By Jess Nickelsen
- One diary, battered, purple vinyl with a rainbow and brass-plate lock.
- One pack of cigarettes, Marlboro; one lighter, green. Taken from the maintenance man’s cupboard around 8pm one evening.
- One mechanical pencil, yellow plastic, with a red stripe around the base near the metal part that the lead comes out through. Found on Mrs. Clickkit’s desk after maths.
- One Polaroid photograph, worn, of a boy of thirteen or fourteen. Found behind the sports sheds one sunny Saturday.
- One hair ribbon, red, striped. Found in the girls’ bathroom during lunch break.
- One flat-head screwdriver, well-used. Clear red resin handle with a white stripe on it. The white has worn away in several places.
- One oil can, unused. Found by the maintenance shed after gym. Lost the next morning in the girls’ bathrooms.
- One guitar pick, purple. Stolen from a guitar case in the music room, the night of the school play.
- One deceased body, Jan’s. Found lying on the cobbles by the music tower.
- One necklace, heart-shaped. Gold, possibly real.
Ramona scribbles in her diary. She is hidden in the girls’ bathroom during lunch break. The wrapper from her lunch, a pack of chips, is in her bag beside her. It’s a secret diary – one she would never let anyone read, or see, or find. She keeps it hidden behind the large wooden cistern; there’s a small gap at the back. She could keep it in her foot-locker, in the dormitory, but most of the girls don’t lock theirs and it would arouse suspicion if Ramona started to lock hers.
Someone comes in to the bathroom, and Ramona hears them close and lock a stall door. Rustling. Peeing. Flush. The door opens again. Ramona quietly gets up and looks through the crack in the stall. It’s Jan Worthington. Ramona still has a bruise on her arm from when Jan grabbed her, hard, during tag at morning break.
Jan pauses in front of the mirrors and puts her hand in her skirt pocket. After a bit she draws something out and holds it up. Something glints golden under the fluorescent bathroom lighting. Jan looks up, towards the only stall with the door closed. Towards Ramona. Ramona quickly pulls back from the door. Her hands feel sticky.
The bathroom door bangs open and several girls come in. One says hi to Jan.
By the time Ramona looks again, Jan has put the necklace away. She has untied her hair and got her brush out. As the brush yanks through her golden brown hair, Jan regards herself with a critical, detached gaze.
Ramona doesn’t smoke but the pack of cigarettes in the maintenance man’s small cupboard intrigues her. He is in his late twenties and always wears a cap, and whistles while he fixes things. He usually has stubble, dark and bristly-looking, and often – when he’s not whistling – has a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. He’s the only man at the school, aside from the Head, Dr. Hillsborough, who is white haired and sour, as all the other men have gone off to war. All the female teachers look at the maintenance man. All the students too.
Ramona reaches out and quickly takes the packet of Marlboros, and the green plastic lighter beside it. She closes the cupboard door and re-twists the paperclip that she jammed into the lock, so the small latch catches again. She shoves the cigarette packet and lighter in her bra, and runs off to the music tower, her cheeks burning.
Maths class is quite difficult. Ramona is in the A stream, and while she liked the old maths teacher, Mrs. Ormond, the new one, Mrs. Clickett, is stern and talks too fast. And she has terrible handwriting. She walks around the room, looking over everyone’s shoulders when they’re trying to graph parabolae, and if you do it wrong, she jabs at your paper with a yellow mechanical pencil and makes a little hole. She has done this several times to Ramona.
Ramona hates Mrs. Clickett, but there is something about her mechanical pencil that gives her the feeling. Ramona doesn’t know how to describe the feeling – and probably wouldn’t even if she could – but she knows it’s a feeling that means she will probably take something. She leaves her sweater over the back of her chair when the class gets up to go to the afternoon break, knowing she will have to return to claim it.
The form class marches around the perimeter of the school, every morning in autumn. It hasn’t yet snowed, but the scent of it is on the air. Ramona is wrapped in her hooded dark blue duffel coat like the other girls, but her glasses keep falling down her nose and she can’t stop sniffing. They are meant to breathe deeply and swing their arms as they walk but Ramona keeps her hands shoved down in her pockets except for when she needs to straighten her glasses.
Jan, Marcy, and Sarah Cotterage, are up the front of the group. They have linked arms and are skipping and singing “Follow The Yellow Brick Road”. The school is putting on “A Rockin’ Wizard of Oz” and Jan has the part of Dorothy. She will also play lead guitar. Marcy is going to play the Tin Man, Sarah Cotterage is the Cowardly Lion. As they skip, Jan talks loudly about how Eliza the prefect, schmoozed her way into playing the Scarecrow.
Eliza is in the library. She has a doctor’s note.
Ramona was not going to try out for the school play, but Dr. Hillsborough announced at assembley that it would be a compulsory activity for all students. Anyone who did not get a main part would play a munchkin.
Ramona, who never thought she could act, surprised herself and the rest of the school by getting the part of the Wicked Witch of the West. At the audition, she opened her mouth and a terrible cackle – almost a scream – came out. Mrs. Coddle’s mouth dropped open and several girls shrieked in surprise. Ever since, Ramona has been practicing in private. She hooks her fingers into claws and sends her flying monkeys chasing after Dorothy and her stupid friends.
Ramona is bored with walking. She slows down a little and allows herself to be passed by the other girls. The column of blue woollen bodies moves on ahead of her, and then Ramona makes a sudden right turn and hides behind the sports sheds. For a moment she rests her back on one of the sheds and looks out into the forest that surrounds the school. There is a mist hanging about the trees.
Down at Ramona’s feet is a photograph. She picks it up with one hand as she reaches into her pocket for the packet of cigarettes. The photo gives her the feeling but she doesn’t know why. It doesn’t seem to belong to anyone.
‘One Polaroid photo’, Ramona writes in her diary. She looks at the photo after she has written this. The boy in the picture has an old-fashioned haircut and is smiling into the sun. He’s freckled and looks like he’d play cricket, and wear gumboots and splash in the rain, and he’d know how to play chess and cribbage. Ramona supposes she might be in love with him.
There is a mystery going on in the school. The more Ramona thinks about it, the more she thinks the maintenance man should really be at war, and not hanging around a girls’ school. He is perfectly healthy, Ramona has seen him pushing the lawn mower around the field, and climbing ladders and things.
Ramona carefully hides her diary behind the cistern, and makes sure nothing is showing. Then she flushes the toilet for effect, and goes to the sink to wash her hands. A ribbon – red, striped – lies on the small shelf beneath the mirror. It is Jan’s. Ramona saw her wearing it in English class that morning. There are several blonde hairs still stuck to it. Ramona has it in her hand and is about to put it in her book bag, when the door bursts open and Jan comes through, talking loudly to Marcy, who is following behind her.
Jan gives Ramona a side glance, and is about to shove a cubicle door open, when she notices the ribbon in Ramona’s hand. She stops.
“What are you doing with that?” she asks.
Jan yanks the ribbon from Ramona’s hand and gives her a hard shove.
Ramona stumbles backwards and hits her hip against the porcelain sink. Jan and Marcy laugh and Jan gets a pack of cigarettes from her bag. Ramona rushes out of the bathroom and runs straight into the maintenance man. He drops a plastic bucket he is carrying, and things fall out of it and scurry across the floor: a scrub brush, a rag, a can of pledge, a green plastic bottle – and a necklace with a gold locket in the shape of a heart.
“Hey, hey – you OK?” he asks. But Ramona is up and running, a witch’s shriek bursting from her chest.
They are rehearsing for “A Rockin’ Wizard of Oz” in the drama room when one of the fluorescent overhead lights starts to flicker.
“Ugh!” Jan cries out theatrically. She stops playing guitar and flings her arm over her eyes, bringing an abrupt end to Mrs. Coddle’s electrified version of “Over the Rainbow.” Eliza the prefect shouts out “I’m epileptic!” and runs out of the room, abandoning her tambourine. Mrs. Coddle, trying to assume control, fishes her cellphone out of her purse and makes a call.
Ramona does not have a scene in the immediate future, and so is still picking threads out of a seat in the third row when the maintenance man arrives. He is carrying a large toolbox, which Ramona has seen on his person many times in the past. She wonders if he carries it everywhere.
“Oh, um,” Mrs. Coddle twitters. “We seem to have a little lighting issue.” She twiddles with the scarf around her neck.
Behind her, Jan nastily twirls an invisible scarf and preens.
Sarah laughs. Marcy flushes red but stares hard at the maintenance man, who is dragging a desk chair over so he can reach the light.
Ramona stands up. Everyone is intent on the maintenance man. His torso is swathed in a grey flannel work shirt, and stretches up, as he tries to work loose the diamond-patterned plastic cover for the lights.
“I can’t-” he says. Just then the cover partly comes loose but is caught in a metal clasp at one end. He can’t let go or the plastic will break.
“Someone hand me a screwdriver? Something to pry…”
The girls, the teacher, surge towards the tool box, but Marcy shoves forward and is there before them all. She fishes out the screwdriver and passes it up to the maintenance man’s hand, which hovers, open, just over her shoulder.
He takes it and their eyes meet.
Now Jan is the one flushed red. The maintenance man pries the cover loose. “There.” He passes the screwdriver back down to Marcy.
Everyone is busy watching him, so no-one sees as Ramona drifts closer to the toolbox and puts the screwdriver in her skirt pocket. No-one but Ramona sees Marcy gloating, now back over by the drums, or Jan, arms crossed and angry over her red guitar.
There is an oil can on the path heading out to the maintenance shed. Ramona is out walking, smoking her illicit cigarettes and skipping maths class. She has decided she will flunk maths anyway so she may as well enjoy herself while she does it.
The oil can, even though it has been dropped and would therefore constitute an accidental acquisition, gives Ramona the feeling and so she picks it up.
It is unused, completely clean. Old-fashioned, and now Ramona knows she has seen it before somewhere.
Ramona tries to put it all together, but she doesn’t think she has all the pieces. She wishes her mother would still let her be home schooled. Everything was simpler at home.
Later, Ramona pretends to sleep when the lights go out but really she lies in bed, with the yellow mechanical pencil. She’s pushed the lead back into the pencil, and is stabbing her arm with the metal point. As she does it she thinks of all the little holes Mrs. Clickett has made in her homework this year.
The stabbing is sharp and makes Ramona feel cold all over, even under the covers. She used to love maths. Ramona has a huge bruise on her hip, from when Jan pushed her, and now she can only lie on her right side in bed. This means Ramona has to face the wall, and she doesn’t like the feeling of her back to the open.
Ramona has to pee. The pressure on her bladder’s been building but she has tried to ignore it, hoping she would just fall asleep and then she could pee in the morning. Her bladder now says otherwise.
She gets out of bed, bringing the pencil along. It’s dark, but Ramona can still see someone else getting out of bed, and sneaking towards the dorm room door. Ramona quietly follows, bare feet curling on the cold floor.
Ramona knows who it is before she sees her face – she’d recognise Marcy’s frizzy red hair anywhere. Marcy is terrible at sneaking – she trips over the edge of the stairs as she heads down to the main hall, and makes no effort to muffle her footsteps, her sandals making a rough slapping sound against the linoleum . Ramona, like a dark shadow, slips silently along behind her.
Just before they reach the toilets Marcy runs out the side door and out into the night. Through the glass, cross-hatched with wire, Ramona watches Marcy run off down the path. She knows it leads out to the running track and sports sheds, and past those, the maintenance shed and the funny little yellow house beyond.
The next morning, Ramona is back in the bathroom. She is adding “oil can” to the list at the back of her diary. Suddenly the can slips out of her hand. It goes clanging under the toilet stall door, and across the linoleum floor.
Ramona opens the door. Jan is picking up the oil can.
“Where did you get that?” Jan asks. “Did you steal that from Marcy? I knew you were a thief.”
“No, it’s mine. I found it.”
Ramona decides. “Yes. out on the path behind the sports field.”
Jan goes still. Looks at the oil can for a moment, and then throws it down on the floor so hard it dents.
“It’s true,” Ramona says.
Jan comes up really close to Ramona. Her breath smells like apple juice. She reaches down and grabs Ramona’s pencil and slowly jabs it into Ramona’s arm. “You listen to me,” Jan says. “You don’t know anything. You’re just a horrible, zitty, watching thief who has to take things because no-one will give you anything otherwise!”
Ramona doesn’t say anything, even when Jan stabs her again and again.
Ramona is in the music tower, after dark. Tonight was opening night for the play, and Ramona is still in her Wicked Witch of the West costume. Wrapped around her arm is a sports sock with the foot part cut off. Ramona is after the purple pick that she saw Jan using earlier, on stage.
After the play there was a party. Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion played their instruments while several of the munchkins danced. The Wicked Witch of the West was not invited to partake. Which was just as well, because Ramona noticed several people laughing behind their hands during the show.
The band didn’t seem to play all that well. Dorothy and the Tin Man were hardly looking at each other, and the Scarecrow didn’t turn up. Everyone seemed to be in poor spirits, with the exception of the Tin Man, who didn’t even seem to be bothered by Mrs. Coddle chewing her out in front of everyone for denting her oil can so terribly.
After the final curtain, Dorothy and the Tin Man had a huge falling-out. Props were thrown (denting the oil can even further). They seemed to be throwing something, something glittering, back and forth: “take it!” “I don’t want it! It’s yours now!” “I hate you!” and so on.
Ramona didn’t really care all that much if the band, or the play, was any good. She was entranced by the plastic guitar pick that Jan held so casually in her fingers. And so she has broken into the instruments room tonight and is poking around, looking for Jan’s guitar case. She finds it, opens up the black lid, and lifts up the guitar inside so she can get to the small compartment under the neck. She lifts the red felt lid, and feels for the pick. It’s there.
Footsteps. Ramona didn’t lock the door behind her when she broke into the music tower. She quickly puts everything back and hides in the corner behind the only desk. The door to the tower bangs open, and Ramona hears the sound of someone running up the circular staircase. Quickly, before the person comes back down again, Ramona runs out of the classroom and back out into the courtyard. She clenches the purple pick in her hand. Her head feels buzzy and light. The feeling imbues her whole body, her whole being.
But then there is a sound. A no-sound, the sound of air, the sound of a mouth opened in a silent scream. And then another sound, a sound Ramona would never, could never describe.
Ramona turns around and Jan is there. Lying there in her blue and white checked dress. Lying on the cobbles by the music tower. Looking up. Eyes moving, scanning the starry sky. Ramona slowly walks over, leans over. Eyes meet eyes.
She remembers what Jan said. She remembers the puncture marks on her arm, and how it felt when Jan made them.
Around Jan’s neck, a gold locket necklace shines in the moonlight.
Looking down at it, Ramona gets the feeling.
Her fingernails, still painted black, curl into claws. Her heart soars out of her chest on its broomstick and circles around the moon.
There’s no place like home, Dorothy.