He strolled in, pausing just inside the doorway. His eyes swept the classroom. To my surprise, he made for my table, pointing at the seat next to me with a raised eyebrow. I nodded to indicate that the seat was not yet taken. He swung his bag off his shoulder, and sat down.
“Hi,” I said. “You must be the new boy, then.”
He turned to look at me, and I immediately felt stupid. Of course he was the new boy. What an obvious thing to say. I had only wanted to welcome him, but I realised that I was, for some reason, the nervous one. My mind raced for something else to say — something less obvious and more cool than what I had just said. Or perhaps he would speak. That would be nice. After all, he had chosen to sit next to me. He could also make an effort to break the ice. But he seemed strangely content with silence, and I was relieved when Elizabeth appeared in the doorway, calling out, “Mara! How was your summer? Did you go anywhere exciting?”
“Not really,” I replied, suddenly unhappy that we hadn’t travelled anywhere exotic. Until now, I had been content to simply stay at home during the holidays. But I suddenly wanted to have something exciting to say, something unusual. Especially as the new boy was looking at me intently, as though my answer was somehow of great interest to him.
Elizabeth turned to him. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Elizabeth Walker, and you’re our only new student this year. At least so far. You can call me Lizzy, everyone does. Dizzy Lizzy, you know. You’ve done well, choosing to sit next to Mara here, she’s a true Cancerian, a real mother hen — she’ll take good care of you.”
I could have strangled Lizzy. For someone who didn’t have a malicious bone in her body, she could do a lot of damage. I wouldn’t have minded so much, had the new boy looked shy, or nervous, or happy to be taken care of. But this boy looked as though the last thing he needed was looking after.
“That’s not —” I began, launching into self-defence mode, but Lizzy interrupted me.
“What star sign are you?” she asked him.
“Liz!” I objected. “We should give him a chance to introduce himself, before asking for his star sign.”
“Oh, names are not important,” Lizzy replied. “You can’t know a person by hearing their name. But you can figure out quite a lot by knowing their star sign. So?” She looked at the new boy expectantly.
“Scorpio,” he replied.
His voice was pleasant. I glanced at him, hoping he would say more. But Lizzy was already firing her next question at him.
“When’s your birthday, exactly?” she asked.
“A Scorpio-Sagittarius cusp!” Lizzy squealed in ecstasy. “I’ve never met one of your kind before. I’ll look you up in my birthday book tonight!”
“Hey, Liz! Who is it you’re looking up? Ah, of course!” James, Lizzy’s boyfriend, flung an arm around her waist while stretching out his hand towards the new boy. “We were told to expect someone new this year,” he said. “I’m James.”
“Selden,” the new boy said, shaking James’ hand.
“What? Was that your name you just said?” Lizzy asked.
“Obviously that was his name, Liz.” James rolled his eyeballs. “As far as I’m aware, there’s no star sign called Selden.”
“Selden,” Lizzy repeated slowly, letting the name roll over her tongue. “What an unusual name. Selden. I like it! What have we got first lesson, Mara?”
“French,” I replied, suddenly wondering if Selden could speak any — which led me to wonder where he had moved from. Now there was something I could ask him! Where are you from? was a good way to start a conversation with someone new. But —
“Look here, silly girl,” James was saying, pulling Lizzy away from our table. “There’s a copy of the new timetable on every desk, all you have to do is look. Shall we find some seats?”
“We’re not allowed to sit together this year,” Lizzy moaned.
“Mrs. Thomas complained at the End of Year Party that you were too much of a distraction to me, and Mum really laid into me. Mrs. Thomas promised that she’d make sure we weren’t sitting anywhere near each other this year. In any class.”
“Oh. Bummer. Well, I’ll go sit next to Ben, he’s waving at me.” James gave her a kiss on the lips and slouched off.
“Oh, great,” Lizzy groaned. “I’ll either have to sit by myself, or next to Michelle. She’s such a swot. Well, Mum will be pleased.”
She picked up the bag she had dumped on the floor and was about to move off, when Selden called out, “Wait!”
Lizzy stopped in her tracks and turned around. The smile she got from Selden was downright beguiling. My eyes flew to James. Was he watching this? I wondered how he would react if he saw his girlfriend being smiled at so flirtatiously. But no, James was busy talking to Ben.
“You haven’t told me yours,” Selden was saying now.
Lizzy’s eyes widened. “Oh? I’m Elizabeth Walker, but you can call me Lizzy. Or Liz.”
“We’ve already done that part,” Selden said. “You haven’t told me your star sign.”
“Oh!” Lizzy looked delighted now. “I’m a cusp too, just like you. I’m a Gemini-Cancer cusp. Very magical, you know.”
“Obviously,” Selden replied. Out of the corner of my eye, I searched his face for any sign of sarcasm. I found none in the look he gave Lizzy. She gave a little giggle and danced off towards Michelle, no longer seeming to mind that she had to sit next to a swot.
“Elizabeth Walker! The summer holidays have ended, do sit down!” Madame Sans-Espoir had entered the class room, and was glaring at Lizzy, who quickly plopped into the seat next to Michelle. The constant buzz that had filled the air ceased immediately. We were all just a little bit afraid of Madame Sans-Espoir. Of course, that was not her real name. Her real name was Mrs. Hope. But she kept telling us that we were hopeless at French, and so her nickname of Sans-Espoir came into being. She inspected us over the rim of her glasses.
“I don’t suppose there’s any hope that any of you spent the holidays in France?” she asked despairingly. “No? How about French-speaking Canada?”
Beverly Blake’s hand shot up. “We spent the entire holiday in Vancouver!” she announced proudly.
“Very good, dear.” Sans-Espoir’s glare fixed on her. “And can you name the earthquake that shifted Vancouver across to French-speaking Canada?”
“Oh.” Beverly’s shoulders slumped.
Marie-Clare Seymour raised her hand. “We were on the Canary Islands, and I spoke quite a bit of Spanish,” she offered.
Sans-Espoir’s eyes sliced across the room. “Who said that? Ah, Marie-Claire. Señora Vazquez will be very pleased. You can dazzle her with your brilliance in her next Spanish lesson. In the meanwhile, you can write me a nice little essay, explaining how speaking Spanish all summer will help you with your French lessons. You will write it in French, not Spanish. I hope the difference is clear?”
Madame Sans-Espoir took one more despairing look at her class, and then her eyes alighted on Selden. “Ah, yes, of course,” she said. “I’d forgotten we have a new student this year.” She gave him a probing look, as though scanning his brain for its content of French vocabulary. And then she spoke to him in rapid sing-song sentences that seemed to be commanding him to do something . . . something about telling us his name and where he was from . . . and something more. She spoke too quickly for me to catch the rest. Her eyes shone with cruel pleasure, as though she had just rediscovered a long unused form of exquisite torture.
I watched Selden out of the corner of my eye, wondering how he was holding up. To my surprise, he looked completely at ease, leaning back in his seat, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, his hands folded calmly before him on the table.
“Je m’appelle Selden,” he began.
Madame Sans-Espoir lowered her glasses to the tip of her nose. “Stand up,” she barked, obviously displeased with Selden’s overly relaxed manner. “And come here to the front of the classroom, so everyone can see you.”
Selden rose with unhurried elegance and walked around the desk. There was a playful arrogance to his movements, and I had to think of the proverbial jungle-cat-stalking-its-prey image, which our English teacher, Mrs. Thomas, had once used as a metaphor example. We watched, breathless, as he came to a stop barely a foot away from Madame Sans-Espoir. I wondered if she wasn’t beginning to regret her request for him to stand before the class. Selden was tall, I realised for the first time, a good head taller than Madame, and she had to look up, if she was to keep the challenging eye-contact she had established.
“Continue!” she ordered, looking away. “Tell us where you’re from and why you’re here. And then tell us how you’re enjoying Hong Kong.” She smirked. “I’m sure your French will be most delightful.” The tone of her voice suggested quite the opposite.
“Do you also want to know my star sign?” Selden asked.
I gasped, delighted by his nerve. Lizzy burst into giggles.
“Elizabeth Walker!” Sans-Espoir bristled. “You can go next, and tell us all about your holiday. IN FRENCH!”
Lizzy froze in her seat. All eyes were on Selden now, all except Madame’s, who no longer seemed to want to see the object of her torment. “Well, get on with it!” she commanded, waving a hand at Selden.
“Je m’appelle Selden,” he began again.
I realised I was holding my breath. I looked down at my interwoven fingers, not wanting to witness Sans-Espoir’s subjugation of the new boy, his oncoming struggle with the foreign language, or his resulting embarrassment. This was so unfair. It was Selden’s first lesson in a new school, and he had to spend it like this! If it were me, I would be wishing for the ground to split open and swallow me whole.
But as Selden continued speaking, my eyes rose to watch him. His voice was pleasantly rich, its mesmerising melody flowing over us all, drawing us in, compelling us to listen. It took a few heartbeats for me to realise that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. And then a triumphant smile dawned on my face: Selden was speaking in fluent French.
“How did you do that?” I asked him after the lesson.
“Do what?” he asked back.
“Speak French like that!”
He gave me a quizzical look. “I just explained that.”
I looked away, feeling stupid. Again. “You spoke too fast. I’m sorry.”
His smile was sudden, overwhelming. “Boarding school. Paris.”
“Oh! Amazing! I’d never have guessed, cause your English is so — well — English.”
“My father also sent me to boarding school in England.”
I stared at him.
“And now you’re thinking that he must hate me, sending me to boarding schools so far away. But you’re wrong.”
“No! I — ”
“He doesn’t hate me.”
“I didn’t — ”
“That would be far too strong an emotion for him to feel.”
“I — oh!”
He laughed at the confusion on my face. “So where are you from?” he asked, saving me the struggle of what to say next.
“Well, I was born in New Zealand,” I began. “But my parents are originally from England.”
“Really? What part?”
“Berkshire. Well, my Mum’s from Berkshire. My Dad’s from Yorkshire, but I’ve only been there once. When we fly to England, it’s Mum’s friends we go to, cause my Mum’s always homesick. She talks about returning home one day, and she means Summervale. My Dad would rather stay here. In fact, when Mum and I fly to the U.K., he hardly ever joins us.”
“So where does he go?”
“He stays here and works. He’s a journalist, a foreign correspondent. That’s why we were in New Zealand. And now we’re here.” Whew! I was obviously still nervous. I rarely prattled on in that way. I’d only just met Selden, and I’d told him more about my ancestry and my parents’ habits than I’d ever told any of my other school friends. Well, all in one go, and within a matter of seconds, that is.
“You must be Selden Durante,” a pleasant voice interrupted us. I looked up to see Mrs. Thomas standing in front of our desk. I hadn’t noticed her enter the class room, but then, Mrs. Thomas was known for her quiet ways, her gentle touch.
To my surprise, Selden rose respectfully from his seat. “I am,” he replied.
“I’m your class teacher, Mrs. Thomas. Welcome to Wordsworth International School.”
“Thank you.” Selden inclined his head slightly.
“You’ve chosen a good place to sit,” Mrs. Thomas continued. “I’m sure Mara will make certain you soon feel settled.” Mrs. Thomas gave me a warm smile, and I nodded to show her that I would be helpful to Selden. If I could.
And that was my first meeting with Selden. I had just turned sixteen.
Sixteen. So long ago. Another lifetime, another world. I sat up in bed, reached for my organiser, focused my thoughts on the upcoming week. I had to make that other world disappear. Now! Before I could board his yacht.
Too late. My bare feet were already on the plank. What pink toe nails I had. Seashell pink. I was reaching for Selden’s hand. It closed around mine and pulled me in. I struggled against him, grasping for safer memories. I had to have safer memories than the one of Selden flying past me, slicing a graceful arc through the air. I thought I had learned to drown that one out. But now it burst to the surface in full colour, vivid and detailed, alternating between fast-forward and slow-motion-replay: “Sayoonara, Mara!” he calls out, already half naked, from the prow of the boat; his muscles coil to spring and then release him; he takes off and flies into the hazy sun, leaving his brilliant white shirt to pool abandoned on the deck; a moment of breathtaking silence before he tears through the surface of the water; and then darkness.
Darkness, as though I’m the one submerged in the murky waves that had risen to meet him.
Gasping for air, I reeled in the memory, forced myself not to rush, as I had then, to the prow of the boat, sick with the hope of seeing his shadow flit through the water like a stealthy phantom. I flung back my duvet and jumped out of bed, dressing quickly. It was already approaching 10:00 o’clock. I had spent the past hour and a half lying awake, thinking of Selden! I was glad it was Saturday morning and I didn’t have to be somewhere punctually. Nevertheless, there was a lot I needed to get done.
I rushed to the kitchen, clean and tidy from my previous night’s efforts, and turned on the coffee machine.