The knock at the door, oddly familiar and yet quite distinctly neither the cheerful rat-a-tat of Gillian Culver nor the orderly rap of Gertrude Ryder, came as a welcome break from the less interesting half of the morning’s post; letters from Madge and Hilda swiftly identified, opened, devoured, and laid carefully to one side to be answered once business proper had been attended to, Nell had promptly lost interest in her mail. Not for the first time, she wished she still had Hilda just next door: she could have sent for coffee and carried it through to her co-head, demanding that she, too, put down her boring work in favour of some much-needed distraction. Hilda would have given her that look and candidly informed her that she was not going to be diverted by Nell’s whims, but a smile would have crinkled the corners of her eyes nonetheless and she would, at least, not have sent Nell packing.
Hilda was not here, of course; but whoever it was, they still had to be more interesting than insurance papers and requests for prospectuses.
“Enter!” she called, hastily sweeping the untidy pile of correspondence to one side of her desk and straightening up in anticipation.
If anyone had asked her, afterwards, she would have said that she did not know who it could be – but that even so, she would certainly never have imagined it would have been Con. Years older, somewhat thinner, and with a hesitance Nell did not think she had seen in her before – but most definitely, unmistakeably Con.
“Well!” she remarked, for the entrance seemed to call for some remark at least.
“You look surprised,” her visitor observed in amused tones. The soft Highland tones induced a spasm of wistfulness; Nell had not expected ever to hear this voice again.
“Wouldn’t you be?” she retorted. “It’s thirteen years I haven’t heard from you in – and now here you come waltzing into my office without so much as a by-your-leave. You didn’t write. I don’t even know how you found out I was here...”
“Nally,” came the unperturbed reply. “I did think of wiring ahead – but by then I was already at Lausanne, and it seemed silly to bother at that late stage in proceedings.”
“I’m sure.” Nell murmured dryly, watching as Con unwrapped herself from her outer layers, hanging coat and scarf on the elegant coat-stand before seating herself comfortably in the chair nearest the door through which she had just entered. “I suppose I ought to ring for kaffee. So, er – to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Con seemed to begin and dismiss a series of explanations in her head, the words dying on her lips each time she opened her mouth. Nell made good her own suggestion and rang the little bell while she waited. The Swiss maid had arrived, been instructed and departed with a pretty curtsey before Con appeared to find the words she had been looking for.
“I had to see you. I’ve come to offer my services.” Her second sentence did not sound like one with which she had initially intended to follow her first; but it was this second sentence which seemed easier for Nell to reply to.
She frowned, pouring a generous helping of creamy milk into her coffee. “I do wish you’d written ahead, if that’s the case. I have my full complement of staff here already. I’m afraid I haven’t a vacancy.”
“You haven’t a history mistress.” Con pointed out.
“No, that’s true. But there’s no immediate need to have one – the curriculum doesn’t require it. The plan is to move the main school over here eventually. Then we shall have Biddy.” Con raised her eyebrows at this, and Nell nodded. “Oh yes, the very same. She can’t have been more than, what, fourteen the last you saw of her? But she’s grown into the young woman she showed every promise of being, during the rare intervals between her bouts of madness. Between you and me, I’m tremendously proud of our Biddy.”
Con paused to digest this thought, nostalgia chasing amusement and wonder across her expressive face, before her attention returned to the unexpectedly forthright matter at hand. “Hasn’t stopped you taking on Nally for now, has it? – when you’ve surely a younger Games specimen waiting in the wings.”
Nell laughed softly. “Peggy Burnett, as it happens – remember her? But it’s not PT I’ve taken Grace on for – she’s Musical Appreciation.”
“That’s a skill she kept well hidden in the olden days,” Con remarked, moving nearer to perch on Nell’s desk.
“It was a long time ago. I dare say she’s acquired new skills in the time since our years at the chalet. I don’t pry, as a rule. Grace came to me with excellent references from her previous school, and I’ve only good memories of working with her years ago. Her life in the intervening years is none of my concern.”
“You’re very noble,” Con answered quickly, and Nell couldn’t work out whether she was in earnest or in jest. “Goodness, it is a long time ago, isn’t it? All those years – Biddy and little Peggy Burnett grown up and teaching – Nally, well – and you all senior and sensible and headmistressly–“
“Someone has to be,” Nell interrupted, rather more sharply than she liked. “And you? Don’t you think you’ve changed just as much in all that time?”
Con met her gaze and nodded slowly. “I daresay I have. There’s the children, of course: the boys are nine now, and Janetta seven. They’re boarding in England, all of them. I took them there and saw them off before I came over here.”
Nell absorbed this information, perhaps the first useful snippet Con had offered so far. “There’s also Jock,” she reminded her now, surprised to find that the acknowledgement was still a painful one.
“Oh, him,” Con said dismissively, a dark look flitting across her face.
Oh-ho, Nell murmured inwardly. Lies the wind in that quarter, does it? Outward, she balanced her chin in both hands, elbows on the desk in front of her, scrutinising Con. “You’re not giving me an awful lot to go on here, you know.”
“Must I really spell it out?” Con burst forth with an annoyance that took Nell by surprise; in the next instant, she found herself smiling. The years had softened her old friend to a degree: her voice was quieter, and she remained sitting, the coffee cup quite stable in her hands; but fire still burned here. Con did not appear to notice her secret pleasure – which was probably for the best. “I didn’t know where else to go. I’ve nothing left. I had to see you. I made an awful mistake.”
Nell could not tell whether Con meant the awful mistake of leaving to marry Jock in the first place, or something more recent. The uncertainty stung. She had been so used to knowing Con inside out, understanding what she meant before she had even started saying it. Con back here, and that understanding still awry, hurt and confused her. It seemed an easy enough guess that the same disconnect had provoked Con’s angry outburst a moment earlier. She exhaled slowly, consideringly; glanced pointedly at the clock.
“I’m truly sorry, I haven’t the time to sort this out right now. I need to have this lot sorted before my secretary comes back, and I shall be teaching for the first part of the afternoon. Leave your bags here for now – I assume you do have bags with you? – and take yourself out for a good walk. Come back here after sixteen o’clock but ahead of Abendessen, and we can talk properly.” She wanted to follow it up with a plea for understanding, or perhaps an accusation: how could she be expected to just accept Con’s arrival and make decisive plans about it, having had no time to realise what had just happened? Con had had weeks, probably, of deciding and planning and travelling and preparing; she had afforded Nell no such opportunity. Coping was what was expected of her, she supposed; her job, as ever, was to roll her sleeves up and get on with it.
She half-expected Con to argue, perhaps because this felt a crassly business-like response to the emotional avalanche that threatened to engulf her pretty office, or perhaps just because it was Con, and the Con she had known had rarely passed up an opportunity to argue. Thankfully, her fears were unfounded. With a meekness that startled Nell just as much as the outburst a moment earlier, the visitor nodded with a grateful smile as she retrieved her outer garments.
“Have you money to buy yourself some lunch?” Nell asked conscientiously, her hand straying to the locked desk drawer which contained the cash tin even as she spoke.
Con waved her away. “Of course. I suppose I shall find milk and fresh rolls somewhere, just as we always used to?”
Nell nodded. “The very same. Have a good stroll, and I’ll see you at sixteen.”
“Thank you,” Con murmured; and with another bright smile, she was gone.