The Great Gatenby (extract)
by John Marsden
From the first I knew it mightn’t necessarily be my kind of school. We came whamming up the drive at about ninety K and nearly ran over a small round object that I later found out was the Headmaster’s dog. It looked like a hairy speed bump. When I eventually met the Headmaster I could see the connection, except he was bald. We stopped to ask a group of girls for directions but they just giggled and hid behind each other and got us muddled with contradictory answers. My father drove on, swearing.
‘They don’t seem like private school girls,’ my mother said.
By the time we eventually found the boarding house we were late. It was called Crapp House, which I thought was a bit odd. We struggled inside with all the cases, sweat dripping off us. My mother was trying to keep the vinyl one out of sight. Before we could find my dorm a woman came hurrying past.
‘There’s a meeting of new parents,’ she said, ‘in the Senior Common Room.’ We dropped every thing and started after her.
‘Do you think it’s safe to leave them there?’ my mother asked, looking back at the abandoned bags.
‘Heavens above, yes,’ my father said irritably. ‘This isn’t Gleeson High School.’
The meeting had already started and we tried to slip in unobtrusively at the back. The Housemaster was in full flight: he was a little man who looked like a zucchini. It was all sadly predictable:
‘a real family atmosphere...’; ‘...only get out of it what you put in...’; ‘...my door’s always open...’.Then he got onto the tough stuff: ‘I must ask you not to leave any aerosol sprays with your children. There was some silliness last year and to avoid temptation we’ve resolved to ban them altogether.’
My mother looked mystified. I felt a flicker of interest; this place might have some life in it after all.
‘Secondly,’ he went on, ‘I notice one of the girls has different colour nail-polish on each of her fingers. That is not the way we do things here at Linley.’
Everyone gazed at the girl, who was sitting on the arm of a chair in the middle of the room. Her parents were red with humiliation. The girl stared right back at the Housemaster. I fell in love with her on the spot.
‘What’s wrong with different coloured nail-polish?’ she asked aggressively. The room trembled. I was too scared to be in love with her anymore. The Housemaster, whose normal colour was green, turned a sort of volcanic grey. It was a crucial moment for him — lose it now and he’d lost it forever.
‘That’s one of the rules we have here,’ he said at last.
He’d lost it.
After the meeting we headed back to my suitcases. ‘You’d better give me that can of Mortein,’ my mother said.
‘Jesus Mavis,’ I said, ‘nobody sniffs Mortein’.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Is that what they were talking about?’
We got back to the entrance where we’d dropped the bags. My tennis racquet, eight months old and worth $180 had gone. I never saw it again.
We found the dorm and my bed. The Matron was hovering around. ‘Would you like to unpack his things?’ she asked my mother.
‘No thanks,’ she answered. ‘We’ve sent him here so that he can learn to do that himself.’ The Matron went off in a huff and I felt a snicker of affection for my old cookie-monster.
There were about twelve beds in the dorm, but only one kid there, a thin dark guy who looked interesting but didn’t speak to us. We headed back out to the car. ‘Any parting advice?’ I asked. ‘Any words of wisdom to help me navigate through the year?’
‘Yes,’ said my father firmly. ‘Don’t wear different coloured nail-polish on your fingers.’
My mother wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to be maudlin. ‘Don’t be silly, Robin,’ she said to him. ‘I thought that girl was dreadful.’ Right away I fell in love again with the mysterious nail-painter. ‘Now Erle,’ she went on, ‘Make sure you write to us every week. And don’t be rude to the teachers. Work hard... you’ve got so much ability, if only you’d use it. Get involved in everything you can. Brush your teeth every night.’
By this stage I had her in the front seat of the car and was gently closing the door. ‘Try your very very best,’ she added. ‘You know how much this is costing us. And remember you have to buy a new pair of shoes when you’re allowed into town.’
My father started the car and she was distracted; torn between giving him advice on how to drive — a temptation she always found irresistible — and continuing on my case. ‘Try turning left at that tree, Robin,’ she instructed. ‘I think it might be a quicker way out. Now, write to your grandmother.’ This was directed at me. ‘And remember you’re allergic to strawberries.’
The car was in gear and moving. I leaned in the window and gave her a peck on the cheek. ‘Don’t you go talking to strange men while I’m away,’ I warned her. ‘And keep off hard liquor. Don’t answer the telephone unless it’s ringing.’
After they’d gone I went back to do the unpacking. I didn’t feel sad but I did feel nervous. The dark guy was still in the dorm. He strolled over as I was putting stuff away. ‘Did you know that with one giant quantum leap we could be a million miles and a million years away from here?’ he asked, and beamed at me.
‘I bet he plays Dungeons and Dragons,’ I thought.
Another boy, with a head like granite, strolled in. ‘Shut up Ringworm, you nerd,’ he said. ‘What are you doing back here so early anyway? Who are you?’ he said to me.