From A Year in a Golden Cage
There was a lot to get used to: new colleagues, a new home, a new job, a new country.
On the third day there was a party. The invitation was informal and welcoming, especially after the pressure of meetings and the business of finding out where things were. Jill found the invitation in their pigeonhole, their cassier she was now learning to call it.
She stood in the late summer sunshine, comfortable in t-shirt and shorts. She had never known a term that started like this before, no kids to be seen and time to pass the time.
“Oh, hi. You must be Jill – I’m Bunnie, in Paul’s department.” The younger woman held out a hand. “Bunnie and Mike Collins, three small kids, apartment over there.” Bunnie pointed somewhere out of the building then she looked at the card. “Oh, Duncan. He does like to meet the newcomers.”
“Where does he live?”
“Next building, top floor, right at the end.”
Once you got into the building and reached the top floor it was difficult not to find the party. There were two ways in, one via a fire escape where people leaned with their drinks over a handrail and watched others arriving. The kitchen had been turned into a bar and a tall, thickset man welcomed them. He was wearing a floral apron over beach shorts.
“Hello there, I’m Donald.” He held both hands up, open wide as if to say what’s mine is yours. “What would you like?”
“G and T.”
“A beer please.”
He pointed Paul in the direction of a stack of cans then lifted a bottle of gin from the middle of the worktop and found a glass. He concentrated hard as he poured the drink and made much of handing it to Jill.
“Not too strong I hope.” She smiled.
“I’ll manage.” They laughed and Paul returned.
“This is nice.” He looked around. “Do you have parties like this every week?”
“At least twice.” They laughed again. He almost meant it.
“What about the kids?”
“All noise mostly. No idea how to party. We ought to run classes for them, show how it should be done.”
People were still arriving. The Coopers had started to move away when a slightly built woman squeezed past into the kitchen area; Jill noticed something proprietorial about the way she stood there amongst the drinks.
“Hi. Yolande Clements.” She held out a hand to Paul. “Roy’s back in the apartment, settling the kids. He’ll try and put in an appearance later.”
“Paul and Jill Cooper.” Jill too was allowed to shake hands.
“Let me see that Donald’s organised then I’ll come talk to you.”
A tall American lady smiled a welcome. Paul had sat near her at a meeting the day before. He had been aware of her clear, careful French and the way other teachers had listened to her. This evening she was almost wearing a party frock and you would never, he had already decided, you would never refer to her simply as a woman. This was a lady.
“Hello again. My wife, Jill. Jill this is Mary who took care of me yesterday.”
“Hi Jill. You two getting settled?”
“Sort of. Waiting really, for the kids to arrive.”
“Don’t you worry about the kids – they’ll arrive soon enough.” She looked at Jill’s small glass which was still half full, then at Paul’s empty hand. “Come on, I’ll get you another beer.”
The room filled and the Coopers spent much of the time in separate conversations, conversations about previous jobs, about holidays, about visits home – most of the staff here were from the UK, and gossip, former colleagues who had walked out or just moved on. For a while there was some fitful dancing. Donald tried to get as many of the women as he could to dance but found only Yolande was sufficiently bothered to stay on her feet. Then a group of them had made their way out onto the balcony from where they had watched the last of the light on the lake and seen the darkness of the French mountains across the water. Back inside there were their new friends and their easy talk.
Later they stepped into Donald’s hallway with another English couple, Andy and Penny Johnson. They had looked for Donald to say goodbye but he was not to be found. Behind them the sounds of conversation continued and, for a moment it seemed very quiet where they were standing. Andy stepped forward to pull open the outer door of the apartment which led out into the empty boarding house. Paul followed. Then, to the left of them, there was the beginnings of a sound, the creak of some furniture and then two voices screamed out on the brink of some discovery. For a fraction of a second Paul thought their attention was being drawn to this excitement and he took a step into the doorway on their left.
They had found Donald. There was no doubt it was their host – the Scots voice and the light he had left on saw to that. From what he could see of the woman beneath him, it was the slight and lithe Yolande. It was the one failure of politeness that evening for neither performer took the trouble to acknowledge their audience. Paul turned away from the doorway and left Donald to pump away. Behind the others he pulled the door to before they all folded with laughter.
Penny Johnson spoke first.
“Don’t think this is compulsory at staff parties, it’s just Donald being his exhuberant self.”
“Didn’t Yo, er Yolande say her husband was hoping to get along?”
“Just words, Paul, just words for the form of the thing. It’s just their way.” Andy shrugged his shoulders. “Not most people’s.”
They had reached the outer door of the building now and turned to go their separate ways. Penny spoke again.
“Donald’s got a good heart so people don’t condemn him. If it wasn’t him, it’d be someone else. That’s how folk have to be around here. If it doesn’t affect you, leave well alone.” Paul thought back to the pleasure he had just touched against and tried to remember the name of the woman’s husband. Some sort of understanding he supposed but he found it hard to appreciate. Penny continued. “They’re just like a lot of the kids really; never seem to get jealous over their private lives.”
“Hope the kids keep their lives more private than those two.”
There was more laughter then the two couples said their goodnights and went their separate ways.
Paul had seen the place once, when he had flown out for the interview. They had heard of the place but did not really know much about it until he had returned with an offer of a job. By the time the two of them had driven out from England at the end of August, Jill had agreed to take on a girls’ boarding house. They were going to live in an apartment there anyway.
After breakfast on the first morning, Liz the nurse had taken Jill over to the sanatorium. They sat in a large room with cupboards and a chest of drawers, Jill in a reclining chair and Liz folded neatly onto an office chair behind her desk.
“Not meant to be formal, it’s just easier like this.”
“That’s ok.” It was all so strange and yet all right. None of the kids had returned and the quiet of the place was disturbing somehow; Jill remembered visiting an abandoned zoo. There was much to find out.
“Looks really quiet now, but you wait till classes start, not when they first get back. No, once classes start they’ll all be over here first thing after breakfast with colds and headaches, asking for notes.”
“Don’t they call you out before then, during the night if they’re really ill.”
“No. Illness rarely bothers them at night. It’s first thing in the morning if they’ve forgotten homework or want a pill.”
“A pill? Not the morning after pill?”
“Wish it was the morning after pill.”
This was all rather new. Girls away from home, was that the problem? She thought of her own grown-up daughter, back in England.
“Why? Do they come in if they’ve slipped up?” Liz shook her head.
“No. that’s the problem. It’s usually me – I notice them putting on weight, or being sick. Too late then, so it’s off home for some family reason. Parents don’t say much. All dealt with very quietly.”
“And the school? Don’t they worry about that sort of thing?”
“They don’t like it, but they prefer not to make a song and dance about it, especially with this lot – there’s not much you can do about it – they’ve got to have some freedom and they’re buggers for getting their own way.”
Jill was still surprised by the nurse’s matter of fact approach.
“Doesn’t anybody care about what they get up to?”
Liz turned to a chair to one side and handed over a glossy magazine.
“Most of them read this – some try to live like it. Celebrity, like a drug for some of them. Anyway, you think the kids don’t care – you wait until you see some of the staff in action.”
She flicked the magazine away, back onto the pile.
“Keeps them quiet when they’re waiting to see me. Horrible rubbish, but they won’t read much else.”