... I woke up a little in the taxi but I didn't REALLY wake up until
I was sitting at a long wood table late that night, eating cold roast
beef. It was rare (just how I like it), and as I ate, I got more awake.
Lindsey Cohen was sitting next to me, and we were at Sibton Park.
The room was big, and bare,
with three long wooden tables (all empty), squares of grey stone for
a floor, and lots of big windows - it was too dark outside to see anything
out of them. It was also a little bit cold.
A grown-up came in and said she'd bring me to my dormitory. She led
me through a long passage with coathooks and kids' raincoats all along
the walls and a brick floor so old that the center dipped down, from
all those feet over the years.
We went up steep stairs and through a wider, fancier hallway with wood
floors, then up more stairs into a small room with no furniture in it
and down two steps into a long, straight, wide, white hall with lots
of closed doors.
The first door on the right had a white wooden sign with neat black
letters saying: "Wellington." The next said "Waterloo."
Then, above a little step on the left, the door said "WC."
She opened the door and I saw a little white room with just a toilet,
no sink or bathtub. I stepped up into it and closed the door.
When I came out, we walked past more doors and stopped at "Nelson."
This, she whispered, was my dormitory, and I'd need to get ready for
bed quietly, so I didn't wake "the others." Then she opened
The room was big, with tall old-fashioned windows, open (a breeze and
a silvery grey light came through them, and outside I could see a leafy
branch) and a fireplace and five beds: four with girls in them, one
empty. There was a little sink in the corner; she pointed to it and
watched me wash and get into bed, then whispered good-night. A dormitory
at Sibton Park - not Nelson.
As soon as she was gone, all the girls sat up in their beds. One by
one, they said hello and whispered their names, very politely: Rosemary
Hitchcock, Sarah Riley, Catherine Marshall, and Hazel Fogarty. They
seemed nice (only Sarah Riley had kind of a snobbish voice, I thought).
"My name is Elizabeth Koponen," I said, "but everyone
calls me Libby."
"Are you American?" Catherine Marshall said. She was in a
bed by itself across from the door - my bed was in the middle of a row
of three beds against a wall.
"Yes," I said proudly. I am proud of being an American. "Don't
ever give me tea -if you do, I'll have to pour it out on the floor,
in honor of the Boston Tea Party."
I told them about the grown-ups in Boston dressing up like Indians in
the middle of the night and dumping all the tea from the English ships
into the Boston harbor. There was a little pause when I was done, and
then Catherine Marshall said,
There was another little pause, and then Hazel Fogarty asked if I'd
ever been "away at school" before, and I said no, and they
started telling me all about Sibton Park.
"Your first term you'll be teased - new girls always are."
I asked how long you were a new girl, and they said for your first term,
but that you weren't an old girl until you'd been there a year. They'd
been there for three or four years: they were all older than I was.
I asked about the Headmistress, Mrs.Ridley-Day; my father had talked
about her a lot - he'd said she was beautiful and a real lady, and that
he'd chosen the school because of what she was like. I didn't say that
- I just asked the girls if they liked Mrs. Ridley Day.
"Call her Marza, we all do, it's Greek for Mother," Catherine
"Does she have a husband?"
"He's dead - he died in the War."
"That's when she started the school."
"The house is hers," Sarah said.
We talked on and on - I didn't feel sleepy at all and I don't think
anyone else did, either. After awhile we stopped whispering and talked
out loud. There was a rule against talking after Lights Out, they said,
but no one ever obeyed it and people were always getting punished for
"One night the whole school was talking -except for Alice and Tina,
they're prefects and the oldest girls in the school -"
"and the next day at prayers Marza said that there would be no
sweets that day because of it."
I knew that "sweets" are candy.
"Do you usually have sweets?"
"Yes, every day after dinner we line up and can choose two each."
"Toffees, or acid drop spangles, or peppermints, or boiled sweets.
On Sunday we always have Cadbury's."
That wasn't in any of the books. But they seemed to like school as much
as the girls in the books did.
We talked on and on. I told them that on the train Lindsey Cohen had
hardly talked to me at all, and Catherine said:
"She doesn't like Americans - her father married one and she can't
bear her step-mother. I shouldn't worry."
I asked where the horses
were, and if they could ride them whenever they wanted, and everyone
started talking at once and Hazel Fogarty (they called her "Foggy
") was jumping up and down on her bed, imitating someone who couldn't
ride trying to canter and we were all laughing when the door opened.
All the noise stopped and everyone quickly got under the covers. A lady
stood tall and straight in the doorway, like a queen. She had grey hair
in one long, thick braid that curved over the front collar of her dressing
gown. I could see her quite well in the light from the hall and I knew
who she was: Mrs.Ridley-Day. She was very beautiful.
She didn't say anything, just looked. Everyone was lying down, breathing
quietly and slowly. Then:
"Catherine Marshall, were you talking?"
"Hazel Fogarty, were you talking?"
"Sarah Riley, were you talking?"
She didn't ask Rosemary (later, I found out that the teachers all thought
Rosemary was "delicate").
"Elizabeth Koponen, were you talking?"
"Yes, Marza," I said proudly - I had read books about boarding
school, I knew you should always "own up" (though never tattle).
And I had remembered to call her "Marza."
There was a little pause and then she said, in a different voice,
"You're far too young for this wing of the house." She looked
around at everyone and left.
She didn't say anything else, but even after she left, there was no
more talking - except that Catherine Marshall whispered,
"When she asks, you don't have to answer."
I think they all went to sleep after that; I didn't - I lay on my back
with my eyes open, thinking and listening. The girls were nice, they
liked me, Sibton Park wouldn't be like Sr.Vincent's.
The night was very quiet, so quiet that I could hear leaves rustling
outside the window.
After awhile I heard a sound I hadn't heard in a long time, a sound
that felt safe and familiar even before I knew what it was: a car far
away coming closer and closer, getting louder and louder - until its
lights swept the room, fast. Then the room got dark again, and slowly,
the sound faded away.
I heard that every night in my room in America.
I lay on my back, listening for the next one - finally I heard it. First
the engine from far away getting closer and louder - it felt lonely
and adventurous from far away, but safe, too; and then exciting when
the sound was really loud and the lights swept the room. Then the sound
went farther and farther away until I couldn't hear it anymore, and
the night was still and peaceful and quiet; until the next safe sound
- a car from far away coming closer.
front gate -- you can see a little of the house, too. This is how Sibton
from the road. After you go in the front gate, you see this:
then you get to the front door:
show the backs and the sides of the house when I tell about
the next day, because thats when I saw them. They look much cozier
than this. The house had been added onto over the years and each side
of it - there were more than four -- looked quite different. The front
was the most formal.)
dormitory (not Nelson, but with the same sort of beds and
windows). You can see the towel rack next to the sink, but
not the little sink itself.
Chapter 15. Talking to a Real Horse
The next day, there weren't any classes: the first day of term was always
a day just for everyone to get settled in.
As soon as I was by myself and could,
I thought, do what I wanted (which was after I'd been moved into my
new dormitory, The Night Nursery, and been shown around the school),
I ran to the big meadow where the horses were.I was a little surprised
by how BIG they were and decided not to get too close. There was a dead
tree, grey and smooth like driftwood, lying on its side in the sun and
I stood near that, watchingthe horses eating grass.
After awhile a big grey one lifted its
head up and looked at me. It walked towards me slowly, kind of curiously,
with its neck stretched out, swishing its tail. It looked very relaxed.
It came right up to me and sniffed me. Then it touched me - sort of
nudged me - with its nose. I didn't know what to do. In books they always
said horses could tell if you were scared, and that quick movements
frightened them, so I just stood very still and tried not to be afraid.
The horse bent down its head and shoved me with its nose until I was
pushed back against the dead tree and it was standing right in front
of me. This wasn't done in a MEAN way - it was as though the horse was
old and bossy, and saying "Get over there."
So I did.
Then I was trapped between the horse and the tree; the horse's neck
was higher than my head. I stood still and started talking to the horse
in a quiet, steady voice, the way people did in books. The horse pushed
its nose against my chest - hard - so my back pressed into the tree,
and then, very slowly, it rubbed its whole face against me, pushing
hard, rubbing up and down my chest and stomach. It closed its eyes and
rubbed the space in between them, and then the long bony part of its
face that went from between its eyes down to its nose - over and over,
up and down my body; then it turned its head and put one foot out in
front of the others (even its feet were big) and rubbed one side of
its face against me, then the other.
It didn't hurt, except where a bump on the tree was pressing into my
back. I kept talking, quietly and calmly. Finally the horse kind of
shook itself all over (as though it was saying "Oh! I needed that!"),
gave me one last nudge with its nose, and ambled away, head hanging
down, neck stretched out, tail swishing. It stopped a few feet away
from me and started munching grass again.
That was the first time I ever talked to a horse.
I felt a little proud of myself and very happy. I had talked to a real
horse. The books had been right (I like it when things in books turn
out to be true) - I'd remembered what they said to do and I'd done it.
When something frightening happens, the best thing to do, I think, is
to stay calm, figure out what to do, and then (even if you're afraid)
make yourself do it, no matter what. "Make sure you're right, then
go ahead," as Davy Crockett said.
Anyway - although it was a little scary at first, it was neat to have
been that close to a real horse.
I walked back to the house slowly, out of the meadow and into "the
paddock" and up some brick steps. Then I was on a big smooth lawn
called the Lower Garden, with bushes cut into fancy shapes - the part
of the house I could see from here (the house was huge, with more than
a hundred rooms) was made of rose-colored brick; it even looked old
(I knew from the little booklet that it had been built in 1300 something).
And what I could see was only part of Sibton Park - there was another
huge lawn called "the Upper Garden" and a and a Tudor Garden
(twisty little brick paths arranged in a complicated pattern around
little hedges, with an old sundial in the middle) and tennis courts
and the Rose Garden..... Our whole yard in America could have fit into
half the Rose Garden. It was strange to think that one person owned
all of it, that it used to be her house....
I opened a dark green door in a brick
wall and then I knew where I was again - right next to our part of the
house. I ran up to the Nursery. Matron was sitting at a round wooden
table, folding clothes. She was 16 1/2 but she seemed older than our
baby sitters in America - she seemed like a grown-up, not a teenager,
maybe because she was so big. She was almost as tall as my father and
I think - bigger.
Everyone called her "Matron," but (as I found out later -
I didn't remember any Matrons in the school stories) it wasn't her name:
it was her job. I don't know what she did while we were having lessons,
but when we weren't, she was usually in the Nursery , or someplace else
where we could easily find her, and talk to her. She also put us to
bed, gave us our baths, and looked after us when we were ill
Everything about her was round: she had a round face and shiny blonde
hair in a round bun at the back, very fair skin, and navy blue eyes.
That day she was wearing a navy blue dress with a white collar and white
rims on the sleeves. This was her first term at Sibton Park, too: she
had just left school herself and was only at Sibton Park for one term
- she would be going to the University in September. She wanted to be
a writer, too. She had told me all this after breakfast, when she was
moving me into the Night Nursery and showing me around. I liked her.
When I came in from the meadow, she said:
"My goodness, Libby, look at your jumper! Whatever have you been
I looked. My sweater ("jumper") and culottes and even my socks
were covered with horse hairs. I told her what had happened.
"That must have been Nella. A big grey mare?"
"I don't know if it was a mare or not - it was big, and seemed
"She is: twenty at least."
I was pleased that I'd guessed right about the age and decided it would
be all right to ask a question.
"Why do you think she did that?"
She explained that horses' faces get very itchy and that they can't
scratch themselves or each other, and that a person in wool clothes
is the very best thing.
"For their backs they roll on the grass," Brioney (the seven-year
old in my new dormitory) said - she was lolling on a bed by the window.
She rolled on the bed, rubbing her back into it, and waved her arms
and legs. Her feet were big - although she was younger, Brioney was
much bigger than I was. She had big bones and big round eyes that were
so blue they sometimes looked green and strong bones in her cheeks -
even her mouth was big. That might make her sound ugly but she wasn't
- later one of the seniors said Brioney would grow up to be "a
beauty." She was kind of babyish, though.
While Brioney was rolling around like a horse itching its back, Clare
came to the door. She was in my new dormitory, too, and she was my age.
She was a new girl as well. Her last name was Sweeting and she seemed
sweet, but I liked her. She had blonde hair and very fair skin; everything
about her was light - even her voice.
She came into the room quietly, and then she asked me, kind of shyly,
if I would like to go for a walk with her.
"Sure!" I said.
Brioney sat up eagerly, as though she wanted to go too, but Matron said:
"Stay here with me, Brioney - you can choose the after-dinner sweets."
So Clare and I went by ourselves. We were wearing exactly the same clothes:
fawn-colored jumpers (we each had on a pullover with a cardigan over
it), grey wool culottes, and fawn colored knee socks. Only our shoes
were different. Having a uniform was kind of fun, I thought.
She told me that she had an older sister named Carol who had been at
Sibton for two years. I didn't say anything and there was a little pause.
Then she asked me what my "hobbies" were.
"What do you mean?" I said. I thought of the school stories.
"Things like stamp collecting?"
"Well, yes: Things you're interested in - that you do just for
the fun of it."
Playing isn't really a hobby.
"Does writing stories count as a hobby?" I said.
"Yes, of course," she said.
"Well, then: writing. I do write, quite a lot - I'm going to be
an author when I grow up." Until that day, I don't think I'd ever
told anyone outside the family that - Clare looked interested, and asked
more questions. I told her one of the Crazy Old Witch stories and when
the Witch said "My foot!" she laughed. Talking about my writing
felt strange, but fun, and after that, we talked about lots of other
things. We walked around the fields talking until Brioney came out and
said it was time for dinner.
(go to Chapter 15 in the book to read the next scene, when she starts
meeting more of the girls. There are 37 chapters all together)
in the big meadow (not the horse I talked to that day).
I took this picture myself, with a camera my father had given me.
Another view of the big meadow:
steps, with the Lower Garden
and part of the house in the background.
Click to see the steps close up.
the Lower Garden, with a different angle of the
house in the background:
use the map to see where all these
were and what they looked like.
click, the map gets bigger and has
more pictures attached to it.)
at English boarding schools for younger children looks
after the girls somewhat the way a nanny does - and is called "Matron,"
just as nannies are called "Nanny." The Matron my first term
young, interested in us, and fun. This isn't our matron, but it is the
nursery, with the same table, and her uniform is the same, too.