I was nine when I first met Madeline. She had bright, golden red hair that stood out amongst the throng of other children and a quiet, mysterious demeanour that intrigued me. During break times she would stand motionless in the shade of the front steps and stare outward toward the playground, watching the rest of us with sharp blue eyes. Eventually I came to think of it as a game; me watching her watching them. I would position myself at the corner of the opposite building, beside the flagged marble pitch, half hidden by the wall and shielded by the half dozen kids who were too intent on potting marbles to notice me; a skinny, olive skinned girl with dark greasy hair and a misshapen nose. I would observe her as often as I could, occasionally being distracted by classmates inviting me to join a more active game, but more and more I became drawn to that corner in order to spy on Madeline, to try and understand what it was she was looking out for.
It took three months for the inevitable to occur. It happened just after the bell rang to indicate the beginning of the school day. I was idling to class and had fallen behind the group of girls I would commonly attach myself to – although they felt no allegiance to me, outsider as I was having joined the school half way through the year when all friendships had been made and bonded. Madeline abruptly appeared in front of me, appearing from a door way in the corridor, obstructing my path.
‘Why do you watch me?’ she asked.
Her voice was deeper than I had imagined it to be, and it had a threatening tone to it that I immediately feared. I had never seen Madeline with another pupil at our school, and I suddenly realised that I knew nothing about this girl in the year above me whom I only ever saw at break time. Perhaps the reason no one ever played with her was because she was the class bully, or maybe she was unbearably cruel and mean.
I stuttered some form of denial that even I hardly understood and my eyes widened through intimidation. Up close Madeline was beautiful despite the freckles that adorned her nose, cheeks and forehead. Her pale skin was almost translucent against their healthy glow and I suspected I could see the blue of her veins in her delicate arms.
She frowned at me, the freckles joining where her brow furrowed and her bright eyes narrowed. She waited, head slightly inclined toward me as though she had simply misheard what I’d said rather than I’d mumbled something nonsensical.
Before I could answer, her eyes darted toward a sound from behind her; a teacher checking the halls for latecomers and dawdlers. I chanced a breath not realising I’d been holding it for the few seconds Madeline and I had been face to face.
‘C’mon,’ she whispered, grabbing my arm and pulling me through the doorway from which she had emerged. I put up no resistance, taken off guard by her insistence and trusting her gentle grip on my wrist. Also, I did not want to be found in the corridor, again, as I was a repeat offender – always late to class dragging my feet until I knew there would only be one seat left in the classroom: making it seem as though I had no choice as to where to sit as oppose to no friends to sit with.
She dragged me into the storage cupboard I hadn’t known was there and knelt behind a shelf, indicating with her eyes – sharp and as bright as I’d ever remembered them – that I should do the same. I did so, just in time, as no sooner than my head was ducked low behind some tubs the teacher pushed open the door that had been left ajar and peered in.
I looked at Madeline in the half light; her finger was up to her lips. Be quiet, it instructed, and I adhered without knowing why. Perhaps my curiosity got the better of me; perhaps I was just afraid of getting into trouble. But, for whatever reason I made no sound and the teacher at the door briefly glanced around and then, satisfied with her sub-par inspection, she closed the door upon us, leaving me alone in the dark with the mysterious Madeline Parker.