Granny has made Taïgas favorite pie for dessert. It is unusually silent around the table, even Missy doesn’t seem to have anything to say. It’s their last dinner together at home before Granny escorts Taïga to France tomorrow morning.
The little girl usually devours her part, asking for more, but tonight she’s just shuffling her food around, eating like a bird. She plays with her cutlery taking a few bites, trying hard to appreciate her grandmother’s effort. But she can’t. She poses her fork, staring thoughtfully at the painting behind her great aunt.
‘Can I have your part? I mean, as you’re not finishing it…’ Missy holds out her plate.
Taïga would love to switch her hefty part against her great aunt’s empty plate but one look at her grandmother makes her hesitate. Granny doesn’t say anything but her disapproving look makes her thoughts quite clear.
‘All right. Anybody?’
Both Granny and Taïga shake their heads and Missy helps herself to the last part.
She clears her throat. ‘Thank you, Granny, but I’m not hungry anymore. My stomach hurts…’
‘Told you so,’ Missy says between bites. ‘She’ll come down with something so she won’t leave.’
‘Missy! You promised…’ Granny throws a desperate glance at her impulsive sister.
Uh-oh. They are going to start quarrelling about her again. Taïga picks up her fork, loading pie into her mouth to have something to do.
‘I did. I did. I won’t utter a single word about how relieved I am to have the wretched child out of my hair and-’
Granny tries to shut her sister up with an irritated glance. Taïga bows her head deeper over her plate, forking more food into her mouth.
‘Oh. Err… You know I didn’t mean to make it sound bad, but you have to admit it will be a little, err… liberating. Like a vacation, of sorts, but at home-’
‘Missy!’ Granny’s voice is a whisper but the single word is as efficient as a whip. Missy finally shuts up.
‘Ahem. Your stomach pain… Is it because you’re nervous about leaving tomorrow?’
‘I guess so.’ She doesn’t raise her head, concentrating on the back and forth movement of the fork transporting the delicious pie from the plate to her mouth. She doesn’t think she could ever eat lime pie again in her life. How come the quantity doesn’t seem to diminish? What if she suddenly throws up? Oh my God. She’s going to throw up. Eyes watering, she spoons more food into her mouth. ‘I shust wish ou could shtay!’ she says her mouth full, already adding another forkful.
Granny reaches out, stopping the feverish movements from plate to mouth. She takes her hand and squeezes it. ‘I think a long, hot bath would do you good…’
‘That means no more hot water, huh? I wanted to take a bath, too,’ Missy complains.
‘You can take a bath tomorrow, and every day for the rest of the week. Now stop complaining.’ Granny pushes back her chair. ‘I think there’s enough warm water to do the dishes, Missy.’
‘Oh, but I don’t think I should clean up tonight. I will have the rest of the week to do chores.’ She pushes back her chair and stomps out of the dining room, leaving Granny and Taïga to clean the table.
‘I think we should buy a dishwasher, Granny. Everybody has one. At least I think they do,’ she adds thoughtfully.
Taïga follows Granny upstairs, letting her grandmother fill the tub with hot water and add some luxurious bathing foam. Granny was right, as usual. Her stomach pain disappears, replaced by a pleasant drowsiness. Feeling better, she takes the soap but it slips out of her hands and disappears into the water. To the little girl’s dismay, the foam rapidly dissolves…
She changes into her nightgown and tiptoes rapidly into Granny’s room, being careful to stay on the rugs as her feet aren’t quite dry yet. She jumps into her grandmother’s bed, pulling the heavy brocade blanket high up over her head, trying to become as flat as possible.
Her grandmother enters the room. ‘There’s no use in hiding.’
Taïga sighs heavily, pushing back the blanket. How come her grandmother always knows?
‘But it’s all right. You can stay.’ Granny hides a smile and bends over to place a kiss on Taïga’s forehead, brushing away a strand of damp hair. ‘Goodnight, darling. Sleep tight.’ She moves towards the door, stopping on the threshold. ‘I’ll be right back, I just have to pack a few things more.’
‘Granny… Can you tell me a story?’
Her grandmother sits heavily on the bed. ‘Something about France?’
‘Not necessarily. Just any story.’
Granny rubs her chin, thinking of something suitable and not too scary. Taïga will need her sleep, so it must be an interesting story, yet a bit redundant.
‘Then I shall tell you about your ancestor, Lady Ravendancer, and how she first came to Valinor…’*
The story is fascinating but a little tedious, and Taïga listens carefully to everything Granny tells her. That night she dreams about castles in France and handsome princes and princesses, only to finish wide awake before dawn, rehashing the last days’ events and thinking about the upcoming journey…
All the items composing her new school uniform are folded neatly and packed in a brand new suitcase. They had done as François Lambert had told Granny, ordered the uniform on the Internet from one of the computers at the library. The huge box arrived duly on time, but something must have gone wrong, because when the box from Paris arrived, the uniform was way too big. The sports clothes were all right, and the sweaters and jacket. But the skirts and shirts were several numbers too large. Luckily the tailor in Vulturu, M. Călinescu, could make the necessary adjustments with short notice and Taïga had tried it on several times until it fitted as it should. She felt ridiculously up-dressed, especially with the snugly fit jacket and the thick woolen tights.
‘But it’s summer, Granny.’
‘The rules are the rules, Taïga.’
‘But they itch.’ She scratches her leg to make her point.
‘Careful, there are still needles holding up the hem of your skirt,’ M. Călinescu says.
‘Right. You’ll ruin the tights before you have the chance to wear them at school,’ Granny adds.
‘All the girls are dressed the same…’
Right. All the girls in scratchy, itching woolen tights… Taïga tunes out her grandmother, secretly enjoying her image in the mirror.
The night is way too short. Taïga has the impression of just closing her eyes and it is already time to wake up. She takes a quick shower, jumps into her favorite shorts and hesitates between the blue and the purple scarf. She can’t help it. She just has to take a peek at the uniform again.
She struggles with the lock and with precaution she opens the zip. The lid pops open on the array of dark navy blue, white and red garments. There’s at least two of everything – skirts, tights, jackets and a raincoat. Sweaters that she has learned are called jumpers or cardigans depending on if there are buttons or not. She’ll even wear a dark red silk bow. She sticks her fingers into the crackling plastic cover, caressing the smooth silk surface before folding it again. She pulls out the pair of patent leather shoes that hurt her toes, checking if the slightly damp newspaper is still inside. It is. She wonders what hides under the neatly folded garments… When she feels around, she touches the umbrella and red rubber boots. She glances over at her own light blue ones with impressions of kittens and puppies. She has cleaned them up and they are way nicer than-
‘Taïga! The cab is soon here!’ Granny is calling from the bottom of the stairs.
‘I’m coming, Granny! Just a sec’…’ Taïga tries to zip close the suitcase.
‘Need some help with that?’ Missy is standing in the doorway.
‘Yes, please!’ Taïga moves over to let her great aunt try. ‘I was just a little worried I had forgotten something. There are so many things composing the whole outfit…’
Missy takes the shoes from her hands, pushing them down hard on top of the now not so neatly folded clothes.
‘Sit on the lid…’ Taïga does as she’s told and and with difficulty Missy succeeds in closing the brand new red suitcase, huffing while zipping it. ‘So, what do you think? About the… err… uniform?’
‘The uniform is OK. Not comfortable for tree climbing, but OK.’
‘I guess you won’t have to worry about that. There will probably not be any tree climbing in that snobbish school of yours.’ Missy stretches, massaging her back. ‘Just off you go!’
Something red catches Taïga’s eye on her way out of her room. The bow! Quickly they unzip a corner and stuff the silk bow inside.
Grabbing her beige knitted cardigan and the blue scarf that goes with her T-shirt and jeans shorts, she scurries out of her room, dragging the suitcase behind her down the stairs.
Granny is pacing at the bottom of the stairs wearing a chic grey suit. ‘Ah, there you are.’ She looks up at Taïga with a smile that quickly vanishes.
‘But you can’t go to France dressed like that!’ she exclaims, staring at her granddaughter’s appearance in disbelief.
‘What’s wrong?’ Taïga fiddles with her scarf.
Following Granny’s eyes to her feet she looks down at her light blue Wellingtons as if she saw them for the first time. ‘I can change the boots, but-’ she stammers, ‘-you said it often rains in France so I thought it was a good idea to bring them. Maybe it’s even raining when we land… And there was no room in the suitcase anyway.’
‘I have put one of the fancy dresses your mother bought you in Italy-’ Granny’s slow spoken words are accompanied by her pointing towards her room. Taïga turns on her heels, running upstairs again.
‘-on a hanger on the door to your room…’ Granny’s voice follows her all the way to her room. She stops and stares. How come she had missed the dress hanging there? It shines like a sun against the dark wood of the door. She pulls off her sweater and shorts, getting into the bright dress.
Missy is standing in the doorway, stepping aside to let her pass. ‘Don’t you forget something?’ She nods towards Taïga’s feet.
‘Oh.’ She’s still wearing her tartan socks. She sits on the floor, tearing them off, gratefully accepting Missy’s help with the yellow sandals. Her great aunt is humming happily to herself, grinning.
‘Thanks!’ She stumbles to her feet, flying downstairs.
‘Ah. That’s much better. But your hair… Well. It’s too late now-’
Taïga grins. Cool. She’ll keep her braids.
‘We’ll have to use magic… With some precautions, of course. We can’t let it get inside you.’
‘But, Granny, I…’
‘Tututut… No objections, young lady.’ Granny taps her teeth, searching in her mind for the right words. ‘Alacadola Bibbedy- Stop fidgeting, dear, or I won’t get your hair right.’
‘My hair will be a mess on the plane anyway, Granny!’ Taïga protests between clenched teeth, but nevertheless obeying her grandmother and not moving a muscle.
‘Of course it won’t!’ She studies the sulking girl, and her face lights up in a rare smile. ‘It will only come undone when you wish it will. Now, take a deep breath, close your eyes and cover your ears.’
‘If you say so…’ Taïga is dubious. She will have to concentrate so hard on not wanting this unnatural hairstyle to come undone. But if it pleases her grandmother, she’ll go through with it. Making a good impression etc. etc.
Waving her wand Granny chants,
Get my granddaughter out of this mess
Then fit her into a suitable headdress’
Fortunately she doesn’t have to hold her breath for long, the styling of her hair is done in a few seconds. A familiar tickling sensation, the same as when she used to play with her magical chest back in Bigwood Falls, overcomes her and her hair swirls around her face setting in a high, curly chignon.
She touches the stylish locks tentatively, feeling a headband she knows must be assorted to the dress. And the shoes.
‘How do I look?’
‘Perfect…’ Granny fumbles for the camera on the sideboard, not leaving Taïga with her eyes. ‘Lovely! Let me take a souvenir picture.’ Granny beams, encouraging Taïga to do the same.
But there is something troubling the young girl, hindering her from posing with a smile. It doesn’t stop Granny from shooting away.
‘I think there must be at least one picture in there I can put in a frame,’ she mumbles. Putting away the camera in her handbag, she throws a questioning glance at Taïga. ‘Tell me what’s wrong.’
‘Err… Granny… Yellow!?!’ She stares pointedly at her grandmother. The only color she really dislikes is yellow, everybody knows that. Even Missy.
‘Oh… I could have sworn it was light blue when I hung it up yesterday.’ Granny looks confused. ‘Would you like another color?’
‘Blue, huh?’ Granny lifts her wand, but they are interrupted by the cab honking outside. ‘Oh, well… Yellow suits you, dear. Now, where is Missy?’
‘She went outside with the suitcase. I think she’s happy to get rid of me.’
‘Nonsense,’ Granny says without much conviction, steering Taïga out onto the porch. ‘Missy! We’re leaving!’
‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’ Missy comes hurrying from the backyard, her arms laden with eggs. With a yelp she covers her mouth in shock, sending them all crashing to the ground. ‘It’s still yellow,’ she gasps, searching her sister’s eyes.
‘Yeah. Yellow.’ Taïga glares at her grandmother, too, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
Granny remains unruffled. ‘Blue, yellow, pink – everything suits a beauty! Now, say goodbye. We have to leave. Chop-chop.’
Granny verifies the passports in her bag as she walks over to the taxi and slips into the backseat. The female taxi driver complains about the heavy suitcases, so Missy resolutely takes them and heaves them into the trunk herself with some help from Taïga.
‘Shall I sit on the trunk to close it?’
‘What?’ She pushes the red suitcase into a corner and adds Granny’s old worn Vuitton suitcase next to it. She hopes her sister won’t tip the unhelpful woman too much…
‘Nothing,’ Taïga says, straightening her headband a little.
The taxi honks again. Taïga and Missy stare at each other.
‘Well. Have a nice trip.’
‘Thank you. I’ll be back, you know.’
‘Yes. But not for two months.’
‘All right. I get it.’
The driver honks for Taïga to hurry. A perfunctorily hug to Missy and they’re off to Henri Coanda airport in Bucharest. Granny checks for the umpteenth time her tickets.
‘Look, Taïga. It says Air France, doesn’t it? And it’s a non-stop flight, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Granny.’ She eyes the tickets, confirming what Granny just stated.
‘I’m sure the wretched salesperson put me on a Polish flight on purpose the other day,’ Granny mutters, recalling her flight back to Bucharest from France over Warsaw last spring.
‘Why on earth would she do that, Granny?’
‘Why? Because I don’t have the Internet, of course.’ Granny puts away the ticket in her Kelly purse.
Taïga debates if she should push further, but decides against it. She doesn’t understand Granny’s logic sometimes. She decides to ask her grandmother if they could play a game instead…
After six hours in a taxi through the Transylvanian mountains, and a two hour flight, Taïga gets her first glimpse of the lush French countryside from above. They circle Paris and excitedly she points at the Eiffel Tower.
‘Look Granny! It’s huge!’
‘And even bigger when you’re on foot. Did I tell you that Zola and Maupassant refused to set eyes on the ugly tower, and made impossible detours to avoid it? You see, when it was built for the World Exposition in 1889, Gustave Eiffel…’
It is already dark when they check into a picturesque hotel not very far from Paris for the night. They get the very last room, struggling with the heavy suitcases up three floors of narrow, winding stairs. Granny swears. She has almost recovered from using magic on Taïga’s hair, and could get the suitcases up the winding staircase in a blink, but it would exhaust her. Well, carrying the wretched things is exhausting, too.
The elder woman, who has introduced herself as Madame Martin, beckons for them to hurry. ‘I have to prepare the dinner.’ It comes out as “I ave to préparr ze diné”. Muttering she opens the door to a small room with two beds, a little nightstand with what Taïga calls a Granny lamp – an antique, satin covered thing with pompons and access to a rudimentary bathroom. ‘Showers are on the landing and breakfast is served from half past six until neuf heures et demi…’
Early the next morning Taïga throws up the shutters, sending them crashing into the wall.
‘Careful, Taïga! You’ll wake up the whole neighborhood.’
‘But, Granny! I just had to see the Eiffel Tower up close and…’ Her sentence trails. There are only rooftops to be seen. Leaning out through the window she scans the horizon.
With a gasp, Granny seizes her pajamas, pulling her down again. ‘Are you crazy!?! You can’t see the Eiffel Tower from here. I promise we’ll go back to Paris to see it. Now take a towel and come with me. I’ll be damned if I let you wander the corridors alone…’
After the best breakfast Taïga has ever had, they set out for the final part of their journey.
Taïga is unusually silent during the drive. She is wearing her uniform, trying to sit still in the little Renault taxi so not to wrinkle it. She’s not at ease in the strict garments, and has promptly refused to wear her hair in any other way than her usual braids. If she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror, how could she stay true to herself? The strict clothes already makes her feel like another person, and she’s not sure she likes that person very much… And what if the other girls finds out that her long hair isn’t for real? That she has got extensions. She touches her braids. They feel real because the hair is real hair. From a real person in India. She wonders how the girl who had to sell her long hair feels about it. If only her mother and Granny had let her be, it was kind of easier with short hair…
The tie is annoying her and she loosens it a little when Granny is busy pinching her cheeks and applying lipstick. She has checked her appearance at least twenty times during the taxi drive from the hotel to Champs-sur-Sauloise. Why is her grandmother wearing lipstick? Taïga doesn’t like it at all. She prefers Granny in long robes and a pointy hat even if that outfit is more intimidating.
After a long drive through small villages and vineyards, guided by a chatting taxi driver, they finally arrive at L’Académie d’Art de Saint-Simon.
So this is it… Taïga stares at the Academy building while Granny pays the taxi. It doesn’t really look like a château, she has seen several in Italy and a few scattered on the hills along the way here. She is nevertheless intimidated by the size of the old building. It is very quiet, but she can hear voices and the clinking on a piano through the open windows upstairs. She follows Granny up the stairs but stops in front of the double doors. Looking back at the alleyway, she watches the taxi disappear. No escape…
‘Are you coming, Taïga?’
‘Err… Yes. Coming.’
She walks behind her grandmother through the large double doors. They stop at the base of an imposing staircase leading to the second floor. An arrow on the wall points out the direction to the administration. They push through a glass door and turn left into a large corridor. At the end is a little waiting room with two antique armchairs and a coffee table littered with artsy magazines. Granny takes a seat, putting her Kelly purse on the floor.
A dark-skinned muscular man is waiting patiently outside the Headmaster’s office. Taïga wonders if he is some kind of guard and if so, what is he guarding? Maybe the headmaster has a treasure in his office… There is no way to tell as both archways are hidden by heavy silk drapes. She can hear muffled voices from within, but there is no way she can make out what is being said.
She watches her pink cheeked grandmother nervously fiddle a little with the magazines, choosing a random one. She doesn’t seem as cool and aloft as usual and it makes Taïga nervous, too. She can’t help but wonder, again, why Granny is wearing lipstick.
Her grandmother can’t concentrate on the magazine. Impatiently she puts it back onto the coffee table and leans back against the plush upholstering, only to straighten up again and fix the archway hidden by the heavy drapes.
A young boy bursts out and without a glance in their direction turns into the hallway. He snaps his fingers and the guard follows him. So it was a bodyguard! Who could the boy be? He must be important to have his own bodyguard… Taïga’s attention is drawn from the mysterious boy to an elder man who she decides must be the Headmaster, pushing the curtains aside.
‘Tara!’ His face lights up in a warm smile. He strides across the small room and takes Granny’s both hands in his, intimately kissing them.
With a furious blush Granny chuckles stupidly and Taïga glares at them. What is happening here?
‘Bonjour, François. Voici Taïga, ma petite-fille.’ She switches to English, ‘Taïga, meet Monsieur Lambert, the Headmaster and director of your new school.’
Taïga frowns. Tara? François? She shakes the proffered hand, forcing a smile. She suddenly realizes she didn’t really understand what they were saying, she just supposes Granny introduced her.
The headmaster smiles kindly at her. ‘I hope you will like it here at Saint-Simon’s,’ he says in impeccable English but with a heavy French accent.
Taïga doesn’t think so. She smiles suitably again and answers, ‘I certainly will, Sir.’
She trails her grandmother and Monsieur Lambert into his office. While Granny and François settle on the antique couches discussing God knows what in French, she wanders around, looking at the books and paintings on the walls. Soft piano music wafts into the Headmaster’s office and curious she pushes the heavy drapes ajar and peeks outside. The sound comes from a room a little further down the hall and after a quick glance at her grandmother, she sneaks out. She’ll just have a quick look.
She is careful not to be seen as she stops outside the room, hidden by a pillar. A young boy is playing classical music on a grand piano. Taïga is mesmerized. She has never heard anything as beautiful, even on Granny’s old record player.
‘Ah, there you are!’ The Headmaster’s voice booms through the corridor and both Taïga and the young boy starts.
‘I told you to stay in the office,’ Granny admonishes, making Taïga blush.
‘I just wanted to listen to the music, Granny,’ she stammers, feeling stupid about hiding behind a pillar.
‘Cut the girl some… Err… How do you say? Slack? She can’t get very far anyway. Come here, Taïga. Let me introduce you to Louis St Clair, who is studying music. Third year, is it?’
‘Second it is then.’ He switches to French. ‘This is Taïga Grey, our American-Romanian student. She doesn’t speak much French yet, so I hope you can take her on a tour while I finalize things with her grandmother.’
Louis looks her over. He’s wearing exactly the same outfit as she is, apart from the skirt of course. He looks like any other kid her age, dark hair, brown eyes and a very nice smile. Because now he’s smiling at her. She blushes again, he must think she’s stupid, just standing there gawking.
‘Do you want to?’
Taïga stares at him. ‘Want what?’
‘Play the piano, of course.’ He gestures to the shining black piano in the middle of the room.
‘Err… I don’t play the piano.’
‘It doesn’t matter. I can teach you something easy.’
He sits on the piano stool and pats the empty space next to him with his hand. A little hesitantly she sits next to him, making sure they don’t touch.
She stares in awe at the multitude of black and white keys.
‘You start here…’ With his index finger he pushes at one of the ivories, then another.
Taïga does as he says. Imitating his movements with her right hand, she tries desperately to remember what he has shown her. She feels utterly hopeless, wanting to give up but being too shy to just stand up and walk away. She tries again but the sounds are discordant and far from a tune.
‘Allons. Let’s try it like this.’ Louis’s fingers fly over the ivories, and suddenly it all becomes clear to her.
‘I think I got it.’ She tries again, slower than him, but a melody comes forth. She beams up at him and he beams back.
‘Impecc. Just do the same thing over and over, you can move to the right or the left, but repeat the same movements, d’accord?’
Taïga nods, starting over again and again. Suddenly Louis starts playing, too, and confused, she stops. Louis laughs.
‘Ne t’occupes pas de moi – Don’t mind me. Just do your thing. I’ll start and I’ll nod when you can join in.’
She watches his hands bring forth the music, and when he nods, she presses the first gleaming white key, then the next.
They don’t notice Granny and François Lambert watching them play “Heart and Soul”, faster and faster, with less and less hesitation. When they giggling finish, the Headmaster claps his hands, followed by a proud Granny.
Louis immediately stands up, apologizing to Monsieur Lambert about not showing Taïga around as promised.
‘Ça va – cette fois-ci,’ the Headmaster says, turning to Taïga, ‘I have promised your grandmother lunch at the Bistro. Shall we…?’
He gestures towards the doorway and with regret Taïga follows them. She turns to look at Louis, but he’s already sitting at the piano again, concentrated on reading the complicated piano score.
François drives them in his new Renault sedan to the small town, parking smoothly between two cars along one of the streets leading to the market place. The Café is crowded but the owner, Alain, quickly leads them to a round table for four in a quiet corner of the terrace.
They have lunch outside, a new experience for Taïga. Eating on the porch at home doesn’t really count. She enjoys the bright colors and the sunshine but it’s very warm and her pantyhose itch. She is sweating in her jacket and she longs to take it off but she doesn’t dare. Luckily the parasol provides some shadow and relief from the heat.
The food is bizarre and she moves it around her plate. She’s not hungry and Granny is behaving so strangely. Her grandmother’s usual hearty appetite seems to have vanished. Taïga watches her sip at her wine, letting the Headmaster refill her glass. She is smiling and fluttering her eyelashes, laughing at something he just said. Could her grandmother be in love with him? She cringes at them smiling blissfully at each other.
But he’s so old… Yuk… He must be as old as Leonardo, they even look a little alike. Maybe all old people look the same.
But Granny doesn’t – she is special. She is beautiful.
Back at school after the never-ending lunch, Monsieur Lambert takes Granny and Taïga on a tour to show them the new dormitories. Granny continues discussing with Monsieur Lambert, but Taïga doesn’t listen, their reminiscing about the “good old times” is soooo boring. She trails behind them through endless corridors, up and down stairs, politely nodding at and watching whatever the Headmaster seem fit to point out.
‘-they are still being renovated but should be finished in time to the second trimester.’ He pushes a door open and lets Granny and Taïga thread in first. ‘This is one of the new rooms and, as I promised you, Taïga has priority on one of these.’
Granny admires the view through a modern version of the original mullioned windows. ‘I love the view over the garden… Come and have a look, dear.’
Taïga hesitates, not sure who her grandmother is talking to. She looks at the Headmaster who is kneeling in front of the fireplace, checking something in the chimney.
‘We have left all chimneys to keep the cozy feeling about the VIP rooms. The chimneys are blocked, though. They are decoration only.’
Taiga acquiesces, walking over to the windows. She looks outside at the fountain, listening with one ear to her grandmother gushing about the nice surroundings. Of course it is much nicer than gloomy Vulturu, and she appreciates the sunshine and everything, but she is getting more and more nervous. She will never find her way around the winding corridors lined with identical doors. There is so much to take in but her grandmother’s bizarre relation to the old Headmaster is overshadowing everything else. She wonders if they are going to get married and have kids.
Oh, no… But then again, isn’t Granny too old for kids?
After the tour, it’s time for François Lambert to give a welcome speech to the new students. Granny and Taïga are the first ones to take a seat on the white benches on the immaculate lawn. The Tricolore is moving lazily in the soft breeze and in the far distance a multicolored hot air balloon passes, the hissing from the burner audible in the silence of the still afternoon.
Four teachers arrive, animatedly chatting. Before settling on the benches behind the lectern they shake Granny’s hand and say some welcoming words to them both.
A part from Taïga, there are only two other new students. A heavyset girl with a pleasant round face sits on the bench next to Taïga. Whispering she tells her that her name is Charlotte Dubois and she comes from Paris. Her parents have already left, but her sister graduated from St Simon’s last year, so she knows the school and the teachers already.
She seems kind and they continue chatting a little while they wait for Monsieur Lambert to get ready.
The dark-skinned boy from this morning comes ambling with his bodyguard in tow. He doesn’t even acknowledge the girls, just takes a seat in the middle of the farthest bench. Taïga is sure he would have done exactly the same thing even if the benches were crowded. His bodyguard takes up position behind him, checking the surroundings with sharp eyes that don’t seem to miss much. Charlotte tells her that the boy is Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim and he is an Egyptian prince. Or sheikh… Or emir. Taïga didn’t quite get the “Votre Altesse” thing. She decides that she will ask Charlotte again after the speech.
Whispering she tells Granny what Charlotte had told her about Fahd, ‘… and Charlotte – her sister graduated from here last year – said that Fahd is not even new, he just wanted to skip classes and they let him because he’s so important…’
They both glance over at the bored boy and the muscular body guard behind him.
Everybody gets quiet when the Headmaster arrives. He puts a stack of papers on the lectern and clears his throat.
‘Bienvenue and welcome to l’Académie d’Art de Saint Simon…’
The speech is long and extremely boring. Taïga looks at the building behind the Headmaster, counting the windows. Three girls appear by the bell. They look straight at Taïga and snigger. Taïga pulls at her skirt, feeling selfconscious. She touches her hair. What if a bird has pooed on her head? She feels immediately stupid – Granny would have said something.
She glances at her grandmother. Maybe not. She seems totally absorbed in the speech.
Too soon the time has come for Granny to leave.
‘Bye, Granny…’ Taïga clings to her grandmother, trying not to cry. ‘Promise you’ll call?’
‘Yes, I will. And you’ll be happy here, I promise. You’ll soon make friends and you won’t miss me at all! And you have your phone? You know you can call anytime.’
‘But we had to leave our cells at the reception!’
‘Well, there are pay phones. I saw one on the wall. Let’s say I’ll call you every Friday. Does that sound good?’
Taïga thinks it sounds awful, just being able to talk to Granny once a week, but she puts up a brave face, nodding. ‘Sure.’
There are eight beds in the dormitory, and six are already taken. A blond girl that looks really snobbish is standing in the middle of the room flanked by a girl with a weasel like face and another with glasses. Apparently the blond girl is in charge.
‘You can take that bed, Charlotte,’ she says in French, pointing at one of the free beds.
Taïga walks over to the other one, but the girl with the blond hair blocks her path.
‘There are no more beds free.’ Her English is heavily accentuated with a French inflection and Taïga thinks that she must be mistaken.
‘But that one-’
‘Louise said there is no more beds free in this dormitory,’ the girl with the weasel face repeats, pushing a finger into Taïga’s chest, making her take an involuntary step backwards. It is Italy and Constanza all over again, but this time there is no one siding with her. She looks at the other girls, but they all avoid her eyes, getting ready for the night.
‘The gypsy can sleep on the floor,’ Louise states.
‘I’m not a gypsy,’ Taïga protests.
‘Don’t you live in Romania?’
‘So you’re a gypsy, gypsy.’
‘And there are rules in civilized places like this place,’ weasel face adds. ‘Rule number one: You do as Louise says or we’ll beat you up. Understand?’
Taïga nods. They are too many and she is not someone who fights. Just the thought of the weasel faced girl hitting her scares her. She is sure it is not an empty threat.
Taïga has to wait until everyone has showered before they let her into the bathroom so she can brush her teeth and shower. She had been so excited to come to France, but it didn’t quite turn out as she thought it would.
As soon as the other girls are asleep, Taïga tiptoes back into the dormitory. She is sure the blonde girl and weasel face are only faking sleep, waiting to see if she will transgress the rules. Her heart beating fast in fright, she pulls out Buddy from her suitcase and holds him hard. Is it possible to be homesick after one day at school? She will count the days until Halloween, when they can go home for the holidays. Maybe she can convince Granny not to send her back again…
The door opens on Mademoiselle Florence, the housekeeper.
‘Why aren’t you in bed, Taïga?’ she says in a low but firm voice. She grabs the corner of the blanket and pulls it aside, gesturing for Taïga to get into bed. Taïga glances at Louise. She knows the blond girl is listening.
She crawls into the bed that the blond girl had refused her. Mademoiselle Florence turns off the bedside lamp and walks silently out, closing the door after her.
Taïga holds Buddy so tight she almost crushes him, trying to keep her tears at bay. But nobody says anything, and gradually she relaxes.
The journey and excitement soon takes its toll and she falls asleep at last.
Part I – End of Chapter 40