There comes a time in a young girl's life when she is ripe and ready for love, when there is a richness about her, a glow, a honeyed tumescence that draws men like bees to blossom. Call it what you will, nature, biology, pheromones, or lust, it is the moment, that perfect moment when her hormones are sizzling, when she melts, when her eyes are dewy with promise, when everything about her is sending out urgent messages. In short, nature works overtime to make her absolutely irresistible. For me, as I open this account, that moment had not yet come. There were still two years of preparation, during which I matured from a gauche schoolgirl into a wide-eyed young woman standing on the threshold of adult life.
My brothers and I had been born in India, during those last tumultuous days of the Raj. I was born in 1941 in Jutogh, high in the Himalayas, a far and distant world from England. Our life in India had been one of ease, with servants standing by to answer our every whim. We had made one trip back to England, in 1946, when Mother had taken my brothers and me and sailed home for a sabbatical with my grandparents, in South Wales. Father announced that he had no intention of being trapped aboard a ship with three screaming offspring, and so came later by air. He was involved at that time with spying operations in the Middle East, which was a hotbed of intrigue; he seemed to prefer that danger to traveling with his three unruly children.
Our second journey to England from India was even more fraught with tension and, this time, a great sadness, for we knew we were leaving for good. It was in 1948, and after three long centuries of rule, Britain was giving India back. By this time, my maternal grandmother had left my grandfather--the result of a marital problem involving not one but two of their pretty and plump Welsh maids--and had removed herself to their second home just outside Brighton, on the Downs, where we stayed. My father arrived early in 1949, and that's when it was apparent to me how much my grandparents disliked him. He worked at the Commonwealth Relations Office in London at this time, and so was not always at home. The peace was kept for a time until he and my Uncle John--a real war hero known as "Bunty"--ended up in a bout of fisticuffs. I can still remember the two of them tumbling down the stairs at Brighton, breaking a grandfather clock on a landing at the bend of the stairs. The very next day, Father took a train down the line, stopping at the first suburb he liked the look of, which happened to be Wimbledon. There, he bought the first house he was shown, no haggling whatsoever. We were in it by the end of the week. When my brother Jimmy and I found a dead baby wrapped in a brown paper parcel in one of the big ponds on Wimbledon Common a few months later, my mother panicked and wanted to leave the dangers of the city. So Father sold the house to a married ex-girlfriend at a loss.
We moved to Downside, a little village in Surrey that I liked since I was soon given the task of pumping the church organ. I also fell in love with a children's graveyard there, next to the tragic memorials to the village sons who had fallen in battle. But Father soon took up with the vicar's wife. I didn't mind that so much, but he gave away my doll--she was a golden-haired fairy doll, a Christmas gift I adored--to the vicar's daughter.
Just before my little sister, Gracie, was born, we had settled in Guildford, only thirty miles from London, but it seemed hundreds. We had no car and so never ventured far from the town itself. It was there, in Guildford, that the first big event in my young life happened, one that I shall never forget. Mother was very ill that summer with some mysterious disease called "white leg," something to do with her being pregnant with Gracie. She had to stay in bed, attended once a day in the mornings by the district nurse, who happened to live next door. I was still only ten, but during the long summer break I did the actual everyday work of looking after the family. What I remember most about this period was what happened in the house next door to us. The nurse and her husband, a small and balding man who had been in the medical corps, had ferocious fights. At least, she fought and he listened. One problem was that he loved playing his bagpipes and she hated the very sound of them. After she would leave on her bicycle each day, he would come outside in a pinafore to shake the tablecloth, the feather duster, or the polishing mop. He spoke kindly to me, asking questions about my school and hobbies, but he was always in a rush to get the house spotless before his wife came home. He never minded when my cat dug up his flower beds, but he would whisper furtively that she would be upset. She was a bully who told all the neighbors that he'd lost his job; he always said he had retired. When my cat disappeared one day, I hunted high and low but couldn't find him. The man next door shook his head when I told him.
"She destroys everything," he said, sadly. I was certain now that she had got rid of my cat.
This poor man's love in life, his only joy, was the set of bagpipes, which he longed to play at every opportunity. But she never would let him. Usually, he managed to sneak in a few minutes at the end of the day after he had done all his chores. By this time, my own day's work had wound down and I would lie, resting, on the roof of the garden shed. I'd watch him take his spotless washing in off the line that hung above the garden path, carefully putting the pegs into a special bag. After he had carried the washing indoors in its straw basket, he'd come out with his bagpipes, a look of pure joy on his face. He worked the air in the bag by pumping his elbow up and down and tuned it up. When all was in order, blissfully, he paraded up and down the path like a piper going to war. From my position on the roof, I would often spot her bicycling up the street before he did. She was a big, heavy woman with many jowls and always dressed in a navy uniform with white piping, collar, and cuffs, and a little felt hat with a silver badge. Her nursing bag was carried in a wicker basket on the front of the bicycle.
"She's here!" I'd hiss down to him. "Hurry!"
Guiltily, he would scurry off back indoors to hide the bagpipes under the stairs while she walked her bicycle into the garage and then, arms swinging, strode with a determined air toward the house. From my perch on the roof, I'd listen. If all was well, silence reigned; but more often, all was not well and there would be bellows of rage. I imagined the poor man scurrying around in his floral pinafore, trying to make it right for her. His last job at night was to clean her bicycle and put it away in the garage, where she would find it gleaming in the morning.
One night, the fighting became more vicious and heightened than ever before. There was the usual shouting, but this time screams were heard from the wife, loud thumping noises, and then pure silence. I had come to Mother's bedroom, to visit with her for a few minutes. Mother glanced across the room at where I was sitting, speechless, on the sofa.
"We must mind our own business, Rose," she said. "What goes on in that house is between the two of them."
But I knew the larger truth: We had all grown to hate the wife, her angry snarls just beyond our windows, her belittling taunts. And then, the man was really quite good on the bagpipes. That night, as I checked on Freddy, who had a bad cough, I peered down into the moonlight of the garden next door and witnessed something truly amazing. As I watched, our neighbor uprooted rose bush after rose bush in order to dig a massive hole in his backyard. Then, he disappeared into the house. He soon appeared again, pushing and pulling on a large and bulky carpet, which he promptly rolled into the grave and then began covering with dirt. I quickly went in and woke Mother, who couldn't sleep anyway since Father was still out and about, doing God only knew what. I told her about the rose bushes and the deep hole.
"He's buried a carpet," I reported to Mother. "It was rolled up."
She looked thoughtful.
"I expect his wife was in it," she said, almost casually. "Now, Rose, don't tell a soul."
"Not a word," Mother insisted. "She was a dreadful creature."
The next morning, all the rose bushes were neatly back in place. Mother and I watched as our neighbor marched up and down the lawn of his backyard, piping away to his heart's content and for as long as he wished. We were certain that he must have killed his wife and then buried her in the garden during the night. I asked again if we should tell anyone. Mother simply shook her head.
"He deserves his peace" was all she said.
We never saw nor heard from the wife again, but trouble brewed when my father started an affair with my best friend's mother. We had to move once more, and again the house was sold at a loss in a hurry. By now, and with another financial calamity at our heels, we were so broke that a move to Cornwall was the cheapest option. And Mother foolishly believed that in the Cornish hinterlands Father would be miles away from his favorite city women. A house was found, cheap and bursting with furniture so old that no one wanted it. Father made arrangements immediately and off we went again, leaving behind our neighbor and his now joyous piping in the garden.
By 1953, my family was neatly tucked away in the remote county of Cornwall, and I was still a young girl, "bedded soft and gliding in my dreams." The weather across England was atrocious for most of that year. In January, torrential rains, an unusually high tide, and onshore gales had caused the North Sea to breach the dikes along the east coast and flood far inland, drowning hundreds of people. By June, when the young queen, Elizabeth II, was crowned at Westminster Abbey, the rain still fell in a steady downpour, washing out most of the street parties. Only the news that Mount Everest had been conquered by a New Zealander and a Sherpa, both of whom were conveniently considered by the British to be British, raised the nation's dampened spirits a little. As bells rang out, people talked of a new Elizabethan age, of a new prosperity, a new birth.
I was a solitary tomboy given to roaming the wild country around our Cornish home, dreaming of adventure and exploration, not of romance and sex. I wasn't coltish and leggy like my best friend, Pamela, a solicitor's daughter, who had tumbling fair curls and come-hither dark blue eyes that had the boys chasing her in droves. Small and sturdy, I was built like a moorland pony with shaggy brown hair and the apple cheeks of a country girl. Circumstances had not yet placed me in the right place at the right time. I was waiting in the wings, the stage still empty, the curtain not yet risen on a terrible and painful love affair. Mostly, I felt unsettled, a sense of groping for the unknown, of my body developing an inner life of its own, beyond my control. I couldn't ask anyone what was going on, certainly not my mother, who was not the cuddly, confiding type. She was tall and angular and walked fast, so locked in to her own misery as to seem almost a stranger.
It was a period when sex was a taboo word between the generations. Somehow, my friends and I muddled along, the entire subject concealed in whispers, a carefully guarded adult mystery so impossible to penetrate that we were constantly searching for clues. Even the most obscure references to body parts and suggestive activities in the dictionary, the Bible, or Shakespeare assumed pornographic proportions, which, if read out loud in class, invoked furtive whispers and giggles as notes were passed beneath desks. Anything could set us off.
In an attempt to use rules as a method of chaperonage, grammar school girls and college boys were banned from walking on the same side of the street. It didn't make sense when most of the girls had brothers at the college, as I did. My older brother, Jimmy, often filled our house with rowdy classmates. Consequently, mornings and evenings when we flooded to and from our respective schools, the pavement on one side was filled with giggling girls, the other side with loud boys, horsing about, throwing conkers or paper darts to catch our attention. Rumors flew around the school like wildfire when someone said she had seen our head girl out walking down Lovers' Lane at dusk with the opposition's head boy. Was she stupid enough to let him do it, we asked? Another rumor flew: She was pregnant, her life was ruined, she'd have to leave, her parents were sending her away. Being ruined was the big thing we had to avoid at all costs. Even French kissing could ruin a girl, and if a boy whispered the words "French letter" into your ear, slap his face and run. None of us was sure what French kissing was, let alone a French letter, but the knowledge that just a kiss could have such disastrous consequences was terrifying. How could you tell if you were being French kissed? And who to avoid? Suppose your uncle kissed you, or, heaven forbid, your father? For a time, until we forgot about it, hysteria set in. It seemed our world was full of pitfalls to be avoided, yet most of the time, we didn't know what those pitfalls were.
However, doing it was high on the list. We were always on the lookout for people who might be doing it. The boys' headmaster came to see our headmistress--whom we called Auntie Moo--in her study, a regular weekly event to compare notes on our linked schools. Suddenly we were convinced his walk was more unsteady than usual when he left, and her nose was red at the tip. A bottle of sherry was seen in the bin. When I volunteered to listen at the study door, a girl at the top of the stairs standing "cave," I heard the sound of laughter, and many suggestive silences. No doubt about it, they definitely did it behind the closed door.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl by Rosemary Kingsland. Copyright © 2003 by Rosemary Kingsland. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.