“Of course all revolutions are doomed to fail …” The history teacher’s voice droned on like the hum of the fluorescent lights.
Summer had arrived early in Glasgow. A warm breeze rustled the oak trees below the classroom; the term break was close. Dale decided to go down to the river after school to see Old Man Gareth. Would he be back? They had a lot to plan.
“Dale? What do you think?” It was Mr Nugent. “Dale!”
She jumped, dropping her pen. It bounced off the desk, and she tried to grasp it again but it spun out of reach and descended to the concrete of the schoolyard below. “Damn,” she muttered.
The students in the back row laughed. Typical.
“Off with the fairies again?” Nick Travis asked.
“Seen any little elves lately, Dale?” Prudence Feathertop, sarcastic as usual.
Prudence and Nick, both blond and blue-eyed, shared a high-five. Dale resisted an urge to tell them how a cat she knew had an IQ higher than theirs combined. She knew it would only backfire and give Prudence more material to attack her with. She turned instead to face the tired and frustrated figure of Mr Nugent.
The teacher rubbed his forehead as he stared at the carpet. He repeated his question.
Dale knew his precise and slow articulation was meant to make her feel even more foolish. But she listened, suddenly feeling sorry for him; he was only trying to do his job.
“Yes, Mr Nugent.” She’d make an effort, despite the plastics in the back row. She took a breath.
“Well, during the eighteenth century most people were honest, hardworking peasants.” She recalled every event she could think of that led to the French Revolution. The corruption of the elites, “the sycophantic toadies”, she glanced at the back. Nick sat with his mouth agape, like a puppy, no doubt trying to decipher ‘sycophantic’.
“The people of Paris rose up to storm the Bastille and destroy the Ancien Régime.” Dale thought she had delivered a good answer and awaited her teacher’s adulation. He should like it.
But Mr Nugent hadn’t budged. He remained standing, his shoulders hunched, studying the carpet, his hand now covering his eyes.
The clock above the whiteboard ticked and echoed around the classroom.
“A fine answer, Dale.” Came his quiet reply. “A fine answer – if we were studying the French Revolution!”
Nick and Prudence lead the class in renewed laughter. Dale’s cheeks warmed.
“Does anyone even know what we’re studying here?” Mr Nugent was no longer quiet. The class stopped laughing. He eyed each student with visible frustration, even hostility.
They were a sea of blank faces.
Sighing again Mr Nugent muttered, “Why do I bother?” He asked the students to turn to page twenty-four of their textbooks and begin reading the introduction on the Russian Revolution.
Poor Mr Nugent. It was difficult for teachers at this time of year. Exams were finished and new classes were starting for the following school term. But, they were really only introductory classes; the students would forget everything over the summer break. Of course no one was paying any attention.
Dale opened her textbook to the required page and began reading, but the window, and daydreams about the coming summer proved more interesting.
The clunk of the door opening interrupted the silence. Dale looked up. The chaplain, Dr Brown, entered with a new boy.
Dr Brown spoke quietly with Mr Nugent while the entire class looked over the new kid. He was tall and well built, and stood with confidence. He didn’t seem concerned that a whole class of sixteen year olds evaluated him.
“He’s hot!” Prudence whispered. Even her whispers were loud.
Dale rolled her eyes but silently agreed. He was good looking: dark hair, dark eyes. He was a cliché. No doubt Prudence and the plastics would sink their claws into him by the end of the day.
He reminded Dale of someone. Studying his features, she tried to place whether she might have met him before. He had perfect olive skin and the type of eyes girls melted in. His hair framed his face in waves, making him look as if he belonged in one of those magazine ads for aftershave or jeans.
When his gaze returned hers she almost jumped. She looked away, scratching her nose as she did so. Had he seen her staring? When she glanced back, his eyes were still focused – on her. Was that a smile? The warm sensation of a blush crept up her neck. Dale hated it when she blushed. Her face would match her dark red hair and everyone would call her ‘beet head’. Thankfully, the rest of the class were too busy looking at him to notice.
Dr Brown finished his quiet conversation with Mr Nugent and faced the class.
“I apologise for the interruption, students.” His eyes flicked to the textbooks. “St Nino’s has a new student. This is Rhys.” He put one fat hand on the new boy’s back and nudged him forward. Some students leaned forward a little.
“Now, I’d like someone to show Rhys around.” The chaplain squinted and looked to the ceiling. “We need someone who will welcome Rhys as a friend and show him the responsibility that we all share here at St Nino’s College.”
Dale rolled her eyes again and looked out the window as the chaplain went on and on about the so-called ‘privilege’ of attending St Nino’s.
She had a different perspective. The old institution had a great capacity to believe its own bullshit. It claimed to provide the latest in educational expertise, to ‘unlock your child’s potential’, but it was a little factory in an old stone building, manufacturing students to conform to the world of greed and vanity that her generation was to inherit.
Most of the students enrolled at St Nino’s were snobs: the sons and daughters of the wealthy businessmen and women who had invaded Glasgow from all over the world. The high school was a favourite with all the internationals. Few of the student population were actual Glaswegians. Her own family was from London. Her parents had made the move over four years ago when her stepfather got an accounting job with Aon. Where was Rhys from?
“I’ll do it.” Prudence’s hand shot up. “It’d be my pleasure, Dr Brown.”
Dale winced at Prudence’s blatant interest in the new boy. He was already one of them.
When the bell rang Dale packed her things slowly. Being the last to leave provided some advantages. It bought time with the teachers; she enjoyed the intellectual conversations that some of the teachers were happy to engage in. But mostly, it meant the bullies could be avoided. There was a clear pecking order amongst the student population. It was a slippery hierarchy and Dale had no illusions about her place on the ladder – the very bottom.
She put the last of her pens in her pencil case. The new boy also stayed back to talk to Mr Nugent. Prudence had loudly declared she’d meet him at the cafeteria. He was asking the history teacher to explain what he needed to do to catch up. Dale walked to the door, avoiding them both. But just as her hand reached for the door handle Mr Nugent called her name.
“Dale would be the best one to help you out. Dale? Come here a minute, would you?”
She slumped. “I’d love to but I have to go, Mr Nugent.”
The teacher raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but I’d like you to help out Rhys here. Perhaps give him your class notes and a couple of your assignments? The one on the Renaissance would be useful.”
“I’d like that,” Rhys said. He had an accent. Nothing unusual; there were many accents at an international school. But he hadn’t spoken enough for her to place it. She glimpsed at him and saw the same intense stare from before. The burning sensation was rising again, and so did panic. No! Don’t blush now!
“Sure, but I have to go now.” She turned and ran into the closed door. She swore quietly, “Shit!” opened the door, and sped out into the corridor to her locker. She wanted to plunge into a dark abyss and never see Rhys again, let alone talk him through the term’s work. His type didn’t befriend the likes of her. No, they called her ‘beet head’, ‘nerd’ and worse. It was best to avoid them.
She dropped her books into her bag, and then ran out through the school’s gardens, avoiding further contact with anyone. Once past the iron gates, she slowed and took a deep breath. An invisible weight lifted. A warm southern breeze ruffled her hair, and she walked on, leaving the school day, and Rhys, behind her.
A bus took her through the city centre before changing direction towards Parkhead. Rush hour was beginning. Pedestrians raced to bus stops and subways, ignoring a charity worker asking for donations, and a homeless man with a sign that read ‘please’.
The bus drove past the Sentinel building and Dale thought of her stepfather, Antonio. An image of him came to mind as she glanced at the glass walls. He studied a computer screen of numerical figures and spreadsheets. A cold take away coffee sat close to his keyboard. She shook her head and focused on other things, wondering why she had such a vivid imagination.
The bus stopped just past the stadium. She got off and headed for the old hospital. The dilapidated building that was once Belmont Hospital stood abandoned and crumbling. She slipped through the wire fencing and walked along the overgrown path that led to the central courtyard. Old Joan was there tending her garden.
“Hello, Joan. Have you seen Gareth today?”
The old woman was tying a tomato plant to a stake using a well-worn sock. She looked up and gave Dale a toothless grin, shaking her head.
Dale bit her lip. Where was he? She rummaged in her school bag, found an apple and a cheese sandwich and gave them to Joan. The old woman smiled again and nodded before disappearing into the east wing of the hospital.
The rundown building had been home for Gareth ever since Dale had met him. It was also home to Joan, who rarely spoke but grew a prodigious vegetable garden. She lived in the east wing and Gareth lived in the west wing.
Dale opened the door to Gareth’s place. It was tidy as usual. Well, half of it was. He claimed the southern half of the wing and enjoyed a stream of sunshine on clear days. He had a mattress in the corner, made with clean sheets and blankets. Beside the bed sat his treasures: a pile of books, sailing journals. A little table and two chairs stood in the centre of the room. A shelf in the opposite corner held Gareth’s cooking equipment: a little gas cooker and a few implements, neatly positioned.
Dale decided that perhaps he needed a chopping board and made a mental note to steal one from her mother’s kitchen.
There were other oddments too: A very old but comfortable lounge chair; an ornate, but rusted, candelabrum with stalactites of candle wax hanging from its arms. A little bowl and a few dried morsels of cat food sat along a wall next to a worn pillow covered with grey fur – Cat’s bed. A jungle of vines occupied the other half of the wing; the tendrils sought the sunshine on Gareth’s side.
Perhaps Gareth was at the river. She closed the door, waved goodbye to old Joan, and headed down the path. It was a short walk to the river’s edge. The trees, heavy with green leaves, rustled in the warm breeze. She breathed deeply, enjoying the scent of summer. Hopefully he’d be back; they had to start planning!
A public walking trail lined the river. Today there were no walkers or joggers, but there was no Gareth either. She dumped her school bag and her shoulders slumped. Gareth had promised they would sail the length of the Clyde and beyond. It would be so good to get away from everyone. The bullies, the plastics, her family, everyone! Gareth, a homeless old eccentric had become her only friend in the world.
She walked to the riverbank and threw a stone into the dark water. Upstream there was nothing but the ripples on the river’s surface from the breeze. He wasn’t returning tonight. He was probably camping somewhere. Hopefully he was making plans for their trip. Sighing, she picked up her bag and headed for home.
Dale walked quickly. She had an urge to paint and didn’t want to waste time. Her family lived in a large house in Springfield Gardens, Parkhead, a small suburb, just east of the inner city. Her mother had wanted to buy a place in the trendy West End, but her stepfather pushed for a bigger house in a less exclusive suburb, one they could afford. So, they had bought this two-storey house. It hugged the necropolis but her mother tried to forget the moribund neighbours.
She opened the front door to see her sisters, Nina and Mina, sitting on the couch watching an episode of Gossip Girl.
“You’re in trouble,” they said in unison.
“I’m always in trouble,” she responded, heading for the stairs.
“Is that you, Dalla?” her mother screeched from the kitchen.
Dale looked to the ceiling and sighed. Her sisters knelt on the couch and watched, more interested in the drama about to unfold in their living room than the drama of Gossip Girl. The kitchen door opened and the formidable form of their mother stood before Dale, hands on hips and a scowl on her face.
Victoria Diaz was a tall woman with dark hair and olive skin, which she claimed was a result of her Italian ancestry. The years had taken a toll on Victoria. She was still very handsome, but living the high life and having four children had altered her once slim figure. She spent much of her time purchasing gym memberships, personal trainers or contemplating surgery in a quest to return to her former glory. Dale saw it as part of her overall pretentiousness. She did not like her mother. Sometimes she wondered if she even loved her.
“Where have you been? Did you forget about your appointment?”
The twins sniggered.
Dale bit her lip as she searched her memory for the answer.
Victoria rolled her head from side to side and threw her hands in the air. “Why do I bother?” She spoke to the heavens. “You can’t even remember what it was for, can you? My god, how did I get such a stupid daughter?”
Like a puzzle, slowly piecing together, Dale remembered. The hairdresser!
Victoria had schemed with Roberto, her “miracle worker”, to transform her daughter. They had spoken about a new blonde look for the coming summer. Her mother had never liked her dark red hair, her pale skin, her large green eyes. Dale often puzzled over how she had inherited such features. Dale’s father was also Italian. Her sisters and brother all shared the Mediterranean physique. Dale was an anomaly.
She swung her heavy bag onto her other shoulder and muttered as she climbed the stairs, “Sorry, make another appointment if it means that much.”
The kitchen door slammed. Her mother yelled out her frustrations in sharp staccato. “Another appointment? I get her the best stylist in the country! She has no idea what I do for her. When is she going to get her priorities right?” The words exploded in the air like small missiles. Verbal ballistics mingled with the sounds of cooking. The fridge slammed. A glass broke.
Dale turned on her iPod and the kitchen cacophony was drowned out with Mozart’s Requiem. She looked around the sanctuary of her bedroom. Her paintings and sketches lined the walls and littered the desk; all of them strange manifestations of creatures from another world. There were slender green fairies with transparent wings and emerald eyes. Red, blue and grey gnomes, some fat, some skinny, some with broad drunk smiles, others visibly grumpy. There were sprites, dragonlings, trolls, orcs and a fierce red dragon that nearly covered an entire wall. Dale took comfort in them. When she was a child they seemed so alive, so real – and the memory of them was just as real. Visits to her mother’s psychologist friends had stopped the apparitions from manifesting. But she kept them alive in her art.
On her easel sat her current piece – a slender sprite, with fair skin, like her own. The little figure had dark wispy hair that stood up at strange angles. Her eyes were a deep green, so dark they were almost black. Her pink lips smiled subtly and revealed two delicate fangs. She wore a deep purple dress, with highlights of blue. Dale scrutinised the painting and wished she could bring the sprite to life. She needed a friend.
She was considering some possible finishing touches to the painting when a tap on her back made her jump. She spun around to see the upturned faces of Nina and Mina. “Mother wants you in the kitchen.”
Dale stood by the stove. Her parents, about to leave for some pretentious function, required her to babysit. Her mother finished her verbal manual on how to serve the spaghetti bolognese. “Don’t over-cook the pasta; it should be al dente!”
The moment they left, Dale set to work, serving dinner and bathing her brother. At three, her little brother, Benny, was the youngest. He was the best, little Benny, but no doubt his charms would wear off with time. She tucked him in bed and read him a story, helped the twins with their homework, and let them watch another episode of Gossip Girl while she did the dishes. Then she sent them to bed and finally returned to her room, and her art.
She undressed and got her pyjamas out. Her reflection in the mirror caught her attention. Usually she didn’t like to look at her naked body. There were so many flaws. But tonight she looked anyway. Her breasts had grown. She would never develop big ones, but she had enough. She had filled out a little elsewhere too; her thighs had a definite curve now. But her hair was still red. And nobody liked red hair. She suddenly thought about Rhys. Had he really smiled at her? The burning sensation returned and her reflection showed the blush working its way along her breasts and neck. Why did her body react that way? So embarrassing.
Her eyes relaxed until her vision blurred. She called this her ‘second sight’. She had always been able to see auras. It was perfectly natural to her. But she told no one. What an aura meant was another matter. She had no knowledge of that. As she looked at her reflection, her aura slowly revealed itself. Red, mostly. That’s a surprise. Usually it pulsed steady lavender. It changed occasionally; as a child it was mostly yellow. She refocused. The easel in the reflection showed the resemblance between her and the sprite in the painting. She laughed once. Had she created a parody of herself?
A sudden noise, like a bird flapping, caused her to jolt. She was still naked! She quickly dressed and went to the window.
Her bedroom window faced the necropolis. The night was still. The crickets chirped lazily. A haunting hoot seemed familiar somehow. The flapping wings returned. A large white owl rested on a branch of the elm tree, level with her window – pure white, with a heart-shaped face and dark circles for eyes that looked directly at her. It was a beauty.
“What is it?” she whispered. The owl hooted once, then lifted and soared over the necropolis.