The rain had stopped.
However briefly, the rain had stopped. Droplets of rainwater glistened in the late afternoon sun, shimmering rainbow colours. Puddles dotted the quiet road, gutters overflowing. Other than the odd umbrella-wielding individual or screeching car, the streets surrounding Lavender Hill Secondary were empty and grey.
One of the unfortunates on the pavement folded away her red umbrella, eyes firmly fixed on the ground. The new uniform itched, she was exhausted after a long ride in the car and she had a terrible suspicion her shoes were the wrong way round. Peering at her reflection in a puddle, the girl shuddered. She could barely bring herself to look up at her new school.
The driver, emerging from the front seat, patted her on the shoulder. "You'll be just fine, Kate," he reassured her, wheeling her suitcase onto the pavement.
Kate shook her head. It had been almost a year since she had been to school. Everything was so alien. "I'll try," she responded, though she choked on the words. Sensing her discomfort, the driver withdrew into the car and drove off without another word.
So Kate stood alone on the street. The school was so high up, perched at the top of a hill, with what seemed like a thousand stone steps for her to climb. The grassy hill had been reduced to a quagmire with the constant rain. She could only just make out the shapes of buildings at the top – there was a main building, she knew, and then a whole separate construction where the students lived during their free time. At present none of the students could be seen; presumably they were in their lessons.
Shivering and pulling her coat closer around her shoulders, Kate wondered for the thousandth time how she had got here. How had she chosen this school above all the others? She rolled her eyes as it came back to her:
"Look, we'll be here all night if we have to."
Kate looked up from the spangled paperweight she had been rolling about in her lap. The clock had struck nine; she had been sitting in the same chair for three hours. The same papers lay in front of her, the same health posters gleamed at her from the walls, and the same chirruping young woman sat in front of her.
"Just tick a box, Kate." Exactly one year ago, being without any relatives she could live with, Kate had been taken into care. Now the day it was time for her to go to boarding school, and she was faced with the tedious task of choosing where she would go. All the schools on the leaflet before her looked the same – cold, grey and painfully dull.
Kate's wondering hazel eyes landed on the notice board. There was a shopping list, a prescription for some pills, and a photograph of two smiling girls. It took her a moment to realise they were wearing school uniform.
"Them," she demanded. "What school are they at?"
The woman frowned. "My nieces. They go to... Lavender Hill, I think it's called."
It sounded like a school for Barbies. Nevertheless, it looked more hopeful than the other options open to her, and she was desperate to get out of that chair. "They look happy. I'll go there."
More frowns. "Are you sure? It's miles away."
Kate curled up in the chair, stacking the papers and crossing her arms. "Even better."
Looking back, Kate realised this had been a pretty stupid idea. Now she had seen the school, her spontaneous decision had clearly been a bad one. The school looked like a castle, and not a fairytale castle either. There was probably a dungeon. A dragon too, and an old lady in the attic. The sombre grey stone was streaked with dirt, and the grim slit windows gave no view of the rooms within.
A bell rang somewhere. Kate jumped as the sound of running feet reached her ears. The noise reached a crescendo and the first uniform-clad students spilled from the front porch, shouting and screaming and swearing. Comforted at least by the realisation that life actually existed beyond the walls of the school, Kate heaved her bags onto her back and grabbed the handle of her suitcase. It was a long way up, and she was hungry.