Cynthia was as smug as anything at choir practice on Monday. She had gathered a little group of cronies and sycophants around her.
“Of course, I’ll probably get upgraded as I have gold frequent flyer membership. My parents take me overseas so often that I have more air miles than I can use,” Cynthia was saying.
Spoilt rich bitch, Juliet thought. At least Margot never bragged about her wealth. She had so much more class than Cynthia.
“I hope we get to stay in a decent hotel. We always stay at five star hotels in Europe, but I guess on a school trip some people might not be able to afford that.” She cast a look at Juliet.
“Oh I’m sorry,” Cynthia continued, feigning sympathy. “We shouldn’t be talking about this in front of the poor foster slut. You couldn’t even afford a bus ride to Vegas and two nights at a cheap hooker motel, could you? Though if you could, I’m sure it would be so much more your scene.”
She smiled with fake sweetness, meaning Juliet couldn’t slap her because as their choir conductor entered, it would look to her as though Cynthia was being nice.
Miss Mead was a sweet woman but as blind as a bat where Cynthia was concerned. She was short and plump with pink cheeks and hair that forever escaped its pins. In her long patterned skirts and frill-necked blouses she reminded Juliet of a nervous hedgehog. She looked perennially flustered.
“Good afternoon, girls,” she greeted them. “Now where is Margot?” She looked expectantly at Juliet as they were friends.
Juliet had no idea where Margot was. She hadn’t seen her since morning classes. Margot had skipped lunch.
Suddenly the door burst open and Margot arrived. “Sorry for being late, I got held up,” she said.
Juliet saw Cynthia rolling her eyes at her friend and mouthing what Juliet was pretty sure was a racist remark. Cynthia couldn’t bear the fact that Margot’s family were even richer than hers.
Miss Mead, who was always a little intimidated by Margot, let it go. “Please be prompt next time, dear. Now we have the end of term concert to rehearse for, and we’re already behind, so let’s get started. We’ll be using some of these songs for the choir trip this winter. I expect you’ve already seen that we’re going to Paris this year.”
Everyone had, and everyone except Juliet was pretty excited about it.
The choir sang every Sunday during Mass as well as performing a Christmas concert for the community. This involved several solos which Miss Mead tried to share out, despite her preference for Cynthia. Cynthia had already been given the entire first verse of Once In Royal David’s City, which was the main one.
“Juliet, let’s hear how you sound on the Coventry Carol,” Miss Mead requested.
Feeling a little more confident after her experience at the audition, Juliet gave it her best attempt. Even she was surprised how well it went, and this was confirmed by Cynthia’s jealous scowl. She muttered to the girl next to her something that was obviously unpleasant about Juliet.
“That was very impressive, Juliet,” Miss Mead said. “You don’t take lessons, do you dear?”
Juliet didn’t. Her aunt couldn’t afford them, and wouldn’t have seen them as necessary. Singing was something you did in church for the Lord, not something you needed to get fancy about.
“Well perhaps we should arrange some tuition. Those were some quite beautiful notes. I think we’ll have you take the solo in that one for the concert.”
The practice continued, Cynthia shooting daggers at Juliet throughout. She was even more furious when Juliet’s row was given the descants to do. Miss Mead even swapped a couple of girls into the descant group who were particularly strong on the higher notes. Cynthia was not among them and she was seething with fury.
I’ll end up paying for this somehow, Juliet thought.
“We’ll get that bitch,” Margot murmured, reading her mind.
After the practice ended Miss Mead called Juliet to stay behind. She heard Cynthia make another remark about “foster slut” and then there was a yell and a crash as Cynthia tripped over a line of chairs, landing in a sprawl with her things flying everywhere.
“She tripped me! That bitch” - Juliet could tell that Cynthia had only just suppressed a racist term here - “deliberately tripped me!”
Cynthia indicated Margot who stood there with an air as innocent as the Virgin Mary combined with the Angel Gabriel.
“That’s enough, Cynthia. There’s no need for such language.”
Cynthia’s mouth fell open, shocked to be be told off by the choir teacher. She gathered her things and marched out of the room, her eyes glaring in fury, doubtless already planning revenge.
Miss Mead waited until everyone had left before turning to Juliet. She looked slightly nervous.
“As you know, dear, the choir trip this winter is to Paris. Now I know that you haven’t been able to attend previous trips, perhaps due to… circumstances.” Miss Mead was too embarrassed to say the word “financial”.
“However,” she continued, looking more and more uncomfortable with every word, “there is a special fund available for special circumstances.” She practically whispered the word “fund”. Juliet’s poverty was a greater embarrassment to Miss Mead than obscenity.
“A fund?” Juliet wasn’t entirely sure where this was heading, due to all the tip-toeing around.
“What I mean, my dear, is that the school would be able to cover the costs of your trip, if your family agreed to you attending.”
Juliet’s heart did a wild flip. Paris! It was like a golden ticket being dangled before her. She needed to snatch it before Aunt Mary could find some reason to blow it away.
“I’ll ask my aunt. Thank you.” It seemed inadequate, faced with such a huge offer, but she wasn’t sure what else to say. “I would really love to go, if possible.”
“And we would be more than delighted to have you join us, my dear.”
There was sympathy in the choir teacher’s eyes that brought a lump to Juliet’s throat and made her eyes blur. It was times like this that she was reminded how different her life and her childhood had been to that of most other girls. They had mothers, fathers - even if divorced, though there weren’t so many divorces among Catholics of course - and brothers and sisters. Often lots of other relatives. Homes. Memories.
All Juliet had was Aunt Mary. She knew she should be grateful for that at least, but there was a huge, gnawing ache in her heart for what she had lost and what she could never have.
Unwittingly Miss Mead, with her well-meaning kindness and concern, had just ripped the bandage off.
After finally escaping Miss Mead, Juliet didn’t feel like rejoining her friends. She wanted to be alone, to lick her wounds for a bit.
Latin was the next class but there was still some time before the bell went for afternoon lessons. So she headed to the bathroom that was nearest to the Latin room.
Damn. It was locked and out of order for some reason, with a notice instructing people to use another facility at the far end of the building.
Juliet didn’t want to trudge all that way. It increased the chance of bumping into people and she simply wanted solitude. So she went and sat at the top of some stairs that led to a fire escape, which were separate from the main staircase. No one ever used them.
She closed her eyes and for a while tried to wish the world away. Tried to wish away the last ten or so years and return to a time when she was a normal girl, with a normal family. Three people.
Three people who loved one another.
“Juliet? Are you okay?”
Startled, she opened her eyes and sat up from leaning against the wall.
Mr Spencer, having seen her through the glass of the fire door while on the way to his classroom, was holding it open in concern.
Juliet felt embarrassed because she knew her cheeks were wet. “I’m fine.”
He frowned. “Do you want to come and sit in my classroom until class starts? It doesn’t look very comfortable here.”
There was no reason not to accept the offer and every reason to take it up. So she followed him. “Thanks.”
Inside she went to straight to the back row, her usual seat.
Then they were both awkward, neither knowing what to do. Juliet wanted to put her head on her arms and close her eyes, sleep for a few minutes even. But she couldn’t do that with someone else there.
Mr Spencer, who had brought some class preparation to do, seemed reluctant to just ignore her as she seemed distressed.
He came and stood by her desk, looking at her intently. “Is something wrong?”
“No. Yes. I was just remembering some stuff.”
“If you want me to get the school counsellor…?” He tailed off, not really knowing how to proceed.
Kindness always made her cry at a time like this. She felt the tears well over but dug her fingernails into her palms hard to stop herself from actually crying.
Tentatively - he knew he wasn’t supposed to touch a student, but human instinct won over - he put a hand on her shoulder. His touch burned through the fabric of her clothing, far more than its mere warmth should have done.
“If you ever need to talk about it… or if you need me to find you someone you feel comfortable talking with…” Once again he was struggling to know what to say.
Juliet brushed her eyes with her hand and tried to force a brighter expression. She turned her head to look up at him. “Really, I’m fine. I was just being silly, it’s very long past.”
He wasn’t convinced. “Is it something to do with your family? Your parents?”
Juliet smiled weakly. “I know I should be over it. Just sometimes it gets to me still. You know how it is, or you probably don’t. I hope you don’t,” she said.
Mr Spencer pulled a chair across and sat down next to her. “I can’t imagine it’s something one ever gets over, no matter how long ago. I doubt I would get over it, even if it happened now, in adulthood.”
He looked so strong as he said this, so sincere, that Juliet was moved.
Her hands were on the desk and he had put his hand on the side of the desk as he sat down. Their fingers were only inches apart. Juliet felt as though there was a magnetic field there.
Slowly, still looking into her eyes, he moved his fingers over hers, to rest his hand on her hand. It was a gesture of comfort, but it was also a forbidden gesture.
It was more than a hand on her shoulder: his skin was touching hers. It was sending shockwaves through her arm and body.
Juliet had been with so many guys before, far more intimately, why did she feel so nervous? She could hardly breathe. She ran her tongue over her lips which seemed dry.
She had an urge to say his first name. She knew it was Carl.
But she didn’t dare.
Instead they remained looking at one another, his hand still on hers. Making her skin tingle. His eyes looked almost golden in this light. His lips were firm and masculine but beautifully carved, like a Greek statue.
Oh god how she wanted him to kiss her…
For a fraction of a second she imagined he was just leaning in a little closer. She could smell his skin. She wanted his lips on hers…
For a moment… nearly… if they just leaned in a little further…
Juliet’s heart was hammering in her chest and the palms of her hands felt damp.
Suddenly, just as they teetered near the point of no return, there was a noise in the doorway.
Mr Spencer instantly took his hand off Juliet’s and jumped back, standing up, trying not to look guilty.
It was just two other girls in the class who had also arrived early. Probably deliberately to flirt with him, judging by the dirty expressions they shot Juliet. Still, at least it wasn’t Cynthia.
“We just wanted to read over our notes before class, Sir,” one of them said.
Suck-up, Juliet thought. Still, it wouldn’t hurt her to check over her own homework. So she pretended to be poring over hers, as though she had come there for the same reason.
"What happened to you after choir? What did Miss Mead want?” Margot asked Juliet as they walked together after Latin.
“Just something about the choir trip. There’s a fund or something,” Juliet told her.
Margot looked puzzled. “A fund? For what?”
“Apparently for me, if I get my aunt’s permission.”
Margot whirled around. “That’s awesome. It will be so much more fun with you there!” She had even tried to offer to pay Juliet’s ticket as the cost was nothing to her parents, but Aunt Mary would never have allowed outright charity.
However a special school fund might be a different matter. Juliet hoped so, anyway.
Fhemie caught up with them on the way to History. “So any progress with that hot Latin pastor guy?”
“He’s not a pastor,” Juliet said. She was strangely reluctant to tell them about being alone with Mr Spencer in the classroom before. The brief time they had shared seemed kind of special. Private.
“There was something up though, wasn’t there?” Margot said. “There was like a vibe,” she told Fhemie.
“I’m thinking maybe I should give it all up,” Juliet said.
“If you’re not getting anywhere, then I guess so,” Margot agreed. “You lose a hundred bucks though.”
Juliet didn’t really care about the bet money. She knew Margot wouldn’t actually expect her to pay, nor would she have taken any money from Margot.
But this time it was Fhemie who was looking at her with a suspicious gaze. “You’re hiding something,” she said to Juliet. “I know that look. It’s the same one you had after you made out with Nathan at Sue-Anne’s party.”
Juliet wanted to forget that episode. She had been very drunk, Nathan was Sue-Anne’s ex, and Sue-Anne had been hoping to reconcile with him. His making out with Juliet had made it the worst birthday ever. Making it even more regrettable, Juliet didn’t even like Nathan and wouldn’t have gone near him when sober.
“Guilt then,” Margot said.
Juliet said nothing. They both rounded on her. “Confess or else!”
“Really, it was nothing. I just got there early, and we talked, and he kind of held my hand. Or put his hand on my hand I mean.” When she actually described it, it really didn’t sound like very much at all. But what she had felt during it - the tension between them - was huge.
Fhemie rolled her eyes. “That is the lamest thing I ever heard.”
“Or the most repressed and hot thing ever,” Margot said. “Like maybe that’s the furthest he’s ever gone with a girl. I mean you saw that fiancée of his. She looks like she washes her va-jay with holy water and keeps it pure for Jesus.”
They all laughed at this.
“Seriously, girl, you gotta step it up,” Margot told her. “Go for the kill.”