The Trouble with Presents by Eleanore

At the end of her first term at the Chalet School, Kathie Ferrars finds herself in a quandary over a present.

Categories: Ste Therese's House Characters: Kathie Ferrars, Nancy Wilmot
School Period: Switzerland
School Name: Chalet School
Genre: Angst, Romance, Seasonal
Series: Beginnings
Chapters: 4 Completed: Yes Word count: 3710 Read: 7444 Published: 26 Jun 2011 Updated: 10 Jul 2011
Story Notes:

Somewhere in What Matey Knows (towards the beginning, I think) Nancy mentions Kathie having previously left her hot water bottle in Nancy's bedroom. This is the story of how it happened.

(For those of you who haven't read WMK and so won't pick up on the nuances of the above, what it means is that this is a pre-relationship Nancy/Kathie story.)

This fits into the WMK universe, but it works just fine as a stand-alone too. It will be followed by a a Nancy-centric companion piece, Those Four Little Words.

1. Considering the present by Eleanore

2. If it hadn't been for Sharlie by Eleanore

3. An indefinable something by Eleanore

4. Four words by Eleanore

Considering the present by Eleanore

It was the last evening of her first term at the Chalet School and, sitting in a chair in Nancy Wilmot's bedroom, Kathie Ferrars was feeling dejected, self-conscious, and miserably jealous of Sharlie Andrews. Certain that she'd made a complete idiot of herself, Kathie wasn't sure whether the situation was made better or worse by the fact that Nancy seemed sublimely unaware of her feelings.

It was the present, Kathie decided, that had set everything off on the wrong track. She'd bought it in Solothurn, when everything had seemed to be going so well. She'd been thrilled at the invitation to spend a weekend away from school with Nancy, despite knowing that she'd only been asked because something unexpected had come up for Nancy's original companion. (She'd never actually heard just who that companion would have been - at the time, she'd assumed it would be Peggy Burnett, or possibly Biddy O'Ryan, both close friends of Nancy's, but the evidence of her own eyes at the present moment was suggesting that maybe Sharlie would have been the one to bet on.)

Kathie hadn't been offended at being a last-minute substitution. After all, whatever the reason for the invitation, she would be spending a whole weekend alone with Nancy, well away from school and colleagues, and you never could tell what might happen.

Kathie's numerous daydreams notwithstanding, nothing of significance had actually happened, but Kathie had nevertheless felt that she and Nancy had grown markedly closer. So when she'd seen, in the window of a shop in Solothurn, what was unquestionably the perfect present for Nancy, she hadn't hesitated to make an excuse to slip away for five minutes to purchase it. Unfortunately, actually giving it to Nancy seemed somehow fraught with difficulties.

Initially, she'd thought to offer it at the end of their Solothurn weekend as a token of thanks for the invitation. She had, however, been somewhat concerned that Nancy might take it the wrong way (or, more accurately, the right way) and Kathie hadn't been entirely sure she was ready to face up to the fact that Nancy might not be interested in women or, even if she were, might not necessarily be interested in Kathie. In the end, Kathie had hesitated so long that their return to school and the cheerful bustle of the staffroom had perforce put her plans on hold.

This hadn't worried her unduly - after all, Christmas was on the horizon, and those extra few weeks might give her the opportunity to gauge a bit more closely just what Nancy's feelings on the matter might be. And even if, as had turned out to be the case, Nancy hadn't given her any clues, well, the present could simply be read as a Christmas gift, if Nancy wasn't quite the woman Kathie had desperately been hoping she was. Unfortunately, Biddy O'Ryan had then put a spoke in the wheel, helpfully informing Kathie that the Chalet School staff simply didn't exchange Christmas gifts.

"Sure, there's too many of us to be doing that. You'd have your entire term's salary spent in no time. A Christmas card is all anyone will be wanting from ye, so don't be going to any trouble now."

"But- I mean, doesn't anyone give presents?" Kathie asked disconsolately, seeing her beautifully-laid plan disappearing on her.

"Only those of us who are old friends," Biddy had replied casually. "Peggy and Nancy and I always get something for each other - only trifles, mind. We're none of us wealthy enough to stretch to anything extravagant, and we all have other people to buy gifts for. Nancy has five brothers, a sister, and a growing collection of nieces and nephews, the poor love," Biddy had said with sympathy. "But don't you be thinking anyone will be expecting you to be bringing gifts. Sure 'twould be most unfair to be expecting you to buy presents for people you hardly know at all yet."

Of course, Kathie had mused, as she reviewed Biddy's advice, Nancy didn't know that she'd been informed of this no-gifts tradition. And, Kathie had thought, if asked, she could always claim to have simply bought a token gift for those people who had particularly helped her during her first term. However, conscious that she had no corresponding gifts for Rosalind Moore, Sharlie Andrews, or Biddy herself (each of whom had, in point of fact, offered her more help than Nancy had done, loath though Kathie was to admit it), she had decided that her only option was to catch Nancy alone, preferably right at the end of term when there would be less chance of her having time to mention the gift to any of their colleagues.

So, late on the final night of term, Kathie had slipped the carefully-wrapped present into her dressing gown pocket, and crept out into the corridor to hover indecisively in front of Nancy's door.

That was where Sharlie Andrews had stepped in and completely ruined Kathie's evening.

If it hadn't been for Sharlie by Eleanore

Sitting in the wicker chair which had been drawn forward into the middle of the room, Kathie felt sick with mortification. How could she have been so conceited as to think she might have a chance with someone like Nancy Wilmot? She had almost lost her nerve and turned back before reaching Nancy's door. In fact, she believed she would have done exactly that, had Sharlie Andrews not shown up and found her there. If only Sharlie hadn't arrived just then, Kathie need never have known that Nancy was having a party. A party to which Sharlie had been invited and Kathie had not.

Or if only Sharlie hadn't been invited to the party either. Kathie would have thought nothing of Nancy having invited such old friends as Peggy Burnett and Biddy O'Ryan for an end-of-term drink. But to invite Sharlie as well, and leave Kathie herself out, well, that suggested only two solutions, neither of which was encouraging. The first possibility, that Nancy had a closer relationship with the younger mistress than Kathie had ever realised, stirred such feelings of envy that she could hardly bring herself to look at Sharlie. The alternative, however, with what it might imply as to Nancy's feelings (or lack of them) regarding Kathie herself, was too depressing to contemplate.

And if only Sharlie had been sitting demurely on this chair, halfway across the room. Or on another chair. Any chair. But instead, she had to sit exactly where Kathie wanted to be, on the bed, so close to Nancy that she brushed up against her with every little movement. With the spot she particularly coveted thus unavailable, Kathie had to fight a strong desire to cast herself down on the rug at Nancy's feet, but she could think of no acceptable excuse for exchanging a perfectly good chair for the joys of sitting on the floor. If she could even move the chair closer to the bed, that would be something, but by this point Kathie was so overwrought that she could no longer tell whether or not that would seem like a perfectly normal thing to do.

A mere twenty minutes earlier, Kathie wouldn't have believed it possible that sitting in Nancy's room in her pyjamas could be anything other than exhilarating. But now Sharlie had spoilt it all. If it hadn't been for Sharlie's presence, Kathie would have enjoyed listening to the banter flying back and forth between Nancy, Biddy and Peggy. She might even have plucked up the courage to venture a comment or two herself. As it was, any remarks she might want to make now were unlikely to add to the gaiety of the occasion. And if it hadn't been for Sharlie, Kathie would have exulted in this opportunity to take a surreptitious survey of Nancy's room, treasuring every little snippet of information that could be gleaned from Nancy's possessions. But now the thrill was lost to her, and it was all Sharlie Andrews' fault.

At this moment, Kathie wanted nothing more than to escape to her own room, huddle up under her blankets, cry herself to sleep, and pretend this evening had never happened. And Biddy O'Ryan was about to offer her the perfect excuse to slip away and do just exactly that.

An indefinable something by Eleanore
Author's Notes:

Many thanks to those people who provided info on cocoa, hot chocolate, and alcoholic drinks. I found a mention of drinking chocolate in Adrienne, so went with that rather than the cocoa (mainly because it flowed better in the sentence!)

Engrossed in her own woes, Kathie did not immediately register that she had become the focus of some attention.

"Kathie! Kathie! Honestly," Biddy rolled her eyes, "the girl's half asleep! Kathleen Ferrars, would you ever wake up and listen to me?"

Kathie flushed guiltily, hoping that no trace of her thoughts was apparent in her countenance. "Sorry, Biddy, I was miles away. What was it you said?"

"Just that if you'll fetch a cup from your own room, you could join us in a drink."

"Hot chocolate and schnapps," Nancy put in persuasively, as she added a generous amount of the liquor to her own cup. "Although if your day's been as bad as your expression suggests, you might want to dispense with the hot chocolate."

Thrown by this comment, the tears started to Kathie's eyes. She hadn't thought that Nancy had been paying her any attention at all, but this remark suggested otherwise. She'd hoped that she'd been successful in disguising her feelings, she'd tried her best (after all, the bitter thoughts she'd been nursing about Sharlie were hardly ones she wanted to share), but despite her efforts, Nancy had still noticed that something was wrong. It didn't mean anything, of course, Kathie told herself firmly; it couldn't mean anything; and yet she wanted so much to believe that it might. Confused, weary, and emotional, Kathie knew she had to get out of there before she betrayed herself. Choking back a sob, she grasped thankfully at the escape route Biddy's suggestion had opened to her.

"I might just go back to my room - get an early night before tomorrow's journey. Thanks for letting me join you, but I think I'm too tired to be particularly good company at the moment, so I'm just going to say goodnight..."

She stumbled towards the door, only to find herself restrained by a firm clasp on her wrist. Even through the thick fabric of her dressing gown, she could feel the warmth of Nancy's fingers. It felt like a caress. She knew Nancy didn't mean it that way, it was no more than she'd have done for Biddy or Peggy, but the fact remained that Nancy was touching her, however innocently, and she couldn't bear to pull away.

Nancy's hand slid down to clasp Kathie's fingers, and while she was exclaiming at their coldness, Kathie was concentrating on the softness of Nancy's skin, the gentleness of her touch, the indefinable something that characterised everything about Nancy.

As Kathie stood transfixed, Nancy took charge. "No wonder you're feeling out of sorts, you're absolutely frozen! Why didn't you say anything? Peggy, Sharlie, you great lumps, shift off the bed! Now, Kathie, in you get and no arguments!"

And Kathie found herself firmly ensconced in Nancy's bed, with that lady herself looking down at her anxiously. Biddy had been filling Nancy's hot water bottle and she now tucked it in beside Kathie, sending Sharlie running next door to fetch Kathie's own hot water bottle as well.

This, Kathie felt, was more than adequate compensation for the evening's misery. Sharlie was gone, and Kathie didn't care how long it took her to unearth that hot water bottle; she was in Nancy's bed, Nancy's bed; and she was, at this moment, the sole focus of Nancy's attention. Biddy and Peggy were also regarding her with some concern, but she barely noticed them. Not, at least, until Biddy offered an observation.

"She needs a hot drink to warm her."

"Giving her the rest of the schnapps would probably be more to the point," Peggy said, looking at her appraisingly.

"No reason she can't have both," Biddy said, calmly appropriating the nearest cup, which happened, Kathie was suddenly aware, to be Nancy's. "Here, get that into you."

Kathie reached out with eager hands to take the cup. It was ridiculous, she knew, to get a thrill from drinking out of the same cup as Nancy. Ridiculous to turn it in her hands so that her lips would meet the china just where Nancy's had done. Even more ridiculous to breathe in the soft sweet scent of Nancy's bedding like a perfume. And ridiculous above all to read anything into the fact that Nancy's gaze was fixed on her so intently that she didn't even turn her head when Sharlie came back into the room with the hot water bottle.

Absorbed in these momentous considerations, Kathie was only peripherally aware of someone filling her own hot water bottle and tucking it in at her feet. Cosy and content, she took as long as she could over finishing her drink, but all too soon the cup was empty, and Biddy was removing it from her grasp.

"Is that better now?"

Nodding, Kathie was, with considerable reluctance, steeling herself to get up, when Nancy dropped down on the edge of the bed, taking Kathie's hands in her own once more.

"Well, you feel less of an icicle, at any rate," she announced. "Stay where you are for the moment though, make sure you're properly warmed. I don't want to find myself on the receiving end of one of Matey's scolds if you catch a chill!"

She grinned at Kathie and, revelling in having her hands held by Nancy for the second time that evening, Kathie managed to smile back at her.

"Speaking of Matey's scolds," Peggy interjected, "she'll be after all of us for staying up too late, if we don't get to bed pronto. Thanks for the drinks, Nance."

Snuggling back into the pillows, Kathie watched as the others bid goodnight and departed, leaving her in Nancy's charge. As Nancy moved around, setting the room to rights, Kathie realised that this was exactly the situation she'd envisaged when she'd first set out to give Nancy her gift. Well, almost exactly. She hadn't, even in her wildest dreams, imagined herself cuddled up in Nancy's bed. At least, not before giving her the present.

Dragging her mind firmly away from these pleasantly unrealistic fantasies, Kathie extricated the now slightly battered parcel from her dressing gown pocket - before once again changing her mind and asking herself what on earth she thought she was doing.

It was, however, too late to reconsider. Looking up, the present still clutched in her hand, she found Nancy's eyes fixed on her questioningly.

Four words by Eleanore

There existed, Kathie was convinced, the perfect phrase for this occasion. Something light and witty, that would banish awkwardness and make giving Nancy a present seem like a natural and (hopefully) charming gesture, rather than the clumsy revelation of Kathie's feelings that it actually was. Unfortunately, this wonderful phrase, whatever it might be, did not happen to be part of Kathie's vocabulary.

Instead, she stared at Nancy in miserable embarrassment, her colour rising, before stammering out "Happy Christmas" and thrusting the present towards her. Nancy looked completely taken aback - and no wonder, Kathie thought as, discomfited, she scrambled out of the bed, tripping over sheets and blankets in her haste to get away from this humiliating scene.

She was half way through the door when Nancy called her back.

"Kathie, wait!"

She didn't want to wait; she wanted to run back to her own room and hide her head under the pillow. But her instinctive desire to please Nancy overrode all other considerations, and so she stood there in an agony of mortification as Nancy rummaged around in one of the drawers of her dressing table, before emerging with a similarly-wrapped parcel.

"Merry Christmas to you, too."

Nancy's cheeks were flushed (from the schnapps, from the heat, from stooping over the dressing table - there really was no reason to suppose she was blushing over giving Kathie a present) and Kathie's breath seemed to catch in her throat. Nancy had got her a present. Nancy, who had so many other people already on her Christmas list. She, newcomer Kathie Ferrars, was important enough to Nancy to merit a present. That was a good sign. Whichever way you looked at it, that was a good sign. Even if it had no significance beyond that of a Christmas token, it still suggested that after only one term she already qualified as one of Nancy's closest friends. Hugging herself in exultation, she reached out to take the present. And then the awful realisation struck her.

This wasn't a real present at all. It was a sympathy gift, offered on the spur of the moment to stop Kathie feeling uncomfortable. Kathie felt terrifyingly exposed - did this mean Nancy was now aware of her feelings? Had Nancy's blush been one of embarrassment at being the unwitting focus of Kathie's unrequited emotions?

Or was it something yet more soul-destroying: had Nancy so little interest in her that she remained, even now, completely unaware of Kathie's feelings? Maybe she had a whole store of presents in that drawer, to be able to reciprocate any unexpected gifts. Just how many people gave Nancy presents anyway? Kathie could understand why people would want to (in fact, she found it hard to comprehend the idea that there were people out there who didn't want to give things to Nancy - what on earth was wrong with them that they didn't realise just how incredible, amazing, exciting, attractive Nancy was?) but it did rather destroy her illusion that she herself shared a special bond with Nancy. Now it seemed she was just one of a crowd - and a pathetically lovesick one at that.

With a brittle smile, feeling her heart break, she took the present, too distressed this time to notice when Nancy's hand touched her own. She managed to utter a confused expression of thanks, before fleeing to the sanctuary of her own room, where she flung the present down on the floor and hastened to bury herself under the bedclothes.

It was time to accept the truth. She realised now that there was no use in deceiving herself any longer. Nancy's apparent reticence was not due to uncertainty or fear or concerns about the age gap or, in fact, anything other than complete and total disinterest.

Kathie's original plan had been to indulge self-pity with an orgy of sobbing, but the chill sheets quickly gave her thoughts another direction. She looked round rather vaguely for her hot water bottle before remembering that, in her panicked departure, she had left it in Nancy's room. In Nancy's bed, actually.

Well, she had no intention of facing Nancy again tonight (or, indeed, ever, if she could help it - she wondered just what her chances might be of finding herself another job before next term?) so she would have to make do without the hot water bottle, unless Nancy herself chose to bring it back. Recognising that this was a distinct possibility, Kathie sat up and retrieved the present from the floor. Sympathy gift or not, it had been a kind gesture on Nancy's part, and it might hurt her to see it so casually discarded. Kathie's disappointment notwithstanding, Nancy didn't deserve that: it was hardly her fault that she didn't return Kathie's feelings.

Settling herself back against her pillows, Kathie idly turned the present over in her hands, for the first time catching sight of the label. And not just any label: a label with her name. The implications struck her at once. Far from being a sympathy gift, Nancy must have had this ready before she had the slightest idea that Kathie had bought her anything at all. Which surely meant...

Kathie's imagination took flight, and it was several blissful minutes before she even thought to read the rest of the label. The greeting ('Merry Christmas and congratulations on making it through your first term!') was sufficiently unremarkable, but when it came to the signature Kathie had to read it twice before she could be sure that it really said what she thought it said.

Her initial impulse was to rush right back next door and fling herself into Nancy's arms, but a moment's reflection caused her to rethink this idea. She had read a lot of different meanings into Nancy's behaviour tonight, most of which had already proved inaccurate, and while she might think herself justified in believing otherwise, it was still possible that Nancy simply signed all of her Christmas labels that way. No, Kathie reluctantly decided, her best course would be to wait until she received some more definite indication from Nancy. Frustrating though this might be to someone of Kathie's less than patient temperament, it also opened up the enticing prospect of a great deal more time spent getting to know Nancy better.

Already making plans for furthering this aim, Kathie toyed with the idea of opening the present then and there, before reluctantly deciding against it. Eager as she undoubtedly was to see what Nancy had chosen to give her, she had to admit to herself that there was still a reasonable chance that this was simply a gift from the head of the maths department to her junior, and this evening had inflicted sufficient disappointments already without risking anything that might ruin the exhilarating effect of those four beautiful words. No, she resolved, she would wait until Christmas Eve and open it then, alone in her bedroom, far away from school, where she could indulge with complete privacy in whatever joy or despair (or, as she had to admit was most likely, further confusion) the present might provoke.

In the meantime, settling down to sleep, more conscious than usual of Nancy's presence just the other side of the bedroom wall, Kathie tried, rather half-heartedly, to convince herself that the signature on the label was nothing more than a form of words. However, she couldn't bring herself to believe it, and not all her self-control could restrain her from imagining: what if Nancy really meant it? If so, the possibilities for next term were breathtaking. And Kathie fell asleep to the entrancing combination of thoughts of Nancy and 'what if?'

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