The first time Leilah saw her, she thought Frankie was a boy in a skirt. Her legs ran in straight lines, into a straight waist and a long, straight neck. She looked like nothing scared her. Frankie was different to the other Grade 7 girls, twelve- and thirteen-years-olds who stood in clusters, untying and retying their ponytails, with a moment in between to let their hair fall loose about their shoulders while they glanced at a passing boy. Frankie didn’t seem to notice boys.
She did notice Leilah, though, standing alone against a pillar at the edge of the schoolyard, her arms wrapped around the cold concrete as if hugging a tree. Frankie walked past with an amused smile and, with a click of her tongue and a cock of her head, invited Leilah to follow her. Leilah obeyed, because she had no one else to follow, and because she wanted some of Frankie?s confidence, which she wore like a crown. The two girls went to their empty homeroom class and sat down, Frankie at the first table she passed, Leilah at the very back, next to a fig tree that was dying slowly in its pot.
“Do I stink?” Frankie asked. “Or is it because I?m new here?”
“No,” Leilah said, her body lurching forward. “I’m new too. I just don’t want to sit so close to the front.” She dipped her head and started fiddling with her hands in her lap.
“Oh, I get it,” Frankie said. “You’re a scaredy cat. That’s okay, I’ll come to you.” She walked back and sat down next to Leilah, her hips slipping easily into the narrow gap between the chair back and the edge of the desk. Her wrists were fine as chicken bones and she was wearing Ingram’s cream, a smell Leilah had always associated with her mother’s cracked heels and weathered elbows. On Frankie, though, the camphor smelt different, musty-spicy like a cologne.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” Frankie said, opening the desk lid and peering in. “At my last school, I found a pack of highlighters, and the school before that an unopened bag of Chappies. Can you believe that! Took me two weeks to get through it all. I’ll chew gum for ages, you know, even when the sugar’s all out. And when it loses its juice, I’ll stick another piece in, without taking the old one out. You can build a gobstopper of bubble-gum like that you know? So big your teeth – your whole mouth! – hurts.” She smacked her lips and stuck out her hand. “I’m Frankie. Francesca actually, but I’ve never liked the full version. Don’t know why my ma decided to give me an Italian name when she’s the most Afrikaans person you’ll ever meet. I hate that, you know, South Africans pretending to be international.” Frankie turned her nose to the ceiling to denote an international person and Leilah giggled. “So, what’s your name, scaredy cat?”
“I’m Leilah.” She lowered her eyes again. There were a bunch of names and dates carved into the wood of their table, and Leilah ran her finger across them, trying to imagine herself there, for everyone to see. “Have you changed schools a lot?”
“Maybe…maybe you can teach me how to do it?”
“Sure,” said Frankie, but she didn’t sound so sure, and Leilah wondered if change was something she could learn to do, or if she’d have to get good at pretending.
The bell sounded and kids started filtering into class, boys tucking white shirts into grey shorts, girls smoothing pale blue pinafores and straightening each other’s name badges. The first few to enter went straight for a desk, knowing where and with whom they wanted to be for the rest of the year. No one seemed to notice Leilah and Frankie at the back, their blue jerseys blending into the blue wall, the slow overhead fan casting long shadows across their faces.
As the second bell rang, a barrel-shaped teacher with red hair and green eyes arrived in the doorway and, without looking at her class, walked over to the blackboard, her floating skirt at odds with her stoutness.
“Miss Caxton,” she said as she wrote her name in oversized letters, filling the board the same way she filled the room. She turned to survey her class of 1997, scanning each face and stopping at Frankie and Leilah. “You must be the newcomers,” she barked, squinting at them. “Didn’t take long to find each other I see. What’s wrong with our Kingston girls, not good enough for you?”
“I’m sure Kingston girls are very good!” Frankie said, scraping the floor with her chair as she stood up. Leilah’s hand shot out to grab Frankie’s finger, which was long and surprisingly cool. Miss Caxton didn’t look like the kind of grown-up who would appreciate Frankie’s confidence, but the skinny boy-girl didn’t back down. She let Leilah hang onto her finger for a moment longer before shaking her loose and raising her hand to wave at the class, slow and deliberate, like the Queen. “I’m Francesca,” she said. “But everyone calls me Frankie. It’s so nice to meet you all.” She did a slight bow and winked at Leilah, whose face had turned red under the spotlight of the class’s stare.
The room was quiet. Sounds from the neighbouring classroom filtered in, soft laughter, pens rearranging in Space Cases, chairs shuffling as students settled. Frankie kept turning her face slowly from one side of the room to the other, smiling at everyone before landing on Miss Caxton, whose short red hair made her look as though she?d been set alight.
“That’s quite enough!” Miss Caxton said as their eyes met. “Stop that right now and sit down. Girl next to you, get up and introduce yourself.”
Frankie kept standing, seemingly undeterred by Miss Caxton’s sharp teeth and voice, and pulled Leilah up by the elbow. They stood side by side, close, so the hems of their uniforms touched. “It’s okay,” Frankie whispered. “Don’t be scared.”
Leilah took a breath, focusing on Miss Caxton and letting the rest of the faces in the room soften and melt to the edges of her eyeline. “Leilah. My name is Leilah. I moved here from Cape Town. This is the first school uniform I’ve ever had to wear.” Two girls at the front started laughing, then two boys somewhere in the row she shared with Frankie, then two more, and two more, until the whole room was laughing. Leilah sat down. Her feet felt too big for her shoes.
Frankie sat down too. “Why did you tell them that?” she asked.
“I don’t know, it just came out.”
“Don’t tell anyone anything you don’t want them to know. That’s the first rule of surviving somewhere new. You better stay close to me, unless you want to be eaten alive. That’s what teenagers do you know, they eat other teenagers alive.”
Leilah bent as far over as her tummy would allow, overcome by a painful sense of longing for Oak Tree, the Rudolf Steiner school she’d gone to back home. Leilah was sure Rudolf would never treat new students as Miss Caxton had just treated Frankie and her, making them into a spectacle for the rest of the class to ridicule.
“Come on,” Frankie said, trying to pry Leilah loose from the tight ball she’d rolled herself into. “It’s not that bad. These losers will forget about you soon enough. Look, they’ve already half-forgotten.”
Leilah peeked over the edge of their desk. Miss Caxton had her back to them again, writing out a timetable on the board, working around her giant name rather than rubbing it out. A few kids were still looking back at them and giggling, but most had started unpacking their bags and were comparing stationery.
“Why’ve you never worn a uniform before?” Frankie asked, trying her best to look serious. “You a home-school kid or something?”
“No, I went to a Rudolf Steiner school before this, and there was no uniform there. No exams or textbooks either and once a week we spent a whole period learning how to draw with our toes.”
“Your toes?” Frankie said. “That’s stupid.”
Leilah nodded. It was stupid.
“This dress is so itchy.”
Frankie looked at Leilah’s pinafore and scrunched her nose disapprovingly. “Where’d you get that thing? It looks old.”
Leilah’s mom insisted they buy her uniforms from Kingston’s second-hand shop, a damp little room at the back of the school, looked after by a grey-skinned lady who smoked while managing the cash register. Leilah’s uniforms all smelt sour.
“It is old,” she said, playing with the edge of her sleeve. “My mom’s crazy.”
Frankie laughed, and the sound of it lifted Leilah’s chin, enough to see her new friend’s hands resting on the table. She remembered the coolness of her fingers, and the straightness of her neck, and she raised her head a little more, to see Frankie’s whole face, filling the room with its plainness.
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Excerpt from GLASS TOWER published by Holland House Books. Copyright © 2023 by Sarah Isaacs.