A very silly drabble about a parallel universe, set in the Swiss years.
St Clare's House Characters:
08 Nov 2017 Updated:
17 Feb 2018
1. Chapter 1 - At first light by Bobcat
2. Chapter 2 - It is not what it seems by Bobcat
3. Chapter 3 - Into the fray by Bobcat
4. Chapter 4 - The plot thickens by Bobcat
5. Chapter 5 - All of us together by Bobcat
6. Chapter 6 - A few more revelations by Bobcat
7. Chapter 7 - An afternoon in the snow by Bobcat
8. Chapter 8 - Punishments and revelations by Bobcat
9. Chapter 9 - Is truth stranger than fiction? by Bobcat
10. Chapter 10 - A little conversation by Bobcat
11. Chapter 11 - All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream. by Bobcat
Chapter 1 - At first light by Bobcat
It was mid-November, and Hilda Annersley was down with a bad cold. She had struggled through her lessons on the Friday morning, but by early evening her voice was hoarse and she was running a temperature.
Matey, noting her flushed cheeks and small appetite during Abendessen, tracked Hilda down not long after the meal had finished, and chivvied her off to bed.
“But, prayers…” croaked Hilda.
“Ruth and Jeanne will sort those out – I’ve already asked them and they’ve agreed. You’re in no fit state for anything. Bed!”
She escorted Hilda to her room and helped her undress. Hilda shivered violently as she struggled into bed and lay back on her pillows. Matey took her temperature and tutted, fishing in her pocket for a small bottle of paracetamol. “Now – two of these. Down the hatch.”
Hilda grimaced, but swallowed the tablets obediently.
“Good. I’ll be back to check on you later. Don’t worry about the school tonight; Ruth and Jeanne will look after everything. If you’re still this unwell tomorrow, you’re staying in bed then as well. I’m not having you pass this on to the rest of the staff. I don’t want an epidemic on my hands,” said Matey, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, you!” said Hilda, hoarsely. “You know just where to get me where it hurts. I’ll be good. Now go and find some other poor soul to harass.” She settled down in her bed with a smile. Matey winked at her colleague and left, closing the door softly behind her.
Hilda sighed and coughed. She really did feel awful, and the temperature was making her ache all over. Eventually she fell into a deep sleep, and Matey, coming back to check on her later, was concerned to see Hilda still looked flushed.
The next morning, Hilda woke early. The light was dim in her room as it was not yet light. She rolled over and nearly fell out of bed. She hadn’t been sleeping that close to the edge, surely? She stretched, and her feet felt as if they were slightly over the end of the bed. That wasn’t right – she was a tall women, but not that tall. Puzzled, Hilda started to sit up, and coughed; not her normal cough but a deep rasping cough that didn’t sound like her at all. Her nightdress felt strangely tight, as if it were several sizes too small…..something was definitely wrong.
She sat on the edge of the bed and tried to make out the room; it looked different somehow, as if she was seeing it from a slightly different angle.
“Must be the temperature,” Hilda thought to herself. “I’m feeling weird and wobbly due to the cold.”
She staggered through to the bathroom and pulled on the light, wincing as she got used to the brightness. She caught a glance of herself in the mirror, and what she saw had her reeling backwards against the wall. She must be hallucinating - she must be. “It’s the high temperature, it has to be,” thought Hilda to herself.
Tentatively she looked in the mirror again….and her eyes widened and she drew in a huge breath of shock. Her usually long hair was now cut short, in a men’s cut – still the same brown with a few strands of grey, but definitely not her usual style. Her eyebrows were bushier than normal, and her face was definitely hers, but was fuller, with a broader, stronger chin.
“Oh god…..” thought Hilda, “I’m definitely hallucinating – or dreaming.”
She pinched herself – hard – to wake herself up from this weird situation.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, and then clapped her hand over her mouth in horror. The voice that she had heard wasn’t hers; it was deeper, more resonant than her usual voice, even taking into account her sore throat.
This was not happening. It had to be an awful dream. Hilda looked down at the rest of herself in the mirror. She was taller and stockier than usual – her hands were bigger and she felt physically different in space. She clapped her hands to her chest in panic.
“I’m……..a man!” she said despairingly. “Oh, this is awful…..how on earth did this happen……this has got to be a terrible nightmare. I just need to wake up somehow.”
She filled the sink with cold water and plunged her head in. The shock of the cold water made her gasp, and woke her up completely. She lifted her head slowly and looked unwillingly into the mirror. She was still male.
Hilda stumbled back through to her bedroom and sat on the bed, rubbing her face, water dripping on to her shoulders. Her mind was whirling. This was just ridiculous; it couldn’t be happening. People didn’t go to bed one night female and wake up the next morning male. It was impossible! Things like this didn’t happen to people like Hilda.
“What an earth am I going to do?! This is just……well I don’t know what it is……oh god, it’s awful.” She groaned and put her head in her hands. How would she explain this to the rest of the staff? She couldn’t stay on at the school……maybe she could discretely leave somehow, and explain to the staff and parents later?
A tap at the door roused her from her thoughts, and she froze in panic. She couldn’t let anyone in – no one could see her like this; they’d never believe what had happened. She rushed over to the door and held the handle upwards so that no one could enter. A fleeting thought passed through her head “Gosh, I’m strong!”
There was another tap at the door, and Hilda cleared her throat and tried to speak in a high voice so that she would sound more like herself.
“Um…. Who’s there?”
A voice answered – a voice that Hilda recognised but that didn’t quite sound as it usually did. “Gwynneth.”
“I……er……I don’t think you should come in. I’m not feeling myself.” Hilda cringed to herself as she spoke – this was the understatement of the year. She wondered how long she could delay Matey’s entrance.
There was a noise outside that sounded suspiciously like sniffing and the clearing of a throat. “I really think I should come in. Though, Hilda, it might be a bit of a shock.”
A sudden thought popped into Hilda’s head – what if it wasn’t just her that had woken up like this? Surely not Matey as well? She released her grip on the door handle and opened the door a crack. Peering through she saw someone that resembled Matey standing outside looking terrified, tears running down their face. Hilda opened the door a wee bit more and her eyes widened. Matey was also sporting a gents haircut and her face was more masculine. She too had broader shoulders and arms that were too long for her nightdress, and had grown by a couple of inches.
“Hilda, let me in, please,” begged Matey, desperately.
Hilda opened the door and Matey quickly entered and shut the door. She staggered back against the wall in shock. The two of them stood staring at each other through wide eyes.
“Oo –hhhhh!!” was all Matey could manage. Hilda now stood well over six foot tall, and her usually elegant frame had been replaced by a lean, athletic looking figure. She held herself still with an unconscious air of authority in spite of her obvious panic.
“You too?” breathed Hilda.
“What the hell is happening?” asked Matey, “We’re…….we’re men!”
Hilda began to pace backwards and forwards agitatedly. “I know…… I have no clue what’s happened – I mean… this is ridiculous. Things like this are impossible. This is a bad dream we’re both having, isn’t it? It must be! There’s no other explanation. Pinch me – go on!”
Hilda went over to Matey and proffered her arm, and Matey did likewise. The two of them pinched each other’s arms so hard that they both exclaimed.
“If it’s not a dream, then what is it?!” asked Matey.
“I have NO idea,” said Hilda in some panic. “It’s awful, is what it is. What are the girls going to think? Or the other staff? We can’t hide from them forever. What on earth are we going to do?”
Matey collapsed on to Hilda’s bed, head in hands. “Oh, this is horrible….this cannot be happening,” she moaned. “And my voice! It’s……..mannish!”
“Gwynneth, wait though…… if it’s happened to both of us – what if it’s happened to others as well?”
With thanks to Virginia Woolf for the 'inspiration' for the story, and also for the title (from Orlando).
Chapter 2 - It is not what it seems by Bobcat
They both looked at each other in horror. “Surely not?” cried Hilda. The question was answered almost immediately by a series of loud cries and running footsteps upstairs.
“That’s the staff corridor!” exclaimed Hilda, making for the door. She was stopped by Matey.
“Hilda – you’re almost indecent; that nightdress is tiny on you. Have you a dressing gown?”
Hilda threw open her wardrobe door, paused, and then gasped. “My clothes!”
Matey came and stood next to Hilda, looking into the wardrobe; her eyes widening. All Hilda’s elegant dresses and skirts had been replaced by men’s shirts and trousers and there were several belts hanging on the back of the door.
“This just gets more and more ridiculous,” said Hilda, but finding a rather nice crimson men’s dressing gown, she pulled it off the hanger and wrapped it around herself. Further noise and slamming doors upstairs alerted Hilda and Matey to their task and they left Hilda’s room and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. They reached the staff corridor and came to an abrupt halt.
“We don’t want to panic people if we’re the only ones,” gasped Hilda, “though judging from the noise, I doubt we are.”
They stood at the entrance to the staff corridor, unsure of how to proceed; they didn’t want to alarm other members of staff if this weird situation was affecting just them, but at the same time they needed to find out if any of the others were the same. From a half open door came a low Irish accent. “Would you look at me?” it cried “Sure, how can I have gone to bed as myself and woken up looking like…..well I don’t know what?!”
Hilda and Matey looked at each other, “Biddy,” gasped Matey. They made their way quickly along the corridor and pushed open the door.
“Argh! No!” Biddy tried to close the door to prevent them entering, but Hilda got her foot into it just in time. “Biddy, let us in, please. It’s happened to us too.”
On hearing Hilda’s deep voice, Biddy tentatively opened the door and Hilda and Matey entered to find a slight, dark haired, young man standing in front of them, sporting a rather neat Poirot-esque moustache. At the sight of this, Hilda nearly laughed out loud; it was so unexpected, yet suited its owner perfectly. Another figure in the room was examining themselves in the mirror in horror. Matey went slowly over, looking at the reflection in the mirror.
“Kathie??” she said. That person turned round and nodded, tears running down her face.
“Matey?….Hilda?….what’s happening to us?”
The four of them stood there staring at each other in silence; explanations were beyond any of them at the moment.
“I have no clue what is going on here this morning. This has got to be some weird and awful dream…..and hopefully we’ll wake up soon and everything will return to normal,” said Hilda, "But until then, we’re just going to have to try and deal with this…….crazy situation.”
The door was flung open and two more young-ish men came in, terror on their faces.
“Oohhhhhhh……you too then?” The first looked suspiciously like Peggy Burnett, with a shock of short curls on top of her head, while the second, taller figure, looked deeply embarrassed to be sporting a rather luxurious beard.
“Nancy?!” asked Kathie, wonderingly, while that lady (or was it man?) nodded slowly, rubbing her chin with her hand. A snort erupted from Matey, who tried to subdue it as Hilda glared at her. It was in vain though - Matey shook her head and then burst out laughing.
“We all look……ridiculous,” she gurgled “This is SO stupid. If we don’t laugh we’ll cry – and I have been!”
Nancy broke into a roar, and Biddy and Kathie quickly joined in.
“Your…..your moustache!” gasped Matey to Biddy, “And……you!” as she turned to Nancy.
“The beard does rather suit you!” chuckled Hilda “Though I’d never have thought it!”
The rising bell jangled and all of them abruptly stopped laughing and stared at each other.
“The girls!” gasped Peggy “What if this has happened to them as well? How on earth are they going to react?!”
Hilda thought quickly. “Right. Gwynneth, you stay here and head off the other staff as they wake – in fact, go now!” as various cries and gasps could be heard from elsewhere down the corridor. Matey scuttled out of the door as fast as she could, banging on doors as she went. Hilda continued, “We’ll take the dormitories. One or two each. Don’t go in initially – just hover outside until we can figure out the state of things.”
“But…..what if it’s just us?” asked Nancy, “What if the girls are still girls? They’ll have a fit when they see us.”
“If it is just us, I have NO idea what we’ll do, but come back here as quickly as you can and we’ll formulate a plan. The prefects can look after things while people are dressing. They’ll go down to their common rooms for a few minutes before Fruhstuck anyway, so we’ve got a little time. Come on.”
Hilda led the way out into the main school and the five of them made their way towards the dormitories.
As they approached the first dormitory, a loud clear boys voice could be heard, “Come on Conrad, hurry up. You’re going to make us all late for our baths.”
Hilda whirled round to face the others with wide eyes, “Did you hear that? Conrad? What IS going on?”
A teenage boy emerged from the nearest room carrying a towel, evidently on the way to the bathroom. He had dark hair, dark eyes and fine features, and was looking distinctly sleepy. At the sight of Hilda and her colleagues though, his eyes widened.
“Um…..Mr Annersley, is something wrong?”
Hilda blanched at these words, “No…..um….Conrad…. we were just coming to check the……er……hot water. Apparently it’s not running properly.” Hilda was thinking fast, and was well aware her excuse wasn’t up to much. “Now hurry off to your bath.”
Conrad nodded and went off towards the bathroom, casting a curious glance behind him at the huddle of staff standing in the corridor.
Hilda recovered first and quickly hustled the others back to the staff corridor. When they returned there, she leaned weakly against the wall, breathing fast.
“They…….they’re all boys!” gasped Biddy.
“And……they seemed to know who you were…….as Mr Annersley!” said Kathie, “How…..what…….I mean….this is just….crazy – or are WE all crazy?”
Hilda slid down the wall to the floor, groaning as she did so. “I can’t work this out…..this is just getting weirder and weirder…… They seem to be acting completely normally. I don’t understand this at all,” she said weakly.
“Come on Mr Annersley, up you get,” said Nancy, with a wry grin on her face as she hoisted Hilda to her feet, “I have just what you – we – need. And Hilda, please, no comments……I’ve hardly had any of it. Medicinal purposes and all that.”
They crowded in to Nancy’s room, and that person rootled about in a drawer and produced a bottle of brandy. She produced a clean glass and poured a small amount in, and handed the glass to Hilda, who raised her eyebrows at Nancy.
“I think you need it,” said Nancy, reddening slightly, “And no, I don’t make a habit of keeping alcohol in my room, you don’t need to worry.”
Hilda swallowed the drink, gasping slightly as it burned her throat slightly and began to warm her. Nancy poured more brandy and passed the glass to Kathie, who also drunk her share. “Yeuch! Ooo, that’s strong!”
The glass went round the room; all the staff having a small measure of the brandy, and all were feeling slightly more steadied as a result, when Matey appeared with several more horrified looking staff – Sharlie, Rosalie, Ruth Derwent and Jeanne de Lachennais, who was exclaiming loudly in very quick French as she made her way towards the others.
“Hilda….where are you….oh – Hilda?” asked Ruth as she tentatively approached Hilda, who nodded. “What…..I mean… how….,” she gulped.
Peggy spoke first “The girls – they’re boys!” After loud exclamations from Matey and co., she broke in, “And, they seemed to be acting completely normally – as if they’d always been boys and nothing was wrong. One of them – Conrad – called Hilda Mr Annersley as if it was the most natural thing in the world.”
“So……so…….our school is suddenly full of boys…..and they seem to be used to having male staff – us – in fact…..but we’re in some strange nightmare parallel universe where we’ve all morphed into men overnight?” Nancy said.
“It seems that way,” said Kathie, weakly “Oh….this is just…..horrible. And who on earth was Conrad?”
“I thought he looked suspiciously like Con Maynard,” said Hilda, who had recovered herself a little by now. “Ruth, Jeanne – you others, I think you need some brandy. Nancy?”
The glass again did the rounds of the newcomers. “Brrrrr!” cried Rosalie, “Alcohol for breakfast. Who’d have thought it?”
“Who’d have thought anything today?!” said Biddy, “Nothing is as it’s supposed to be, so brandy for breakfast is par for the course, I think!”
“We need to hurry,” said Hilda desperately. “It will be Fruhstuck soon, and none of us is dressed.”
“What will we wear?!” interjected Peggy with a cry, “We can’t go around in dresses and skirts. The…..boys…..will think we’ve gone mad!”
“I think if you open your wardrobe you might find that problem is solved. My clothes have all been replaced by men’s suits and trousers – see if yours have too.”
Nancy wrenched open her wardrobe door and gasped. Gone were the skirts and jumpers, replaced by button down shirts, trousers, and a selection of ties and jackets.
“Oh my………” she breathed. “Look at this!”
“I suggest we all get dressed, and then go down to Fruhstuck. The…..er….pupils will be expecting us. It seems it’s a normal day for them even if we’re in some strange alternate world. I’ll try and think of what to do next as we eat. But for now, lets try and act normally,” said Hilda.
Chapter 3 - Into the fray by Bobcat
They all nodded, and fled off to various rooms to attempt to dress. Nancy and Biddy helped each other with the unfamiliar buttons and ties – “I’ve no idea how to do one of these,” wailed Biddy – and eventually all appeared in the Speisesaal in time for Fruhstuck.
Biddy had given up on trying to knot a tie and instead was sporting a dark green bow tie, which went rather well with the grey Donegal tweed trousers and waistcoat she had found. With the neat moustache, Biddy looked quite the thing, and Hilda had to bite her tongue to stop herself laughing out loud at how well the outfit suited the personality of her colleague.
“Well! Look at you!” said Matey, as they sat down to eat.
“Yes,” said Biddy complacently, “I rather like it – but this tweed is awfully itchy. I don’t know how men stand it.”
“I’m being strangled by this stupid tie,” complained Nancy, pulling at her collar, “They might look smart, but…ugh!”
They looked around at the Speisesaal, which was by now full of boys of various ages and sizes. They younger boys were in grey short trousers, and knee length grey socks with a crimson band around the top. They had cream shirts on, a crimson and gentian blue tie, and a gentian blue v-neck jumper. The older boys had long grey trousers and blue blazers, with the same tie. As Fruhstuck progressed, the staff noticed about eight or nine boys sporting crimson waistcoats under their blazers.
“Are those the prefects, do you think?” said Nancy to Hilda.
“I would imagine so – or possibly the sixth. That one over there – the tall slim one – I’m sure is Elinor, our head girl – or….boy now.”
“And that stocky looking thing over there with the curly hair has got to be Mary Lou,” commented Kathie.
Sharlie had noticed some odd looks from some of the boys and was wondering why they seemed to be directed at Matey and Rosalie. “You two are getting a few odd looks from the boys,” she said, “I wonder why that it is?”
There was no time to consider this question when there was a gasp from Ruth. “What on earth are we going to call them?! We don’t know any of their names!”
They looked at each other in consternation. “Don’t they go by surnames at boys schools?” asked Kathie, doubtfully, “You know – ‘Maynard’, and ‘Trelawney’ and so on?”
“I…..I….think so,” replied Hilda, “But that seems awfully formal. And, what about the Maynards – there are three of them. How are we to distinguish between them?”
“At my brother’s school they used to call them ‘major’ and ‘minor’,” said Nancy, “So the eldest would be ‘Maynard major’ and the younger would be ‘Maynard minor’. But where you go with three, I do not know!”
“’Maynard lesser’?! Or ‘insignificant’?” chuckled Ruth, “Though I can’t see Margot - or whoever she is not - liking that very much!”
“We could go Latin,” mused Hilda “’Maynard primus’, ‘Maynard secundus’, ‘Maynard tertius’…...” She finished her coffee. “I’m going to send them off for dormitory work now, and then prayers. Come to my study now, please, all of you? Lessons as normal this morning, and then as it’s snowed overnight we’ll have Mitagessen at 12:30 instead of thirteen, and an early rest, then get outside for the afternoon. How does that sound? And then hobbies this evening – assuming boys do hobbies?”
“Oh, I think they do,” laughed Biddy. She passed the message along the staff table, and Hilda stood up and touched the electric bell that was by her place. She quailed momentarily as she saw the rows of boys faces turned in her direction, but they were acting as if nothing was amiss, which reassured Hilda somewhat. As she gave news of the afternoon in the snow, the boys cheered loudly and the staff were deafened by the noise. They went off to tidy their dormitories before prayers, while the staff headed for Hilda’s study.
As they approached, Rosalie stopped and pointed suddenly at the study door, “Lo….look!” she gasped.
The sign on Hilda’s door read ‘Mr. Hugh Annersley, Headmaster’
“Hugh?” cried Hilda, “Oh no!”
“Well now we know what to call you, but what about the rest of us – and more importantly the boys?” said Matey. There was another loud gasp, and they all turned to the door of the office; the sign on which said, as it usually did, ‘Miss R Dene, Secretary’.
“Miss?!” groaned Rosalie, “But…..but…..I can’t be. I mean…..well…. I am, but……”
“Come into the study,” said Hilda “We can’t stand out here making all this noise or the gir – boys will be wondering what on earth is going on.”
They all crowded into the study, and Hilda sat down at her desk, loosened her tie, and ran her fingers through her short hair. Nancy also loosened her tie, and several other staff made adjustments to their collars or waistcoats.
“Hilda……I mean Hugh……I mean…..Oh, what am I going to do?” Rosalie looked horrified, “I’m supposed to be me – female, I mean…..I can’t go around like this!” She looked down at her jacket and trousers in despair.
Hilda thought quickly; she wasn’t entirely sure which way was up at the moment and was just doing her best to ensure things appeared normal – whatever that meant – for the boys. “Luckily it’s the weekend, so you won’t have much contact with the boys. We’ll just have to tell them you’re unwell, and you’ll have to keep out of sight as much as possible for the time being. We’ll work out something – oh, I don’t know what – in the long term. But for now, lets just buy ourselves some time?”
Rosalie nodded, and sat down heavily on the sofa. Matey stepped forward, “Um…..Hil – Hugh, boys schools don’t have male matrons. If Rosalie is supposed to be female, I’ll wager I am too.”
“I don’t know how we find out though,” said Hilda wearily, “If you are supposed to be female, you’re also going to have to be unwell with Rosalie for the weekend and keep out of sight. And please – don’t call me Hugh. We know each other by our usual names – lets stick to them. It’s going to be bad enough learning the boys names, let alone ours too. If this nonsense ever ends and we find out it is all some weird anomaly and we go back to being female, then all well and good; and if we don’t – “
That last comment was left hanging, and the staff all eyed each other uncertainly. It couldn’t be the case that they were going to be male permanently from now on – things like this just didn’t happen!
“That explains the odd looks you were getting at breakfast,” said Sharlie suddenly to Gwynneth and Rosalie, “They were trying to work out who you are!”
Ruth had been idly looking at some papers on the coffee table in the study, and found a brochure for the school, which Hilda had put out to send to the parents of a prospective pupil. She picked it up and leafed through it, and noticing the pictures inside were of male pupils, turning to the staff list at the back. “Oh!” she cried, “Here are all our names! The brochure’s changed!”
By now, nothing surprised the staff, and they all crowded round as Ruth read out the staff list, “Headmaster, Hugh Annersley. Deputy heads Robert Derwent - oh, not Robert! That’s awful! Ok, ok, I’ll carry on,” as the others began to interject.
“Robert Derwent and Jules Lachennais. Teaching staff Donald Armitage, Charles Andrews, John Bertram, Peter Burnett, Simon Denny, Keith Ferrars, Reuben Lawrence, Phillipe Lenoir, Gudrun Meiders, Rutherford Moore, Nye Wilmot…… but….,” she gurgled, trying to supress her laughter, “Listen to this – Brian O’Ryan!”
She hooted with laughter, and the rest of the staff roared at the absurdity of Biddy’s ‘new’ name. The exception was that young person who just stood looking utterly bemused. “Brian O’Ryan?!” she cried, “What sort of nonsense is that now? Don’t you all stand there laughing like drains. How did I get saddled with that?!”
“Oh, oh!” gasped Ruth, “My stomach! And you,” she choked, turning to Rosalind, “Rutherford!”
“I quite like it,” said that person, calmly. “And I’ll let you into a secret. It was my grandfather’s first name. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
While they were laughing at their names, Rosalie had had an idea and had dashed into the office next door. Now she came back in waving the class registers. “These have changed too – we’ll know what the boys are called now.”
She distributed the registers to the form mistresses and they opened them, eager to see what their pupils were now named.
“Oh goodness!” breathed Kathie, “The triplets! Leonard, Conrad and Melvyn Maynard!”
There was another outbreak of laughter amongst the assembled crowd, until Hilda reminded them it was time for prayers. They all dispersed quickly taking their registers with them. At the end of prayers, Hilda collared Rosalie and Matey and the three of them retreated back to the study for a council of war while the rest of the staff and boys got on with their Saturday morning lessons.
Chapter 4 - The plot thickens by Bobcat
“I’m a wreck!” declared Hilda, collapsing on the sofa in her study and letting out a deep breath. “This is exhausting. We’ve got a school full of boys, none of whom we know the names of, most of whom we don’t recognise, yet we have to act as if everything is normal because for them, it appears everything is normal. And yet here we all are in some absolute nightmare where we’ve all woken up male.”
“I can’t get my head around what’s happened for Gwynneth and myself,” said Rosalie, tearfully, “We’ve woken up male but are supposed to be ourselves, so we can’t do anything because the boys think we’re female. Are we going to have to leave the school if we don’t go back to normal?”
“No….. no. I couldn’t have that,” said Hilda firmly. “You’ve both been too much a part of the school and are too valued by all of us for that to happen. You’d have to be new staff next term or something. We’ll make it work – don’t worry. Besides, the school will fall apart if you two leave; we couldn’t manage the admin system you have set up Rosalie, and the boys need your efficient care and concern Gwynneth.”
The two of them nodded, reassured by Hilda’s words. She continued, “I think for now though, if you could stay out of sight as much as possible; carry on with your work as far as you can though and if they ask, we’ll tell the pupils you’re unwell. I’m sorry it has to be like this at the moment, but we need to work out what to do and this gives me some time. If you do want today off, feel free to take it – I’d completely understand if you want to lie down in darkened room for the rest of the day!” she laughed.
“Oh no Hilda,” said Rosalie, “I want to help out as much as I can. This is a……completely weird situation and I can’t leave you to deal with it.”
“Agreed,” chipped in Gwynneth. “We can help out behind the scenes and try to stay out of the gir- boys way. No doubt there’s a huge pile of socks for darning. I can’t image boys can sew to save their lives.”
At that point the phone rang, and Hilda jumped, and then stared at the other two. “Do I answer it?” she asked urgently.
“You’ll have to,” said Gwynneth, after a moment’s pause. “If it’s someone we know, they’ll wonder why you’re not answering and get worried. We don’t need that.”
“But who am I? Hilda or Hugh?”
They all looked at each other in consternation while the phone kept ringing. Hilda knew she couldn’t ignore it, and picked it up. “Hello?” she said tentatively, aiming for a mid-range voice; hoping she could explain it as a sore throat if she were to be Hilda, or some sort of cough if it was Hugh that the caller wanted. She didn’t have to wait for an answer.
“Hugh – that you? What’s wrong with your voice?” Hilda didn’t quite recognise the voice; it sounded suspiciously like Joey’s, but was more resonant and deeper than usual.
“Oh, nothing…..just……er…..a frog in it.,” Hilda let her voice deepen to its masculine tones, which were those of a rich baritone. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve finished the script for the Christmas play and concert – do you want me to bring it over so that you can have a read through this evening?”
Hilda paused; this question had completely thrown her; evidently this was Joey – or a male version of Jo she was speaking to, but what to call him?
“Hugh? You still there?”
“I…..oh…..um…..yes, do bring it over, that would be good. Any time this morning would be fine, I’m not teaching.”
“Hugh, is everything alright? You sound awfully distracted.”
“Yes…..no……I mean, yes. Everything is fine.” Hilda spoke more firmly, “I’ve got Matron and Rosalie down with awful colds, so I’m just trying to organise things this end.” Hilda eyed the two of them sitting in her study, deeply aware of the irony that they were both fit as a fiddle and here she was blatantly lying to someone.
“Do you want me to send Jacqueline over when she gets back from the san? She was on a night shift, but could look in on them on the way home if you‘d like?”
“Er, no…..no, I don’t think that will be necessary, thank you. It is just colds they have. Day or two in bed and I’m sure they’ll be fit again.” Hilda’s brain was whirring – Jacqueline? Was that Jack? It sounded like it, by the references to the san.
“All right, as you like,” said the caller. “I’ll come round as soon as Jacqueline comes back. I’ve got the little ones here at the moment and I can’t leave them.”
“How….how are they?” queried Hilda, hoping to get more of a sense of things from the answer to this question. “Oh, keeping me amused!” laughed the caller, “Fabian and Florence are walking about all over the place now, and chattering nonsense all day long, and Cyril is gurgling away as six month olds tend to do. I do wish Jacqueline had taken longer off work with him, but she did want to get back.”
“And how….are the girls getting on?” Hilda held her breath, hoping she was asking the right questions but wanting to find out more about this weird situation they were all in.
“They’re doing well! Charlotte and Sabrina are getting along nicely at school, and Milly is down in Lausanne during the week and then comes up here at weekends, though now the snow has set in, that might have to change. I’ll talk to Jacqueline about it over the weekend and see what she says. Oh – she’s back, hang on…..”
In the background, Hilda could hear a voice calling for ‘Joseph’, and guessed that must be who she was talking to; “I should have guessed,” she murmured to herself. Joseph came back to Hilda.
“Hugh, I have to go, but I’ll pop over in about half an hour or so with the play – that do you?”
“Fine; see you later Joseph,”
Hilda put the phone down and leant on her desk, letting out a deep breath. That had gone without any difficulties, but it was terribly stressful, having to be on your toes the entire time and try and keep track of who was who, and not say anything that might give anyone cause for concern. She turned to Rosalie and Matey with wide eyes.
“Well, as you heard some of that, you know you’re currently down with bad colds. That was Joey – or should I say Joseph. He’s written the script for the play and wants to bring it over – in about half an hour, so you will have to make yourselves scarce for a bit.”
“Joseph?!” Matey was amazed, “And that seemed perfectly normal to him?!”
“Perfectly,” said Hilda in amazement. “We appear to have been transported into some parallel universe where roles and sexes are reversed, but to us it’s all completely alien. This is exhausting….” She sat down and put her head on the desk in front of her.
“Oh, when is this going to end?” she groaned, but then raised her head immediately. “Jack is Jacqueline, and works at the san – not sure if she’s a nurse or doctor. Joseph has the children at home with him; Cyril, Florence and Fabian. The others are Charlotte, Milly and Sabrina and are at school.”
“Goodness!” breathed Rosalie, “I feel as if I should be taking notes; I’ll never remember all these names!”
“That might not be a bad idea,” mused Hilda, “at least until we learn names. We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t know what any of our pupils are called. Do you have a list of the prefects anywhere?”
Rosalie went into the office next door to try and find a list of the current head girl and prefects. She came back in looking slightly more cheerful. “Our two Lesleys are still Leslie, and Hilary Bennett is still Hilary” she cried, “so that’s three people we can call on easily! Of course we’re going to have to work out who they are, but it’s three fewer names to remember.”
“What about the others?” asked Matey.
Rosalie read down the list, “Head……boy, I suppose it is now, Edmund Pennell; prefects – well, the two Leslies and Hilary, Laurie Norris, Benjamin Willoughby, Maurice Trelawney, Ned Herbert, Basil Appleton, Matthew Watson, Sebastian Russell, Louis Winterton”
“Well, there’s a list to try and learn,” said Hilda, glancing at the clock. “Now, you two, I need you to make yourselves scarce for a while. Joe – Joseph is coming over with the script for the play, and he thinks you’re both ill.”
Chapter 5 - All of us together by Bobcat
Matey and Rosalie scuttled off to Rosalie’s room on the staff corridor, trying to come to terms with all that had happened that morning and wondering if they were on their head or their heels.
Hilda stood in her study wondering much the same thing. How could so much have happened in such a short time? She was exhausted, and it was not even eleven o’clock.
The phone rang again, and Hilda hesitated. As far as she knew, she was ‘supposed’ to be male, but, was it worth playing it a little safe, just in case? She picked up the handset and tried again for a mid-range tone to her voice.
“Hello……who’s that? This is……um……I’m calling from St Mildreds. How are things there today?”
Hilda recognised the voice – or thought she did anyway; it sounded very like Nell’s, but she wasn’t sure if it was Nell herself, or Nell in another form. Anything was possible at the moment. Hilda tried to be suitably vague in her reply, “Um…..things are a bit…….tricky…..at the moment – I’ve got Rosalie and Matron down with heavy colds.”
“Ah, ok.” There was a pause at the other end, and Hilda could sense the caller was having difficulty. The voice then asked “And is everyone else well? Nothing….. um…..unusual doing the rounds?”
Hilda took a breath in and decided it was worth the risk, “Nell? Is that you?”
A low-ish voice answered and Hilda could hear the relief “Oh…..Hilda……the most awful thing has happened. You’re…..you’re not going to believe it. It’s…..”
Hilda decided on some sort of coded message; thinking that if nothing was wrong, she would only at least seem rather strange for a moment or two, but that if things were as she suspected at Millies, then Nell would completely understand what she was getting at. “The tweed is itchy and the collars are too tight.”
All Hilda could hear in response to that statement was a deep breath out and then several more, as if Nell were trying to calm herself down. “Nell? Nell, try and stay calm. It’s happened here too.”
Hilda just heard a wail down the line followed by “My name’s Noel!”
That was it. The absurdity of the whole situation and the stress of trying to stay abreast of things needed a release, and the revelation of Nell’s name was too much for Hilda, who burst out laughing much to Nell’s annoyance.
“Hilda! How can you laugh! This is just terrible and I don’t know what to do. All the girls are boys, and I’ve no idea what to call any of them, but they seem to know who we are, and Gill Culver and Matron…..”
Hilda struggled to control the laughter, “I’m sorry Nell, it’s all got to me – but, Noel!” she could hear Nell tutting down the phone at her, but continued, “Listen, Joey – Joseph as she now seems to be is coming over in a minute with the play, so I can’t talk for long. But, check your registers – that will have the names of the boys. If you’ve got a Millies brochure, have a look at that for staff names. And I’ve had to pretend that Rosalie and Gwynneth are unwell and keep them out of sight while I figure out what to do. I’m guessing that Gill and Gertrude are also male but supposed to be female?”
“Yes, they are. The registers! Why didn’t I think of that? And good idea about Gill and Gertrude. If the boys start asking, that’s the excuse. Let’s hope none of them become ill.”
“If they do here, Peggy Burnett is going to look after them. She’s got good first aid knowledge from her PT training. Are you planning on coming out skiing this afternoon? I was going to get the pupils out for a while. Hopefully if we try and keep things as normal as possible no one will suspect anything. Look – I’ve got to go now, but I’ll give you a ring as soon as Joey – Joseph has gone.”
Hilda had seen Joseph approaching across the garden, so she and Nell said quick goodbyes, and Hilda steeled herself for a potentially awkward conversation with Joseph. He came to the French doors, as usual, and Hilda opened them, observing Joseph closely as he stamped the snow off his boots on the mat just inside the door.
It was definitely a male version of Joey Maynard that had stepped into the study; tall and slim, with dark eyes and fine dark hair cut into a short back and sides with a longer, slightly foppish top. Joseph also sported a rather neat van Dyke beard and moustache, which suited him well. Hilda could see the resemblance to Conrad; the fine features were there, and the same slightly delicate look.
“Hugh! How are you? How are Rosalie and Matey,” said Joseph, heartily. Same breezy manner as Joey, thought Hilda to herself before replying.
“Oh, they’re tucked up in bed out of harm’s way,” she said, “We’ll keep an eye on them and hopefully they should be fit by Monday.“
Half an hour later Hilda bade Joseph farewell. It had been a slightly awkward meeting; Joseph certainly had Joeys character, but Hilda was feeling so discombobulated with the events thus far that day that she wasn’t sure if she’d come across as ‘normal’ enough for Joseph not to be suspicious. She hoped he would put it down to having Rosalie and Gwynneth ill at the same time and trying to cover their duties.
Morning lessons ended, and after break the boys went off to their common rooms to read or write letters home until Mittagessen. The staff adjourned to the sitting room for much needed coffee, while Hilda went back to her study to phone Nell to see how she was getting on. Just as she was about to pick up the phone, there was a tap at the French window. Hilda looked up and then frowned. The face looked familiar; ruddy and handsome, with a shock of white hair above….. She sprang up and threw open the doors. “Nell?!”
Chapter 6 - A few more revelations by Bobcat
Thank you for all the reviews so far; you've all been very kind about my nonsense!!
“Oh Hilda, I can’t take much more of this! I had to get out for a walk to try and calm down, so thought I’d come over here and say hello.” exclaimed Nell as she entered the study and took her boots off.
She threw her hat and coat over the back of the sofa, and then turned to Hilda. The two of them regarded each other. Nell had become a good two inches taller, and had a study figure with the beginnings of a portly stomach. She was wearing a three piece suit, and threw open her jacket and stood staring at Hilda with her hands in her waistcoat pockets.
“Well, I must say you make a fine looking fellow,” exclaimed Nell, “I like the height of you, and that figure is rather nice. But oh, Hilda…… what on earth is going on? Why have we woken up like this? And everyone else thinks it’s normal?!”
“I know, I know,” said Hilda walking restlessly about the study. “I don’t know what this is all about, or why, or if it’s permanent. It’s like some sort of living nightmare. I can’t be as complimentary about your figure though,” she added, nodding at Nell’s less than svelte stomach.
“That’s the least of my worries at the moment,” said Nell, rather tetchily. “I’ve got Gertrude and Gill holed up away from the girl – boys, I mean – pretending they’re unwell because they’re male but supposed to be themselves, and I’ve got Vi Norton in hysterics about what’s happened – Gill’s had to give her a sedative and put her back to bed for a bit. That’s three staff down, and I have to lie to the girls – for goodness sake, boys – about what’s wrong with them all. Thank goodness they’re all fairly sensible – I hope – and can look after themselves a bit.”
“Vi’s in hysterics?” asked Hilda, “That’s unlike her.”
“Yes, I thought so, but……oh Hilda…. She’s bald!”
Hilda gasped as she took in this news. She shook her head as if trying to process what she’d just heard, “Bald?! Oh my goodness – that would be a massive shock. I mean, we’ve all woken up as men, which is bad enough, but at least we’ve got hair – some more than others, in fact. Oh, poor Vi.”
“Isn’t it awful?” agreed Nell. “She wailed at me that she looks like her father – apparently baldness runs in the male side of their family, and now she’s got a male body….. She couldn’t stop crying, so she’s gone back to bed.” She collapsed on to the sofa. “Hilda what are we going to do? Is this permanent? What if it is? Are just going to have to get used to this?”
Hilda leaned over the back of the sofa next to Nell and patted her shoulder, “Now then old fellow, don’t get so worked up.”
Nell spluttered in indignation as Hilda smiled grimly and came round to sit on the sofa next to her. Her face grew sombre, “Nell, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I don’t know how we came to be in this situation, and I don’t know if it’s permanent, or if we’ll wake up tomorrow with everything back to normal. I keep hoping that’s what will happen, and if we just get through today, everything will be ok. But what if it’s not? Do we just live with it? I mean, it’s……it’s just intolerable. And how can we tell anyone about this – they’ll think we’re all crazy!”
“How are your staff reacting - have you had any hysterics here?” asked Nell.
“Not so far. A lot of shock, and some tears. I gather Vida Armitage fainted at the sight of herself but soon came round, and Nancy administered brandy this morning to fortify us somewhat – oh Nell….Nancy has the most amazing beard! And you should see Biddy – or Brian as she now is!”
“Brian? Brian O’Rya – oh, that’s just priceless!” Nell went off into fits of laughter, “Who thought that one up, I’d love to know!”
“So would she,” said Hilda drily. “Unimpressed was not the word. Do you want to come and say hello – they’re all in the staff room comparing notes?”
Nell glanced at her watch, paused, and then stood up and started putting her coat on. “No, much as I’d like to see them all, I’d best be getting back for Mittagessen otherwise my lot will be wondering where all their staff are. What time are you going out skiing and sledding?”
“Probably about thirteen forty-five,” replied Hilda, as Nell balanced on one foot and then another putting her boots on. “We’re having lunch at twelve thirty, and then a rest, and we’ll be out after that. I take it you’ll be out as well?”
“We will. Though how we’ll recognise everyone in their snowsuits and glasses is beyond me. It’s bad enough in their usual clothes!”
Hilda frowned. “Oh!……That hadn’t occurred to me. We do usually find it quite hard to recognise people – though I suppose you can often tell with height and how they walk; now we’re going to have no chance. We could get the prefects on to it,” she added thoughtfully, “Tell them that because Matron’s ill, we need them to keep more of an eye on the gir – boys so that we don’t get a lot of injuries, and leave it largely to them. They’ll recognise each other far better than we will.”
“Do you know, that’s an excellent idea. I’ll ask my lot to keep an eye on each other, and hopefully that will take some of the pressure from us. Right. See you later.”
Nell took her leave, and Hilda went up to the staff sitting room where the staff were discussing the developments of the day. The mood was mixed amongst them; some of the younger staff were taking things in their stride or treating it all as rather a joke, but others were, like Nell and Hilda, wondering if this was to be a permanent situation, and if so, what the consequences would be.
As Hilda entered, Nancy called out to her, “Hilda, come and sit down and have a coffee – you look like you could do with it. Or would you like something stronger?” she asked, seeing Hilda’s face.
“Thank you Nancy, no, coffee will be fine.” She sat down next to Nancy and gratefully accepted took the cup from her colleague. “You’ll be interested to hear that Millies are in the same position as we are.”
“How? How has this happened?”
The staff gathered around, anxious to hear Hilda’s news. “Nell came over earlier. Or should I say, Noel?!”
“What? Noel? Oh that’s hilarious,” roared Biddy.
“Yes, she said very much the same about your name,” said Hilda, with a grin.
Biddy sat back with a quiet ‘Humph’, and Hilda continued with her news,
“It’s the same over there as here; all the pupils are boys, and Gertrude Rider and Gill Culver are male but supposed to be female, rather like you two,” she said, indicating Rosalie and Matey. “Nell’s also got Vi Norton out of action for the day; she had rather a bad reaction to discovering she had a male body, so is in bed.”
There were murmurs of sympathy and concern at this news, and Hilda continued, “It’s as if we’ve stepped into a parallel universe showing what life would be like if we had a boys school. I can’t say I like it all that much. Millies are coming out skiing and sledging with us this afternoon. I thought tomorrow, if the weather holds, we’ll get out again in the afternoon, and then have a read through of the Christmas concert in the evening. Joey – who is now Joseph – brought the script round this morning – Oh, I’ll tell you that particular story over lunch!” Hilda laughed as the staff started exclaiming about Joey being male. She took a drink and then said ‘Oh – how did you all get in class this morning? I can’t imagine it was very easy.”
Nancy groaned, “Oh, it was awful! I’ve never been so on edge with a class before – not even my first day teaching, I don’t think.”
“It reminded me of my first day here – I remember too well what that was like,” said Kathie, who as the newest member of staff had had the experience of learning pupils names fairly recently.
“Yes, I went through the register very slowly and tried to remember all their names, but I’m sure I slipped up once or twice, said Biddy, “The boys must have wondered what was going on.”
“My class asked me twice if I was ok,” said Ruth. “I was so hesitant and……discombobulated. I couldn’t remember all their names…. It was terrible!”
“Do you think they’ll work out that something’s wrong?” asked Nancy, “I mean, one teacher having a bad day is excusable, but if they chat amongst themselves and figure out we’ve all been having a bad day, they might start to wonder what is going on.”
Hilda let out a breath. “Who knows?” she said. “Hopefully the boys won’t be so bothered about us and our wellbeing as the some of the girls might have been, and we’ll get away with it.”
“It must be fairly obvious that something’s wrong though,” said Kathie, rather glumly. “I called some of my own form the wrong name this morning – oh, not their female name, don’t worry – but I got them mixed up. How are we ever going to used to this?”
“You never know, we might not have to,” said Hilda, “For now though, we need to get to Mittagessen. I’m going to ask all the prefects to come and see me at the end of the rest period. Nell and I thought we’d get them to keep more of an eye on the pupils than usual, under the guise of Matron being out of action so we want to avoid too many injuries, but they are also going to recognise each other far better than we will.”
Following the rest period, the prefects presented themselves to Hilda in the study. Dressed in their snow suits, they looked too identical for Hilda’s liking, but regarding them as they stood before her, she began to see the similarities to the female prefects she was used to.
Mary Lou – or Maurice – was tall and study with golden curly hair and wide blue eyes. Edmund, the head boy, had short dark hair and a calm thoughtful expression, while the two Leslies and Hilary Bennet were fairly easily recognisable and, thought Hilda, at least those are names I don’t have to learn.
“Now, …..um……boys, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Matron hasn’t been present today; she’s in bed with a bad cold, and so won’t be able to administer her usual first aid and liniments if needed after skiing, and therefore we want to avoid too many bumps and bruises. Mis….ter Burnett has first aid training, so will be helping out if there are any injuries, however I need you all to keep an extra vigilant eye on everyone today and try and nip any reckless behaviour in the bud. The staff will be out with you as usual, but your vigilance as well will be a great help.”
The prefects nodded, and Hilda was amused to see a couple of not-very-well-hidden disappointed faces. She had a feeling that the afternoon’s skiing and sledding was going to be far more energetic and boisterous than she was used to, and curbing the energies of the boys might be required. She dismissed the prefects, but as they left she could hear some shuffling and whispers outside the door, and there was a tentative knock.
Hilda frowned, but said “Come in,” and the door opened, and Edmund Pennell came back in with a rather red face.
“I’m sorry, Sir, but……um…….” He hesitated, not sure how to begin.
“What is it Edmund? Can I help with anything?” Hilda asked slightly curiously, though she had a horrible thought about what was coming next, and wasn’t sure how to she was going to explain it to Edmund.
“I…..er…… well….. It’s just… some of the boys have been saying that the masters were acting oddly in class this morning, and….er…… we wondered……..um……if….er…..everything was alright…..only…..it’s the talk of the school,” he wound down, and stared around the room rather than look at Hilda, whose heart sank at this news.
“When you say the masters were acting oddly, what do you mean?” asked Hilda, hoping that nothing too awful had been done or said, and that it could be brushed aside with a fairly simple explanation – though what that would be at the moment, Hilda was desperately trying to think.
“Well, um……..,” Edmund began falteringly, not wanting to be seen as telling tales on staff.
“It’s alright,” said Hilda, “I’d already heard that some of the staff were not themselves this morning; you’re only filling in some details for me, not ‘telling tales’ on the masters.”
Edmund looked relieved, and then continued, “Mr Moore, Sir…..we had him for Geography this morning and…….um…….he kept forgetting our names……and staring at us. I wondered if he had a headache or wasn’t feeling well.”
“Possibly,” acknowledged Hilda solemnly, thinking that she would far rather cope with her staff being merely unwell than the situation they were faced with today. “I’ll enquire with Mr Moore. Were there any other staff that might be…..er….unwell?”
“We-ell…Vb said that Mr O’Ryan was also forgetting students names, and I heard some from Inter V talking about Mr Wilmot as well; and, Sir, we had Mr Derwent for English after Geography, and he was staring at us from time to time. It was almost as if he wasn’t sure who we were. Or his eyesight was bad.” Edmund added.
Hilda coughed to supress a chuckle at Edmund’s suggestion that Ruth’s eyesight might be the issue. “Oh, if only he knew….”, she thought to herself. Aloud she said, “Thank you for letting me know about this; I shall certainly keep an eye on the masters; it does sound like they might not be…..um…..feeling quite…..themselves today. We don’t want them joining Matron and Miss Dene in the sick room.”
“No Sir. Um, thank you. And I hope you don’t think I was speaking out of turn,” said Edmund, scarlet in the face.
“No, I don’t. As head boy you must feel you can come to me with any concerns you have, so thank you for bringing this to my attention. Now, you’d best get off and get your skis – or are you sledding today?” said Hilda, smiling at Edmund.
“Oh, no, skiing Sir – and thank you.” Edmund scuttled out of the study and Hilda let out a deep breath and a wry laugh at Edmund’s observations and suggestion that the staff weren’t very well.
The realisation that the boys had noticed that all was not well with the staff was not a comfortable one for Hilda. She sat back in her chair and stared at the ceiling, hoping that she could support her staff enough to cope with this situation so that life would seem perfectly normal for the boys. The ticking clock reminded Hilda that she was supposed to be outside skiing with the rest of the school, and, because sitting in the study pondering was not bringing any resolutions to mind, Hilda went and to collect her skis from the sheds out at the back of the school, hoping that an afternoon’s exercise might clear her mind.
Chapter 7 - An afternoon in the snow by Bobcat
Sorry - it's been a while (again) since the last update.
The action was well underway by the time Hilda strapped on her skis and made her way around the school and across to the meadow where they generally ski-ed. Loud shouts and laughter rang through the air and pupils were skimming about in all directions. Hilda spotted Nell coming across from Millies with her pupils and went over to see her.
“Gosh, they’re all very energetic aren’t they? And far more reckless than we’re used to,” said Nell.
“Yes, I thought that. Mind you, I seem to be able to ski faster than I could previously; maybe I’m stronger. I’m glad I asked the prefects to keep an additional eye on the pupils, but even so I think we’re going to have some knocks and bruises before the end of the afternoon.”
Nell and Hilda looked around at their pupils and staff; they were skiing and sledding up and down the slope with a lot of energy, and all seemed to be behaving themselves so far.
“Do you think we’re managing so far – keeping up appearances, I mean?” asked Hilda.
“I think so,” replied Nell. “Though what we’re going to tell people about the matrons and Gill and Rosalie, I do not know.”
Hilda nodded in agreement, and then a small sob burst from her “Oh Nell, what if this IS permanent? It’s hard enough trying to keep all the staff going and upbeat about this, but how are we going to deal with this long term? We can’t talk to other people outside the school about it – they’ll think we’re all mad and lock us up! And I can’t bear the weight of everyone’s confusion and upset about all this; it’s too much.”
Nell glanced quickly at Hilda and her expression softened, “Come on old girl, this isn’t like you. Yes, I know this is completely……..just…..ridiculous situation, but we’ll find a way through. We usually you, you and me, don’t we?”
“But aren’t you worried about this - how we deal with it, and the repercussions?” cried Hilda in some panic.
“Of course I am,” said Nell, more gently now, “But if you and I fall apart now – I don’t mean we can’t, but perhaps not yet, that’s all – but you and I need to try, somehow, and keep it together at the moment, for the boys, if not for the staff. We can have our stress at Christmas when we’re at the cottage. And until then, I’m at the other end of the phone. You don’t have to deal with this on your own, you know.”
“I know. Thank you,” said Hilda, calm by now. “I was just having a wobble, that’s all.”
“Understandable, given the situation. I doubt anything like this has ever happened before, and – what on earth is going on over there?”
Their attention was grabbed by a minor commotion occurring over by a small copse of trees at the edge of the hill.
“Who’s in that bunch over there? And what do they think they’re doing – have they started a snowball fight?”
“It appears to be an actual fight!” gasped Nell, and started to speed towards them.
Other figures flew over, and as Hilda and Nell arrived, Nancy was holding on to one struggling young man, Biddy and Kathie between them had restrained another, and Mary Lou and Elinor had got hold of a third.
“What is going on?” demanded Hilda sharply, “Mi….ster Wilmot, what happened?”
Nancy kept her grip on the boy she was holding on to, but it was Kathie who answered, “Mr Annersley, Mr Wilmot didn’t see all that happened, but I did. Francis here was skiing and…er….Hamish inadvertently got in the way when he – his sled rope broke. Francis had to swerve and then fell into that bush. I think Francis thought Hamish had done it deliberately and the two of them started shouting at each other and the next thing we knew, they had started fighting. Then Charles joined in, and we separated them before it got more out of hand.”
Hilda was astonished. Pupils fighting was not something she was used to. Girls might have verbal spats from time to time, but she had never known them to throw punches at each other before. ‘Francis’ appeared to Francie Wilford, usually a girl who found fault easily and who bore grudges; clearly this had not changed much now she was a boy. Hilda looked more closely at the other two. The boy standing rather shamefacedly between Biddy and Kathie looked very like Charmian Spence; another imp who was fond of getting into trouble. Mary Lou and Elinor’s captor was a leggy thing with blond hair and bright blue eyes. Heather Clayton, thought Hilda, and not generally an argumentative soul, though she – or he – could be thoughtless on occasion.
Hilda thought fast. “Are any of you hurt?” she asked. All three miscreants shook their heads, though Hilda could see a red lump had appeared on Hamish’s cheek, and Francis was rubbing a knee and shoulder but still looked ready to argue with anyone who was willing.
“Right. Well. It wouldn’t be fair on anyone else to send you indoors, which is what I should do, but it would mean two of my teachers having to give up their skiing, which I don’t think is fair, do you?” Hilda paused. “I am going to allow you to carry on skiing and sledding, but you will do it over there, away from all the rest of the school, and under the supervision of myself and Mr Wilson,” she glanced at Nell, who nodded. Three faces fell.
“You didn’t think you could carry on having fun with everyone else after fighting like that?” asked Nell. “There are consequences to your actions, and losing out on the fun with your friends is one of them. I will also want to see all three of you in my study at eighteen-thirty. Now, come with us.”
Hilda led the three boys away from the main skiing area to a quiet corner of the meadow, with Nell bringing up the rears. The two prefects returned to their fun, and the three remaining staff looked at each other.
“Well!” said Biddy, “I don’t think we’ve ever had fighting at the school before!”
“No,” replied Nancy thoughtfully. “You just don’t expect it with girls. Or with boys generally, for that matter, though they do resolve things physically at times. My brothers used to tell me of chaps that had got into fights at school, but it wasn’t a common thing.”
“I should hope not!” exclaimed Biddy. “I have a feeling that once Hilda’s finished with them, they won’t feel like fighting again. Will she expel them, do you think?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think so – not for a small tiff like that. No doubt they won’t know which way is up once Hilda’s finished with them, but I think we’ll have the pleasure of their company for a while longer,” Nancy laughed. “Guess we’d better get back to the rest of the crowd and see if we can get through the rest of the afternoon without any more punches being thrown.”
The three of them went back over to join the rest of the pupils and staff, and the rest of the afternoon passed generally peacefully, though Francis, Charles and Hamish did not appear to be enjoying their skiing and sledding, and were going back and forth in rather subdued fashion under the watchful eyes of Nell and Hilda; Hamish having temporarily fixed his sled rope by the simple means of tying a knot in it.
“What am I going to do with those three?” Hilda asked Nell quietly, as they stood watching the three. “I’m not used to dealing with fighting; what punishment should I give them?”
Nell thought for a moment, watching Francis going in straight lines back and forth across the meadow. “You usually make the punishment fit the crime, Hilda, what would work in this instance?”
“Boxing?!” said Hilda wryly.
Nell guffawed at this suggestion and poked Hilda in the ribs. “Oh, you’ll come up with something. You always do. Do you think boys fight often? Are we going to have more of this?”
“I don’t think so,” said Hilda. “My brothers never mentioned it – though they were a lot older than I so when I was at school they were near to finishing and boys that age should have grown out of it by then. Honestly, you’d think our boys would know better; though given it’s Inter V involved, I’m not entirely surprised. They’re at that silly age.”
Nell looked at her watch, “Time to get them in Hilda, I think? I don’t like the look of that sky either; we’re in for more snow later.”
Hilda glanced at her watch and agreed. “What are you doing with your lot tonight? We’re having hobbies and then tomorrow we’re going to read through the play – though I think our three fighters here might have to miss hobbies in favour of an early night.”
“Oh I think we’re going to do similar – the girls were making things for the sale, so I’m assuming the boys will also do the same, so it’s hobbies for us as well.”
“Well, if you want to come over this evening and de-brief along with the rest of us – assuming the weather is ok – feel free. Right. I’m going to get these people back to the school. Can you go and find Peggy Burnett – ask Nancy if you’re not sure who she is – and ask her to blow the whistle?”
Nell sped off to find Peggy, and Hilda turned to call the three sinners, who were still rather half-heartedly skimming up and down, but clearly not enjoying themselves. “Boys, come with me back to the school please. I want you to go and have hot baths and then if you’re sore at all, go and see Mr Burnett for some liniment. And remember, I want to see you in the study at eighteen-thirty.”
The three boys nodded and fell into line with Hilda without a word. The four of them started to make their way back to the school, but the afternoon was not to be without one last incident. Benjamin Willoughby, the games captain, was on one last sled run piloting one of the big school sleds, with several small juniors piled on behind. Ahead of him were three young middles who were very inexperienced skiers, and who were trying not to fall over each other as they laboured back towards the school. Benjamin saw them come into his path, and started yelling loudly at them to get out of the way. The shouts only panicked the three middles, who dithered and got into a muddle with their skis, ending up with all of them collapsing gently into a heap on the snow.
Benjamin tried to steer his sled out of the way, pulling hard on the rope and then throwing himself off the sled at the last minute in order to try and send it further round to the left, thus avoiding the middles. This was a successful move, in that the sled swerved around the group on the ground and came to a gentle halt some distance away, but when Benjamin lurched off the sled, he rolled two or three times across the snow, knocking into Hilda, who was passing at the time and who hadn’t seen Benjamin’s actions, owing to keeping a watchful eye on her three sinners. Benjamin met Hilda’s legs with some force, upending her, and she landed rather heavily on her shoulder, but was otherwise uninjured. When Benjamin recovered himself and realised who he had knocked over, his mortification was plain for all to see.
“Oh!….Mr Annersley… are you alright, Sir? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to knock into you like that, are you hurt? I’m so sorry; I was trying to miss those kids there…… Sir, I’m most awfully sorry,” he said, all in a hurry, and with a face the colour of tomato.
Hilda gingerly picked herself up. Apart from her shoulder, she was unhurt, though in her shock as she looked at Benjamin, she realised she had no idea what the boy was called.
“Thank you,” she said, as Benjamin helped her up from the snow. “I’m alright, and thank you for your apology.”
Sharlie came whizzing up at this point, “Benjamin, My Annersley, are you both alright? I saw what happened - Benjamin, that was quick thinking to avoid an accident, though rather unfortunate that you knocked into Mr Annersley.”
Benjamin turned to Sharlie, looking utterly embarrassed, “Oh, Mr Andrews, I was trying to avoid the kids there and I thought if my weight was off the sled it might make it turn faster, though I didn’t think I’d roll quite as far and then I hit Mr Annersely. Are you sure you’re alright, Sir?” he asked anxiously turning to Hilda.
“Yes, Benjamin, I’m fine,” replied Hilda, sharing a quick glance of relief with Sharlie, “You just rather surprised me, that’s all. I didn’t expect to be upended by a prefect just as I was returning to school, though I realise it was an accident.”
“Oh it was” said Benjamin fervently, his face even more scarlet, “I certainly didn’t intend to knock into you like that – I mean, I wouldn’t, ever……” he wound down out of sheer discomfiture.
“It’s all right, really,” said Hilda, seriously, though she was dying to laugh at Benjamin’s flustered apologies. “I’m not hurt – are you though?”
“Oh no, no, not at all Sir, I’m fine.”
“Good. As long as you’re sure. We’ll say no more about it, in that case. Now, I think you’d better go and rescue your sled and the juniors on it, and then get back to the school.”
Benjamin gasped at the reminder of the sled, which he had forgotten about in his confusion. “Oh! Yes, thank you Sir!” and off he scuttled in search of the wayward sled.
Once back at the school, the boys trotted off to for Kaffee and then to have baths if they wished, and to tidy themselves up. Hilda took her boots off and padded off through the school in her socks. She called in to Rosalie’s room, where she found that person and Matey engrossed in a lively game of draughts.
“Hilda!” cried Rosalie, as she opened the door. “How did you all get on? We saw some of the action from the window – it looked a bit lively!”
Hilda rolled her eyes and rubbed her shoulder, wincing as she did so. “Well, three of Inter V started a fist fight, and Blossom – or should I say Benjamin – accidentally upended me when sh – he came off a sled, but other than that, all was peaceful.”
“Fighting?” said Gwynneth, incredulously. “We’ve never had to deal with that before. What on earth possessed them?!”
“I believe it was part accident and part Francis Wilford’s temper, though the other two shouldn’t have retaliated.” replied Hilda, “I got the story from Kathie and Biddy who saw the whole thing. I intend on getting them to confess their parts and then we’ll see about punishment.”
“Good luck with Francis,” said Rosalie. “That child is the most obstinate young thing I’ve met in a long time.”
“Ye-es,” said Hilda. “I’m not sure what punishment I shall dish out just yet, but I shall have a think about it whilst I’m in the bath. Gwynneth, do you have any arnica ointment here? I landed on my shoulder when Blo – Benjamin knocked into me, and I think it’s going to be rather sore tomorrow.”
Gwynneth handed over a small pot of the ointment and Hilda padded off back to her room. She went wearily into the bathroom and slung her boots under the sink, intending on cleaning them and putting them away later. She climbed out of her snowsuit and ran a bath, pouring in a generous amount of the bath salts she found in the cabinet.
Sinking into the hot water, Hilda reflected, amongst other things, that her taller and wider frame wouldn’t let her lie as comfortably in the bath as she had been able to do previously.
“Something else to get used to,” she mused to herself. She lay back and closed her eyes, letting out a deep sigh, and wishing that today had never happened.
“Why couldn’t it just be a normal day with no excitements or surprises? How on earth are we going to get used to this? Are we ever going to get used to this? There’s no way women waking up as men can live with that as a permanent thing. It’s just too much!” Hilda let out a sob or two at the hopelessness of the situation.
“What are we going to do?” she groaned.
Half an hour later, and with a suitable punishment for her three sinners in mind, Hilda climbed out of the bath. She rubbed some arnica into her aching shoulder and got dressed and then went down to the study in search of a cup of coffee. She settled down with some paperwork until, at half-past eighteen, there was a timid knock at the door.
Chapter 8 - Punishments and revelations by Bobcat
The door opened slowly and the three young men entered and came over and stood before Hilda’s desk. They had already heard plenty about their behaviour from some of their own form, and were not looking forward to this interview with Hilda.
Hilda was also not feeling particularly comfortable about the prospect before her. She had not dealt with boys before and wasn’t sure if what she was about to give them as punishment was suitable. Would they think it was too lenient? She was not a believer in corporal punishment, though she was well aware that it was given out at some schools, and was therefore hoping that she had found a fitting alternative punishment. She sat upright in her chair, hands clasped together on her desk, as if she had all the time in the world for this particular interview. She regarded the boys thoughtfully. All three squirmed. They would have preferred to have had Nell deal with them; she would have torn a strip off them with her sarcastic tongue, but at least it would be over and done with quickly. Finally Hilda spoke.
“Do you have anything to say for yourselves?”
Hamish and Charles shot quick sideways glances at each other, and Hamish swallowed hard. Francis stared at the floor, unwilling to meet Hilda’s gaze. Charles cleared his throat and then spoke. “I’m sorry Mr Annersley, Sir. I shouldn’t have become involved and hit Francis.”
Hilda looked at him, thinking that this was unmistakeably Charmian Spence in male form; the mischievous dark eyes, the impish face, even the same posture.
“Thank you, Charles,” she said. She was rewarded by a look of respect from Charles, who tipped up his chin slightly, looked at Hilda directly and said clearly “It wasn’t Hamish’s fault, Sir.”
Hamish coloured slightly at this, while Francis shot Charles a mutinous look, which Hilda noted, sighing inwardly as she did so. She nodded at Charles, and then turned to Francis. “Is that true, Francis?”
Francis stuck his lower jaw out slightly but did not answer Hilda, who then turned to Hamish. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“I…..er, I was sledding along, and I got into a bit of trouble when my rope broke, and accidentally went in front of Francis…..and then, er…..Sir, I’m sorry for hitting him. I know I shouldn’t have but….er…..” he wound down, not wanting to tell tales on Francis, and then added “I’m sorry I hit you Francis.”
Hilda regarded the lump on Hamish’s cheek and looked quickly across at Francis, who looked surprised at Hamish’s apology, but still did not say anything. Hamish and Charles were known mischief-makers, but they were honest, and usually took their punishments on the chin; however neither of them had been involved in a fight before. Francis, however, was a different matter; he had been difficult since he arrived at the school, and no one had quite known how to handle him, though his reaction to Hamish’s apology gave Hilda an idea.
“Is your cheek sore?” Hilda asked Hamish.
This was an unexpected question and Hamish was caught by surprise, “No…..um…Sir, it’s fine. Mr Burnett put some ointment on it.” He glanced sideways at Francis “He has a good punch,” he added ruefully, and then reddened as he realised he’d inadvertently revealed who had hit him.
Hilda realised this, and spoke, “Mr Ferrars and Mr O’Ryan told me what happened, as you know. Hamish, I appreciate that you don’t want to get Francis into trouble. I believe that you got in Francis’ way by accident because your rope broke, though it was wrong of you,” – she looked at Charles at this point – “and you, to engage in fighting. I will not tolerate that in my school. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” said Charles and Hamish simultaneously.
Hilda turned to Francis. “Francis, look at me please,” she rapped out. Francis’ head shot up and he looked at Hilda, though soon dropped his gaze again under Hilda’s cold stare. “What do you have to say for yourself? Did you hear Hamish’s apology?”
“He got in my way!” Francis burst out, “He doesn’t like me and did it on purpose so I’d go into the bush.”
“Silence!” said Hilda, as Hamish and Charles both went to speak at this eruption from Francis. Hilda looked at Francis. “Is that what you really believe happened?” she asked quietly.
A long pause and then a shake of the head.
“Then why did you go and start fighting with Hamish if you knew it was an accident?” asked Hilda.
Another long pause, and then finally “Because I was angry.”
“I see,” said Hilda.
She continued, “This evening and tomorrow you three will sit with the juniors for meals. You are supposed to be seniors now, but if you will behave like unruly children, you will be treated as such. You will also go to bed directly after Abendessen tonight and miss out on hobbies. You are all in different dormitories, so I expect you to do as I say and stay in bed. You may read until twenty thirty – I will provide reading material for you. Myself or one of the other masters will be patrolling from time to time to make sure you are in bed. You have been warned.”
Three downcast faces looked at her, but all three mumbled “Yes, Sir.”
“In addition,” continued Hilda, “You will also give up your free time during the next week to help Gaudenz clean and wax all the skis and sleds in the sheds outside. He will teach you how to do it, and you will do it to his satisfaction, until every one is finished. You will go to him for instructions as soon as prep finishes tomorrow.”
All three of the boys looked in horror at Hilda at the loss of their free time. There were around a hundred pairs of skis and twenty or so sleds in the sheds; this was a task that would take a long time and none of the three of them were relishing it.
“Fighting is very serious,” said Hilda. “It is not acceptable in this school. I think the loss of your free time will be a deterrent to yourselves and anyone else who might be tempted to throw punches in the future. I will not have boys behaving like this. Is that clear?”
Hamish and Charles both nodded reluctantly at Hilda. They knew they had seriously misbehaved by fighting, and also knew they had to take a harsh punishment.
Hilda looked at Charles, “You and Hamish may leave. Francis, please stay here.”
The two left the room relieved not to have had a harsher punishment from Hilda, and made their way back to their common room to tell their peers the news.
Hilda regarded Francis thoughtfully, “As you started the fight, I am going to have to give you a further punishment. You must surely have seen Hamish’s sled rope break, yet you chose to start an argument with him, and then a fight. I understand you may have been angry, but I will not have boys starting fights in my school. You cannot resort to using your fists just because you are angry. ”
“I suppose you’re going to cane me?” asked Francis, rather resentfully.
“No,” said Hilda, trying to hide her surprise at this question, “I am not. I don’t agree with corporal punishment. I have just been telling you off for hitting each other; I can’t very well hit you myself, can I?”
Francis flashed a look of surprise at Hilda and then burst out “Spare the rod and spoil the child, my father says.”
“Does he cane you?” asked Hilda carefully.
Francis nodded, “Sometimes,” he said, tersely. “My old headmaster used to cane me as well.” He paused, and then said angrily, “They both used to say that gentlemen don’t use their fists, but apparently caning someone is different.”
“And how did that make you feel? Do you think it was fair that you were caned?”
Francis’ eyes widened at this question. It was clear he’d never been asked about whether he thought this punishment was fair or not. He paused, thinking. “I……I don’t know,” he mumbled, his face reddening. “I did….. – do – some awful things sometimes. But…..it just made me angry, and hate the headmaster…..or my father….. And….” he swallowed, “I’d just want to do more bad things because I was angry with them for punishing me that way.”
He paused and then added quietly, “And my father hits me sometimes for no reason – if he’s had a bad day at work, or something. Takes it out on me.”
Hilda was appalled at Francis’ revelations about his home life, but all he was saying explained an awful lot about his behaviour that afternoon; using one’s fists in anger was normal to him, and if, reflected Hilda, he had never had a good role model at home, how could he be expected to behave sensibly at school.
“That was a very honest answer, Francis, thank you. So you’d agree that corporal punishment didn’t really have any effect on you – in fact just made you want to misbehave more?”
Hilda gazed at the surface of her desk, frowning slightly as she thought. She then sat back in her chair, and looked at Francis who was standing looking rather discomfited.
“Let me ask you this then. What would you have said would have been a fair punishment – you’ve already said you did some bad things in the past, but that caning wasn’t fair, and I’d agree. So what would be a fair punishment?”
Francis’s head dropped, and he shuffled his foot on the carpet while he thought about Hilda’s question. Hilda, meanwhile, was reflecting that she much preferred dealing with the bad behaviour of girls rather than boys; the issue of corporal punishment had never entered her head previously. Clearly Francis was used to physical discipline, and possibly some of the other boys were too, but Hilda would have to come up with other ways of dealing with the boys without resorting to the cane.
Francis then raised his head and said, “I think what would be fair would be take away something I like, or I like doing.”
Hilda merely nodded, and then said, “And regarding your behaviour this afternoon, and bearing in mind I’ve said you should have a further punishment because you started the fight for no good reason, what do you think would be fair?”
She had a feeling that Francis had already thought of his own punishment for the afternoon’s fighting, and she was not wrong. Francis licked his lips and swallowed hard, and then said, “I think I should have no skiing for two weeks.”
Hilda knew that Francis loved skiing, and indeed was becoming quite proficient at it. She also knew that this punishment would hurt Francis a lot, and it was what she had had in mind herself, though not for that length of time.
“I agree that you should have no skiing,” said Hilda, “though I think two weeks is rather harsh. I think one week of no skiing would be sufficient. What do you think?”
Francis looked at Hilda almost in awe. “I…..um….. yes, Sir. And……Mr Annersley, I’m sorry for starting the fight. I shouldn’t have.” He fumbled nervously with the hem of his jumper and then added, “I’ll apologise to Charles and Hamish as well.”
Hilda nodded approvingly at him, “Good,” she said. “I think that will be sufficient for now, though if I find you have been fighting again, you can expect a much more severe punishment.”
“Yes, Sir.” Francis was looking not exactly relieved, thought Hilda, but as if someone had finally appreciated how he felt, possibly for the first time ever, and she knew how that could start to change someone.
The bell for Abendessen rang and both Hilda and Francis glanced at the clock.
“We should go,” said Hilda, rising from her chair and coming round the desk. Taking Francis by the shoulder, she steered him towards the door. “I will say this though Francis; I don’t like to hear that your father hits you when you’re at home. If you ever want to tell me more about that, you can come and do so at any time.”
Francis looked gratefully at Hilda, and then glanced quickly away.
“Thank you Sir. And thank you for understanding,” he said quietly.
Chapter 9 - Is truth stranger than fiction? by Bobcat
They made their way to Abendessen; Francis taking a seat with Hamish and Charles at the juniors table, and Hilda joining the rest of the staff at their table. Keeping an eye on Francis, Hilda could see him talking intently to Charles and Hamish, and those two responding fairly graciously.
'Well, that’s a good start', Hilda mused; Francis appeared to have apologised and Charles and Hamish hadn’t been too cold with him. She had been shocked to hear of Francis’ home life, but it went a long way to explaining his attitude towards authority, and Hilda hoped that treating him fairly might have sparked a change – or at least some thought – in Francis.
“Hilda, penny for them,” said Nancy, as she offered Hilda a basket of rolls. “Sorry,” said Hilda, taking a roll and passing the basket on to Sharlie. “It’s been an eventful afternoon, and one that I rather wish I hadn’t had to deal with. Bring the rest of that bottle of brandy to the staff room later will you? I think I might need some of it.”
Nancy nodded and glanced over to the juniors table, and saw Francis, Charles and Hamish chatting, and whilst it wasn’t overly friendly, it was definitely civil. “Those three?” she asked, indicating the three boys with her fork.”
“Yes – and don’t wave your fork about like that!”
“Oops, sorry,” said Nancy, picking bits of carrot off the tablecloth. “I’m worse than the juniors.”
Biddy dissolved into giggles at this point, while Hilda merely rolled her eyes and sighed lustily, which did nothing for Biddy’s composure.
“Just because you’re now male doesn’t mean you can leave all table manners behind,” said Hilda mischievously, while Nancy turned bright red in spite of her status as senior Maths mistress – or Master – in the school.
The rest of the meal proceeded peacefully, with no more food items spilled about the place, and afterwards the boys went off to their various common rooms to get on with hobbies while the staff gathered in their sitting room where they found Rosalie and Gwynneth waiting for them, eager for some company and to hear all the news of the day. Hilda popped in to her study on her way to the staff room and put in a call to Millies.
“Nell, how are things over there? I take it you won’t be coming over this evening?” she asked, glancing out of the window as she spoke. Nell’s earlier prediction about the weather had been correct, and the snow was coming down thick and fast.
“No, I’m not going to risk a trek in that, and it doesn’t look like stopping any time soon. Don’t you worry about us – Julie Berne has talked Vi round a bit, so we’re all going to cosy up in the staff room while the girls – boys – get on with hobbies. I might carry on with that book you lent me – it’s quite good so far.”
“Which one was that?” said Hilda, trying remember what she had lent Nell. There were many books she had tried to persuade her colleague to read over the years, but Nell was not always a fan of literature, preferring travel writing or biography instead.
“That Virginia Woolf one – Orlando. It’s quite good, though I’ve not read much.”
“Ah, yes, I remember. It is good isn’t it – Ohhhhhhhhhh!” Hilda cried as she suddenly remembered the plot of the book.
“Hilda, what is it? Are you alright?” asked Nell, sounding worried.
“Oh, oh, oh…….my goodness…..but surely not? That’s just…….ridiculous……. It can’t be!!” Hilda gasped and started talking aloud to herself, leaving Nell to wonder if Hilda had suddenly lost her mind.
“Hilda!” she said, emphatically, “What are you on about?”
Hilda ran her hands through her hair, “Answer me this – and I know it sounds nonsense, but bear with me – in the book, what sex is Orlando?”
“What?! What are you asking me that for?” asked Nell impatiently.
“Just tell me!” cried Hilda.
“Male. But why –“ Hilda groaned, interrupting Nell.
“Nell, I’m going to have to spoil the story for you, but further on in the book Orlando changes sex and becomes a woman, and lives the rest of her life as one. It looks like our life is imitating art, so to speak.” There was silence at the other end of the line, and it was now Hilda’s turn to enquire about the well being of the other.
“Nell? Are you alright?” All Hilda could hear was a not very well supressed chuckle, which then became a full blown laugh, and then Nell roared down the phone at Hilda.
Hilda was rather indignant at this, “What do you mean?”
Nell spoke through her chuckles, “Are you really telling me that you think me reading a book about someone changing sex has caused it to happen to all of us? Honestly, Hilda, I thought you had more sense than that!”
“Well what other explanation is there?” asked Hilda, rather crossly, not appreciating being laughed at by Nell.
“I don’t know! Could be anything, but is it really likely to be a book that I’m reading?”
“It’s as plausible as any other explanation. How often do females wake up as male? I mean really? Have you ever heard of it happening before?” Hilda was recovering herself by now.
“No, of course I haven’t. But honestly, how could reading a book make this happen?”
“Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe you should read on to the part where Orlando changes sex and see if that changes us all back again.”
“Oh, you do talk codswallop sometimes, Hilda. Get on with you – go and join your staff and stop blurring fiction and reality. If it’s stopped snowing in the morning I’ll – oh…… Do we go to church or not?”
Hilda paused. She was exhausted, and wasn’t sure she could face thinking about all the new questions that seemed to pose themselves at every turn: How to recognise the boys; how to deal them when they fought each other; whether to go to church the following day or not; what to do about Rosalie and Matron; what to do about this whole situation if it remained this way….. All Hilda wanted to do was hide away somewhere and pretend none of this was happening, or go to sleep and wake up with everything back to normal.
“I suppose so,” she said wearily, “It will be normal for the boys so we’ll have to.”
“Hilda you sound exhausted. I’m not much better myself, if I’m honest, but I have fewer boys and staff to deal with than you do. Look, I’ll see you in church tomorrow. Try and get some sleep tonight. Have a wee drink of something – it might help you sleep!” “Oh, don’t worry, I intend to!” said Hilda. She bade Nell goodnight and went to the kitchen in search of a couple of bottles of wine.
Climbing tiredly up the stairs to the staff sitting room, Hilda wondered how she was going to cope if this remained a permanent situation. Her head was whirling with thoughts of all that was entailed in keeping the school going so that the boys noticed no changes, whilst dealing with this new situation for herself and her staff. She couldn’t talk to anyone about it – they would think she was crazy – but things had to be dealt with and resolved nonetheless.
“I might be male, but I also feel about ten years older,” thought Hilda to herself as she pushed open the staffroom door.
Chapter 10 - A little conversation by Bobcat
The scene before her was one that Hilda had never imagined she would see. Nancy was stretched out on a sofa, her long legs on the coffee table in front of her, and was smoking on a pipe. Next to her was Kathie, with jacket open and tie off, collar undone, and sitting with the ankle of one leg crossed over the knee of the other. Sharlie was sitting opposite them on another sofa, leaning forward with knees apart and elbows on her knees, her tie also loosened from her collar. Rosalind was also on the sofa with Sharlie, leaning back, arm along the back of the sofa, smoking a cigarette, while Biddy was seated in an easy chair, legs stretched out in front of her, contemplating a glass of brandy.
Amongst this crowd were Gwynneth and Rosalie, both eagerly listening to the news of the day. On the coffee table between to sofas were various glasses and Nancy’s bottle of brandy. Hilda paused for a minute wondering if she would begin to get used to seeing her staff as men, and arrayed in these unladylike poses. Rosalind, who had seen Hilda enter, waved the bottle of brandy at her. “Hilda! Drink?”
Hilda held up the two bottles of wine in reply, and went sit on the sofa next to Kathie and Nancy, who hastily removed her feet from the coffee table.
“I thought we might need these,” she said as she sat down and put the bottles of wine on the table, “though I’d prefer a brandy, I think.”
Rosalind found a glass and poured Hilda a drink. Hilda drank a large mouthful, and leaned back against the sofa, closing her eyes and letting out deep breath.
“Hilda you look exhausted,” said Nancy. “I know today’s been hard for us all, but it must have been particularly tough for you.”
Hilda opened one eye and looked at Nancy tiredly. “Mmmm. It’s not been the easiest day I’ve ever had,” she acknowledged with a wry smile. “I never thought I’d have to deal with fighting pupils, for one thing, let alone all the staff waking up with bodies of the opposite sex. I’m not sure I can even think about all this any more – it’s just too much.” She took another mouthful of brandy.
“What punishment did you dish out for our three sparring partners?” asked Nancy curiously. “I’m assuming sitting with the juniors for Abendessen was part of it, but they can’t have come off that lightly.”
“They didn’t,” replied Hilda with a slow grin. “They are currently in bed with reading material of my choice. They’re sitting with the juniors for meals tomorrow. In addition they have to give up their free time this week to help Gaudenz clean and oil all the sleds and skis in the sheds. Francis also has to give up skiing for a week.”
“Oof, Hilda, that’s a creative punishment……cleaning the sleds and skis will take ages!” said Biddy.
“And hopefully take their minds off fighting for good,” chuckled Hilda. “As for the reading material, Hamish has Treasures of the Snow, I gave Charles Pilgrim’s Progress and Francis has Little Men. I’m hoping he’ll relate to the character of Dan.” Her face grew sombre, “He asked me if I was going to cane him.”
There was a collective gasp from those listening to the conversation.
“What on earth did you say?” asked Kathie. “I’m assuming you don’t suddenly have a cane now along with all the other weird things that have turned up today?” she glanced at Nancy’s pipe.
Hilda raised her eyebrows thoughtfully, “Well if there is a cane in my office, I’ve not found it – and I don’t intend to either. Francis told me his previous headmaster used to cane him, as does his father. Explains rather a lot about him, I thought.”
Hilda didn’t reveal the additional information that Francis’ father also hit him; that was confidential, but she knew that corporal punishment was used in boys schools, so that information was hardly likely to be new to the assembled crowd.
There was a brief silence from the others, and then Biddy spoke “What did you say in answer?”
“I said that I couldn’t very well punish him for hitting someone by hitting him. I do not intend to use corporal punishment in this school. I think the fact that I refused to cane him hit home – if you’ll excuse the pun – more than corporal punishment would have. Hopefully we’ll see some improvement there.” Hilda took another mouthful of brandy. “Anyway, how did you all get on today – I’m sorry I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to you; I feel like I rather left you to get on with it, and I’m sorry.”
“Hilda, don’t be silly,” said Rosalind. “You’ve had more than enough to deal with today. It’s been a trying day, but I think I’m getting the hang of it. The worst thing has been not recognising or knowing what the pupils are called, but that’s getting easier. Apart from that it’s been business as usual, more or less.”
“That’s true,” said Biddy, “Lessons this morning were more stressful than they’ve been in a long time, and I’m sure the boys thought I was unwell or something – I took so long over the register trying to put names and faces together.”
“Once I started to recognise people and remember names it got easier,” said Kathie. “It’s some of these clothes that are bothering me more - this daft tie is awful.”
“Ugh, yes!” agreed Nancy. “I hate these tight collars. How the chaps stand it all day, I do not know!”
Hilda gave Nancy an amused look “You seem rather at home with that pipe though,” she remarked. “And you don’t seem bothered by the facial hair either.”
Nancy took her pipe out of her mouth and gazed at it. “Found it in my room with some tobacco,” she said. “My father used to smoke a pipe and I’d seen him fill it many times, so thought I might as well try it. It’s rather nice. And at least with my beard I won’t have to bother about shaving in the morning. I’m looking forward to seeing how you all get on with that!”
“Oh don’t,” groaned Biddy, who with her dark hair, was developing a nice five o’clock shadow. “I’m dreading shaving. I had a go earlier and it didn’t go well.” She tipped up her chin and showed the cut underneath. “I don’t want to have to do that every day! I might join you and grow a beard,” she nodded at Nancy who merely raised her pipe at Biddy in reply.
“Well, I like wearing trousers,” said Rosalind. “They’re warmer and far more freeing than skirts. I can wear thick socks and my feet have been lovely and warm all day.”
“Agreed!” said Kathie and Biddy simultaneously. “Though this material is rather itchy. I must see what else is in my wardrobe for tomorrow,” added Biddy.
Rosalie flushed bright red, but said in a rather embarrassed tone, ““I think that not wearing a brassiere is a revelation. It’s only when you don’t wear one that you realise how uncomfortable they can be.”
Gwynneth looked rather askance at this rather personal talk from Rosalie, but Nancy was in wholehearted agreement. “Yes!” she cried, “For those of us who are…….er……..a little…..um…..larger….. in that department than the rest of you – oh, you know what I mean, don’t pretend you don’t – well anyway, it is a lot nicer not to have to truss up every day. Oh Matey, don’t look so appalled!”
Gwynneth merely raised her eyebrows at Nancy, but said nothing, and Nancy grinned back at her unashamedly. Ruth and Jeanne came in at this point, having taken prayers for the school and seen the juniors off to bed.
“Jeanne, Ruth, come and help us raise the tone of this conversation,” cried Matey, as the two pulled up some easy chairs and joined the growing group.“The talk has been of undergarments - we need some sophistication!”
Jeanne’s eyes widened as she sat down and indicated that she would take the glass of wine Biddy was pouring out. Ruth merely grinned and remarked, “It is nice not having to wear certain….um…..upper undergarments, isn’t it?!”
“Thank you!” said Nancy. “That’s just what Rosalie and I were saying, though I’m not sure Matey agrees with the subject of conversation.”
“Oh, honestly,” tutted Gwynneth, though she had a twinkle in her eye, and winked at Hilda as she spoke.
Hilda put her hand up to her head, “Well I have to say I like having short hair. It’s rather nice not to have to fuss with pins and a French pleat.” “
But yes,” agreed Jeanne “That it is the only thing that pleases me about all this……this……nonsense. I do not have to worry about my hair-pins or being tidy. Oui, I like the short hair.”
There was agreement amongst most of the staff that short hair was a bonus, though Gwynneth patted her hair complacently, remarking ‘I’ve always thought that short hair was better than long, but of course none of you believed me – until now!”
“And not wearing heels is rather nice as well,” chipped in Biddy. “I quite like flat shoes, and like Rosalind, my feet have been lovely and warm all day.”
Kathie winked at Rosalind and then said, ‘Ah but my dear Biddy, you do lose a couple of inches when you wear flat shoes, and I’m not sure you can afford to do that, can you?”
“Cheeky thing!” cried Biddy, picking up the cushion next to her and throwing it at Kathie, hitting her squarely in the chest. She sat back and looked round at the others. “Well, anyway, I’d take being a couple of inches shorter I think. I quite like this new garb.”
“I do too,” said Nancy, “Though I’ve found that being taller and slightly…um….wider than usual means I’ve been bumping into things all day. My spatial awareness is all over the place! Did you find the same Hilda; you must be well over six foot tall now?”
Hilda nodded, “I’ve knocked my knees on things a few times; and whacked my head once in the bathroom as well. I’ll be sore tomorrow I think; not to mention my shoulder from being upended by young Blossom – or Benjamin, should I say.”
“Oh, wasn’t her – his – face priceless?!” laughed Sharlie, “When he saw it was you he’d knocked into….”
“Mortified was not the word,” chuckled Hilda, “I think he’d have been happy for the ground to open up and swallow him at that point!”
“It’s the talk of the juniors – I think it’s going to go down in school history,” said Sharlie.
“Oh no!” groaned Hilda, “That’s all I need – to be the subject of a long lasting story like that. Though I think today will definitely be the top ‘legend’ amongst us all.”
Vida Armitage asked tentatively, “Do you think this is……permanent, Hilda? I don’t think I can bear it! These clothes….. and, and my voice. I hate all of it.”
Faces turned Hilda’s way and she set down her glass and looked round at her staff. “Honestly? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t have any more idea about any of this than you do.”
“But you seem so together with it – and so……calm,” said Vida.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.” Hilda sighed. “I’m not calm inside, trust me. The thoughts have been whirring around my head all day – how we deal with this long term; can we deal with this long term; what to do about Rosalie and Gwynneth – who I don’t want to lose,” as she glanced across at those two who were sitting together.
She continued, looking around at the rest of the assembled crowd, “I wouldn’t blame you if you felt you couldn’t stay here for whatever reason, so staffing in the future could be an issue….oh, from that to all the day to day issues; discipline, for example. I had no clue as to what those three fighting today would expect by way of punishment. I don’t know what boys go through as they grow up; how do I deal with that? I’ve hardly time to think of myself with trying to keep up a semblance of normality for the boys.”
There was silence for a moment among that staff and then Ruth spoke, “Well I for one am not intending on going anywhere. I’ll stay and support you Hilda. This is our school – we’re used to it and the way it works; I might suddenly have a male body, but nothing else has changed and I’m not going to bail out now.”
Hilda took sip of brandy and looked gratefully at Ruth, “Thank you; that means a lot.”
“I’m sorry Hilda, I don’t always give a lot of thought to everything you have to think about to keep the school going,” said Nancy, reddening slightly as she spoke. “Besides, we’re the only ones who this has happened to; if I went to work elsewhere – and I’m not going to, by the way – but I’d have to cope with this,” she indicated her body and clothes, “without anyone else to talk to about the sheer weirdness of it all. At least here we’re all in it together.”
There were nods of assent from around the room as they realised the truth of Nancy’s statement.
“We’re not going anywhere, Hilda,” said Rosalie quietly.
Hilda stared into her brandy and blinked furiously to stop the sudden tears that had sprung into her eyes. She raised her head and looked around at her staff. “Thank you everyone. Knowing I have your support is wonderful. It can be a lonely job at the top.”
Hilda wasn’t normally so open about how it felt to be Head, but this wasn’t a normal day, and she was feeling all at sea and in need of some help in dealing with this new situation.
Biddy leaned over and patted her on the knee, “We’ll help you all we can – you just have to ask. I know you’re not one to generally admit you’re in need of support, but Hilda, we’re not psychic either, so you have to let us know what you want us to do, ok?” she finished with a grin.
Hilda reddened at this, but then smiled ruefully, “Yes, alright; I will try and ask if I need some help. Now, who wants more wine?”
Talk turned to other things and the group broke up into twos and threes and various card and board games began. Nancy and Hilda remained where they were on the sofa; Hilda sipping her drink, her thoughts wandering off in all directions. Nancy took Hilda’s hand and squeezed it, speaking quietly to Hilda so that the others wouldn’t hear. “Penny for them Hilda. You’re doing a grand job, so don’t let those doubts creep in.”
Hilda turned and looked at Nancy, eyes full of anxiety. “Do you think we’ll be ok – that we’ll manage this whole bizarre situation? What if people don’t get used to being in a male body? Vida’s already finding it hard and I’m sure she’s not the only one, even if no one else has actually said so. I need to look after all of you. And what about the boys – can we keep things normal for them?”
“Hilda, shhhh. I know it’s your job to worry about all this, but we have some responsibility too. We’re your staff, here to help you out, and we’re all adults and should be able to take some responsibility for looking after ourselves and keeping ourselves in check. Listen, I know we’re all the only ones this has happened to, and we do and will need to talk about it and come to terms with it, but we don’t have to only talk to you. We can support each other. I’ve got an idea that might help with that, but let me tell you about it some other time when I’ve thought about it a bit more. You don’t need the burden of trying to support all of us through this when we should be able to do more of that ourselves.”
Hilda leaned back into the sofa and sighed wearily, the tears pricking her eyes again. “Nancy you’re a good friend. I think I’m going to need all the help I can get in dealing with this.” She scrubbed at her eyes with a hand.
Nancy eyed Hilda closely, “Hilda you’re all in. Come on, you’re having an early night.” She stood up and took Hilda by the hand, pulling her to her feet.
“For once, I’m not going to argue with you,” said Hilda gratefully. “It’s been an exhausting day. I could do with a good nights’ sleep!”
She bade her staff goodnight and slowly made her way to the annexe. Looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, she seemed to have aged during the day; there seemed to be more grey in her hair and her brow was more furrowed than usual.
‘Hardly surprising though, given today. How are we ever going to cope with this? It’s like a living nightmare that we might never wake from. I need strength and patience to deal with this, and I feel like I have little of either at the moment. There are times when I hate being Head, and this is definitely one of them.’
She sat on the edge of the bath and took some deep breaths in an effort to control the panic rising within her. Noticing the muddy boots still under the sink, Hilda groaned, and then decided she couldn’t be bothered sorting them out that evening; they could wait until the morning to be cleaned. Turning off the light with a sigh, Hilda went through into the bedroom and climbed wearily into bed, falling asleep almost instantly, completely drained by the day.
Chapter 11 - All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream. by Bobcat
Thank you for all the reviews - much appreciated. Only a short one to end with.
The following morning Hilda woke with a start, her head full of strange thoughts and images. She sat up in a panic, staring around the room, and ran her hands through her hair.
Her long hair.
She grabbed her plait and looked at it almost in wonder, and then looked down at herself. Her nightdress was loose, as usual, and the room looked as it usually did. She covered her face with her hands and groaned, trying to make sense of things. So, it had all been a dream; and an unusually vivid one at that. It had seemed so real. Hilda felt frazzled even though she’d slept soundly.
There was a tap at the door and Matey’s head appeared. “Hilda? You ok?” She came into the room and approached the bed.
Hilda lowered her hands from her face and stared at her friend. “Gwynneth, what day is it?”
Matey’s eyes widened in surprise at the question. “Saturday, of course, why?” She laid a hand on Hilda’s forehead. “Hmmmm. You still have a temperature. How are you feeling?”
“I don’t…..not great,” admitted Hilda. Between the horrible cold she had and the weird dream of the night before, Hilda was feeling pretty terrible.
“Right. Well you stay there for the time being. I’m sure Ruth and Jeanne will look after things for you until you’re up and about. I’ll go and get you some breakfast and you can have that in bed as well.”
“Are….is….are you ok?” asked Hilda anxiously.
Gwynneth eyed Hilda with concern, “Yes, I’m fine, as you can see. Why?”
Hilda didn’t answer, but instead said, “And the staff – there’s nothing….odd going on with them is there? Or the girls?”
“Hilda what are you on about? Everyone’s fine; nothing odd or weird going on. What has got into you – why are you asking? I think I’m going to have to give you something to bring that temperature down; it’s confusing you.”
Hilda sank back into the pillows with relief, “Oh Gwynneth, I had the weirdest dream. We all woke up with male bodies, and all the girls were boys, only we couldn’t recognise them and didn’t know what any of them were called. They were all acting as if being male was completely normal; it was just us staff who were suddenly in the wrong bodies. It was awful. And some of the boys were fighting and I didn’t know how to deal with everything. And you and Rosalie were also male, even though you were supposed to stay female. It was so vivid….”
Gwynneth listened to this with an incredulous look on her face, but quickly recovered herself. “A high temperature can give you odd dreams, but that sounds like it was very strange. Women turning into men, for goodness sake….. You’re back in the real world now Hilda, so you can stop asking odd questions. Everything is normal. I’ll be back shortly with some breakfast.”
She left, and Hilda climbed out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. She tentatively looked in the mirror, half expecting to see a male version of herself, but it was her usual face staring back at her. Hilda let out a shaky breath and put a hand up to her hair, patting it to reassure herself that all was well; that she was back to normal.
As she did so, her nightdress slipped off her other shoulder, revealing a large bruise. With sudden fear overtaking her Hilda pulled her nightdress down further, examining the bruise. She gently pressed on her shoulder, wincing when she felt the pain. It was definitely a real bruise. She stared at herself again in the mirror, wondering what on earth was going on - was she going mad?
A thought suddenly popped into Hilda’s head and she glanced downwards, both wanting and not wanting to look, but steeled herself and peered under the washbasin.
There on the floor, where she had left them, was a dirty pair of men’s boots…….
The title of the chapter is a quote from Edgar Allen Poe.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.