She was dressed and sitting at the breakfast-table when I awoke, and I saw she was nervous. Her tentative eyes turned to look up at me; for the first time her nose was not in a novel.
“We have to leave soon,” she said. “Our appointment with Mr McGuinness is at 8:30.”
It was our third week in the new city. In order to be accepted into the best junior school here, the nine-year-old had had to sit for an entrance exam that evaluated her academic competence. Results were due this morning.
Mr McGuinness stood up to shake our hands when we arrived. On a sheath of paper upon his desk. a bold letter E was marked on the top sheet in red biro. “Thank you for directing your mum to the office, Charlotte,” he smiled. “Would you mind waiting outside while I have a few moments with her?”
Alone, Mr McGuinness presented to me the lass’ graded tests. “Charlotte has done brilliantly,” he began, spreading out four sets of papers. “Excellent for English, Language Other Than English, and Science…”
“And a Distinction for Maths?” I interrupted, noticing a circled D.
“Yes,” said the teacher. He explained that this year’s questions had been tricky. But Charlotte had duxed her peers, most of whom received a credit or a pass. The school was very proud of its Mathematics standard, he said, and he was confident with time the lass would build upon her foundation, and improve. Before the next stage of the assessments, her overall grade was Excellent.
En-route home, the lass was subdued, as she stared impassively through the car-windscreen. Her skin was pale against her yellow hair, colouring her face like desert.
“Mr McGuinness says you have done very well,” I said, making the decision not to give away too many details, that I knew would ruin for her the glow of her accomplishments so far. “And the next step now will be the oral component.”
The lass said nothing.
“Would you like us to practise a little when we get home?” I said. “I’ve printed out some discussion topics.”
“All right, if you want to.”
After lunch, we tried to role-play on different subjects, from hobbies to climate change, animal welfare to food; but she had not much to say on anything.
“Are you tired, love?” I asked her.
“No… I don’t know, a little, maybe.”
It would have been natural for her to feel relieved, if not delighted, at what she had achieved, but all the time since we left the school-office, she was looking straight ahead, looking very peculiarly.
“How about trying again tonight?” I offered.
She was silent. After a long while, she said, “Mama, you don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to.”
“But I want to.”
“I mean, you don’t have to, if it wastes your time.”
I thought she was perhaps a bit anxious and wanted to be left alone; so after warming for her some milk I went to work on my patchwork-quilt.
It was a hot and dusty day, passing trains right outside the door leaving a layer of grey powder on all the windows, so that it seemed as if something huge and alive about us was breathing vapour upon the town. I swept the floor of this gloomy film, so as to lay down the fabric-backing for the quilt, but it was challenging to keep grit from settling between the cloth and the batting that went above it, and as soon as I smoothed out a wrinkle from either sheet to flatten them, brushing away dirt at once created new ones.
With masking-tape I attached the sides of the backing to the floor, before placing my stitched-up quilt-top on the bottom two layers. Slowly, I pinned the sections together, starting from the centre, working outwards, in concentric circles. A large craft while you were poised over it cautious to keep out dust and creases it made for difficult work, and I pricked my fingers a dozen times. Before leaving, I covered it with a plastic sheet, pleased to be past the hard part, happy there was more to do another day.
In the room, the lass was in exactly the same attitude as I had left her, slouched on the chair, staring, as she had stared, into an annihilating infinity. She was clearly gripping onto herself about something.
“Have you thought about answers to some of those questions?” I asked.
“Why not?” I persisted.
“Will it help?”
“Of course it will.” I picked up the list of topics, ready with some prompts to guide her back to her eloquent self.
“When am I going back to Dubbo?”
“When are you sending me back?”
“I’m not sending you back. What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, yes, you are, you only want me to be in the best school,” she replied, “and now that I got an E, I’m not going to make it here.”
“It was written on Mr McGuinness’ paper.”
“I’ll never let you leave me; that’s a silly way to talk.”
“But I won’t be able to get an A, however much I prepare for the oral test.”
She had been worried about being abandoned because of a bad score, since 8:30 in the morning.
“You, poor lass, E is for Excellent in Wagga Wagga, the highest anybody can go. Then they have D for Distinction, C for Credit, and so on.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I said, “and I will never send you back, and stay behind on my own. If you’re not accepted into this school, we’ll just try another one; if you’re not happy in Wagga Wagga, and want to return to Dubbo, we will go back together.”
Her face relaxed slowly; her grip onto herself relaxed, too, finally. The rest of the day was very slack. That night, she crawled into my bed, and fell asleep against my chest.