Ann’s hair was short, thin, brown and straighter than straight. Her hair seemed to spring from one central point at the crown of her head to form a sort of cap.
Her name had no “E” at the end to fancy it up. Just plain Ann.
Her face was eager and friendly. We met during my first week of boarding school. She asked right away during evening playtime if we could be best friends and I said yes, not thinking about it very much. I would never have said no to such a request. That would be mean.
My dorm was down the hall from hers. I had been assigned a small room with two other girls, our single beds lined up under the eaves, and an older girl to watch over us, sleeping in a bed near the door.
The next day Ann told me with delight that she had jumped up and down on her bed shouting, “I’ve got a best friend! I’ve got a best friend!” and I was surprised. The event had not been so special for me.
But Ann and I remained an official couple for my three-year stay at St. Mary’s.
She told me with pride that she came from a place called “the Lake District.” She spoke of it often enough that I could not imagine her coming from any other place.
During school breaks when each girl disappeared to wherever she had originally come from, Ann and I plus our small circle of friends wrote to each other long, long thick, thick letters. I sent mine off and waited for the responses, deliciously thick fat stuffed envelopes that the mailman pushed through the brass slot in the white front door, letters that plopped to the floor in the tiny front hall with its black and white checkerboard floor, perfect for playing Jacks.
My friends and I were Olympic-level Jacks players.
Back at school, in the evenings, after dinner and before bed, we were let loose, crowds of us in the long, high-ceilinged hall to play. Children ran, played tag, hide-and-seek, house – clumps of girls, each involved in its own world.
First we played Addams Family, a game I had been playing with other friends back in the States. But now we were onto something much more grown-up: Jacks.
The satisfying weight of the jacks, swept up with one hand, or flipped elegantly to the back of the hand then back to the palm, as the other hand caught the ball on its first bounce. It was a game to become proficient at, one we played night after night – Ann, Nicola, Lucy Ann, Madeleine and I – with possible visits from second-tier friends, sitting on the floor, each girl taking her turn.
Until Lucy Ann upped the ante, bringing a new game back from the holidays. Stones.
No rubber ball in Stones. Just stones. Stones gathered from outside. In Jacks you had the leisurely time of a rubber ball that would touch the floor and bounce back up to be caught. A stone, tossed in the air, had to be caught before it hit the floor, while some acrobatic was performed with the other stones, the other hand.
We climbed on board. After all, Lucy Ann had brought this game. Lucy Ann was my real favorite. Her face was unusually pretty, like a doll, and her singular talent, setting her apart from anyone I had ever known, was her grown-up singing voice, louder and more confident than anyone else’s, sounding like an adult’s. But it wasn’t just the prettiness and the voice, she was the most interesting, the one who saw movies during school holidays like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, movies my parents would not think to take me to. Her parents were divorced,. Sometimes she was with her dad, sometimes with her mother. She had an older brother. Her life at home more adult-sounding than mine.
So I pushed to master Stones, but Stones was not a good-natured friend like Jacks. Stones had a harshness to it, a feeling of having to grit your teeth, but there was no going back. I had to keep up.