‘But I don’t think I can…’ Taïga mutters in French.
She is up early, as usual, this splendid fall morning. She is sitting in the kitchen, fiddling with her cereals and talking to Mathilde Grosjean, their cook. She prefers having breakfast in the quiet kitchen, it is as close as she can get to a feeling of home.
‘Why do you doubt yourself so much?’ Mathilde answers in French.
‘Because everybody will look at me… And laugh…’ Taïga’s French is as good as it can ever get. There’s only a faint trace of an English accent and a rhythm of the sentences that is hard to place.
The cooking teacher is always happy and encouraging, and she has taken a liking to Taïga who spends a lot of time in her kitchen. She is the only adult Taïga on a first name basis with. Taïga knows she couldn’t call her by her last name as Grosjean literally means means fat John, and even if the kind teacher is rather voluptuous, she’s more of a Mathilde than a Madame something or other.
‘But why would they laugh? You must think of yourself and not give other people’s opinion too much importance. Especially when it comes to something you love as much!’ She crosses her arms and smiles. ‘You don’t have anything to lose, just go for it!’
Taïga just sighs and leans her head against the palm of her hand, playing with the spoon. Mathilde raises her eyebrows slightly and tries to get Taïga to look at her.
‘You mustn’t do tomorrow what you can do today! Go and find Monsieur Devèze and ask him for a try out. I’m sure he will take the time to listen to you… Alone.’
‘Monsieur Devèze has already left for the week-end. He said he’d go to Deauville with Monsieur Karajanian.’
‘Oh, j’avais complètement oublié…’
Taïga feels almost relieved to be let off the hook, but Mathilde has got another idea. ‘Florence!’ she exclaims. ‘Florence – I mean Mademoiselle Petit – can surely estimate your talent. And she’s practicing on the piano right now – I can hear her…’
‘That is Louis practicing. He said he had to practice the polkas for his audience coming up.’
Mathilde shakes her head. ‘That is not a polka, Taïga. If I didn’t know you so well, I would think you were trying to find an excuse.’
Taïga opens her mouth but the kind teacher just tut-tuts and takes away her empty bowl. ‘Go ahead now, before the bell rings. You still have ten minutes before dance class starts.’
Mathilde shoos her out of the kitchen and doesn’t close the door before she sees Taïga raise her hand and knock on the double doors leading to the dance class. She hesitates, and then she pushes the door slightly and slides into the big empty room dance room. Mademoiselle Petit looks up from behind the grand piano.
‘Taïga? Is something wrong?’
‘Yes. I mean, no. Bonjour, Mademoiselle…’ Taïga advances towards the grand piano in the corner, her heart in her mouth.
Mademoiselle Petit frowns. Taïga is due in science this morning, so what is she doing here? She glances at her watch and back to the nervous girl. ‘Yes?’
‘Could I sing?’ Taïga blurts out.
‘Sing?’ Mademoiselle Florence checks her watch again. The dance class is due any minute now, but she can’t say no to the pleading green eyes. ‘Ahem. Yes, why not? But something short, then.’
Taïga swallows and hesitantly at first but then with more and more conviction, she sings “The Painter” a cappella.
“If I were a painter
I would paint my reverie
If that’s the only way for you to be with me…”
Mademoiselle Florence stares at her. Oh.Mon.Dieu! She sings Norah Jones and she’s only a child! When Taïga has finished, Mademoiselle Florence ruffles through the papers on the piano.
‘Maybe there’s a song you’d like to sing that I could accompany on the piano? What about the one you are singing in music class? I have the partition here somewhere…’ Triumphantly she holds it up. ‘Take the microphone over there,’ she nods towards the microphone on the high speaker behind her. ‘Let’s do this in style, shall we?’
Taïga nods eagerly, switching on the high speaker as she tries to recall the beginning of the song by One Republic.
“I’m holdin’ on your rope,
Got me ten feet off the ground.”
Taïga’s voice is amplified by the high speaker and students are flocking towards the sound.
They silently crowd in through the double doors, followed by the teachers and the janitor. Even Monsieur Lambert hurries through the corridors to see who is singing. Taïga doesn’t notice at first, as she has her back turned to the door and is deeply concentrated on the song. When she starts on the refrain they all burst out in spontaneous applause and she hesitates for a slight second not daring to turn around.
“It’s too late to apologize.
It’s too late.
I said it’s too late to apologize.
It’s too late…”
When Taïga turns off the microphone nobody says a word. Then, suddenly, everybody clap their hands and cheer. Taïga blushes, but forces herself to turn around. With a huge grin, she can see how almost the whole school has crowded into the usually so big room that now seem tiny.
Monsieur Lambert is delighted. Clapping his hands for attention, he sends everyone back to their duties, including Taïga’s class. Fraying a passage through the crowd, he stops Taïga with a hand on her shoulder.
‘I shall have a word with Monsieur Deveze as soon as he comes back. And then I will talk to your grandmother…’
She catches up with her class on their way downstairs to the science lab in the basement.
‘Monsieur Bérrot will surely give us detention because we’re late,’ Eveline says.
‘He can’t give detention to the whole class,’ Tristan answers.
‘We’ll just tell him what happened, he’ll understand,’ Agnès adds.
‘Really? How does “We’re late because of the gypsy trying to get free singing lessons” sound, huh?’ Clotilde mutters to Louise in a voice everyone can hear, making Taïga blush furiously.
‘We know that’s not true,’ Louis says, passing her. ‘I think you were brilliant!’
‘Oh, oui. Absolutely awesome,’ Jeanne adds. ‘Totally worth detention!’
‘Thank you,’ Taïga mumbles. ‘If someone should get detention, it’s me. I-’
‘Absolutely. It’s her fault, after all,’ Louise exclaims.
‘Don’t mind them – I saw Monsieur Bérrot in the crowd, and he seemed just as delighted as the rest of us!’ Agnès sticks out her tongue behind Clotilde and Louise’s backs:
‘I knew you had it in you,’ Henri says, clapping her shoulder. ‘We really should do that duet thing.’
Taïga nods. She’s still floating on the high the applause brought, but she is worried about her grandmother’s reaction. For some unknown reason she doesn’t want Taïga to sing, but maybe she will give in if Monsieur Lambert talks to her…
Monsieur Bérrot arrives at the same time as they do, and muttering he unlocks the door to the staircase, pushing it open to let the students enter.
‘Get your aprons and your notebooks. I will distribute photocopies with different practical experiences for each group…’
They quickly change into their science outfits; pants, white T-shirts and aprons, before joining the teacher in a large underground room. It is brightly lit with special UV lamps to get rows of vegetables to grow and ripen. The theme this year in science is survival after a major cataclysm. That is why they are growing tomatoes, salad and even grapes in the basement. They have also participated in installing a complex watering system brining in rainwater from a container outside.
Monsieur Bérrot’s wife has just had twins and he doesn’t get much sleep at night, so as soon as the groups are getting started on the experiments, he withdraws to his office and promptly falls asleep over his notes.
The boys are soon taking advantage of the situation to goof around. It doesn’t last though. Monsieur Bérrot soon takes charge again and the lesson finishes in the usual calm that can be expected when a little group is doing scientific / biological experiments.
After two hours science they go straight up to the second floor for math. Madame Bonnet is still their math’s teacher. She is very strict, bordering on dictatorial. She doesn’t hesitate to give detention as soon as she gets the possibility – if they are late, talk too much or if they have not done their homework. Forgetting to bring all their stuff is also a reason for detention. The other day Taïga was sent to the principal’s office because she leaned across the aisle to give Marie-France a Kleenex…
She always singles someone out to come to the blackboard and explain the last lesson. Today it is Agnès who has to step up to the blackboard. She explains what she has understood, and then tries to solve the problem Madame Bonnet has taken down. Poor Agnès is not very good at maths, and she stutters and stammers, writing down a number but quickly erasing it with her hand. Which only makes their teacher irritated.
‘I will not give you a zero, even though you certainly have deserved it. Does it happen to you to do your homework?’
Agnès blushes. ‘I did my homework, and I understood yesterday. But now… The numbers are not the same.’
Madame Bonnet snorts. ‘That is why there are rules! Learn the rules and you can do the maths with any number. Now, go back to your seat. I want you to do exercises number 1 to 15 in your book, pages 43 through 45.’
She looks out over the class. ‘Anyone else wants to give it a try? Eveline?’
Eveline knows her lesson by heart, as expected.
‘Alors? Tout le monde est enfin prêt?’ She looks out over the class with small, black eyes. Taïga stares down at her table. Madame Bonnet always begins class with mental calculation exercises and Taïga hates it.
‘110×55… +83… /4… Alors?… Louis?’
Poor Louis has committed the mistake of meeting the teacher’s eyes. He pushes back his chair and stands up. ‘Eh… 1,530?’
‘Non.’ Madame Bonnet’s eyes rake over the class, ignoring Eveline who is patiently raising her finger. Instead she zooms in on Clotilde who also raises her hand. ‘Clotilde?’
‘Très bien, Clotilde.’ She beams at her favorite student. Madame Bonnet doesn’t understand that Clotilde is cheating, that she uses her cellphone to calculate. Everybody knows that Clotilde and Louise have cells, even though it is strictly prohibited at school.
Taïga breathes out. Finally they are allowed to open their books to go through their last assignment. She always does her homework and so far maths is rather easy. But she doesn’t like Madame Bonnet, so she doesn’t particularly like math either.
Madame Bonnet stops them with a sign of her hand. ‘Please put away your books.’
Jeanne and Taïga look at each other. ‘Oh, no. A surprise test…’
Madame Bonnet regularly gives them surprise tests and all the students hate it. Except Eveline, of course, who always knows her lessons and wants to become an astrophysicist or something equally complicated.
A few minutes later they are all pouring over the difficult questions. To her surprise, they are not as difficult as usual, and Taïga finishes even before Eveline.
Madame Bonnet picks up her copy and returns to her desk, quickly scanning through the answers. She frowns and looks up at Taïga who blushes under the strict teacher’s piercing view. Madame Bonnet picks up her red pen and starts marking the test. The other students have finished, too, and troop over to the teacher’s desk to hand over the copies. Then they start on the exercises noted on the blackboard, waiting for the teacher to finish marking.
‘Jeanne!’ Louise calls the redhead girl over. ‘Where’s Taïga?’
‘Still with Madame Bonnet. Pourquoi?’
‘Oh, rien…’ Louise looks around her. She lights up when she catches sight of Louis and his friends. Tristan has jumped over the wooden railing to inspect the pink rabbit statue made by a well-known artist.
‘C’mon. We said three times – and singing!’ Tristan urges Fahd and Louis to join him. ‘You can’t back down now…’
‘Louis! Attends! Il faut qu’on parle.’ A little breathless, Louise catches up with him. ‘Alone.’
Fahd is on his way over. He stops halfway, holding his hand out to Louis. Tristan wiggles his eyebrows, making a face.
‘You’ll lose the bet,’ Fahd adds.
‘He doesn’t care about your stupid bet,’ Louise snorts, turning her back to Fahd.
Louis sighs. ‘About what?’
‘You said we had to talk – alone.’ He rolls his eyes.
‘Ah, oui. About us…’ She flutters her eyelashes and looks meaning fully at him.
‘Oui. I think you’ve proved your point. You don’t have to keep acting.’
Louis scratches his head. What is all this about? He lights up at the sight of Taïga.
‘Désolé, Louise. Something important just came up…’
He intercepts Taïga before she has reached the stairs, scaring her by putting his hands over her eyes.
‘Alors? Madame Bonnet gave you detention?’
‘Louis!’ she fights off his hands. ‘No. She just gave me another exercise to make sure I hadn’t cheated.’
‘Why would she do that?’
Taïga squirms a little, she’s not one to brag. ‘Because I got an A+…’
‘Wow. Congratulations! You earned it.’
Impulsively he hugs her and whispers in her ear, ‘Tu étais fantastique ce matin! J’aimerais t’embrasser.’
Taïga doesn’t understand. He’s doing just that, right now. Hugging her.
‘Oh,’ she gasps at the sudden realization that he wants to kiss her. OMG. She lets go of him and takes a step back. Eveline is watching with curiosity gleaming in her eyes behind the thick glasses.
Louis looks down at his feet. ‘I’m sorry. I mean, you are fantastic and I love when you’re singing. It’s just… I thought… I just… Well, forget it.’
He starts to turn away from her. She has to say something. Quick.
‘Err… Oui!’ she bursts out and he stops in his tracks, a big grin lighting up his face.
Tentatively, a little clumsily, he approaches her. Closing his eyes he puckers his mouth and leans in. Taïga feels awkward. She’s frozen in place and she stares at his face getting nearer. She fights a sudden urge to turn around and run…
Then it is too late. His lips touches hers, feathery light. They are warm and smooth and the feeling is not unpleasant.
Somebody noisily clears their throat and they are both brought back into reality, almost jumping apart.
Wide-eyed Taïga blushes.
She studies his happy handsome face trying to analyze her feelings. Does her heart beat faster? Can she feel the flutter of butterflies in her stomach? Maybe when she gets to know him a little better it will feel like when Derek kissed her…
Louis is surreptitiously looking at someone behind her back. ‘I hope she’s got the message,’ he mutters.
‘What message? The only message here is detention!’ Madame Bonnet’s ice cold voice makes them both snap around.
The harsh teacher is towering above them, her arms crossed over her flat chest and an annoyed frown darkening her features. Taïga can’t meet her eyes. She blushes even more furiously and starts stammering an excuse. Louis cuts in, trying his best to explain but without much success.
His usually confident attitude has vanished and he is stammering almost as badly as Taïga. He starts over again, trying to find the right words, in vain. He finishes with a shrug, looking at the teacher with pleading eyes.
‘It won’t happen again. Promise.’
But Madame Bonnet is adamant. She can’t let the incident pass without stating an example. Especially as there are a few students present who seem eager to see how the situation will turn out. She clears her throat.
‘Not even the older teens are allowed to show affection like you – two children – just did. You must know that I will speak to Monsieur Lambert about this. And your parents will be informed. I think a week’s detention, no weekends home until Christmas and 500 lines each…’ Thoughtfully she scratches her chin, looking at the ceiling for inspiration. ‘Something along the lines of; “I promise I won’t-”, no, “-I realize that my behavior was out of place and unforgivable according to the Academy’s guide lines.” That’s more appropriate. And-’ She looks at them with a wry smile. ‘-there are still leaves to rake. Now off you go.’
Taïga follows Louis downstairs. The grey skies has finally decided to let go of its heavy charge and the rain is pouring down on the two lonely figures hurrying through the park to pick up their rakes in the furthest building from the Château.
There are always leaves to rake in the park at the Academy, and it is usually an efficient punishment.
‘She can’t be serious,’ Louis grumbles. ‘Aren’t we supposed to have lunch today? I’m sure it is not allowed to deprive us from eating.’
Taïga stops raking and just looks at him. They’ve got a whole lot of punishments, their parents will be notified and he is worried about food.
‘Don’t you think lunch is rather low on the list of worries right now?’ she wipes rainwater from her cheeks, glaring at him.
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have err… Kissed you. But Louise is so clingy and I am really hungry.’
‘Are you serious? You kissed me to make a point?’
Louis looks at her, perplex. ‘No! Of course not. It’s just… I like to be around you and, well, I just wanted to… Well. I’d like to do it again, you know.’
Taïga giggles at his discomfort. ‘You’d better not, though. I don’t particularly care for being punished again. Oh, look!’
She points at a little furry grey shape on the tree trunk.
‘Do you think it is the same one as the other day?’
‘I don’t know. They kind of look the same.’
The little squirrel jumps down and approaches, more curious than scared. It is joined by another one and soon they are picking up caterpillars and other small insects the children’s rakes uncovers.
‘I thought they only ate nuts and stuff,’ Louis says.
Taïga grimaces. ‘Me, too. But they are French, so I’m not surprised. They probably eat snails and froglegs, too!’
They continue bickering happily, watching the tiny animals darting to and fro with their load of unexpected food.
Their happy banter and laughter float through the drizzling rain and through the thin window panes, immensely annoying Clotilde and Louise who are watching them from one of the Academy’s upstairs rooms.
Louise got Louis’s message all right. And she doesn’t like it one bit. She cries silently, big tears rolling decoratively from her huge blue eyes down her porcelain cheeks. Clotilde puts a soothing arm around her shoulders, not knowing what to say. She is outraged. It is not enough to watch Taïga and Louis share their punishment raking the never ending supply of dead leaves in the park, as apparently they are just making the best of it. They seem to enjoy each other’s company and become even more complicit.
‘She… She stole him…’ Louise hiccups, and it gives Clotilde the idea she had been looking for.
Of course. It isn’t Louis’s fault at all. It is Taïga. Taïga who has stolen her friend’s boyfriend. Who steals her friends’ boyfriends. No relationship is secure with the green eyed gypsy around.
The lunch break is not yet over but Clotilde is already busy. She has started on a mission, trying to win the other girls over by slandering Taïga. Followed by a suitably red eyed Louise, she sets out to find their classmates. Eveline, Charlotte and Marie-France are easy targets. Eager to please Louise and scared of Clotilde, they nod and murmur their agreement. That none of them has a boyfriend is not relevant.
Clotilde is starting to believe even Agnès could be won over, when Jeanne pushes Charlotte aside and frankly asks what the weasel faced girl is up to.
Clotilde counts off her arguments, backed by Louise and the usual clique. Jeanne listens with crossed arms, not interrupting.
‘So that’s all?’ she finally says.
‘Bah, oui,’ Clotilde says triumphantly.
‘What does Louis have to say?’
Clotilde’s eyes flicker towards Louise. ‘Err… He’s Louise’s boyfriend. Everyone knows that.’
‘Really. But does he know that?’ Jeanne snorts and stomps away.
‘Has anyone asked Louis? Maybe we should-’ Charlotte asks, but she is silenced by a simultaneous glare from the other four girls…
Later in the evening Taïga calls her grandmother.
‘… Granny? It’s me, Taïga! I sang this morning… Yes! It was wonderful! I was sooo nervous, but when I started to sing I just forgot everything around me…’
They don’t talk for very long. She wonders if the school has already called her grandmother about the incident of the kiss, but Granny doesn’t mention it. A surge of relief shots through Taïga and she becomes almost giddy. She tries to keep her happiness in check and not bubble over with joy. When Granny announces that she doesn’t want Taïga to take song lessons, it is as efficient on her emotions as a cold shower. She hangs up after talking about her school results, resting her forehead against the cool wall for a few seconds to get herself together before joining Agnès and Jeanne in the bathroom.
She puts on a brave face, not ready to share her grandmother’s refusal with her friends just yet.
She squeezes out some toothpaste onto her toothbrush and starts brushing away until her mouth is filled with foam and her eyes are watering form the strong mint.
‘OK… You were quite good this morning.’
Louise’s voice makes her stop for a split second. She fixes her own reflection in the mirror and continues brushing.
’But don’t even think about taking my place in the choir!’
The choir? Taïga had expected trouble concerning Louis and is a little taken aback.
Clotilde looks at her malevolently and sputters, ‘Or we’ll arrange it you’ll never sing again…’
Louise and Clotilde tries to stare her down, but Taïga isn’t scared anymore. She just glares back at them in the mirror until they turn on their heels and leave.
Jeanne and Agnès raise their hands and she high-fives them both, all three of them grinning at each other with so much foam around their mouths they look like weird, bearded gnomes.
After the day’s roller coaster of emotions, she sits down in one of the armchairs in the nook with her diary. She sweeps a blanket around her and stares at the empty page in front of her. It doesn’t take long before the rhythmic smattering of the rain on the windowpanes behind her lulls her to sleep. It is the first time she doesn’t take down the day’s events in her notebook since she arrived at the Academy.
In her dreams she is singing. Her voice lifts her up, up until she can touch the sky, freeing her from all her problems.
The weeks go by in a foggy haze. Fall in the Sologne is rainy and gloomy this year. It seems like the fog settled around the Academy one particularly rainy day and decided to never leave again. As Taïga is punished over Halloween, she spends the holidays at the Academy together with Louis.
As usual Taïga bikes to Papy Pivert’s farm on weekends and on Wednesdays after school at noon. But even riding is not as fun when you have to clean muddy ponies both before and after riding.
Taïga’s hands are red and blistering with the damp cold even though she’s wearing gloves, and if it weren’t for spending time with Agnès and Jeanne away from the Academy, she might not have minded missing out on a few riding lessons.
School settles into the same routine as usual. They have science in the basement with Monsieur Bérrot, building a robot.
Taïga loves history and discovers a true passion for geography. She decides that one day she will visit all countries on the globe, and as she wants to become a doctor, she will join Doctors without borders to help as many people as possible. Africa seems like a really good place to start. They study ancient history and the beginnings of writing, discover Egypt and the pyramids, follow in Alexander the Great’s footsteps and visits a Roman archaeological site together with Monsieur Lefebvre in Art class.
She can’t wait for the lessons with Madame Ntumba who is originally from Senegal. She tells them lots of stories from her home continent, and compares her childhood with their own.
Best is working in groups. As they are studying ancient civilizations they get to build a miniature Troy with a little wooden horse and a ship that is supposed to really be floating.
Taïga doesn’t need to take classes in French foreign language any longer and has integrated the rest of the class, studying boring grammar but also getting to write short stories and poems.
She is paired with Henri in French, but he is mostly talking to Louis who is sitting right in front of him, disturbing Taïga who has to concentrate hard to follow the lesson.
‘I’d love to, but I’m going home.’ Louis has asked Taïga if she would like to go skiing with his family over Christmas.
‘It’s a pity – we’re going to Méribel, too,’ Henri says.
Eveline chirps in on her way back from the bathroom, ‘It’s a pity you can’t come, you know. We always go to the Alps for the holidays. My parents know Louise’s and Clotilde’s parents very well. And we ski every day with Louis and Tristan. N’est-ce pas, Louis?’
‘Silence!’ Madame Champollion looks up from her laptop where she has finished validating the roll call. ‘Eveline, return to your seat, you can discuss your plans for the holidays during recess. Now, who can tell me about-’
Taïga raises her hand. But somewhere deep inside it hurts a tiny bit knowing they will all spend time together.
‘She probably can’t ski anyway…’ Clotilde’s whispering voice reaches her and she refrains from turning around and answering.
Madame Champollion is their French teacher. She is surprised at how easy Taïga expresses herself with a pen and a paper. She loves writing haikus and when they study antique poems, Taïga shows a real talent. Her poem about her own experience versus Ulysses’s is good enough to read out aloud to the class.
Everything would be just fine, if only there weren’t math with Madame Bonnet. They line up next to their chairs in the beginning of each lesson, as usual, nervously waiting for the daily interrogation to start.
When Jeanne one day said she didn’t understand trigonometry and added that maybe she would understand better if Pythagore had written his formula in French, Madame Bonnet brought posters in Russian the very next day. Just to prove that formulas are international.
Anyway, Jeanne’s commentary triggered yet another surprise test…
As usual the class has lunch and dinner together. Taïga has only been seated once at the Headmaster’s table since the beginning of the year, and that was after the poem about Ulysses. She prefers the more relaxed atmosphere at the table with her friends anyway. Except that today she is too nervous to finish her meal. Louise and Clotilde are sitting with their backs to her at the next table, but they frequently put their heads together and whisper, glancing over their shoulders at her.
After having sung for Mademoiselle Florence, and inadvertently for the whole school, she was allowed to sign up for the school choir without a personal audition with Monsieur Devèze who still hasn’t heard her sing. He is a busy man, especially since he has been approached by French television to be part of the jury of a song contest, and spends almost all his time in the capital. Meanwhile, Mademoiselle Florence is training the choir.
The choir practice on Wednesday afternoons, so she had to choose between riding and singing. The cold weather helped her somewhat with her decision. They have been practicing Christmas songs for a while and Monsieur Devèze has requested the three most talented students to sing solo, Henri, Louise and lazy Tristan. The same as last year. This afternoon Monsieur Devèze is back from Paris and they will come together at Notre Dame des Champs to try out the acoustics.
Taïga is nervous because Mademoiselle Florence has insisted on sending her along.
Taïga is happy having signed up for the school choir, it is the only way for her to sing. She stays in the back row with the altos, as far from soprano-voice Louise she can get, discovering the joys of singing with other people, sharing her passion. Everything went well until Mademoiselle Florence had announced this very morning that Taïga would join the three soloists at Notre Dame des Champs…
Taïga jumps off the bus and opens her brand new umbrella before running in the heavy rain towards the entrance of the medieval church. Louis catches up with her, trying to duck under it.
‘Attends! Laisse-moi venir sous ton parapluie!’
Louis catches up with her and wants to take shelter under her umbrella, but she giggles and runs faster. The wind catching the large umbrella slows her down and he ducks under it, close to her.
Louis is not really in the choir, he has volunteered to come along and play the organ mostly because it provided an occasion to be around Taïga.
They stop and look at each other in front of an enormous puddle.
They don’t have to talk to know what the other is thinking. Laughing they jump in together, kicking water at each other until Monsieur Devèze calls for them to hurry up.
Louise and Henri are excited about being selected for the solos. So is Tristan, in a certain way. He has not been practicing much, relying on his great voice to pardon him his lack of interest in the choir. He runs backwards in front of them, sidestepping in a parody of Fred Astair and singing on top of his lungs with a horrible accent.
‘Ah’m singin’ in zhe rain – just singin’ in zhe raaain! Vhat a glooorious feeling, Ah’m ‘aaappy again!’
The smaller organ Louis is allowed to use is right behind the altar, so the four children line up under the crucifix, as last year, before starting on “O Holy Night”. Monsieur Devèze is not very happy with the setting, especially as he is thinking ahead and picturing the twenty something kids in the choir fidgeting in the small space.
Then he has a brilliant idea. What if he split them up? He looks around him and decides the soloists definitely should be higher up, like angels in the sky.
‘Assez!’ He silences the children and waves the parish priest over. ‘Père Martin, is it possible to use the balcony?’
Five minutes later the children are inspecting the huge pipes of the immense church organ with Louis jealously looking up at them from his seat at the ordinary organ far below. But Monsieur Devèze is not there to lose time playing around and soon even Tristan, albeit grudgingly, does what is expected of him.
Taïga is transported by the melodious new French words to the old songs she already knows, forgetting all about the silent song teacher who is attentively listening. She is standing last in line, next to Louise but with a certain distance between them.
Louise tries to out-sing Taïga, pushing high her light soprano voice, but the dark girl follows, staying perfectly in tune without effort. The boys’ soprano voices have not yet broken and mix with the girls’ when they push the high notes and their crystalline voices rise and bounce of the old stone walls, giving the knowledgeable music teacher goosebumps.
He closes his eyes and lets them finish, not even trying to analyze or correct, just enjoying the experience. He definitely has something good going here.
He takes Taïga apart before they leave, and asks her if she has already taken song lessons.
Taïga is a little intimidated by the boisterous teacher and shakes her head.
‘No. I just like singing.’
‘So why have I never seen you in class?’
‘I’m taking violin and piano with Monsieur Karajanian and my grandmother doesn’t… She doesn’t… Err… Really believe in singing.’ She bites her lip. She shouldn’t have said anything about her grandmother.
Monsieur Devèze nods thoughtfully. ‘Well. I’m glad Mademoiselle Petit sent you along today…’ He lets the sentence trail, already envisioning training the girl. He knows talent when he hears it, and he will talk about her with François Lambert as soon as possible.
François Lambert has never understood why Granny is so against letting Taïga take song lessons, and he can’t see why the poor girl shouldn’t if she is as talented as Florence, and now Devèze, let on. He discusses the matter with Taïga, telling her Monsieur Devèze will take her on trial for a couple of months. Taïga is hesitant, she doesn’t want to do something behind Granny’s back. But the possibility to sing is too tempting.
François Lambert knows how proud her grandmother is, and suspects it might be a question about finances. She would never admit not having the resources to pay for extra tutoring. So he follows his instincts and secretly pays for Taïga’s song lessons himself. He’ll talk to Tara in person over dinner when she comes to France next time, and make her see reason concerning her grandchild…
The dreary days get colder and frost covers the vegetation, waking the children to a magic, lacelike landscape. The long winter has finally embraced the French countryside and the students at St Simon’s are impatiently waiting for the holidays…
The first “conseils de classe” out of three takes place in the beginning of December. They are conferences at the end of each trimester where the teachers discuss the students’ progress and eventual problems with two elected students and two elected parent class representatives present.
Eveline and Philippe were elected this year, and they take their role very seriously, taking notes to report back to the class. Philippe’s mother and Charlotte’s father are representing the parents, which bothers Philippe a little.
It is all very formal and important. There is already a selection taking place mid-December, only the best students will be admitted to “la 5ème”, seventh grade. The school doesn’t keep anyone with a passing grade under 15/20 and the students have to both be serious and well behaved to stay.
Jeanne might not make it, her French grades are nothing short of a catastrophe, and her parents have gone bankrupt… She will stay until June though, as the school fees are already paid.
Tristan’s grades would have been just as catastrophic as Jeanne’s, as he never does his homework. But he has been cheating his way through the first trimester and as long as no one sells him out, he’s fine.
Clotilde continues scheming, getting Fahd into trouble.
He had refused to kiss her when they played “seven minutes in heaven”, and Clotilde was so humiliated she promptly reported it to the headmaster, but telling a version where Fahd had used force to kiss her.
With the incident between Louis and Taïga a few weeks earlier, poor Fahd almost got expelled. The headmaster had trouble finding a peaceful way to temper the two spoilt brats’ egos without getting the aristocratic parents involved. Finally he just expulses them from his office and closes the door, letting them argue it out in the hall.
Taïga is bored. It is Friday afternoon and she is waiting for Agnès to finish art class so they can bike over to Papy Pivert. She is dreading the cold weather. Papy has probably made crêpes for them, and that is cool. But tomorrow they will go get the ponies in the the muddy, or frozen over, fields. She wonders why they can’t be stabled like the full bloods…
She stuffs and extra pair of thick socks into her backpack, knowing her feet will be soaked the first day, before heading over to the high windows in the nook to check the weather for the umpteenth time. More dreary rain… I can’t wait for spring, and summer… So I can go back to Monte Aquila!
She sighs. It never snows here… Fall lasts forever! Her thoughts stray to her last conversation with her grandmother who had announced the renovating of the old manor was over, and that they would spend Christmas in the Bayou. I wonder what the new house is like. Granny sounded so secretive when I talked to her…
Suddenly she frowns. What was that? Is someone calling?
‘I’d better check this out…’ she mutters to herself, listening hard.
Like a sleepwalker, she follows the voice in her head out of her room and up a small staircase she didn’t even know existed.
She stops in front of a murky door on the landing. It is locked. She looks over her shoulder to make sure she is alone before concentrating on the door. It swings slowly open with a creak and Taïga slips furtively into the dimly lit attic.
The space has been used to stock unused prop, students’ left over productions and even Christmas decorations for decades it seems. She walks through the junk, stopping here and there to check something particularly interesting out. But the voice incites her to continue until she reaches the far wall of the attic.
There is a wooden crate in a cobweb covered corner. It seems to be filled with dry, colorful leaves, but when she sinks to her knees in front of it, she can see something sticking up. When she touches the leaves, she liberates a pungent smell she recognizes from the Meunier’s farm.
She carefully lifts the heavy object up, breathing in the pungent smell.
Part I – End of Chapter 50