Con having thus proven her worth, the present began to feel intoxicatingly like the past. Nell seemed increasingly at ease in this rediscovered double act, and if both of them were now too old and respectable to be running hand-in-hand through the corridors as they had done back on the shores of the Tiernsee, they nonetheless knew the familiar rush of exhilaration at simply being in the presence of the other, an unproblematic excitement which did not wane with end-of-term tiredness or quail at public suppression. Their old friendship was quite restored, underwritten by a healthy mutual admiration. After years – long, hard years – out in the emotional wilderness, Con was moved almost to tears by the solace of feeling known and loved regardless: not that she would dream of confessing such a pathetic state of affairs to Nell; nor that she truly need confess anything to the one who knew her so well and accepted her so readily once more.
Through her security with Nell, her confidence in the staff room grew and grew; the skilful socialising she had begun her time at St Mildred's with segued seamlessly into a less deliberate and more natural engagement, now her position seemed almost tenable. Almost, always almost; her husband still existing, if estranged, and her children's Christmas uncertain, it was still fair to say that the largest part of her own life remained necessarily shrouded in secrecy, her visions for the following term clouded by uncertainty. But with an acquired indifference grown strong from years of practice, she found it altogether too easy to put these questions to one side, and immerse herself in the moment – especially when ‘the moment’ was so eventful, and enjoyably demanding.
"So how do you folk propose to mark Christmas?" she demanded one evening in the staffroom, a mug of coffee clasped in both hands, her feet tucked beneath her where she sat at one end of the great Chesterfield.
"You're the one with a plan, judging by the look on your face," Grace observed shrewdly. "Come on! Let's hear it."
Con's grin widened, and she darted a conspiratorial look at Julie Berné, enlisting an ally before she even spoke. "I only thought it might please the girls to have a visit from St Nicholas, on his feast..."
Instantly, Julie caught on and her dark eyes sparkled with mischief. "But of course! Le sixième décembre, n'est-çe pas? And today is already the troisième. I like this idea very much, cherie – it is many years since I last played at St Nicholas, but we girls always loved it."
Nell and Grace, too, were smirking with comprehension, and Vi Norton bristled amiably at the rest of her colleagues. "I'm afraid someone will have to enlighten me, as I haven't the foggiest notion of what you're all on about. I know St Nicholas is the patron saint of small children, but that's about as much as I have to go on – and that certainly doesn't account for the wicked joy I see lighting up your faces!"
At her words, Grace threw back her head and gurgled with laughter. "Oh, you'll like it, Vi. It's a jolly idea." With which maddening tidbit, she dried up, and it was left to Con to enlighten those of her audience who were not already familiar with the traditional French celebrations of St Nicholas' day.
"St Nicholas comes to reward the good, and punish the bad," she supplied accordingly. "He reads from one scroll, I think, the sins of those who have sinned – I should think that's the whole lot of our little angels, frankly! – and then from another scroll, the good deeds of those who have – and I should jolly well hope that's the lot of them, too. He brings with him an angel or two, to dish out suitable rewards – some trinket or other, sweets, I don't know; whatever we can get at this late juncture. And naturally he also brings a demon or two, to dish out suitable punishment..."
Vi waited a moment, and when it became apparent that no further explanation was forthcoming, she cried out in frustration once more. "Is that as much as you're planning to say, my dear? Upon my word – you're a demon yourself!"
"Il faut attendre," Con teased. "You won't be a demon, anyway, so you've no urgent need to know. You'll make a perfect angel, so all you need worry about is finding yourself a suitable outfit in time for the festivities..."
"And for Saint Nicholas himself?" Mlle enquired, her enthusiasm making quite clear that, as far as she was concerned, the idea was committed to happening. "Do you propose yourself, cherie?"
"Goodness, no. It has to be Nell, doesn't it? Of course it does" – for that worthy had already thrown up her hands in protest – "you've a perfect gift for that sort of thing. I have very clear memories of you as Mrs Jarley, of 'waxworks' fame..."
At this reminder, Grace Nalder shrieked with laughter. "She's quite right, Bill! If you can 'do' St Nicholas even half as well as you did Mrs Jarley, we'll give the little darlings an evening to remember all right. Ignore her protests, you people, for she gave a simply splendid performance – I only wish I'd had a camera."
Con took up the tale, anxious to include the rest of the crowd in their reminiscence. "It was back in the Tyrol, during an extended period of awful weather and an ever more desperate need to amuse the kids – who were, some of them, going quite frantic with being cooped up indoors so much. I can't remember whose idea it was to start off with, but some bright spark set upon the notion of us giving a waxworks show, in the vein of Dickens and so on. Nell not being at that time the shy retiring sort she pretends to be today promptly volunteered for Mrs Jarley herself. The rest of us took what parts we thought ourselves – and our extremely limited props! – up to the task of, and contrived to get ready as swiftly as we could. Nell took herself off and practically barricaded herself in her room to prepare her outfit and write the entire song of the thing. She contrived to pass a script through the door for us to read through a mere thirty-minutes before curtain-up – she herself, we none of us got a glimpse of until she descended the stairs to take up her place on the stage." She glanced at Nell, remembering vividly and enjoying the occasion to tell the story. "Such a fright I would never have known she could make of herself! Padded out to quite twice her usual size with cushions – a hideous bonnet – half of her teeth blacked out..." Her description was eliciting delighted grins from her captive audience, not least Gill Culver who was looking at her former headmistress in a new light.
"Marie von Eschenau asked me afterwards if I'd really taken out a tooth," Nell added reminiscently. "The things I did for those girls! I thought I should melt, beneath all those cushions. Goodness, I've not thought about that little performance in years – perhaps with very good reason! Grace made a wonderful Queen Victoria, as I remember."
Grace nodded with a shy smile, and Gillian – clearly still revelling in the images Con had conjured up – turned to the storyteller with some eagerness. "And who were you?"
"Bonny Prince Charlie!" Con offered with a grin. "The girls all called me Charlie anyway, on account of my initials, and a kilt was about as much of a costume as I could manage at a morning's notice."
"It suited you." Nell put in unexpectedly, and Con glowed thanks. "Anyway, as entertaining a diversion as this has been, it's not moving us any further towards this week's proposed effort!"
"Oh, but it is." Grace interrupted. "I'm quite certain there's not a soul who'll oppose your nomination for St Nicholas now, so it's been a particularly instructive diversion, I'd say. Julie will be another angel, of course: she's the regal look for it, same as Vi. Which leaves Gill and I for demons, which is probably about right – and Charlie..?"
Con shrugged. "I don't mind, really. If I didn't think good old St Nick quite capable of speaking for himself, I'd offer to stand as a Master of Ceremony. As it is – do you want an extra angel? Or an extra demon, for that matter? I honestly wouldn't mind being out of it altogether, and making my own role one of design and execution.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t.” Nell remarked drily, and Con laughed, unaffected.
“Oh? Is that you saying you wanted to organise the whole occasion yourself, there?” She teased, and was rewarded with a momentary softening, Nell’s whole face smiling in gratitude and admiration and – yes – happiness, unadulterated and undisguised, before she caught on to herself and rearranged her features imperceptibly, the old familiar mask of friendship. “Three days. Ample time. I’ll be chasing all of you for your recollections of deeds good and questionable. Makes a change from the nativity, doesn’t it?”
“It sounds silly, but I’m rather going to miss the nativity.” This was Gertrude Ryder. “I know they’re young ladies now and too old for putting on the old Christmas story, but it’s always been such a feature of the autumn term.”
“I missed it.” Grace spoke in unison with Con, and they exchanged a look of amused recognition. Grace nodded an encouragement, go on, and Con went on: “It almost didn’t feel like Christmas could be coming without it. One of those things which had always been there, I suppose – the sort of thing you don’t realise until it doesn’t happen any more.” Christmas hadn’t felt like Christmas anyway that year, of course; wrong country, wrong climate, wrong company, and all hope extinguished. She yawned, in an effort to unfix the set of her jaw. She couldn’t exactly smile, but the melancholy which had settled at this thought was not one she wished to share with all her colleagues.
The yawn did not escape Matron’s beady eye, and Con did not resist her command of “bed!”. She laughed and remarked that she would never have thought a woman of her age would jump so quickly to Matron’s pronouncements, but she was not sorry to take her leave and retreat to the stillness of the bedroom.
Nell was not more than twenty minutes behind her. Con was sitting up beneath the covers, quietly waiting, finished with her thoughts and her prayers, and pleased to see that her anticipation had not been misplaced.
“I thought you’d still be up,” Nell greeted her cheerfully. “I’m glad.”
“So am I.” Con agreed, settling to watch her companion get ready for bed.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Nell said, as she deftly removed the pins holding her hair, “about Edna Purdon. I spied you partnering her on the walk today, and it’s not the first time either. Is everything all right there?”
“Edna? Well, she’s coming along, but it’s a long lesson she’s learning. Some of the other girls do their best, of course, but she’s still quite hard work for them, for all that. Even Peggy won’t have a charity case of a friendship, and that’s quite as it ought to be. In the meantime, poor Edna doesn’t want to be alone as much as she is.”
“So that’s where you come in?” Nell asked with a slightly incredulous look.
Con chuckled. “Yes it is! Charity cases are something I can do – again, quite as it ought to be!”
Nell turned from the mirror to face her, as she gently uncoiled her white hair – every bit as familiar now, Con realised suddenly, as the chestnut had once been. She remembered how disconcerting the difference had been, when she had come to meet her in St Malo so many years earlier. It hadn’t been about the colour at all, of course; it had been about all that had passed, and how the Nell she had met at the railway station had been so wholly transformed from the Nell she had said goodbye to before that day in Spartz. The colour had been an easier change to describe; a more straightforward shock to recoil from. “But Con! Doesn’t the girl simply drive you to distraction?”
Another laugh; and a timely reminder that Nell had not been the only one to change. “She’d drive saints to distraction! But I can feel kindly towards someone whilst simultaneously wanting to shake them.” She watched her lover’s sceptical face with amusement. “I’ve had quite a bit of practice at that.”
Nell smiled, off guard, and seemed to hesitate. “What are they like, your children?”
She was glad not to have been asked sooner; but now she had been, the timing was exactly right and she was more glad still to answer. She considered for a moment. “Gangly, and too trusting! Like colts.”
Nell grinned, and Con wondered, without angst, whether it was the off-hand description or the peculiar simile which had piqued her amusement. “Are colts trusting?”
“Well, occasionally, except when they’re notoriously not.” She relaxed into a proper answer now. “The boys... Peter is the clever one. Walked early, talked early, read early. He went off to school with a most endearingly keen interest in history, although we’ll see what several years of school will do to that. No doubt he’ll come out a geographer, or something equally obscene. He’s rather on the quiet side, but doesn’t hide his enthusiasms if you only ask a couple of good questions. Patrick’s more outgoing. The sort of child who can’t go out and play for the afternoon without bringing home the very great friend he’s only met that afternoon. Always ready to charm any new guest. He’s quite beyond his years with his insight into other folk, only you’d scarcely know it because part of that is realising that precocity rarely goes down well.”
Nell was quiet, attentive, absorbing it all with a sincere interest that warmed her soul. “And Janetta?” she prompted, as Con fell silent.
“Janetta? Oh, she’s my difficult girl.” Con laughed, noticing a sudden rush of love and wondering whether it ought not to be accompanied with guilt or sadness. “I told you before, I think – she arrived and she just screamed. And screamed. And even when she grew out of screaming, she still conveyed the same sort of thing, through different means. She’s wonderfully physical. All climbing, running, swimming. Even when she’s indoors and supposed to be sitting still, she’s one big wriggling of fidgets. Fiercely loyal to her brothers. When she’s happy, she’s jubilant. There are never any half measures with Janetta.”
Nell did not make any approving remarks. She did not need to. “Can I see any photos?” she asked next.
Con looked up in some surprise. “I always enclosed photos...”
“When you wrote to Madge and Hilda. Yes, I know. I grew remarkably adept at avoiding them.” She looked guilty for a moment. “Sorry. I’d like to see now, though.”
Con reached for the book beside the bed, slipped the precious photographs from inside the front cover. Nell took them from her, reverent.
Her eyebrows shot up. “Well! You can certainly see who their mother is, can’t you?”
“All three the spit of me,” Con agreed merrily. “I always thought I shouldn’t mind if they weren’t, but I did so love that they were. This one is Peter. That’s Patrick.”
Nell studied the photos a while longer, and Con studied Nell. She felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her.
Nell lifted her head at last, and turned to face her once more; but Con saw the question forming on her lips and shook her head. “Please don’t ask me. I’ll sort it. I don’t know yet, and I know I’m running out of time, but – please don’t. Not now. I’ll sort it. I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve worked it all out. Not now. Please.”
She watched as anxiety faded to reluctant acceptance, and Nell handed back the photographs as gently as she had received them. Trust, she realised, almost guiltily. Having been accorded it, she was determined to show it well-invested.