‘Dare’, Sophie Clarke

Illustrations © 2013 Eric Asaris

 [ Dare, © 2013 Eric Asaris ] I shouldn’t have said it. I knew, before the words were out of my mouth. I’m not sure what came over me. But when I saw Freya hugging her knees to her chin, my fear was subsumed by a realisation of how weak we all were. How pathetic.

“It’s only gossip,” I said. “Let’s face it, it probably never even happened.”

Gail’s eyes glittered at that. I knew then that I was in trouble, that she’d handed me my silent warning. But I held her gaze and continued blindly forward. “Come on, don’t you ever think we’re getting a bit old for all this?”

“Well, Dawn,” Gail said. “If you’re so sure, why don’t you prove it?”

“Prove what?”

“That there’s nothing out there,” she pointed to the window. “Seriously, I dare you to go outside.”

“But I can’t,” I tried. “It’s locked.”

“You know where the keys are kept.”

“It’s a violation of the Curfew, I could get thrown out!”

“The Guardians would never know, there’s no real security on this place,” Gail paused. “What it really comes down to is you being chicken. And you can’t, because you just said yourself there’s nothing to worry about out there.”

Her face shone with triumph as I scrabbled to think of a way out. I swallowed hard, but they were both looking at me intently, and I knew in that moment that I’d have to do it, even if it killed me.

High on the hill, the position of the Academy meant I often caught myself sneaking glimpses outside. I’d be expecting something terrible, so was always surprised when the slopes only rose gently on either side of the valley. They were most beautiful when russet with bracken, bleeding into patches of heather which purpled like a bruise; when every colour was more intense, a purified shade of itself, in the September light. Then I’d lower my gaze into the bottom of the vale, towards the little mill town huddled in on itself, grey and glinting.

We’d been taught a lot about the town, of course. I say ‘taught’, even though I was there when it all happened. It’s funny how little you grasp of the bigger picture when you’re young and you’re a part of it. I guess mum complained a lot about money, and sometimes she cried a bit when she thought I’d gone up to bed, but mostly I remember playing behind the house in the old garden. I liked it best when the petals started falling, so I could sit under the apple trees making glades for the fairies. It was like that was your world, and nothing could ever change. Not in your lifetime. I don’t think you ever really allow for that possibility. And even when mum said I had to go away, and that we’d need to pack my things, I guess it still didn’t feel real. And maybe that’s why I didn’t cry, though she did.

You learn about all the official stuff later; the warnings to get girls off the streets, the army intervention and government crackdown. I don’t recall any of that, but there were pictures on the telly that showed men in masks, and I giggled because they looked like clowns. When I walked to school in the morning, shopkeepers swept up broken glass with brooms. And I thought the broken glass looked pretty in the sun. Like glitter.

I’m still not sure how I agreed to it. The evening had started unremarkably enough. Huddled on our dormitory beds, we glowed like a trio of angels in the half-light—Gail, Freya and I—it’d always been the three of us, ever since we got there. I nestled into my duvet as our idle chatter became hushed and breathless, turning as it always did to one of those tales we’d heard a hundred times before.

“So Rebecca got this crazy notion into her head,” Gail was getting to her favourite part, “that she didn’t need the Academy. Her friends were all trying to talk sense into her, they wanted to alert a Guardian but they were afraid of what they’d do if they knew. And besides, Rebecca wasn’t having any of it, she said she was sick of the place. They half-expected her to come back, like spooking them with it and joking around. But she didn’t. So they called out. Just as much as they could, you know. And they say that it was Sister Anne who found her banging on the doors come morning, turned her away because she’d broken the Curfew.”

Sometimes I wondered whether Rebecca—that’s what we called her—was real. But perhaps it didn’t really matter either way. When Gail’s voice washed over me in the gloom, all those tales felt real enough in my head. They swept the dorms like wildfire. But it wasn’t just the initial scare—often a story could weigh upon me for days. It didn’t help that the lodge was built on one level, so just walking down a deserted corridor, the outside world seemed to thrash against the brittle panes. It was worst on the front side, because you always overlooked the trail that led down into town.

According to the older girls, countless unspeakable things had happened out there. It was a shadowy place where men lurked in the trees. And it was something we could never confront the Guardians about, because living in the knowledge that they’d turned a girl away would be too much to bear. We wouldn’t have coped with that kind of inhumanity. But the fact the stories remained unverified gave them even more power.

“She was found halfway down the trail,” Gail continued, “under the bridge by the brook. It was weeks, months later, and they found her bones.”

“And tell us how they knew it was her,” Freya said.

“I’m getting to that bit,” Gail paused. “So, the only thing they found of her was her Chastity bracelet. It was still there, looped around the skeleton wrist. They left her, of course. But they took the bracelet off because she wasn’t chaste anymore. She was dirty. And the bones are probably still there, but even when the river washes them clean, her soul never will be, so help her God.”

Her words jolted a long forgotten memory, a time my dad and I went walking and we stumbled across a mangled sheep skeleton. Bones jutting out from pink, maggot-ridden guts; a few wisps of wool still clinging on, dyed blue from the farmer’s marking. I was repulsed at the time, but I wasn’t frightened.

That’s what it was like outside. Once we got stuck for hours behind a road accident. I was sat in the back seat conducting a mental tally of emergency vehicles screeching past. Every now and then lorry drivers got down from their cabs and lit up, trying to get a surreptitious glimpse past the blinking blue lights to the metal shells blasted apart. And while it was awful, there was still something mesmerising about it.

Before officially registered as an Academy of Virtue and Integrity, this was White Hall Outdoor Activity Centre. Schools rolled up with a bus load of kids back then, and I guess I would have done too if I’d been a bit older. It’s difficult to imagine what it would feel like, careening full-pelt down the corridor for breakfast, before water-rafting and rock climbing and caving. The world between your teeth. Bare arms and legs scraped and scorched pink in the noon sun.

You can still look out on the lake from the east side, where the humped backs of canoes rot softly. The remnants of the high wire circuit stretch taut between thick trunks like forgotten pathways in the sky.

Of course, the Curfew means we stay indoors. That goes without saying. But even here, the past dusts old sports trophies behind glass casing.

The Academy has strict parameters, only ever disturbed by the hulk of the Transition van creeping in and out of the arched entrance every month or so. When we were little, we’d press our faces up to the windows to watch. Sometimes the girl would stop to wave, but most times she didn’t look back.

White Hall.

White, like our uniform; a plain, floor-length gown with long sleeves and itchy neckline stopping just short of the chin. It was so much a part of me that I hardly ever noticed it. But walking the corridors at night was forbidden, and all of a sudden the swish of skirts along the stone-flagged floor sounded curiously magnified.

The male Guardians were in charge of all the keys, and I knew where they were kept, in a wooden cabinet behind the old front desk. The most important ones jangled on rusting key rings, but occasionally they’d have to scour row upon row of neat little hooks.

If it wasn’t for the male Guardians, I think at some point we’d have forgotten what men looked like. At first I thought it strange that they could be part of the Academy, but then as time went on it made sense that they should carry out a caretaker type of role, like repair and building work, and keeping check of general security matters. Certainly we felt safer with them around. I’d heard they came to be Guardians if they refused military service, and when they were initiated took a vow of celibacy. That means they don’t possess the same carnal instinct as other men. They’re not a threat to us.

I’d known that the place was ramshackle, and I’d known that really, the Guardians didn’t have a lot to worry about. Even if all the doors in the place were suddenly thrown open, there’s not a single girl who’d even think of stepping outside. Not if she understood everything she’d been taught.

So when the cabinet sprung open with only the slightest force, I was taken aback, but it also made sense. What I was contemplating was madness. And as I snatched the key, I couldn’t remember having felt like that since I was a child playing hide-and-seek, squeezing nervous-excited breath into my lungs as I cowered in the cupboard under the stairs. Praying to be found and not to be found.

Sister Anne showed us videos of girls before. They bulged out of low-cut tops, bearing their breasts for the whole world to see. They killed their hair with hydrogen peroxide, and they teetered on stilettos until their feet bled, and they slathered their skin orange, like wood stain. When they got drunk, they threw themselves at men, so what did they expect? It was a breakdown, she said, a breakdown in society. Girls had all these influences, were getting themselves into all sorts of trouble by feeling they had to look a certain way. And the riots just amplified the whole thing. Each day we give thanks for The Bill for the Protection of Young Girls.

In a couple of weeks time, I’d make the Transition. We’d been prepared for it, so it wasn’t too big a deal, but it still made me nervous. Whenever I thought about it, all I could picture was Sister Anne’s stern expression, the two buns plastered to the sides of her head pulling her forehead taught. “You’ll be given to a good man.”

Then all our Domestic Education lessons would be put into practice—cooking, cleaning, looking after the children. It wouldn’t be too different as the Curfew wasn’t relinquished, but we’d have to swap our white dress for a grey one and take off our Chastity bracelet. Don’t get me wrong, we were still to be respected, it’s just that we weren’t pure any more. At first this concerned us all, but Sister Anne said that giving up your innocence for your husband was only good and right.

That’s the first thing we learn in Instincts and Values—that we have a core within us. And that core is innocent, beautiful, mystical. We are to preserve that innocence at all costs. I’ve never quite got at what it is though. They say the words, and I understand them, but they don’t seem to bear any reflection on my own experiences. I feel guilty about that. Perhaps if they knew, if they could read my mind, they would throw me out like Rebecca.

When I was little—we were just girls, you understand—my best friend Rosa and I had sleepovers now and then. Mum put us in the back room with the double bed and thick electric blanket. A few times we lay under the covers naked, and we touched each other’s bodies with our small, cold hands. I remember her fingers brushing up my legs. I don’t think we knew what we were doing then. There wasn’t any malicious intent. But I never told anyone, and I remember it now with shame.

“Hey! Who’s there?”

I froze as Brother John rounded the opposite end of the corridor. He stopped bang in front of me, raised an eyebrow when he recognised who it was. The key was slippery with sweat in my palm. I thought wildly how I might hide it, but right then he seemed to process my thoughts.

“What’ve you got there, Sister?”

Instinctively I whipped my hand behind me. In the same motion he lunged forward, forcing me backwards against the wall. It was only in the seconds after, our chests pressed up together with his hand groping at my back, that we both stopped and looked at each other, breathing hard.


It’s hard to pinpoint why I flinched quite so violently at that. Maybe it was the sudden physicality of his weight, which even after he’d pulled away, imprinted itself upon me like a burn. Or maybe it was the shock of my last name. I’d never had a Guardian call me by anything other than my official title, Sister. I could only think that he was angry because I hadn’t complied, had questioned his authority. But I could have sworn that beads of sweat began to stud his forehead, and all of a sudden I was aware of my skin bristling beneath the long sleeves of my dress, and even the high neck, the floor-lengths skirts, somehow didn’t feel enough.

“It’s a bit late for night-time wanders, is it not?” He seemed to have forgotten about the key, and glanced over his shoulder as if to check that we were alone.

“I can explain—”

“You know that only bad little girls run around after dark.”

I couldn’t put my finger on it. Part of me had wanted to be caught, to be shouted and raged at. But his voice was a half-whisper. It must have been the nature of the situation—the adrenaline pumping through me—but I thought I caught his eyes roving over my body. I felt distinctly, intimately, the visible bulge of my breasts. And then a flare in my chest told me to bolt and not look back, but I could only stand there wide-eyed, nerve endings lit up, because there was no logical reason to run. He looked around us again, as if checking for something.

“Swanson.” His voice snagged a little in his throat, hoarse.

There it was again. He took a step towards me so that I could smell his breath, which came unevenly, and his eyes looked swollen, that’s the only way I can describe it.

“I’m sorry!” I raised my voice shrilly.

“Keep it down.” And then—I know you won’t believe it, but I can only describe what I felt—for a split-second, I thought he was going to make a move towards me again.

“Brother?” A door opened and there stood Sister Anne, the tight curls on her head unpinned so that her thinning hair cascaded to her waist. I’d never seen her like that before; all the severe energy of the day sucked out so that there she stood, a wiry, greying woman. But I’d never felt so relieved to see her in all those years.

“Sister.” Brother John sprung back and bowed his head. I couldn’t work out what was going on between them, but there was something in his expression that couldn’t meet her eye.

“I will take this from here,” she said curtly.

With another quick bow, he swept away in the same direction he came from. And then I braced myself for Sister’s wrath, to turn out my pockets, to kneel and confess and beg.

“Look up, Sister.”

I raised my head slowly, and when I met her gaze, there was something I hadn’t seen there before. Was it resignation, or pity? Her facial features relaxed, though her eyes still creased critically at the corners.

“I’m sorry, Sister,” I said.

“No,” she said softly, “you mustn’t be.”

I cocked my head and she smiled at my bemusement. “Are you alright?” she said, and when I didn’t know what to say she sighed. “Run along now, Sister.”

I couldn’t make head nor tails of that, and I wondered whether it was some sort of trick, but she just looked at me as if to say ‘Go on, then.’

I walked past her in silence, and only when I reached the dorm and touched the door handle did I glance back. She was gazing up at the ceiling with her eyes open as if searching for something, her hair shining silver in the half-light, and perhaps she was praying I don’t know. But her hands were clasped together and in her nightgown she looked very frail.

“What took you?” Gail said.

“Getting into the cabinet,” I lied. I didn’t want to have to explain, so I cut out Brother John and Sister Anne altogether. Besides, I’m not sure I’d have known how to put it into words. My mind was still pouring over it as Gail poked at the window lock.

“Whatever,” she interrupted. The key turned with a soft click, but she grunted with the strain of the jammed sash, which obviously hadn’t been opened in years. Freya rushed to her side, and together they hoisted until it shot free with a loud screech.

“There!” Gail admired her handiwork. She looked at me with squinty eyes, hungry for my discomfort. But it was strange, after everything that had happened that night, I suddenly felt lighter than I had before.

“You’re actually going to do it?” Freya said.

“Course she is.” Gail looked half-annoyed, half-confused as I walked up to the window. “Bet she’s having second thoughts now though.”

There was a question in the statement, but before I could listen to anymore, I slung one leg over the chipped paintwork, stumbled into the dark. Even Gail’s haunting words hurled at my back seemed to bounce off me. “Remember, a girl died!” I didn’t stop. The wind picked up, and then her shouts scattered.

I shivered a little, but not from the cold. I felt warm inside, like I’d been waiting my whole life for this moment. And more than anything I was curious. Curious to feel the frozen, uneven ground beneath my bare feet. To breathe the night air, which was more pungent and earthy than I’d ever known it in the day. There was a rustling in the undergrowth, and once I might have worried feverishly that someone was there, ready to pounce. But now a distinct, rational voice told me that it was a vole or a grouse or some other moorland creature.

Without even realising it, I’d reached the entrance. I touched the rusting metal of the arch wonderingly. My pupils were slowly beginning to adjust, and I could see a little by the light of the moon, but from what I could tell the trail was not as dark and brooding as in Gail’s stories. I moved a little further to the side of the track and lay on my back.

When I was little, my mum told me that she once lived in the city, and the light pollution meant that even when it was night-time, the sky wasn’t dark. Not properly. Moving here, she’d point out the constellations, and I realised with a pang that tonight it was clearer than ever. White sequins on black velvet.

Orien’s belt. Cassiopeia. The Great Bear. I could still list them off, trace them with my outstretched finger. I recited the names like a prayer, and suddenly I realised that my cheeks were cold and wet and I couldn’t say why. It seems I couldn’t explain anything that night. But as I lay there I thought of Brother John and Sister Anne, and of my mother and my father and my old house, and I thought of the town and the Academy, and then I imagined canoeing and I was floating on the lake like a starfish.

I rose as if out of a trance, and couldn’t be sure whether I’d been lying there for a minute or an hour. I picked my way back slowly, gulping down the scent of damp soil as if I hadn’t breathed in years.

Somewhere in front of me, I heard the creak of the sash again. And then more than one pair of arms was grabbing at me, hauling me in. I felt my petticoat snag and rip on the lock. For a moment, everything was a tangle of bodies, and then the window slammed shut and a light flicked on. I blinked stupidly.

“They’re true!” Freya cried, her hands fluttering over my soiled petticoat like flags. “The stories, they’re all true!” She began to cry, her cheeks puffed up all swollen and blotchy. Gail was still by the window, silent and ashen. She didn’t say a word.

“You shouldn’t have made her do it,” Freya said. “Look at what you’ve done!”

“I didn’t think—” Gail trailed off.

“The man, the man who did this to you,” Freya choked back a sob. “What happened?”

“There wasn’t a man,” I tried to think of a way to explain. “Nothing happened out there. Well, not like you’re thinking, anyway.”

 [ Nothing out there, © 2013 Eric Asaris ] “She’s in denial,” Gail said.

“No,” I said forcefully, walking over to the window and re-opening the sash. “Out there, I know it’s hard to get your head around it, and I’m not sure even I understand everything right now, it’s all happened so quickly, but everything we ever believed in –”

They were both retreating from me like I was a wild animal.

“Please, Dawn,” Freya said. “Just close the window.”

“She’s lost it,” Gail interjected. “Going outside, it’s tipped her over the edge."

It was only then I registered that I couldn’t expose them to it. They looked at me helplessly and I looked back at them—that’s all that happened, it was beautiful and terrible at the same time—and the starlight pooled around me, framed me in an iridescent glow.

© 2013 Sophie Clarke

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