Chapter Three: Rehearsals and Team Practices
Nicola, Tim and Lawrie are all in Lower IV A this year, along with Miranda, and Esther the new girl, and drippy Marie Dobson. I don’t think much of the academic standards at Kingscote if both Lawrie and Marie are in the top form. And could someone who understands the English education system explain to me about Lower and Upper Forms? In the secondary schools I went to (mostly in Australia) there was First Form to Sixth Form, or Year Seven to Year Twelve (roughly age 12 to age 18). At Kingscote, the twelve-year-olds are in Third Form, but does it then go Lower Fourth (age 13 years), Upper Fourth (14), Lower Fifth (15), Upper Fifth (16), Lower Sixth (17) and finally Upper Sixth (18 and doing A Levels)? So Rowan left after her Lower Sixth year, before she could do the final exams that would gain her entrance to university? And does one ‘form’ take a whole school year, or do pupils skip up to higher forms (eg moving from Upper Fourth to Lower or Upper Fifth) within a school year if they’re doing well? I’m a bit confused by the whole thing.
However, before Nicola and friends/enemies go to their first lesson, Miss Keith makes a dramatic announcement at assembly. The Christmas play, which she (“and I hope you children”) has always regarded as “an act of worship rather than just another school play”, will be performed in Wade Minster this year, by request of the Bishop, and the Minster choirmaster, Dr Herrick, will train the singers. So poor Miranda has even less chance of taking part.
Back in class, Miranda and Nicola bag seats at the front for themselves as well as for Tim, Lawrie and Esther, but their terrifying teacher, Miss Cromwell, has other plans and moves Lawrie to the back of the class. Miss Cromwell, who teaches maths, sounds interesting:
“People who disliked her and were frightened by her, said she was horribly sarcastic and had favourites and wasn’t fair a bit; people who liked her – a fairly strong minority – agreed she was all those things, and, perversely, liked her because of them, apparently finding her faults more stimulating than the conventional virtues of her fellows.”
Miranda and Nicola seem to be favourites already, because they’re both made form prefects. When Marie offers unwanted congratulatory pats-on-the-back to Nicola, Miss Cromwell disapproves loudly: “I will not have vulgar, undisciplined demonstrations of that kind in my form.” She also threatens “blood for breakfast” if anyone ever displays any bad manners. So that’s them told.
At break, Tim and Lawrie assert that Nicola ought to agree to swap places with Lawrie on occasion, but Miranda protests that it would never work and it would be mad for Nicola to antagonise Miss Cromwell over “such a feeble thing”. Tim is furious and storms off. Miranda and Tim seem to have appointed themselves guardians of one twin each, so I foresee trouble there.
The Christmas play is also causing conflict. The Authorities are moving cast members in, out and round about, but “the basis of approval or otherwise remained a mystery”. If the teachers are trying to reward good behaviour and/or punish bad behaviour, in the hope of improving moral character, it would be helpful if the pupils had at least a vague idea of which behaviour of theirs was being rewarded or punished.
Then Dr Herrick further complicates matters by wanting pupils who can actually sing in his choir and he holds an impromptu audition. It turns out he was the judge of the singing competition that Nicola almost won during the summer, and when he sees Lawrie, he thinks Lawrie is Nicola having a bad day (“You have an excellent voice … What was the matter this afternoon? Have you a cold?”). Lawrie, who is terrible at singing, feels humiliated at being relegated to the angel who walks silently beside Nicola (“I don’t want to have to do anything, just because I look like Nick.”) Mind you, I’m not really sure why Lawrie should be so terrible at singing when she’s Nicola’s identical twin. Surely they have identical larynxes and vocal tracts, and it’s not as though Nicola has achieved her voice through training – and Lawrie is good at imitating voices, so she must have good auditory perception. This identical twin-ness is sometimes vitally important, sometimes completely ignored, depending on what’s happening with the plot, but I’m willing to go with the flow on this matter.
Lawrie does have the consolation of probably getting onto the Juniors netball team. It seems Nicola will be Centre and Captain, and that Miranda and Esther are also good players. Unfortunately, Lois rears her evil head and overhears Lawrie and Nicola joking about not having Marie in their team when Nicola is Captain. Lois is fully aware they’re joking but:
“Still, because she had injured Nicola, and Nicola, unlike Lawrie, refused to forget, she naturally preferred to think badly of her.”
So Lois broods about it until she feels “full of a fine and righteous indignation” and decides to tell all the other Sixth Formers a distorted version of the truth – until she catches Janice watching her with “the cool appraising eye of someone who knows a piece of fiction when she hears it and wonders just what’s behind it.”
Then Nicola is late one day to netball training because another teacher has kept her back, and Lois is foul about that, too, so things aren’t looking very good for Nicola’s netball hopes.
I must say, Antonia Forest is doing an excellent job of switching between the Christmas play and netball plots, breaking off at just the right point to keep me turning pages eagerly to see what will happen next. Back to the Christmas play now and Dr Herrick continues to choose his cast based on singing talent rather than Miss Keith’s arbitrary decisions about Moral Character. Miranda listens to the class discussing cast changes and says enviously that “doing it in the Minster sounds gorgeous. Anyway, I never see why I’m not in it, actually.” After all, she points out, practically all the characters in it were Jewish.
Everyone is flabbergasted, but reluctantly admit that she’s correct – except for Lawrie, who refuses to accept that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were Jewish.
Now, I know Lawrie is a bit dim, but honestly, how could she possibly think they were Christian before Christ was even born?! I mean, that’s the whole point of Christmas! She’s from a Church of England family, so presumably was christened as a baby and has gone to church and scripture lessons. Miss Cromwell comes in at that point and they end up discussing “the Balfour declaration and the Jewish refugees from Europe” and how “the Jews, those who wish to, are returning to Palestine … Because historically it is their native country.”
Lawrie eventually agrees with Miss Cromwell, although only out loud:
“But naturally, it couldn’t be true. Obviously they’d been Christians … But she’d remember to say Jews in future.”
Let me remind you that Lawrie is in the top academic class for her year at Kingscote.
Lawrie also manages to infuriate placid Ann by making fun of the new carols: “See the tender lamb appears, promised from eternal years … It always reminds me of school dinners.”
Apparently Ann is “one of those peculiar people – a few did exist – who took the Christmas play seriously.”
Come on, Ann, that tender lamb joke was pretty funny. Christians are allowed to have a sense of humour.
Next, Chapter Four, Altogether Unexpected.