Ayla pulled her hair back into a loose bun, and sighed at her reflection. Why was it that her hair always refused to cooperate? It only looked good when it was out and lying across her shoulders, and if she went around like that it annoyed her, getting in her eyes. Now, tied back carefully into a casual 'do, it made her head look enormous. She snorted in disgust.
Her hair always looked stupid when it was tied back. Hold on- actually that wasn't true. It had looked brilliant when Zuleika had put it into six french braids which ran the length of her head and made her look like a princess.
No. She'd promised herself she wouldn't think about Zuleika, or Nora, or any of the other friends she'd had to leave behind. She didn't want to turn up to her new school with red eyes. She didn't want to remember how much she missed them, how it formed a hard little ball in her stomach, a physical ache.
It was exciting going to a new school, Ayla told herself. She'd meet new friends. Start all over again. She smiled forcibly at herself in the mirror. She looked OK when she smiled. Blue-green eyes with strange long lashes, strong black eyebrows (the mark of strength, her grandfather had said), big lips, snub nose. And her hair was behaving itself, to a certain extent.
Just keep smiling. That way people wouldn't see the pain.
"See you later. Have a good day."
Her dad grinned at her as she shut the door of his car, and waved as he sped away into the traffic. Moving to the States was his fault. He'd gotten a big assignment, a huge promotion at the firm where he worked- and he'd had to move here to be 'at the action'. That was his catchphrase. 'At the action.' Luckily the action ended in six months, and they'd be moving back home.
Ayla turned and looked at the white buildings. She'd seen the movies and the TV shows about American schools, about the different groups- the preppies and the jocks, the Goths and the nerds. Her school back home had been private, all-girl, with a uniform.
"This will be quite an experience," she thought, and grinned. She would have fun people-watching, if nothing else.
It was a bit of a struggle finding the Head Office to collect a timetable and get some directions. The hall surged with people, girls and guys, all seeming to know each other or have little cliques of their own. Ayla's stomach was buoyed a little by all the noise and happiness. You couldn't really feel down on yourself with so much laughter around you.
"Oh yes- Ayla. Well, dear, you just sit right here, and I'll get you a timetable." The secretary at the Head Office looked very flustered- her cheeks were all red and her hair was everywhere- and she threw papers about for about ten minutes in a great rush. Ayla was about to offer to help when she pulled one out from under a pot plant with a flourish. "Here you are, dear. There's a map on the opposite side. You are-" and she jabbed a finger at a point of the map- "here. North is that way. Have a nice day!"
With that she disappeared around a corner. The bell rang. It took Ayla the best part of five minutes to figure out what and where her first class was. The timetable looked like it was written in Arabic- she wished she'd watched Zuileika more closely when she was writing letters to her grandmother, but then figured out that it was merely in very tiny slanted script- and the map was barely better.
"This looks like it was drawn by a five-year-old," she thought, turning it upside down and squinting at it. "With coordination problems and a blunt crayon."
At last she got it. Her first class was English (Language Arts, it was called here) and it was in the first room to her left as she turned the bend.
The corridor was completely empty and murmurs of talking were coming from behind each door. She stuffed the timetable-map in her pocket and made her way to her classroom.
The teacher was about forty, and she was heavy-set and serious. Ayla sensed at least twenty pairs of eyes turning in her direction in automatic interest as she opened the door, but she ignored them.
"I'm Ayla Quinn. I'm new."
"Ah, I see." The teacher looked down her nose at her with mild distaste, as if she were a dirty little girl asking for a tissue to wipe her snotty nose. "Classes started five minutes ago- Ayla, is it? Is there a reason for your lateness?"
"The timetable took five minutes to translate into English," said Ayla, sweetly. "It appears to be written in hieroglyphs which can only be read with the use of a microscope." There was a tiny ripple of laughter, and the teacher looked at her with slight surprise.
"I see. Well, Ayla, I am Mrs Adams." She picked up the book in front of her and started to leaf through it. "Why don't you tell us all a few short, simple clichés about who you are and where you come from, and then we can consider ourselves fully introduced and I can start my class without further interruption."
Ayla didn't bat an eyelid. She was used to teachers with this sort of attitude. She cast a glance over the people sitting at desks in front of her, regarding her with a kind of set boredom. They clearly now expected her to reel off a list of her likes and dislikes, and they were already falling asleep.
She looked at the teacher, who was looking at her book with a slight smug smile.
"How about 'I think therefore I am'?" she asked.
"What?" Ms Adams was caught off guard.
"It's the simplest and most clichéd summary of my character that I can think of." Ayla shrugged, deadpan. Some of the class began to grin.
"I meant something more along the lines of your character specifics, Ms Quinn," said Ms Adams frostily. She looked at Ayla hard over her glasses.
"Ah. I see." Ayla faced the class- their apathy was beginning to sit in again, although a few of them were regarding her with slightly more attention. She suddenly began a monologue in a breathy vacuous accent, her hands clasped under her chin.
"My name is Ayla Quinn, and I enjoy long walks on the beach by moonlight-" she batted her eyelashes- "and dinner by candlelight, and talking for hours beside a campfire, and long-stemmed roses-"
"That will DO, Miss Quinn!" Most of the class was laughing now, and all of them them were staring at Ayla in astonishment. Ms Adams was incensed. Ayla smiled.
"I do NOT permit new students to make a mockery of me!" said Ms Adams. She breathed in a few times and subsided, her cheeks pink. "Is there something inherently unjust," she said, in a slightly softer and more dangerous tone, "about a small character summary to the class?"
"You said yourself," replied Ayla politely and with complete calm, "that the summary would undoubtedly consist of nothing more than a mass of irrelevant clichés. I find it impossible to cram myself into twenty-five words or less. The class would get a far better vision of my 'character' if they took it upon themselves to make friends with me in their own time. And speaking of time, I think I've wasted quite enough of yours, so perhaps you should show me where I sit."
A dead silence accompanied this extraordinary speech. Ms Adams opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, shut it, and pointed to a seat near the back of the class.
And Ayla walked to her desk with a serene half-smile on her face, while her classmates flashed each other delighted grins on all sides.