Chapter 6: EDWINA
"I just knew this school would have to have a mad professor," Penny observed breathlessly as the twins raced to a geography lesson they were not looking forward to, especially as they had left their school books in the library.
"Your classroom is just along there, marked 'XXVII' on the door," their fourth year guide said. "If you hurry, you'll just make it in time. Brisket is a notoriously slow starter. Don't worry, I'll get your books and holdalls from the library and pass them in to you. Better to turn up at class shoeless than late I always say," the boy winked and departed for the library without further ado.
"What a difference between fourth years and third years," Penny added once they were alone again. Peter did not respond. His mind was still in a whirl about the mad professor and the scientific significance of St Spiritus. He was more than a little impressed with the man's enthusiastic speech and was pleased he would be teaching them at some point, looking forward to those lessons somewhat more than the impending hour of Pewter geography.
For Penny however geography suddenly became her favourite lesson. As soon as she entered the cramped room XXVII with its walls covered in faded maps and diagrams of glacial flows and segmented river courses she caught sight of the mysterious redhead slumped over a desk right at the front of the class. This was the first time she had seen her in class.
"Hi," she ventured a greeting and smiled as she passed the desk, but the girl did not move. Her glasses were askew and she seemed oblivious of her surroundings as if half-asleep. Another late night perhaps?
Mr Brisket paused in writing his name with painful slowness on the blackboard as he spotted the twins enter - he had reached as far as 'Brisk' - and waved the new arrivals impatiently to a couple of desks at the back of the class. Sandy gave them a thumbs up as they weaved among the bored looking pupils already assembled.
Penny ended up sitting next to the brooding tortured soul that was Taureus Finndark. He frowned at her in acknowledgment as she sat and then resumed scowling at the teacher, long arms folded tightly and long legs stretched to one side of his desk. Peter stepped over them to reach his own seat.
"Missed anything?" he asked conversationally.
"That board has depths few can fathom," Finndark said. "No matter how much the teacher writes on it, the lines of chalk are a pitiful weapon against the great black gulf that is the board before us."
"Yeah," Peter replied, deciding no further comment necessary.
Phoebe Scattermole, who sat next to Peter, looked suitably impressed by this observation however, and positively shivered when she saw Brisket complete his name with a flourish of pale lemon chalk. It looked so feeble and dim surrounded as it was by such profound blackness, swallowed up within it almost, she realised.
"Ooh," she breathed and fidgeted with her orange tie a moment.
Penny peered at the board too and saw the name 'Brisket' and a few remains of lines, ghost lines of a previous lesson only half scrubbed off the well used blackboard. Other than that, it seemed much like every other flat piece of wood painted with a dark matt finish.
The teacher introduced himself, hitching up his waistcoat with both thumbs, and was about to launch into his introductory speech as to what Pewter Group Geography Year 2 entailed when the fourth year monitor entered unannounced and delivered the Thurwell holdalls to their respective owners, both of whom were overwhelmingly grateful. A silent nod and he departed with an impressive air of authority, making no apology for interrupting Brisket in his geographical oration.
Peter checked to see if his snacks were all there and Penny pulled out her text books. Then she settled back in her seat, not to concentrate on what the teacher was saying, but to watch the girl with red hair at the front of the class.
Someone had tossed a small crumpled piece of paper at her at some time during the day and it remained entangled in her long hair, undisturbed and unregarded. Penny was sure she had not moved during the whole time she had been there.
Penny had earlier come to the conclusion this strange girl was one of those swotting little geniuses who were brilliant at every subject and would be given special tutoring rather than join the plebian world of classrooms and pupils. Not so geography it seemed and the redhead continued to slouch sleepily at the front, not attending to anything, answering no questions, deep in slumber even.
Finndark nudged Penny none too gently. The teacher was talking to her and she sat up with a jolt.
"Yes sir?" she squeaked.
"I was asking if by any chance you knew where Budapest might be located," the man said glumly, peering at her through dusty bifocals.
"Japan," Penny shot back without thinking. There were a few sniggers and Finndark scowled at her. "I mean," she stuttered, "they worship Buddha there, don't they? In Japan, that is..."
The clatter of a falling ruler distracted the mounting ire and contempt of the teacher and he turned to face the culprit.
Amid laughter the redhead snorted herself awake for it had been her ruler that had accidentally slid off the desk. She looked around owlishly, giving the impression of wondering how she had got where she was.
"Ah, our star pupil has decided to join us at last," Brisket sneered as the girl wiped saliva off her lower lip and adjusted her thick glasses. The laughter became general when she yawned expansively. Even Finndark managed a cough.
"Edwina Littlebrain," the teacher declared, "if you think you know all of this already, that does not give you the right to turn up for my class half dead. It was agreed you could attend during your free period, though for what purpose I for one cannot fathom, so the least you could do is show me some respect."
"Sorry sir," came a thick, snuffly voice and the girl picked up her ruler. This apology seemed to mollify the little man somewhat and he let her slide back into her dozing posture again as he resumed firing random questions at pupils to gauge what little knowledge they might have of the world around them.
Penny was deeply grateful for the distraction engineered with such perfect timing by the curiously named Edwina Littlebrain for Brisket seemed to have overlooked her less than adequate response. Wesley got stung with a question on the largest island in the Mediterranean. Even Penny knew Monte Cristo was so not it.
Penny's attempts to introduce herself to the sleepy redhead at the end of the lesson were thwarted as the ever helpful monitors swooped down on the pupils crowding with others in the adjoining corrider. Everyone was divided up as usual and the redhead disappeared among a flock of rather po-faced scholars for her next lesson, whatever that might be.
The remaining classes before lunch passed uneventfully by, except when during a Pewter Physics class where the triple properties of water were explored Phoebe Scattermole broke into screaming hysterics and had to be escorted to the sick room in the East Tower. As she was led away she kept muttering about something cold and slimy crawling determinedly down the back of her loose fitting blouse. Everyone looked suitably shocked by the incident, except one scowling youth who almost cracked his thin lips into a jagged toothed smile.
"The properties of ice hold emotions in thrall as much as harming the flesh," he declared during the interruption. Mr Parflake agreed but emphasised the study of temperature changes on moods would not be pursued until Year 3. Thus the lesson continued until lunchtime.
With part of the dining hall cordoned off as work continued on fixing the fallen chandelier, pupils once more poured into the colourful and festive space for lunch, unperturbed by danger, appetites undiminished after a long morning of absorbing crucial knowledge that was to fit them for life, or so their various teachers liked to emphasise.
Starving, Penny sat at her table with a tray full of food. Never had she felt so hungry. Never had carrots looked so crunchingly orange and delectable, peas so green and round and glossy, begging to be popped into the mouth and squished between teeth. Never had roast potatoes oozed with so much rich juiciness or seemed so full of starchy goodness. And for afters! How could she describe the bread pudding with raspberry jam, so soft and sweet with milky wholesomeness.
Her ecstasy was interrupted by the sarcastic sound of her brother's voice as he nudged her, for naturally he chose a seat next to his twin sister at every opportunity.
"Look, there's that weird girl you've been obsessing over since forever," he said with a sneer. Then his eyes widened in alarm. "Don't look now, she's coming right over to our table."
And so she was. An empty seat beckoned invitingly and the girl, absorbed in her own thoughts and with a fixed smile upon her freckly face, manoeuvred her full tray safely past occupied places, swooping over a ducking first year, and claimed the spot right opposite the twins.
"Uh, hi," Penny said hesitantly and then fell silent as the bespectacled redhead plonked herself down with a sigh of relief, for the tray seemed dangerously overburdened. Now Penny was able to speak to her, tongue-tying shyness seized upon her and she resumed her meal in mute frustration.
The girl made herself comfortable on her seat, flicked a knot of red hair over one shoulder, adjusted her glasses with minute precision before surveying the food before her. Then as if recollecting herself she looked up.
"Oh hi," she said in a softly apologetic voice. "Nice lunch today, isn't it? I love carrots."
"That's 'cos-ow! Mind your big feet sis," Peter winced.
Penny had already begun her pudding and paused in spooning a fluffy mouthful between her lips to give her thoughtless sibling a warning stare. We're new here, her eyes told him, so it's important to make friends. Once again the twins conversed rapidly with an almost telepathic understanding of each other's moods and thoughts. Peter nodded at his sister's advice, imperceptibly adding a postscript. You make friends, this one's all yours.
While they were absorbed in this silent exchange the redhead looked from one to the other of the twins as if listening to a verbal conversation and when it was obvious they had finished she tucked into some Yorkshire pudding with a relish.
"How are you finding school, I mean, being new here?" she asked with polite maturity once her first mouthful was chewed and swallowed. "I know you're twins, everyone does, and they probably envy you. No best friend could ever be as close as a twin."
"School's nice enough," Penny replied, impressed by the pleasant manner of the girl. "Sometimes it's a bit weird, spooky even, but nicer than our old school which had thousands of kids screaming and running all over the place."
"Now fewer of them scream," Peter interrupted sarcastically. Penny ignored him, keeping her eyes on the redhead who simply blinked at her brother's comment.
"I mean, it's more cosy and family-like here," she continued. "Everyone can get to know everyone, eventually. I'm Penny Thurwell by the way, and my goofy twin brother's called Peter."
"Edwina Bunce," the girl responded between slices of gravy-drenched carrots. It appeared the geography teacher had been sarcastic in his anger earlier when he named her name. She looked at the lapels of both of them. "You're Willows," she said and seemed surprised. On her lapel was clearly displayed an enamel badge which glistened with a golden acorn, the fruit of the mighty oak. "You'll have Skypole as form master then. Be careful of him. He's a very strange man."
"He seems okay," Penny observed, feeling no Willow loyalty to him. "So, what's with the trees for form names?" she added hastily, deflecting the subject.
"Academic segregation," the redhead replied, carefully dividing a huge roast potato into manageable size. "Oaks are the top group, the king of trees, then pines, evergreen and ever trying to excel, and finally, uh... willows."
"Which do nothing but droop and weep I suppose," Penny finished the description with a huff. Willows were bottom of the academic ladder. The form was where all the dunces went. "Dare I ask," Penny pursued in uneasy tones, "why so many of my classes are 'Pewter' groups?"
"Gold, silver, bronze and uh... Pewter," the redhead explained, staring hard at her food. It was explanation enough. "Michaela Anzabada is head pupil of the second year," she then added without prompting. "She's the only person who is in the gold group for all her classes and gets to wear a really pretty golden star as a reward."
She indicated a dark-skinned girl some way off down the long table in earnest conversation with a teacher opposite her. Her uniform glittered as she moved and she looked like a Nubian princess. Penny immediately wanted to hate her and her golden favour but there was such an exotic beauty about the young girl she found herself a little in awe of her.
"We know you're not in all the gold classes," Peter said as he polished off his creamy pudding with a relish and rattled the spoon into the empty bowl. "Saw you snoozing in Pewter geography with Mr Brisket," he declared with an odd sort of triumph.
"Oh, that was a free period for me. Had some sleep to catch up on. Such a tiring few days at the start of term. Besides Timothy really likes geography so I promised I'd let him in."
This odd explanation made Peter think the girl kept a pet mouse in her pocket, a mouse eager to learn about rivers and mountains.
A first year was sitting next to Edwina and as he vainly pursued some peas on his plate with a fork she reached over and gently dented the errant green things with a dessert spoon so they rolled no more.
"Neat," the boy declared by way of thanks. "You're not a third year are you, 'cos you're way too nice."
"I intend to be one next year, come what may," she said with a slightly regretful sigh and gave the boy one of her potatoes for he had finished all of his.
"So, Edwina," Peter began again, feeling a little provoked by the persistant oddity of the girl. "Pretty obvious why you're so tired. I mean staying up all night, wandering around the school and talking to yourself." He looked smug as he said this. "You know what they say, that it's the first sign-"
"Oh, I wasn't talking to myself," the redhead replied brightly, oblivious of Peter's insinuation and immediately aware of what he was referring to. "Timothy and I were catching up after the summer holidays. I hadn't seen him for six weeks you know."
"We didn't see him at all," Peter muttered, turning his attention to a can of drink to end his meal with. Suddenly he had had enough of that conversation and of mad Edwina Bunce.
Penny though was intrigued. Twice a boy's name had been mentioned.
"Who's Timothy?" she asked as casually as she could, trying not to seem too nosy.
"My familiar. He used to sweep crossings and act as a road damper."
"What's a road damper?" Penny could feel Peter was paying attention again too as he slurped on his fizzy cola noisily.
"Oh, it's so fascinating!" Edwina squealed with unexpected enthusiasm. "He told me all about it. Long ago before roads were covered in tarmac, they used to get so horribly dusty in the dry season people would run about with buckets and rags and sprinkle water on them to keep the dust down. It was dangerous work."
"Timothy's a ghost silly!" Edwina blurted out in her excitement, then looked as if she regretted saying what she had. Straightening up, she took on a more solemn air. "He died in 1849," she added with a sniff.
"And you speak to him?" Penny looked over at her brother as he foamed a little at the mouth when choking on his drink. At the mention of the word ghost his eyes had glanced to the ceiling in disbelief. Penny frowned at this. Serves you right, Peter's facial expression bounced back at her, this one is all yours remember.
"Of course," Edwina responded in more subdued fashion. "I'm his mundane contact. He chose me last term, before you came of course. Isn't that nice?" she added more brightly at the end. There was a fragility in her confession that struck Penny as interesting. Perhaps before Timothy the ghostly damper chose her, Edwina Bunce had not a single friend in school.
The first year, having overheard some of this conversation, disappeared quickly, without finishing his pudding.
"How did he die?" Penny found herself asking, drawn against her will into this sad tale.
"Run over," the redhead said, frowning slightly. She was toying with a bowl full of peaches and custard, obviously debating with herself whether she should say more. "All that road sweeping and stuff was bound to end in tragedy," she eventually said, having determined to unburden herself of the story. Her expression became deliberately grim. "He told me how he lay there, listening to the sound of his bones breaking as carriage wheels rolled right over him. Then something happened." She looked up and magnified tears glistened behind her glasses as she spoke. "He lost interest in the pain, as a greater tragedy called him to this place on the edge of the moors."
Penny shuddered, pushing her pudding away. Suddenly she had lost interest too, the gruesome imagery destroying her appetite.
~ ~ ~
Peter could not conceal his smugness later on that day in the second year common room after the evening meal. Having felt humiliated by the turnip incident he wanted some payback. The completely insane redhead provided him with endless opportunities to rib his devoted sister on the subject.
"Too much brains, see?" he had explained to her between 'Pewter' lessons as they wandered at the heels of monitors along echoey, sing-song corridors. "We stupid Willows have a more realistic, down to earth approach to life and things. We're practical," he declared, remembering the speech of Speculus.
As usual the twins were sat together, occupying a three seater sofa between the great window alcoves, and Penny had lapsed into glum silence after her brother's latest jibe. Edwina Bunce was nowhere to be seen, so Peter also eventually fell silent, absorbed in his thoughts as second years all around him chattered away happily.
No one seemed overly bothered by the strangeness of the place. Probably they got it out of their system as first years. Sandy had mentioned raggings and initiations for newcomers, which he himself had survived. With the exception of the nervous Skypole, the staff seemed to take it all in their stride as well. Especially Speculus, who actually embraced the unnatural atmosphere of the old school, applying a sort of scientific analysis to any weirdness. Peter warmed to the man, admiring his attitude. He would endeavour to follow such precepts in his investigations into hidden treasure, the suspicious activities of Amos Pulp, the arrogant caped man and others, as well as cold spots and mysterious rooms like the one in the third year science wing. Peter squirmed in anticipation of plans of action with his friends and their as yet nameless secret investigative society.
Not far away, sat in his own chair, Sandy Ebrington closed a comic book and looked up, noting Penny's apparent gloominess and realising with delight that there was actually an empty seat next to her on the sofa where the twins had settled themselves for the evening. He decided instantly that emptiness should be filled and the gloominess of the blonde girl lifted by witty conversation of a sort only he could provide. Before he could twitch a muscle in the direction of the sofa another person beat him to the spot. He huffed noisily and re-opened the comic which he had already read a hundred times.
A rustle of ribbons and a tangy perfume distracted Penny's thoughts and Priscilla Pickles plonked herself none too gracefully on the unclaimed cushiony seat.
"Do you remember that strange to do at lunch time yesterday?" she said by way of opening a conversation, as if anyone was likely to forget the incident. "I spoke to mumsie on the phone about it and she thought there was nothing to be bothered about. Well really! You could probably have heard that crashing light thing all the way to the moon. And those poor little doggies, screaming their heads off just before. Very creepy! And you know what? I just got back from watching some thirdies dangle a little boy over the stairwell for saying the doggies were superpowered or something. One big lad with messy hair and an appallingly tied tie, the knot was all wrong, patiently explained how in error the upside down boy was. The dogs howled because they could hear the metal braces of the lights about to snap. Straining metal gives off this high-pitched noise only animals can hear and the poor little creatures were frightened, not knowing where it came from. If they do it again I for one won't be so put out by it. Don't they predict earthquakes as well, or something?"
This excited speech, as usual said with barely a pause for breath, made Penny stare at Priscilla a moment and then she slumped even deeper into her cushioned seat with a growling kind of sigh. Peter leaned over his sister on the sofa, for she was in the middle, and looked fixedly at Priscilla also.
"What?" the scrutinised girl said, growing nervous. "Have I tied my tie wrongly?"
"She's a Pine," Peter announced, noting the badge on the girl's blouse. "Evergreen and ever trying," he added, sitting back with a laugh. The day was just getting funnier and funnier. A deeper gloom settled upon his sister's brow in proportion to his merriment.
Unable to hear what was happening on the most interesting sofa in school, Sandy was equally gloomy, and his mood took a further nose dive when he saw Wesley McShane saunter with purpose towards the twins, evidently delivering another message.
"Why doesn't anyone ever ask me to deliver messages?" he grumbled, returning again to the increasingly crumpled and dog-eared comic.
Penny looked up at the robust flaxen-haired Scot in a more friendly manner this time and the boy handed her a note. She read it and frowned. Skypole had written he needed his torch and only now remembered it was left on his desk in the Willow form room. For some reason he had chosen Penny to be the one to fetch it for him.
"He wants me to do this now?" she said, anxiety mounting at the prospect of a trek across distant passageways to the isolated and empty room.
"Aye, for why I cannot say, but the form master insisted it was a wee bit urgent, he having some meeting to attend and all."
"Anything for a quiet life," she muttered and got up to leave after handing her brother the note by way of explanation. He wanted to go with her of course but his company was less than welcome at the moment.
"If I get into any trouble you'll know soon enough," she assured him grimly and departed beneath the great archway eagerly to lose herself in the shadowy depths of the school.
Having traversed several empty corridors, distancing herself from the bright and noisy common room, Penny noticed how big they seemed, uncluttered by milling crowds of pupils and officious but well-intentioned fourth year monitors. She stopped in her brisk walk to check her own emergency torch was working and wondered again why Skypole could not have gotten his own. Was he really that scared of the dark?
A sharp cough behind her made her jump and she whirled round with flashlight in hand, fearing a third year ambush. There was no one of course. The long straight passageway she had been marching along was empty. A worn carpet showed it was a busy thoroughfare during the day, yet even so was scarcely lit by electric lights dotted along the carved ceiling. A sigh floating from up ahead made her shrug her shoulders and resume her journey.
After a couple of days wandering between lessons along the corridors of St Spiritus, Penny had become familiar with the main passages of course, but was also more aware of the less frequented areas. Dark tunnels and unlit stairways, sealed doors and bricked up passageways were everywhere. Knowing where she was headed did not prevent the adventurous girl from lingering now and then at the entrance to some forbidding place, wishing she had time, and courage, to explore. It was as she peered into one such black mouth that a strange sound issued from its depths. A shuffling sound, a grunt, then a distant echoey boom. Penny blinked, waved her torch uncertainly, and paused to listen. The silence was unusually extended, provokingly so. It recalled her first night at St Spiritus. The first time that she encountered Edwina Bunce. Had that been the secretive girl just then, wandering alone among the meandering corridors of the old school? This thought galvanised Penny's thoughts. A little side trip never harmed anyone. Perhaps she could find out where it was the mysterious redhead liked to hang out. In an instant she nipped down the narrower side route with its obviously less worn carpet.
This modest passageway was clearly a shortcut between two parallel corriders but as it had a kink in it the entrance points were concealed from each other. It was as Penny stealthily made her way through the slight detour she felt a wave of cold air sweep over her. She shivered and paused in the semi-darkness. A quick survey revealed the origin of the draught.
Penny just stood there, gazing at a virtual black hole in the corridor wall big enough to drive a double decker bus through. She gulped and looked to her left where the side corridor continued towards another main thoroughfare. A faint rectangle of light could be seen in the distance. No light escaped from the great arched entrance that confronted her. It seemed to swallow up the efforts of her feeble torch with a cold ravenous hunger. All she could make out was bare flagstones that rapidly faded into the depths of darkness. How far the corridor went, where it led to, was impossible to tell. The only way to find out would be to take the plunge.
Penny looked at her watch. She had been gone only fifteen minutes. Not long enough for search parties to be sent after her, she mused. With a deep breath she stepped forward, letting the dark tendrils merge around her. Then she paused. What if the flagstones simply stopped after a few yards, the floor dropping away to nothingness? No, if it was that dangerous the place would be sealed off like the stairway beyond the office of Speculus. It was probably nothing more than one of the back passages favoured by the cleaning staff and others of the school. Those who lit the fires, polished the brass and cleaned the windows.
She conjured up the goggle-eyed gardener, trying to get his job done without being pestered by school kids. Didn't Wesley say as much, how Amos Pulp knew the secret passages around the school?
These thoughts deflected Penny from the intention of trying to find the redhead hidden somewhere among the shadows. It had probably been some caretaker she had heard earlier. Nothing more sinister or interesting than that.
Yet in spite of these rationalisations the corridor still held her fascination. There were some remarkably elaborate carvings on the walls the short distance she could see in. A few steps brought her closer to one side and she examined the curious imagery. Gruesome beasts with ghastly eyes and razor teeth all over everywhere confronted the girl. She stepped back, feeling a little spooked.
There must be more of the stone beasts hidden in the blackness, she realised, and she increasingly felt they were watching her. She dared not flash her little torch upon them for fear of what its feeble light might reveal. Her inspired imagination pictured hundreds of dreadful creatures swarming all over the vaulted space, ready to reach out poisoned claws at anyone foolish enough to enter their lair. A strange echoey growl sounded on the air briefly just then and sent the girl scurrying away to safety.
A few rapid steps and Penny was back in the brighter lights of a main corrider, one she knew would take her to her destination, the deserted but comforting Willow form room. Once she had passed beyond the heavy wooden door into the more familiar space she paused for breath. Internal glass partitions let in a rosy light from the adjoining corridor and a cloudless twilight added to the illumination, helping to calm her nerves.
Without turning the light on or looking around her, Penny immediately caught sight of her prey, the heavy rubber-coated torch on Skypole's desk. She grabbed for it and then froze for the gesture made her look deeper into the room. Huddled in the corner of a sofa at the very back, a beautiful young girl with long blonde hair seemed absorbed in some activity, unaware of Penny's presence.
"Hello?" Penny stuttered.
The girl looked up as if struck by lightning and fixed the newcomer with a startled glare. Her huge eyes seemed to swallow Penny up. There was a bang. One of the chairs behind a desk seemed to somersault before clattering to the floor violently. Penny jumped at the noise, and caught sight of someone else in the shadowy depths of the room, a shifting black shape. It was only a fleeting shadow of someone, or something, that slid elusively from her gaze as she turned her head. Then it was gone. There was just the chair lying on its side on the floor.
When she glanced again to where the other girl sat the seat was empty and the Jinxer mirror was spinning between its supports.
Penny went over to the mirror and halted its movement. It was cold to the touch and her breath misted the reflective surface. She peered into the mirror and saw her own trembling reflection staring back. The look of terror in her eyes made her turn away.
Picking up the fallen chair, Penny plonked it heavily upright on the stone floor and slumped down into it. She held her head in her hands for a moment to gather her thoughts and calm her wildly beating heart. She was trying desperately not to be sick. She realised in an instant what had happened.
She had just seen her first ghost.
To be continued...