Why are children so attracted to hidden places? At boarding school in Darjeeling, up in the Himalayan foothills, one might have thought that we would take every opportunity to get out of school bounds and into nature, and we did. But more frequently we sought hidden places within the school itself, places unknown to adults and authorities, where we delighted in being unseen.
We organized a midnight feast, probably inspired by the Enid Blyton books that were ubiquitous in our childhood. (Enid Blyton’s boarding-school books were the Harry Potters of the time, except that the magic, for most readers, lay in the unreality of the privileged world of her characters.) In preparation, we collected as much food as we could, smuggling sticky jam sandwiches out of the dining hall under our arms, contributing a can of baked beans and a bar of chocolate, bought from the school tuck shop with our precious pocket money. Some girls had parcels of food sent from home, and we may have cajoled a special treat out of one of them. At the appointed hour we crept out of our beds and down the long, dark hallway of the stone school building, terrified that we might wake the matron. When we reached the chapel, we tiptoed through the stage door and then climbed the stepladder into the loft above the stage, careful not to drop our candle and our bundle of goodies. Once there, we ate the clandestine food, told ghost stories in hoarse whispers, and screwed up our courage to brave the long passage back to our beds again.
There was another secret place, also behind the stage. One night, while students were rehearsing late for a school play but most of us girls were back in our dormitory, we heard excited whispers coming out of a dorm closet. It turned out that there was a small hole in the back of the closet that opened through to a changing room in the wings of the theatre. What a thrill to talk to our boyfriends through that hole, and at an hour when we were supposed to be in our separate dorms getting ready for bed!
Early one evening, three of us set out looking for hidden places. We climbed up to the third floor where the little girls’ dorm was, and found there a door under the eaves leading to a long, low space that ran the length of the dorm behind the wall. Creeping along in the dark with only a candle to light our way, we heard the sounds of the matron and the junior girls on the other side of the wall, all unaware of our presence. As we edged along, shadowy objects loomed at us out of the dark, and we had to catch our breaths to keep from crying out. Then the corridor widened and we entered what seemed to be a small room, where we could stand upright. There was a large, dark object in the corner which, on closer inspection, we found to be an old piano, festooned with cobwebs. It is hard to account for the excitement that we felt at this discovery, but anything that caught our imaginations or hinted at secret worlds was thrilling to us. For me, the abandoned piano in the hidden room, waiting with open sheet music for ghostly players, evoked my favorite scene in the Classic Comic of Great Expectations: Miss Havisham still wearing her wedding gown after all those years, the wedding feast, cake and all, similarly hung with cobwebs.
We didn’t spend all our time hiding behind the walls like Mary Norton’s Borrowers. Some of the more intrepid among us would “bunk” under cover of dark to a little stall called Hafiz’s up the hill at North Point, and bring back hot momos, delicious meat-filled dumplings. Every evening, in the five or ten minutes between dinner and evening study hall, those of us who were official “couples” would stroll round and round the school building in the gathering dusk hand-in-hand, defying the eagle eye of the aptly-named Miss Hawke. And on the Saturdays when we had permission to go into town, one of our favorite destinations was the New Dish Chinese restaurant, which offered us a rare experience of privacy with its curtained booths.