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The History of Sarah-Jane

Chapter 2: A Birthday- I Begin School

Chapter 2 A Birthday I Begin School Pale morning sun streamed through the narrow windows of the cottage as clutching my shawl around my thin shoulders, I made my way down the steep flight of steps to the kitchen. My heart raced with excitement as I did so, for I knew that this was to be a special day—my seventh birthday. An aroma of freshly baked bread filled the room, where my family were waiting, assembled around the table as though awaiting an important guest. Alfred greeted me with a formal handshake as I approached my chair, followed by a wide grin that spread across his face as his eyes darted towards the simple, yet cheerful birthday breakfast that Mother had created. Eggs and ham, muffins and bread and jam. A bunch of wild flowers in a vase completed the welcoming scene. Henry and Johnnie applauded my arrival as little Tom, who could wait no longer, leapt out of his chair and rushed towards me to present me with a small card, bearing my name, surrounded by a border of roses. “A birthday greeting for my dear daughter,” said Mother, leaning in to kiss my cheek.” “And these are from us,” added Henry handing me a box of colourful chalks. My excitement was such that for a moment I failed to notice that Father was absent from the happy scene. “But, where’s Father?” I asked tugging anxiously at Mother’s skirts. A sharp gust of cool morning air answered my query as the kitchen door flew open to reveal a tall figure dressed in loose trousers, faded at the knee, a waistcoat, coarse cotton shirt rolled up at the sleeves, a cloth cap and heavy work boots. A large brown paper parcel was tucked under his sunburnt arm. “Daddy!” I cried, running to greet him at the door. He removed his hat and playfully threw it to Alfred. “I see you’ve begun the celebration without me,” he said with a wink in Mother’s direction. “I had an important early morning errand in town.” “That’s a very big parcel,” said Tom with a wistful look. “Aye son, indeed, it is but, before we complete the ceremony, I suggest we set about the feast your redoubtable mother has prepared before it becomes cold!” With so many hungry young appetites it wasn’t long before the remains of the feast were cleared away and the dirty dishes languished in a bowl of soapy water. Father brushed a few remaining crumbs from the table and with mock-ceremony, laid the mysterious object before me. I gazed at the tantalizing loop of twine that trailed from the package. “Open it Sarah-Jane,” cried Johnnie, his rosy face even ruddier than usual. I looked first to Mother and then to Father for approval. He replied with a nod and a gentle hand on my shoulder. So, I grasped the twine between finger and thumb and pulled until the twine fell away from the parcel and allowed the brown paper to be torn away to reveal its precious contents. I found a simple black dress with short sleeves trimmed with white, a white apron and a little white mob cap of a similar fashion to the kind worn by the servant girls I had caught brief glimpses of as they hurried by discussing their ‘sweethearts’ on the road to Riverton. Proud as I was to receive such garments, my seven-year old self was yet to realise their significance. “Oh, thank you Daddy—are they really all for me?” I asked, doubtful, as I’d never known such luxury. I picked up the cap and pulled it on, turning to beam at my brothers as I did so. Tom giggled at my unfamiliar appearance. But Father just smiled and took both my small hands between his. I noticed the roughness of his hands compared to the white softness of mine. He looked grave for a moment but then, stroked his beard, cleared his throat and continued: “Now Sarah-Jane, my dear little girl. I know that you and Alfred often play by the river?” “Yes Father.” “And you’ve seen the buildings across the water, Riverton School?” I nodded, thinking of the ‘Town of Children’ of my imagination. “Now you are seven years old, Mother and I have decided that you should begin your lessons. You will wear your new clothes, just like the other little girls.” “Won’t that be exciting,” added Mother reassuringly. As I had little understanding of school, I was not so sure… “Hold still Sarah!” I stopped fidgeting and stared at my small figure in the mirror whilst Mother stood behind me driving a brush through my thick hair in long strokes. I had been up since dawn and had already faced the ordeal of being scrubbed from head to foot in the tin bathtub before the fire—my screams when Mother washed my ears resulting in a slap. As well as my new uniform, I had also been given new woollen undergarments that scratched my skin and black button-up boots that squeaked when I walked and pinched my toes, (until now, like many country children I had often gone without shoes, preferring the comforting sensation of grass and mud under my bare feet. Mother secured the white cap with some hairpins she retrieved from a pocket on her apron and stepped back, head tilted approvingly on one side, to study her handiwork. “Why, don’t you look a picture!” She led me to the kitchen where Father awaited, walking cane in hand and dressed in his best Sunday greatcoat, ready to accompany me on my first walk to school. I took his hand and we set off along the path through our small front garden towards the river. The first signs of Autumn had begun to transform the countryside around us from greens and golds to reds and burnt orange. A few fallen leaves fluttered from the trees on the gentle September breeze and crackled under my torturous boots. As we approached the riverbank and the cluster of buildings that housed the school, a strange sensation began to build in my stomach, as though a family of restless mice had taken residence. The buildings no longer looked magical and inviting but grey and threatening. “You are very quiet Janie,” said Father, halting a characteristically tall tale, “you know there’s no need to fear.” A lump rose in my throat. I wanted to tell him that I was frightened, that I wanted to stay at home with Mummy and Daddy and play by the stream or in the woods with Alfred and the others; I wanted to tell him that I hated my dreary black dress but, instead I just nodded silently. A bridge on the wooded east side of the river formed the main approach to Riverton School. As grew nearer I could hear the distant sound of high- pitched voices, chirruping like the birds in the beech tree near our cottage. Then groups of children began to appear from all directions, emerging from the woods, or from the Riverton Road. Boys and girls dressed in a similar fashion to myself. Little girls holding hands, half walking, half skipping or older girls, arm in arm; heads together, whispering conspiratorially. Little boys pushing and shoving and laughing loudly. As we crossed the bridge, I imagined that some of the girls and boys turned to stare at the brightness of my new cap and apron and my shiny boots. After what seemed an eternity we came to the main schoolhouse, passing several smaller outbuildings on our way. It was a grand limestone building with pillars on either side of the arched main entrance that appeared as tall as trees. A bell positioned in an alcove within the arch chimed above my head as the children poured in to a courtyard beyond, divided by a low wall which led to the schoolrooms—one door for the boys and one for the girls; a low wall dividing it into two. Father pointed at some letters carved on the wall and read: Riverton School Established by Miss Howard 1833 Then he led me towards the girls’ entrance where they clustered in small groups playing games such as ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’. I startled as the edge of a hoop brushed my forearm, before spinning erratically towards the wall. The pale-faced owner of the hoop ran in pursuit, as though chasing a stray horse. “Sorry if it hurt you,” she said as she passed us again carrying the hop over her shoulder. I had just enough time to observe that the hair protruding from her cap was thin and black and that her eyes were a brilliant shade of blue, before a woman in a long grey dress emerged and began to ring a large hand bell. The clanging chimes had an almost miraculous effect on the little girls, who abandoned their play and flew like bees returning to their hive into orderly lines. By now other ladies, dressed in dark, plain dresses had appeared and one by one, to lead the lines of girls into the school. The schoolyard was silent now except for the sound of dozens of small boots on flagstone and an occasional stifled giggle. I shrank behind Father as the lady in grey acknowledged me with a smile and beckoning hand. “So, you must be Sarah-Jane?” I remained obstinately silent, studying her from under the frilly brim of my cap. She was prettier and younger than I’d first thought, only about as old as Mother with chestnut brown hair and a straight nose that still showed a hint of the freckles, I imagined she had once had. “I’m Miss Shaw, you’re to come with me. I am to be your teacher. Be a good girl and say goodbye to your Father.” 

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