I CLEAR my throat and look around doubtfully at my friends The third official Operation Shield meeting is in progress. Lael has taken the chair, as usual, but I need to bring something up that isn’t on the official agenda. And I have a feeling it’s not going to go down well.
“Right, girls!” There’s a sergeant-major snap to Lael’s voice as she opens her iPad and prepares to get going. “It’s been weeks since our last meeting, so let’s do a quick recap. Yes, Trinity?” she adds as I raise my hand hesitantly.
“Um … before we get started, I just wanted to make a suggestion. I don’t know if you’re going to like it.”
“Proceed, Agent Luhabe.”
“It’s about Sophie.”
“Sophie Agincourt,” I say impatiently. “Our Sophie. The one who sleeps in this dormitory. You know which Sophie I’m talking about.”
“Okay,” Lael says thoughtfully. “I didn’t think you could possibly be talking about that Sophie. What about her?”
“Well … I’ve just been thinking … she’s a part of this dormitory, isn’t she?”
“It depends which part you mean,” Nosipho chips in.
“The annoying part,” Yasmin mutters.
“The evil cow part,” Priya suggests.
A slightly bitchy laugh ripples around the room.
“Come on, girls, you’re not being fair,” I say.”You must admit she’s been better this term.”
“Better than what?” Lael asks huffily. “This is the girl who rifled through my undies to get at our diet supplies, remember?”
That really rankled Lael. It’s been over a week and she still hasn’t forgotten about it. It’s starting to look like she never will.
“I know, I know,” I say sympathetically. “But she’s been so nice about lending me her clothes and her makeup and helping me get ready for dates and everything, that I was just … you know … thinking…”
“Thinking what, Comrade?” Nosipho demands. “Spit it out.”
“The thing is … it just doesn’t feel right holding these meetings without her. I mean, this is supposed to be a joint venture of the Albertina Sisulu House Grade 10 dormitory, right? And we’re keeping it a secret from one of the legitimate members of that dormitory. It feels almost like we’re sneaking around behind her back.”
“We are sneaking around behind her back,” Yasmin points out. “I was the one who found out when she was having her violin lesson so that we could hold the meeting tonight, remember?”
Lael nods approvingly. “Exactly. And you will be duly commended for your fine work, Agent Abdul. It’s Item 4b on the agenda. Now if there’s nothing else?” She gives her iPad a business-like click.
“Hang on. I’m not finished yet,” I say.
Lael sighs and makes a “carry on” sweep with her hand.
“Look, I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but maybe we should consider bringing Sophie in on this. She’s sneaky enough that she could make a valuable asset to our campaign. And once she knows about it, we wouldn’t have to worry about hiding it from her any more..”
There’s a long silence as I look around hopefully from girl to girl.
Then finally, Lael nods. “You’re right.”
“You mean you agree?” I can hardly believe it.
“I mean you’re right – we do think you’re crazy,” she says briskly. “Next order of business, please.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” I say. “Aren’t you even going to think about it? Haven’t you noticed how much nicer she’s been this term?”
“To you,” Priya says. “Not to anyone else.”
“It’s not only me! She’s been nicer to everyone.”
I can’t help remembering last night when Sophie took me aside and told me she’d heard all about what happened at the scholarship dinner. She was so sympathetic, and gave me so many great tips on how to act in future, I was really touched.
But from the looks on my friends’ faces, I’m the only one who feels this way.
“Has Sophie been nicer to you, Priya?” Lael asks.
“How about you, Nosipho?”
“Not even a little bit.”
“And she’s been a complete cow to me, so that makes it pretty much unanimous,” Lael says. “Sorry, Trinity. I’m afraid you’re outvoted. The only person she’s been nice to is you. And even then, she’s only nice when it has
something to do with Zach. For some reason, she really wants the two of you to make it as a couple.”
“Well, that’s kind of her, isn’t it?” I say.
“It’s either kind or creepy,” says Lael. “I think if we knew what she was really up to, we’d be horrified.”
“I agree.” Nosipho, who is sitting closest to me, leans over to give me a quick hug. “You’re too unsuspicious, Trinity, that’s your problem. You always want to believe the best of everyone. With some people, you have to consider the possibility that there is no best.”
“Plus, if we tell her what we’re planning to do with the Gumede Shield, she’ll totally split on us to Matron,” says Yasmin. “And that’ll be the end of all our plans.”
“Agreed.” Lael makes a note on her iPad. “Motion denied. We tell Sophie nothing. Not one single whisper of a hint of a rumour about what we’re planning. Otherwise we can kiss this whole plan goodbye.”
“Oh, all right.” I hunch my shoulders and subside.
I’m not all that sorry to be outvoted, to tell you the truth. I’m not a total moron, whatever my friends might think. I know Sophie can’t really be trusted. But after she was so sweet to me last night, my conscience pricked me. It didn’t feel right to be taking her advice about Zach while planning a secret meeting behind her back. But I’ve done my best to convince the others, without success. Time to move on.
“Right, proceeding to the summary of events so far.” Lael gets up to pace the room. “Agent Abdul has uncovered a valuable piece of historical evidence. As we all know, Agent Abdul’s mother was a learner at this institution in the 1970s and 80s. It’s thanks to her that we know about the promise that the shield will be allowed
to live half in Gumede House and half in Sisulu House if a girl ever succeeds in kidnapping it again.”
“The alleged promise,” Yasmin corrects. “My mom says it’s only a vague rumour she remembers hearing.”
“The alleged promise,” Lael agrees. “Although I’m sure it’s true. And now Agent Abdul’s mother has remembered another piece of information about the shield. We all know that after the First World War, when the shield stopped a bullet and saved the life of the soldier who was carrying it, it was known as the Jan Smuts Shield. But apparently it has an even longer history than that. Agent Abdul, you have the floor.”
Lael sits down and gestures to Yasmin to stand up.
“It’s somewhere in here,” she says, scrolling through the messages on her phone. “Okay, this is an email from my mom. She says that the shield was originally donated to the school by a grandfather of one of the boys who was in the Crimean War. The grandfather, that is, not the boy – obviously.”
“The Crimean War…” I say vaguely.
“We did it in history, don’t you remember?” says Yasmin. “It was that war between Britain and Russia.”
“And some other countries too, I think,” Nosipho puts in.
“Anyway, the point about the Crimean War is that the shield was originally known as the Florence Nightingale Shield.”
“Oh, Florence Nightingale,” I say, relieved. “Yes, I know who she was at least. The nurse lady.”
“That’s right,” says Lael. “With the emphasis on lady. Florence Nightingale was a woman, which means that the Gumede House Shield was originally named after a female. Which means that the reason Gumede House
has always given for keeping it is nonsense. They claim it was named after Jan Smuts – their founder. But it wasn’t. It goes all the way back to Florence Nightingale. And that means we have just as much right to it as they do. In fact, we have more right, considering that she was a woman and we are a women’s boarding house.”
“Yeah!” Priya says, giving her a high five.
“Hang on a minute,” I say slowly. “If all this is true, why don’t we just write a petition to Dr Hussein asking for the shield to be shared with Sisulu House? We can put this new historical evidence into it and collect signatures from all the girls. I bet even Matron would sign it. They wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Then we won’t have to go to all the trouble of stealing it…”
I tail off, looking at the four disappointed faces around me.
“It sounds a bit tame, doesn’t it?” I admit.
Lael nods. “Very tame. And anyway, I bet they’ve known about the Florence Nightingale angle all along. Otherwise, how would Yasmin’s mom have heard about it? They’ve been suppressing the evidence. This is a male conspiracy to keep the shield in Gumede House. If they want to fight dirty, we’ll fight dirty.”
“Okay, so what we’ll do is pinch the shield and put it in our display case with a list of reasons why it should be shared between the two houses,” I say.
“Yes, brilliant.” Nosipho grins. “That’ll teach them.”
“Motion carried.” Lael makes another note on her iPad. “Now let’s get onto the practicalities. Agent Luhabe’s co-conspirator Honourary Agent James Ellison has been a great help in spying for us. Thanks to him, we now know that the inter-leading door between Dr
Hussein’s office and Mrs Anderssen’s office is unlocked on Wednesday mornings while she does her filing.”
“And also that she makes a habit of wandering about making tea and going to the Ladies, all while leaving the door unlocked,” I add.
“Did James tell you all that?” Priya asks curiously.
I nod. “Why? Do you know him?”
“A little bit,” she says. “Enough to know he’s a fairly obnoxious guy who doesn’t like girls much.”
“Would you really call him obnoxious?” I ask, slightly defensive.
“I would. In fact, that’s pretty much the first word that comes to mind.”
“Oh well…” I think of James’ habit of making racist and sexist comments all the time. “I suppose you’re right. He can be pretty offensive.”
It’s just that I’ve got used to him, I suppose. The obnoxiousness is so much a part of his personality for me that I hardly notice it any more. And I must admit I’m secretly a bit flattered that a guy who is notorious for not liking girls keeps seeking me out and spending time with me. Because it’s not as though I go looking for him, is it? He’s the one who always comes and finds me.
“Obnoxious or not, Honourary Agent Ellison gets Noddy points for helping us on our feminist mission,” Lael says firmly. “He is assisting us in striking a blow for womanhood, so I don’t care how annoying he is. Agent Luhabe, would you kindly explain about the infra-red beam?”
“Sure.” I dig a torch out of my bag and demonstrate exactly how the security beam works. “So basically all we need to do is place an object about the same size in
the way of the beam before removing the shield. That way, the alarm won’t be activated.”
“We need to do a dry run,” Lael says. “If this goes wrong, we could all get into serious trouble. I reckon we’d be looking at expulsion. So we need to make a hundred per cent sure that we don’t get caught.”
“Expulsion?” Nosipho asks nervously. “Do you really think they’d go that far?”
“They might. The point is that we need to make very sure we don’t get caught. And to do that, we need to run through the whole operation up to and including unlocking the cabinet. That way, there’ll be no hidden surprises waiting for us when we do it for real. Trinity, will you ask James if he’ll be our look-out? Check that the passage is empty and so forth?”
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll ask him the next time I see him.”
“Then that’s it for tonight. Now let’s start doing our normal stuff before Sophie gets back.”