Better Than the Rest
by Simon Barber
Better Than the Rest
by Simon Barber
(A tale of sweet little Miss Parkesson’s well-spent youth.)
“Our final term!” Beryl Parkesson mused as she sorted through a pile of money orders from her numbered Post Box on Casino Island. “Just think – then we’ll get to put to good use everything our dear Tutors have worked so hard to teach us these past three years. What do you think, Molly?”
Molly Procyk’s long ears twitched; the doe barely looked up from her task of carefully sharpening the teeth of the saw-backed bayonet that was pinned in a vise on the table. She snorted. “Ya gonna go after the record that class of the first graduates set, “Most Wanted in the Pacific”? It’d suit ya.” What their Tutors did not publicise in the Prospectus was that a dorm had indeed gone into business for themselves, using their Songmark training – and were currently the Pacific’s most successful Air Pirates.
“Oh well, that’s a thought.” Beryl’s finely furred tail twitched. “How one’s life changes! I well recall being back in school three years ago, dear old Saint T’s … I never thought I’d be here now.” Her eyes grew dreamy for a moment. “Ah, me. Such childish dreams I had. Should I aim to become the ruthless leader of the most feared all-girl razor gang in Glasgow … or perhaps a lawyer?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t go the lawyer route – I’ve read about criminal lawyers, and you could try for “most criminal” if you wanted to break records.” Amelia Bourne-Phipps put her book down and looked at Beryl cautiously.
The mouse winked. “As they say – “Send a fur to prison and she’ll learn the way to pick your pocket. Send her to a good law school and she’ll learn how to fleece the whole country.””
“Quite.” Amelia’s ears went down. “It’s a shame you didn’t learn any fair play and decency at your old school, whatever else they taught you.”
“And we learned quite a bit.” Beryl’s gaze lingered on the postal orders on her desk – the “Become a qualified bogus vicar or police-fur correspondence course” was proving lucrative, even though the convincing costumes included were an expensive item. Her smile usually boded ill for someone’s bank balance or indeed bank vault. “Even though I don’t go on and on about my old place like you, Amelia – there’s a story you might like, that comes to mind. Don’t worry, it’s got a moral in it.”
“That’d be a first, coming from you,” Amelia commented dryly.
“Yeah! This one, we gotta hear!” Molly’s tail twitched with interest.
Beryl cast an amused glance at the audience, ears up and awaiting her tale. “Are we sitting comfortably, children? Then we’ll begin …”
It had been the start of the Summer term then as well (Beryl said), when Big Bessie Fanshaw made her play for the main prize. Becoming Head Girl of the year carried many benefits, such as an automatic ten percent rakeoff from all schemes the class was engaged in – and the position had just become vacant.
“So, who do you fancy for the candidate?” The speaker was a lithe weasel Masie “Slasher” de Vere, Beryl’s semi-regular partner in crime in the Upper Fourth Form. The scene was the otherwise empty outdoor sports changing room – at Saint T’s hockey matches were usually fought using the “Last fur standing” rules regardless of the actual score. The rest of both teams were still out on the field while Matron performed battlefield triage learned twenty years before in the field hospitals of Flanders.
Beryl paused, having double-checked that it really was water in the showers today. “That’s a poser! It’s going to be close. Shame about poor Chloe.” Both girls stifled a maidenly guffaw. The previous Head Girl had been found that week stark raving mad in a room locked from within; on the table in front of her a matchbox contained a remarkable worm wholly unknown to science. Insanity amongst staff and pupils was not looked down at in Saint T’s as much as at many places, but there were limits.
“There’s Big Bessie Fanshaw, she’s certainly a contender – heavyweight class, if you don’t count intellect.” Masie counted off on her sharpened finger-claws. “Then there’s Lucy Clarington-Ndogo, though she only joined us last year. Rather a dark horse. I suppose we could count in Lavinia DuQuesne though she’s awfully busy with her classes and clubs. I don’t know if she’ll want to run this term.”
“Yes. Art Club takes so much of a girl’s time,” Beryl agreed, having checked the soap carefully for razor blade splinters and the like. “I know she’s spent all her pocket money this term just buying art supplies. Those new French 200 franc banknotes are the very devil to copy - there’s a turquoise pigment in the ink nobody’s identified yet, or at least they’re not saying.”
“So – Bessie and Lucy – anyone else ?” A lithe weasel shape twisted gracefully under one of the two working shower heads in the changing room. The fact that the number of unhurt survivors of the hockey game matched the available showers might have surprised folk who were unaware of Saint T’s robust tradition as a forcing-house for the hardier and thornier type of English Rose.
“Well…” Beryl mused as she watched the mud and blood (none of it her own) wash off her fur in rivulets “you know, I’m rather tempted to go for it myself.”
Masie’s ears went up. “You? That’s sticking your head out of the trench, isn’t it ? Unless … you’ve got something up your sleeve.”
Beryl’s teeth gleamed. She extended a pair of soaped arms. “”Who, little me? Do you see anything here?”
Both girls laughed, sweet maidenly voices ringing out as clear as silver bells. Beryl’s high-stakes poker game in the criminal quarter of Marseilles that Easter holiday was already the stuff of fourth-form legend.
“No, but seriously,” Masie gulped for air. “The post’s worth having if you can get it and keep it. Same as a Victoria Cross – except they hand those out mostly posthumously. What have you got in mind?”
“That’s for me to know,” Beryl tapped the side of her snout significantly, “and them to find out.”
As far as such things went, Beryl and Masie were the truest and loyalest of school pals. So it surprised nobody that by suppertime the whole Upper Fourth had purchased the information off Masie, letting her pay off most of the term’s drinks bill.
“Parkesson!” The bellow that rattled the empty bottles in the common room could only have come from one source – the furiously scowling bear Miss Fanshaw.
Although at Saint T’s pedigree and family counted for very little and a fur had to stand on her own two paws or be trampled mercilessly, there were admiring things whispered about the bear’s ancestor. Her father “Big Bjorn” had been seen to abandon ship in the high Arctic with half a dozen companions in the lifeboat, and been picked up three months later alone and well-fed.
“There you are, you loathsome little vermin fit only for extinction.” The bear glowered down at Beryl who was studiously working on her Latin prep. All the raciest bits of the Classics were traditionally left untranslated, kept as a treat for keen young scholars to discover and be inspired by jolly tales of the Emperors Nero and Caligula.
“When you say that, I know you really mean it in a Nice way.” Beryl smiled sweetly, closing her book. “May I help you?”
“You’re going for the Year Head slot, is what I heard.” Bessie Fanshaw towered over the mouse, who continued to look up at her politely. “You quit it – or you quit “this vale of tears”. Get me?”
Beryl’s ear twitched as if a mildly irritating fly had landed on it. “Oh, really?” She picked up her book again. “You’ll never get that post. I don’t want to say you’re … predictable, but there’s wholly undiscovered tribes in the Belgian Congo who knew you were going to say that.”
“Well – I’m telling you. I’m giving you fair warning.” With that Bessie turned and stamped off.
“And that, dear pals, is another reason she has no chance.” Returning her knuckleduster to its hiding-place, Beryl returned to her Latin homework. Gladiatorial games sounded such fun!
“So, anyone else thrown their hats into the ring?” It was evening and Saint T’s was settling down to another night of well-earned relaxation. Sounds of revelry, cheers, screams and the occasional bursts of ecstatic chanting merged with an unearthly bellowing from Outside. Tuesdays was the night for the Alternative Scripture club to practice in. Unlike most schools, religion at Saint T’s had field trips, interviews and a lot of practical classes.
Beryl turned to Masie, who had spoken. “No new entries yet. But Lavinia DuQuesne is in the running after all. Would you believe it, the French bank’s using a plant dye only grown in Madagascar? Lavinia’s negotiating with her Marseilles connection for a supply. Until that arrives she’s not too busy.”
“I’m not supporting her,” Masie said promptly. “Investing in foreign notes is very dodgy. Could turn out like Delapore and McNemara all over again.” Both girls laughed at that; it was now school legend of how two sixth-formers had after a year’s hard labour produced absolutely flawless German hundred-mark banknotes – just in time for the 1923 inflation to make them less than worthless. “I’m not throwing in with someone whose main assets are likely to end up as more material for the school paper chase.”
“So, how about Lucy? She’s not mentioned it yet. Still, daughter of an African prince and all that, you’d think she’d be keen to be on top. Give her something to write home about.” Beryl cast a shrewd eye at her comrade. It would be hard to find any pair at Saint T’s who were what the rest of the world called true friends – but they had supported each other on desperate ventures many times and knew exactly how far the other could be pushed.
“Oh, Lucy.” Masie looked evasive, but that was her default expression. “I’d put my money on her, if you weren’t in the running.”
“Meaning her opponents don’t go down in fights but down to Matron with exotic “food poisoning”? And I’ve never been caught out yet that way?” Beryl grinned. “Touch wood.” She rapped her knuckles lightly on her comrade’s head.
“There is that. The betting’s running pretty wild each way right now. The pot’s going to be huge.” Masie stood up, her lithe form stretching. To an outsider the title of Head Of Year might not seem worth the risks. To win it meant to rule a suite of shabby rooms smelling like a lady’s powder-room in Port Said, and have the grudging acquiescence of a pack of hell-cats (species: assorted) every last one of which was scheming to drag you down at the first opportunity.
“Still,” Beryl guessed her comrade’s thoughts fairly accurately. “It might not look like much on paper, I’ll agree. But as they say about prison – it’s a splendid education for life outside.”
It was a restful night, though by repute the school Chapel needed some more restoration after the Alternative Scripture Club finished their keen debating match. Lucy Clarington-Ndogo (Berkshire and Southern Rhodesia) and Hepzibah Jackson (Appalachian mountains, USA) had exhibited what the American girl called “Show and tell”. It had been a close thing, but that which had been worshipped by one side of Lucy’s ancestors under blood-tinged African skies before the first stones were raised of Old Zimbabwe, was reckoned to have won on points.
“It’s up on the notice board already,” Masie came in breathless, pulling her school blazer on over the six layers of heavy canvas that covered her vital organs. “The staff want to know who’s Head Girl by lunchtime Friday. You’ve only got two days!”
“Our dear teachers,” Beryl nodded respectfully. “Always so progressive. The first to introduce Social Darwinism as a school doctrine.” Although for some reason the staff at Saint T’s tended to dress in a style thirty years out of date, they had taken up many other new ideas. Rather than wasting valuable time worrying about which of their sweet charges truly merited the post, they merely refereed the contest decided between the girls themselves – and as with heavyweight boxing there could be only one winner, fought to a knockout or submission. Suddenly Beryl picked up a familiar ground-shaking tread behind her. “Well, hello again, Bessie! Did you find someone who could read the notice out to you?”
The rattling of floorboards ceased briefly. “You still standing for Class head, Parkesson?”
“I haven’t said I wasn’t,” Beryl said smoothly.
“You ain’t gonna stand with no knees!” With that Bessie swung into a furious flying kick, agile for her size, calculated to drive the slender mouse through the floor.
Except that Beryl was no longer there. While twenty stones of ursine was in the air moving no faster than gravity Beryl had leaped the other way, her jack legs uncoiling like fine springs. She landed lightly two yards away and flicked her arms out hard – there was a double snap as cotton stitches within her sleeves gave way, and each paw was suddenly swinging two feet of chain.
“You!” Bessie famously scorned such innovations, being generously equipped by Nature to claw, hug and crush. She bounced out of the wreckage of the already battered sofa Beryl had been relaxing on an instant before, and lunged forwards with the energy of an avalanche – and about the predictability once she began to move.
In a splendid display of maidenly gymnastic prowess Beryl leaped high in the air, her ears brushing the ceiling before she descended with both chains swinging with all her force like the silvery wingtips of an avenging angel – a one-two punch of furious steel that would have caved in any skull less solid than the bear’s.
With a groan and a much louder thud, Bessie collapsed snout-first on the protesting floorboards. The room erupted into applause.
“Thank you, thank you, you’ve been a lovely audience.” Beryl blew an ironic kiss to her classmates, securing the chains back in their special arm sheaths with safety pins until she could make proper repairs in her next needlework class. Despite popular belief, not all needles at Saint T’s carried curare or the secretions of brightly coloured Amazonian frogs. But it was a good idea to check the chairs when sitting down, just in case.
“A good job neatly done.” Beryl turned as a voice spoke behind her. Lucy Clarington-Ndogo was short for an equine, being of Shetland pony stock on one side and African Quagga on the other. Many schools refused to take girls with such lack of pedigree, but Saint T’s was progressive and indeed Lucy had demonstrated the power of hybrid vigour on many a stricken sporting field.
The two rivals eyed each other cautiously.
“I have to admit, you have an advantage,” Beryl admitted cheerfully. “I’ve heard you can call on your religion more directly than most furs. Was it three falls or a submission in the theological debate last night?”
Lucy fanned herself idly with a red dyed Native tail fly whisk – she had assured the teachers that the cow it had come from had been a non-sentient one, but others had their doubts. “This contest. What’s it worth for you to get out of it?”
“Ten percent of everything skimmed from the year’s projects,” Beryl replied promptly. “And you can keep the sash and title.” The mouse and the equine looked at each other hard for a few seconds, then both laughed. “You are a riot, Beryl,” Lucy gasped, holding your sides. “You really are.”
Probably Big Bessie would have added something glaringly obvious about riots being put down, Beryl mused as she returned to her Latin homework (“Imagine you are a film producer in Classical Rome. The famous Romans Caracalla and Commodus “The Blood Maniac” have each sent you candid scripts based on their exploits. Which one do you film, and why? Explain, with camera angles.”)
She spared a twitch of a well-groomed whisker towards her opponent. This contest was starting to look interesting at last.
It was lunchtime when the third contender stepped up to play. Mealtimes at Saint T’s tended to be rather energetic affairs: it was usually safer to eat the food from someone else’s plate. After a few such vigorous and well-contested swaps, the difficulty of working out who really ate what made poisoning too unreliable to be worthwhile.
“Mademoiselle Beryl!” Came a voice the mouse had been expecting to hear sooner or later. “La, you are here!”
Lavinia DuQuesne was a tall, oddly striped girl of uncertain breed: her mother had worked in the French Colonial Service and had both travelled and entertained widely the year before her daughter was born. Madagascar had been on her route, and indeed Lavinia had a fur pattern reminiscent of some of the more exotic natives of the island.
Beryl smiled up at her innocently; unlike some of her comrades she did not need to practice in the mirror daily. “Miss DuQuesne! So pleased to see you! I like the dress, have you printed yourself a good clothing allowance?”
Lavinia gave a predatory smile. “If I do – there will be a Christmas sample for you.”
“Oh? Like that ten-shilling note you paid Wilhelmina with last year?” Beryl shook her head, smiling. “The one with a few deliberate mistakes – I know you can spell “Shilling” properly when you want to. I’m sure it looked natural to her but it’s not spelled “Schilling” over here.”
“Oh, but yes! Wilhelmina, she had been making of the troubles for everyone. A rest cure in one of your so-elegant English jails was a restful time for all of us.” Lavinia winked. “La, she COULD first have made a better examination of the banknote, no?”
“Social Darwinism in action,” Beryl agreed. “Now – have you come to bribe me to leave the Head Girl contest, or threaten me?”
“A leetle of both,” Lavinia replied candidly. “A thousand francs, you shall pick and examine the notes – or my vow to drag you down if you do get the position.” She did not mention that Beryl would be trying to do the same to her; that was understood.
The mouse’s whiskers trembled. “A thousand real francs, not yours,” she countered. “Yours probably bleach in the sun or smudge as soon as you fold them. And, you bring me down? You’d have to join the end of a long queue.” She grinned, chisel teeth glinting. “Got any better offers?”
“Yes. The position of official School Bully at the so-prestigious Cheltenham College for the Young Ladies, ees vacant – and our School Bully is being bought for a transfer fee incredible! That will leave us the position empty. I can support you for that.” She winked. “My sister, she ‘as that post at the Grand Lycee in Paris. She is knowing all the treeks and owes me the favours.”
Beryl’s eyes lit up. It was not always the biggest and most obviously brutal girls who succeeded in that (extremely lucrative) job. “That one … I’m going to have to think about.”
“Any more offers come your way? Apart from Big Bessie’s promise to use your tail for a drain cleaner. She’s out of Matron’s secure ward and howling for blood.” Masie looked over at Beryl with interest as they worked through their chemistry practical, or “stinks” as it was universally known. Dissolving raw opium in petrol so it could not be detected by the usual Police tests was well-known, but extracting it cleanly afterwards was worth a scholarship to the girl who solved the efficiency problem. “She wants to duel you. A sledgehammer was her weapon of choice last time.”
“Do tell,” Beryl’s eyes sparkled. “What’s the betting on that look like?”
“I’ve got my allowance staked on her not even getting to the fight,” Masie replied loyally. “If her weapon’s the hammer – yours is the booby-trap that takes her out on the way to the duel.”
A slender, fine-furred mouse tail swished. “I’ll take ten shillings’ worth of that. As to bets, I’ve put my money against any of the other candidates making it.”
“You’re that sure of yourself?” Masie looked at her companion, eyes wide. Beryl nodded happily.
Five seconds later Beryl was alone in the lab as Masie hared off to place more bets before the odds changed. She smiled. Other schools made such an absurd fuss about fair play, friendship and loyalty. There was actually plenty of that around at Saint T’s, she mused – the truest that money could buy.
The day of the announcement had the Upper Fourth stirred into a fever – or that might just have been the after-effects of a new package of “Native Herbs” received from the Amazon from the doting uncle of “Chemical” Alice Trubshaw.
“Six to four the favourite, Clarington-Ndogo,” came the cry of the junior bookmakers from the School Mathematics Society, as they wiped off the odds from the previous day’s First-year Classical Greek Pankration contests. “Five to one Parkesson, seven to one DuQuesne, eleven to one Fanshaw. All bets closed at noon!”
“Twenty bob on Parkesson,” Masie pushed through the crowd waving a pair of ten-shilling notes that were warily scrutinised, and grinned as the odds changed. “Beryl – I hope you know what you’re doing!”
“Oh, believe me,” Beryl murmured, her eyes bright as the bell rang and the betting closed “I’ve far more riding on this than you have.”
Just then the elderly Headmistress came into the room, deferentially escorting an exotic girl whose boater cap had the skull, crossbones and single finger-bone insignia of a Lower Fourth-former. Long, elegantly curving horns jutted from a mane of lustrous golden head-fur; her brow was tall and noble as her Pedigree proclaimed, and despite having no feline ancestry her eyes were the true cat-green.
Everyone knew her. Fu Lao-yu, third daughter of a famous Oriental doctor and leader of international reputation, not to mention Interpol reputation. The Ky-rin had first arrived at Saint T’s with a bodyguard of five Burmese dacoits, holy stranglers who had lived in the nearby village for a term until Fu had sent them home as unnecessary. Beryl still wore a pretty yellow silk scarf one of them had given her for services rendered.
“Ladies, I have an announcement,” the lupine Headmistress beamed at the class through pince-nez perched precariously on her muzzle. “Having been top of her class all term, Fu Minor is moving up early from the Lower Fourth to join you. As she starts as a full member of your class today, it’s only fair she shall have all the opportunities and challenges the rest of you enjoy. Does anyone wish to nominate her for Head Girl? I’m certain she’ll take a very personal interest in your health and welfare, if elected.”
Every paw in the room went up, despite various anguished moans. There was no point in becoming Head Girl if you didn’t live to enjoy it.
“So … you all lost, after all that violence and aggravation?” Amelia Bourne-Phipps stared at the older Beryl in blank amazement. “You wasted all your money? That’s very salutary, but it’s not your usual kind of story, Beryl.”
“Yeah. Ya gotta have an angle on it somewheres,” Molly Procyk agreed, splitting a shed tail-fur hair to test the bayonet’s edge.
Beryl’s whiskers twitched. “Oh. Did I forget to mention I’d bet against everyone? And using proxies and cut-outs, against myself ? You see, I knew who was going to be joining our class, and they didn’t. I scooped the whole betting pot.”
“But … but … you encouraged everyone, even your friends to bet, knowing they were going to lose?” Amelia’s ears were right down, horrified. “Beryl! I thought you said this was a moral story!”
“I said it had a moral, and it has.” Beryl reclined, and winked. “Never – ever – give a sucker an even break.”