In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we’re happy to present an excerpt from Ellie Eaton’s debut novel, The Divines.
The book, which Publishers Weekly says “will keep readers riveted,” follows freelance writer Josephine as she reflects on her time at the (now defunct) St John the Divine—an elite English boarding school for girls—and the scandal that changed their community forever. Booklist writes, “At times both sharp and haunting, this novel embodies the awkwardness and regret of adolescence.”
I am Divine.
My mother was Divine and her mother before that, which isn’t uncommon. Though that was at a time when being Divine meant something; it had cachet, as my mother still likes to brag; it opened doors, got you places. Though it’s hard to see specifically where being Divine ever got her, other than married. Perhaps I’m missing the point.
I haven’t spoken to another Divine for fourteen years, maybe more, despite there being ample online opportunities these days to reconnect with my former peers should I so wish. I don’t. Every Christmas and Easter I fly back to England to visit my mother, who, in her sixties now, keeps backdated copies of our Old Girls’ newsletter for me in her downstairs loo, next to Country Living. Births, deaths, marriages, the rare athletic achievement, horses for sale, and, of course, reunions. Endless reunions. Not one of which I have attended. Until, as a newlywed, I take my husband on an impromptu detour from our honeymoon destination, veering off the dual carriageway so unexpectedly at the road sign that he thinks for a heart-stopping moment I might have morning sickness.
“Just to have a look,” I say. “It won’t take long.”
A trip down memory lane, then we’ll be on our way.
I crawl our rental car round the Oxfordshire town, circling closer to where I remember my former school once stood, folding forward over the steering wheel, trying to get my bearings. This is harder than I think it will be. Nothing is as I remember it. Most of the grounds have been flattened. The gym is gone, the maths block, the redbrick science labs, everything except those buildings deemed to hold significant historic value—the Old Hall and a couple of boarding houses, subdivided into flats for young professionals. I park outside the chapel, which is now, by the looks of things, a private dental practice. My husband of two days is bemused. Keen to get some miles under our belt on the long drive to Scotland, he hadn’t factored this pit stop into his calculations.
“This is it?”
“Give me half an hour,” I say, squeezing his hand.
I point him in the direction of the White Horse. When he is gone, I walk into the dentist’s, slipping past a young receptionist into the sanctuary-cum-waiting room, repainted a minty orthodontic green. I sit for some time listening to the ominous clinks and skirls and high metallic whines of the hygienist at work. Along the nave, cubicles have been fashioned from low movable walls decorated with huge toothy faces of smiling children. The wooden bench I am sitting on looks like, perhaps even is, the ex act pew that the robed altar servers slumped on during our Sun day service, obscured by puffs of incense. The organ pipes are still in situ, way back up in the balcony behind the choir stalls, which seem quite small, barely room for a handful of girls. On the immovable stone pulpit where Fat Fran, my headmistress of six years, made her daily proclamations, a series of dental brochures, women’s magazines, food and lifestyle glossies have been stacked, some of which, at one time or another over my career, I have contributed to. I rest my head against stone and look up at the arched ceiling. It is very surreal, the dental nurses padding in and out of the vestry in their soft-soled shoes like nuns. Everything so familiar yet nothing quite as it was.
Behind my head is a sequence of very narrow and long stained glass windows reaching all the way to the beams. What shocks me as I sit there is that—unless I actually sit up and twist my neck to look-I can’t remember what they depict, not even if you put a gun to my head. I spent the entirety of my adolescence facing those windows, staring at them every single morning for close to five years, Saturdays excepted, and don’t remember a single detail, not one saint or disciple or even the big man himself, which only goes to show the astonishing depths of teenage self-obsession. Or maybe, more accurately, it says something about me back then. Or my memory of my school days, selective at best.
As I am sitting on the pew a patient comes out of a booth, her jaw clamped down on wadding, her hand holding her cheek. Unsteady on her high heels, dazed, she is guided to a spot next to me. A dental assistant goes to retrieve something important, a prescription perhaps, and the patient’s eyes roam around the arched ceiling and the fluted ironwork. It is an unnerving set ting for a dental practice—the angels and the pulpit and stained glass-perhaps she thinks she is hallucinating. Blood catenates slowly from her empty socket down the gauze in her hand. We are probably the same age. She could have been a King Edmund. She stares vacantly at the neon exit sign as if she is waiting to be collected. Above the vestry door is the Divine school motto carved into a rectangle of wood.
“Ha,” I snort out loud.
The patient slowly turns towards me, medicated, her hand still firmly pressed against her cheek. She blinks.
I try to swallow it down, doubling over, in the grip of the kind of stifled laughter that catches you off guard, leaping up your throat during somber moments: funerals, sermons, your fiancé’s art show opening.
My shoulders shake and the pew judders. The patient stands up suddenly, her handbag falling to the floor, its contents spilling.
“Shit, I’m terribly sorry.” I see her lipstick rolling towards the lectern. “Sorry, sorry.”
I put a fist to my chest and thump it. Swallow.
I scramble to pick up her bag, holding it out to her.
“This used to be a school,” I blurt, just to say something. “St. John the Divine.”
The poor woman’s numbed head nods slightly, taking her purse. She looks down at a message illuminated on her phone and then over her shoulder at the door, checking for her lift. I assume she isn’t allowed to drive.
“The private school,” I keep going. “The one that shut down; it was in the papers a long time ago, remember? There was a scandal.”
She stares at my face as if I am slowly coming into focus. Enough years have passed for me not to sound completely Divine. I have lived abroad on and off, my accent is sometimes hard to identify, but still, she looks me up and down and her eyes flash. She knows.
“Yeah,” she says. As she talks her wadding unplugs momentarily, exposing ghoulish bloody gums. “And? My mum worked in the kitchen.” She thumbs behind us in the direction of the old refectory. “Sixteen years scrubbing fucking pans, if you must know.”
The right side of the woman’s lip is drooping; her speech has a drunken slur.
“Bunch of stuck-up fucking toffs.”
She plugs the gauze back in, clamps back down on it, waiting to see what I’ll say next. She’s right, of course. But what does she expect me to do, defend my honor, wrestle her to the floor?
I think about my husband, Jürgen, waiting for me in the pub. Jürgen knows how to let moments like this roll over him. He is a pacifist, not someone who can be easily provoked. Despite the fact he’s the artist in our relationship, things that make me flare up with rage don’t bother him at all. When we met I had just come out of a turbulent, itinerant period of life and, exhausted, I suppose you could say that I found his particular brand of considered quietude seductive. That was what I had fallen in love with. Lately I have been trying hard to adopt some of Jürgen’s sangfroid. Plus we are newlyweds. On our honeymoon. I don’t take the bait.
Thankfully a bald man sticks his head around the chapel door, whistles, and gestures at the woman with his thumb. She departs, her high heels clicking sharply on the tiled floor, marching down the nave, past the vestry, and through the arched door.
I wait a decent amount of time, hovering on a Communion step, then I leave as well. My husband—that word feels so exotic is waiting for me outside, hands in his pockets, resting on the hood of the rental car, chewing slowly. I feel a burst of relief to see him standing there, solid looking and straightforward, not in the least Divine. On our first date he rolled up his sleeves at the sight of the leaking pipe in my kitchen, requesting a wrench. He is a pragmatist, a maker of lists.
“All good?” he checks.
I nod. I turn my back and lean against Jürgen’s chest; he loops his arms around my waist, his chin on my head, and I try to put the incident in the chapel behind me. I should never have come back. I’m embarrassed to have brought him here, to have wasted even an hour of our honeymoon on something so inconsequential. A moment of nostalgia, now gone. We gaze up at the stone statue of King Edmund in the center of the town, close to the bus stop. Five pigeons spar for space on top of his helmet, bobbing and ducking, feather elbows. They flick their shabby gray tails and shit down Edmund’s cloak. An elderly woman tugging a tartan shopping trolley shuffles past us into the market square. Traders hold bananas aloft on hooked fingers, hollering deals. Three old boys in tweed jackets stand outside the bookies smoking. I am acutely aware of how particularly English all this must seem to him, my husband, an Austrian.
Jürgen pulls a piece of fudge from a paper bag and puts it into my mouth.
“Okay. Big drive. Let’s go.”
He checks the fastenings on his bike that is tethered to the boot of our rental car, and as he tugs the frame tight a bald man driving a red Mazda swerves across the road towards us and stops abruptly, blocking traffic. A window hums down, and the woman from the dentist’s leans across the bald man, actually crawling across his lap, the lower half of her face distorted, stiff with pain.
“Hallo there,” my husband says jovially, squatting slightly, “can we help?”
Austrians, particularly country bumpkins like him, are pathologically nice. I’ve seen him dig a car out of the snow for a stranger and drag each of our neighbor’s bins out every week without a word of thanks.
The woman in the Mazda gives him the finger.
She glares at me, her real target, and pokes her swollen head farther out of the window as if there is something urgent she for got to tell me back there in the chapel, her tongue fat and lisping.
“Ha.” I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha.”
Then she spits at me, her gob landing at my feet, and they speed off.
So, this is the way it is. Fourteen years and nothing has changed. She is a townie. I am Divine.
“My god,” my husband says, “Sephine, who was that?”
Hands on his hips, he looks up the road after the Mazda.
“Was that some kind of joke, my god?”
“Forget it,” I say, humiliated, “let’s go.”
I give him a gentle shove towards the car in case the banshee decides to come back. I don’t want her to jinx our honeymoon Two days ago we were exchanging vows at the town hall, grin ning at each other like imbeciles, euphoric
“But I don’t understand; do you know her?”
“No, nothing like that.”
I slip my hands down his hip, taking the keys from his pocket. I unlock the rental car quickly and get behind the wheel. Jürgen sits in the passenger seat, shaking his head.
“Was she from your school then, an old friend?”
I start the car.
“I don’t have any school friends.”
He frowns, as if he’s only just found this out about me.
“You don’t? Why not?”
I have friends, of course, but the oldest and truest friendships I have are the ones I forged at university or soon after, when an element of choice was introduced to the selection process. Plus my husband’s friends, such as they are, though generally not their wives for some reason. Thanks to his extreme niceness, genial blue Austrian eyes, his obvious likability, Jürgen has always been the social one in our relationship. Though these days he’s just as happy to spend an evening at home, working in his studio or tinkering with his bikes. Occasionally we go to a gallery opening or drive visitors around whatever city we are living in, or meet an old editor of mine for brunch. I can count nearly all these friends on one hand. But not one of them is Divine.
“I don’t know,” I tell him with a shrug and turn the key in the ignition. “I just don’t.”
We break the journey in Yorkshire, spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast where we barely leave our four-poster bed. In the morning we scramble into clothes, unwashed, stumbling into the dining room moments before the end of service. The land lady, a stern matronly looking woman, reminiscent of a former housemistress of mine, stands with her hands on her hips, scowl ing at the clock. We slip sheepishly into our seats, trying not to laugh. Across the room two women, dressed in shorts and walk ing boots, barely glance up from their maps. A middle-aged man butters his mother’s toast. Next to us an elderly couple smile and raise their glasses of orange juice.
“Congratulations,” the wife says, leaning over and patting Jürgen on the back of his hand.
“Is it that obvious?”
The couple smile knowingly at each other.
Jürgen’s T-shirt is inside out, my hair unkempt. As we brush against each other under the table, there’s a stench between my thighs, musky and sour, like overripe fruit. I cringe, thinking of our attic room, the paper-thin walls and creaking bed frame, and bury my head in Jürgen’s shoulder. The landlady slams a teapot on the table in front of us.
Jürgen asks the couple how long they’ve been married.
“Forever,” the old man groans
His wife flaps her napkin at him.
“Fifty-four years this September,” she says.
I can feel Jürgen’s fingers as they weave through mine, how his wedding band grates over my knuckles as he squeezes, causing me to wince.
“Any advice?” Jürgen asks.
The elderly pair gather their room key and newspaper and spectacles from the table. The husband gets up and pulls back his wife’s chair so she can stand.
“Be kind,” the wife says.
They nod at us.
During checkout Jürgen stops in front of the landlady and kisses me, a hand slipping down the back of my trousers, and then we pack up the car and are back on the road. I begin to think that the unpleasant incident at St. John’s is forgotten, that the whole ugly scene is behind us. But then, unexpectedly…
“No school friends,” Jürgen says, sliding his hand up and down my thigh as I join the motorway. “That’s interesting, you know?”
I can see that my new husband finds this baffling. I wish I’d never mentioned the word Divine. He can’t let it alone. He taps one finger against the glass as we cross the border into Scotland, staring out at the uneventful landscape, green fields with yellow pocket handkerchiefs of oilseed rape, culs-de-sac, warehouses and roadside cafés, food trucks parked in rest stops. We have another four hours of driving ahead of us to get to Skye, not to mention the ferry.
“Not one?” Jürgen checks, uncharacteristically pushy.
The four men that are his best friends all come from the same Salzburg village where he grew up. Andreas, Hansi, Thomas B, Thomas F. Two of them were christened together, they went to the same school, shared their first cigarette in Hansi’s woodshed, stole their grandparents’ schnapps, chased their first girlfriends on Krampusnacht, pretending to be the Christmas devil, masked and growling, nipping their sweethearts’ ankles with leather whips, threatening to carry them to the underworld. They have shed blood together, hunted together, drunk wept at each other’s weddings, actually staggering around the dance floor like bears. They are his family, closer than his actual brothers (one older, one younger, who I have to remind Jürgen to call on their respective birthdays). He is loyal to the core and would do anything for these four men, including jumping on a plane at the drop of a hat, or loaning them money without any expectation of return. A private annoyance of mine.
“Were you bullied?” Jürgen wants to know as we pull over to fill up with petrol.
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Unpopular then?” He pokes me. “Eine Streberin. How do you say, a geek?”
I grip the pump handle, my knuckles blanching.
“So you loved school?”
“Who loves school? It was fine,” I snap, instantly regretting my tone. “I mean, I don’t remember. Can we just drop it?”
Back behind the wheel he curls his hand around the nape of my neck to soothe me, rubbing his thumb up and down below my ear. He has calluses, little circular pads on the base of each finger from cycling that are rough as pumice.
“You don’t know if you liked school or not? You must remember something.”
“Not really,” I say, wriggling out of Jürgen’s grip, flustered, trying to concentrate on the road.
“Try,” he says.
I don’t answer.
Why won’t I talk to him? Is it just that I’m embarrassed? The boarding school education, the implication of wealth and privilege, the Old Girls’ network. When I met Jürgen (a sculptor I was sent to interview for a Sunday supplement, a rising star), he was still sleeping in a tent in his studio, washing in a sink, subsisting on grants and sporadic commissions. A self-made man, the de scendant of mountain people, literal peasants-cattle herders and cheese makers—he described to me during the course of that first meeting how he’d paid his way through art school felling trees and slaughtering goats.
Jürgen turns his whole body to face me.
“Seriously, you’re kidding, right? You won’t tell me this?”
Ashamed, I say nothing.
He can see that I’m not going to budge.
This does it. Silently thunderous, Jürgen takes out his guide book and reads the history of Skye. His stare bores down into one page then the next. We’re not the kind of couple who bicker. I sit behind the wheel, gnawing on the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry.
On the ferry to Armadale we stand apart, his hood up, my scarf wrapped around my head against the spray. He has his cam era around his neck but doesn’t take one photo. When we get to the island, there are midges, huge biblical clouds of gnats. We cover our mouths with our T-shirts and run into the croft house we have rented, cornered together inside the tiny kitchen.
“Oh my god,” I say, looking out at the bugs creeping all over the window frame, trying to find a way in. I try to make a joke about it but it falls flat. Jürgen is still furious with me, his new wife, for keeping secrets. He sits with the map spread on the floor, his precious road bike propped up against the wall. I open the bottle of single malt I bought on the mainland. I may have taken a few swigs already on the crossing. Dutch courage.
My throat warm, I place the whisky dead in the middle of his map. Jürgen barely looks up. I take off my clothes—it is our honeymoon, after all—and straddle Loch Hourn. Legs spread shamelessly. Afterwards, we lie on the floor and drink the rest of the bottle, picking midges from each other’s skin.
“Please, Sephine,” Jürgen begs. “Remember something. For me.”
“Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”
“That woman, she hated you. She called you a cunt.”
“I want to know. I want to know about you back then.”
“No, you don’t.”
I curl under his armpit, press against his warm ribs.
“Liebchen”—he circles the birthmark on my shoulder “please.”
I think of the elderly couple at the bed-and-breakfast. Be kind.
“Fine,” I mutter. I believe, or so I tell myself, in the apotropaic power of marriage. That witch hasn’t jinxed us, we are invincible. Golden even. What harm can it do?
“Memor amici,” I begin.
Excerpted from the book THE DIVINES: A Novel by Ellie Eaton. Copyright © 2021 by Ellie Eaton. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.