‘SHE’S GORGEOUS, SAYS DIRECTOR!’ screams the billboard outside the newsagent shop in the main street of Castletown.
‘CASTLETOWN YOUNGSTER IN HIT MOVIE!’
‘LOCAL GIRL WOWS THEM IN LONDON!’ – the billboards outside the Spar Shop. There is a newspaper on the stand and I can see my name. ‘A fresh new talent…Agents queue to sign up beautiful young Fern Hamilton…’ The words jump out at me and I move away from the notice in the window quickly in case someone spots me staring at news about myself and start to run down the street. No more newspaper shops down this end, I think.
‘CASTLETOWN IS PROUD OF OUR FERN’ says a hand-lettered notice in the window of Morelli’s Ice-Cream Parlour.
I just stand there staring until the big black letters start to blur before my eyes. I’m dead tired. I only had six hours’ sleep last night as the plane from London was delayed by three hours. I’m a week late for the first day of secondary school –that couldn’t have been helped because of having to attend the opening night of the film and all the rehearsals – but I’d been hoping that I could creep in and get lost somewhere. No hope of that now!
My phone rings. I take it out of my pocket. There’s a text message on it.
For a moment I wish she had rung and that we could chat but I knew that would have been too expensive and she may not have been allowed to chat on the phone at this hour of the morning anyway. Jessica is in an all-Irish-speaking boarding school at the other end of the country and the rules there are very strict. I think about telling her about the billboards but I haven’t the time so I just type in:
The clock on the main street is now showing 8.55. It should be safe to go into the school now. I daren’t be late, but I don’t want to be early either. With a bit of luck Zara and her friends won’t be in the playground.
‘Just go into the headmaster’s office,’ Mum said. ‘They are expecting you. I’m sorry I can’t take you, but I have had so much time off school recently what with your father’s illness. You know how it is, Fern.’
‘Fern!’ The scream was ear-splitting and there they all are: Zara, managing to look great in the dowdy navy-blue school uniform, Heather, her red hair redder than ever, Ann, Michelle, Emma, Katie, and what seemed like hundreds of other unknown girls.
‘Here comes the movie star, girls!’ Zara is shouting. I could feel my hands sweating. There was no chance now that I could just slip in. There was no chance now that I would ever make a friend. They would all be jealous and they would all tease me. My life would be a misery. Why didn’t Mum agree to let me go to the All-Irish Gaelscoil boarding school with Jessica? I didn’t care for Irish, much – probably it’s my worst subject – but at least I would have had had a friend! I push away the thought that I would have liked to be away from home for a while, also; away from the constant stress, the constant worry. It makes me guilty to be thinking like that. I should be thinking about my Dad, and how ill he is, and my Mum, not about myself.
‘You’re in our form, Fern,’ screams Zara. She lowers her voice just a little. ‘I asked my aunt – she’s the form tutor – I asked her to make sure that you were with us.’
‘I’ve got to go and see the headmaster,’ I say weakly. I can see everyone staring at me. There’s a big primary school a few miles from Castletown – a village that has grown when Castletown stayed still – and most of the kids in the secondary school come from there. They’ve never seen me before, but they’ve all heard of me. Everyone is staring at me and I can guess what they’re thinking. Doesn’t look anything special, they are all thinking! Navy suits Zara with her blond hair and her blue eyes; it looks good on Ann, too – she has the same colouring, but it looks terrible on me. No one with green eyes and black hair should be made to wear navy.
‘Down this way, Fern,’ says Zara. ‘There’s the headmaster’s office. I wonder what he’ll say to you.’
‘Welcome to our humble school,’ giggles Ann. She used to be teased and left out of things at primary school, so I think she has made up her mind never to be at the bottom again. She will be as nasty to me as she can; I realise that. If someone else is the butt of teasing, then she won’t be. That’s the way things work when you are at school It’s no good grown-ups say things like: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, or else, do as you would be done by. Everyone is terrified of being bullied or teased so they will do anything that they can to be part of the ‘popular people’ gang.
The buzzer goes and they all run off. I can hear them giggling as they go down the corridor. There are a few boys there – not the football-playing crowd – and they stare at me and then look away. I can feel myself going red. I knock at the headmaster’s door. I think I hear a voice saying something, but I’m not sure so I knock again. Then a very loud voice shouts impatiently: ‘Come in!’
I push open the door and come in. I’ve seen him before – he came to our primary school to tell us all how much we would enjoy secondary school, but somehow he seems different this morning. He looks as if something upset him or that he has too much to do. He stares at me.
‘My name is Fern Hamilton, Sir,’ I say timidly. ‘I’m new.’
‘Well, why didn’t you…’ he starts to say and then he remembers. ‘Oh, yes, I remember. I know all about you. You’re the girl who’s been over to London.’ He stares at me for a moment and then says: ‘Well, you’ve been having exciting times, haven’t you? But now is the time for settling down to work, you know. You don’t want to let all that nonsense make you silly, do you? Child actresses come and go, you know. What you want now is to do well at school.’
‘Yes, Sir,’ I say obediently.
‘Did you want me for something?’ he asks. He looks at his pile of post on the desk.
‘No, Sir,’ I say. He looks back, frowns at me and then I say quickly. ‘I’m not sure where to go, or what to do, Sir.’
‘Oh, go and find your form tutor and she will tell you everything. Wait a minute…’ He taps at his computer. ‘What’s your name, again?’
‘Fern, Sir, Fern Hamilton.’
‘Yes, I see. Yes, you are in Form 1b. Your form tutor is Mrs Wall. Find Mrs Wall and she’ll tell you everything.’
‘Thank you, Sir,’ I say and then I find myself outside in an empty corridor. I wander along, looking at the names on the doors until I find one marked ‘Secretary’. I stand outside it for a long time. Obviously I am not expected to bother busy people. It’s my fault for arriving a week late. However, in the end, I give a timid tap and then a voice calls out: ‘Come in.’
The secretary is a man. That surprises me. He is quite young and very good-looking.
‘You lost?’ he asks with a grin.
‘Yes,’ I admit. I begin to feel a little better.
‘Well, don’t run home and stick your head under the pillow,’ he says jokingly. ‘Let’s sort you out.’
‘My name is Fern Hamilton,’ I say hesitantly. ‘I’m looking for Mrs Wall.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘So you’re Fern. You’re in Mrs Wall’s form, are you?’ Somehow the way he says it makes me feel worried. Then he gives a big grin again. His teeth are very large and very white and they slightly stick out. They give him a very cute, small-boy-look. ‘I know who you are,’ he says. ‘You’re the girl in the film. I’m really looking forward to seeing that. It’s coming to the cinema next week. I was trying to get a part in that myself, but …’ he sighs dramatically ‘…not good-looking enough – should have had my teeth straightened when I was young,’ he finishes.
I laugh. I begin to feel much better.
‘I’ll take you to Mrs Wall,’ he says getting to his feet. He stops, on his way out, with his hand on the handle of the door. ‘Don’t worry if she’s not too friendly,’ he whispers. ‘You know her niece, the blond girl… well apparently, the family were a bit disappointed …well… you know how these things go…’ He tails off and I nod. Everyone expected that Zara would be the one to get the part in the film. She is so much more good-looking than I am and she has so much more personality. No wonder her family is upset. I feel bad again. Just my luck to have Zara’s aunt as my form tutor!
‘Well, chin up,’ he says encouragingly as we go down the corridor together. ‘What was it like in London at the film premier? Pop in and tell me sometime you have a moment. My name is Declan, by the way. Here is Mrs Wall’s room.’ He knocks on a door and then pushes it open without waiting for a ‘come in’.
‘New pupil for your form, Mrs Wall,’ he says breezily. ‘This is Fern Hamilton. Good luck, Fern, see you around!’
Mrs Wall looks quite like Zara’s mother. She is tall and very, very thin, with dyed blond hair streaked with butterscotch-coloured strands. She stares at me for a few minutes and doesn’t speak until the noise of Declan’s footsteps stop echoing from the corridor.
‘So you’re Fern,’ she says. ‘Now Fern, I hope you are going to work hard and be a sensible girl. I know you have had a lot to turn your head, but now is the time for settling down to work, you know. You don’t want to let all that nonsense make you silly. Child actresses come and go, you know.’
I nod silently. Her words are almost identical to the headmaster’s. They must all have got together at the staff meeting and decided what they were going to say to me. That meant that all of the other teachers would be against me, as well. I was feeling more and more depressed by the minute. Was there any way that I could persuade Mum and Dad to change their minds and send me to boarding school with Jessica after all?
‘Here is your timetable,’ says Mrs Wall rummaging in the tray on her desk. ‘Here is a map of the school which we hand out to all first-years,’ she continues. ‘You can see that all the rooms are marked clearly on it.
I look at it. It doesn’t seem to make much sense. I can’t even find the secretary’s office on it. I nod silently again.
‘Assembly will have finished by now, and your first lesson is history and that will be with me,’ says Mrs Wall. ‘Wait outside the door and then you can follow me.’
I go out and stand miserably there. I can remember crying on my first day at primary school when I was four years old and then cheering up when Zara made friends with me. Last term I swore that I would never be friends with her again, when she was so nasty to me when I got the part in the film, but now I feel so bad that I would almost beg her to be friendly. I remember all the fun we used to have and all the giggling and the bad bits begin to go to the back of my mind.
Mrs Wall doesn’t introduce me to the class or anything like that. She just sweeps into the room, puts her bag beside the teacher’s desk and says: ‘Class rise.’
Everybody stands up and I stumble across the class and find the only empty desk. All of the desks are single so it doesn’t matter that no one is next to me. Lots of people are turning around and staring at me while they were saying ‘Good morning, Mrs Wall,’ but I pretend not to notice.
She’s a boring teacher, I decide after a while, she’s as boring as Mr Lynham in primary school, but she’s much better at keeping order. While she is going on about the stone age and warning everyone not to get mixed up between Neolithic and Mesolithic no one dares stir; everyone is too busy writing things down. While she is writing on the blackboard I sneak a quick look around the room. Zara is in the corner at the back of the room. I notice that all of her friends are around her and that they have moved their desks just a little so that they form one large friendly clump at the back of the room. Mrs Wall obviously hasn’t noticed them move their desks; or perhaps because it is Zara she says nothing. Anytime that Zara puts up her hand – and usually that is just for the easiest questions – she gives her a smile.
‘What was it like being in a film?’ asks a girl, when we are making our way to the next classroom.
‘Come on, Fern,’ says Zara grabbing my arm. ‘Tell us all about it. We’re dying to hear, aren’t we, girls?’ She drags me down the corridor and pushes me into a classroom at the end of it. ‘Stand up there and tell us all about it,’ she commands. I stand where she puts me right in front of the teacher’s desk and I can feel my face turning red. It looks like hundreds of eyes staring at me.
‘Stand on the desk,’ shouts one boy.
‘Speak up,’ shouts another.
‘Can’t hear you!’
‘Give us your autograph!’
Suddenly they are all shouting at me and I just stand there feeling like an animal in the zoo.
‘What is going on here?’ shouts the headmaster flinging open the door so widely that it crashes into the bookcase on the wall behind. ‘What are you doing out of your seat, Fern?’
Well, at least he knows my name, now, I think, as I stumble to a desk. He stands there glaring, mostly at me, until the geography teacher, Miss Clancy, comes rushing in five minutes, or what feels like five hours, later.
‘Sorry,’ she says to him quickly. ‘I couldn’t find the classroom.’ He glares at her, also, and then leaves abruptly. She must be new, if she couldn’t find the classroom. I feel quite sorry for her. The class, who had been so quiet and so good during Mrs Wall’s boring history lesson, are now talking openly and one boy even fires a paper aeroplane across the room while she is drawing a map of China on the blackboard. I long to be part of the fun, but I haven’t the courage. Anyway, I know better than to try. I can see what is going to happen. I am going to be one who provides the fun. It’s all right in this class because they are teasing the teacher, asking to go to the toilet every few minutes and making jokes about Chinese take-aways; after class they will turn to teasing me. This is the second double lesson of the morning so it will be lunchtime after this. I wonder how I will survive it. Lunchtime is the best time for the popular people and it’s the worst for the unpopular.
Eventually the electronic buzzer goes for lunchtime. The class all start putting away their books. When the buzzer stops a voice comes over the intercom.
‘Fern Hamilton, First Form b, to the secretary’s office, please,’ says the voice firmly. It’s Declan’s voice
Miss Clancy looks around the class. I jump to my feet and she nods. I make for the door as quickly as I can. The others surge behind me and Mrs Clancy screams: ‘No one else is to move. Five minutes’ detention for bad behaviour for everyone.’
That won’t make her popular, I think as go down the corridor as quickly as I can, praying that I will manage to find the secretary’s office. They’ll all resent her now – not all of them were misbehaving – and they will resent me because I escaped the punishment.
My luck holds. I find the secretary’s office and knock on the door.
‘Come in,’ says Declan. ‘Hi, Fern! Here are your dinner tickets. Try not to lose them, but if you do, come straight to me and I’ll cancel them and give you some new ones. You’ll get five tickets every Monday. It’s a rubbishy dinner – but your mother has paid for it so you might as well have it. I’ll walk down with you. I have one too, it saves me cooking in the evening.’
‘It must have been exciting at the film premier with all of those famous people around,’ he says as we walk towards the canteen. ‘Were you worried that you might do the wrong thing on the big night with all the cameras trained on you; I know I would be.’
‘We had a rehearsal the day before for all the not-so-important people and then another one during the day with the stars in it as well,’ I explain. ‘It probably looked natural, but it was like a play, really. Everyone knew their parts and where they were going to sit and everything.’
‘Really,’ he sounds astonished. ‘I would never have guessed that. And to think that if I had got the part of William, the gardener, I would have been over there in London with you instead of a being a boring secretary here in Castletown.’
‘What made you be a secretary?’ I ask. I don’t like to say that he had no hope of getting the part of the gardener since that was played by such a big star.
‘Well my girlfriend is going to be a teacher, so I thought I would be a teacher too,’ he explains. ‘Then when we are married we can go on long holidays together every summer. I didn’t get a place at training college for this year, but I have an offer for next year so I thought I would try to work in a school for a year and then I would get some money to see me through and pay off some of my debts and I would get experience of dealing with all these terrible children. I thought about being a Special Needs Assistant, but I have a degree in Business Studies, so secretary seemed a better idea – I’d prefer to be a film star, though. Do you think they will make a sequel to ‘The Rose’ over here in Castletown?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say and he leaves me with a cheery wave and goes off to the Staff table. I queue up for the dinner with an eye on the door. The other first year class has just come in and I go and sit beside a girl on her own. It was a bad choice. I speak to her but she ignores me just staring across the canteen. I feel my face get red and I take a big bite of my pizza, choking it down so that I can get out as quickly as possible. Surely there will be somewhere to hide during lunchtime.