3rd and last term. The cold, rainy winter has finally given place to spring with warm, sunny days and an explosion of flowers; lilacs and pink hydrangea surround the Academy with color and sweet scent.
On the first Saturday of June, the teachers transform into sophisticated fundraisers and the most influential parents and benefactors are invited to the school’s main event; the Pink Ball. The whole school is mobilized to help decorating with helium inflated balloons and festive lights along the driveway and paths in the park.
It is a formal affair with a strict dress code; the men wear tuxedos and the ladies are in long, pink gowns. Taïga has never seen so many beautiful outfits, nor so many shades of pink. She peeks at the arrivals from upstairs with Agnès, Jeanne and the students from the two classes who are not participating in the event this year.
It is an honor to be invited and even though the guest list spans over 200 names, it is selective. Clotilde’s parents are on the list both due to fortune and breed, so are Louise’s. Her mother walks up the steps and into the entrance hall wearing a jewel studded sheer creation, huge diamonds in her ears and the same golden hair as her daughter set in a loose, but elaborate, chignon. Overall she is a very good looking woman. Taïga thinks she wears a little too much make up to be kissing cheeks, but she keeps a fair distance from Madame Champollion, smacking the air on each side in a quite artificial way before moving on. Then comes Clotilde’s parents. Clotilde’s mother is thin and tall. Her dark, short bob frames her face and makes it look even stricter, but distinguished. It is not a woman you mess with. She can see where Clotilde has got her scary and mean looks from. She realizes she hasn’t paid much attention to the fathers, but she’ll probably get a good look at them later on. Jeanne points out Fahd’s father, he is shorter and chubbier than she had expected. He doesn’t look like what she had expected of a king at all. Tristan’s parents are invited, too, so are Louis’s. Agnès points them out, whispering their names as they arrive. But they can’t stay long admiring the rich and the famous, they have to get ready themselves. They split up in the hall leading to their rooms, eager to make themselves as beautiful as the women parading through the big entrance.
Granny has sent her granddaughter a sheer, fairy-like pink dream of a dress, with assorted satin shoes and silk flowers to wear in her hair. Taïga has never seen anything as beautiful in her life. She will feel like a fairy princess and can’t wait to walk down the stairs with the others.
There is a lot of handshaking and air-kissing, the champagne flows and big business deals are finalized with a pat on the back.
The teachers mingle with the jet set – royalty, famous artists and producers – ensuring the school’s future. It is hard to distinguish the teachers from the glamorous crowd. They are all looking so distinguished in their rented tuxedos and only an experienced fashionista would notice that the gowns are, for the most part, second hand.
Cantu Delvèze takes place by the grand piano and clears his throat, progressively silencing the guests. Accompanied by Charles Karanjanian, he sings La Donna è Mobile, followed by Granada, to the audience’s delight.
It is also the students’ ball. The 6th grade has access to the ball room for three hours, then they have to leave room for the 9th grade, for whom it is also the last great event before leaving the Academy for high school. The two classes in between are watching the adults arrive from their vantage point on top of the stairs. Even though they all have been through 6th grade and thus already been to the ball, it is still with a certain amount of jealousy that they leave room for the students in Taïga’s class to proudly descend the stairs. All the girls are nicely dressed in different shades of pink and the boys are wearing navy blue suits with a white shirt and the striped school tie.
A harried Mademoiselle Florence calls for them all to hurry, but two persons are missing – Taïga and Clotilde.
‘Taïga is probably already in the ballroom, she doesn’t know manners from a stick,’ Louise says.
‘Really? So where is Clotilde?’ Agnès says. She looks at Jeanne and the same thought crosses their minds. What if Clotilde is bullying Taïga? Again.
But at the same moment, the evil girl comes running out of breath.
‘Have you seen Taïga?’
‘No. I mean, yes. She’s already downstairs,’ she pants, bending over to catch her breath.
‘Told you so,’ Louise smirks.
‘Hurry to line up!’ Mademoiselle Florence calls over to the little group of girls.
Agnès and Jeanne hesitate, but start towards the waiting boys. Taïga must have misunderstood the whole ceremonial thing about the stairs.
Louise crosses her arms over the pearl embroidered bustier of her Galliano couture dress. Her clique is dressed just as fancy as she is, but she has received her share of gawking in awe over her elaborate, butterfly printed silk gown.
‘It’s done,’ Clotilde whispers as soon as Agnès and Jeanne are out of earshot.
‘What is done?’ Charlotte asks innocently, but no one answers her.
Louise taps her feet impatiently. ‘Are you sure she won’t find them?’
Clotilde looks over her shoulder to make sure no one is close enough to hear what she has to say. ‘Well… if she finds them, she won’t be able to use them anyway-’ she smiles evilly, ‘-as I put them in the kitchen trash can together with lots of smelly shrimp peelings.’
The group of girls pinch their noses and giggling they take up their positions on top of the stairs.
Louis has waited impatiently for Taïga to show up, and he doesn’t believe that she is already downstairs. He pulls Tristan aside and shares his worries with him.
‘She was supposed to walk with me, she can’t have forgotten.’
‘Maybe you’re not as irresistible as you think you are,’ Tristan teases.
‘I think something might have happened. We can’t just believe Clotilde.’
‘Hey, hey, hey. We can’t all rush off in search of her neither. Let’s descend the stairs as we are supposed to or we will break up the whole protocol. Once downstairs, we can split up and look for her. OK?’
He has to admit Tristan is right. People are waiting downstairs, photographers and the parents lucky enough to be invited.
‘If I were you, I’d check her room first thing. Mademoiselle Florence is so harried she won’t notice you’re missing.’
‘And if she does?’
‘I’ll think of something.’
‘Thanks.’ Louis lines up, last in line with Jeanne even though Louise is beckoning him to her side. He is firmly set on finding Taïga even if it means he has to break the rules and check her room.
As soon as they have reached the ballroom, he sneaks away back up the stairs and through the now empty corridors on Taïga’s floor. Nobody answers the knock on the door so he pushes it open a crack and peeks in.
‘Taïga? Are you there?’
The room lies in darkness but a faint light escapes from the nook, and that’s where he finds her. She is sitting barefoot in one of the wire chairs, her hair falling in raven waves down her shuddering shoulders. Tears are streaming down her face.
‘What happened? Everybody’s already in the ballroom. Why aren’t you ready?’ he asks from his position on the threshold.
Taïga startles and dries her tears with the back of her hand. ‘I-I-I’m sorry… I can’t go.’
‘What do you mean you can’t go? Why?’ The words stumble out of his mouth. He hesitates, then he asks the fatal question, dreading her answer. ‘Is it your grandmother? Has something happened to her?’
‘No!’ Taïga stands up and forces a little smile. ‘It’s just… I can’t find my shoes! And my hair is a mess…’
Louis gives a hint of a relieved smile. ‘You are perfect! You look just like a princess. Aucune fille n’est aussi jolie…’
Taïga tries to stop the tears his kind words provoke. He must think she’s exasperating, bawling like this.
‘You’re so kind. But you must understand I can’t come to the ball like this. N’est-ce pas?’
‘Non, je ne comprends pas. What I understand is that Clotilde – and Louise – will be more than happy to know you’re crying the night away in your room. Now dry your tears and come with me – we’re supposed to have fun, remember?’
‘Uh-huh.’ He’s right. She can’t let them get away with this. But still… ‘What about my shoes? I don’t have any that goes with the dress.’
He fumbles for her hand, taking it in both of his and squeezing it reassuringly. ‘Who cares about shoes?’
I do, she thinks looking at her bare feet. Then she draws in her breath. ‘OK. But you must promise me one thing, though.’
Louis raises an inquiring eyebrow.
Taïga looks seriously at him through long lashes still wet from tears and withdraws her hand. ‘You mustn’t step on my toes,’ she says, insisting on toes. ‘When we dance.’
He stares at her, then he gets her particular humor and they both burst out laughing.
Together they hurry through the deserted corridors. They don’t use the main stairs to avoid the other students who are still lingering, trying to get a glimpse of someone famous. He takes her hand when they arrive outside and for once she doesn’t withdraw it. They follow the trail of pink balloons and the sound of music and laughter towards the ball room. A woman’s coy chuckle and the clink of glasses can be heard somewhere in the darkness. Louis squeezes her hand and they quicken their pace, passing some smoking adults strolling by.
Taïga stops before they reach the flower clad arch that makes the door to the ballroom extra festive, and takes a deep breath. She can see people mingling inside. Clotilde passes, pushing her fellow students as she seems to be searching for someone. Probably Louise, or maybe Fahd.
‘What if they all start laughing at me? I’m barefoot after all!’
Louis tugs gently on her hand and smiles reassuringly. ‘I’m sure they all will ditch their fancy shoes as soon as possible.’
He lets go of her hand and sheds his jacket in the bushes.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Getting assorted. To you. Let’s do this ball boho style!’ He takes her hand and poses it on his arm. ‘Remember-’ he adds, ‘-nothing can hurt you, they are just jealous.’
To her surprise, Louis stops on the doorstep and kisses her cheek, tenderly. Everybody stops dancing and just stares. Then Tristan cheers and they all start applauding. Taïga blushes furiously and lets herself be dragged into the room in Louis’s wake. He high-fives his friends and first Agnès, then Jeanne hugs her and they both compliment her loudly so Clotilde won’t miss a word.
‘You’re so pretty!’
‘Just like a fairy!’
‘What a good idea to let your hair hang loose!’
Taïga blushes even more, she’s not used to getting so many compliments.
Both Louis and Taiga are soon dancing and having fun with the others. Some adults join them on the dance floor but seeing the headmaster and Louise’s mother trying to move in rhythm to the blasting hip hop music makes them feel a little embarrassed. Madame de Lautrec grimaces in their direction, but when the music changes to something old from the 80’s she lights up and let’s herself be swirled around by a laughing headmaster.
Taïga wishes her grandmother were there. She is the one he is supposed to make happy like that. Everybody is shouting the lyrics, even the kids, having a good time. Taïga just smiles and tries to follow the refrain, singing fast in French is too difficult, especially when you don’t have a clue about the words.
Mademoiselle Béjart has had a little too much champagne and layer after layer of her usual restraint falls away with each glass of bubbly.
‘Wait a minute!’ She hails a tall blond man, looking him into his eyes and frowning. ‘I know you. You’re the Monsieur de Montvilliers. The producer?’
Philippe’s father nods. ‘Actually, the Montvilliers you’re referring to is my father.’
Mademoiselle Béjart hiccups. ‘But that’s perfect! We have a boy in Philippe’s class who would like to make a CD. Could you listen to him?’
Monsieur de Montvilliers is too well mannered to roll his eyes. Instead he forces a tight little smile and answers with disinterest. ‘Pourquoi pas.’
He hates it when people make the connection between his name and “Montvillier Productions”. Everybody seems to think they have star potential and that he has the time to listen to them sing. But on the other hand, it is always good to have Philippe’s teachers on his son’s side. What is Mademoiselle Béjart teaching now again?
‘I’ll be right back!’
‘Wait!’ When Louis leans in and whispers ‘Je t’aime…’ in her ear, she can finally feel butterflies in her stomach. Smiling she hurries to the ladies room.
Taïga is washing her hands when she can hear Louise’s shrill voice in the corridor. She quickly backs into the WC again to avoid her coming into the ladies room. Louise stops outside the cubicle where Taïga is hiding. She is upset, going off about something or other, as usual. Taïga wonders who is with her, if it is Clotilde she certainly hopes she won’t be discovered. She leans forward a little to try to see under the door, but Louise’s voluminous dress effectively hides the other person’s feet.
‘Je ne comprends pas…’ Louise whines, ‘She shouldn’t have been here tonight. I think she looks like a beggar, a gypsy beggar. A barefoot gypsy beggar!’
Someone, Taïga think it sounds like Charlotte, mumbles, ‘I think she’s a beautiful barefoot beggar who-’
‘How dare you? You fat pig! Get out! We threw away her shoes, but we should have thrown her gown with it! Next time we’ll shred yours! GET OUT!’
The door has not even slammed shut after Charlotte before Taïga bursts out from her hidingplace. ‘Who. Hid. My. Shoes?’ Her voice is but a low hiss.
Louise tries to stare her down, but Taïga has had enough. She closes her fists – hard. How she would like to hurt her, but even through the red mist of her anger, she knows she mustn’t hit the blond girl. Suddenly Louise starts screaming.
‘My eyes! They hurt! What have you done! Make it stop! Please. It was Clotilde’s idea! Please!’
Taïga relaxes slightly, and the pain in Louise’s eyes diminish somewhat. ‘Just tell her I’ve had enough.’ She walks out, leaving Louise behind her, sobbing on the floor.
As soon as the door closes behind her, the burning pain in Louise’s eyes disappears.
Henri is waiting outside the bathroom.
‘They want me to sing! Can you believe it?’ He grabs Taïga’s arm and drags her with him. ‘You must do this for me, please… I need backup! Or at least moral support!’
Taïga doesn’t have to answer, Henri is nervously talking non-stop on their way to the lounge.
She stops and hesitates when they arrive. Soft chatter, the clinking of glasses and virtuoso piano music sifts into the hall and she recognizes Monsieur Karajanian playing one of Chopin’s Nocturnes. She reaches out to hail Mademoiselle Béjart, but she walks away before she has the time to touch her arm. But Mathilde is not far. She decides to walk over to where she is chatting to someone she vaguely recognizes.
Henri doesn’t hesitate. Full of confidence, he threads his way through the party towards the center of the room where the grand piano is.
Mathilde nods to her and continues chatting animatedly. Taïga doesn’t want to interrupt so she retreats until she has her back against the wall. She stays discreetly in the background while Henri shakes hands with the headmaster, Monsieur Devèze and the group of men they are talking to.
Monsieur Devèze, extravagant in his pink suede jacket and ruffled 18th century shirt, looks around the room as if searching for somebody and Taïga backs further behind Mathilde.
She imagines the dark-skinned beautiful woman with the incredible, low cut dress is holding herself so straight because if she moves, her boobs will surely spill out. She giggles at the thought.
Everyone’s attention is focused on the boy prodigy. She looks around her for somewhere to sit, but all seats are taken. Better stay where Henri can see her, she is his moral support after all.
The headmaster is anxious to please his important guests, so when one of them requests something from an opera repertoire, he quickly assesses that Henri knows the song.
‘Yes, of course Monsieur Lambert. It’s a classic!’
Henri would have hoped for something by Charles Aznavour, but anything that suits his tenor voice is fine to him. He searches the crowd for Taïga and she nods and waves a little from behind the throng of gowns.
Suddenly Monsieur Devèze speaks up, ‘This piece is best performed in a duo. Come here, Taïga!’
The crowd opens until everyone can see her, blushing and trying to hide the fact that she is barefoot. Timidly she advances. They have sung the requested song in church with Monsieur Devèze, and the lyrics are basic, at least for her who will do the French part. Henri will sing in Italian but he seems confident about it.
‘Cool. We’ll kill it!’
‘Uh-huh.’ Taïga is not so sure about succeeding with the difficult song, but it is a relief to see that Henri is willing to sing with her.
Monsieur Devèze hands them each a microphone that she accepts with trembling hands.
Henri speaks in rapid French with the headmaster and an ugly blond man who looks suspiciously like Philippe, and she feels stupid not understanding everything. So she just smiles and nods like a dummy.
What if she can’t remember the words? If she makes a mess of everything? This is Henri’s chance to show what he’s worth and she mustn’t let him down. Suddenly the whole room seems to start spinning. She closes her eyes but the sensation only gets worse.
Henri is talking to someone, laughing a little.
‘Ça va, mademoiselle? Are you all right?’
Her eyes snap open and she looks at Monsieur Karajanian whose fingers are lingering over the ivories of the keyboard.
‘Oui.’ She nods. She will do this or she will never pardon herself. Nor will Henri, probably.
But when her friend starts on the first strophes of “Vivo Per Lei” in an angelic high tenor, her stress builds again until she feels she is on the border of hyperventilating.
She scans the crowd for her song teacher. Everybody is looking at Henri with admiration in their eyes. And now she will spoil it all. She gasps for breath. Her eyes travel around the room. Unknown faces all staring, smiling, nodding. Where is Monsieur Devèze? He was there a few seconds ago.
Monsieur Devèze has backed away behind the headmaster and the blond man to better help Taïga without gesticulating in front of everyone. He catches her eye. He’s grimacing and Taïga realizes he is miming deep breathing.
She concentrates on his familiar round face, letting the rest of the world fade out. She keeps eye contact while she breathes in, breathes out in rhythm with her song teacher.
Breathing in, with her nose, and out, with her mouth. Progressively the tight grip on her chest evaporates.
Monsieur Devèze can see she is all right. He gives her an encouraging thumbs up signaling her it is her turn to sing.
Je vis pour elle depuis toujours
Qu’elle me déchire ou qu’elle soit tendre
Elle nous dessine après l’amour
Un arc-en-ciel dans notre chambre
The audience is amazed at the high pearly voice.
Monsieur de Montvilliers’ mouth falls. ‘Is she in Philippe’s class? The barefoot girl?’
‘Indeed she is.’ the headmaster answers. ‘Mademoiselle Grey. Taïga Grey.’
‘I’ll have my father listen to her. She’s got potential…’
Attraverso la mia voce
Si espande e amore produce
Their voices are a perfect match, and they both thoroughly enjoy themselves, giving the sentimental song their all.
The audience dries their tears. There is a moment of silence before they start applauding.
Taïga blushes and lets Henri bask in the spotlight. She quickly backs away when everyone surges forward to congratulate them, getting lost in the crowd once more.
Louis takes her hand and drags her back to the ball room and onto the dance floor.
‘I heard you. You were fantastic.’
‘Thank you. But it was Henri doing the hardest part.’
‘Yeah. He’s pretty good, too.’
The music changes to something slow and romantic and they both hesitate.
‘I won’t step on your toes.’ He winks.
‘Promise?’ Taïga smiles and a little awkwardly steps into his arms.
She knows that she will remember this night for the rest of her life.
Louise is back, steering clear of Taïga, but there’s no sign of Clotilde. A perfect evening…
The following weeks are a rush of last minute tests and anticipation of the approaching summer break. To Taïga they seem too close as, finally she is quite serene, and for once she is not in a hurry to leave the Academy. Since their encounter in the bathroom, Louise has steered clear of her, not even looking at her. And Clotilde hoovers in the background, but has clearly received orders from Louise to leave her be. They still have three years to go before finishing the Academy, and for the first time Taïga looks at her future with a ray of hope.
So it is with mixed feelings she wakes up on the last school day.
After getting their yearly notes, they troop out into the park for the usual ceremony. They sit on the white benches facing the teachers lined up on similar white benches, discussing and smiling kindly at them as they pass. The headmaster is standing at the lectern separating the rows of benches, shuffling his papers, preparing his speech. As usual Fahd occupies a whole bench on his own. He stretches, looking at his comrades, then he slumps comfortably.
Two whole months without Agnès, Jeanne… and Louis. And Jeanne won’t be back next year anyway as she couldn’t keep her grades up. Her morose thoughts spoil the bright sunny day for Taïga, and she has trouble getting in the same boisterous mood as her classmates.
She is sharing the back row with Agnès and Jeanne, who are laughing with Tristan and Louis seated in front of them.
Taïga sighs, deep in thought. She wonders if Jeanne’s parents have arrived yet. They are taking her to the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, then she will fly alone, as usual, overseas. She wonders what her grandmother is doing. Probably up with the sun as usual, roaming about in the garden. She can’t wait to get back home again. This summer she will take her courage in her hands and ask Granny about her feelings for Monsieur Lambert…
The headmaster clears his throat, and gradually silence falls over the small assembly. All their teachers are present, from Monsieur Lefebvre who discreetly is checking his cell next to a disapproving Monsieur Bérrot, to Monsieur Devèze who is taking up most of the space on the bench he is sharing with waif like Mademoiselle Béjart and Madame Ntumba. Mathilde waves a bee away, squealing with fright, but Madame Champollion hushes at her, as concentrated on the speech as Madame Bonnet behind her who leans forward to hear better. Mademoiselle Florence and Monsieur Karajanian have a hushed but animated conversation, they will hear the same speech three times more before the day is over anyway.
It is with a twinge of sorrow Taïga listens to Monsieur Lambert starting his speech.
‘This is always an exciting time as we say good-bye to our gifted students. But it’s just an “au revoir“…’
Her eyes stray to the French flag lazily moving in the soft breeze. The sky is blue like Derek’s eyes and tiny clouds chase each other slowly, slowly. She stifles a yawn.
She watches a black raven sweep down from the roof and fly in a wide loop over the park. She imagines what it would be like, being a bird, free to fly wherever she wanted. She would land on top of the flag and watch the tiny humans go about their important, boring business.
The tiny black speck circles and lands. It caws and Taïga pictures what their little ceremony must look like from above.
The raven flaps its wings and takes off. Taïga closes her eyes, willing herself so strongly to fly with the raven that it feels like she becomes it. She is the black bird, flapping its wings strongly but effortlessly. She can feel the wind caressing her feathers and she looks down at the Academy from high up, seeing the lush green landscape as far as the little village of Champs-sur-Sauloise and the river Sauloise behind it…
Part I – End of Chapter 58
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