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Three Twins at the Crater School

Chapter One: Two Red Heads and a Black One

"Yes, I thought I might find you two up here."

The voice was like a cold hand on the back of their necks, positively pulling them away from the battlements. They shared one swift anxious glance between them, then turned around guiltily to see the aweful figure of the Head Girl herself standing at the turret door.

Instinctively, both girls looked down. The flat roof of the castle was slabbed with the same red sandstone that made its walls; their feet shuffled forward almost of their own accord, until they met the mortared crack between one flagstone and its neighbour. Miscreants summoned to the headmistress's study "toed the line" on one particular floorboard to hear their fate, and the same habit had trickled down through the school to become an absolute tradition whenever sinners faced Authority.

These two would almost rather have faced a mistress, even the Head herself, than Rowany de Vere. Tall and stately and self-possessed, she had a way of merely looking at you that could make younger girls burst into tears without a word being said, and had been known to reduce even Seniors to spluttering incoherence. Tawney and Tasha were certainly too old for tears, being thoroughly mature Middles comfortably ensconced as leaders of the Lower Fourth, but even so: the dreadful quality of that silence had them folding their fingers together into intricate knots, staring at their shoes, breathlessly waiting for doom to be pronounced.

"And why, pray tell, should I expect to find you here?"

That was mean, putting it as a question. Scolds could be endured, but questions had to be answered. She would only wait now until one of them spoke, while that silence grew thicker and weightier with every passing moment.

"Um, because we come here often?" Tasha was always the bolder of the twins, first into the breach.

"Indeed. Despite - ?"

"Despite it being against the rules." Wherever Tasha led, Tawney was safe to hurtle after.

"Despite its being against the rules; 'being' is a gerund. You should know that by now. But however pleasant it is to wander in a garden of bright grammar, let us not distract our minds from the greater issue. As you so rightly observe, Tatiana, coming onto the roof without a prefect or mistress is strictly against the rules, for reasons that would surely be obvious even if I hadn't caught you dangling out over the wall like a pair of hanging baskets."

The novelty of that comparison almost cracked both twins at once. Seeing how their faces contorted, Rowany herself let the hint of a smile show through her sternness. Tasha immediately tried to seize advantage: "Please, though, 'tisn't term yet. Miss Leven said that rules were, were, were in aboyance until tomorrow…"

"Abeyance, Natasha, not 'aboyance' - and some rules is what Miss Leven said. Do you really suppose she meant to include those rules set in place to protect little girls from the perils of their own idiocy?"

Neither twin liked to be addressed by her full name; which meant of course that they only heard them when they were in trouble, which of course made them like the names even less. And no girl in the history of three planets has ever liked to be called "little" when she has attained the fine age of fourteen; and furthermore, that was another of those unfair, resented questions. Tasha ground the toe of her shoe into the mortar, and muttered, "No, Rowany."

"No. Quite so. You really must stop cantering up here whenever the fancy grips you. And never, never let me catch you hanging out through the embrasures - wait a minute, though. What does that face mean, Tawney?"

"Please, I don't know that word," and a strange word was like a thorn in her foot, only to be drawn out by enquiry.

"Embrasure? All right. Turn around and look at the battlements. Try not to hurl yourselves through them," added dryly. "Now. The gaps between the teeth? Those are the embrasures. And the teeth themselves are not in fact teeth, but merlons. That's another new word for you, Tawney. Now face me again, please." She surveyed them once more; and sighed, and shook her head at two such sorry specimens of humanity, and said, "I ought properly to report you to the Head - but I think perhaps one of the rules currently in abeyance is the one that says I have to do everything properly and by the book. So - unless you'd rather toe the line in Miss Leven's study? No, I thought not - rather than risking your lives unsupervised on the roof, you can amuse yourselves for the next week or two by boning up on the history and architecture of castles, with examples drawn from our very own and beloved example. Work on it together; Tawney, your handwriting is at least legible, and I happen to know that Tasha can turn in a pretty map when she's a mind to do it. You can take a clean notebook from the stationery cupboard, and do your best to fill it before half-term. Understood?"

The twins' older brother Robbie had told them how more than once, he'd begged to be caned at school rather than gated. For the first time, they thought perhaps they could understand that. One swift punishment was surely better than a dreary task dragged out over half a term. Tragically, though, there was no caning at the Crater School. For a moment, they might have trembled on the verge of asking to be sent to the headmistress instead - but only for a moment. Then, as one, they nodded and said, "Yes, Rowany."

"Good. So tell me then, what was so entirely fascinating down in the courtyard that it was worth risking life and limb to see it?"

"Two red heads and a black one," irrepressible Tasha blurted.

Rowany raised an eyebrow; Tawney interpreted. "We think they must be the new girls. Miss Leven said at breakfast that she was expecting three to come today. They're in the courtyard now with Miss Harribeth, and we think she's giving them her famous tour of the castle."

"Perhaps you should hurry down to join them," Rowany suggested. "It'd give you a flying start for your new project; there's nothing Miss Harribeth doesn't know about this place." Then, suddenly relenting, "No, that wasn't fair. I won't tease. Though seriously, if you have any questions or find anything you don't understand, she's the person to go to. Meanwhile, what's so interesting about new girls? Apart from their sheer newness?"

"Two red heads," Tasha repeated. "They must be sisters, mustn't they? Red's such an unusual colour, you wouldn't get two at random coming at the same time. Especially such an unusual time, Trinity, the last term of the school year. But - oh, if they're sisters, d'you think they might be twins? They might, mightn't they?"

"Ah - now I understand. Well, I suppose they might. And they might even be the reason I was sent to find you. I'm afraid you have to go to the study after all, my children; but not as penitents, unless you choose to confess. Miss Leven wants to see the pair of you. You can't go like that, though, or she'll have you toeing the line before you can catch your breath. Run down to the San and tidy up first. Tawney, you'll need to change your tunic, you've ripped that seam right open wriggling about on the stonework. And Tasha, you have black lichen on both your knees. Better wash that off before it festers. Go on, scoot."

Ten minutes later, two hastily scrubbed, brushed and tidied schoolgirls knocked at their headmistress's door. They entered when bidden, bobbed the little curtsey that was a treasured inheritance from their sister foundation back on Earth, and chorused, "Good afternoon, Miss Leven."

"Good afternoon, girls. Come and sit, please." She gestured towards the cushioned window-seat beside her desk. That meant they really weren't in trouble; Rowany's reassurances had been almost enough, but not quite.

Of course, sitting with their backs to the window also meant that their gazes couldn't stray to the distractions of the view: the deep and mysterious lake, the crater walls, the wide and tawny sky. It was even possible - Tasha had been heard to allow, once - that Miss Leven sat them there deliberately and for precisely that reason, when she wanted to speak seriously on a matter.

Without the grim and foreboding desk between them, and with no shameful reason to duck their heads and glower at the floorboards, they could focus more readily than usual on Miss Leven herself: the steel-grey hair that she wore cropped uncommonly short, the tweed costume with just a touch of lace at wrists and neck, the grey-green eyes that were kinder than her stiff appearance might suggest.

"Well, girls, how has your holiday been?"

Not much of a holiday was the answer that their friends might have looked for, but their headmistress obviously could not receive. In any case it wasn't true, although it had been what they'd feared, what they'd anticipated, when Mother's letter told them they must stay at school over Easter, while she and Father made an urgent trip Home. Some trouble that Robbie was in at Westminster, that could only be settled by his parents in person. Of course there was no question of the twins going too; journeys by aethership were prohibitively expensive, when you lived on a government salary with no family money behind you. Besides, they couldn't hope to get there and back again during the holiday, and the parents were oddly keen on their not missing a day of school if they could help it. To be fair, so were the twins, mostly.

They had resigned themselves accordingly to three weeks in an empty school with resentful teachers watching over them, but it hadn't been like that at all. There were a dozen girls who stayed, because of illness at home or families gone back to Earth or - in Rowany's case - extra tuition for her Oxford entrance; and the staff who stayed with them - Miss Leven included, and none of them obviously resentful - had contrived to give everyone a jollier time than they could remember, in school or out of it. They'd had parties, games, unexpected challenges, expeditions all around. The solemnities of Easter had been duly marked and made a deeper impression than before, perhaps because they had been set about with such fun. Three weeks had flown by, and the twins were almost - almost! - sorry that this interlude must end tomorrow, when the rest of the school returned.

It was a hard thing to say, to the adult most responsible. They did their best, though, tripping over each other's broken sentences as they struggled to convince her that they weren't being merely mannerly, they really had enjoyed themselves thoroughly. At last she laughed aloud, clapped her hands to her ears and cried, "Enough, twins, enough! I don't quite think that 'splendacious' is a word within the meaning of the act, so I'll ask you not to use that again, please, but the meaning is clear and delightful to hear. I may also say on behalf of the staff and myself that it has been a pleasure to share our Easter with you, and I will be writing to your mother to say so.

"But now," she went on, abruptly solemn, "I have something to ask of you, Tasha, Tawney. I know you have a double"score of friends here, in your own house and others, in your own year and others; and I know that even so, you are much inclined to keep your own company when it matters, that you two are all in all to each other. That is inevitable; it must always be 'two against the world' to some degree, for twins. But this term I'd like to see you make a special effort to let a third in, if you will.

"Of course I can't oblige you to make friends, let alone to share your private times and special places" - oh glory, did she know about the roof? She seemed to know everything else - "but you may be the only ones here who can truly help this girl. She's a twin, you see, and only you two can really know what that means, deep inside. But Rachel is here without her other half, she's a twin alone. I think particularly that only a twin can understand that especial sorrow. I was afraid a little that seeing you two together would only exacerbate her trouble, but in fact I am in hopes that you can comfort her, in ways that we singletons would never conceive."

They had been apart, of course: on separate trips with one parent or the other, and once for a cruel, eternal month when Tawney took the mumps and Tasha didn't, the only thing they'd never thought to share. They gazed at each other now, reliving that time, that sense of loss; and then Tasha - of course Tasha! - asked, "Please, Miss Leven - how did she come to lose her twin?" It was their worst nightmare, the impossible fancy; they were holding hands tightly on the window-seat now, struggling not to imagine it.

"Oh - heavens, child, the girl's not dead! Don't be so morbid! Their parents have simply decided the girls will be better apart for a while." Something in Miss Leven's face suggested that she didn't agree, but she was certainly not going to say so. "Rachel's your age and will be coming into your form, and I'm putting her in your house and your dormitory too, so she'd be around you all day in any case. Please, girls, will you take her under your wing? This term is going to be difficult for her, and I do believe that you two are her best chance to see it through."

"Of course we will, Miss Leven!" Sometimes one twin spoke for both, sometimes the other. Sometimes they were never quite certain afterwards which had done so, or if they'd both solemnly chanted together in some spooky lights-out ghost story kind of way.

"Bless you, girls. I never had a doubt, of course; a Crater School girl will always step up at need, and you two are Cratereans through and through. Now," with a quick glance at her wristwatch, "if you hurry, you should catch them up in the library, where Miss Harribeth likes to close her tour. Tell her you are sent to steal Rachel away; you can show her the rest of the school yourselves. What you think to show her - and to tell her - might be less instructive, but perhaps more practical. And nutritious. Miss Harribeth would never think of including the kitchens in her tour; whereas I happen to know that Mrs Bailey is baking honey cakes this afternoon, and those are always best straight out of the oven.

"Rachel very much needs the company of her own kind just now. Don't just talk at her, girls, talk with her; listen to her; don't let her button up her feelings. A stiff upper lip is all very well, but only for public display. You girls are better than that. Take her into your hearts, show her the true heart of the Crater School, and you will have done all that I could hope or ask of you."

Dismissed, encouraged, they bobbed their curtsey and went to the door; and as they left she said, "Oh, and don't take her onto the roof without a prefect in attendance. Ask Rowany."

Chapter Two >>

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