Will Creaole's dreams live up to her expectations?
| Five ~ The difference between a job and an appearance
The only thing Creaole noticed as she entered the room was the golden light seeping through the curtains. She stared, mesmerised, oblivious to everything else. It was unlike anything she had seen, golden and warm and clean. It stung her eyes but she could not look away.
The rest of the room stretched away to Creaole’s right: two squishy cream sofas around an empty log-burning stove, the wall either side lined with empty bookshelves, then a small dining table and the room curled around out of sight, hiding the kitchen. Behind the dining table a pair of curtains stretched down to the floor concealing a set of glass patio doors that led out onto a small paved courtyard.
‘Can I open them?’ Creaole whispered, unable to tear her eyes away from the glowing curtains.
‘You could, but I do not think it is a good idea,’ said Darm from beside her. ‘Your eyes will need adjust slowly.’ Creaole grimaced, realising she was already squinting just from the halo behind the curtains.
She sighed but could not stay glum for long. The carpet felt incredible between her toes as she padded along behind Darm’s dark silhouette. The kitchen was modern, deep walnut in clean lines, a huge oven and a fridge-freezer taller than she was.
‘I’ve had the cupboards stocked, and arranged a weekly food delivery for you. You’ll have to keep an eye on the food in the fridge, things go off here.’ Creaole followed Darm’s gaze to the large humming machine, no magic cupboards here, she hoped Darm had ordered her favourites. Then Darm led her out of the kitchen through a glossy white door.
‘It is a two-bedroom place. I will not use my room but it is good for appearances.’ He pushed both doors open so Creaole could see inside. ‘That one has doors that open out onto the courtyard,’ Darm added as Creaole turned to the one on the left.
‘Then I will have this one.’ Creaole grinned and ran in to jump on the bed.
‘There should be some suitable clothes for you in the wardrobe.’ Creaole giggled, realising Darm had already known which one she would choose. ‘You will not like them, but they are what regular people wear.’ Creaole just nodded, too full of happiness to think about clothes right now. She lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. It was bathed in the golden light pushing its way through the thick curtains. Creaole thought it was possibly the most beautiful moment of her life so far.
‘Thank you so much, Darm.’ The shadowy angel nodded from his position in the doorway.
‘I will wait for you in the living area while you acquaint yourself with your new room.’
Creaole pulled herself into a sitting position and swung her legs down over the side of the bed.
‘May I suggest that you take a shower?’ Creaole began to pull a face but Darm cut her off. ‘I know it will take a while, but by then it should be evening, and the light will not damage your eyes.’ The pout melted from Creaole’s face, replaced slowly by a look of puzzlement.
‘Darm, are you going to go outside?’ Creaole knew she was not the most knowledgeable source on humans but she was pretty sure Darm was not a normal sight walking the streets.
‘You are correct to be concerned, but my appearance to regular humans is not as it is to you.’
‘Really? What do you look like?’ Creaole asked as she bounced herself off the end of the bed to investigate her new wardrobe.
‘An accountant.’ Creaole turned back to Darm, momentarily distracted.
‘I thought that was a job, not an appearance.’
‘There are many things for you to learn, Creaole.’ He turned and headed back to the living spaces.
Creaole watched him. He looked utterly out of place in the flat, too tall, too dark. The small space made him appear clumsy as his wings followed him up the short flight of stairs. But now was not the time to worry about Darm fitting in. He had magic to make himself look normal. She needed to do it the old-fashioned way. Grabbing a selection of clothes, she headed back to the bathroom.
Creaole hung her new clothes on the back of the bathroom door and mentally prepared herself for the ordeal of washing. Making her way into the shower, she shrieked as she twisted the tap and did not move out of the way fast enough, getting drenched with bitterly cold water.
‘Shower one, Creaole nil,’ she mumbled under her breath.
She stood in front of the sink and watched herself in the gently lit mirror as she removed things from her hair. One by one she placed them around the basin. Her pin first, then her spare light ball, the original design that was encased in a fine metal cage. She found a couple of hair grips and untangled a few of the most recent ribbons. Her hair sagged a bit but was generally pretty much the same as before. Creaole sighed at her reflection. Behind her the shower was beginning to steam but she was reluctant to get in. She knew she was dirty. She liked it that way because the natural colour of her skin was alien to the Gateway, too pale, too bright, too pure. But now she was in a different place. Here people were clean and bright, and she needed to be too.
Creaole grimaced and turned to face the shower, how bad could it be?
When she was finished she wrapped herself in one of the big fluffy towels and examined herself in front of the mirror a second time. The difference was striking even to her. Her skin was luminescent even in the soft light of the bathroom, a white that could only be achieved by never being exposed to the sun, her almond brown eyes big and round and bright against it. Her dark hair hung in wet waves down her back all the way to her hips now that the conditioner had worked its magic. She felt smaller without the height it gave her, and without the grime to fuzz out her edges she felt too in focus. Forcing herself away from the image, she pulled on her new clothes.
The top felt snug, and when she reached up it almost showed her stomach. Creaole tugged it back down over her new trousers, which were equally as unfamiliar, she had pulled them from the top of the pile without looking and they were ridiculously tight. Skinny-fit-jeans the label read, she wondered if Darm had picked them, and if so why. She hoped she would have a chance to pick her own ‘normal’ clothes soon.
Her hair was a problem. She twisted the whole length and wrapped it around itself on the back of her head, then shoved her pin into it to hold it in place and eyed her old ribbons. Suddenly they all seemed slightly grubby so she left them where they were for now.
Satisfied, she headed back into the living room. Darm was standing to one side of the fireplace, not lit at this time of year. He almost blended in against the shadowy bookcase behind. Almost, but there was still something about him that caught the eye as wrong.
‘What do you think?’ she asked, arms outstretched as she presented her new image, she chuckled at herself as she realised it was a silly question considering her audience. ‘I bet Shin wouldn’t recognise me.’
‘You look quite extraordinarily ordinary,’ Darm said with a nod, proving Creaole’s suspicion correct that he could in fact see perfectly well when he wished to. ‘Like a regular sixteen-year-old human.’
‘You might want those.’ He pointed to a pair of sunglasses on the table. Creaole slipped them over her face and was ready to face the world of humans.
Beep, beep, beep. A trio of shrill calls accompanied the red light that had flashed to life and begun to spin. They were surprisingly quiet beeps, and the light was disproportionately bright as it spun its beam around the sizeable room, skimming over banks of computers and row after row of monitors. On all but one screen images flashed over the surface. They were gone too fast for a human eye to see what they were, but the visual was just there to reassure the humans who watched over them. One monitor’s picture was stable, the edges of its screen flashing red in time with the spinning light.
A man wheeled himself into the room. He flicked the overhead strip lights on, casting his disfigured face in shadow as he hit a round red button with his good arm. The beeping stopped. The room returned to its earlier peaceful business, only the background hum of the massive computer bank breaking the silence. The man in the wheelchair pushed himself over to the screen that was still flashing red, staring at the image with hard eyes. Another man joined him, and rested his hands on the back of the wheelchair. They stared at the image together. It was poor quality, a small frame from a cheap CCTV camera, massively pixelated to even bring it to thumbnail size on the screen.
The beeping started again, this time on another monitor. The men left the button this time, ignoring the blinking sweep of red as they crossed to the next flashing screen. It showed another image, this one a little bigger, a little less pixelated, still unrecognisable. Another trio of beeping joined in, overlapping with the first, then another joined, and another, as monitors all over the room froze with an image framed in the centre of the screen.
‘Well, that’s never happened before,’ said the man in the wheelchair, his voice grating as if his throat was made of sandpaper.
‘I’ll let the others know.’ The tall man walked off, leaving his brother to stare at the images on the screen. Each new beep accompanied a picture that was a little larger than the last, a little clearer, bringing their goal a little closer.
Six ~ Technology causes some trouble
Creaole shifted her weight from foot to foot then glanced over her shoulder, checking to make sure someone was not following them, someone like the police, or anyone who might think that a seven-foot faceless man with wings would not be a suitable visitor for a school. Creaole’s head darted back around as the door they were waiting in front of finally opened.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr Plumviar, Creaole.’ A woman held the door open for them, smiling from Darm to Creaole in a way that confirmed that she definitely did not see what Creaole saw.
‘That’s no problem,’ Darm answered, his voice still the same even tone but his accent changed slightly. He sounded more like the woman who was leading them into the school –which Creaole had recently learnt was one of many, many, British accents – instead of what he usually sounded like, and apparently Creaole did too, which was as if he was Mediterranean and speaking English as a second language. It was all a bit confusing.
‘If you’ll just follow me.’ The woman who had opened the door led them through a hallway that showed off the age and achievements of the school. Creaole stared at the pictures on the wall, comparing them to the school from the leaflet she had in the Gateway. She wanted the leaflet school to win, but actually Saint Serenity’s seemed to be pretty good. The woman led them into a comfortably small room filled with a pair of sofas and indicated for them to sit.
‘I’m Miss Verily, the secretary here at Saint Serenity’s. I’ll just go and let Mrs Browneil know you’re here. Can I get you a drink of anything?’
‘No thank you, Miss Verily.’ Darm and Creaole both answered, and so they were left alone in the little waiting room. Darm arranged himself in front of a large window, staring out at the school gardens in silence. Creaole jumped onto one of the sofas, kicking her sandals off in one smooth motion. Shoes were her least favourite part of being normal.
The door opened and Darm turned to face the room as a much older woman entered. She was tall and slightly overweight, dressed in a smart brown skirt suit which Creaole thought was both hideous and impractical. However, she was quickly learning that ‘normal’ clothing was often both of these things. Creaole stood too and waited her turn to shake hands.
‘Good morning, Mr Plumviar, Creaole. It’s good to meet you at last. I am just sorry you come to us under such unfortunate circumstances.’ Creaole took the woman’s hand and hoped that her nerves might be interpreted as sorrow for the recent loss of her mother.
‘Right, I wanted to start with a brief tour of the school. I think it will be good to get you orientated, Creaole. Then we can get your exams over and done with. It’s unfortunate it’s all had to be a bit rushed. I don’t usually like my girls to sit them all in one day, but it will make fitting into classes much easier on Tuesday.’
‘I don’t mind doing them in one go.’ Creaole tried her best normal smile. Mrs Browneil flashed Creaole a tight smile in return, that did not reach her eyes, and Creaole noted that something she had just said was definitely classed as not normal.
‘If you’d like to follow me?’ said Mrs Browneil as she turned to leave in a twist of neat skirt suit.
‘Creaole,’ Darm whispered, and pointed back to where Creaole’s sandals sat empty under the seat she had just left. With a sigh, Creaole crossed back to them and slipped them onto her unhappy feet. She hated shoes.
Mrs Browneil kept the tour mercifully brief and there was no one in the classrooms to hold them up on their way around. The room she finally led them into was similar to the waiting room, but with tables instead of sofas.
‘Would you like to take a seat?’ Miss Browneil indicated a pair of chairs at one of the smaller tables. Creaole and Darm sat, and Creaole had to resist the temptation to stare at Darm whom she could not recall ever sitting. Now she knew why, because he looked quite ridiculous and Creaole had to suppress a giggle. For starters, he was massively oversized for the ornate chair. Secondly, the chair disrupted the fall of his wings. He had to hold them awkwardly up and over the back, leaving him looking like a bird that had made a hideous mistake and tumbled down a hill. Creaole focused back on Mrs Browneil, who had taken the seat opposite them and was squaring a small notebook on the table before her.
‘Now, Creaole, I know you were home-schooled back in Canada so I would just like to ask you a few questions about what you’d been learning.’
Creaole just nodded. She was having enough trouble not laughing without trying to speak as well. The smile that did not reach her eyes returned to Mrs Browneil’s face.
‘Could you tell me what subjects you studied?’ Creaole swallowed and took a deep breath. This was not going as planned.
‘My favourite subject is biology, so I’ve tended to focus on that recently.’ Mrs Browneil nodded and made a quick note. ‘I’ve studied chemistry and physics as well, maths sometimes, a bit of earth sciences.’
‘You mean geography?’ Creaole nodded. ‘What about history?’ Creaole shook her head. ‘Do you know any languages? French? Spanish? German?’
‘Erm … no, sorry,’ Creaole fumbled, shooting Darm a worried look.
‘My sister did not speak any other languages to pass on to Creaole,’ Darm cut in, trying to remind the woman of Creaole’s situation and get the meeting back on track.
‘Of course, of course. It’s just that further education is very competitive these days,’ Mrs Browneil said as she glanced up from her latest note, a condescending smile tightening her cheeks. ‘It is my opinion that a good language gives the girls of Saint Serenity’s an edge. English-speaking children are lax because they think everyone speaks English. That is not an attitude I encourage. I recommend intensive classes.’
‘That is up to Creaole,’ said Darm evenly. ‘I myself speak many languages. It was a hobby of mine in my youth, but as I said, Creaole’s mother only spoke English.’ Creaole shot Darm a scowl over her shoulder. If he spoke so many languages how come he had never taught her anything but English?
‘I am interested in learning everything,’ Creaole said quite truthfully, turning back to the headmistress and hoping to win favour.
‘What about religious studies and art?’ Mrs Browneil asked, looking back at her notes without even acknowledging that Creaole had spoken. Creaole stifled a sigh.
‘Erm … well I do some drawing in my spare time but I wouldn’t say I’m very good at it. I’m not sure I’ve come across religious studies?’ Mrs Browneil finally looked up again, fixing Creaole with a gaze that let her know, without a shadow of a doubt, that she had just said something very bad indeed.
‘Felicity was an atheist,’ Darm interjected quickly, with a note of finality that appeared to go over Mrs Browneil’s head.
‘I feel that learning about the diverse religions of this world makes children more understanding of people different from them, which is very important in these times. Perhaps when Creaole knows more she can make her own decisions.’ Mrs Browneil spoke with a smile but there was a purposeful edge to her voice as she fought to hide her deeper displeasure.
‘Creaole has always been free to learn as she wishes, and that diversity has bred a very open mind, even without the benefit of a mysterious and missing god.’ Darm’s tone hardly changed, but after years of living with his featureless face Creaole could hear the anger that tinged the edge of his words well enough.
Beneath her brown suit Miss Browneil bristled but kept her lips pressed tightly together.
‘Very well,’ she went on after a moment. ‘Finally, music and IT. I ask about IT as a formality, of course. Every child knows how to use a computer better than I do these days.’
‘Erm … a computer?’
The look on Mrs Browneil’s face was possibly more shocked than if Creaole had just explained she was from the Gateway.
‘You did say it was Canada you have moved from?’ Creaole nodded and Mrs Browneil continued to appear utterly flabbergasted. ‘Well sadly, these days it is important to be connected,’ she continued once she had collected herself. ‘A few of the teachers set homework and such through email. I will organise you some private sessions.’ She made a note on the pad in front of her. ‘Any musical tendencies?’
‘I’ve never tried, but I think I would like to learn.’ Learning an instrument would certainly be a good skill to have if she ever had to go back to the Gateway.
‘Very well, I will let Mr Temberley know to speak to you after your first class.’ Mrs Browneil scanned the notes she had made then turned to Creaole with a fixed smile. ‘So mostly you have focused on the core subjects?’
‘Yes, I found those most interesting, and I had the most books on them. I got some GCSE books this week just to check I hadn’t missed anything important. I haven’t, so you are fine to just concentrate on the stuff I haven’t covered.’
This did not go down as well as Creaole had hoped. Mrs Browneil pursed her lips and nodded.
‘I think I will be the judge of your standard, Miss Plumviar.’
Creaole’s face dropped as she realised, far too late, that all she had succeeded in doing was compound her problems.
‘Can I do the tests now?’ Creaole finished, trying to hide her frustration at making such a massive mistake so early on. But at least if Mrs Browneil had the results in front of her she would stop glaring at Creaole as if she was a piece of dirt, wouldn’t she?
‘Well, only if you think you need to, Miss Plumviar. Perhaps I should just take your word for it and put you in the top set. Everyone is predicted A-stars in set one. The pace is very fast.’
Ah, oh great, sarcasm, added Creaole to herself. This was definitely not going how she had hoped it would.
‘I think I had better just do the exams,’ Creaole answered dryly, trying not to scowl at the headmistress and mostly failing.
A few hours later Creaole clutched her final test paper in her hand and took a deep breath. She knocked on the door marked Headmistress Browneil in flourished gold lettering, and waited to be asked in.
‘Yes,’ Mrs Browneil answered from the other side.
Creaole pushed open the heavy door, squinting at the sudden burst of light pouring from the large window behind Mrs Browneil’s desk. ‘Have a seat please, Creaole.’
Creaole sat down opposite the headmistress, Mrs Browneil’s large desk between them. A strange machine that Creaole did not recognise but now suspected might be a computer sat at one side of the woman. She did not appear pleased.
‘This is my geography paper.’ Creaole put the paper on the desk between them. She noticed that her science paper was already there. Mrs Browneil was staring at Creaole, her chin resting on her hands and her elbows on the edge of the table.
‘So, Creaole, you definitely did not have a mobile phone with you for the tests?’ Creaole frowned. She understood what a phone was but the only one she had seen was back at the flat and it only worked within a twenty-metre radius of its cradle. Even so, she failed to see how it would help her. Who would she call that handily knew the answers to her test?
‘No?’ Creaole answered uncertainly, maybe she did have one in her bag and Darm just had not told her about it.
‘And if I asked you to empty your pockets I would not find one?’
Creaole peered down at her waist, wondering where exactly in her self-proclaimed skinny jeans Mrs Browneil was expecting her to keep a phone. The one at home was fairly chunky. Creaole stood up and pulled her jean pockets inside out, with some difficulty. Then she took the satchel she had brought to carry her pens and new purse and tipped it onto the floor.
‘Is any of that what you are after?’
Mrs Browneil’s frown deepened.
‘That was unnecessary Creaole.’
‘Well, I think it is unnecessary that you are being purposefully cryptic. I don’t have a phone with me and even if I did I still don’t understand how that could give me the answers as I don’t have anyone to call.’
‘You could call your uncle?’
‘He told you he’s left for a meeting. I’m hardly going to disturb him for the small matter of a test.’ Especially as even if Darm had a phone and knew the answers, which Creaole doubted, the chances of it working where he was were slim at least.
‘So you’re saying you had no help on this paper?’ Miss Browneil held up Creaole’s science paper, a reluctant ‘100%’ scrawled across the front.
‘Of course not. I told you, I’m good at science.’
‘This isn’t good Creaole, this is impossible.’
‘What?’ Creaole slumped back in the chair, meeting the headmistress’s gaze across the desk and wishing Darm had been able to stay.
‘It is impossible for a GCSE student to get 100 per cent on this test. I asked specifically that it be designed that way. There are A-level standard questions in here.’
Creaole rolled her eyes. ‘So then I’m A-level standard, whatever that means. Look, mark my other papers if it’s wrong answers that you want so much.’
Miss Browneil glared at Creaole.
‘Fine then, put me in the bottom set, as that’s clearly what you want.’
They stared at each other across the table, Creaole trying not to let her disappointment turn into tears. So far school had definitely not lived up to her expectations.
Finally, Miss Browneil sat forwards, leaning closer to Creaole. ‘If I find out you have cheated you will be expelled from this school immediately.’ She sat back, the hard lines of her face cast in shadows by the window behind her. ‘Do we have an agreement, Miss Plumviar?’
Creaole wanted to say No, just out of principle, but she kept her lips sealed and instead gave the woman a curt nod.
‘Very well, attend my office before registration on Tuesday. I will give you your timetable and tutor details.’
Creaole nodded again, and stood to collect her belongings from the floor.
‘Your shoes, Miss Plumviar.’ Mrs Browneil called across the office when Creaole was about to leave. Creaole grimaced before she turned back to fetch them, this was not turning out the way she had hoped at all.