Rhyll glanced at her watch. "You have five minutes until prep, girls. Finish off what you're doing and then tidy your things quickly and go - you can hardly show up with your hands looking as they do now!"
A cheerful murmur of acquiescence arose in response. Rhyll surveyed the flushed faces and shining eyes and was pleased with the morning's work. She had only come in at the request of this small group of fifth-formers who had wanted guidance and a watchful eye over their transfer to the glass-houses of those plants too delicate to survive the winter outside.
"Would it be all right if we moved the rest this afternoon, Miss Everett?" Julie Lucy asked, dusting her hands off on her overalls as she spoke.
"By all means, if you'd like and have the time for it. Aren't you supposed to be receiving your parts for the play this afternoon? I'll be long gone I'm afraid, but you know what you're doing now and if you run into any difficulties I'm sure Griffiths or Jenks will be around to put you right."
Julie exchanged a few looks with her peers, evidently seeking their general approval before making a collective commitment on their behalf. "I'm sure we'll be fine. Thank you, Miss Everett."
Rhyll nodded with a smile, and gave the glass-house a cursory look. "Good. You needn't rush to finish it today unless you really want to, though - it's been a very mild autumn so far and I certainly don't expect it to cool much for at least another week yet. Well, this all looks nice and clear now so you'd better run along. I'll see you all on Tuesday."
The girls, thus dismissed, chorused their goodbyes and rushed off in the direction of the Big House and Rhyll stood for a moment, watching them from the glass-house doorway, her mind elsewhere as it so often had been of late. Her reverie was interrupted by a sudden movement near her feet, and she raised her eyebrows in surprise as she looked at a hockey ball, stopped neatly a matter of inches in front of her.
Walking towards her was Peggy, smiling broadly and looking somewhat dishevelled - very pleasingly so, Rhyll observed, before promptly chiding herself for the vulgarity. Rhyll picked up the ball. "Lost something, Burnett?"
Peggy rolled her eyes, still grinning. "Doesn't look lost to me."
"And so near all the glass, too." She gave her young colleague a look which would have quelled the most heedless of Middles, knowing that Peggy would not miss the twinkling of her eyes - knowing too that Peggy was scarcely so easily squashed.
"It wasn't anywhere near the glass," Peggy retorted defensively. "I'll thank you not to besmirch my aim so unjustly."
Rhyll shrugged amiably, acknowledging the truth of this. "Hockey?"
"Sharp, aren't you? That's my lot for the day now, though. Are you - do you fancy a bit of a walk?" There was a pause, and then Peggy rushed on, "Of course, maybe you already have other things to do -"
"That would be nice," Rhyll said slowly, keeping her features carefully neutral.
"Perfect. Wait here for me, while I quickly change and grab some eats? I won't be five minutes."
Peggy was as good as her word, and still rather appealingly dishevelled when she reappeared. She had changed out of her gym shorts, and her damp brown curls looked as though they might have had a comb dragged hastily through them, and in one hand she clutched a paper bag proudly. "Isn't Karen gorgeous?" she burbled, with rather more breathless excitement than her trot across the grounds and back seemed to merit.
"Are you absconding, Burnett?" Rhyll asked shrewdly as they set off in the direction of the shrubbery.
Peggy giggled. "Not exactly. I'm not technically on duty. But it's also not - technically - my weekend off. I haven't just run away, though," she added earnestly. "I saw Biddy while I was inside, and told her..."
Here, Peggy trailed off awkwardly. What she had actually told Biddy was that she meant to catch up with Ruth Derwent and Rosalind Moore, both of whom had a legitimate free weekend and were already heading up to the landing to catch the ferry over to Carnbach; Biddy had raised a sceptical eyebrow and had started to suggest that Peggy seek proper permission to do so, only to fall silent as she realised that her rapidly-departing colleague could no longer hear her, even if she had been at all likely to heed such advice. Peggy didn't exactly believe that she'd done anything wrong, and was quite certain it would not lead to any further comment or consequence, but nonetheless felt it prescient to keep the full details of her elusion from her companion. "Anyway, you shouldn't be here at all," she finished up feebly.
Rhyll gave a deep chuckle. "No, indeed. Did you have a good weekend away?"
"Splendid, thanks - although it rained more or less without a pause! I think Mary felt herself rather responsible for that too, bless her. How was your half-term - were you here? Watching as Commander Christy's insalubrious roots revealed themselves?"
Rhyll chuckled again, noting with pleasure the irreverence and perspicacity of Peggy's tone. "I was indeed."
They were crossing the shrubbery now, passing the dug-up old pond and the sunk path and making for the five-barred gate into the orchard. As they reached it, Rhyll pushed it open and held it for Peggy, who turned a curious face on her. "You know, Evvy, I don't understand: when Michael Christy brought round the old maps, you were all over it, but now - when it turns out to be rather sordidly glamorous - you don't seem at all interested. Aren't you?"
Rhyll closed the gate behind them. "I grew up on the coast. I grant you I didn't guess there'd be a smuggling connection, but now there is I'm not at all surprised by it. It's a perfect place for it, really." Inwardly, she was wondering wildly why Peggy was pursuing such a line of conversation, and for that matter what this walk was all about. "Where did you want to walk to? Kittiwake Cove?"
Peggy shrugged. "Could do. Or further along, to the Mermaidens? I don't mind, really."
Peggy kept up a steady flow of light-hearted chatter as they wandered leisurely through the orchard and along the little lane running down the side of the wheatfield, and Rhyll, though greatly enjoying her company, found herself increasingly bewildered and somewhat distracted by her attempts to second-guess what Peggy was clearly working towards, that she would risk slipping off without technically having leave to do so - Rhyll was unsure as to what this grey area between a free weekend and being on duty meant, and she felt quite certain Peggy had known this when she'd glossed over the matter so airily - rather than conduct what was really mere small-talk in the staff-room.
The conversation had reached a comfortable lull as they came in sight of the gorse-strewn cliffs and took in the great expanse of cold grey sea stretching beyond them; and it was here that Peggy - after a quick glance over her shoulder - suddenly shoved her hand into Rhyll's, defiant eyes meeting hers to ensure that the intent could not be misread. Rhyll looked from her face, so full of deliberate meaning, to the gloved hand in her own, wonderingly; and after a moment's pause and a backward glance of her own, she clasped tightly in response.