Madame Vivienne’s Etiquette School for Young Ladies, 118th St,
1 July 1991
This typing lark isn’t too bad. It’s much better than spending the lunch hour ignoring the buffet with the other girls at finishing school, which is ridiculous, to say the least. We just had a three-hour-long class on how to correctly lay a table in case of a “crisis” situation, where our help may leave us with no notice before a dinner party, as “people of that class tend to do”.
Daddy would laugh till he cried if he ever heard Mme Viv speak. She may be the first instructor with whom I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, but I don’t seem to care enough to improve her impression of me. Even though Parul Bua insists that her recommendation of my character is “most important” to secure a good connection.
It isn’t my fault, really. Any half-witted person would have cause to laugh at the self-important manner with which she greeted us, “the ingénues of 1991” as she put it, waving her hand in the air as she said, “Do not fear, none of you will leave my learning institution as you have come. By the time my faculty and I are finished, you will all know how to eat, how to dress, how to comport yourself with queen-like dignity, and be the prize that your births have prepared you to be.”
I’ve heard similar instructions from Parul Bua before, but never in a voice dripping with such obvious contempt. The woman made us all sound like savages, who couldn’t wash, dress or eat properly. I looked at all the young women seated at my table, and they seemed like well-turned-out ladies from all over the world, some of noble birth even, who had been raised in palaces in Russia or Jordan. Yet the sheikha with glowing skin and green eyes seated next to me was nodding vigorously, lapping up every word that dropped from Mme Viv’s chapped lips as though she was a bitchy fairy godmother reincarnate.
“My mum studied under her. She said she picks two favourites every year, and they lead the International Debutante Ball,” someone next to me had whispered.
All the girls oohed and aahed, and immediately started sizing each other up as competition to win Mme Viv’s favour.
“Gosh, I hope she likes me,” I heard a blonde girl say anxiously. All the girls at my table nodded in agreement. I couldn’t stand it.
“It’s hard to believe she likes anybody,” I said. I thought I had whispered it, but it was obviously not soft enough because Mme Viv looked in my direction so sharply that I expected to find a cut on my skin somewhere. She didn’t say anything then, but she did put me in the “back row” during the first session (floral arrangements).
The back row was considered “punishment” because it was closest to the domestic staff who were helping us with discarded thorns and leaves. I could sense the girls in the row in front of me edge away in fear, as though I was radiating ill breeding, and they would catch it and be infected with impertinence somehow.
“Poor thing,” their faces said, while also gleefully marking me out of the running for being one of the favourites of the year. The only one worse off than me was Sarah Stewart, also sitting in the back row. During breakfast, I heard that she was lucky to have even gotten in.
The gossip, according to Andrea Spencer, was that her family’s net worth wasn’t anywhere near the admission price. “Her father is just a professor at a local college. But her maternal grandmother was a niece of one of the first families and had insisted that she be enrolled. Sarah herself has neither style nor money, and if you ask me, she was written off as a poor cousin by the faculty the minute she reached for the breadbasket on their breakfast table.”
Andrea’s own plate, of course, held just two tiny sausages and a few crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce. She stood in the first row, looking up at Mme Viv after placing each carnation in its pot, as though expecting her to pat her ballerina bun like a poodle. In fact, if she did, I wouldn’t be surprised if Andrea rolled right over and presented her belly to be scratched too.
I was actually quite glad to be where I was, far away from Mme Viv’s black gaze. It meant that I could read the pocket anthology of Somerset Maugham’s short stories I picked up at the Strand bookstore unnoticed. Sarah, if she realised, never said anything about it, for which I was grateful.
She just went on putting one white carnation after a pink rose, interspersing them with sprigs of lavender. And even though Mme Viv said it was a “most ordinary bouquet’, I thought it was inspired. I decided to tell her so at lunch. She smiled at me, grateful. You could tell that nobody had said a kind word to her since she had enrolled. It annoyed me so much that I wanted to say some very unladylike things to Mme Viv.
“Thank you. White carnations are my mother’s favourite flowers,” Sarah told me.
“She is obviously a lady of good taste. Unlike Mme Viv, who will take any opportunity to disparage another person.” Harsh, I know, but I was angry.
Sarah laughed, shocked. “She can be a bit mean. But you don’t want to get on her wrong side.” Sarah lowered her voice and looked around furtively before saying, “She wrote a letter to my grandmother about the breadbasket – oh, I know you know already, everyone does! – and now I’ve been sent to a French dietician who advised a diet of leek soup and boiled cabbage for a fortnight to correct my appetite.”
I looked down at her plate to see, sure enough, a bowl of watery leek soup, and a lump of lifeless cabbage. “I’m hungry all the time. I can’t even have dinner with my family any more. It’s too painful to watch everyone carve bits of my ma’s roast, or douse their potatoes in ketchup – oh, ketchup!’
If her expression wasn’t so tragic, I would have laughed. She was a soul starved, quite literally. I had to help.
“Sarah, why don’t you come over for dinner tonight?”
“Grandma would have a fit if she found out.”
“Well, tell her I’m a friend from Mme Viv’s who’s been put on a similar diet. We’re simply supporting each other during this time of self-improvement.”
Sarah smiled, her sea-green eyes beginning to laugh. “It’s worth a shot.”
“Think of the roast,” I said. She all but swooned.
Excerpted with permission from Arzu, Riva Razdan, Hachette India.