Home > A Narrow Door (Malbry #3)

A Narrow Door (Malbry #3)
Author: Joanne Harris




‘Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’

(Matthew 7:14)



St Oswald’s, September 2006

I often find that men like you underestimate women like me. You think we must be damaged, somehow. That we seek power to compensate for some real or imagined injustice. That we must hate men, for the way they have excluded women from their boys’ clubs, holding them back, abusing them, exploiting them, for centuries. Well, yes, you may have a point. Some things make a woman fight back. And some things, though they challenge us, only make us stronger.

A woman Headmaster. To you it must seem a reversal of everything you believe. How did we come to this, you ask? How has the world been so overturned? Women like me, you tell yourself, should be this way for a reason. Our drive to succeed comes from weakness, you think. Rage, or hate, or fear, or insecurity. And that’s why I’ll win. Because you believe in the essential weakness of women in authority.

But that’s where you’re wrong, Mr Straitley. I have no inse­curities. But for one early incident, my childhood was uneventful. My sexual partners have been dull to the point of uniformity. Except for Johnny Harrington, whom I fucked between the ages of sixteen and sixteen and a half, and who gave me a child, as well as the dubious novelty of having fucked, if not a murderer, then at least the next best thing. Otherwise, he too was bland, arrogant and predictable; riding on his privilege all the way to the Headship. In many ways, he was born to be Head. The model of a St Oswald’s boy; so certain of his entitlement that he never questioned his fitness. And yes, I helped him along the way. Not out of any sentiment regarding his donated sperm – he never knew about Emily, or what it had cost me to raise her – but because it was expedient. I followed his career from afar, although he never followed mine. I saw an opportunity. By the time we reconnected, I had skills to offer him, and I became his Deputy; his trusted second-in-command. He accepted my services as he had always accepted them, never once considering that I might have ambitions of my own. And when he fell – as I knew he would – in the wake of last year’s disastrous events, I was there to take his place, as St Oswald’s struggled to survive yet another unfortunate scandal. After that, it was easy. Like you, they underestimated me. All it took for me to rise was flattery, a lot of hard work, some patience, time and, most of all, the strength to accept the snubs and humiliations that inevitably come the way of any woman with ambition.

But sitting in my office now – the office that once was his – drinking coffee from his machine, reading the names on the Honours Boards that decorate the panelled walls, I feel a sense of rightness. This is my office; this is my desk. My orchids on the window ledge. My parking space under the window. My coffee machine. My cup. My school. I earned this job, I belong here, and I have nothing more to prove. St Oswald’s, with all its history, with all its relentless, patriarchal baggage, is mine. And today I sit in the Headmaster’s chair, and will stand at the lectern this morning in Assembly as the new New Head – a title that in five hundred years has never gone to a woman before – and address a school filled with boys and girls, and lead them out of the wilderness.

An old St Oswald’s proverb goes: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a woman to enter these gates. Well, not only have I entered, but now the gates are my gates, and the rules are my rules. The mistake you made was one of scale. Men always do, used as they are to taking the main entrance. Women must be more discreet. All we need is a narrow door. And when we have crept in unseen, like a spider through a keyhole, we spin ourselves an empire of silk, and fill you with astonishment.

I’m really very fond of you, Roy. Don’t think that because I opposed you last year, I don’t have a lot of respect for you. But you are part of the old school, and I belong to the future. I don’t suppose you know what that’s like. You’ve always been part of St Oswald’s. Man and boy, you always belonged. You never needed the narrow door. And even after what happened last year, you still believe I have a heart.

How little you know me, Straitley. I have survived more setbacks than you could ever imagine. I had my daughter at seventeen without ever naming the father. I entered teaching at twenty-three, in a school very like St Oswald’s. I fought for my place every step of the way, through prejudice, sexism and judgement. I have survived a double mastectomy without confiding in anyone. I have survived the death of a spouse and an elder sibling, a love affair. I have seen my parents die; my daughter move to America. I have committed two murders; one a crime of passion, the other, a crime of convenience. I am barely forty years old and, finally, I am starting to reap the harvest my ambitions have sown. This is my time, Mr Straitley. And no, I am not damaged.

I am whole.





(River of Woe)






St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys Academy

Michaelmas Term, September 4th, 2006

I won’t pretend it doesn’t feel like some kind of an evil omen. A crossing-out on the very first page of a new St Oswald’s diary. But, as of this year, we are no longer St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, but St Oswald’s Academy – a change that the new Head assures us will propel us into the stratosphere of fine independent schools in the north.

To an old lag like me, it seems like the end. The rebranding that began last year under Johnny Harrington’s regime has spread like a pernicious weed to all parts of St Oswald’s. From the removal of the Honours Boards on the Middle Corridor, to the workstations in the Common Room; whiteboards in every classroom and girls in every year, the new Head’s influence has made itself known. We even have a new motto: Progress Through Tradition, as if Tradition were a tunnel through which the express train of Progress would someday emerge in triumph, having gleefully mown down everything we stand for.

But after the chaos of last year and the tragedy of the year before, some might say we’ve been lucky. The long-delayed merger with our sister school, Mulberry House, has taken some of the heat off St Oswald’s, and the arrival of girls in the School has provoked a spate of approving articles in the local press, which, historically, has generally been rather negative towards us. The new Head is articulate, presentable and more than intelligent enough to understand how to manage the media. This week’s issue of the Malbry Examiner has her on the front page, in one of her elegant trouser suits, surrounded by a selection of some of our more photogenic new girls, all in smart new uniforms (redesigned by the Head, of course) and smiling into the camera like a victorious general.

Yes, after almost a year of standing in for the absent Head, Ms Buckfast, who until recently constituted one third of Johnny Harrington’s Crisis Team, has finally gained a permanent place in the Headmaster’s office. Her counterpart at Mulberry House (Miss Lambert, aka Call-me-Jo) was offered the post of Deputy, but instead took early retirement, and has since been spotted at various prestigious venues, where she commands extortionate fees, I am told, as an after-dinner speaker. The other Crisis Deputy has moved to a Headship of his own, and Dr Markowicz, who joined the German Department last year, has taken his place as Second Master, much to the ire of Dr Devine, who, having championed the man last year, sees this as a betrayal, and of Bob Strange, the Third Master, a staunch supporter of La Buckfast, who assumed from the start that his own long-delayed promotion would henceforth be little more than a formality.

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