cider bottle back to me. I reached to take it. Maria was gone when I sat back.
‘Throw that in the bin for me,’ Laura said. The bottle was empty, with thick smears of lipstick around the top. I’d bought the cider for me and Maria to drink while we enjoyed the rare feel of a Friday afternoon spent in the sunshine with nothing to do. Maybe if I explained this to Laura, she’d lend me a pound to get another. But by the time I’d turned back from the bin, the four girls were trotting away towards town.
‘Laura!’ I called, starting after them. Alicia glanced back, said something to the others and they all giggled, walking away faster.
Hindsight’s so sharp and clear. I know now that when Laura first called me, I should have dropped the bottle in her lap and walked on. Should have taken Maria out of Castle Park and into Lewis Gardens and had a few hours in the sunshine together. If I had, Maria would have told me her family was moving. We would have exchanged addresses and picked up on the kind of long and funny correspondence we’d had when I was sent off to summer camp the year before. Instead, by the time I’d overcome my shame and walked to her house, it was empty and up for rent. They'd gone.
I knew Maria had my address. She never wrote to me.
Twenty-five years later, while I was still searching, I wrote to her. Several drafts, all the apologies and explanations and ramblings ending up as a neat copy containing a full apology for being a twit and a brief history of Stephanie Stevens, librarian. I wrote that I hoped that she’d forgiven me and write back even if she didn’t want to come to Laura’s royal command reunion. The letter waited in a blank envelope for another three days, until I made the final crucial connection and found out for sure where Maria was living now.
I never sent the letter.
I was early for our appointment and shaking with nerves. Maria’s secretary offered me some water, and I refused, foreseeing that I would miss my mouth and end up with a wet lap. When I was seen into Maria’s office, I was expecting to be told to leave when she’d finished tearing me off a strip.
Maria stood to shake my hand as I entered, offering me a seat. She was still tall but no longer chubby; her hair was chopped short and she might have looked masculine if not for the stylish clothing she wore. All this was left for a second look, as the grin was the first thing I saw.
‘I wouldn’t have recognised you,’ I said.
‘Laura didn’t,’ she said wickedly. ‘Walked straight past me in the street two months ago, all designer clothes and nasty scowl. Still just a silly peacock, that one.’
‘I’ve never heard you say so much in one go,’ I said. ‘Who found the volume control on you, then?’
‘Oh God,’ she said. ‘You’d be eaten alive here if you can’t take up a debate in the common room. Parliament’s got nothing on a bunch of rival historians.’
I smiled. ‘You know Laura’s daughter is coming up here this autumn, so you won’t be surprised to hear that Laura wants to gather the troops back home to show off her Cambridge University connection.’
‘Shame she didn’t pass her A-levels, then,’ Maria said. ‘She might have come up here herself in the Nineties. It was a complete blast back then. Lot more serious now.’
‘I saw your name in your college records,’ I said. ‘Your headteacher described you as one of Lincolnshire’s finest. Made me think of a prize porker destined for the sausage factory.’
Maria laughed. ‘About right,’ she said. ‘They were dead chuffed to be sending one of their kids off to Cambridge instead of the local fruit and veg farms, but the first year at one of our colleges is a bit of a process; once they’ve winnowed out the dross, they put the rest through the academic mill to refine them in the second year. Third year’s just glorious, pure research. If you make it that far.’
‘You made the front page of the Lincolnshire Echo in ‘99, so I know you did,’ I said. ‘A First too. Show-off. Wish I’d known at the time.’
‘I’m sorry I never wrote,’ Maria said. Her hands twisted around each other. ‘I kept starting a letter, but I couldn’t think what to say. I wasn’t sure you wanted to hear from me.’
‘Of course I did,’ I said, flummoxed. ‘Why would I not?’
‘Last time we met, you were making friends with Laura,’ Maria said. ‘Talking about what you were going to study. I didn’t know if Dad could afford for me not to be working. Didn’t know if he’d let me go to college after we moved to Lincolnshire. I couldn’t join in.’
My own parents had taken it for granted that I’d be going to university in 1996. I was ashamed, seeing too late that Maria’s family had had no such certainty.
‘Laura was after my cider, not me,’ I said. ‘That was the last time she ever invited me to sit with her, and the last time I was daft enough to be fooled by her.’
‘Yeah, she was pigging it back when I left,’ Maria said. ‘Takes after her mother. Glad to see her daughter’s not the same. When Ashlyn came in for her interview, she spotted a wine bottle on my windowsill and the temperature in here dropped about ten degrees. Thought she’d walk out straight away.’
‘But she stayed,’ I said. ‘Said enough to get her place to study under Professor Maria Reynolds, consultant to the BBC and winner of the Wolfson Prize. Get you!’
‘I’m looking forward to teaching her,’ Maria said. ‘She seems nice – thinks before she speaks and did her research before she arrived. She’ll fit right in here.’
‘I take it you won’t be attending this year’s world-famous reunion of Mayland High School Class of ’94?’ I asked. ‘It’s at Laura’s place.’
‘I bet it is,’ Maria said. ‘That bitch will lock the doors till you’ve all heard about Ashlyn’s academic triumph. I like being off her radar. Don’t give me away, Stevie.’
‘Never,’ I said. No-one but Maria had ever called me Stevie, and I’d missed it. ‘But please, keep in touch? I missed you all these years, and I’ve kicked my own backside so often about not walking past Laura that day and spending the time with you.’
‘Definitely will,’ Maria said. ‘You’ve got to meet the other Professor Reynolds, my dearly beloved husband. Dotty as Henry VI, mind you, but if you want an expert guide to the political minefield that is the Georgians, he’s your man.’
‘Sounds riveting,’ I said.
‘Give me the Plantagenets every time,’ Maria said. ‘Much less restraint. Get hold of a copy of one of his books next time you come over – he’ll sign it for you. Probably sign himself as George the Third, but hey. My books will be on the bottom shelf and thick with dust, with my luck.’
‘Will you ever let Laura know where you are these days?’ I asked. ‘Or will I have to lie every time I skip town to meet you?’
‘Oh, I am planning it,’ Maria said. ‘When Ashlyn goes to her graduation ceremony. I shall seek out Laura, and give her this.’
Maria pulled a peacock feather out of her desk drawer.
‘It’s a magic feather,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll make her fly away!’
We cracked up like a pair of teenagers.