Friday, June 12, 2009

Belle and the Bell

Belle Breden stole the bell in 1979. I was in year nine and Belle was my nemesis. She delighted in making my life a misery and I simply didn’t understand it. The concept of getting a thrill out of causing discomfort to another has always been beyond me. I just cannot see the point. I suppose, now, Belle would have been described as the classic ADHD child. Mischievous, cheeky, energetic and the most annoying person I have ever known. I saw her a few years ago at a mutual friends wedding. She is ‘horsey’, has a brood of young boys and a husband twice her age. She was warm and friendly towards me. I was coolly polite. I still, on picturing her in my mind, feel the sharp niggle of annoyance deep under my ribs. Honestly said, I still hate her, and I felt some form of glee in seeing her lack of elegance and discomfort in the formal surrounds of a wedding. I would like to think I am ‘big’ enough to be able to forgive her for those years of cruelty to me, but I am not.

The bell woke us every morning. Deaconess Nelsen with her bowl haircut and her flat hard face would thump up the stairs next to our dorm first. Her bowed legs supporting her rounded turtle like body she would ring the bell beside each of our pillows in turn, a smirk of glee in her cold brown eyes. If we pulled the covers over our heads, as we invariably did in a vain attempt to soften the harsh clanging, she would move closer and maliciously give the bell an extra loud ‘dong’ next to our tortured ears. It wasn’t a nice way to wake up.

The dorm I was in that year, when I was fourteen, was in the oldest building. It must have been purpose built back when the school was in its early years. It was a huge rectangular Queenslander style structure. In the centre was a smaller rectangle cut up into about 16 ‘cubes’ filled with built-in wardrobes and chests of drawers. Three or four girls shared each ‘cube’ and inside the wardrobe doors sixty years of names were carved into the timber, painted over and carved fresh by the next generation. Windows ran around the building. Timber framed dormer windows, grand and beautiful I suppose in their heritage style. Our beds ran right around the dorm in a ring, our heads under those windows so that the cold air seemed to forget the glass was there and bite our faces in the night. The school was perched on top of the range so that in winter the winds howled up those valleys and every pane of glass seemed to rattle and whine in protest.

I realise now, that the section of dorm that Belle, four others and I were allotted was, due to its proximity to the matron’s office together with its position next to the main traffic areas the least comfortable, homely and private section of dorm in the entire school. Every boarding student in the school would file past and rumble up and down the timber stairs adjacent. We were the last to sleep at night and the first to wake in the mornings. It is clear to me now why the six of us were given this dubious honour. We were the ‘troublemakers’. The bad girls that had to be watched, accused, and suspected of every misdemeanour that occurred.

In retrospect it probably was a reputation well deserved though the treatment we received only served to encourage us. We were either hardened from too many years living away from our parents, as in the case of Jade, Jessie, Sally and I who had all been in boarding school since our primary years, ADHD like Belle or just plain rebellious like Kim. The six of us were the scapegoats. 

I still feel somehow miscast in this role. I suppose that I never felt I belonged and my discomfort with my position only led the others to ridicule me. They didn’t see me as ‘one of them’ either. I did whatever I could to try and fit in, to try and be happy have fun and keep out of trouble. Unfortunately I wasn’t very good at it.

Boarding school for me was an unhappy experience. Having come from an isolated area I suppose I wasn’t used to having people around me. Perhaps that was why I was always searching for some solitude? That in itself was a crime as any girl who could not be easily seen by the matrons at all times, clearly had to be up to no good. Aside from field hockey every Saturday which was the only thing that kept me sane in that godforsaken place, there was pretty well nothing at all to do. The weekends I spent lying on the grass around the oval, by the swimming pool if it were open, which wasn’t very often, or there were two televisions that we could watch if we wanted. I spent most Saturday afternoons in the Rec room lying about on the synthetic carpeted floor, half watching old Marilyn, Elvis or Jerry Lewis movies.

One afternoon, as I dozed, one of the only two little boys in the school sat behind me. I don’t remember his name only that he was dark skinned, Papua New Guinean I think, with freckles across his nose and tight sun bleached curly hair. I woke to feel him touching my hair, so very different from his own; my straight, silky black hair must have been strangely exotic to him. I managed to stay semi-conscious long enough to appreciate this so seldom felt sensation. The touch of another human being.  Perhaps I flinched when I realised that this child I barely knew was touching my head, overstepping that invisible barrier that we all had built around ourselves. He drew back and I felt guilty, as if I had rejected him in some way. I told him, it was fine that he could play with my hair if he wished but he drew back into himself, sitting against the wall and refusing to meet my gaze. I made a point of trying to always be nice to him after that, smiling when we passed in the hallway or in the dining room, but he would avert his gaze so in the end I don’t think we ever spoke.

My position as school rebel only became more set in stone that year. I had been suspended the year before which was the topic of an earlier essay that I have now lost. In short I was one of a group of girls (Sally, Kim, Fiona, who never came back for year nine, and myself) who had started rebelling in year eight. Three of us had already been in boarding school for more than two years and I believe that is the main reason we were so independent and jaded in our ability to respect the endless rules and regulations that shaped our lives. Kim was just plain naughty. We had started smoking sometime in year eight; hanging out with other older long-term ‘inmates’ and this placed us in a class of our own. The good girls didn’t really mix with us. I suppose the action of sneaking down to ‘smoker’s gully’ below the primary school on weekend for a cigarette filled us with an adrenalin rush that we all became addicted to. So we began to look for something a little more exciting. Kim was something of a ringleader I suppose. She was quite ‘mature’ for her age and having an older brother at the closest boy’s boarding school meant that she knew a lot of the boys. We started sneaking out sometimes to see our ‘boyfriends’. Of course, one night we got caught. Just Sally and I actually, and we were used as an example and suspended for two weeks. That’s a sure-fire way to get a black mark next to your name. It turned out to be written in indelible ink. Some things just never come clean no matter how hard you scrub.

It was Mrs Turner who was ringing the bell the morning that Belle stole it. She came up the stairs doggedly stomping and clanging before she noticed a window slightly ajar and set the bell down for a moment while she attended to the window. I wonder now if Belle had orchestrated the whole thing? Did she open that window? Had she planned with another of the girls to distract the matron while she spirited that bell away? I don’t know if I never knew this or if I just can’t remember, either way, Belle hid the bell and Mrs Turner was flummoxed, she couldn’t find it in our cupboards or under our beds and with her responsibility to wake the students and get them to the dining room on time, she didn’t have much chance to search for it. We held our faces straight and feigned ignorance. Mrs Turner then proceeded to shout the girls’ awake, panic on the edge of her voice. She was so lost without the power bestowed upon her by that metal noisemaker. Belle was then given time to hide it more securely. We were all most impressed. What followed were about two days of bliss as poor old Mrs Turner was left shouting us awake until Deaconess Nelson dug into the coffers and purchased a new one. It was worth it though; even two days of laughs were valuable beyond measure to us.

It wouldn’t happen in any other section of the dorm though, would it? It had to be the ‘bad girls’ who were behind this and so our reputations were further tarnished. Mrs Turner lost any of the tiny skerrick of kindness or sympathy she may have had for us and took extra glee in all her future stomping and clanging when she was in our vicinity. She was extra vigilant in the night when she came around to confiscate our radio cassette players that we would sleep with under our pillows. I resented her the most for this, that music was a comfort like no other through those long, cold and lonely nights.

Despite loudspeaker announcements, daily dorm searches and mounting threats of detention or suspension should the bell not be returned. Belle herself, had managed to hide it so well that it was never found that term. I suspect she managed to gain access to the box room and hide it in her suitcase, then take it home with her, because it was about a year later that her mother found it and returned it with an apology. I can't remember Belle's punishment but I think the many weeks of detention she earned would have kept her away from me, and I would have been happy about that.