A Rhyll Everett back story. It follows on directly from 'I turn you out of doors' (http://www.sallydennylibrary.co.uk/viewstory.php?sid=858), but it's probably not strictly necessary to read that before this. It opens in the Easter holidays between 'Bride' and 'Changes'.
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Minor character(s), OC
Armishire, Guernsey, Prequel/Taverton, St Briavel'sSchool Name:
Domestic, Family, Friendship, Romance, Slash, War
Rhyll Everett/Peggy Burnett
22 May 2015 Updated:
14 Oct 2016
1. Prologue by crm
2. 1.1 Edgecot by crm
3. 1.2 The War by crm
4. 1.3 After the War by crm
5. 1.4 Some more changes by crm
6. Interlude 1 by crm
7. 2.1 Julian by crm
8. 2.2 Swanton by crm
9. 2.3 Royal Holloway by crm
10. 2.4 Norah by crm
11. 2.5 Bristol I by crm
12. 2.5 Bristol II by crm
13. 2.6 Alice by crm
14. Interlude II by crm
15. 3.1 From Holloway to Swanley by crm
16. 3.2 Start of term by crm
17. 3.3 Autumn term by crm
18. 3.4 Examinations by crm
19. 3.5 A Visit by crm
20. 3.6 Summer by crm
21. 3.7 Some letters by crm
22. 3.8 Future plans by crm
23. 3.9 Farewell to Swanley by crm
24. Interlude III by crm
25. 4.1 New beginnings by crm
26. 4.2 Family by crm
27. 4.3 Southleaze by crm
28. 4.4 Christmas by crm
29. 5.5 Limelight by crm
30. 4.6 Norah by crm
31. 4.7 Alice by crm
32. 4.8 Aftermath by crm
33. Interlude IV by crm
34. 5.1 Les Arbres by crm
35. 5.2 Julie Lucy by crm
36. 5.3 De Garis - part 1 by crm
37. 5.3 De Garis - part 2 by crm
38. 5.4 Christmas by crm
39. 5.5 Snowdrops by crm
40. 5.6 August by crm
41. 5.7 Norah by crm
42. Interlude V by crm
43. 6.1 Life goes on by crm
44. 6.2 The Chalet School by crm
45. 6.3 School gardening by crm
46. 6.4 Autumn term by crm
47. 6.5 Voyage to England by crm
48. 6.6 Armiford by crm
49. 6.7 Wartime by crm
50. 6.8 Bad news by crm
51. 6.9 Postwar by crm
52. Finale by crm
53. Postscript by crm
In a hotel room in Southampton, two women sit together on a bed which creaks slightly when either body shifts, grumpily protesting springs periodically interrupting the soothing roar of the sea beyond them. Perhaps 'sit together' is not quite accurate: the elder of the two sits - solid, upright, contemplative; the younger, slighter woman sprawls gracefully across her, pinning her to the bed with her elbow propping up her chin to one side, legs stretched out across the eiderdown to the other.
The image of insouciant comfort, she waits, quietly watching the bigger woman with interest and affection; and then, when she has judged the moment ripe, she breaks the silence with a voice which is clear and sweet. "Tell me everything. Tell me from the beginning."
Rhyll glances down with a smile, the warmth and openness of Peggy's brown eyes fixed confidently in her mind before her own eyes confirm it; lifts her head again, back straight and tall, a slight frown of concentration as she grapples for 'the beginning', traces the scattered detail Peggy must have picked up throughout the day against the full patchwork of her own life story. Peggy snakes her free arm around Rhyll's waist, gentle encouragement, and the tired bed again voices its indignance. Rhyll tries to begin, gets as far as opening her mouth, but the words do not come.
"You once said you grew up by the sea," Peggy prompts, and Rhyll is briefly distracted by this recollection, recognising with some pleasure the conversation from which the information had been gleaned.
"Yes," she murmurs, mists of reminiscence rising from both the Devon sea of the tale and the Welsh sea of the previous mention. "Well, in a manner of speaking, anyway. Technically, that was our summer home."
Momentarily overpowered by the strength of her memory, she feels that she is tethered to reality only by the insistent stroke of Peggy's fingers at her waist; the hotel room all but disappears from view and in its place, as clear as yesterday, she can see not the cottage by the sea but the house before that, the one in which she had been born. This must be the beginning. She shakes her head to clear it, forcing herself to hold firm to the proper perspective of what is here and what is there, and begins.
Gleaming rosewood panelling, and the woozy scent of snuff. Perhaps the best view of the grounds was the one to be seen through the window above the enormous desk: flower-garden in the foreground, shady woods just visible to the left, and dominating the tableau stood the rolling green hills, stretching out into the horizon. The room's purpose must have been decided with this view in mind, Rhyll thought later, a place for the man of the house to lean back in his desk-chair and survey all that was his. It had always been referred to as 'grandfather's library', and some years had passed before Rhyll had realised that the grandfather in question was not her own, but her father's; libraries were not places her own grandfather had found much use for, any more than her father, but still the girl Murrin shone the wood and scrubbed the windows until all the surfaces sparkled, as if it were still the sanctum sanctorum, silently restored to perfection before any other - better occupied - rooms were attended to. In proper use or not, it was not a place Rhyll ought to be found; but she knew the patterns of each day, knew when the odds might be in her favour if she nudged the door quietly and crept in. She was not a small child, but she could be almost inconspicuous in her movements - knew when to stop still, when to move rapidly and when to sidle past barely breathing, how to hold her face so it gave not the tiniest hint of her thoughts or plans. Some children resent their place in the shadow of a sibling, but Rhyll embraced it wholeheartedly. Freedom, she had decided, flowed directly from the relative lack of interest shown in her, and Edgecot was a very good place in which to possess such freedom.
Storing up silent timetables of the running of the house, Rhyll knew the intricate choreography of the maids' cleaning and polishing, the dull rota of the schoolroom, the daily monotony of being roused from her bed and sent marching in slippered feet to a tepid bath (not cold, Nanny would chirrup automatically, never cold for you dear, not the way it always had been for the boys). Several hours ahead of that formidable woman, she could glance from the window as she washed and predict whether lunch would be followed by one of Nanny's "bracing walks" in the grey wind; or (worse) a sedate game of tiddlywinks as rain streamed down the schoolroom window pane; or (blessed relief) a hasty command to "run along outside for half an hour in the fresh air" as Nanny withdrew behind the side door, tucking her voluminous cardigan more tightly about her. Her parents' doings were rather harder to make a pattern of, per se, but anything they did do was so loudly discussed in advance that it became every bit as predictable as the soothing recurrence of the life of the house - and in any case, her parents' activities had the least impact on her, what effects they did have being almost invariably welcome ones. Rhyll had particularly fond memories of the morning her father had breezed into the nurseries over breakfast, oblivious to Nanny's pursed lips, and told his two youngest that old Moredon's sow had had her litter in the night and wouldn't they like to come along for a quick look before the morning's lessons?
In the year Rhyll turned six, two things happened: the first was that Julian finally followed his two brothers to school, leaving her bereft of his near-constant companionship and into the bargain rather less free than she had been, now that Nanny, Miss Peters and her mother all had twice as much attention to focus directly on her; the second was that Ralph went off to France. To Rhyll herself, this meant little. Ralph - and Charles too - felt so very much older than her, almost more uncle than brother: the two would reappear each holiday in a flurry of top hats and woollen jackets, playing with their small siblings as an occasional ostentatious act of generosity before disappearing to mealtimes downstairs and, soon enough, back to school again. But for all both Ralph and the War were far beyond Rhyll's own world, she saw enough in the faces of others to understand that his departure on this occasion was important; perhaps as important to them as Julian's was to her.
Edgecot had not, of course, remained wholly untouched by war until Ralph joined the army. It was only much later that Rhyll was able to piece together her memories with Julian's, his three extra years making a great difference: unlike her, he remembered the rapid contraction in the house's staffing, the parties suddenly becoming more sombre and less frequent. Rhyll remembered only the garden, the decisive growth of the kitchen-garden at the expense of flowers, her mother's wince as azaleas gave way for vegetables. It was a cause of some sorrow to Rhyll that even in its expanded state, the kitchen-garden remained unseen from the window of the library. Here the view was surely still the same one her great-grandfather had looked out on, and probably his great-grandfather before him: the Devon countryside frozen reassuringly in stasis, unhindered by the passage of time and the changes it wrought. On those afternoons Nanny deemed too cold for herself but still health-giving for children, Rhyll took to idling near the gardens, watching at an unobtrusive distance when old Yates was at work and inching nearer when he was missing; the business of tending to the plants, and their definite changes day by day, forming yet more patterns to be noted and filed away in her mind.
In turn, Rhyll's memories of the big house in wartime enhanced Julian's, too; for the biggest change of all was one that happened while he was away at school, and while a much-depleted staff tried to attend to the practicalities in never-sufficient time. Nobody had time enough to spare for a child of nearly-eight, quietly lurking in corners as they worked, wordlessly taking everything in; standing in that forbidden polished room and staring determinedly through the window, learning every inch of the unchanging landscape framed there as if she knew she would not see it again.
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Edgecot, of course, had never really been as unchanging as the view from the window suggested.
Everetts had lived there, and looked after the land there, for more generations than Rhyll knew to put a number to. But the precise relationship between family and land had shifted. Some of the original estate had been sold off long before Rhyll's father came to head it; it had all remained a major concern for the household, but in deed it was not theirs, and this accounted for something. It did well, her father was fond of remarking, to put in a regular appearance, to take a proper interest in the doings of the village. This had been his style of overseeing, and his father's before him; but his grandfather - the man with whom the study was still instinctively associated - surely he must have taken a different approach, to have spent so much time at his desk in the same role? Rhyll didn't know, couldn't imagine. A world gone by - a world that was already going by once again, even as she stood there that last day, inhaling the stale smell of tobacco and trying to remember this change for when she might be able to understand it.
The azaleas, too, had been short-lived, Rhyll had discovered by chance many years later. Planting an ambitious bed beneath the pine trees demarcating the far end of the cottage garden proper, that first Spring after armistice when colour could at last take precedence over cabbages, her father had remarked that his mother had chosen the ones in the big garden at Edgecot. Perhaps this knowledge should not have surprised her as it did - and perhaps the surprise was inevitable, laying roots for the burgeoning realisation that nothing was permanent; that just because something predated her own life did not mean it predated all else.
The biggest change of all came not long after Easter and Charles' birthday - the day after he, too, left for the Western Front with a wave and a smile. As ever, it was left to Nanny to break the news to Rhyll, and she did so with her usual bluntness over breakfast that morning.
"We're leaving Edgecot," Nanny said calmly, frowning as Rhyll dropped her spoon mid-meal to listen. "The place is being turned over to the Red Cross for a convalescent home. We'll go down to the seaside cottage for the foreseeable. Now, eat up, there's a girl. We've plenty of packing to see to this morning. You'll get on with your bits, and then you'll keep out of the way so adult folk can get on with the rest."
Rhyll nodded, impassive. It was close to lunchtime when her mother happened upon her, having that final look from the study window. A strange expression crossed her mother's face, as if she were about to say something, but then she gave a quick smile instead, forced jollity, and left the room again without a word. The absence of any reprimand for trespassing underlined Rhyll's silent contemplation that she might be existing in some sort of dream. Adults could be strange at times. The strangeness did not ease over the subsequent weeks and months. From her parents, from the domestic staff, at parties and on meeting neighbours out walking, she heard the same incomprehensible whispers: the duty to one's country; a crying shame; the least anyone might do; the most he could expect to do, poor thing; wartime changes everything, people would muse, before dropping their voices lower, heads shaking sadly as they mentioned a son, a brother, a nephew or a grandson of some mutual acquaintance.
To go to the sea seemed something of an adventure. It was the cottage they had spent every summer in, and Rhyll imagined the year-long summers they would have. She felt Julian's absence afresh, for he had always been the better half of her during those times. Down on the beach before the rest of the family had risen, clammy sand beneath their feet as they inspected the sand for any new gift from the sea. The most exciting find the previous year had been a corked empty bottle: Julian, sitting brown and cross-legged on a craggy rock, imagined if it had contained a well-travelled message, made up story after story of what such a scroll might have said and who might have written it, gleefully toying with the idea of trying to forge one between themselves. Rhyll, who felt no obligation to match him for conversational output, had squatted beside him happily enthralled, and he had thrived in her quiet attentions; after a year of having his tales enthusiastically embellished by other schoolboys keen to join in, her uncompetitive enjoyment was both refreshing and soothing.
The cottage was less of an excitement without her brother by her side, Rhyll found, but it still made a welcome change. The smaller size necessitated a number of changes in the running of the house, and the staff, already dwindling since war had been declared, shrank further. Only Nanny, Cook, Mrs Prior the housekeeper, and Penwell, Mr Everett's man, lived in; Murrin and Bennett were boarded out in nearby Exmouth, and old Yates the gardener stayed on to tend the grounds at Edgecot, it being agreed by all parties that this would be the most productive place for him and any other help he could muster. Miss Peters the governess, who lived near the big house with her elderly mother and came each morning for lessons, declined to move with them, citing her mother's ill health ("and nobody could blame her", Rhyll had heard Nanny remark knowingly to Cook, that familiar mix of eager gossip and clucking sympathy). There were many things about the move that pleased Rhyll - not least the proximity to the sea, and eating meals at the 'grownup' dining table, since there was no longer a separate nursery - but these last two changes in staff were those most important: with lessons temporarily the business of an unenthusiastic Nanny, and her father invigorated by the prospect of land he could (and indeed must) tend himself, Rhyll spent long afternoons outdoors with him, following as he planned a thorough overhaul of the shabby and overgrown gardens, preparing the ground, ordering seeds and planting out. If he had any doubts about whether the garden was an appropriate pastime for a daughter, he did not express them; on the contrary, he took seriously her willing assistance, answered her many questions as comprehensively as he could, eventually handing over an increasing number of tasks to her with a trust that thrilled her. Julian's return for the summer completed her happiness. Quite aside from resuming their treasured early-morning walks on the beach, he took a fond interest in her garden and came down from his room one Saturday with an empty exercise book and a triumphant grin.
Rhyll frowned slightly. Had he taken leave of his senses? What would she want with extra lessons and writing books? She narrowed her eyes across the table at him.
Julian relented. "For your Botany," he explained importantly. "No point your knowing all your plants but only in your head, is there?"
"I like them in my head," Rhyll objected, still standing back from his extended hand in suspicion.
"Yes, but there's only so many you can keep in your head at any one time." Julian reasoned, unperturbed. "This way you can be sure to never confuse them. You do the drawings and tell me what to write, and I'll write it for you, at least until I'm back at school, though you'll have to take over then I'm afraid, old thing. Anyway, they'll all be very impressed with it. I can't imagine you're exactly going ahead with lessons left to Nanny..."
Rhyll glowed at the offer of help, at the idea of sharing her favourite thing with her favourite person. That morning she lay for two hours on the grass outside, brow furrowed in concentration as she filled page after page with intricate sketches. Julian's eyes widened when she presented it to him later on; but he was as good as his word, diligently transcribing her accompanying explanations with a speed and ease she could never have managed alone.
Even looking back as an adult, able to add the background rumbling of shellfire in France, the worry, the uncertainty and the frequent grief the world must have been faced with, it remains a summer she remembers with much fondness.
A little over eighteen months passed between the removal of the household from Edgecot to the seaside and the end of the war. It was a strange period of limbo, nobody seeming quite to know whether it counted as a temporary state of affairs, or what their world would look like when - when! - the War finally reached its conclusion. And so when it did happen - when peace arrived, as abruptly and mysteriously as the war itself had done - Rhyll watched and waited, wondering whether to expect a simple return to life as it had been.
Such a return did not materialise.
In the most fundamental sense, the family had escaped the war lightly: Ralph and Charles returned home, both somewhat battered but neither dead nor haunted; their father, some years over the age of conscription and condemned to walk with a limp since a riding accident in the months before Rhyll's birth, had never been away at all. Even to Rhyll, who was not yet ten years old, the relief of this good fortune could not pass unnoticed; loss of life intruded into every corner of society, the widespread bereavements of servants, neighbours and extended family made this reality of war inescapable.
Time moved slowly: a nation broken by victory scrambled about in bewilderment and, standing back to take stock, realised just how much the ground had crumbled underfoot. For a prolonged period, Rhyll caught only whispers about the big house. Lessons continued to be delivered (distractedly) by Nanny, whilst Rhyll gazed (equally distractedly) through the window; peacetime seemed not to yield any clearer vision of the future. Snow swirled through the fog outside. The strange intimacy of the wartime evacuation - mealtimes at the family table, parents' rooms within earshot of the nursery - sat awkwardly alongside the secrecy and evasion. Ralph and Charles, always sufficiently older to seem like miniature adults to Rhyll, cemented their unreachable adulthood by participating in these impenetrable talks whenever they were at home. If any trace of boy had stubbornly lingered when they left for the trenches, it had been well worn away by now - indeed, how could it possibly be otherwise?
The eventual decision, as it was communicated to Rhyll and Julian, was no less sudden or profound than the declaration of peace. The family would not return to Edgecot. The house was damaged beyond repair, her father explained blandly (the simple sorrow of loss reflected in Nanny's eyes; an incomprehensible glow of pride in her mother's), and in any case things would be very different now. What things? Julian had wanted to know, and his father had paused thoughtfully, searching for an answer which would be both truthful and intelligible.
"Well, service, for one thing. You can't run a big place like that with the numbers we've come down to, and it's not such an easy thing to find new staff now..." He looked as if he wanted to say more, but Nanny cut in quickly.
"Not that you'll be much able to understand any of that sort of thing, any road. It's not a business for children to be fretting about."
Julian looked ready to protest, but either respect or resignation got the better of him and he was silent. Rhyll was dismissed at this point, retreating to the day room which stood between her bedroom and Julian's, where she lay belly-down on the sheepskin rug, staring unseeingly at a book, and here Julian found her a little while later.
"Well? What did they say?" Rhyll demanded, laying down her book thankfully and rolling over to look up at him.
Julian shrugged, seating himself at the window, knees pulled in to his chest. "Most of the land will go to the current tenants, and what do I want to do when I grow up?"
Rhyll frowned. "They want you to be a tenant farmer?"
Julian giggled suddenly. "Sorry, it did sound a bit like that, didn't it? No, not that. Those were separate things."
"So what will you be?"
"I've told you before, haven't I? I'm going to build boats."
Another frown: "In a shipyard?"
Another giggle: "No, silly. I'm going to design them. With paper and pencil, in an office."
"A big office with a green leather desk and all the wall panels polished to sparkling, like grandfather's..." Rhyll added dreamily, then stopped short. "I am glad we're stopping here, Jules. I like it much better. I think Daddy does too."
Julian thought for a moment. "Perhaps he does. I think he was glad to feel he had something to offer, really. It's hard for a man who can't fight. I heard Matron say so to one of the nurses, when I was in the sick room last winter."
"Mm," Rhyll was not persuaded. "I think he likes it here, though. He likes the sea, and he likes doing the garden."
"I expect you're right," Julian agreed, and Rhyll scrutinised him for a moment; she had recently reached the age of great sensitivity towards the slightest hint of condescension, but Julian had never yet offended her dignity on this matter and, finding only genuine acceptance in his face, she relaxed again.
"Charles in going in for finance now, you know," he continued, rubbing at a scuff-mark on the toe of his shoe as he spoke. "And of course Ralph means to stay on in the Rhine."
The enormity of these plans was entirely lost on Rhyll's young ears, and she brushed them aside with a sudden contribution of her own. Sounding almost as if the idea had just occurred to her when in fact it had been quietly percolating in the back of her mind, unformed, since long before they had even left the big house, she blurted it out: "I'm going to be a gardener."
Julian tilted his head at her, eyebrows drawn together in some surprise. "You - can't," was all he said, but his voice had none of the conviction of Rhyll's own pronouncement.
"I can!" She retorted swiftly. "You've seen everything I've grown, haven't you? You've seen my book. Of course I can. I shall be very good at it."
"But you're a girl," Julian persisted, still sounding uncharacteristically doubtful of his own stance, trying to arrange the mosaic of societal norms he had grasped at only a superficial level and to which he had not paid attention enough to offer anything resembling a justification, much less a defence.
Rhyll thought he must be quite stupid. She took a breath, began with as much patience as she could muster. "The clerk in the post office in the village is a girl. The station guard. There's a lady who drives a tractor around over that way sometimes," and she jerked her thumb towards the window as she spoke.
"That's because of the war, though." Julian pointed out, back on more certain ground with this point.
Rhyll was unimpressed. "Things aren't going to go back as they used to, though. Daddy said so." Because why would anyone who'd taken to driving a tractor ever give that up?
"I wish Nanny hadn't interrupted him like that," Julian gave up on the shoe and rested his chin on his knees, frowning. "I could tell he had more of an explanation than that. Maybe you are onto something, I don't know. You're right you'd be good at it, of course you are. But..."
His voice trailed off, and Rhyll - those critical few years younger, that much more shielded from the world beyond the safety of this anachronistic estate - clung tenaciously to her childish hopes, defiantly ignoring the shadow Julian's doubt had cast over them.
1.4 Some more changes by crm
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Julian was correct, though it was some months before his prediction was realised. The conversation about Rhyll's future came in the Spring, over the planting out of those azaleas that had reminded her father of his own boyhood.
He had paused in his work to look at her for a moment, after hearing her response. Rhyll did not, her head bent over the seedlings she had carried tenderly from the glasshouse, and so was in no position of having to guess what the interested look on his face really meant.
The more enlightening treatment of her idea took place many hours later, long after she had been dispatched to bed by Nanny.
"She wants to what?" Mrs Everett asked, disbelief wrinkling her elegant features.
Her husband shrugged. "It shouldn't really have come as such a surprise. It's what she enjoys, and she's fearfully good at it all - although of course she would need an enormous amount more science to get anywhere with it."
"You're not entertaining her?" She looked appalled. "Oh, surely she can't. She needn't, in any case. I do hope you made that clear to her - children can get up such silly ideas, and after having to give up dear old Edgecot..."
He nodded slowly. "Though it's at the very least something to push her through her schoolwork, and not much else seems to."
She snorted. "It's certainly cause to return both attention and industry to the schoolroom. That girl has had altogether too much time to fill with her plants. Oh, I shouldn't mind if she'd only light upon a more suitable hobby - embroidery, music, dancing; but not this. She's thought the last two years nothing but a summer holiday, and one can hardly blame her. I suppose she might go in more thoroughly for science. There's a certain academic achievement in that - and the proof that this gardening idea of hers is much more than mere planting that anyone dexterous enough might claim themselves skilled in." A certain disdain made clear her real hopes for this last suggestion: that prolonged exposure to the theory would prove sufficiently discouraging, that boredom or outright inability would choke off the interest before it could grow out of hand.
"I should think she's near enough the limit of what Nanny can teach her in that field," Mr Everett remarked, quietly disregarding the complaint itself as a tiresome irrelevance and neglecting to comment on his daughter's academic potential.
"I should think she's near enough the limit of what Nanny can teach her about anything."
"Not one of the boys has ever been interested in the land. Not one. Just as well there's nothing to hand on, isn't it?" Unexpected bitterness.
No sympathy. "That doesn't entitle you to make a son of your daughter."
Silence fell, the sort of permanent and uneasy silence which casts an impossible shadow over any eventual return to the subject, and Mrs Everett returned to her novel.
Summer came. The flowers bloomed. Julian came home again - 'home' tripped unconsciously from everyone's tongues now - taller and broader, his voice changed, his grin the same as ever.
Ralph came home too. Rhyll had seen so little of him that she was unable to judge whether he, too, seemed changed, but her mother remarked upon it frequently, so she accepted that it must be so. A few days later, he disappeared in his motorcar and returned mid-afternoon with a pretty young woman in the passenger seat. She was the sister of a friend he had made at Ypres, Rhyll understood from the murmured conversations of Murrin and Bennett when they thought themselves alone with their cleaning; an Australian girl, dainty in both appearance and manners. They sailed for Australia that November. Rhyll was granted permission to go and see them off. Low winter sun sparkled on the crests of the waves and in the diamond on the young Mrs Everett's slim hand as she clutched Ralph's arm, all shy smiles and the promise of a new life far away. The departure itself was not impressive but the great ship was, an imposing behemoth in steel, and she felt a pang of guilt that it was she and not Julian who was here to witness it.
Before Christmas there was another departure. Nanny left, her stiff goodbye tinged with a barely-suppressed tearfulness Rhyll had not expected. Her surprise must have been obvious, for Nanny glanced skyward in exasperation: "I've been with the family a long time, child. You think it's only Ralph I've watched grow up and marry? Why, I can still remember your mother in her cradle."
Rhyll's eyes widened, and she could think of no appropriate comment. "I hope your mother is better soon," she offered politely. "I'll write to you every week."
Nanny nodded, approvingly. "That will be nice," she replied, and already her voice seemed to come from somewhere very far away.
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"I was devastated when our nanny left us." Peggy said, as the silence extended beyond a comfortable break. "She'd been there since before I was born, of course, and I'd imagined she always would be. I was eight when she... went."
Was dismissed, Rhyll thought, but she saw no reason to voice it. "Was that when you went to school?"
Peggy nodded. "And what about you?"
"My mother wouldn't have me go away to school, and there was nowhere near enough for me to be a day girl. They took on another governess." An irrepressible smile spread across her face. "Bloody hell, but I worshipped her."
Peggy gave a low chuckle. "Incorrigible!"
Rhyll grinned. "In retrospect, I'm not quite sure why. She was devastatingly rude. I was so desperate to impress her and she always looked as if she could barely disguise her disdain. I always wished she would see me do something I was good at, but of course it was endless reading and writing and literature and the Spanish Armada. I could never do any of that. The words just used to -" she waved her free hand, attempting to replicate the squirming confusion of words on a page, and shrugged.
Peggy grimaced in sympathy. "Sounds painful."
"Oh, it was! For both of us, I imagine. She simply couldn't understand why I didn't get it, and I couldn't bear her scorn. French conversation, at least I could manage that. I lived for those lessons!"
"Mm," Peggy slipped her hand into Rhyll's as she spoke. "But you did, didn't you? Get it, I mean. You got your place at Holloway - and out the other side, intact!"
Rhyll laughed. "I did, that's true, but not on her watch. She... left, after nearly three years. I don't really know why. I'm quite certain it wasn't her decision to go, but that's about as much as I ever managed to find out - and I was always good at happening upon interesting conversations at the right time, you know."
"As any number of schoolgirls can attest!" Peggy agreed, amusement lighting her face.
"Quite right! I suppose that must be rather disconcerting." Rhyll mused aloud.
Peggy snorted. "You suppose so, do you? Hapless young things. But tell me what happened next."
Rhyll thought for a moment. "I was sixteen when Miss Gray left. It was the autumn, and Julian had just gone up to Imperial College. To an extent, it was a natural ending point, since it had become apparent to all parties that I wasn't exactly a born scholar. But it was abrupt, and without prior mention. I'm sure it was something more than that." She paused. "I think it was me, actually. I've nothing to base that on, of course. But I think it was me, I think it was that I adored her so. All sorts of reasons why that might be a discomfiting idea.
"Well. For the remainder of that year, I did very little, which wasn't felt to be a satisfying state of affairs. I believe my mother hadn't yet given up the idea that I might have a season or two in the near future - hi, stop laughing! She never thought it funny then, and I can tell you with great certainty she still wouldn't think it funny now - and so I would need more polishing, so to speak. You're still laughing!" She gave up and joined in, relaxing into shared mirth.
"It's just... you, a deb!" Peggy choked, wiping her eyes. "Your poor mother!"
"I know," Rhyll agreed. "Poor Mother. Three boys, and then me."
"Sorry," Peggy murmured, entirely devoid of contrition, as her giggles eventually petered out. "Go on."
"The other thing that happened in that time, I suppose, was Charles going off to Canada. He'd been in finance for some time by then, and there was great scope for going abroad with it, you know. And I imagine he just had itchy feet by that point. It must be a curious thing, to grow up in one place, go off to fight an unimaginable world in foreign fields, and then come home to a comparatively claustrophobic cottage. I mean," she added hastily, "of course it's not what you'd call a small place. But compared to where he'd left, well...
"Perhaps I might have been expected to miss him. He'd been around quite a bit more, those last couple of years in England, and with Ralph gone and Julian at school so much of the time, one might have expected us to have grown closer. But we never did, really. He always seemed so unreachably grown-up, which he was really. So off he went to Canada. He's still there now. Met a girl out there, married her. Usual story. Three children, they have - all girls. I've only met the eldest, although of course they send photos and letters a few times a year."
She lapsed again into ruminative silence, and Peggy prompted her gently. "So then what? You didn't get your season, and you did get Holloway, so something must have intervened somewhere."
Rhyll grinned broadly. "I'm sure you can guess, if I've not told you that much before. Julian intervened, of course. He came back from that first term at Imperial, full of the joys of university and determined to share them..."
He almost glowed with it; a kind of indelible aura of thrilled contentment.
Julian had never wanted for friends at school, but the excitement and affection which shone through the tales with which he regaled them all made it clear that these were a particularly special set of companions. His enthusiasm for his subject, which could never have been described as mere casual interest, had greatly increased; and - reading between the lines, for Julian would never knowingly boast - he had taken to his studies with aplomb.
He had been home for perhaps a week when he threw himself into an armchair in the erstwhile schoolroom, and cleared his throat.
Rhyll turned from the window expectantly, and he fixed her with a stern look. She raised her eyebrows.
"What happened to gardening, then?"
Her face didn't change, because her bemusement had not abated with this question. "It's Christmas, Jules. Not generally accepted to be the busiest time of year for that sort of thing."
"That's not what I meant. What are you doing with yourself now? And how are you ever going to get to Swanley if this is where you've decided to stop?"
"I haven't decided." Rhyll retorted sulkily. "Anyway, I can still garden - I do still garden - Swanley or no Swanley."
"That's hardly the same," Julian argued. "If you're going to do a thing, oughtn't you to do the damn thing properly?"
Rhyll turned back to the window. The clouds hung heavy, cumbersome.
"It's a waste, Rhyll. You're good at it. You ought to be studying it properly, not just teaching yourself and staying here like some kind of hobbying lady. Don't you want to see the world beyond this place? There's so much of it! Why wouldn't you want to at least get out and take a look?"
Typical Julian. The absolute belief that to do is merely an extension of to decide.
Typical Julian. Not so far wrong he could be safely ignored. Infuriating.
She stared unseeingly through the glass. "I didn't decide. Nobody asked me. Anyway, I can't. My science isn't good enough. Of course I'll be 'some kind of hobbying lady', and you needn't sneer at it, either."
She heard him shift slightly, turned around again with hands spread wide in an attempt to convey her own powerlessness. He was sitting forward, poised; serious eyes held hers. "What happened to your book?" He demanded.
Rhyll gestured towards the sturdy oak shelves in the alcove, listless. "Over there."
Julian sprang to his feet and followed her direction, pausing in front of the shelves.
"Second from the top," Rhyll said dully, signally failing to match his energy and enthusiasm.
He ran his finger along the spines of the exercise books. "Which is it?"
She bit back a sigh of annoyance. "All of them."
"All of them? There must be ten or twelve here!" He turned to her in surprise.
She shrugged. "Well, there's a fair bit of duplication. As it happens, I'm no longer quite satisfied with my earliest attempts."
He shook his head impatiently. "Goodness, no - I wasn't doubting your capacity to fill that many books. I had no idea... I have no idea, in fact, how you can stand there insisting you don't care if all you ever do is play around in your father's garden, when for all this time you've still been working on it like that." He picked one up and began to leaf through it, the same respectful gentleness he had used when he had inscribed the first version for her, all those years ago.
"I've not touched them since September," Rhyll murmured, awkward in the face of an admiration she didn't feel she currently deserved.
Julian didn't reply for a moment, his attention fully on the book in his hand. Then he replaced it carefully, and looked over at his sister. "You haven't given up. You mustn't. I'm going to find out about this thing more thoroughly, but you shall find your way to Swanley, Rhyll. I promise it."
She scrutinised him for a moment. Everything he said, and the easy confidence with which he said it, seemed so fundamentally disconnected from reality that she wanted to remain sceptical; and yet at the same time, his deep belief was beguiling, encouraging, steeped as it was in a lifetime of never really getting it wrong. Could he really be wrong now, after all of that? A faint glow of hope reignited somewhere within.
He would not relay the conversation itself to her, and Rhyll could not in a thousand years imagine it: Julian, scarcely more than a boy, taking it upon himself to announce the importance and urgency of Rhyll's education. Neither Ralph nor Charles would have dreamed of making such an assertion, unbidden and chancy as it was, but to Julian it was the most obvious thing in the world. That serious-minded enthusiasm held its own charm, she knew, for she had seen it often enough before.
It was with equal parts apprehension and confusion that she made her way down to her parents' sitting room, to which she had been summoned. A pot of tea sat on the trolley, and once Rhyll had seated herself meekly in the indicated chair her mother rose gracefully to pour out, in the same fluid movement waving Murrin away from where she stood questioningly in the doorway.
"Your brother seems to think college a necessity for you," she remarked, conversational, once all three had been served with tea, hot and fragrant in delicate gold-and-white china.
Rhyll nodded, mute, until she realised from her mother's face that this response was not satisfactory. "I should very much like to go," she conceded cautiously.
"You should read pure science first," her father instructed, and from his tone it was clear that on this matter there was no room for dissent. "If you can manage that, and you still want to, then you might go on to one of the training colleges afterwards."
Rhyll nodded again and, remembering her mother's face a moment earlier, hastily added "yes, Daddy."
He took a mouthful of tea before continuing. "Now, that still leaves the question of getting you to university in the first place. I think we're all in agreement that Miss Gray's teaching has not been suitable or sufficient for such an ambition. I've an idea, but I'll not mention it yet. I need to make some inquiries first."
"Yes, Daddy. Thank you, Daddy." Rhyll glanced at her parents, and at her teacup,unsure as to whether she should consider herself dismissed.
Her mother picked up her knitting. A bland gesture, and a bland voice to match: "You do know, Betty, you don't need to go off to college, or anything else on those lines? I wouldn't want you to be confused. I know things haven't been for you quite as we all might have expected - and that you've only had brothers to watch growing up ahead of you. You are still a daughter here, and no amount of land tax nor votes for women changes that."
Rhyll only loosely grasped her mother's meaning, but offered what she hoped to be a reassuring smile anyway. "I know that, Mummy. It is what I want. Julian's right."
"We can't promise anything," her mother added, her voice sterner, and Rhyll could see the doubt lingering in her high-boned face, blue eyes wide and disbelieving. Hot tears of anger pricked at her own eyes, and she blinked them away. She would show them she could do it.
The combination of Julian's absolute faith with her mother's lack of it succeeded in jolting Rhyll out of her limbo of indifference and despair. Accordingly, she was in fine spirits and the right frame of mind to learn on her first lesson with Henry Swanton that January.
Mr Swanton was the vague idea to which Rhyll's father had alluded; a retired schoolmaster living in the village, an earnest and kindly man with a facial twitch Rhyll couldn't help being inwardly fascinated by. A botanist by training, he had taught all his life at a boys' school near Exeter and had an obvious enthusiasm not only for his own subject, but also for the broad project of getting Rhyll to university. This keenness startled her, and she spent some time trying to ascertain his motivations before giving up and reluctantly concluding that this end was in itself something he had developed an investment in. Once she had established this rather tentative belief in his altruism, she set to with a determination she had not previously managed to muster in her studies. It was unexpectedly tiring, she found, and engendered an unfamiliar sensitivity to her teacher's comments and criticisms.
He came to the cottage three mornings a week, opening each lesson with a lecture of remarkable speed and intensity. Mondays and Tuesdays were given to sciences, this being the focal point; but Thursdays were reserved for a miscellany of other subjects Swanton deemed useful, a combination which Rhyll secretly thought impossible and arbitrary: Latin, German, European history, human geography. The lecture would be followed first by a series of probing questions to ascertain she had understood and could apply the principles he had just outlined; next, by a set of questions on the previous lesson to ensure she had remembered it; and finally, he would set her to write an exposition on it whilst he read through her offering from the previous lesson.
Rhyll hated writing with a passion, and had done so for the entirety of her short life. The enduring memory of her previous classes, with Miss Peters back at Edgecot, then with Nanny, and even with the beloved Miss Gray, was of staring yearningly through the window. Blinding sunshine, grey rain, slick green hills or bleary mist, Rhyll could recall far more of how each of the changing seasons had looked from her seat at the desk than she could of all their teaching combined. Swanton was different. As she wrote for him, each painstaking misbehaving word she was as distracted as ever, but not by the view over the fields and her yen to be outside in it; instead, her attention was dragged from the page by the angry scratch of his pen, scoring through her own work in vexation. Failure and dread twisted in her stomach.
Six months into their arrangement, he gave a sudden bark of disapproval and a scrunched-up ball of notepaper flew across the room in exasperation. Rhyll watched, mesmerised, as it passed through the plane of golden light from the window and hit the opposite wall before coming to rest on the floor. Her insides tightened, and she lifted an impassive face to her tutor, clinging to her dignity for all she was worth.
He was silent for a long time, seeming to be somewhat in shock, although Rhyll could not determine whether it was shock at whatever appalling error she had committed or at his own loss of control. She watched as his nostrils flared with his slow, heavy breathing, and mentally filled the silence with the words she expected to hear: her work was hopeless; there was no way she could be made ready for a university course; was it really necessary for her to formally train for gardening? After all, she surely didn't need the job; she had the run of the garden anyway.
It was none of these things. "You can do better than this," Swanton observed, finally. "You know all of it. Your verbal answers are perfectly good. It's clearly not a question of effort - you're gripping that pen fit to snap it. But when I come to read your essays - !"
Rhyll lowered her head, burning with shame. "Yes, sir," she mumbled, staring down at the words swimming on the page before her and suppressing the urge to send them to join her previous effort where it lay, crumpled and pathetic beside the skirting board.
He sighed. "I don't know how we ought to proceed. I can't send you off to college with writing like this. We must find some way of improving it." His voice softened. "Time was, we'd insist it written over and over, til it came right in the end - or right enough, at any rate. But those weren't boys destined for university, and it wasn't very effective in any case." He paused. "Do you read often?"
"Not very often, sir."
"Because you find it difficult."
Rhyll wasn't sure it was a question, but she nodded anyway.
He exhaled again. "Now, that won't do. How can you expect to get better at anything without practice?"
And so it was that, from the following week, Rhyll went thrice weekly to read aloud to the bed-bound Mrs Swanton, cycling swiftly down twisting lanes lined with blackberry bushes and under the high arches of the railway bridge with wind in her hair and hope and freedom in her heart. Swanton had an extraordinary collection of books shelved beneath the stairs of his small home, and his wife had highly eclectic and unpredictable tastes - or so it seemed to Rhyll at the time: she only realised much later, with a small laugh for her own foolishness, that the strange mixture of literature and botany, chemistry and poetry, had been designed for her benefit. Rhyll had initially been wary of burdening an already tired and ill woman, but this worry quickly dissipated when she met her. Within her failing body Mrs Swanton was quite as full of life as she had been forty years ago, and keen to have something to offer once more. Propped up with cushions, she listened attentively and each time Rhyll came to a word she could not read, prompted her to spell it out and try again. If she still could not identify it, the old woman patiently supplied it for her to repeat only once before continuing with the rest of the page. If ever she tired of these hesitant efforts, longing instead for an accomplished reader to treat her to a more fluent and engaging literary experience, she never let it show; and though Rhyll did not feel the task of reading grow any easier with practice, she nonetheless found herself looking forward to the books and to Mrs Swanton's undemanding company.
Meanwhile, Swanton extended and rearranged her morning lessons, guiding her to produce a consistent and highly detailed plan for each essay before writing it, and moving this section of the class so that it immediately followed his lecture. The remaining third of the lesson was given to the verbal examination of the topic, and in this Swanton would drill her on the essay itself, demanding she defend it and giving her the chance to improve what she had written as his catechism forced her to clarify and refine her argument.
"It's not so much that all that stuff has become any easier, exactly," she wrote to Julian the following Summer - another task which had grown infinitely more tolerable, even appealing - "but that he's helped me find ways of coping with it. I suppose that's the best anyone might hope for."
And after nearly three years of hard work from both Rhyll and her teacher, she was finally ready to follow her brother to college.
2.3 Royal Holloway by crm
With many thanks to Beecharmer for her input in clarifying and developing this chapter.
Holloway was a world of bells: always and everywhere, the incessant ringing of bells.
Bells to get up, bells to file demurely into the dining hall for breakfast, bells for lessons and lunch and goodness only knew what else; and then in the evening, bells all over again - bells for dressing and dining, and finally for bed and lights out.
Rhyll could never get used to the sound and meaning of them and, more than that, knew she was the only person to feel that way. She was not sure whether the remarkable occasion in this was her difference, or in the apparent ubiquity of her peers. Either way it bled through everything, an unforgettable and insurmountable fact of her life at Holloway.
Perhaps they did not feel themselves to be so alike: perhaps the former grammar school girls sensed a distance between themselves and the boarding school girls; perhaps the definite scientists among them felt the gap separating them from the intimidatingly brilliant all-rounders; perhaps those envisaging a life of laboratory research mentally set themselves apart from their colleagues who expected to marry and bear children in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps, even, they did not all perceive Rhyll to be as alien as she felt herself; perhaps her impression was more convincing than she thought; perhaps, just perhaps what they imagined they saw was a calculated haughtiness, a deliberate attempt to separate herself from them; self-styled isolation.
The principal's stern hairstyle, already somewhat dated, had given Rhyll the confidence to have her own hair cropped that first term. Already the distance to her peers felt painfully evident; Rhyll did not think it could be problematically enhanced by any visible change she made, and the complete lack of comment her decision provoked seemed to prove her right. It crossed her mind that some might have read it as an ill-advised homage to the woman they affectionately referred to as 'Chief', as unlikely as that course of action might have been: Chief was not the sort of woman to be flattered, especially not by such a superficial and unsubtle imitation, nor was she ever sufficiently attentive to the corporeal for anyone else's outward appearance to register with her. Indeed, Rhyll rather suspected that the principal's own outward appearance had long since become a matter of habit rather than of any preference or meaning, felt quite certain that she could never have guessed at the giddy trepidation Rhyll felt as she stared into the hairdresser's mirror, fully aware that such a hairstyle was falling rapidly out of fashion, and why, and what it might now convey. The terrified thrill that it might be understood, the spectre of Radclyffe Hall stalking upright through the scandalised pages of the daily newspapers, cloaked in the safety offered by Chief's perfectly innocent crop much nearer home. The profound ambivalence Rhyll felt at this castration, this comforting and stifling safety.
Both the academic course and the experience of being away at college met Rhyll's expectations without exceeding them: these years were to be borne, strategically maximised, a means to an end rather than anything especially desirable on their own terms. The work was hard, the lifestyle unfamiliar. Relative proximity to Julian was the source of more pleasure, and the two met as often as time and money would permit. Some weekends Julian would come to her and they would walk far out of the town, talking and laughing as pavements gave way to rough lanes and then only grass, taking tea when they reached the next village, eking out the afternoon until they had to retrace their steps and part company, Rhyll to dinner and Julian to the station. Other weekends she would catch the train to London to stay with him in the small flat he had taken in Earls Court, a slightly shabby place where high ceilings and large curtainless windows served only to illuminate the sparseness of the decor, where piles of books and papers cascaded from table (singular) to chair (also singular) in perfectly organised chaos. The rumble of the nearby District Railway kept her awake long into the night, and she would lie silently in the bed Julian had vacated for her, turning her world over in her mind.
Beneath it all, she knew that the difference between her and these clever, conventionally-educated, urban middle-class girls destined for a life in the lab was something more than their familiarity with the endless bells, their dexterity in the classroom, their natural sense for what to say when, and how to smile and raise an eyebrow as they said it. Hard to put into words, but she could feel it in the amused approval directed at Chief when she came down to dinner transformed into feminine elegance by her evening dress, an amusement she couldn't share and an approval she couldn't receive. She caught sight of it again in the frisson of nervous excitement that flickered around the room whenever the class were confronted by a male professor. Rhyll knew she was not the only one to be on the outside of that particular response, but she was also decidedly outside of the camaraderie between those others, earnest young women who seemed to have purposefully unsexed themselves in a way that she did not recognise in herself, and which they did not seem to see in her either. Neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.
It wasn't an unhappy solitude, not exactly, but it was nonetheless a very comprehensive one. There was a generality to it, the way it surfaced in all sorts of unexpected places, how universally recognised her separateness seemed to be in spite of apparently no explicit acknowledgement from anyone. But the thing also had an irrefutable specificity, a truth dark and tangible enough that Rhyll only allowed herself to explore in these nocturnal moments of stillness in her brother's digs. She knew exactly the source of her 'problem', and often she didn't dare name it. Other times she did dare, mentally coaxing herself right to the very edge of the safe world to peer over, breathless, piecing together all the half-known stories which made sense of her: a banned book and a libel trial; a vague and embarrassed lecture from Chief on the perils of unhealthy friendships; a feverishly-scandalised whisper overheard once in that village tea-room about two women who lived together nearby, Rhyll's own cheeks burning as she stared down at the cracked willow pattern teacup, dying to hear more and willing it to stop all at the same time. A copy of Dusty Answer had done the rounds of the halls early in her second year, knowing smirks alluding more to the hints of premarital sex than the complicated and passionate relationships between women spelled out therein. That had been the moment, more than any other, when it had all fallen into place for Rhyll, and she had laid the book down and frowned at the ceiling, unable to ignore the implications: that her lack of interest in men did not stem from a devotion to gardening, as the love of science precluded romantic inclinations in the more prudish of her classmates; that the fluttery feeling inside whenever she caught sight of Marjorie Doan along the hallway was unusual but recognisable, could be known and named; that this was her lot, that the banned book and the unhealthy friendships were where she belonged and that one day she, too, would be the subject of salacious gossip over afternoon tea.
Not claiming to be a great expert on any of these, but wanted to add enough context to explain how and why I've used these as reference points!
'Dusty Answer' by Rosamond Lehmann is a 1927 'coming of age' novel. It was met with a mildly scandalised reception due to her sexual frankness, although (if memory and Google serve!) it is hardly explicit by any modern standards.
'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall is a 1928 plea for lesbian acceptance, within the sexology paradigm, which achieved notoriety through its obscenity trial and arguably gave rise to the first public image of 'the lesbian'. From a modern-day viewpoint it is easy to think of Hall as looking stereotypically lesbian; however at the time of publication, this would not have been the perception - it is a normal and fashionable look for a woman. It is extremely difficult to work out how immediately this changed - hairstyles began to get longer and fashion became more emphatically feminine very quickly after this, but this doesn't necessarily prove causation; it's difficult to establish when that "masculine" presentation became suggestive of lesbianism, but some evidence certainly supports that it happened very quickly, as if directly caused by the public association of Hall's own unremarkable 'masculinity' with the much more sexualised masculinity of her hero/ine Stephen, and this is the suggestion I am playing on here. (All that said, I can't help hoping Rhyll wouldn't have actually read the book itself because it is bloody miserable!)
Also bits of this have been gratefully borrowed from the helpful RHUL archives online: https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/archives/exhibitions/fashions/principalbyday.aspx
The day had been an unpleasantly hot one. The air inside the lecture hall was thick and warm, heavier still with the weight of thirty-odd young women willing the time to pass more quickly. By the time the hour hand on the clock had finally crawled round to four, Rhyll felt frankly ready for bed. It took all the wherewithal she could muster to propel herself along the hallways and into first her bedroom and then the bathroom, the cold water refreshing but not as rousing as one might have hoped. Hurriedly dressing again, she cast a glance at the clock. The lethargy of the afternoon showed and she swore quietly to herself as she dragged a comb through her hair before flinging it into the half-packed bag on her bed. Ten minutes 'til the train. She grabbed up the bag and ran silently through the corridor, down to retrieve her bike from beneath the stairs. It was not a day for energetic cycling, she reflected, but it was even less a day for spending an extra hour stewing in the waiting room if she missed the 4.36.
Luck did not smile on her. She arrived at Egham station to an apologetic shrug from the station-master. "Line's down, Miss. No way of knowing when they'll be going again."
Rhyll stared at him, dumb with sweaty frustration. "But I need to get to London."
He nodded. "Your best bet 'ud be to get yourself up to Slough, then, take the train from there. Follow the road thataway. Sorry I can't do no more."
Rhyll nodded too, found some words of thanks; accepting this state of affairs with an outward grace that would have pleased her mother. Slough. Ten miles in this oppressive heat and dust. But the thought of not going at all, of spending the weekend alone in her room, seemed even worse. She swung a leg back over her bike and pedalled on, her mouth set in a grim line.
The crowded train did little to improve her mood, and by the time she reached Paddington she was darkly cross - and sticky with sweat and grime to boot. Inside the big station, she leaned her bike against the wall and stood beside it to think. Julian would not be worried, that was one blessing: she had been to his place often enough over the last two years, he trusted absolutely that she would turn up safely whenever she did; would assume any lateness to be a missed or delayed train, or a perfectly reasonable decision to stop off elsewhere on the way. This solitary comfort was not enough to shift her funk: her tiredness, the prickly heat and the lengthened journey had rather decimated her capacity for decision-making, and she could not decide whether to stop for something to eat and drink before making her way to Julian's, or to just push on so as to get there before she grew any wearier. She had only the vaguest sense of where she was, and hoped the journey to Kensington would not be too much more of a slog.
She cast a despairing glance across the station, trying to summon a modicum of decisiveness, and then someone caught her eye.
The woman was only ten feet or so from where Rhyll stood. She was of average height, although at first glance her presence suggested more; slightly stout. There was an uncommon confidence in the way she held herself, feet apart, standing tall and unapologetic as she rummaged in her bag. Smart brown trousers, well-cut white shirt and a brown fedora. Her lace-up oxfords - flat and manly - shone with good polish, and as she remonstrated with her bag her tweed waistcoat flapped open casually to reveal her braces underneath; this did not seem to perturb her. She was maybe forty, perhaps a little older. Rhyll had never seen a woman look so masculine; nor ever expected to see one look so comfortable inhabiting such masculinity. Perhaps, perhaps a younger, more fashionable woman might dress like that to cause a stir; but not a mature lady going about her quotidian business in Paddington station, one who looked to all the world as if she had just thrown on the same clothes she wore everyday.
Rhyll stood transfixed, then turned her attention to the woman's companion. A slightly older woman, Rhyll guessed, she was the taller of the two, handsome beneath the harshness; thin hair brushed straight back away from a stern face which sagged, slightly gaunt; serious eyes, straight nose, sceptical eyebrows. She stood close to the bigger woman, occasionally murmuring something in response to what looked like a steady stream of commentary as the search of her cavernous satchel continued. There was an ease and intimacy in their body language that made Rhyll blush, as if she might be intruding upon some private moment, but she could not drag her eyes away. Something unspeakably important compelled her to overlook all her well-trained manners and graces.
At last the woman emerged from her bag with a triumphant shout, brandishing a glasses-case proudly in her hand. Her companion raised her eyebrows and made some remark Rhyll guessed to be a mocking one, but there was a great tenderness in her smile. Rhyll felt a sudden stab of warmth - and then all too quickly, the first woman had raised her head, glasses now firmly in their place, and looked directly at her.
All warmth and humour evaporated. The woman scowled at her with startling animosity. "What are you staring at?" she demanded, taking a step closer, her companion following with perhaps a slight degree of reluctance - or wariness. Her voice was much quieter than Rhyll would have guessed, a tired rasp that would have better suited a woman twice her age and half her size, but the furious aggression of her demeanour more than made up for this lack of volume.
Rhyll flushed and mumbled something, words which were incomprehensible even to her as she spoke them. An apology, perhaps. She cursed her own impolite curiosity, wishing she had never paused to notice the pair, wishing she had heeded the warning signs that she was invading something personal, that she had turned away when that first blush had spread across her undisguised face.
The woman stepped closer again, still frowning; but it was rapidly becoming an expression of careful examination, rather than an angry rebuke. As the woman continued to consider her in silence, Rhyll had the unsettling feeling of being recognised, as if this woman somehow understood her better than she could explain for herself. At length, she gave a sigh of satisfied judgment. "H'mph! Like that, is it? Well. We've a train to catch, so I can't stop and talk just now. But you might write to me, if you wanted, care of the bank. Or you might not, and no skin off my nose either way. Here," and she dug into the bag once more, extracting a card from her leather wallet and pressing it into Rhyll's hand with a firm gusto that didn't feel entirely unfriendly.
Rhyll held it awkwardly, wishing she were not so speechless with embarrassment and confusion. The woman gave her another look and sighed again. "Yes, you guess right and yes, I know I'm right too. Call it the pricking of my thumbs, if you will. Oh, you young folk. Too worldly by half in some ways and still thoroughly wet about the ears in others. You'll come to know in time what I mean, about my thumbs. Do write; there's a lot I could tell you, if you only find the way to ask the necessary questions. Or don't write; I've a full enough life without you in it. But now we really must fly! I hope you find what you're looking for, whatever that might be: in the immediate future, I'd recommend a nice cold drink and something to fill you up for the next leg of your journey." And she patted Rhyll on the arm, gruff and hearty. The older woman gave a curt nod, and the pair hurried off, bodies still moving in closer synchrony than those of women friends usually seemed to.
Rhyll watched them go, but neither turned back. Next she looked down at the card in her hand, read the name and the town before carefully depositing it in the pocket of her skirts. Finally, she picked up her bike and wheeled it carefully in the direction of the station tea-rooms as instructed, picking distractedly at a slice of fruitcake and downing a full glass of cold lemonade before heading out into the busy streets to find her way to Julian's.
Thanks very much for the comments! Lovely to know that people are enjoying this. (I am loving writing it, but am aware it's pretty niche!)
It took Rhyll more than a month to pluck up the courage to write. In that time, the encounter was rarely far from her mind, playing out over and over whenever she was quiet and alone. In some recollections, the meaning of Norah's glance was obscured in doubt; other times, Rhyll was quite sure that she had misunderstood nothing. She found the copy of Dusty Answer lying on the common room bookshelves, picked it up and leafed through it furtively in her room, as if it were somehow proof: that she had grasped Norah's meaning, that such a thing even existed, that such a thing could be acknowledged to exist and that this acknowledgment could be recognised, understood, shared.
By the time she had found both the bravery and the words, the term had ended; maybe it was as a direct consequence of being back at home that she became desperate enough, in spite of the added complications this created. She gave Julian's address, advised of the dates of when he would have left the flat for the summer, and waited anxiously.
Norah's reply was prompt but brief. Why didn't Rhyll come and stay, she wondered. She would be very welcome to spend a night or two. Rhyll, mindful of the ever-approaching summer hiatus in which she could not find a way of receiving even a single letter, and perhaps eager to commit to something before she lost her nerve, replied the same day with some suggested dates, and within the week had received an even briefer response: Saturday 14th. Meet outside Bristol T. M., 12.30.
Rhyll invented an invitation from a college friend, fielded her mother's questions with quiet ease and gave the matter very little further thought until she boarded the train that morning. It was not until the train crawled into Bristol that she was gripped by a sick panic, crumpling Norah's brief letter in her hand. Where the first weeks after their meeting - if you could even call it that - had been filled with an anxiety that she had misunderstood the situation, this new anxiety was that she had understood only too well; that she had irreparably committed to something better left alone.
It was raining when she emerged from the station, clutching her overnight case in one hand and clamping her hat to her head with the other. She lurked uncertainly beneath the shelter, watching the raindrops bounce off the smooth flagstones, and then she saw a familiar figure hurrying towards her, hood pulled well down to keep the inclement weather out, cigarette dangling from her mouth.
"Not been waiting long, have you? I thought I was making such good time, but this damned car -" as she spoke, she had taken the case from Rhyll and was hurrying her back in the direction of the waiting motorcar.
Rhyll mumbled something, and Norah looked at her in amused sympathy. "Oh, you poor girl, you're frightened half to death! Well, that won't last, I do hope. Sorry, it just seems so much more complicated in writing. Too much translation and leaving things between the lines, which brings up the other big problem of course - something of a risky business, writing."
Rhyll nodded, feeling entirely incapable of adding anything to a pronouncement she only half understood. They had reached the car and Norah simply waved her arm commandingly at the passenger door before throwing open the driver's side for herself. Rhyll did as directed, hoping she did not appear to hesitate awkwardly as she did so. She felt very young, and somehow lacking.
"I'll not talk while I'm driving today, if it's all the same to you," Norah continued comfortably as she started up the engine. "I wouldn't mind normally, but the blasted thing was so pernickety on the way out to get you... You just sit back and enjoy the view, Rhyll. It's not far now."
It was a comfortably sized house on a quiet avenue in Clifton. The older woman was watching from the front window when Norah swung the car into the driveway, and met them in the hallway, exuding the same calm patience Rhyll had noticed back at Paddington two months earlier. As Norah threw her wet cape from her, all the time berating the English summer, Rhyll had a sudden sense of being outside of herself, looking in and wondering what on earth she thought she was doing here.
Even as she thought it, she felt herself beginning to relax into the surreal occasion. Norah was an extraordinarily easy person to be with, taking it upon herself as she did to provide an undemanding rumble of conversation, repeatedly inviting her to drop every social grace possible with her own unassuming refusal to stand on occasion. At her bidding, Rhyll hung her own wet coat by the door and followed her through to the dining room.
"Rhyll, Ethel; Ethel, Rhyll. So now we're all acquainted. Don't worry, I shan't give you the third degree over dinner," Norah was announcing cheerfully. "I've heard it's not considered good manners and I suppose you are a guest."
Dinner was served, and once the housekeeper had left the room, Norah leaned engagingly towards across the table. "You've not been to Bristol before?"
Rhyll shook her head. "I grew up in Devon. Then I went to London - well, Surrey - to college. I've another year to go before I finish."
"And then?" Norah picked up her knife and fork and began to eat.
"Swanley," Rhyll explained. "I mean to go in for gardening."
Norah nodded, her mouth full but her conversation unhindered. "Good scheme. Nice to produce something proper to look on, I'd have thought."
"You produce 'something proper to look on'," Ethel reproached sharply. "Norah writes," she explained to Rhyll.
"Oh, that's hardly the same." Norah exclaimed. "For a start, one has to examine the damned thing at close hand to judge whether it's any good or not. And then there's all the barely-passable tripe churned out to match a brief that pays well, rather than having any regard for quality. Any child with a typewriter could produce something that looked like writing. There's nowhere near the satisfaction of something wholly tangible."
"What do you write?" Rhyll asked.
"In the newspapers, mostly," Norah offered vaguely. "The books page, as a general rule, and then other things as they present themselves. It's hardly a vocation, but it keeps the wolf from the door."
Rhyll nodded and tried to think of something to say.
Norah took pity on her again. "But of course you haven't travelled all this way to make small talk over dinner," she acknowledged with a grin. "You're here because of the pricking of your thumbs."
Rhyll paused, thoughtful. Was that it? Was it really so simple?
Norah speared another broccoli floret before continuing. "You're here because you gathered that Ethel and I live together - as man and wife," she darted a teasing glance at the taller woman, who gave a snort of affectionate derision on cue. "Ethel doesn't like that comparison," she explained with a stifled chuckle. "Some folk do, though. Woman and wife then, my love."
Ethel gave Norah another dismissive look, but Rhyll barely noticed it. "Some folk..." she murmured, almost to herself, testing the idea those two words implied.
"Oh yes, and plenty of 'em. We'll take you out later and you can see for yourself." Norah's eyes twinkled and Rhyll tried to guess at what she could mean and how it amused her so. But she didn't ask, and just as quickly Norah's face grew serious. "But perhaps there are other things we should be frank about, too. You didn't tell anyone you were coming here, did you?" Rhyll shook her head. "Of course you didn't, because there's no way you could explain it. You don't know me at all. And yet - here you are. That's all the same thing, that's what I meant about the pricking of thumbs. You recognised what you had to reach out and grab, and what you had to hide. What's more, you'll only get better with practice."
Rhyll let this sink in for a moment. "I read a book -" she began, then stopped and tried again: "The college principal said - I didn't know -" Again she stopped, drew breath and started over. "Isn't it abnormal?"
Norah looked for a moment as if she might laugh, but she didn't. "Unusual, maybe. Although even then it depends where you are. I was lucky, Rhyll, I came of age in the women's suffrage movement. It would be a libel to say they were mostly of our persuasion, but we made up a pretty substantial minority and nobody else really seemed to have a problem with it. That was a very fortunate world to find myself in."
Rhyll could picture her, younger but no less self-assured, chaining herself to a railing outside Downing Street maybe, shouting at a policeman. Norah seemed to guess what she was thinking, because she grinned proudly. "I threw a stone through the Home Secretary's window, once."
Rhyll couldn't help feeling slightly sceptical, but she smiled anyway. Her head was spinning. Far away, her family had no idea where she was and here, a whole new world was unfolding before her. Over dinner, and well into the afternoon, Norah laid out the pieces for her - aided by the occasional interjection from Ethel: the life she had led, the women she had known, the choices she had made; the places, the people, the coded messages that opened secret doors without risking indiscretion. The books in which women like them appeared, the rumours which dogged certain women in public life. Norah spoke openly, if with a liberal helping of bravado, and Rhyll stared in open-mouthed delight, immeasurably grateful to have been plucked from obscurity and treated to this wealth of knowledge, and all thanks to the problems on the Waterloo-Reading line.
Thanks very much for the comments! I had really thought there were only three (very lovely and very supportive!) people reading this, so it's lovely to see a few more. :)
The rain had ceased by early evening, and the three women left the house on foot. Within five minutes of leaving, they were in sight of the gorge and the muddy river below; Rhyll had loved it on sight, felt grounded by it. Not quite the sea, but close enough. Perhaps Norah noticed the expression on her face as she gazed towards it, or perhaps she had similar feelings of her own: whatever the reason, she led them the longer route, along the river for as long as possible before turning away and rounding a number of corners in quick succession.
The pub, when they reached it, was small on the outside but stretched a long way back once they had ducked in through the doorway. It was busy, loud and dimly lit. Norah led the way through to the back of the room, squeezing past oblivious roisterers and offering the occasional shouted apology. Rhyll felt Ethel's hand on her shoulder, gently guiding her along. At last they reached a shabby velvet curtain which divided off the very back of the pub, and Norah pushed through, holding the weighty material open for Rhyll and Ethel to follow.
There was a table within, packed on all sides, and with one accord the women looked up without pausing in their conversation or hushing their shouts of laughter. Several pairs of eyes fell first on Norah, with grins of recognition and welcome; and then turned to Rhyll, inquiring and eager.
"Move along, then!" Norah demanded, and the mass of women duly shuffled tighter, affable protests at the lack of space mingling with calls of greeting, until the newcomers were able to squeeze themselves onto the benches either side of the table. Norah and Rhyll sat on one side while Ethel faced them, the velvet curtain at her back.
"Who've you brought?" demanded one woman, bespectacled with dark hair plaited loosely back straight from her face. She looked appraisingly at Rhyll as she spoke.
"This is Rhyll," Norah explained shortly, giving the inquirer something that looked rather like a warning glance as she spoke. "She's visiting for the weekend. I found her looking lost at Paddington earlier in the summer." Nudging Rhyll, she pointed round the table and ran through a list of names. Rhyll couldn't help noticing that there were a number of men's names among them, though the faces Norah attributed them to were definitely female.
It was all so very different from anything else Rhyll had ever known: the noise; the careless irreverence; the immediate and unquestioning use of Christian names (and only Christian names, she noted); the peculiar mix of intimacy, authority and hints of unease. She wondered again at Norah's glare at the woman in the spectacles - Mabel, she thought Norah had called her, although the names and faces swam together in the smoky pub - and what it could have meant. Someone came with tankards of mild ale and placed them on the table before the new arrivals, and Rhyll was grateful to have somewhere to rest her hands and eyes for a moment.
The chatter resumed around them, and Ethel leaned across the table. "Are you all right, dear? Let me know if it all gets a bit much. There's precious little use in trying to explain that to Norah, but to the rest of us it can be overwhelming here at times and it's quite all right if you need to step outside."
Rhyll smiled gratefully, and said she was fine. Fine seemed an inadequate way of describing it, but she was fascinated and did not want to miss a moment. Beside Ethel, two women sat together with their hands entwined on the table: one leaned against the other, and although they appeared to be engaged in conversation with Norah and some others, it was clear that another private conversation was also taking place in small murmurs, the stroking of hair and the intermittent kissing of cheeks. Rhyll flushed.
"Asking for trouble, if you want my view on it," Norah was opining loudly beside her. Rhyll listened with interest. It seemed to be a discussion about some other mutual acquaintances, not present that day, and a third woman who had recently moved in and swiftly out of their home.
"Pretty girl though," Spectacles was saying with a smirk. "You wouldn't then, Nor'?"
Norah drew herself up, affected great dignity and casting a look at Ethel across the table. "No need, Mabel. Not us."
"I don't think it's about need," one of the two entwined objected. "It's radical, isn't it? Finding a new and better way of living, rather than - rather than appropriating the banality and captivity of marriage."
Norah snorted, good-natured but dismissive. "Young people!"
"You were young once," Ethel reminded her with a smile.
"Pah! So I was, and then I grew up. Much the better for it, too."
"I reckon it works for some people," put in the other half of the tangle of limbs beside Ethel. "Doesn't have to be everyone's arrangement." She cast a meaningful look around the table as she spoke, and Norah followed her glance before nodding slowly and letting it drop.
Rhyll turned her head to quietly watch the women further along he table. She could catch no more than traces of conversations, but she was trying to imagine them from the body language. Two women were leaned close towards each other, their attention undivided as they murmured, the conversation bouncing easily back and forth between them. Their eyes sparkled and their smiles seemed at once uncertain and brazen. Rhyll flushed again and shifted her gaze. Something that looked like a reunion of old friends was taking place at the far end of the table, excited embraces and rapid flows of speech accompanied by much demonstrative pointing and waving of hands.
"Oh! I brought something for you all!" Norah exclaimed, diving for her bag.
"We'd noticed." It was Mabel again, smirking at Rhyll. Rhyll was reminded of the kitchen cat back at the cottage in Exmouth, her hungry stare of imminent victory as she closed in on a mouse in the corner of the room.
"Incorrigible!" A woman to one side of her elbowed her good-naturedly, and Mabel subsided with a unabashed wink at Rhyll.
Norah had retrieved a rather battered-looking book from her bag and waved it above her head triumphantly. "Aha! Now, listen up, all of you. It's only a short bit, and it'll be worth it. You have my word!"
With some laughing protests, the crowd quietened down and leaned in to listen to Norah's rasping voice. It was a reflection of the force of her personality, Rhyll thought, that she was able to command so much attention with a voice that couldn't really shout like most of the others. She projected it masterfully, but much of her effective volume came from the attentive hush she could solicit from others.
"The gist of it," Norah explained as she thumbed through the pages, "is that a sweet innocent is quite ruined by her affair with a woman. Terribly tortuous, and shockingly popular, if the sales numbers are to be believed. Ah! 'This, then, is the product of lesbianism. This the result of dipping the fingers of vice into a sex-welter whose deadly force crucified in a slow, eternal bleeding.'"
She was hamming it up, and was rewarded with roars of laughter. From the far end of the table came a shout of "you keep your fingers of vice to yourselves!", and another wave of laughter.
"'And yet there are those who hug as a martyrdom these sadistic habits, who clamour for the recognition of the sinister group who practise them," Norah gave a mock-stern look over the book, "those crooked, twisted freaks of Nature who stagnate in dark and muddy waters, and are so choked with the weeds of viciousness and selfish lust that, drained of all pity, they regard their victims as mere stepping stones to their further pleasure.'"
"Now, that's not very nice," one of the pair beside Ethel objected: disproportionate mildness, deadpan.
Her lover shuddered slightly and drew closer. "I don't like it. It's horrid to hear."
"It's ridiculous," Mabel retorted crisply. "Too ridiculous to give any serious consideration to. Is there any more worth hearing, Nor'?"
Norah grinned. "Patience, my crooked, stagnating freak of Nature. 'With flower-sweet finger-tips they crush the grape of evil till it is exquisite, smooth and luscious to the taste, stirring up a subconscious responsiveness, intensifying all that has been, all that follows, leaving their prey gibbering...'"
Beneath the raucous laughter and the haze of smoke, Rhyll caught sight of someone she had somehow not noticed before. Standing next to Ethel and leaning over her to talk to the two women who still sat wrapped around each other was a girl of maybe twenty-two. She was small and slight, with shining hair of red-gold hanging loose about her shoulders. Her speech was quick, and so were her gestures, and as she spoke it was obvious she was saying goodbye. With nods and smiles, the farewells drew to a close and the girl turned to face Rhyll. Their eyes met, and the girl smiled at her for a long moment: whole-hearted, wordless, bold. Then she turned again and slipped away through the curtain.
I must again acknowledge a debt to the wonderful Bristol Out Stories website, whilst being clear that I have embellished as I see fit!: http://outstoriesbristol.org.uk/places/pubs-clubs/radnor-hotel/
The quoted novel is real ('Loveliest of Friends', G. Sheila Donisthorpe, 1931) but I must confess I've not read it myself - I've lifted it from Sheila Jeffreys' 'The Spinster and Her Enemies' instead. I do hope that real women would have been able to mock such unpleasant propaganda. I think some might have.
Very much of this generally is imagined though - I've tried to keep it within the realms of 'what could a lesbian 'scene' have *possibly* looked like c.1930?' but the reality is that there is very, very little record. Blah blah rant rant etc about the unrecorded nature of women's lives, but also very exciting to have such a lot of room to try to imagine it!
Thank you all for some lovely comments!
This chapter is a bit longer than usual I think, but it didn't seem to split anywhere obvious.
Rhyll felt profoundly changed when she returned to Holloway the following month.
Already she had plans for a subsequent weekend visit at the end of September. Suddenly the freedom of her college days opened up before her, and she mourned that there was now less than a year to go. The college believed she was visiting Julian, and Julian - with some reluctance - agreed to this deception. Rhyll had told him everything - or most of everything - as they rambled through the Surrey countryside when he visited on her first weekend back in Egham, and though he did not disguise his concern, Rhyll felt quite certain he would not betray her confidence. In any case, she needed to tell him in order to make visiting Bristol possible at all, and the thought of not being able to go seemed too awful to contemplate. In fact, anxious to make the best possible use of the time that already drained too rapidly through the hourglass, Rhyll took herself to Bristol fortnightly that term. At first she consoled herself that the considerable time spent on trains could at least be used industriously revising her science texts; later, Norah took to driving to fetch her in the spluttering, cantankerous car, a journey which was always a pleasure for the company but also a cause of unspoken concern with each explosive protest from under the bonnet.
"Why Bristol?" Rhyll had ventured on one such journey. Unspoken: Is it only Bristol? She now knew both Norah and Ethel well enough to know that neither were Bristol natives, that they had left London some years earlier to build a life there together.
Norah paused, not taking her eyes from the road. "A number of reasons. Firstly, I knew a handful of women there, from my campaigning days. Everyone travelled around a lot then, those who could afford it did, anyway. So it was somewhere I knew we could make a home in a community, rather than behind high walls, if you catch my drift. Also, if you're going to conduct yourself disgracefully, space and distance is no bad thing. Families don't want to be associated with that kind of gossip, you know. I don't think I could possibly scandalise my own parents more than I already have done - anyway, my father's died since I left London - but that was a big consideration for Ethel, and I respect it."
"How did you scandalise them?" Rhyll asked.
Norah had laughed. "I was in Holloway gaol three times, and refusing to be quiet about it!"
Rhyll winced in understanding. "Cat and mouse act?"
"Oh dear, no. Well, the third time yes, I was in and out, but no, I did mean three separate sentences." Norah frowned. "Waste of everyone's time, that in-and-out business. I wasn't really the dying type, and they'd already done enough damage the first two times that it didn't make any sense to spare me later." She waved a hand about her throat and glanced at Rhyll to check her comprehension.
It was Rhyll's turn to frown, first in confusion and then in horror as realisation dawned. "You mean -"
"Royally buggered my vocal chords, didn't they," Norah said with some bitterness. "Best kind of woman, of course - the one who can't shout any more."
They failed there, Rhyll thought. I can't imagine anyone succeeding in silencing you. Aloud, she murmured "how horrific".
"Yes," Norah agreed. "But I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."
The leaves fell from the trees, and cold winds swept in. After lunchtime one Saturday afternoon in November, the doorbell rang and Norah slipped from the room. Rhyll raised her eyebrows: Norah had not mentioned any guests and yet the way she rose immediately, rather than waiting on Mrs Farrant the housekeeper, suggested she knew exactly who was at the door.
She did not have to wonder for long. Norah reappeared at the doorway, looking directly at her with eyes which danced with mischief. "Visitor for you." With which unilluminating statement she beckoned Ethel from the room. As the two disappeared to elsewhere in the house, the figure in the doorway was revealed.
"Well," said the red-haired girl from the pub with a grin, "aren't you going to invite me in?"
Rhyll got to her feet hastily. "Of course, come in! I wasn't expecting you - Norah didn't mention anything -"
"Ah, yes," she looked slightly uncomfortable but continued to smile, clearly amused by her own discomfort. "That would probably be because I asked her not to. Sorry, I did rather invite myself - do you mind?"
"Mind?" Rhyll echoed foolishly. "Of course I don't mind, er -"
"It's Alice," she said with another smile, seating herself in the chair Norah had only recently vacated. Rhyll sat again too. "And you're Rhyll, of course. I think I missed Norah introducing you at the Radnor, but I asked around and here you are."
Rhyll kept her face carefully controlled, as if this was something perfectly ordinary to hear. "I'm pleased you did. It's very nice to meet you properly," she said, equal parts her mother's unflappable good manners and her own devil-may-care indifference. "I'll ring for some tea, shall I?"
The door nudged open and Alice grinned in amused delight as Mrs Farrant pushed in the silver trolley. "I think someone's already got that covered! They're good sorts, Norah and Ethel. You couldn't have bumped into a better pair. Are you always this lucky?"
Rhyll pondered the question. "Do you know, I've never much thought about it. Perhaps I am. My brother certainly is - not that he doesn't deserve it. But the sun always shines on him. Maybe he makes his luck... I'm not sure the same could be said of me!"
"Older brother or younger?" Alice asked with interest. "I think we do make our own luck, most of the time. I'll gladly take full credit for mine!"
Rhyll smiled as she poured out the tea. "Elder brother. I've three of them, in fact, though the eldest two have moved abroad."
"So you're the youngest." Alice observed thoughtfully, stirring two cubes of white sugar into her tea. "I'm the oldest. One brother, one sister. He'll finish school next summer. She keeps house for my father."
"You don't live with them?" Rhyll asked.
"No," Alice's face clouded uneasily for a moment. "They're not so far away, but too far for me to get to work. I work at the tobacco factory," she explained. "And you're at the Royal Holloway, I know, before you go to gardening college..."
She had done her research.
"That's right," Rhyll agreed. "This is my final year at Holloway, then I'm off to Swanley. How is it at the tobacco factory?"
Alice shrugged with a playful grin. "It's not exactly a burning passion, as I'd think gardening might be. But it pays, and the other girls are good fun." She nibbled thoughtfully at a biscuit. "Aren't you going to ask why I'm here, or anything?"
"It wouldn't be especially polite," Rhyll pointed out reasonably. "Would you like me to ask you now?"
The girl laughed with easy affection. "You're funny. Most women I've known round here wouldn't waste time on politeness, not over something like that. I liked the look of you, that's what it was. I like the look of you."
Inwardly, Rhyll was not sure this explanation offered any greater clarity, but she decided to keep quiet and wait. Alice held her gaze very steadily, and Rhyll did not look away.
"Might I write to you, sometimes?" Alice asked as she broke off her gaze to reach for another biscuit. "I shouldn't say anything too risqué, I expect they monitor your post too closely to chance that sort of thing, but I'd like to. Write to you, I mean, not write anything that might land you in hot water at college. Although actually..." She grinned again, and Rhyll felt her stomach flip.
"I'd like that too," she answered simply.
Alice smiled - and for all her outward nonchalance, Rhyll felt quite certain she saw a fresh sparkle in her eyes. "Good. You had better write to me here, I think. Norah and Ethel wouldn't mind, bless them."
They passed a splendid afternoon getting to know each other, and Rhyll wrote her first letter on the train home the following day. She hesitated over it in the envelope, wondering if it was simply too soon, too eager; but in the end she threw caution to the wind and took it to the post office on Monday morning. When Julian came to visit on Saturday, he brought with him a reply (Rhyll having decided on a whim that there were advantages to a less observed postal address, even at the cost of delays), and between that letter and the one she scribbled in response, the frankness of their correspondence was sufficient to leave her pleasantly nervous at the prospect of seeing Alice again.
She caught the train to Bristol the following weekend, Norah's car having suffered another malaise, and to her surprise and delight she found Alice waiting expectantly in the ticket hall. "I hope you don't mind," Alice greeted her shyly.
"Not at all," Rhyll assured her, though she was not convinced such reassurance was necessary. "I'm glad to see you."
"I'm afraid I've come straight from work," Alice indicated the sizeable bag she was carrying, and ran her hand forlornly through her hair.
Rhyll struggled for the response she was looking for. You're perfectly neat and tidy felt too breezy; you still look beautiful, too effusive. She settled for cowardly neutrality: "You must be very tired."
Alice grinned up at her. "Actually, I feel quite lively,. I expect it's your company..."
They walked and talked through the dark streets, and the cold did not seem to touch them. The church bells rang nine o'clock as they strolled past, and Rhyll had to lean closer to hear Alice beneath the pealing of bells. Suddenly she was aware of the chill in the air as she felt the contrasting warmth of her companion.
"I should like to kiss you," Alice said suddenly, pausing beneath a blazing streetlamp. "I can't, of course - or at least, not here - but I want you to know that I should like to."
Rhyll was speechless; nothing had ever prepared her for how to respond in this situation. Alice gathered up her hand, with her characteristic speed of movement, and gently grazed her knuckles with her lips. Then she dropped it hurriedly and with an unspoken accord they quickened their pace towards the refuge of Norah's home.
Thank you for the comments!
Peggy rolled over so that she was staring upwards to the ceiling. The look on her face was inscrutable.
Rhyll frowned. "What is it, Peggy?"
Peggy looked embarrassed. "Oh, I'm just being silly. I feel a bit... strange, hearing you in love with someone else. That's all."
"Well, you already know it didn't last," Rhyll objected, reasonable but brittle, annoyed with herself for her lack of compassion but still incapable of summoning any. "Look, it's late. We're both tired. Shall we sleep? We've all day tomorrow."
Peggy nodded quietly and slipped into the adjoining bathroom. Rhyll switched on the bedside lamp and closed the curtains on the shadowy sea outside, sighing with the weight of disappointments past and present for all she knew she wouldn't, not for worlds, change the place she had reached now.
Peggy fidgeted uncomfortably beside her in bed, and she felt guilty anew for causing her discomfort. Tired and anxious, she pretended to be asleep; deliberately slowed her breathing, waiting to see whether she ought to intervene. After some time Peggy drew closer and wrapped fierce arms around her. Rhyll felt her lover relaxing into her, her face buried at the back of Rhyll's neck. She took one slender hand and squeezed it: acknowledgment, reconciliation, warmth.
"I love you," Peggy murmured sleepily, and Rhyll smiled broadly in the darkness. Their breathing fell into accidental synchrony, with each other and with the background sigh of the sea, and in no time both were fast asleep.
The following day was gloriously sunny. Rhyll knew this almost before she woke, for when she tried to open her eyes she was confronted by the bright sun rippling across the sea. She squeezed them quickly shut and turned over.
"I see you!" Peggy crowed triumphantly from the window-seat. "Wake up again, Evvy. I've made you some tea."
Rhyll peered at her watch on the bedside table. Half-past seven. "Come back to bed," she muttered, not lifting her head from the pillow.
Peggy bounced across the room and onto the bed, which groaned in response. They both laughed. "This thing sounds exactly like you," Peggy whispered in her ear, soft brown hair falling across both of their faces. "Grumpy and decrepit!"
Rhyll snorted, rolled over and pulled her nearer for a kiss. "We're both older than you! You may laugh now - whilst you still can!"
Peggy grinned and propped herself up on the pillows. "Drink your tea, woman, and wake up. What shall we do today?"
The day was bright and brisk, and once they had followed the coastal road for a couple of miles it was almost deserted. Peggy slipped an arm through hers. "I'm sorry, about last night. Silly, really - I knew that even then. Today I simply can't imagine what I was thinking."
"It's all right. It was a very long day. I'm sorry, too - I was unfair. I do understand." Rhyll thought for a moment, then chuckled softly. "I really do understand, in fact. Do you want me to tell you?"
Peggy nodded, her head resting against Rhyll's shoulder, her arm still firmly tucked under Rhyll's.
Rhyll looked out at the wide expanse of water. "I told you, I think, that her family lived not far out of Bristol. Her father and her two younger siblings. Her mother had died and her father - well, he was a bit of a drinker. You know the sort of thing, I think," she bit her lip, treading carefully around delicate confidences which even now were not hers to break.
"So she rented a room in Bristol?" Peggy asked.
"No. She sent home close to all of her pay packet, she couldn't afford to rent somewhere for herself too. No, that was the thing. She stayed with other people, she moved around so as not to outstay her welcome with any one set of friends. She slept on women's sofas and floors, and sometimes she slept in their beds." Peggy didn't react as Rhyll had expected, so she tried again. "Well, she didn't just sleep in them, sometimes."
"Ouch." Peggy murmured.
"Yes," Rhyll agreed. "I didn't know, at first. I felt a fool when I found out. Everyone else must have known, but not me."
Peggy winced sympathetically. "That was no reflection on you, though."
"Still felt silly," Rhyll shrugged, grateful. "They all knew and I was clueless... Community can be a mixed blessing, sometimes." She kicked a loose stone on the road. "I didn't understand at all - how could I? There was I, with an allowance generous enough I didn't even much have to account for what I had spent it on; and there was her, having to make those sorts of decisions... She stopped, you know. We argued about it and she stopped. It must have limited her options, insisting she would only stay on the sofa from now on, but she did it."
Peggy was silent for a moment, absorbing this. "Were you together a long time?" she asked next, and Rhyll noted with gratitude the careful neutrality of her tone.
"Four years," she replied softly. "All through that last year at Holloway, all through my time at Swanley, and a little over a year after that. We lived together then."
Peggy's arm tightened protectively around hers. "Is it jumping ahead frightfully to ask what happened?"
Rhyll grinned. "Yes, it bloody is!"
Peggy smiled back, and Rhyll was pleased to see the usual easy contentment had returned to her warm brown eyes. "What about Norah? I like the sound of her. The home secretary's window..?!"
She chuckled. "I was never quite sure whether to believe that one. She always liked a good story, Norah, and never mind if truth got in the way!" Her voice grew reminiscent. "I asked Ethel about that, once. She pointed out - gently, Ethel was so rarely anything but gentle, even when she was raging - that whatever the particulars of the incident, there was proof enough that Norah had paid for it. I felt ashamed for asking, after that. It's certainly true that she was in prison, and that she was subjected to forced feeding for she had a certificate saying so, and if that doesn't earn a person a right to embellish the tale of how they got there then what does?" She paused again. "It might well have been true. There was so much then that was stranger than fiction, in a way. I sometimes felt that I must be going mad, flitting between the very normal world of college, and all of that scene in Bristol..."
3.1 From Holloway to Swanley by crm
The year through to June was an exceptionally full one, and she did not waste a moment of it: almost holding her breath as she scribbled furiously through lectures; scanning her notes propped up on the dresser as she raced through her toilet in the mornings; writing up practical work on a crowded train across the West Country; lying awake into the early hours of the morning, tracing one invisible diagram after another on the irresistible skin of Alice's thin white back.
Julian, as well as her parents, turned out to watch her degree conferred - a ceremony which felt at once enormous and perfunctory. In the weighty silence of the chapel, Rhyll watched the dust dance in the sunlight from the high windows and tried to plan for the conversations which must surely follow; knowing that her place at Swanley, however explicitly promised, was too precious to consider guaranteed until the agreement was revisited. Her irrational anxiety lent an air of precarity to the day's commemorations, and she was glad to escape the cool chapel for the blazing sunlight on the lawn; gladder still to escape the day in its entirety for the solitude of her bed that night.
She did not have long to wait. Summoned to appear before her father after lunch the following day, she stood awkwardly in the delicate sitting room. Uncertain. Her father's gaze steady, appraising. Her mother seated in the corner, passive, harder to read.
Passive or not, it was she who suddenly broke the silence. "Don't you think it's time you grew your hair again, Betty?"
Father and daughter suppressed matching quizzical expressions, though neither noticed it: one too wary, focused on the discussion to come; the other too distracted, quaintly charmed by this unexpected diversion. Rhyll, suspecting that no answer would suffice, did not advance one.
"I daresay it might be somewhat more practical," her father observed, shades of Julian in his cultivated simplicity - and Rhyll dared to believe, lifted her head slightly, waited. Her father smiled, genial. "Is it still want you want, then? Swanley?"
There weren't the words. Rhyll swallowed hard, unable to believe it could be this simple in the end. She opened her mouth, closed it. Cleared her throat, wet her lips nervously, tried again. "Very much," she managed, near croaking with relief, feeling for all the world the same child of sixteen she had been years ago, having almost this conversation in this room; trying to disguise her hopes and her fears even as she sought permission to pursue them.
It was an adjustment she felt quite constantly aware of throughout the summer. The world she had inhabited at Holloway, however vigilant and cloistered, had been leagues of freedom beyond that which she could realise back at home. She recalled Ralph and Charles, when they had come back from the war, how they had been instantly admitted to the conversations and sitting rooms of the adults. Both had seemed unreachably grown-up to her smaller self, but at twenty-two she suddenly realised how young they had really been. Years older, she had yet to be granted these markers of adulthood; and while she could never envy her eldest brothers those experiences which had preceded their promotion within the household, she found it hard not to resent the suffocating confines of her own life.
Julian was present more often than not, that summer, and his company helped ameliorate this claustrophobic dissatisfaction. Julian was still at Imperial, where he was now a fellow of the college. Rhyll found herself unable to understand what exactly this meant or what it was he was doing, other than that he loved it with a passion and seemed to have a place assured, certainly for the next few years and quite possibly for as long as he wished to remain. He did not appear to have any plans beyond this, any more, and his work appeared to consume and electify every fibre of his being. It was with Julian that Rhyll was able to rekindle a childlike enjoyment of the surrounding area, and the two spent early mornings combing the beach, or playing on the tennis court at the furthest end of the gardens. Most afternoons, they would pass together in easy conversation or in silence: she tending the garden with a quiet and possessive tenderness, he reclining nearby with a book and a glass of something cold.
Untrammelled relief came in the form of a week's sojourn in Bristol, again blamed on the hospitable college friend of the previous summer. It was like coming up for air after swimming too long under water, surfacing once more in this other world where women drove their own cars and addressed each other by their first names, and this time Rhyll was able to thoroughly enjoy the celebration of her academic achievement. Norah raised a toast to her, in that crowded corner at the back of the Radnor, and all the while she could feel Alice at her side, glowing generously in reflected glory. Ethel toasted her again when the four of them arrived back home that night, mismatched china mugs of gin raised in her honour by candlelight in the early hours because the electricity had gone out: Norah bumping into the table and swearing as her drink splashed over the edges of her cup; Alice slipping an arm around Rhyll's waist as she smothered a giggle; and Ethel, gripping Norah's arm as if to keep her upright, with a hand that was stern but eyes that twinkled, gently acknowledging how much of a slog the years at Holloway had been and how richly deserved was her success in pushing through to the end.
Rhyll clung tightly to the memories of that night: worked them into her mind with a concerted effort, re-running the script over and over to make sure she did not forget a word. She could still feel Alice's arm sliding around her, the feel of her hair tumbling over Rhyll's shoulder. The weight of the mug in her hand, the smell of candlewax. The familial closeness. It was a memory that sustained her, not only through the barren month of August during which she could not receive any letters from Bristol, but also through the lonely drive up to Kent with her father at the end of September. Holloway, in a sense, had not truly mattered. Or rather, it had mattered, but only as a necessary stepping stone. Swanley was a different matter entirely, and she felt it. To have felt herself a failure at Holloway - even to have been a failure at Holloway - would have been mere disaster: the fatal blow to her only ambition. But to fail at Swanley would be a tragedy. Objectively, Rhyll did not think failure in any sense was a real probability, but even the realisation that it mattered so completely was enough to frighten her. In addition, there were the inconvenient practicalities to be considered: Swanley was that much further from Bristol, and would require far more from her of a weekend. This knowledge brought a double loneliness - that of missing her people, that familial closeness, and that of having to bear this blow in private, unacknowledged. And then through it all, her excitement and a desperate desire to do well, to learn it all and to excel.
Sitting in the car beside her father, her face impassive, she burned with trepidation.
Thank you for the comments! Sorry this has been such a long break - life etc - I do hope to be back to regular updates again now though!
The nerves barely persisted beyond the first evening, and by the end of the first week of term had already become a distant memory. Swanley very quickly became home, in a way that Holloway never had done; maybe even more of a home than the cottage near Exmouth had managed, where the level of comfort had always seemed to depend so definitely on Julian’s continuing presence, and on maintaining a careful distance between herself and her parents, or herself and the indoors. At Swanley, there was no such conditionality: everywhere felt right, from the ranging grounds to the classrooms, the potting sheds to the dairy, the shared dining room to her small, sparsely furnished bedroom. The work thrilled her, whether practical or theoretical, and she felt at ease with her peers in a way she had only observed among others back at Holloway.
An additional thrill of comfort had raced through her when the principal stood to address the student body at the end of dinner that first night. Tall, loud, and cheerfully imposing, Frances Somerville was a force of personality, and her obvious competence and passion held her securely in the school’s greatest esteem; but for Rhyll especially, there was an instant recognition – one of ours, she could almost hear Norah murmuring approvingly in her ear – which brought warmth and security, as if to underline just how well she herself belonged here. She hung delightedly on every word, as the principal extended a confident welcome to new and returning students, laid out her expectations of her new starters, and reminded all those present of the weight of Swanley’s reputation, the commitment their work demanded and the promise extended to them on graduation from their endeavours. “There are not so many of you as to remain anonymous to me,” she concluded with a broad smile which was at once inviting and warning, “and it will be through your good impression that I shall come to know of you. Good night, ladies. I hope and expect that this year will be a fruitful one for all of us.”
“It’s Everett, isn’t it?” A bowl of porridge landed carelessly across the table, and Rhyll looked up into an open face, blue eyes and wide mouth. She decided, with uncharacteristic speed of judgment, that she liked this person. “Mind if I sit here?”
“That’s right,” Rhyll agreed, motioning for her classmate to sit. After three full days of classes she knew she ought to know the name – Browning? Brownlow?
“Brownhill,” the girl said, and laughed at Rhyll’s apologetic expression. “I could see you were trying to remember. Meg Brownhill.”
“Rhyll,” Rhyll offered, and spooned another mouthful of porridge to her mouth, wondering awkwardly what she ought to say next and, not for the first time, cursing her apparent failure to inherit her mother’s easy way with polite conversation.
She need not have worried: tucking into her own breakfast with gusto, Meg Brownhill appeared to have the whole thing under control. “Nice to meet you properly, although I’ve seen you around, of course. How are you finding it? Where were you before this, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I read Sciences at Royal Holloway,” Rhyll began, and much to her relief, Meg swooped in again with enthusiasm.
“Oh, really? Goodness, you must be coasting through the theory here, then. I’m frightfully envious! I do like it, but isn’t it such a lot to get your head around? Well, for me it is – but perhaps it’s all old hat to you. I just adore the practical work, though. I haven’t studied the garden at all before, I haven’t studied anything beyond high school, and I finished there when I was fifteen. My – cousin is a gardener, though: he works at one of the big houses, second-in-command of a garden staff of twenty. Cleaned up wonderfully at the flower show this summer. We mean to go into business together, once I’m trained up. He’ll do the heavy work, of course. I’ll do the more artistic bits. There’s a place for that kind of double-act, isn’t there? People want to see a woman’s touch, more thoughtful, more observant, but they want the reassurance of a man’s work too. Don’t go stealing our idea, though!” Her dreamy eyes twinkled across at Rhyll. “Bees, too. I mean to keep bees. They’d take care of the kitchen garden, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have your own honey, as well as the fruit and veggies? And the flowers, of course. That’s what we mean to do. To offer the whole lot.” Meg paused, swallowed a quick mouthful of grey tea. “Sorry, I do go on! I can’t help it, I’m so excited. What about you? What’ll you do?”
Rhyll considered her reply. It was not the first time she had wondered this, but she had so far not come to a definite answer, and the handful of requirements she had identified as essential for her future situation felt somehow too delicate and convoluted to explain now. “I’m not quite sure,” she said at last. “I’d like to see how this year goes, and hopefully get a feel for it that way. I’ve always loved to garden. I’ve been growing things, one way or another, since I was very small. It’s all I want to do. I’m just not sure exactly where I want to do it yet, or who I want to commission me.” She laughed slightly, feeling self-conscious about the lack of clarity in her ambitions, and unexpectedly very comfortable with this new friend. “That all sounds awfully vague and uncommitted, compared with your plans! I’ve dreamed of coming here for years. I almost haven’t dared think beyond this point.”
Meg grinned, shovelling her breakfast down at speed with one eye on the wall clock. “I think that’s probably more normal than me. It’s cost my parents an awful lot to send me here – not just the fees, but all the uniform and other things too. They need to know it will be worth it, that it’s more than just a hobby. And I’m not as young as some of these girls – I’ll be twenty-three next month. Anyway, I like to plan!” She washed down the last of her porridge with her tea, and grimaced. “It’s not quite fine dining, is it? Still, it fuels the body well enough. Good to meet you, Evvy. Oops, there’s the bell! We’re in the classroom first thing, aren’t we? Oh, I hope I can get a better idea of this botany sometime soon! I shall be pestering you for help over lunch, I know I will...” She caught the reproachful eye of the college secretary and subsided into silence with a jolly nod of apology. As they joined the students filing from the room, Rhyll gave wordless thanks, yet again, for the luck of being here, and for all the opening promise of the term.
Thank you for the comments! Lovely to know people are reading this.
“Evvy! You got a minute?”
Rhyll threw down her pen thankfully and looked up with a smile. “Several, in fact.” She shuffled her papers as Meg bounded across the common-room to sit at the desk beside hers, slipping two half-written letters beneath the blank sheets.
Meg had her blue serge apron hanging over one arm and her green cotton jacket slung around her shoulders, indicating she had just come in from her watering duties; the task fell to each of them for one Sunday in three. “Meteorology!” The word burst out of her indignantly, with an emphatic swoop of her hand, her face a mask of tragedy fit for any small-town pantomime.
Rhyll chuckled and reached across the desk for her own book. “It’s not so awful really. And it’s jolly useful, too.” She flushed slightly, almost apologetic for her own comfort. “You know I told you about my silly book, the one I used to write when I was small, with all of my plants and my ridiculous ‘experiments’?”
“Not ‘silly’,” Meg interjected, tucking her outdoor garments over the back of her chair and her stockinged feet up beneath her. “Nor ‘ridiculous’, since we’re on the subject.”
“Well, anyway. At one point I started recording the weather in that – not just the weather, but the exposure of different parts of the garden to the sun, or the wind or cold, all that sort of thing. It was one of the most useful things I did, although of course I only happened across it by accident really.” She reconsidered this point. “Maybe not exactly by accident – it was an extension of wondering about the effect of a prolonged frost, really – I wondered what else would make such a big difference, and how to work around it. I didn’t expect it would be quite as dramatic as it was, though. So I’m lucky now, that’s all – most of this was just going over things I’d already found out through trial and error. Here.” She pushed her exercise book, now open at the correct page, across to where Meg could see it. In front of almost anyone else she would have felt embarrassed about her handwriting, in spite of it being the best she could manage; but somehow Meg had put her instantly at ease on their first meeting, and Rhyll had not had any cause to revise this opinion in the weeks since. She watched as Meg’s eyes flew over the diagrams and commentary, her mouth muttering silently as she read.
When she had finished, she turned to her with a broad smile. “Thanks, Evvy! I understand it completely now. I am glad there’s not more of the written sort of thing than there is, as useful as I’m sure it must be. You learn better through doing, don’t you? Like Miss S is always saying.”
Rhyll nodded her agreement. “There’s no substitute, I can’t imagine. Still, there has to be some theory to accompany it, or what would be the difference between us and the garden boys?”
Meg grinned. “What, you mean apart from maybe £40 a year and not growing into a man eventually?”
Rhyll smiled too.
“I’d better go and tidy up,” Meg sighed, hauling herself out of the chair as if it had been a luxurious drawing-room affair and not a rickety wooden thing. “I say, Evvy, I don’t suppose you know anything about our incoming mail? Do they open it sometimes, or anything like that?”
Her voice was suspiciously casual, but Rhyll had been wondering exactly the same thing and so it seemed more sensible to not concern herself with whatever secrets Meg wanted to keep. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Holloway certainly used to. I suppose it depends how much of a choice you think you’ve got.” She concluded, more to herself than to her friend, and quickly backpedalled. “Sorry, I wasn’t meaning to pry! It’s only that I’ve been mulling over the very same thing. I haven’t decided what to do yet.”
Meg gave her another warm smile, seeming to come to the same conclusion about respecting her privacy. “Well, if you work anything out, let me know, won’t you? And of course I’ll do the same for you.”
As Meg drifted from the room and Rhyll’s eye fell once more on her pile of writing-paper, she reflected that perhaps she would ‘work something out’ rather sooner than either of them had really indicated. Neither letter was finished, but both were too much committed to for her to give up on them now. Pulling one out and uncapping her pen again, she skimmed through to recapture her thread and continued where she had left off:
"I wish we could have this conversation in person, but there's not the time and I'd rather ask this way than not at all.
I want to spend my half-term week in Bristol - very much. The only way I can think of managing this is by saying I will spend the week with you in London. Might I do that? Would you mind very much?"
She bit her lip thoughtfully. It was a big ask, and such a favour demanded a better explanation than she had offered. And yet - what more could she possibly add, in a letter? The danger inherent in a written confession let her off the hook, she realised with some shame: face to face, she would have had to decide how much truth to divulge. What she had written was already sufficient to damn her, in the wrong hands - and there was more than one way in which her missive might end up in that predicament. Irresistible desperation intermingled with the threads of hope which spun from her recognition of the principal as being one of us; gave her something to cling to, wove her just enough of a safety net to take that risk.
"Tell you when I see you," she scribbled, apology and courage rolled into one, signing her name with a determined flourish. Folding it and stuffing it into an envelope, she sealed it and turned her attention to the second letter.
"Trying to make it so I might see you for half term. No promises at this stage."
A gap, which she knew Alice could interpret correctly: the fear of what could not be written; the words which were already hard enough to find. Then:
"I need to see you."
There was nothing more to add, she decided, and another letter was committed to its envelope, ready for the next day's post.
The fate of both letters, sent out through the college office and defenceless against secretarial scrutiny, played on her mind over the next few days, and she was grateful for the intensity of the Swanley curriculum and especially its focus on the all-consuming work to be done outdoors. It was an extravagant lie, the situation she was trying to contrive; and yet it felt somehow essential to her soul's survival.
Julian's reply was prompt and brief: "Invite me to dinner," his elegant script demanded, and Rhyll hoped the note of good humour was genuine and not merely to reassure any other reader. "Every conversation is preferable in person. Do they serve wine?"
She laughed and went to arrange it. Friends and family were welcomed to weekend meals, by prior invitation, and most of her classmates had already taken advantage of this offer - though not Meg, Rhyll had noted with some disappointment, interested as she was in meeting her cousin the gardener. The proposed partnership intrigued her, with neither envy or derision. It was not an arrangement she would wish to enter into - to do the making-nice around somebody else's more fundamental design, to trade on the tasteful daintiness and unobtrusiveness of her femininity - Rhyll suppressed a snort at the thought, applied to herself - but Meg's enthusiasm was so evident, the details of her plans so obviously pleasing to her; Rhyll could not help but be curious about the other half of this vision.
Julian's presence had its usual electrifying effect. Students who Rhyll did not really know to nod at fell over themselves to greet her on the way into the dining room, their eyes roving appraisingly over her brother's clean-cut face, his well-tailored shirt, his clever, open smile.
"We can talk privately after," she murmured, guiding him to the end of a table. "You're the most exciting thing to happen here this week - probably this month."
"Only probably?" He teased, and there was no scorn in his amusement.
Rhyll laughed. "Yes, only probably. The junior mistress - do you see the one over there, with the fair hair? Hey, don't stare! - she lost her footing in amongst the potatoes a fortnight ago. It's a hard call to say whether you or she caused more of a stir..."
Julian grinned, and she began to hope it might all be all right.
"I'd rather like you to actually spend half-term with me," Julian opened with, as they took a pair of armchairs in a dim corner of the college drawing-room. They did not have the room to themselves, but with a good proportion of the college retiring instead to the common-room, they had at least the space to speak unheard if not unseen. "Instead of just saying that you're going to." They both waited, and he tried again: "It's no small lie, is it? Just to see a friend from Holloway - and not one who I remember you ever saying much about at the time you were there, either." Gently, so gently; he wouldn't judge her before he knew whatever there was to know, but he would force the confession before he would ever entertain the idea of helping her.
Rhyll nodded slowly. "It's not her, no."
She paused, but he would not let her off again. She watched as he rolled a cigarette and waited for her to talk.
"I've got friends there." She began carefully. "And someone - someone more special than that."
He nodded. "I thought as much. I only wondered why you hadn't told me before."
She looked at him, weighed up trust and fear, worst-case scenarios and unashamed defiance. "She's a girl."
Julian exhaled steadily, a pondersome cloud of smoke temporarily obscuring the finer detail of his features.
"It makes no difference to me," he asserted eventually, and turned a stubborn face to hers once more.
"But will you let them think I'm with you for half term?" She persisted, unable to express gratitude or relief for something she didn't entirely believe merited either, and keen to focus on the matter at hand.
Another lengthy pause, another cloud of thoughtful smoke. "I can't see that I have a lot of choice. I do wish you didn't feel obliged to lie. Can't you tell some version of the truth, at least?"
Rhyll bit her tongue. She could not share Julian's great faith in human understanding, but she ought to have anticipated it. "No, I can't. What if I tell half the truth and it's enough to make them forbid the very idea?"
Her brother was silent, recognising he had no answer to this, and after a moment's introspection he lifted his hands, palms up, eyes kind. "Don't tell me I never do anything for you, will you? And Rhyll?" His smile did not fade entirely, but his face grew sombre, "be careful."
I think I've said this before, but - I am hoping to be back to more regular updates now! Life is busy but I'm suddenly very much back in love with this story.
Rhyll sat down on the upended crate – located in the form potting shed for exactly this purpose – and tried to disguise her confusion with a determined impression of patience. “You know this, Brownhill. Your exam performance ought to be geeing you up, not getting you in this sort of state.”
Meg shook her head, her hands waving around distractedly. “That’s exactly it, don’t you think? After all that, it only stands to reason that I’ll muck this little lot up instead.”
“No,” Rhyll said heavily. “No, I don’t think.”
If Meg heard her, she gave little indication; indeed, the available evidence suggested that she was barely capable of seeing or hearing anything around her, being altogether more distracted by the increasing panic within. Rhyll wondered whether she ought to let her have her head, work through it in her own time. She had always remained patiently still and quiet whilst Julian went through a similar routine of excited gesturing and rapid chatter, but there was a more uncomfortable edge to Meg’s adrenalin and she decided to puncture it.
“The soil,” she reminded Meg gently, pointing to the small pots she had placed on the bench five minutes earlier.
Meg glanced at the first pot, took a deep breath and picked it up; dipped two fingers in and raked through the contents. She stared blankly at Rhyll, who smiled encouragement at her, and shook her head. “Loam? No, sand...”
“And the nature of sandy soil is?” Rhyll prompted.
Another blank stare. “Doesn’t bind. Drains too quickly?”
“Oh! I don’t know, I don’t know.” Meg looked ready to cry.
“ Easy to cultivate, and warms up quickly in the Spring.” Rhyll supplied, anxious to ward off the threat of tears and boost them both onto a more reassuring trajectory. She was not yet clear how to do this – could the opening question have been any easier? Trying another smile, she gestured to the next pot.
Meg felt the soil obligingly. “Silt? Also has great difficulty binding, but more nutritious than the sandy stuff. Easily compacted. We can help it bind by, er...” she shook her head sadly. “Oh, Evvy, thanks heaps for trying, but this is hopeless. These are the easiest bits, I should be able to do this in my sleep. Right, well, third time lucky!” With this, she picked up the third and final pot from the bench with a flourish – too much of a flourish: the pot flew through the gloomy air of the shed. With a cry, Meg leapt forward to catch it, upsetting the entire workbench in the process and sending the whole tray of pots tumbling to the floor.
“Bother it!” She exclaimed, staring wildly about her as if daring the world to throw her one last misfortune. Wordlessly, Rhyll reached for the dustpan and brush tucked away behind the door as Meg sank to her knees, coughing out wry, hacking sobs with an air of detachment. Rhyll began to sweep, and at this Meg seemed to pull herself together, shaking her head in grateful refusal as she took the brush from her. “Lord, what’ll I be like by the end of the year? I wonder!” She directed her embarrassed commentary to the floor as she swept, almost as if afraid to lift her face to Rhyll’s as she spoke. “I’m just so nervous. What if I don’t get through this? Everything is resting on it. Clive needs me to pass – we can’t wait any longer...”
“Your cousin?” Rhyll asked, hoping her voice was reassuring. “I’m sure he can wait for you.”
Meg looked up, her shoulders still stooping miserably. “No, not my cousin. My fiancé.”
“Ah,” Rhyll took this new information in for a moment. “Still, I’m sure he can wait.”
Meg gave her a look which suggested she thought little of Rhyll’s authority on such matters. “He’s waited long enough, in all manner of ways. I need to get through this, as quickly as possible, so that we can set up together properly, in the garden and in the home. He won’t wait forever.” Her voice shook slightly, and Rhyll knew why: her whole world, as she wanted it, was hanging in the balance.
“He’s waiting while you get your Cert.,” Rhyll admonished, stacking the now-empty pots inside each other. “And you’re right about this exam, you could do it in your sleep.”
“Luck makes all the difference though, doesn’t it.” Meg would not be so easily swayed, but Rhyll shook her head decisively.
“Look at the floor, Brownhill! Look, and think: there were exactly nine pots in here which it wouldn’t have mattered if you’d taken it upon yourself to chuck them through the window, weren’t there? The ones I got ready for you to practise on. And look! Exactly nine of them met the floor. If you’d managed to upend any of those –“ and here Rhyll jerked her chin in the direction of the numerous trays of delicate seedlings perched on almost every spare surface around the shed, “I’d agree that your luck was out. But today the sun is shining on you.”
Placing the stack of pots back onto the bench, she dusted her hands off on her blue serge apron and pulled her watch from her pocket. “We should both be heading over now, really. No point waiting ‘til we’re late and then having to rush. Are you all right? The floor’s shipshape enough. Ready?”
Meg nodded, getting to her feet and smoothing a hand over her hair. “Thanks, Evvy. You’re a brick. Don’t say anything, will you? I’m not sure whether they’d actually send me away, but they certainly wouldn’t approve.”
Rhyll shook her head. “Of course I won’t.” I’m pleased you told me, she thought, but she would have just as soon have flown up in the air as said it out loud. Both gave the shed a careful once-over for any mess they might have caused and missed and, finding it met with their approval, both turned on their heels and walked purposefully across the grounds to where their practical exams awaited them.
The previous half-term had ended with written examinations to assess their progress so far, and results had been pinned up ahead of their return that week. Rhyll had been pleased with how the papers – botany, chemistry and meteorology – had gone, and was even more pleased with her marks. Standing in front of the assigned junior mistress, she eyed the plants and soils set up at the table and felt confident in her ability to do well again here. In some ways, it was the moment she had been waiting for – the opportunity to talk about things which she knew, the autonomy to decide what ought to be done with them, someone interested to hear why she had chosen to do as she had done, and the chance to impress with something she knew she was good at.
Her examiner did not give her an easy time: she queried each answer as she asked Rhyll about the properties of each plant and each soil, and hovered imperiously nearby as Rhyll carefully planted out each small organism into her chosen soil and container, asking detailed questions with a deadpan face which so lacked any encouragement that Rhyll began to doubt her own method. But when it was all finished, the stern expression relaxed into a smile, and she invited Rhyll to sit down opposite her to discuss the exam.
“You did well, Everett,” the mistress rapped out, nodding and writing as she spoke. “Your identification was excellent, with a thorough understanding of the properties of the plants and soils. Your transfers were very well done, for a new student, and your reasoning was strong.” She flipped over the report sheet on which she was writing, scanning the text on the other side. “Some very good marks from the written papers, too. I do believe you might be top of your form.”
Rhyll felt the warmth of approval spread throughout her whole body. It was a new and unfamiliar feeling: she had never been one of those students at Holloway, though she and everyone else had known who they were; strange to think that she might now be one of those students here. Even all those years ago at home, when there were only four to choose from at best – and perhaps only her and Julian, for many years of their education, since the other two were always so much older – she had never been the best at anything. She had never felt then that she wanted to be – had certainly never looked at Julian’s easy brilliance with envy, or indeed with anything short of pleasure – but this sort of recognition seemed all the more delightful in its novelty.
“... certainly no excuse to rest on one’s laurels,” the young mistress was saying inflexibly, “but with the right sort of nurturing and hard work, you could have a very promising career ahead of you, Everett. You are dismissed.”
Rhyll mumbled her thanks and rose to her feet, giving an awkward curtsy before leaving the room. The rapturous smile on Meg’s face as she stood waiting in the corridor was the final touch to her happiness. Unable to talk, since it was strictly forbidden in the college corridors, they walked with euphoric haste and an unspoken accord to the common room, where they made a pot of tea and each treated the other to a thorough exposition of her satisfactory exam performance.
Thanks again for the lovely comments! I do appreciate them - I am really pleased people are still reading and enjoying this.
December followed November with unnerving speed. What time might have hitherto been loosely described as 'spare' was rapidly occupied with decorating, wreath-making ("it's almost as if we're flower-arrangers," Newlyn had muttered disparagingly to a mixed reception from the others as she dumped an armful of freshly-picked holly on the big table in the indoor nursery room), and preparation for the Christmas variety show. Rhyll succeeded in avoiding any appearance on the stage, but her sense of finally belonging would not allow her to sidestep an involvement entirely; she found herself coordinating the scenery changes and lighting, and thoroughly enjoying it. Two Christmas cards arrived and Rhyll placed both on her bedside cabinet with pride and love: the first was filled with the sort of endearing waffle Norah was so capable of firing off when she suspected her writing might be read by others and therefore must contain nothing of note, an additional "merry Christmas" penned neatly in Ethel's more restrained hand; the other from Alice, its few words carefully chosen to say much more than anyone else could ever know, a tiny sprig of mistletoe tucked away inside.
The Christmas term melted away into the Christmas holidays. Rhyll and Julian drove down to Exmouth together, both lapsing into a tired and comfortable silence – a silence Rhyll regretted afterwards, when she realised this had been their only chance to talk properly. All too soon they were back to their respective colleges, where festivities had given way to bleak January and hard work.
It was shortly after lunchtime on one cold wet Saturday and Rhyll and Meg were sitting in the form common room, ostensibly working. Meg had at least a fortnight's worth of notes spread willy-nilly across her desk, along with two pens, a pencil, a ruler and her blotter. For every page she read, she heaved a great sigh and threw down her pen in disillusion. In contrast, Rhyll had only one book in front of her. She had duly laid it open at the relevant page, but could not focus. Time seemed to drag but she studiously avoided looking at her watch, knowing it would not help her feel any better and wanting to avoid the questions visible impatience would prompt in her friend. Even since Meg had disclosed her own relationship status two months earlier, Rhyll had no intention of doing the same.
At long last she heard the crunch of wet gravel, the familiar jerking splutter of Norah's engine. She sprang to her feet and picked the neglected book up, filing it carefully with the others on the shelves in the alcove.
Meg looked up with a wishful smile. "Freedom for you? Lucky so-and-so. Don't think of me, slaving away in here, while you're gallivanting off with your visitor..."
Rhyll grinned. "Don't worry, I won't!" She reassured Meg – with no little truth – and slipped from the room to the bathroom along the corridor where she inspected her reflection, running one hand through her hair in a gesture that was equal parts titivating and habit.
Thus prepared, she reached the main entrance just in time to see Norah swing the big car around and back along the lane towards the village, leaving Alice picking her way carefully across the driveway towards the steps. The rain had stopped, Rhyll noted with approval, and the faintest glimmerings of sunshine stole across the sky. Alice looked up from beneath the big brim of her hat, and as her eyes landed on Rhyll a broad smile spread across her face.
"Good afternoon," she offered shyly. They had not seen each other at all since the end of October, and communication in the meantime had been distinctly limited. Rhyll had not expected to find herself yearning for the comparative freedom of Holloway, but she was forced to admit to herself that, for everything she loved about Swanley, its encroachment on the rest of her life was even greater than her old alma mater or the family home.
"Good afternoon," Rhyll agreed, leaning forward to take Alice's hand as she ascended the few steps to the doorway, ushering her inside and directing her towards the hatstand just beyond them. Through the open doorway of the secretary's office, that worthy looked up from her desk and Rhyll raised her eyebrows in a silent question. Miss Bryant gave a brisk nod of recognition and waved them on past, requiring nothing more of either. Rhyll wondered again how true the well-known rumours about her and Miss Somerville might be and, if they were, whether the quiet secretary might recognise her guest for who she really was. For the first time outside of Bristol, this was a contemplation almost unsullied by fear, and Rhyll savoured it.
She guided Alice into the drawing room, for guests were not welcome in most of the school and ordinarily students were not permitted to take their leisure time in here. Instinctively taking into account Alice's lack of familiarity with rooms of such size and splendour, Rhyll led her decisively to the same armchairs in the furthest corner where she had found herself with Julian only a few months earlier.
"I'll fetch us some tea shortly," she explained. "No such luck as service for those sorts of things, visitors or no visitors! But I'd like five minutes of you first, if you can excuse the poor hospitality. How was your journey?"
Alice grinned. "Well, you know Norah's driving. So you'll know that ‘uneventful' is a most grateful sentiment!"
They laughed softly, and Rhyll drank in the picture of Alice sitting here with her, wanting to preserve it as much as possible to sustain her through the next bout of separation. She had every reason to anticipate another lengthy gap before seeing her again. As she watched, she could see the chill of the winter day still getting to her lover - a faint and stoically-repressed shiver - and a pang of guilt jolted her into action.
"Oh, goodness! You're freezing here, and I'm busy admiring you. We'll soon remedy that," and she matched the action to the word, kneeling to pile more coal on the smouldering fire beside them. "Tea, sweetheart? Could you eat anything, do you think?"
Alice's eyes lit up. "If there's anything going spare, I most certainly could. I forgot to bring anything for the journey, and it's been a bit of a while since breakfast..."
"I'll see what I can rustle up," Rhyll promised, and sped off to the kitchen. Although the meals at Swanley were served to them in the big dining room, provisions in between times were students' own responsibility to fetch, the offerings available largely dependent on good fortune.
She was in luck, and returned to the drawing room heavy laden: balanced precariously on her tray were a large teapot with two cups, a jug of milk, and a plateful of the sticky buns which appeared some Saturdays, seemingly at the whim of the cook. Alice beamed as she set it out carefully on the table in front of them. The fire was roaring away nicely, she noted with satisfaction, bringing a faint flush to Alice's cheeks and bringing out the depth of red in her hair.
"We'll soon have you warmed up," she murmured, pouring a cup first for Alice and then herself.
"I could think of better ways," Alice's reply was equal in volume, her eyes twinkling as she tucked into a bun with undisguised relish.
A different fire altogether flashed through Rhyll. "God, I wish..."
Alice affected a demure smile, though her eyes still glinted wickedly. "I know."
Rhyll cleared her throat, unable to tear her eyes away from Alice's, or to suppress a smile. For a moment, neither spoke - nor did they need to.
"I'll show you around the gardens in a bit, if the rain stays off," she suggested eventually. "Easier to talk outside too."
"That would be nice," Alice agreed. "Just let me warm myself through first."
"There's a very nice blanket on my bed," Rhyll mentioned nonchalantly, eyebrows raised in an impression of innocence.
"That's not an invitation and you're just teasing." Alice gave her a stern look, and Rhyll reflected that desire mutually acknowledged was perhaps almost as good as desire satiated.
Dinner had been a source of no small anxiety to both women in their different ways, as each confided beforehand during the two hours they spent walking slowly around the extensive land. Their conversation ranged easily across the plants and animals they passed, and the details of Rhyll's college life structured around them; the exploits and dramas of various mutual acquaintances; Alice's new room, which she hoped would be relatively permanent this time, in spite of an alcoholic landlord who was given to an array of eccentricities. Alice relayed all of these quirks as jokes for her companion's entertainment, but Rhyll strongly suspected it might all be rather less amusing when Alice was not here but there, and alone, in the early hours of the morning.
"Of course, even if he keeps me on all right, it won’t be so long now ‘til the old man pegs it, maybe a couple of years at most, and then our Lizzie will go out to work and then I suppose we might take somewhere better together. If she wants to, that is."
"Do you want to?" Rhyll asked tentatively.
Alice looked at her. "It's one idea. Where'll you be?"
In spite of it being the topic Rhyll had wanted to broach, she was somewhat taken aback by the frankness of Alice's enquiry. Nonetheless, her answer was swift and certain: "In Bristol, or as near as I can manage. I'll find a position somewhere, and I'll be with you."
Fate had smiled on them, Rhyll thought, from the emergence of sunshine to the buns waiting in the kitchen; even the simple fact of Norah's car managing the journey across the country was not something to be taken for granted, as many a midnight arrival in Bristol from Surrey had taught her. Against this backdrop, it was impossible not to expect that the big things would go well: that of course dinner would be a lovely and precious meeting of friends, and that of course they would make a home together, of course she would find convenient and suitable employment for this purpose, of course everything would work itself out beautifully.
I should acknowledge a debt here: the college principal Miss Somerville is based quite heavily on the redoubtable Beatrix Havergal, who was principal of Waterperry at much the same time. I have borrowed various aspects of her quite shamelessly because she just seems like such a fabulous character, but of particular significance in this chapter is a nice comment I read:
"Such was the force of Beatrix's personality that no-one commented on the fact that she and Avice [Sanders, her co-founder and administrator at the school] habitually shared a bedroom." (Sue Bennett, quoted in Twigs Way's 'Virgins, Weeders and Queens: A History of Women in the Garden)
Roses followed daffodils followed snowdrops; the pace of life at Swanley continued unabated, each month presenting a new focus and new tasks which were fascinating when energy was plentiful and backbreaking when it was not. The college’s proud emphasis on practical work felt less ferociously righteous, as the weather grew warmer and drier, and somehow the longer days lent themselves to an even stronger sense of camaraderie amongst the students.
“I can’t see that this cert. will take me less than the full two years,” Meg grunted contentedly early one evening as they scrubbed algae from the paths which led to the glasshouses, “but it’s not something that worries me any more. I’d rather learn the whole lot, while I am here, than rush through it and be always sorry to have missed the chance later. Another year’s not such a long time now, is it?”
“Not at all,” Rhyll agreed, casting a quick glance around them. Nobody else was even remotely in earshot. “I don’t imagine your Clive would want you to miss your chance, either. Even assuming he’d no concern for your own feelings – which I don’t, given all you’ve ever said – it wouldn’t make sense as a business partner, would it?”
Meg smiled in gratitude, and seemed suddenly emboldened: “Can I ask you something, Evvy? Do say if you’d rather I didn’t, obviously, and I don’t mean to seem forward...”
Rhyll laughed, carefully keeping the mood easy. “You don’t mean to seem forward? Now I really have heard it all!”
Meg acknowledged the truth of this with a belly-laugh of her own. “Well, all right. Knowing that, you’ll know just as well that I shan’t take any offence if you tell me to shut up and stop wandering off on mental wild goose chases. Only I’ve been wondering for a while now, and didn’t like to say, but...”
She trailed off, and Rhyll raised her eyebrows in a prompt. “Out with it, then!”
Meg grimaced slightly, and Rhyll took a mild and perverse pleasure in seeing that her friend was causing herself at least as much discomfort in the anticipation. “It’s only – I’m not the only person here with someone waiting on me when I get out, am I?”
Rhyll straightened her face into appropriate solemnity, put her brush down for a minute and picked up her water flask instead. “No. No, I suppose you’re not.”
“Alice?” Meg prompted, bolstered by her lack of resistance.
“Alice,” Rhyll agreed; candid. “God, how did you know?”
Unspoken: Does everyone know? It ought to have been too awful a question to contemplate, but something in the warmth of the sun, Meg’s lack of judgment, and the dream-like bubble of Swanley, so safe and enclosed and so far removed from anyone’s family, somehow made it a wonder of interest rather than fear.
Meg chuckled at her. “Her, mostly. She just adores you, doesn’t she? I mean, I know I’ve only seen her those two times, but that’s quite enough to form an impression if you pay enough attention – and stop it, I can just imagine what you’re thinking, but thankfully I can pay attention and chatter at the same time, which is just as well in most circumstances! And then I got to thinking of how you fairly flew out of the room, that first time she came up here... And maybe other things too, little things that wouldn’t signify too much on their own, but when you put it all together with the way she looks at you...”
Meg tailed off awkwardly, and Rhyll took a moment to understand what she had been referring to. When she realised, she gave another shout of laughter. “Do you mean my hair?”
Meg looked sheepish. “Oh, I know it sounds silly when you put it like that. It’s only – well, it’s hard to explain, isn’t it? Like I said, on its own I wouldn’t have thought twice, not really –“
“It’s not silly,” Rhyll interrupted. “Nor hard to explain. It’s not an accident, Brownhill. It’s a calculated risk. My parents hate it, by the way, but I’m thankfully away enough of the time for them to not be reminded too often or too forcefully.”
“A calculated risk how?” Meg looked interested, and perhaps also grateful for the chance to remedy her momentary embarrassment.
“Well, because you’re right, it signifies something. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – I’m not ashamed, for all I’ve certainly no plans to go broadcasting it around the place – and there are plenty of people I’m glad to be recognised by. But there we are – I don’t want to broadcast it indiscriminately. There are risks in that which I’m sure I don’t have to enumerate for you. So it’s a calculated risk, that it signifies something I’d like to communicate, but that it also passes below the radar enough when I’d prefer it to.”
Meg nodded slowly, then remarked: “I suppose Miss S makes things easier for you here, in that regard.”
Rhyll wondered whether the reference was to the principal’s hair, or to her alleged lifestyle. The answer was not quite the same for each option, and she decided not to play this gamble. “Something like that. The principal at Holloway had a similar style too, as it happens, although I rather suspected she simply had herself professionally made over sometime in the early ‘twenties and never took any interest in modernising thereafter. That was an excellent opportunity for hiding in plain sight.”
Meg busied herself with the stone path once again, and it was after a brief silence that she ventured her next thought without lifting her head: “I do wish you’d trusted me sooner, Evvy. I thought we were friends.”
Rhyll was caught by surprise. “Of course we were! We are. It’s not about trusting you, Brownhill. I had to think about the worst possible outcome, that’s all.”
“But so did I,” Meg pointed out, looking up as she spoke this time, “and I still chose to put my faith in you.”
Rhyll saw the truth in her words and looked down, feeling hot shame rising through her. She scrubbed more briskly at the lichen, as if she could somehow cleanse her conscience in so doing, as if she could restore the friendship along with the path they were working on.
It was Meg who once more broke the silence: “Actually, on further reflection that’s not very fair of me. I trusted you because I wanted so much to talk about it – I didn’t like keeping Clive a secret, I wanted you to know and to understand and to reassure me. It was hardly some noble demonstration of faith – it was at least as selfish as you keeping Alice to yourself. That wasn’t a fair comparison at all. I’m sorry for making it.”
Rhyll shrugged off the apology with a shamefaced smile. “Does that mean I’ve no claim to make for any reassurances of my own, then?” It was half a joke to restore the earlier good humour of their conversation; half a plea for recognition that, while things were at present very pleasant indeed, they were not without some cause for worry – even if worry seemed not to amount to much beyond simply losing that good fortune.
Meg’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What are you wanting reassurances for, when I’ve just told you it’s so obvious just from the way she looks at you? And nobody’s ever going to come along and tell you you’ll have to give up the job you love, on account of being married...”
“Because I can’t get married,” Rhyll pointed out in what she hoped was a sympathetically reasonable tone. She wondered how many of her concerns to share with Meg: decided against the years-earlier issue of Alice having previously slept with most of the women Rhyll knew in that Bristol circle, still a cause of passing moments of anxiety but not something she could expect to translate very well. Could she give voice to her fear that years of hard physical work in the tobacco factory might lead Alice to crave the one thing Meg most feared, that maybe marriage would be preferable to a lifetime’s employment security? Could she mention the lack of a definite scheme for the years following her time at Swanley and the precarity this uncertainty placed her in, especially to Meg who had had the whole plan sketched out clearly before she had even taken up her place at the college? For all the confidence of her promise to Alice, Rhyll had not yet worked out exactly what proposition she intended to present her father with, much less been able to anticipate his reaction. Next to Meg’s certainty and determination, it sounded pathetic, but Rhyll did not know what expectations she would face upon graduating – none of her brothers seeming to be much of an indicator for her in this regard – nor what the consequences of flouting them might be. She thought of Norah and Ethel, and of Meg herself, the compromises they had refused and the prices they had bravely paid, and she felt herself very small in comparison.
“No,” Meg agreed. “I suppose that might make everything a bit more uncertain, in its own way.”
Meg had been right, Rhyll marvelled, in her self-assessment of great perceptiveness beneath the verbosity.
“It’s not so easy either way,” she agreed amicably. “For either you or me, I mean.”
Meg smiled suddenly, a broad smile of pure pleasure. “It’s not, is it, but do you know what, Evvy? I wouldn’t swap it for all the world. The other girls are lovely, they really are, and once in a while I almost envy them the absolute freedom they still have – but there’s such sanctuary in knowing I haven’t to face the world alone. I wouldn’t be without that. It opens up so many new possibilities, somehow – more than enough to compensate for all the ones which get shut down. And that, although we’ve long since moved on with this conversation, is also how I knew about you. You seemed to understand it all somehow, in a way that the younger ones – I don’t even mean younger in age, some of them are no younger than you or I in years, but they feel very much younger because of exactly this – they just wouldn’t understand at all, would they? Because how could anyone, unless they were there too?”
And in spite of the very real differences between the issues each woman faced, this was a sentiment Rhyll could wholeheartedly agree with.
Thank you for the comments!
A letter from Rhyll Everett to Alice Nicolson:
I was so sorry to hear of your father’s death, and am thinking of all of you at this time. Is there anything I can do to help? Suspect not, but wish I could, so please let me know.
It is Saturday morning, and not my Saturday morning off! Therefore I have more privacy than usual (as I’ll run this down to the village post office myself after I’ve done my bit in the orchards – harvest is well and truly upon us!) but almost no time in which to make the best of it. A hundred kisses ‘til I see you again.
A letter from Alice Nicolson to Rhyll Everett:
Thank you, for the sentiment! ‘Sorry’, are you really? I’m not in the slightest. But don’t you see what this means, love? My money’s my own now, near enough. Oh, of course I’ll keep a little spare for the babies – not that M. should need mine, after two years earning his own crust! I can’t help feeling I ought to keep him in mind, nonetheless. But don’t you see? It makes everything easier. I could move somewhere better straight away, if I wanted – or I could save now, and then when you’re finished, if you still do like you said and come for work this way on, we could take a house together, couldn’t we?
The only question-mark in the whole thing is Sarah. She’ll have to go to work, now there’s no reason not to, and I’d like her nearby. It’s silly to think of anything but for her to come and work at Wills, and lodge with me. She’s a sweet thing, and I’d like her company. But I’d also like my privacy, and in less than a year I want to be setting up home with you. I can only think I’ll take her in with me but give her fair warning upfront of when I’ll be moving on without her. There’ll be plenty of other girls at Wills happy to share digs, or knowing friends who need someone. So I just need a date from you, please – if this is still what you intend on!
Enough of my yattering. Sorry as ever for spellings and grammar! Speak properly soon. Norah sends love, and please, stop “thinking of us all” – this is the best thing to happen to my family in years and don’t you make me feel guilty for saying so!
Letter from Julian Everett to Rhyll Everett:
R, you lackadaisical correspondent you!
Anyone would think you had a cert. to pass, or something... Isn’t it still the best part of a year, until you’re actually presented for all that? You know what they say about all work and no fun, old thing!
Sorry to have barely seen you over the summer. The aerodynamics thing was just too big an opportunity not to get involved with, for all its utterly outside of my own specialism, and old Garnett – Eddie – whose scheme it was, was really much too thrilled with it all for me to turn him down – honestly, the thought of his face all crumpled with disappointment was too much to bear! It was jolly interesting too, and of course there’s something very interesting at the intersection of air and water – for the British military at least as much as for the curious scholar! Sometimes I rather fancy that Eddie and I ought to go into a partnership of sorts, to capitalise on the development of this naval/aviation combination. We could make a name for ourselves and let’s face it, that ‘war to end all wars’ proclamation is looking increasingly absurd. Maybe I’ve been inadvertently inspired by your pal, whose business intentions I am greatly impressed by but shan’t expand upon here.
It must have been jolly to see old Charles again after such a long time! I’ve been waiting for you to tell all about this fiancée of his. What’s she like? Are her people in Canada? French, or English? Will they be coming back here again for the wedding? And why do I even have to prompt you for this sort of information?! Mother must be relieved – he did rather take his time about the whole affair. That’s two of us four accounted for now!
I have booked to go along to a conference in London, during the last week of October, so I’ll be staying on up here through the half-term hols. I know Eddie is planning to attend, and perhaps a few of the others too. Make of that what you will, assuming your half-term falls at the same time, but for heaven’s sake do write and let me know what you intend.
Well, that will have to do you for now – and it is most definitely your turn to write! The garden won’t wilt without you – but your loving brother very well might!
Letter from Rhyll Everett to Norah Turnbull:
Dearest Norah (and Ethel of course),
As ever, a letter composed with too little spare time and by someone who still isn’t much given to writing at great length! So please accept my apologies in advance.
Most recent letter from A. is in the finest of spirits – tell me if I’m being too anxious (I am!), but please do keep an eye and let me know if she really is all right? I know she had no great affection for her father, but a death is still a death, and Alice is still left at 21 with no parents and scarcely any other family to speak of. – seems hard lines to me. But she really does sound exactly her usual self – her usual defiant self, in fact, simultaneously inviting her sister to move in with her and also giving her a set date for when she’ll have to move on alone, because A. plans to live with me! Excited, awed and terrified, all at once.
There ought to be some chatter about things at college here, but you’ll have to imagine it for yourselves I’m afraid. It’s fairly easy to invent, I should think: harvest, prune, rake, and repeat – over and over. Oh, and also learning to drive a tractor! It’s about as smooth a ride as your car on a bad day...
You can tell from my irreverent tone that this is a letter I’ll be posting, and not one destined for the college post tray! I wish you weren’t all so far away, I’d far rather be conversing over drinks with you all. Funny thing in a recent letter from J., but it’ll have to keep ‘til I see you properly. (October 25, if I may?) I must reply to him now really so shall have to end here. Wishing you both a pleasant week, R.
Letter from Norah Turnbull to Rhyll Everett:
Firstly before I forget, Ethel sends her love and reiterates the assurances I’m going to proffer regarding Alice. Alice is truly fine. She had a father who was cruel, distant, sick and dying – and now she doesn’t; like her, I would regard this as a definite improvement. So please stop worrying about that, with immediate effect.
Secondly, and also before I forget, October 25 is perfect and you will be very welcome. I shall assume you’d like me to come and fetch you in the car – please correct me very very soon if this assumption is misplaced! We are both looking forward to seeing you.
Thirdly: I bet you still haven’t replied to your brother’s letter. He has the patience of a saint.
Fourthly: This letter ends here, because I shall be seeing you in a matter of days. Again I remind you that Alice is perfectly fine and that you must stop fretting. If you really must fret, do feel free to fret over your studies – it really is only a matter of months for you now, and I for one would not wish to trade places with you if you manage to let Alice down in these grand plans of hers!
See you soon. All best wishes, Norah.
“Hmm. You know how much credence to give it. I don’t.”
The words slipped sideways from Norah’s mouth, for she clenched a cigar between her teeth and the steering wheel in both hands, frowning through the driving rain at the road ahead. Some years earlier, Rhyll would have met this deportment with a cautious withdrawal, anxious to avoid causing irritation by talking at an inconvenient moment; but now she knew Norah well enough to see that she was still perfectly relaxed in spite of the adverse weather, and that the older woman was as interested in the conversation as she herself.
“Something about it struck me, Norah. Not enough to draw any confident conclusions. I haven’t seen him properly since last summer, really. I thought for a while that he was in a funk because of that October half-term last year, when I came to yours instead of going to his, but looking back I don’t think it was me at all. Maybe it was this ‘Eddie’ of his, all along.”
Norah raised an eyebrow. “His work is a fairly all-consuming sort of business, isn’t it? That’s always been my experience of university sorts and I’ve known a fair handful in my time, though admittedly fewer since leaving London.”
Rhyll shook her head. “It’s more than that. You don’t know him – he was always immersed in it, ever since he first went up to college, but it’s never stopped him also being fully present everywhere else too. There’s always been such a lot of him to go round, a master of all trades if you like.” Rhyll could not quite find the words to explain and justify it, but she felt wholly confident in this assertion. The idea that Julian’s capacity to focus intensely and successfully on multiple unrelated aspects of life could be reduced to a single-minded dedication to his research alone was inconceivable. If he was largely absent from family, he was certainly present in more places than just his study.
“One of those, is he?” Norah wrinkled her nose. “Top in form and captain of the first XI, that sort of thing?”
Rhyll grinned. “Very much,” she agreed. “But disarmingly decent with it. You’d like him, even if you think him insufferable in principle.”
Norah took her eyes off the road for a moment to return the smile. “I know I would: you’ve said enough previously to convince me. But on the question of whether his persistent reference to one particular and previously-unmentioned friend holds any great significance, I throw my hand in and defer to your superior judgment.”
“I daren’t ask.” Rhyll acknowledged frankly, and decided the conversation was closed. The car slowed as they moved further into the city centre, and she had another matter she wanted to raise whilst they still had this degree of privacy. “How is Alice?”
Norah chuckled to herself. “You can ask her that yourself soon enough. She’s coming round for supper tonight. She’s fine, Rhyll, she really is. Haven’t you the imagination to believe that?” She stole another sideways glance, and laughed again as she answered her own question. “No, of course you have. You’ve just taken it upon yourself to worry yourself into a state and I call it charmingly feeble of you.”
Rhyll opened her mouth, ready to protest, but could say nothing. Even aside from the inarguable truth of Norah’s words, her heart had skipped a beat and her mood lightened immeasurably at the unexpected news that she would see Alice in a matter of minutes. Delighted, she sat back and allowed Norah to guide them both through a lighthearted exchange for the final few roads of the journey.
Alice was at the door before the engine had spluttered to a stop, and by the time Rhyll reached her she was already able to dismiss her lingering concerns. “The best thing to happen to my family in years”, Alice had written unrepentantly, and Rhyll could see the truth of it etched in her face: there was a new light in her eyes, her smile flashed brighter than it had ever done before, and her posture, always quick and alert, had a greater freedom to it. Rhyll had never perceived Alice to be weighed down by anything, and yet her recent release from some invisible yoke was palpable now.
It was not the first dinner she had enjoyed in that company, but the newness of life which emanated from Alice lent it an air of additional importance: Norah and Ethel, Rhyll and Alice, something pleasingly comparable about the two pairs sitting together around the table. When the meal had ended and Norah and Ethel had sensitively removed themselves to the parlour, leaving the two younger women alone, it seemed entirely natural that their conversation would turn immediately to practicalities. Rhyll reiterated her promise, that she would find work in Bristol the following summer, or at least in easy reach of Bristol, and that they would set up a home together. Alice pushed her, searching and enthusiastic, throwing her potential problems and waiting to hear her solutions. Rhyll felt her commitment tested, but took no offence. Alice already had evidence of the viability of their plan, from her position: her job was secure, and her situation within her own control. For Rhyll, far more was in uncharted waters. She still did not know what her family would expect of her when she had finished at Swanley, nor how flexible those expectations might be. But she would have a trade, fulsome references, a solid Bachelors degree behind her: quite enough to stand her in good stead, even in the face of any concerted opposition. She did not mention, but hoped Alice would guess, the supplementary power of sheer determination; that she would make this work for through absolute bloody-mindedness, through faith, for love.
It was the most popular topic of conversation back at Swanley, when she returned at the start of November. As the number of months until final examinations dwindled, students’ motivation was nourished by their hopes and dreams of their future careers, strategic specialisms refined with these goals in mind. Meg took a course in bee-keeping, and Rhyll was reminded of their first conversation, Meg’s confident assertion that this would give her and her ‘cousin’ a competitive edge in complete garden design. She was constantly impressed by the accuracy of Meg’s acumen, and held no doubt that this belief would prove likewise correct.
This forward planning was actively encouraged by the school staff, and a great number of classes and lectures closed with conversational remarks on their teachers’ past work experiences, the nature of different gardening careers, the importance of working with different soils, the myriad opportunities which life beyond Swanley would offer to them. Among Rhyll’s peers were girls aspiring to go to Kew, or to the municipal gardens; girls who hoped to run large teams at big residential gardens, or who hoped to take on a smaller landscape but one they would be more intimately involved with, designing and tending the whole garden themselves with the help of maybe one or two labourers only. Indeed, job opportunities were not limited to the world beyond Swanley: all those students who were expected to complete the diploma that year were interviewed personally by Miss Somerville, and when Rhyll entered her office in her turn, the formidable principal wasted no time in making her an offer of employment.
Staying on at Swanley to teach had not even occurred to Rhyll as a possible option, and she was extremely flattered by the proposition. Respecting the head’s characteristic candour, she responded in the same way, unequivocally declining the offer with thanks and explaining that she was keen to put her learning to the most thorough practical application; she had learned gardening in order to garden, and not in order to teach gardening, which she felt required a substantial additional set of skills she had not as yet put any effort into acquiring. Her success as a gardener, in the short-term future at any rate, would be measured by what she could produce from the ground, not what she could induce through others.
Miss S nodded briskly, evidently neither offended by the refusal nor given to attempts at persuasion. “Beyond that? Have you an idea of the sort of area you’d like to work in?”
Rhyll weighed it up in a split second, the danger of eluding to anything which might somehow – almost miraculously – be linked to the whole of her intentions balanced against the connections and industry knowledge of the Swanley principal. The opportunities offered won out: “Not in the sense you mean,” Rhyll began. “But I’ve a strong geographic preference. I want to work in Bristol, or nearby.”
The principal raised her eyebrows, seeking clarification rather than challenging. “Your family are in Devon, I believe?”
“Easily reached from Bristol,” Rhyll agreed cautiously, knowing this was not the point the head had been making. Easily reached, but not too easily. Proximity without familiarity, distance without confrontation.
The head gave her another look, and Rhyll wondered again about her own private life and what she might make of Rhyll. After more than a year at the college, no one could escape the fact that Miss Somerville and her secretary, Miss Bryant, habitually shared a bedroom. This lack of secrecy, together with the great awe in which the school at large held their principal, left this observation rather more ambiguous than it ought ordinarily to have been. Rhyll did not dare to properly hope for recognition or understanding; but that both of these were a possibility was also not something she could successfully forget.
Whether the head was thinking something similar or something altogether different, Rhyll could not guess. She gave another brisk nod, noting this preference in the file on her desk. “I’m afraid I’ve nothing on the books already in that area, but I can certainly bear it in mind and make enquiries. It’s a long time until summer. In the meantime, the best you can do is to apply yourself wholeheartedly to ensure you leave this establishment in the best possible position – although between these four walls, I would be astonished if you do anything but. Keep it up, gel.”
Rhyll smiled, and hope blossomed and bloomed within.
3.9 Farewell to Swanley by crm
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven...”
Rhyll looked up with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. It was her final day at Swanley, with the graduation ceremony due to take place that afternoon. Morning sunlight streamed through the open window into the small room which had been her term-time home for nearly two years now, and she was packing away all the belongings which had once filled it into a large brown trunk lying open at the foot of the bed. Meg sat cross-legged on that bed, intoning the words with the faintest glimmer of sincerity beneath the ridicule, diverting with humour the unspoken recognition of the enormity, the finality and the irresistible promise of the day ahead.
“A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted,” she continued, unperturbed. “Golly, two years, Evvy. Can you believe it?”
“It feels longer.” Rhyll grunted as she heaved a final pile of clean clothes into the trunk and turned to the toiletries on the little shelf beside the mirror.
Meg laughed. “You only think that because you’re still dismantling your room. Once it’s all done, you’ll suddenly realise it was only yesterday you first arrived here. Who’s coming to see you turn out later on?”
“My parents. You?”
Meg smiled. “Clive. Too far for my folks to travel, and too much to expect them to lie about who he is. No Julian, then? Hearts will be breaking all along the corridor...”
They both chuckled softly. “He’s busy, but he sent a sweet letter for the occasion. He wasn’t the only one. Here, help yourself,” and she tossed her the precious sheets from the bedside table, not one letter but three: Julian, Alice, Norah. Usually a deeply private person, she was suddenly struck with the strong urge to share these while she could; she did not know when she might next have the opportunity to invite an acknowledgement such as this.
Meg leafed through the letters on her lap, and Rhyll quickly packed the last remaining items, feeling self-conscious about having shared them. She had just finished securing the trunk when Meg passed them tenderly back to her. “Thank you. You have good people close by, I’m glad. Only metaphorically close by for now, but not for much longer! That must be a relief.”
The ‘relief’ of which Meg spoke was the position of employment which the principal had offered her barely a week earlier. The details of the appointment had been decidedly vague, and once the day’s celebrations were out of the way Rhyll’s next urgent task would be to arrange to visit her prospective boss in order to remedy this; but the simple details of job title (junior head gardener), salary (competitive) and acreage (substantial), alongside the all-important matter of its Bristol location, were sufficient to her decision to provisionally accept. Nonetheless, the relief was not unqualified: she had yet to raise the subject with her father. She had reasoned to herself that, with only a week between the allocation from Somerville and her graduation day, there was no real point in writing between times to ask, but she could not bring herself to really believe her own justification. She had not mentioned it even hypothetically at Christmas or Easter, when she might reasonably have done so – if only she were not keen to avoid possible conflict on the matter. But now the conversation could be delayed no longer. The relief of a suitable position was, for the time being, only half-won.
The dreaded conversation took place mere hours later, as Swanley’s latest set of graduands treated their various guests to tours of the grounds they had tended these last few years, and enjoyed refreshments on the great lawn to the rear of the main house. It was Miss Somerville herself who unwittingly opened the exchange, as she paused with the Everetts on her circuit of the assembled crowd.
“I’m not sure whether Miss Everett’s had the chance to tell you yet of the position she has been offered,” she began, with just the right measure of pride and approval in her voice. “I hope you won’t be put off by it being a rung below head gardener, for the time being. People can get terribly fixated with that, sometimes, and it’s really not as critical a distinction as it maybe sounds. Junior head, in an establishment of that size and also at such an early stage in the garden’s development – new ownership, you know – is really a far greater opportunity than head gardener might be at a smaller or more stagnant place. It’s a wonderful opportunity to develop further under excellent professional guidance, which will give Everett an uncommon advantage in any subsequent pursuit. She really has been a credit to the school, and a credit to yourselves.”
Rhyll’s father’s pleasure was undisguised; her mother’s was somewhat harder to verify, beneath her usual effortless propriety. Her face did not betray the slightest surprise at the suggestion that Rhyll had already all but accepted a job without discussion, much less any indication of what she thought of it. Rhyll silently hoped her father’s pleasure would decide the matter.
The principal excused herself and moved on to the next family, and both parents turned to Rhyll. Still the pretty veneer of her mother’s face did not crack, as she looked expectantly at her youngest child.
“I only heard of it last week,” she began apologetically. Something in her father’s face encouraged her to go on. “It’s a thrilling prospect. I very much want to take it up.”
He looked consideringly at her. “Where is it, exactly?”
“North Somerset,” Rhyll said, pleased at this direction. “It’s a large estate right on the edge of Bristol. Very easy by train to Exeter.”
He nodded slowly. “Do you mind that it’s not ‘head gardener’, then?”
“Not in the slightest,” Rhyll reassured him, inwardly unable to believe how easy this appeared to be. “It’s just as Miss Somerville said – I shall be pleased to work with the existing head gardener, and learn from his direction.” The gender was a guess on her part, but she felt it worth deliberately including as a further reassurance of some kind.
“Do you really think it appropriate?” Her mother’s tone was congenial enough, but those who knew her recognised the steely quality within. Rhyll marvelled, not for the first time, at her mother’s capacity to conduct a difficult conversation with such decorum that none of those present, out of earshot but easily within sight, could possibly suspect the discord.
The question was directed not at Rhyll, but at her father. He scratched his chin, as if to buy a moment of thought, but when he replied his tone suggested great ease. “I don’t see why not. By the most informed account, it’d be a waste of a talent not to put what she’s learned to good use. I can’t help but think there’s something commendable about the whole scheme, to be honest. Times aren’t what they were, hmm.”
Her mother’s face did not move: politely smiling, subtly doubtful. “Times aren’t changing that fast, surely.”
To Rhyll’s great joy, her father’s countenance was similarly unchanging. “I think I could rather enjoy telling people my daughter is a lady gardener. Don’t waste too much time about becoming head gardener though, hmm. I should enjoy that even better.”
Not missing a beat, her mother retained her smile and changed the subject; it took all Rhyll’s self-possession to mimic her deadpan withdrawal from the conversation, for she knew in that instant that the matter was decided. Her father had given his approval, and in a matter of weeks she would be in Bristol where she belonged.
"Do you still keep in touch with Meg?" Peggy wanted to know.
"We write fairly often," Rhyll answered. "She's living down in Kent - how we all end up scattered, eh? Not such a lot of gardening for her now - they married three years after we left Swanley, and she had the twins soon after. My goddaughters. She keeps her hand in, though, more and more as the girls grow older." She paused in silent admiration. Meg's substantial contribution was liable to be sidelined by both her husband and his employer, because – in different ways – doing so comforted both. She laboured twice as hard to have half as much to show for it, all the time working overtime to keep her labours modest; managing the impossible feat of having her years at Swanley count for something whilst simultaneously minimising the effort and the achievement, hiding her professionalism beneath marriage and motherhood. Most remarkably, in Rhyll’s opinion, was that she managed all this with startling grace. Rhyll was not a religious woman, and nor was Meg so far as she knew, but there was a grateful humility to all this which she could only make sense of in these rather pious terms.
She could not think of how to explain all this aloud, and so she did not try. “She’s a remarkable woman,” she said instead. “That was what she wanted – gardening, partnership and children – and she went out and did it. If it’s ever turned out to be harder, or less than she hoped for, I’ve never once heard her complain.”
Peggy nodded, seeming to take all this in. “She must be a very good role model for her daughters,” she commented. “I wonder if they’ll grow up to be gardeners too?”
“Because it’s in the blood, or because they’ll be so inspired by her?” Rhyll teased gently.
Peggy grinned. “Of course, they might take one look and think that that’s definitely not what they want for themselves! Or they might just have to prove themselves different...”
“I’ll let her know you think so!” They both laughed. “I do agree with you – it’s a good lesson they’re learning from her, whatever they go on to do with their own lives. That bit, I really shall let her know you think so – when I write to tell her about you, that is.”
“You’re going to do that?"
Rhyll smiled affectionately at the pleased surprise in Peggy’s eyes. “Of course I am, you goop. How could I not? Anyway, I know she’ll be very glad to hear about you.”
Flushed with pleasure, Peggy sauntered on in self-conscious silence, before turning a suspicious face skyward. “Did I just feel rain?”
"Probably." The sun had not made good on its early promise. Rhyll glanced out across the rolling grey sea, looking for the telltale drops of rain landing in the water, eyes sufficiently practised to spy them quickly in spite of the choppiness. "Ha! Isn't that a shelter just up ahead?"
"I believe you may be right!" Peggy grinned, pulling her mackintosh more closely around her shoulders. "Gosh, I'm jolly glad I remembered not to cast my clouts just yet. Could certainly make use of a hood, though," she finished mournfully as the droplets came thick and fast.
Rhyll squinted at the road ahead again. "I'm certain that's a shelter. Not much further now, sweetheart."
Not much further it might have been; but the rain was driving down in earnest now, and with one accord they grabbed hands and ran towards their refuge, heads down against the deluge. They leaned together for a moment when they reached it, the green-painted pillar less a genuine support to either than an excuse for the closeness. Entangled, laughing and breathless, both lingered a little, deferring the moment they would have to resume respectability – even here, caught as they were between a beach abandoned on account of the season and a road largely abandoned on account of the weather.
The rest of the world could not be suspended indefinitely. Peggy sat cross-legged on the wide wooden bench of the seaside shelter, motioning Rhyll to sit beside her. "I'd always imagined you'd gone straight to the Lucys' from Swanley," she observed. Rhyll wondered whether Peggy was tactfully suppressing her earlier jealousies, or whether they had truly given way to something less uncomfortable. It was still very recent news to her that Rhyll really had shared a home and a life with Alice; she was taking it with remarkable - admirable - sanguine.
The truth was a touch of both. Last night and early that morning, Peggy had talked herself into a calm acceptance, soothing herself that there was clearly some reason that she was here now and Alice wasn't. This shift notwithstanding, she was also at this precise moment issuing herself with stern reminders on the subject. Still, some remnant of discomfort remained: she recognised it in her inability to voice any question that might bring into the present Rhyll's life in Bristol. Could I meet Norah one day? Her brain whispered. Kitty is in Bristol, after all. But her mouth, fearful of the possibilities it offered, the hornets’ nest of secrets it prodded, would not cooperate. A determined peace with her lover’s past was, for now, possible only by keeping it firmly in the past.
"It wasn't much more than a year," Rhyll reminded her. "I left Swanley in summer '35 and went to Les Arbres in Autumn '36. For obvious reasons, it's usually been best to avoid suggesting anything significant happened in between."
Peggy tried to imagine it. That year must have been in many ways the same for Rhyll as this year was for her: her first year of employment, her first year as a real person, centre-stage in her own life. And so much more so: in many ways, a boarding school post retained the safety and immaturity of college life - perhaps especially so when all one had done was to return to her own school. She said so now.
Rhyll considered this. "I suppose you're right, yes. I think I appreciate the enormity of it now, far more than I did at the time. Then, I was very clear on what I wanted to do and how it could be made to happen - no time to think about what any of it meant, or whether they were reasonable things to ask for. In a way, I recognised it better in retrospect, when I went to Les Arbres and had no choice but to accept lodgings there – what an extraordinary amount of freedom I’d had – and I knew it was a step backwards. I promised myself then and there that I would never take another job which required me to give up that freedom again. The School weren’t keen, when I insisted that was the condition on my coming to St Briavel’s – I had to meet with Hilda and later Madge Russell on the subject, but I held firm and I meant it.”
“Did you have to fight for it in that first job, too?” Peggy was curious, imagining a much younger Rhyll unapologetically asserting her intention of renting a home with a friend and never mind what her employer might prefer.
Rhyll chuckled. “Oh dear, no. Or at least, not in the sense you imagine...”
4.1 New beginnings by crm
I skimmed through the end of 'I turn you...' a couple of days ago and realised I am an idiot, this does not begin in the Easter holidays between 'Bride' and 'Changes', it begins in the half-term midway through 'Bride'. I don't *think* this actually makes any difference at all (it's been a long time since I read Bride/the earlier parts of this drabble). I will check and smooth out any issues once the whole thing is finished - for now this is just a shamefaced but hopefully irrelevant admission/correction/apology!
(In particular, this probably has implications for whatever I do next with Rhyll and Peggy's story when I finish this one - but one thing at a time, eh... ;) I make this approximately the halfway point of this drabble, so it's definitely not time for me to worry about any of that yet!)
The last thing Rhyll had expected was to find herself intimidated by the sheer size of the house and grounds. Nonetheless, intimidated she was. It was perhaps not merely the size that did it, but the particular combination of size with smartness: Southleaze Hall stood proudly, every aspect of it in an excellent state of repair, a mass of neat corners and sparkling windows with a decided uniformity to its decor. Where Edgecot oozed with history, housing countless objects dating from its past ownerships, their age undisguised and unashamed precisely because of this historicity, the contents of Southleaze loudly announced their costly newness; the pride was in the liquid wealth of the present owner, and not in the house’s past inhabitants to whom the present family did not belong and with whom no connection was felt. The sheer delight of Rhyll’s grandfather’s desk, obviously antique for all it had been lovingly kept in immaculate condition, could have no place in such a celebration of material novelty, and though she knew she shouldn’t seek to compare, Rhyll felt that Southleaze was much the poorer for it. More than that, she felt that this oversight – the pure arrogance of it – was somehow indicative of all that was wrong with her new place of work: the things which might have once made the grand building impressive were undervalued and cast aside, replaced expensively with items of fashionable but superficial beauty which inadvertently exposed the insecurity and inexperience of the household. This matter decided within the course of her first day, Rhyll instantly traded intimidation for distaste.
The grounds were also unlike those at Edgecot, and on this point too Rhyll could not resist making unfavourable comparisons. As with the house, they shrieked of their brash recent overhaul. Where Edgecot had sprawled inelegantly in all directions, the extensive gardens at Southleaze unfolded in a shock of neatness across the land. Centuries of healthy countryside were somehow smothered beneath the fusty landscaping, lending the scenery an unpleasantly artificial tone. It was tasteless, she concluded, to make such a show of lavish expenditure. She had no doubt in her mind that the owner must be relatively new, and she could not help wondering about the circumstances in which the previous owner might have had to let the old house go, and how different it must surely have looked before they did – the richness of quality which these incomers must have joyfully extinguished in their rush to make their own unrefined mark on the place.
It was a six-mile cycle from her new home with Alice in South Bristol and she had initially been worried about the idea of discussing this, but in the end the issue came to nothing. The gardener’s cottage was naturally the domain of the head gardener, Rhyll’s boss, and though it was a house of generous proportions, there was certainly no way she could be expected to lodge with him. Space within the main house itself was suggested, that first day she came to see the place and agree terms, but she frowned dismissively and refused to entertain the idea.
“With the maids? With the greatest respect, I hardly think that would be appropriate,” she shook her head. “I shall be quite all right to commute from Bristol, thank you.”
The man of the house had narrowed his eyes at her across the table. “I hope we’ll find that to be the case. It is a shame – I hadn’t thought. I suppose if we’d got another man in they could just share with Jones, but...”
His voice trailed off, and from the look on his face Rhyll suspected he was regretting not having done exactly that. It fell to his pretty wife to intervene: “But we did talk specifically about getting a lady gardener in, remember. You get a different aesthetic appreciation, with a woman involved.” She smiled confidingly at Rhyll, as if to strengthen a female bond on these terms. Rhyll thought of Meg saying exactly the same thing, that first term at Swanley; but at least Meg had said it with a hint of knowing, subtly identifying this union as a selling point rather than an actual biological advantage in something so tediously complementary to the ‘proper’ business of men’s gardening. Rhyll had recognised Meg’s shrewdness but had nonetheless felt it compromised, trading some of her self-respect for pragmatic marketing. The irony of ending up in much the same position, having exercised almost none of Meg’s mocking agency, did not amuse her.
Observing this meaningless show of female solidarity, the owner now turned to the other man present – the head gardener, the “Jones” he had mentioned. “Well, this is your realm, after all. Are you happy with this scheme?”
Jones shrugged politely. He was a relatively young man – Rhyll guessed him to be in the early thirties – and on the small side, though there was a reassuring wiriness to his build. “If it doesn’t cause any problems with getting here bright and early and in all weathers, it doesn’t make any difference to me.”
Rhyll could not help noting the flicker of belligerent satisfaction teasing the corners of the woman’s mouth, and though she did nothing to acknowledge it she did now feel a genuine wave of camaraderie between them both – a shared dislike of her husband, at least in that moment. Rhyll did not feel sufficiently invested to form any generalised feeling towards him, and certainly wanted nothing to do with any sustained loathing his wife might have for him. Her only real concern was for Jones’ attitude towards her, and this too was encouraging. If this was representative, if his only requirement of her was that she worked hard and was reliably good at her job, Rhyll had every faith that their time working together would be a productive venture.
This early impression was borne out during her first day under his instruction. Jones was an excellent gardener and a very competent leader, concerned only with the quality and efficiency of his team’s work. His expectations were flatteringly high and pleasantly clear. When she arrived, he provided brisk introductions between her and the two garden-hands who were working nearby before downing tools and taking her on a tour of the gardens. Large chunks of the land he immediately designated Rhyll’s responsibility. In particular, he handed over the entirety of the kitchen-garden and the large walled garden which stood a short walk from the main house. The kitchen-garden had been thoroughly done over two summers ago, he explained, and in the short term at least could continue as a maintenance project until she saw any ways of improving it. The walled garden was a far more open-ended commission, and he would be interested to hear her plans later that week, which he would be pleased to contribute to but hoped his contribution might be largely limited to expressing enthusiastic support and approval. Rhyll’s eyes shone as she took in the spacious beds, the sunny position and the healthy soil left fallow beneath the chalky walls. The garden had been constructed decades earlier as a project of pure joy, a space to be enjoyed by all the senses – that much was clear from the basic site alone – and her head and heart overflowed with ideas for how to restore it to a former glory she knew it must once have known.
In the afternoon, Jones returned to his own work, leaving Rhyll at the sheds and glasshouses to familiarise herself with the plots, the tools, the plans and schedules of the garden. His intention, he explained, was that she might work as autonomously as possible within her own areas, and in order for this to happen she would need as strong an understanding as possible of the overall functions and aims of the garden staff. The junior staff were all good fellows, he reassured her, but with her youth and relative inexperience – he did not mention her sex – it could not hurt for her to stand at least a little on her dignity. They could answer any question, but the fewer she needed to ask, the better stead her authority would stand in.
Rhyll was full of jubilation as she cycled home that evening. The evening itself was the perfect finish. She arrived at the little terraced house to find Alice in the kitchen, the table already laid with two glasses of wine and a flickering array of candles waiting expectantly. She caught Alice up in her arms, inhaling the familiar smell of tobacco leaves and Pears soap.
“Just in time,” Alice murmured against her throat, slight but strong hands meeting at the base of Rhyll’s spine. “Dinner should be just about ready.”
“You needn’t have.” Rhyll buried her face deeper into the fire of Alice’s hair, enjoying the intimacy of their connection and the newness of the routine. The fuss Alice had made for her first day at work was wonderful, but the prospect of coming home to her every evening was even more exciting. Years like this stretched out before her, perhaps not with candles or wine or roast lamb in the oven, but with the warmth of Alice’s arms and the smell of soap and tobacco and above all the sanctuary of their shared home.
“Don’t get used to it!” Alice warned with a grin, stretching up to press a kiss to Rhyll’s lips before reluctantly extracting herself to attend to the cooking, waving Rhyll towards the table as she did so.
Rhyll laughed and sat down. She neither expected nor wanted such a performance made every night, but the wonderful joy of coming home to her lover day after day was a luxury she had every intention of growing thoroughly accustomed to.
There are some judgments cast in the first few paragraphs in particular which I'd like to make very clear are Rhyll's and not mine! I was thinking particularly of her criticism of the 'vulgarity' of Biddy and co's lipstick in 'Goes to It', and of her comments about Diana Skelton in 'Bride', and I think her feelings about her nouveau-riche employers are probably pretty consistent with both of those instances.
The joy of returning home to Alice’s welcome did not wear off. As summer burned on and the days grew shorter, as Rhyll threw herself ever more wholly into the work in the gardens at Southleaze, cycling the six hilly miles home along a route which grew ever more familiar, the thrill of coming home never lessened. If anything, the growing warmth of intimacy had an electrifying effect: every day brought new little details to notice and appreciate, and with each new observation she fell deeper in love. The sweet melody of Alice’s singing in the kitchen when she had not heard Rhyll’s arrival through the door; the arch of her spine as she stretched up to draw down the heavy cotton blinds after nightfall; the sunlight as it fell across her sleeping face early in the morning, and the way her eyelids fluttered before she growled and rolled away into the shadows.
She loved the house best of all when it was just the two of them; but the opportunity to have friends over was another source of great pleasure. They quickly fell into an easy routine of hosting Norah and Ethel on Friday evenings, often sitting outside in the small back garden to eat a picnic tea on blankets on the grass and talking, talking, talking until late into the night, leaning back to watch the stars twinkling in the inky darkness above them. In turn, they would visit Norah and Ethel for roast dinner on Sundays, walking on the downs afterwards and going home hot and happy. Rhyll grew brown; Alice, delicate skin shielded safely beneath her big sunhat, freckled only gently, and Rhyll kissed each freckle in turn every night – or claimed to, with great sincerity and attention to detail, and an affable willingness to try again even more carefully if ever Alice disputed the accuracy of the placement of her kisses, given the relative size of lips and of freckles, and the close proximity in which those freckles sat.
Some evenings they went to the Radnor. Young, pleased with themselves and pleased with life, they revelled in a public which bore witness to their relationship; knew enough other regular patrons to guarantee an evening’s conversation, knew even more to at least nod a greeting and enjoy a sense of community; but best of all, walked away from it all at the close of the night, after the unflappable landlady had rung for last orders, back to the enduring solace of their home.
In September Charles, and the young woman who was now his wife, arrived to visit the family. When Rhyll dutifully made plans to visit – her first visit since moving to Bristol – she arranged to take Alice with her simply as a matter of course.
“What have you told them?” Alice asked, a mixture of curiosity and exasperation, as the train crawled past the sand-coloured stone of Bath. She was looking especially pretty, dressed in a cool blue cotton dress with her hair swept loosely back and up, gentler than the tight bun she wore for work and more grown-up than the tumbling red-gold loose about her shoulders the rest of the time.
Rhyll frowned in thought. “Not a lot, I suppose. That I live with you, of course – that much they knew already – and that I would be bringing you with me. I shall spare them the particular details. I don’t suppose Charles has shared that sort of information either, although I suppose it is possible there might already be irrefutable evidence of it in their case.”
Alice smiled, still curious and still unfazed. “What if they guess?”
“They won’t say anything.” Rhyll spread her hands, as if to say what could it possibly matter if they did?, or perhaps what is there to be said, about people such as these? “It wouldn’t be proper. So you see, dearest one, it’s not even as if I could ask them whether I might bring you, given particular details. I’d be putting them in a terribly awkward position, simply by introducing that conversation. Why, turning up with you on my arm and brooking no inquiry is surely the only approach I could reasonably have taken.”
The wedding had already taken place in Canada, but was blessed again in the village church for the benefit of Charles’ family. Ralph could not be there, Australia being too far and his wife having presented him with a second son only the previous month; but the extended family put in a good appearance, with cousins Rhyll had not seen since childhood coming to meet Charles and his new bride, and even Nanny turning out for the ceremony and a reception at the cottage afterwards. Nanny was older, Rhyll noted with a surprise she inwardly chided herself for. Her manner had not changed, she was still the same brisk authority she had been since Rhyll’s childhood and presumably since Rhyll’s own mother’s childhood, but there was a physical frailty which had not been there before, all the more noticeable now that Rhyll stood at least a foot taller than her. Nonetheless Rhyll felt herself shrinking when Nanny addressed her, and followed her instructions (a drink; a chair; a lengthy series of answers regarding the passage of the previous ten years, in spite of the dutiful provision of letters at frequent if growing intervals) with the prompt obedience of childhood.
Nanny approved of Alice immensely, whatever her interpretation of that young woman’s relationship to Rhyll might be. “Smart, isn’t she?” she observed after Alice had excused herself to freshen up. “I like her. You can tell she’ll do nicely for herself, make good choices. She’s got good judgment far beyond her years.” This verdict offered, she returned to quizzing Rhyll on the finer details of her work at Southleaze, what the family was like, the gardens, and how the junior gardening staff responded to instructions which were given to them by a woman. Julian joined them shortly before Alice’s return, and his arrival prompted such an impressive chain of comprehensive questioning that Rhyll was able to consider herself dismissed and stood silently, throwing her lover a quick smile of reassurance. The reassurance, she was pleased to realise, was not necessary. Alice was the picture of composure, standing on the lawn elegantly clasping a champagne flute and following the interrogation with an attentive smile. Rhyll was reminded of her mother, and also of the very first time she had laid eyes on Alice; how confidently and comfortably Alice had moved around the room, how attractively unapologetic her self-expression was, without any trace of antagonism or rivalry. Rhyll had refused to entertain the notion of not taking Alice today because she might not belong, not because of who Alice was but because of what she was; a family occasion without her partner would be no family occasion for her, for how could she belong if part of her chosen family was not there? What she had not counted on was how thoroughly Alice herself could belong: how right she would look in the Devon sunlight, how charmed Nanny would be by her and how much reassurance could be derived from her simple presence.
I had a bit of a break because real life got in the way...
Jones' background was in landscaping design, and as she proved herself more and more, it became clear that he wished to delegate all matters beyond this to Rhyll. Whenever they were working side by side, or passing each other in the hub of sheds that stood beside the gardener's cottage, he took the opportunity to discuss the plans for the garden with her – and it became clear which matters he invited her opinion on and which he didn't.
He was creating a sunk garden a little beyond the rear of the house; a network of neat brick-paths and terrace walls, bringing order and purpose to the southern slopes where the sunlight was best but the terrain was most challenging. These particular commissions were presented with an inevitability which invited only murmured approval in response – not that she had cause to do otherwise.
Other decisions were couched in vagueness, an open silence which sat up and demanded Rhyll submit proposals of her own. Rhyll was uncertain as to whether he was really as willing to incorporate her ideas as he seemed or if this was an exercise in window-dressing, Jones as mentor merely providing the space for her to practise such planning, poised to step in and redirect the vision as he saw fit. She played along, and he did not reject her tentative plans. She talked, and he nodded, adding to them his own suggestions, and quizzing her into developing the details. Whether this lack of a veto indicated her autonomy or his approval, she could not decide.
The staff was a considerable one, relative to the acreage and its purpose. In addition to Jones and Rhyll were six year round "garden boys", of varied experience and proficiency, not to mention age: it took Rhyll a little time, and some muttered practice as she cycled home alone, to become comfortable referring to as "boys" men who were fully ten years her elder, as was the case with Iolo and Albert. They were a good bunch, hard-working and cheerful, and after a short pause Rhyll fell into step with their easy banter, their unrefined camaraderie. It was almost an unconscious decision to talk frankly about her home life, to refer to Alice with the same tender nonchalance with which they mentioned their own wives. If anything, the commonality and the presumption of acceptance simply enhanced their fraternity: she was accepted as a peer, and respected for her seniority when it was relevant. Conversation between Jones and the family of the house – "them indoors", and Rhyll was tickled to not be one of "them indoors", to not even see a ripple of embarrassment from her colleagues in recognition that she could so easily have been – was scarce enough; conversation between the house and the garden boys was non-existent. It did not seem likely that they would hear any mention of what she occasionally recalled could be a dangerous secret. What kind of discussion could possibly lead to an indiscretion so unmentionable, and so specific? It was delightfully impossible, a breath of fresh air after the intensely communal nature of college living.
Jones appeared to have conducted a similar assessment of risk. It was early November, some three months after she had taken up duty at Southleaze, and they were breaking ground for the burgeoning sunk garden. Jones' discernment would not allow for cutting corners with the employment of heavy machinery. The speed and efficiency such tools offered came at a great cost, he insisted: a loss of exactitude and control, and untold damage to the precious ground itself. There was no rush, especially at this time of year, and so they would do the job in the time-honoured way, skilled hands always present at the other end of the fork, transmitting knowledge in a way no advanced apparatus ever could. Their task was hard and seemed at times infinite, when the cold earth resisted their digging and the space to be cleared stretched too broad and too deep for satisfyingly visible progress as they worked on it. Light was beginning to fade when he paused to watch her work, silently appraising her strength, her precision, her speed. Rhyll ignored the feeling of his eyes on her, kept on going until at long last a grunt of approval indicated that the day was done.
Eight worn-out bodies gave wordless thanks for the cessation of labour, though no observer would have detected their fatigue or aches in the prompt tidying that followed. Enthusiasm for the day's end outweighed their weariness, as each collected their tools and headed speedily to the sheds to put them away and neaten themselves up before heading home.
Rhyll’s boss fell into step beside her, and she awaited his evaluation. "I have to admit to having my doubts about employing a woman," he confessed. "Not that I didn't think you would be just as good at most things. Only whether you would really be able to pull your weight on days like today – and you can. Good."
She felt her own smile crinkling her eyes. "Glad to hear I've disabused you of that notion!" The temptation to deliver a stinging rebuke was strong, but she resisted. Jones, and especially Jones in the process of confessing such a realisation, could not be held accountable for a world of suspicion over female capabilities. He could not understand the shadows history had cast across Swanley, or the deep-down fire it kindled within its graduates. She could almost hear Norah's snort - Norah would never be so forgiving; but Norah was not here.
"Oh, that you have." His affability acknowledged that the error was all his, and she liked him all the more for it. "Others too, as it goes."
She turned her face to his, eyebrows raised in a question.
"That you'd be off, just as soon as I'd got you trained to the job as I'd like you. Married off. Nice to think that's not something I've to worry about, that is. And at the same time, I’ve no call to go worrying over you and the rest of the staff, or even you and him – ” Jones jerked his thumb in the direction of the house proper, to indicate his employer. “Not that he’s given me any cause to expect that sort of business, but it happens, mark you. It happens a lot.”
It had not occurred to Rhyll to perceive her nature as an asset in this way before. She turned it over in her mind now, wondered about Miss Somerville of Swanley and whether she had ever known the same experiences, the same observations – the same surprised relief and approval. In the distance, the crew of garden boys had emerged once more from the sheds. Jones – and Rhyll, after a moment’s hesitation – threw a cheery wave, and the men understood their permission to leave and waved back in thanks.
Jones paused, as if to re-gather the threads of his thoughts. “All round, I’m pleased. You can manage the men, you can manage the work, there’s no question about either of those. I won’t be here forever, but I shall feel happy to leave you in charge.”
“Where are you going?” Rhyll asked, too startled to finesse the question or acknowledge the implicit compliment.
He chuckled at her. “Oh, not immediately. There are things I want to see out here first – the sunk garden, the terraces, the stonework. I like those schemes – the design, and seeing it completed to my satisfaction and theirs. But I won’t let the grass grow. I’m not interested in maintenance, and I don’t work well if I’m getting bored. So someone else will need to take over the running of the place, that’s why we recruited a proper gardener as my deputy, rather than having one of the boys step up to it. And I’ve no doubt at all that you could do it.”
Another long break - sorry! Thanks to anyone still bearing with this. ;)
The days grew shorter, the ground harder; Rhyll grew stronger, cycled faster. The shorter days meant she was home earlier, had dinner warm in the oven and ready to serve by the time Alice was back from the factory. The evenings felt longer and warmer. The expense and effort of heating two rooms was considerable and so, since Rhyll proudly refused to accept any help from her family, they did not bother with it: after the meal was finished, Alice washed up and Rhyll went upstairs to light the fire in their bedroom. There they passed what remained of the day beneath the bedclothes, talking and reading and smoking and finding new warmths of their own, until the fire diminished to glowing embers and tiredness got the better of them and they slept deeply until morning.
They bought a Christmas tree one Saturday morning, lugged it home from East Street between them. Alice's cheeks were pink with cold, and her eyes sparkled. They stood the tree in the window bay, and hung it with treasures. Funds did not stretch to much by way of decoration, but Rhyll had squirrelled away a sackful of pinecones some weeks earlier for exactly this purpose, and they hung them from the branches with ribbons of red and green and gold. To her mind, it was every bit as beautiful as any of the lavishly-decked trees that had once stood in pride of place at Edgecot, for it was theirs, and everything they touched seemed to turn to gold.
"You'll come to the cottage with me for Christmas itself?" Rhyll asked as she stepped back to admire it, and after the briefest of pauses Alice smiled and nodded.
"And we'll do Christmas again here afterwards, with Marty and Sarah," she remarked cheerfully, her eyes still on the tree. "New Year's Eve, we could. If they could."
Rhyll nodded too.
Rhyll did not ask permission to bring Alice with her for Christmas. Stubbornly, deliberately, provocatively, she made a point of assuming that the invitation covered the woman she lived with, and therefore confirmed her attendance in the first-person plural accordingly.
It came as no surprise that Charles and Ralph would not be there, the distance being far too great to travel; but Julian was, making queer faces across the room at Rhyll which suggested he would rather see her alone. Well, tough, Rhyll reasoned inwardly and unfairly, unwilling to explore the matter or give the benefit of the doubt. After a lifetime of residing at the fringes of family life without complaint, she was in no frame of mind to perform a familiarity or a conformity which had never existed or benefited her before now. It suited her perfectly well to breeze in at Christmas with a female lover on her arm, just daring her parents to challenge her, and she refused to let any sense of indebtedness to Julian sway her from this perspective. With Julian, the familiarity ought to be authentic – and therefore to carry with it no expectation of conformity. Julian had always accepted her, always been her champion, always encouraged her to follow her truth; how could he then turn around and demand otherwise? She worked herself into such a temper at the thought, embellishing the injury until she had quite forgotten that the only germ of certainty was that Julian would have liked to have seen her alone. With a heightened sense of injustice, and all the bravado she habitually adopted in inwardly defending Alice’s entitlement to be present at family occasions, she extended her grievance to all logically possible conclusions; became wholly convinced that Julian resented her happiness, resented her confidence to live her own life outside of his shadow, resented that she dared to threaten the cosy security of his own perfect world with her mere existence.
Free from all the genuine bonds of love and truth, relations between Rhyll and her parents – and Alice – remained perfectly cordial. Whatever her mother’s inner perspective, she was too exemplary a hostess to reveal it to either Rhyll or her guest, and indeed she was so determinedly at pains to show Alice a kind welcome that Rhyll could quite easily have spent an hour or two in private conversation with Julian whilst the other two women knitted companionably in the drawing room. Rhyll was too cross to contemplate it, and held herself ostentatiously apart from her brother, keen only to drive home her point that her relationship was not something she would or could put to one side to resume a childhood role he found more comfortable.
The snow started late on Christmas Day, and by morning was nearly a foot deep. Rhyll took Alice for a walk in it before lunchtime, through the woods where the stillness of the trees and the airy coldness of the fallen snow seemed to deaden the sound and create an impermeable distance between the two of them and the rest of the world. She kissed her, fierce and tender, apologised for the frostiness of the atmosphere, and swore that the following Christmas would be just them, cosy and snug in their own little house with nothing and nobody else to bother about.
It seemed to be something about brothers that year. An unspoken tension hung in the air between Alice and her brother, when her siblings arrived for an anxiously-prepared roast dinner the evening before the new year. Alice had woken early, prepared most of the meal before heading off to work, leaving strict instructions with Rhyll for what she must do when she arrived home.
Rhyll had smiled gently, reminded Alice that she was a perfectly competent chef and did not need telling what to do once, never mind three times over, but Alice did not see the funny side as Rhyll had hoped. There was an unexpected nervousness to her demeanour, still apparent when she arrived home that evening. She checked the dinner first, several times, and once she was satisfied that no cooking disaster was likely, turned her attentions instead to Rhyll. Rhyll tried to ignore the sensation that she was being critically appraised for presentation to others, by the woman she had thought loved and accepted her unconditionally; tried to rationalise Alice’s nerves and the context in which they arose; took solace in the fact that Alice’s anxious examination did not appear to merit any requests for a change. As acceptable as the potatoes, Rhyll thought wryly, but knew better than to remark aloud.
“It smells like Christmas dinner!” Sarah burbled, obviously doing her best to improve the discomfort in the room, and Rhyll was immensely grateful to her for it. She wondered why they hardly ever saw Sarah, given she too worked at the tobacco factory and shared rooms with some friends not fifteen minutes’ walk away. She made a mental note to ask Alice if they ought to invite her round more often – even if she ought to make herself scarce from time to time so that Alice might have some time alone with her. Sarah was so young, still; surely she would want to have some time with her sister. “Isn’t that nice? It’s not every year you get a second turn at Christmas dinner.”
“Be even nicer to have had proper Christmas dinner together, like a proper family.” Marty remarked quietly, with a sullen glance at his eldest sister. Alice flashed him a scowl, and Rhyll felt her gut clutch up. Marty was well-built, a docker with all Alice’s wiry strength on a much larger frame, and for all she couldn’t imagine him laying a finger on his own sister, there was something in his contempt and the way Alice seemed determined to avoid placating him that caused her alarm.
“There’s gratitude,” was all Alice said, seating both siblings at a kitchen table which suddenly looked too small and pouring each a glass of sherry. Rhyll noticed the emphasis Alice used as she pushed Marty firmly into his chair; noticed how he surrendered to her guiding arms yet remained poised and aloof once seated, as if to make a point of acquiescing to her commands whilst ultimately refusing her hospitality.
It was left to Rhyll and Sarah to keep the conversation flowing over dinner, and Rhyll could not deny the wave of relief she felt when the meal was over and the guests rose to leave. “You must come again,” she insisted as she helped Sarah into her overcoat in the narrow hallway, nodding at Marty after she spoke to indicate that the invitation extended to both of them. He nodded in response, unsmiling, and Rhyll knew as well as he did that such an occasion was unlikely in the extreme.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Alice murmured, as she turned the key in the lock behind them. “Families! I’ve had my share for the year. Can’t we just run away, just you and me?”
Rhyll chuckled, caught Alice’s slender hand in her own and kissed her fingertips, savouring the familiar scent of tobacco and carbolic soap. The anxiety which had gripped Alice until now had faded away, replaced by obvious weariness; but beneath the fatigue, Rhyll saw in the depths of her blue eyes a hundred reasons to be thankful, and a hundred more to be hopeful. The duties of the festive season dispensed with, Rhyll found herself looking forward with confidence to the year ahead – and not inclined in the least to worry over cross glances exchanged with brothers who seemed peripheral and inconsequential now, on the other side of a locked door when all that truly mattered was contained within.
I seem to be on a bit of a roll...
“We’re on in the West End!” Norah brandished The Times at the others in tickled celebration almost as soon as they had come through the front door.
Rhyll took the paper and frowned the squiggling letters into submission: “’The Children’s Hour’: Hellmann’s controversial drama set to open at London theatre club.”
“Norah’s delight stems primarily from her new-found position as expert,” Ethel commented drily. “It opened on Broadway in ’34 and she wrote something on it, but of course nobody else cared a thing about it -“
“I wrote several somethings on it,” Norah corrected her, “which suggests to me that several somebodies thought it worthy of comment.”
“And now you can repurpose your worthy commentary for a wider audience,” Ethel’s tone was innocent, and it was only the familiarity of years that allowed Rhyll to recognise the affectionate ribbing for what it was. There was an understated and unshakeable love and respect between the two older women, deepened over the many years they had shared; if Ethel ragged Norah for her enthusiasms, she did so in the context of great admiration and unswerving support.
Norah tutted at her partner’s irreverence. “This is big,” she informed Rhyll, who had given up on the Times and passed it over to Alice to avoid the anxiety induced by reading quickly under pressure. “It’s still illegal to make any mention of homosexuality on Broadway, but they seem to have quite overlooked that on this occasion. And make no mistake, this is no mere mention of homosexuality, this is the central matter of the play.”
“Don’t get excited,” Ethel put in with what would have been a wink, if only she were the sort of person to use such overt body language. “It’s scarcely the sort of great progress Norah’s selling it as. The story culminates in the lesbian killing herself. Forgive me if I’m muted in my literary appreciation – it still sounds an awful lot like ‘please pity us and our miserable existence’, for my money.”
“Oh, never mind forgiving your muted literary appreciation,” Norah huffed with a grin. “It’s your flagrant disregard for the social significance of this business that warrants our forgiveness! Martha dies once; but think of all the thousands of people going to watch it, the tens of thousands of unsuspecting homes reading the reviews in their weekly paper, almost unable to look away in their embarrassment and feigned disgust...”
“I don’t agree, my darling. Martha doesn’t die once at all – she dies every night, every matinee, in every single review or reference or feverish expression of outrage the papers grant her. That’s not us on stage, Nor’. It’s nobody I know, it’s not about us, it’s not for us, it’s not even with us truly in mind.”
“So who is it for, then?” Alice questioned, laying down the paper on Norah and Ethel’s dining table around which all four were crowded.
“Oh, dreadfully sophisticated types who like to think of themselves as culturally and socially adventurous,” Norah shrugged, indicating she wasn’t particularly opposed to Ethel’s line of argument after all. “The same who make up the audience at most of those theatre club productions. The same theatre put on ‘Salome’ a few years back – some might call that a generation too late for the scandal they flattered themselves with, but that’s the balance of safety and titillation that sort are comfortable with.”
Rhyll and Alice were both silent, unsure of how to respond to Norah’s exposition and still taking in the news itself. It fell to Ethel again to prod her partner, before ushering her guests to take a seat for tea. “You wouldn’t guess it, from that scathing commentary, but that sort probably account for some nine-tenths of Norah’s readership. She detests them, she needs them, she detests that she needs them, and she quietly frets that she might be herself among them. I’m not recommending you take yourselves up to London for the purpose of seeing this play: there’s misery enough right here on your doorstep if only you go looking for it.”
“It’s a thing worthy of comment, nonetheless.” In all the time Rhyll had known her, she could not recall Norah passing up an opportunity to have the last word. “All this time skulking in the shadows, and now someone else is putting us right there in the limelight. It’ll count for something when you come to look back at this time, that’s all.”
Norah’s echo rang round Rhyll’s head when she visited Julian that month to mark his birthday and try to push aside the peculiarities of Christmas. She went alone by train to London one Saturday, reflecting that she was willing to spend time with her brother without Alice, whilst still refusing to sideline her sweetheart from such occasions as Christmas visits to the family. She reminded herself that, birthday or not, her olive branch was of conciliation without contrition: she had nothing to regret, and nothing to apologise for.
They met in a tea room near Paddington, and spoke of everyday matters over cake. Rhyll paid, rather guiltily disguising her pride as she refused to allow Julian to pay even half; she had budgeted carefully for this, on top of the train fare, and the sense of satisfaction this gave her was magnified by the silent reminder that she continued to decline the allowance her family would have granted her without question. Earlier that week, counting out the money at the kitchen table, she had counted her independence the richest dividend of all, and Julian’s obvious discomfort reiterated its value. After they had eaten, Julian suggested a leisurely stroll before her return journey. The day was cold, but crisp and clear, and conversation would surely be easier away from the dainty confines of the tea room. Rhyll was briefly reminded of their afternoons in Egham, and through the awkwardness of her suppressed pride sneaked the ghost of a real smile.
The ripple of pleasure was short-lived. “Did you know somebody’s put you on stage in the West End?” Julian asked abruptly, as he steered her from the main road around a leafier corner. He inhaled sharply, and started again. “I’m sorry, that was a rather strange opening gambit –“
“I knew what you meant.” Rhyll answered, cutting off his explanation knowing it would not be the one she wanted. What he was referring to was unexpectedly obvious; what he was implying remained shrouded in mystery. “Well?”
“It means you need to stop hiding in plain sight, doesn’t it?” Julian’s gaze was fixed straight ahead, as if he had rehearsed what he wanted to say. “That sort of business only works for as long as everyone can pretend they don’t see what’s obvious.”
“So what do you suggest?” Rhyll demanded. “I won’t lie, Jules. I just won’t.”
He shook his head, frustrated, and said nothing.
Rhyll took a breath, tried to remember the olive branch. Conciliation without contrition. “I don’t accept that it has any consequence. I’m still as I am. I declare nothing, disguise nothing, expect nothing, imply nothing. Christ knows what Mother and Father think, Julian! They don’t ask, and I don’t expect them to. We have a better understanding now, miles apart, than we ever managed in all the years we spent in the same house.” She paused, darted a quick look at him. “Unlike you and me, it would appear.”
Julian snorted, and when he spoke she was surprised to hear that his voice shook with rage. “But it’s just that, isn’t it? You and your perpetual uncertainties, all that it implies – you bring everything else into sharper focus, just by mulishly appropriating the fog for yourself! You – you taint everything. You suggest it’s neutrality, but you tarnish it just like that.” His voice was bitter now. “Where am I supposed to fit in?”
Rhyll felt indignation rising within her, thick and choking. “Where are you supposed to fit in? How the hell should I know about where you fit in? Fitting in is your special skill and fortune, isn’t it? Always yours, and never mine. On reflection I think you’ll forgive me my lack of interest in that particular problem. Maybe you don’t fit in. Maybe it’s foolish of you to even want to. There’s a whole world out there, Julian. Find your own place in it.”
“I don’t want that ‘whole world out there’.” His voice was quiet, a nod to their residential surroundings, but it was still heavy with pain and anger. “I was perfectly happy as I was. My family, my work, my friends. I never wanted to abandon that for some sordid back-street existence, even as I covered for you to do the same.”
Rhyll grabbed his hands, brought them up face to face with each other. Fury coursed through her, crowding out any possibility of sympathy. Her mind spun with things she wanted to say, accusations she wanted to hurl, charges she wanted to deny. She let go and shook her head. “You want it all. I have to go.”
She turned and stalked back to the train station. She was far earlier than she needed to be, but if there wasn’t an earlier train she could sit and wait; if there was an earlier train, so much the better – so much the sooner, to be back with her chosen family. Tears stung at her eyes. She could see no way back, and – still shaking with indignation – she could not imagine even wanting to.
Rhyll disclosed only the essentials of her falling out with Julian to Alice: Julian was terrified of his own feelings towards other men; Julian would rather demand that Rhyll make all possible concessions to his terror, than take any steps to attend to the plank in his own eye; Rhyll did not want to speak with him again, and she flatly refused to drag down the atmosphere of her own happy home by rehashing the remnants of the argument itself. This last was no exaggeration; she felt keenly that there was something toxic about what Julian had said, and she was afraid that giving it voice would allow it to seep through into the rest of her life, irreparably and ineluctably poisoning all that was sacred. She needed to preserve her happiness from the consuming fire of her brother's hatred.
Alice nodded, understood, held her for a while and then carried on as normal, for which Rhyll was grateful and relieved. She had worried that Alice might push her for more detail, or encourage her to make amends with her brother. Her only remaining concern on the subject was that Norah might prove less permissive, but as it transpired, Norah had been harbouring a secret of her own.
The arrival of Spring - real Spring, beyond the snowdrops and crocuses - earned Rhyll her first major plaudits at Southleaze. The walled garden which had been given over to her direction came into bloom with a riot of colour, almost orchestral in its glorious coordination of hue and timing; it grew visibly brighter and more beautiful with every week that passed, The Lady Indoors remarked in delight, and Rhyll had smiled a cautious agreement. Jones was similarly pleased, though his satisfaction in contrast was gratifyingly devoid of any surprise, as if he had expected nothing less from his young deputy. Though the days grew longer, the warmth of the sun made them more pleasurable, and cycling straight to Norah's after work one day, with the glow of late afternoon sunshine on her back and the sweet scent of the approaching summer in her nostrils, Rhyll thought her life a rather lovely one.
As soon as Ethel answered the door, Rhyll knew something was wrong. Ethel's face was lined with tiredness, and her shoulders had a faint droop to them which had not been there the last time Rhyll had seen her, little more than a week earlier.
"Come in, come in," Ethel urged her, opening the door wide to allow Rhyll to wheel her bicycle into the hallway where she left it, propped carefully against the wall. "Norah's - well, Norah's in bed, actually. She had a bit of a turn last Thursday. She will be all right -" she quickly reassured Rhyll, for this was the first Rhyll had heard of it - "but it might take a little while. She's fearfully tired, but I know she'll be pleased to see you."
Rhyll nodded and unlaced her heavy work boots, leaving them beside her bike on the black and white tiles of the hallway, before following Ethel upstairs. In all the time she had known the couple, she had never had cause to enter their bedroom, and she felt oddly shy at the idea. Is it 'their' bedroom? she wondered as she climbed the stairs, immediately chastising the ridiculous thought; perhaps a deliberate attempt by her mind to distract her from the bigger and more worrying questions about what on earth had happened to Norah.
Norah looked smaller, and far less commanding than usual. She was fully reclined on the bed, and did not - could not? - even lift her head from the cool pillows to greet her visitor, though her eyes lit up and she smiled in welcome. One hand slipped laboriously out from beneath the bedclothes to give a small and effortful wave.
Ethel steered Rhyll into the armchair nearest the head of the bed. "Yes, I thought you'd be pleased. Now, don't start on about my not telling you. You'd have stayed awake all afternoon in anticipation, and then fallen into a fretful sleep by the time she got here - or worse, made yourself ill. Don't try to tell me otherwise, now. I know you too well to be taken in by your protestations." She turned her attention to the housekeeper, who had risen when the two had entered and stood now at the foot of the bed, waiting further instruction. "Would you fetch us some tea, Mrs Farrant? After that, you might take a good break for yourself. I'm sure that between the pair of us, we can keep Miss Turnbull out of mischief."
With a nod, the faithful housekeeper departed, and Ethel took a seat beside Rhyll. "She's been in the hospital," Ethel explained, with a sideways look at her partner. "They were foolishly persuaded to let her out yesterday afternoon, on strict condition of bed rest and daily visits from the GP. I must find somebody to sit with her - poor Mrs F has more than enough work as it is..."
"I'm fine," the invalid herself protested, and Rhyll found her own voice at last.
"You look it."
Norah's eyes crinkled in another smile. "Cheeky. I have been better, naturally. But I don't need constant nursing. I'm not in any danger, I'm just very, very tired."
"What happened?" Rhyll would never have dared ask the question so directly of Ethel, but with Norah everything was always simple.
Norah grimaced. "They tell me I suffered a cerebrovascular accident. You read science, yes? So I don't have to pretend I understand, and explain it all to you? Thank goodness for that. It's frightfully boring, and it's been a week now and nobody will talk to me about anything else. That one -" she indicated Ethel with a look, for movement was clearly very taxing for her - "I appear to be stuck with; but with my guests, I shall lay down the law and insist we speak of other matters."
And so it was that Rhyll visited Norah three evenings each week, often with Alice but usually alone. Taking seriously her duty of distraction, she told Norah all the chatter from work as well as from the Radnor, the gossip of friends, acquaintances and total strangers; told her all about the falling-out with Julian in all its unpalatable glory; read to her from the newspapers, guessing at Norah's strength each day and choosing or avoiding those stories she thought would most excite her accordingly.
Norah's recovery felt slow to Rhyll, although comments made by Ethel indicated that the incremental improvements represented perfectly normal progress.
"Perhaps the first perfectly normal thing you've done in your life," Ethel chastised her tenderly. Her shoulders stood straight again, and most of the colour had returned to her face, but the anxiety of those awful early days never entirely left her countenance. Rhyll would never have mentioned it, but Norah did once, when Ethel was out of the room.
"It's funny," she observed. "With children, they shoot up or change suddenly and though everyone remarks upon it, they never think it odd. And yet, over the fifty-odd years - or more, God willing - you spend as an adult, it seems odd that the same thing would happen, and nobody ever dares comment on it! Ethel's aged ten years overnight over this silly business. I was the same after my first stint in Holloway: went in there barely more than a girl, came out..." Her voice trailed off, and Rhyll didn't know whether it was the memory, or the sheer effort of such a protracted speech which had exhausted her.
"Always bad things?" She suggested.
Norah shook her head. "No, you see it for happy occasions too. Birth of a first child, that's always a big one. Marriage, perhaps. I saw it in you, as soon as you two moved in to your new home together." She paused for a while. "I don't know whether adults ever appear to age for no real reason, as children do. Perhaps they do, and these are just the narratives we weave around them."
As Norah's strength slowly returned, she was able to talk for longer. Within the first month, she was sitting up in bed when Rhyll visited, and as May melted into June, she could often walk to the garden, leaning on a stick which she insisted was for reassurance rather than pressing need, and which in any case she began to consider as an aesthetic prop at least as much as a functional item. "I can't believe I never wanted one of these before," she mused. "I suppose when I was young, I was too terribly earnest about all the work that needed doing and all we had to achieve, to be thinking much about plagiarising gentlemen's accessories. Perhaps it is the sort of indulgence perfectly suited to middle age. So every cloud does have its silver lining."
Ethel gave her a dark look, and Rhyll smiled and sipped her lemonade. She had a dim understanding that the face both women put on in her presence was the best they could manage, but even allowing for this variation life looked good once more. Norah was her old self, if still frustrated by the slowness of her physical recovery; work was good; and she went to sleep every night with Alice's arms wrapped around her, her red-gold hair tumbling across their shared pillow. The pain of missing Julian did not fade completely, but she felt philosophical about it and at a distance to the raw wound of their squabble itself. After all, she had dismissed his naïve expectation that he could hope to have everything he most wished for; that was advice she could do well to heed for herself.
June gave way to July gave way to August. The summer marked a full year in Bristol, a year at Southleaze, a year living with Alice: dates of significance rushed by thick and fast, offering Rhyll a vantage point from which to appreciate all she had, all her gains and accomplishments and blessings. Each month offered new gifts: the emergence of new blooms, the harvest of new fruits, the sharing of new secrets, the creation of new memories. She revelled in the praise at work, took home the surplus vegetables she was offered, often stayed late working in the gardens without coercion or resentment.
She delighted in the deepening of her friendship with Norah, with whom she still spent three evenings most weeks. In most respects, Norah had made a strong recovery and almost all of the time seemed back to her usual self: the stroke seemed to confer her with an air of invincibility, was chalked up as one of those things she had gone through and survived to tell the tale – and very few people could tell a tale like Norah. As Norah gradually allowed her to see beyond her best face, though, Rhyll realised there were longer-lasting implications. Norah had lost the ability to write, in many ways. She had largely lost the use of her right hand and was learning slowly to write legibly with her left; worse, she frequently struggled to organise her ideas, and could be thrown off balance for several minutes in pursuit of an elusive word.
“I appreciate it’s discourteous to complain,” she observed grumpily one day. “After all, it’s not the same as being unable to walk, or talk. But writing is what I do. It’s my work, and it’s who I am. It’s disabling.”
Rhyll half understood, half didn’t. The frustrations of struggling with the written word she recognised strongly, but the attachment to writing was something she could view only from the outside. “Can’t you type any better?”
Norah spread her hands. “I can. But it’s very different. I think differently when I’m writing at the typewriter, and I produce a different piece of writing accordingly. That’s why writing with my left hand is worse than mere frustration at my slow progress. It changes completely the frame of my thoughts. I think less fluently with my left hand. Ethel scribes for me much of the time, bless her, but that’s again different.” She smiled suddenly. “I can tell you this, because I know you won’t fall over yourself to offer to scribe for me, nor grow offended when I inevitably decline such an offer.”
“I’ll say!” Rhyll murmured feelingly. “I know all about slow left hands, and ideas which spill over into each other when confronted with a blank page.”
Norah grinned. “It’s a rude awakening, this late in the day. Still, where there’s a will and all that. I don’t do giving up.”
Rhyll was pleased to find herself thinking of Julian less and less: his absence had not held back the new growth of Spring, nor the successful bloom of Summer, and she felt confident now that the gap where he had once been would continue to shrink until it was no more than a bittersweet memory. Conversely, Alice seemed to be building bridges with Marty, and Rhyll was relieved to find she felt nothing but pleased for her. The combination of Alice’s revived relationships with her siblings, and Rhyll’s frequent visits to see Norah, meant they were more often separated in the evening and so their weekends together grew more secluded and more cherished. Most often they would spend whole days in the small garden of their home, fair-skinned Alice lying on a blanket in the shade whilst Rhyll sprawled beside her in the sun, both incrementally progressing from one side of the lawn to the other in line with the sun’s movement across the sky. Alice strung together daisies to adorn her own head and wrists, or Rhyll’s when she grew restless. They did the washing together, tended the flowerbeds; ate outside, smoked and talked; lay in companionable silence, even slept.
It was a Wednesday evening in August. Coming straight home from work, Rhyll stopped off at the fish and chip shop on the corner. She wheeled the bike back from the fish shop with the steaming bag carefully tucked in the basket, pausing at the top of the road as she always did to admire the many colours of the sunset over the city.
She let herself in, and knew straight away that Alice must be out still, for no Alice appeared at the sound of her key in the door. Rhyll breathed in the stillness of the house, the soothing coolness after another enjoyable but hot and busy day. It was only when she went through to the kitchen to boil the kettle that she realised that all was not as it ought to be.
The house was strangely clean, and full of gaps – that was the only way Rhyll could immediately perceive it, a whole series of vague gaps where something ought to be but wasn’t. In the next moment, she realised: Alice’s things were gone. The stillness of the house took on a different tone, louder and more urgent. She did not know how long she stood in her kitchen and gaped: on the table, three months’ rent and a short note; the bag of chips going cold.
How does a girl who was so fiercely independent of her living father end up so desperate to conform after his death? The letter told Rhyll little: an apology, confession of an intent to marry, an apology again to close it. Rhyll read it through several times. It was brief, as Alice always was, loath to expend more words than strictly necessary, no interest in repeating the same idea from one sentence into the next. Alice hoped the money would be sufficient; Rhyll did not know her suitor; she did not expect to see Rhyll again. The only piece of information which seemed to touch on the question Rhyll most desperately wanted an answer to – why? – were the final three words. “I am tired.”
Rhyll left the house in a daze. Darkness had descended by now. Sorry, R. I am tired. She could not understand it. She walked on, moving automatically along Coronation Road, stopping to stare down the steep drop into the muddy river below – staring by memory, not by sight: even if the darkness had not robbed her of the view, the shock would have done so. Her mind swam. Alice could not be far away – could she? She wanted to run from street to street searching for her, looking for a glimpse of red hair, for that old familiar rapidity of movement; she wanted to knock on every door, imploring: please, have you seen..? She could not bear to be here, left alone, powerless, knowing nothing.
She did not know how long she stood there: one minute, five minutes, an hour or more. At length, she came to understand – if not accept – that she could do nothing, and may as well go home. Walking slowly back home, she felt intensely aware of her surroundings – in stark contrast to the walk down there. She remembered this curiously sensitised state from the previous summer, when everything was new and wonderful and she had longed to commit it all to permanent memory. She passed a pair of lovers whispering beneath the streetlamps now, remembered with a pang that that had once been her and Alice, and envied this couple their happy oblivion. She remembered what Norah had said about suddenly ageing, and wondered if this was the same thing: suddenly awakening to the rest of the turning world, suddenly learning that things would change overnight and would never be the same again.
How does love just disappear? The emptiness of the house did not shock her when she arrived home for the second time that night. In fact, it already felt almost so familiar that she wondered if Alice had been a dream, if the house had always been half-bare and oppressively quiet. Rhyll climbed the stairs to bed in the darkness, for she knew them and anyway, there seemed no point using a light for just one person.
The bed was a new and unpleasant shock – lying sleepless and alone in the bed which had always been shared. Just as she could see the muddy river even in the pitch darkness, so too she could see Alice’s hair spilling out across the pillow in the pitch darkness, where she had seen it hundreds of times before – where it always was. She put out a hand to stroke it and met with the cold cotton of the pillowcase. The bed still smelled of tobacco leaves and carbolic soap. It took a long time for the morning to come.
Thanks for the comments!
This one is a little longer than most, but it didn't seem to split into two at any obvious point...
Rhyll stumbled through the remainder of the week as if in a dream. If she slept at all, it was a dreamless sleep, no more or less restless than her wakeful state. She threw herself into her work, for the time that she was there, and tried for all she was worth to blot out Alice's persistent presence in her mind. She cycled home mindlessly, she did not eat; she sat broodingly in the garden until long after darkness had fallen, listening to the hum of mosquitoes and the call of nightbirds, suppressing the plaintive wail of grief that rose up inside her. Where had Alice gone – where was she now? She must still be nearby, Rhyll was quite sure. Everyone and everything she had ever known was here. She would not have gone far.
By the weekend, a modicum of hurt had hardened to suspicion. The memory of Alice's earlier transgressions surfaced, raw and painful, and Rhyll became fixated on deducing who else knew, suspected, had had reason to guess at a disappearance she had been so bewildered by. She went to afternoon tea at Norah's on Saturday afternoon – an arrangement made earlier in the week, only days past, and yet now a whole lifetime ago. The invitation had been accepted jointly, and Rhyll felt excruciatingly aware of the solitude of her walk up to Clifton, trying out a series of succinct explanations in her head as she walked. None felt quite suitable. The facts she relayed were disjointed and muddled, suffering the same excessive brevity that had characterised Alice’s note.
Norah expressed surprise, followed immediately by sympathy. Prompted by Rhyll's anxious questions, she assured her that she and Ethel had known nothing:
"And I would absolutely have expected to know," she insisted, "in spite of current limitations on social activity. My part time association with sapphist society is sufficiently high-ranking. There are returns to age and experience, in these sorts of situations, and whilst I might often think that unfairly hierarchical... People would have told me, if they had anything to tell, and nobody has told me anything. Blimey, I'm sorry Rhyll. What an unutterably rotten business."
Rhyll returned home faintly comforted by Norah's words and Ethel's quiet compassion, and worn out by the efforts of verbalising her news. She had, however, decided upon a course of action, and she took out and ironed her best shirt in careful preparation. Styling her hair at the mirror that evening, she caught sight Alice's toothbrush, left behind as she had been left behind, and was struck by a sudden burst of anger. She snatched it up and crossed the room to throw it from the window behind her. She knew she would find it again, lying accusingly in the garden, but for now it was banished and good riddance. She gave herself another close inspection in the mirror.
She had not made plans to meet anyone – she had not even mentioned to Norah and Ethel that she intended to go out that evening – but she knew she could be assured of bumping into someone she knew. She had never been to the Radnor alone before, and for as long as she had had no need to do so, the idea of doing so would have terrified her. Now it was a reality and she felt fearless. She knew she was seeking a different occasion entirely to those she had enjoyed at the same establishment previously – a purpose she recognised from observation and had not ever imagined herself seeking out.
In the midst of her desolation, she felt the shadow of a thrill as she slicked her hair back before heading out.
"Why, hello." It was Mabel, of course it would be Mabel. Rhyll remembered her from that first visit to the pub many years before: dark hair, prominent spectacles, equally prominent salacious grin. Rhyll had seen her many times since, and whilst she had remained polite, her unspoken feelings had progressed from mild fear to embarrassment to disdain. Most recently, she had believed that she held a truth that Mabel could not have known – had half-pitied the other woman's constant, stagnant lechery, had looked down on her from her own impermanent vantage-point of reciprocal love and partnership. Maybe all along it had been Mabel who had known better. "Are you quite alone? In which case, may I buy you a drink?"
Rhyll consented with greater ease than she had anticipated, fuelled by a heady combination of flattery and freedom. She knew already that she would end the night by going home with Mabel, and she savoured the power of this knowledge which was – as yet – hers alone; she knew it was the other woman's objective, of course, but Mabel would not yet believe it probable. That would show anyone who was watching, she was more than just Alice's discarded wares. More importantly, it would keep her from spending another night in her own bed, alone with her unremitting sense of loss.
In the morning she did not feel guilt or regret, any more than she felt love or attachment. Mabel – for understandable reasons of her own, Rhyll presumed – had not once asked about Alice. She had in fact been the consummate hostess, providing tea and toast for a breakfast quite free from awkwardness, and Rhyll found herself feeling the same warmth towards her as she felt towards the boys at work: not a proper friend, certainly not someone in whom she wished to confide or in whose absence she would remember often, but nonetheless someone towards whom she felt a vague sense of goodwill. Mabel did not, to Rhyll's relief, extend any future invitation; but the unabashed lust of her farewell sent fire through Rhyll's body, and kept at bay the gnawing pain of Alice's absence for perhaps the first minute of her unhurried walk home in the late-morning sunshine.
It was, she concluded with satisfaction, a most successful method of escaping the angst of her empty home and especially her empty bed – and one very easily replicated. Out most nights, her work suffered: not dramatically so, but sufficiently to merit a stern word from Jones.
The message that she was to report to her boss came through Iolo, a deliberate tactic to ram home the gravity of the situation she had placed herself in. For the garden boys to accept her as an equal had been relatively straightforward, and from stories she had heard at Swanley she knew this was no small matter; but for them to accept her as their superior had required effort and persistence on her part and the loss of face in being called to explain her actions was especially acute, another uphill struggle to regain respect lost through carelessness and inattention.
She found Jones in his inner sanctum. He was sitting in one of two wicker basket-chairs on a square of brick flooring, tucked away towards the rear of one of the glasshouses. He did not look up as she approached, but waved his hand in the direction of the other chair. Rhyll sat down uncertainly. Jones kept his attention on the seed catalogue he had been leafing through for a good five minutes before wearily closing it and looking across at his sheepish junior for the first time.
Rhyll had steeled herself for an outsize in rows on the topic of her recent failings, had prepared all her most penitent faces for listening to a lecture but no words for a confession of her own. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I'm sorry. I've not been reaching the standard –"
"Quite right, you haven't." Jones interrupted, and from his voice she realised the extent of his fury; but just as quickly as he had unleashed it, it seemed to dissipate into thin air. The disappointment which replaced it was harder to stomach. It was difficult to remember now how just a few weeks ago, her standing at Southleaze had gone from strength to strength, each new bloom a testament to her ability, richly rewarded in recognition.
"You're a good gardener," he said quietly. "You're technically good, and you handle the other boys well. You ought to be striking out under your own steam in the next year or two. I shouldn't have to talk to you about timekeeping or attitude, for crying out loud. The only staff I'd ever expect to pull up for that would be the day boys – and I'd expect you to do the pulling up."
Rhyll hung her head, burning with shame. "I'm sorry," she murmured, with more feeling this time. "It won't happen again."
"No," Jones agreed firmly. "It won't." He let the threat hang there. Rhyll knew it for what it was, but the real motivation for change had been his disappointment. She did not alter the way she spent her time outside of work, but she never again allowed it to interfere with her job. No matter how her private world hung in the balance, how badly she hurt and how desperately she avoided being alone with the pain and shame whenever possible, she pushed on at work, redoubling her efforts to catch up to where she had been before she so foolishly took her eye off the ball.
Her private world continued to hang in the balance and the pain of Alice’s departure did not abate. Rhyll continued to self-medicate with drink and distraction. Alice had left her share of three months’ rent behind, and on some level Rhyll had decided that this time constituted a limbo of sorts. After the three months were up, she would have to calculate the viability of remaining there (unlikely, she suspected, not to mention undesirable) and plan a way to move forward alone. But for now, all practical matters might continue as they were, and Rhyll still nursed the secret hope that Alice might have a change of heart. Each evening she returned from work, imagining finding Alice sitting waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Some days the Alice of her daydreams was remorseful, other days she would grin broadly as if her absence had been some elaborate joke; she might weep, laugh, apologise, beg forgiveness, challenge Rhyll to beg her to stay; some days she would behave as if nothing had happened at all, ask only that they did not speak of it just as she had asked after her brother’s Christmas insolence. Each day Rhyll knew she would take her in her arms, promise all would be well, and it would be so. Each day the house was empty and Rhyll would get changed, put on her imperturbable mask, and go out in search of someone to while away the night with. It wasn’t just sex – although often it was; Rhyll learned the art of bar-room conversation, could and did engage on whatever topic was being casually thrown around when she reached the table, segueing from debate to flirtation to gossip with dispassionate cool.
Her veneer of sophistication may have fooled many, but it did not escape the attention of those who knew her best. Norah arrived unexpected and uninvited on her doorstep one Saturday afternoon.
“I am staging an intervention,” Norah announced with grim humour as she nudged her way past Rhyll and into the sitting room. “Cups of tea may be required.”
Rhyll gave Norah a look and went to the kitchen to do her bidding. She had not been a hostess alone before, and something about Norah’s presence in Alice’s continued absence punctured her bubble of denial. Could Norah have known, when she made herself comfortable in the sitting room whilst Rhyll made the tea, that she had settled herself in exactly Alice’s favourite seat?
“Intervention?” She asked provocatively. “Are you about to moralise on my recent conduct?”
Norah looked back at her, with eyes filled with compassion. “I’m scarcely interested in your dealings with other people, assuming you’ve the decency to treat them kindly. But don’t let’s hide behind claims of modern sexuality. Is that really you, Rhyll? Does it make you happy?”
Rhyll opened her mouth to defend herself, then closed it again. “Maybe not happy. But it helps blot it out for a little while.”
Norah clucked softly. “Oh, my dear. You poor, poor girl.”
Something in her uncharacteristically gentle kindness unstopped all that Rhyll had been bottling up inside, and it flowed forth now. All her hurts bubbled into the open, and she found herself giving voice to even those anxieties she had been afraid to admit to herself. Where had Alice gone? Why had she gone? What might I have done to keep her? What will I do without her?
Norah held her through it all as she choked the words out. From the evening she had come home to Alice’s short and reticent note on the table until now, she had not cried; now, she felt as if she might never stop, great wracking sobs on Norah’s sturdy shoulder.
“I always thought we’d end up like you two, you know,” she hiccupped brokenly. “Like you and Ethel. Always a pair. Nobody thinks of one of you without being reminded of the other. So much history together. No less than a marriage – more, because nobody could ever accuse you of convenience or compromise. I wanted that...”
The worst of it out in the open now, Rhyll gave up talking and let herself howl. She could not remember crying like this, even as a child – she certainly could not recall ever crying like this in front of someone. Norah stroked her hair softly, and waited patiently for the storm to pass. She waited for Rhyll to cry herself out, handing her a large handkerchief as the sobs petered out to a quiet sniffle.
“This is not where your story ends,” she answered at last, gently and firmly. “You will feel better than this. You will be happy again, I promise you, whatever happens and however happiness manifests itself for you. There is so much more to the world. And some people get more than one great love story.”
"Norah was right!" Peggy crowed, but her voice and her laughter were both gentler than usual, and she squeezed Rhyll's hand tightly in her own.
Rhyll smiled, grateful for the light relief and the unquestioning acceptance it implied. "Always, and infuriatingly so. Not dissimilar to someone else I know, come to think of it..."
The two exchanged a smile and, since nothing else needed to be said on that matter, neither spoke again for several moments.
"It sounds horrendous." Peggy's voice, serious now, grew yet more tender; something in it warmed Rhyll to her core.
"It was one of the two lowest points in my life, I think."
Peggy drew closer, slipped a wiry arm around her. "I don't think you've ever mentioned the other. Are you going to? - I shan't pry, if you'd rather not."
"Soon. It was almost exactly a year after Alice left, just two days too late to be a sick anniversary commemoration." Rhyll closed her eyes for a moment, took two deep breaths of the salt air to wrest herself back into the present. She reached into her overcoat pocket for her tobacco. "I'll smoke this, and then let's head back. The rain's stopped for now - be nice if we can get inside before it starts up again."
Peggy nodded, warm brown eyes peering up at the sky. "I do believe I see blue sky threatening to break through over there - don't you think? We could yet see blazing sunshine before nightfall!"
"Good old British Spring!" Rhyll observed with a grin.
They sat in comfortable silence, both gazing out on the steady churn of the receding sea. Peggy's arm was still wrapped securely around Rhyll's waist, curly brown head resting against broad shoulder.
At length, Rhyll finished her cigarette and ground the butt into the stone floor before hauling herself to her feet, relishing the stretch and movement. "Shall we hop down onto the sand to walk back? Seems a shame not to, since it's here."
Peggy assented with pleasure, and in near perfect synchrony both ducked beneath the iron railing of the promenade and leapt nimbly onto the damp beach below. Rhyll wanted to take Peggy's hand but knew better than to risk it, however deserted the place appeared; a glance sideways told her that Peggy was thinking the same thing, and the shared understanding was almost enough to compensate for the cautious lack of physical contact.
"Did you ever hear from Alice again?" Peggy asked hesitantly as they walked.
Rhyll shook her head. "Not from her, nor about her. I suppose someone, somewhere must have known. I don't believe she was far, geographically speaking." She reached out to fleetingly grasp her lover's arm as she spoke. "I'm not curious any more. I haven't been, for a very long time. I hope she's happy, but I'm quite comfortable never knowing."
Really? Peggy's doubtful eyes challenged her, though some combination of tact and love kept her from voicing the question aloud.
"Really," she insisted truthfully. "At first I was desperate to know where she was, but no one I asked could tell me. Then I was almost afraid to know, and I avoided anyone I thought might have an idea and feel obliged to share it with me. It was horribly strange, that she just disappeared into the night - as if it had never been real at all. But so much has happened since then, sweetheart. The War, for one thing. And I've moved three times, and changed my job. I haven't worried about finding Alice in ten years or more. That time of my life..." Rhyll waved a hand demonstratively, and saw that Peggy understood what she meant and trusted her. She quietly marvelled at her friend's faith and patience: Peggy's understanding and trust could only be born of her deliberate decision to believe her. Rhyll felt the same warmth flood through her once more.
"I'm sorry I doubted you." Peggy said quietly. "I do feel an ass now. That was an awful thing to happen."
Not for the first time, Rhyll cursed the public setting and the limitations it imposed. Unable to extend the wordless reassurances she longed to offer, she tried to find the words instead. "It was awful. But Norah was right, after all, so I can't be sorry any more. And you needn't be sorry either - I thought I said as much this morning. Forget it, love. I have."
Grateful for all the times Peggy had lightened the mood with a timely interjection, Rhyll took the chance to do the same now. "I do so love the sea," she remarked. "That was the one saving grace of Les Arbres, at first - being back by the sea again."
Peggy nodded appreciatively, then lifted questioning eyes to her. "The one saving grace? You weren't glad to go, then?"
Rhyll gave a wry smile. "I was enormously glad to go, in one sense. But in another, it was dreadful. I was only going at all because everything had gone so horribly wrong. On top of which, I felt ever so helpless because, of course, it hadn't been me who had arranged it all."
The first question seemed to hover on Peggy's lips, but before she gave voice to it the realisation seemed to dawn on her, and she grinned as she tested her theory out for accuracy: "Norah?"
"Who else?" Rhyll agreed with a grin of her own. "To this day I don't quite know who she called or what she said. Old Miss S from Swanley, I always supposed. Thank god she did it, however she managed. She did everything, in the end - right down to booking my passage and driving me down to Weymouth to see me off. I don't know why I'm admitting this," she added with a sideways look at the other woman, "it all sounds awfully pathetic on my part! But there's the truth of the matter. Norah packed me up, whisked me away, and set me on a ferry to Guernsey, so there I was."
Sorry this one has been a bit of a while coming - I am hoping to be able to update regularly (weekly? maybe more?) again from now on...
So there she was, leaning over the bar of the ferry as England slowly disappeared from sight behind her.
She was quite alone, in every sense of the word. A good number of her fellow passengers stood at the opposite side, waving to the port as it shrank from view, or simply watching as the distance from the boat to the mainland grew ever greater. Rhyll had no desire to look back at where she had come from. Besides, there was something soothing about the impassive sea that stretched out before her: hours and hours and light years away, to somewhere new where painful memories of the recent past would not be and could not follow her.
It was a little over two months since Alice had left, and Rhyll knew she could not drag the ghost of her to Guernsey with her. There was much to feel ashamed about, in her opinion: the very act of running away, from Julian as well as from Alice and Bristol; and her own passivity in that running away. Norah had done almost everything to grant her an escape route, starting with finding her the job, through to dictating her resignation at Southleaze, her notice to the landlord, the letter to her parents; overseeing her packing, tactfully rehoming those items which Rhyll could neither take with her nor bear to dispose of herself; driving Rhyll down to Weymouth through the early morning mist and buying her breakfast at a little cafe near the port. Seeing her onto the boat with a hearty handshake, Norah's work still had not yet been complete: she would go home and suppress the worst of the inevitable gossip Rhyll’s sudden departure would provoke, a task surely easier said than done but nonetheless one to which she was peculiarly well-suited and for which Rhyll was grateful. This extraordinary act of nonchalant generosity was, to Rhyll’s mind, acceptable only if she could follow it up with an immediate demonstration of her own adult competence. Nothing short of making an instant success of things in her new life would be adequate as recompense for Norah’s faith in her, or for the restoration of her own self-respect.
This much decided, Rhyll moved swiftly on to mentally prepare for her new post. She knew very little of it, other than the few details her new employers had disclosed in writing: a brief sketch of the gardens and how they were currently purposed; that they were at present under the care of a general manservant. She sensed a potential sensitivity in coming in to supplant this long-standing servant of the household, and felt that a decisive entrance would set the right tone for the future of their working relationship. She had decided already to request at least two men to work under her direction, whether one of these was the existing man or not, and hoped the Lucys would be amenable. She had also decided to seek rooms to take outside of the Lucy residence, and intended to advise her new employers of this as part of her first conversation with them. She was grateful for a place to live, especially at first when she was new to the island and had not yet had the time to find somewhere, but as soon as it was practical she intended to do so and trusted they would not take offence where none was meant. In spite of the knocks of the last few months, Rhyll felt perfect confidence, and exhilaration rushed through her as she thought of what lay ahead. Southleaze had been the means to an end when her primary desire was to live with Alice in Bristol, and it had been an enjoyable experience in many ways. However, there was a certain irony that she had found herself in the same position she had rather pitied Meg openly entering into – relegation to the position of female assistant to the real gardener. Now, she was set to carve out her own kingdom: she came with excellent references, was unquestionably one of Swanley’s finest, with a year’s thorough experience to boot. She was a good prospect for any garden, and anyone hiring her ought to already know it.
They did know it, Rhyll realised to her satisfaction when at long last she reached Les Arbres. She had been met at the port by a polite if quiet Guernésiais, who shook her hand courteously and did not protest when she insisted on carrying her suitcase to his car herself. The car journey was not a long one, and after Rhyll had marvelled inwardly at the difference between his smooth efficiency and Norah’s harum-scarum approach to the road, she had scarcely any time to take in the passing scenery before they had pulled up neatly outside the house at Les Arbres. Her chauffeur swung the door open for her, and this time she allowed him to take her suitcase, for Janie Lucy was already standing in the door calling to him to take it straight up before pulling the car round. This instruction issued, little Mrs Lucy turned a smiling face on her new gardener.
“You must be Miss Everett! Do come in, my dear. You must be famished after your journey, Bonita will bring some tea and a little something to sustain you. I hope you didn’t have too bad a crossing? I sympathise entirely if you did – everyone always calls me the world’s worst sailor - but it seems worth it to get here. Naturally, I’m shockingly biased,” she added with a confidential grin as she led the way to the drawing-room and directed Rhyll to take a seat. She rang the bell at the fireplace before sitting down herself with a glance at the wall-clock. “I’ve half an hour or so before my youngest will need me, and by the time I’ve settled her I suspect the whole boiling of ‘em will be back inside – we’re trying to let them make the most of the sunshine, now the days are numbered – so let’s make the most of what time we have now. You’ve met De Garis now, of course. He’ll be able to show you anything you need, and plenty more besides. Sparse with his words, but a thoroughly good chap and what he doesn’t know about Les Arbres – and Guernsey itself – isn’t likely to be worth knowing.”
Rhyll nodded, sensing that it was not yet necessary for her to provide any further comment, and grateful for Mrs Lucy’s undemanding style of conversation.
“We are very pleased to welcome you here,” she went on, brown eyes warm in a face which might not have been beautiful but was nevertheless kind and full of character. “We’ve known we needed a proper gardener ever since we moved in, of course, but what with one thing and another – and the climate here is so favourable, I think. Even left largely to itself, the garden seems to struggle to be anything but beautiful.”
Rhyll smiled again, thinking that the silent De Garis would be most aggrieved to hear his handiwork derided as a garden ‘left largely to itself’.
“Still,” Mrs Lucy concluded, smiling welcomingly at the little Guernésiaise maid who had entered with a tea tray, “I don’t doubt that our complacency has masked a good range of problems, and you’ll be the judge of what needs doing and how and when. Oh, Bonita - gache? You spoil us! You must take a good slice, Miss Everett; it’s the local delicacy, and just what the doctor might order after the channel crossing. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the garden – Julian and I completely recognise that there will be things that might horrify you, that look perfectly fine to our untrained eye. I don’t want it changed beyond recognition, of course, but you must feel that you are making the decisions over what happens out there. I suppose you would like to spend a few days getting a feel for it, and then come and see both of us to tell us what you propose? Unless of course you have any ideas straight away, in which case I’m all ears.” As she spoke, she poured tea into two cups, and pushed one across to Rhyll.
Rhyll nodded slowly, and glanced out of the window. “It’s a hefty bit of land, whatever condition it’s currently in. How many will I have to assist me?”
If Mrs Lucy was startled by the baldness of the question, she was too gracious to show it. “Apart from some fraction of De Garis’ time, I must confess it’s not something we’ve given any thought to. Do you mean you don’t think that sufficient?”
Rhyll paused, consideringly. “I think I should need two men – or women, of course,” she added. “We could quite easily use another still, after winter passes.”
The woman nodded, and Rhyll was reminded of her own mother's impeccably smooth social graces; Mrs Lucy hadn't quite the flair for it that Mrs Everett had, and Rhyll had the sudden impression that her new employer was still practising her own role, but the woman's natural charm and easy confidence more than compensated for her lack of polish. “I shall need to discuss the matter with my husband, of course, but I dare say it’s a reasonable demand. Have you any others, at this point? We'll do as well to list them all up front now, I should fancy."
Rhyll shook her head. “Only to let you know I’ll also be looking to take lodgings nearby. I’m very grateful for a place to stay as a newcomer to Guernsey, but –“
“But you’d rather not live in servants’ quarters?” Janie’s eyes twinkled, and Rhyll’s polite smile widened. “That will be quite all right. We ought to be able to adjust your salary to reflect that, although again that’s something I’ll have to talk to Julian about.”
Rhyll nodded again, and then started in surprise, for at the window had appeared three pairs of eyes, all solemnly fixed on her. Only a moment behind her, Mrs Lucy leapt to her feet, and just as quickly as they had appeared, the children ducked out of view.
Mrs Lucy turned to Rhyll to smooth matters over, her own bright eyes flickering between sternness and amusement. "I must apologise on behalf of my ill-mannered young ruffians, who were no doubt curious to see you but certainly ought not to have satisfied that curiosity by clambering onto windowsills and frightening the life out of you. But let them make their own apologies - I'll be back, have another slice of cake!" This last instruction called from the passageway, as she went in pursuit of the inquisitive children.
Rhyll settled herself back into the comfortable chair, and smiled once more. Already she liked the family, and the welcoming atmosphere of the Lucy home. Not far away, she heard Mrs Lucy meeting the children, her voice raised in reproach, theirs a noisy mixture of shame-faced apology and indignant justification.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, a thin wail rose in the distance and Mrs Lucy exclaimed again - "there, you've only gone and woken the baby with all your carry-on!" Very soon after this the chatter subsided, and Rhyll guessed that the children had gone back outside while Mrs Lucy had gone upstairs to attend to the baby.
Presently, the little maid Janie had addressed as Bonita reappeared. "Pardon, mademoiselle. Mrs Lucy, she told me to show you to your room. Please, will you follow me?"
Rhyll rose to her feet, suddenly tired from the journey, and obediently followed Bonita through the door and up the wide staircase. Based on her first impressions of the household, she had a suspicion that Les Arbres was going to be exactly the tonic Norah had prescribed.
Time-wise, this should fit in a month or two after the opening of Janie Steps In. This means slightly bending canon, because De Garis is definitely the gardener at Les Arbres throughout that book. But by the time the school opens on Guernsey a year later, Rhyll is very much established as the Lucys' gardener, so it was pretty much unavoidable!
It may also be obvious - since Exile is so definitely dated at a particular point in time - that I've compressed the 1920s and 1930s to reach this point without Rhyll managing to age a corresponding number of years. Again, this ought to be pretty canon-consistent: I think Rhyll should be somewhere between 5-10 years older than Joey at any point in 'real' time, and I don't think I've violated that anywhere in this drabble. So hopefully this works, and isn't jarring for anyone!
That first night at Les Arbres, Rhyll slept better than she had done since Alice had left. Waking early, she rose in the half-light and dressed quietly, marvelling at the unfamiliar vigour the restful night had bestowed upon her. Tired the previous evening, she had left her unpacking until morning, and so she attended to it now, transferring shirts and breeches to the drawers of the narrow tallboy with a methodical efficiency that told of years of college living. Buried deep in the case, slipped safely inside a leather gaiter, she found an envelope bearing her name in Norah’s recognisable scrawl. She quickly rehomed the few outstanding items, checked her wristwatch, and sat down on the bed to open it.
The letter was for the most part a deliberately cheerful ramble, alternately encouraging and distracting and always upbeat, with a certain tendency to admonish any possible inclination Rhyll might have to “mournfully fester”, and more than once Rhyll chuckled out loud at the content. At its close, however, was a great deal more affection and warmth than Norah’s brisk farewell at Weymouth had been, and Rhyll smiled fondly before tucking the letter carefully away in amongst her underclothing.
It was a day for acclimatising, in every sense. She scraped the briefest of acquaintances with Julian Lucy at the front steps, as she began her circuit of the grounds at the same time that he left for work. Mr Lucy, much like his wife, had an engagingly informal manner, a broad smile and a very genuine friendliness, and after his hurried greeting Rhyll smiled him off before returning to her inspection. De Garis would show her around later, she knew; but she wanted the headstart of having seen it already herself, so that she would feel less helplessly dependent, and so that she could maximise her opportunity to ply him with the questions she began mentally listing during the early morning walk.
There was a natural beauty to the garden, and Rhyll understood at once why Mrs Lucy had unthinkingly attributed it to a provenance beyond any efforts De Garis might have made, as well as why she wanted her new gardener to avoid targeting any ambitious changes. After the ostentatiously manicured grounds at Southleaze, it was a tonic Rhyll hadn’t quite appreciated that she might need. Even in October, the colours were vibrant enough to draw an admiring eye, without overwhelming the viewer in a noisy demand for admiration. These were not gardens to be reduced to a mere watercolour, almost an outside drawing-room in which house-guests might sit sedately almost fearing to tread on the grass or breathe too heavily, lest they displace some careful arrangement; rather, they were gardens in daily use with all of the easy contentment the entire Lucy clan so far appeared to exude, where children played and friends relaxed.
She stooped to scoop up a half-handful of damp earth, letting it crumble through her fingers; relishing the opportunity to do so for the first time, outside of the safety net of Jones’ guidance or the laboratory-like bubble of Swanley. In spite of all her acquired professional training and experience, something in this first-hand contemplation of the soil took her all the way back to her own garden at the big seaside cottage in Devon. There was a magic to it, that this humble substance contained within it all that was needed to nurture new life. She remembered the postscript of Norah’s letter, the only moment where Norah’s hale-and-hearty bluster had subsided into gentleness: “The sun shines not on us, but in us.”
“What are you doing?”
Rhyll looked up to see one of the children from the window yesterday. Crouching down with her fingers still resting on the flowerbed, she was at much the same height as the little girl, who was watching her with solemn dark eyes and a face which strongly favoured her handsome father. The childhood memory intensified, and a crystal-clear image of her own father in his leather overalls entered her head. He had always answered her serious questions frankly, and she did the same now. “I’m feeling the soil. Different soils have different qualities, and if I’m to grow things in it I need to know what sort of things it can grow well.”
The little girl thought this over for a moment. “It must be good soil, then, ‘cos things all grow perfectly here.”
Rhyll wanted to laugh, but she resisted, feeling quite certain her inquisitor would not share her amusement. “It is good soil, you’re right. Although most soil is good soil, for something or other. You just have to use it sensibly, and not expect it to grow things it’s not right for.”
“I bet our soil is good for ‘most anything.” She waved an expressive hand at the garden all around her. “See what a lot of different stuff all grows here?”
Rhyll nodded, still fighting an urge to laugh at the little girl’s earnestness and her obvious pride in her garden’s soil, of all things. “Quite right. The kind of soil on this top layer is called loam, and it’s good for most things. Not too wet, not too dry, not too muddy or gritty or clumpy. I don’t know yet whether it’s like this all through, though.”
The girl was silent again, and at length gave a nod of acknowledgement. “There’s a muddy bit round the back there. One time in the Spring, John –“ and here she bubbled up with the beginnings of mirth, before evidently thinking better of it and cutting her story very short. “I’m Julie Lucy, by the way, although my proper name is Juliet.”
“Evvy,” Rhyll stretched out her hand with all the gravity the situation seemed to require, and Julie shook it with equal solemnity. “Although my proper name is Everett. Pleased to meet you, Julie.”
Julie grinned now, although a certain seriousness remained. “Can I show you round the rest of the garden, Evvy?”
“Would your mother say it was all right?” Rhyll inquired cautiously, feeling slightly helpless and knowing she was utterly reliant on the honesty of a child Mrs Lucy had laughingly described as “a born imp” during yesterday’s scolding.
Julie nodded confidently, and the mention of her mother seemed to remind her of another matter. “Sorry if we made you jump yesterday,” she said, going slightly red about the ears. “Mummy said that was frightfully bad manners of us, but it was only because we were curious.”
“Apology accepted,” Rhyll said briskly, and straightened up to follow her small guide. She had begun to understand that, with Julie’s unconscious babbling chatter, this might be a comprehensive initiation in more ways than one.
“This is the shrubbery,” Julie announced importantly. “An’ if we go through here, it leads into the kitchen-garden. Daddy says the pears are ripe for picking now, but they’re not for eating yet.”
“Chaumontel,” Rhyll murmured. “They’re quite particular to Guernsey and Jersey, you know.”
Julie glowed with pride once more. “We got gooseberries too, but they finished ages ago.”
“Quite right. July for gooseberries. It’s time to prune back the bushes now, ready for next year.”
“You haven’t met John yet.” Julie informed her next. “Have you? He’s the next one after me, but he’s only five. And Betsy’s two.”
“I think I saw all three of you through the window yesterday.” Rhyll remarked, smiling as Julie coloured again at the reminder of her transgression.
“True for you. And then Vi’s the baby. She’s a picture, although she doesn’t do very much yet. Have you seen her? And what about Auntie Nan?”
Rhyll shook her head as she followed Julie on into the little plantation at the far side of the house, her eyes moving all around, taking in as much as she could.
“She lives here too. She’s not our real family, but mummy says she’s to be like family now, for she hasn’t any family of her own left,” Julie continued. “She was living with Auntie Rosamund, but that made her too sad, because Auntie Rosamund was too much like her own mother.”
“I see,” Rhyll murmured, suspecting that Mrs Lucy had no idea that her small daughter was so informed on such matters.
“I don’t think mummy can be much like Auntie Nan’s mother, ‘cos she’s certainly not much like Auntie Rosamund. That’s the stables over there, look. They’re always locked up. De Garis has the key. I think we’d better go back now. What are you going to do to the garden, then?”
“That,” Rhyll answered, speaking almost to herself as she looked all about her once more, “is exactly what I need to decide.”
5.3 De Garis - part 1 by crm
Thanks for the comments!
This chapter got a bit longer than I expected. Hope to have part 2 up tomorrow!
The Lucys’ home seemed characterised by a certain degree of chaos; this feature set it some distance apart from Southleaze, both of Rhyll’s family homes, and the little house she had shared with Alice, settings which she had not previously considered to have very much in common at all. Her early genuine liking for the family was carefully tempered by her suspicion that this might simply be a house filled with naughty children, a scatty mother and a father so laidback as to appear at times invisible. But for all Mrs Lucy’s cheerful humour and sometimes jumbled conversation, her actions demonstrated a hidden efficiency when it was required. Within Rhyll’s first week, Mrs Lucy had provided her with a recommendation for lodgings and two potential garden boys to work under her direction, and by the end of the second week both arrangements were very much in place. Since there was no one with whom to share it, Rhyll made a point of bearing silent witness to her own error of judgment about her new employer’s organisational skills, and liked her all the better for it.
The rooms were good enough, although imperfect in their arrangement: her landlady was a neighbour of Mrs Lucy’s eldest sister and her husband, and this proximity made Rhyll hesitate briefly before accepting graciously and with thanks. She suspected this was as much privacy as might be expected, given the small geographic scale of her new home; maybe it was all the better that the closeness was as explicit as this, that she might not be lulled into the misguided belief that there was any real freedom or privacy to her life in a town where everyone seemed to know everybody and especially to know who outsiders were and what they had come for. Aside from the discomfort of living within view of the Ozannes’ house across the square, and inside the house of someone who knew them to speak to, there was nothing to complain about the lodgings – and in any case, six days of the week she wasn’t home to spend any time in them before suppertime anyway. Her landlady was likeable enough, and mostly kept herself to her cat and her books – even going so far as to bring several of the latter to the dining table with her of an evening, so that Rhyll and her other tenant, a young woman who worked as an accountant’s secretary and seemed to come home with the same weary need for silence as Rhyll, did not feel at all obliged to make polite conversation over supper. The townhouse was well built and structurally well maintained, although the decor was comfortingly shabby. Rhyll had two rooms of her own, an upstairs sitting room overlooking Lemesurier Square in addition to a good-sized bedroom, and she luxuriated in the anonymity of their indistinctive furnishings. No Alice, no Julian, no painful personal history could be found within these walls, and bit by bit she found herself able to cope with the history inside her own self from which she could not escape.
The two men Mrs Lucy had provided to work under her also gave no reason for complaint. Rhyll had been suddenly anxious that one or both would end up being brothers or cousins of de Garis, but while he seemed to share at least a nodding acquaintance with both, there was no apparent affiliation between any of them. Michel, a young Frenchman, tall and rugged, had come over from France some three years ago with an older brother who worked as a fisherman in the busy port. Vallance, too, was a first-generation arrival to Guernsey, although in his case he had arrived from Hampshire a little over a decade ago: he had come to spend the summer picking fruit on one of the big plantations and promptly fallen in love with a local girl; in less than six months they were married, and three children later Vallance was continuing to move from one outside job to the next, relying on hard work and his affable nature to keep him employed as far as possible through the leaner months. The three of them made up a curious mix on paper, but Rhyll had liked them both upon first meeting and had high hopes for their working together. De Garis remained impeccably courteous, but there remained a certain coolness she could not imagine ever losing: after all, she had replaced him, when he had done the job alone for a number of years and done it good enough, as far as anybody could know, and here he was expected to work alongside her, to guide her in everything she might not yet know about Les Arbres and yet simultaneously accept that she was more expert than he had ever been.
The last member of the household to greet Rhyll was the young woman Julie had referred to as her “Auntie Nan”, the waif-like creature Rhyll had noticed floating through the house and gardens from time to time, seeming to not quite belong in spite of Mrs Lucy’s chummy relationship towards her. It was a Saturday morning and Rhyll had been gently pruning back the gooseberries when a small hurricane flung herself into the ground in front of her. Rhyll stepped back in surprise and immediately heard an exasperated shout of “Betsy!” from behind her, followed by footsteps and then Nan was beside them, flushed from running, tendrils of black hair escaping from the heavy plaits around her head.
“I told you not to get in the way!” Nan scolded the baby, who squirmed gleefully on the grass. “I’m sorry – I did tell her – but I couldn’t move fast enough once she got that idea. She’s been watching you across the lawn for some time, so really I should have expected it.” She turned a smile on Rhyll now. “We haven’t met, have we? I’m Nan.”
“Rhyll,” Rhyll murmured, caught slightly off guard by the use of Christian names and finding that she rather liked it. From the little Julie had let on, she knew that here was someone else who had arrived at Les Arbres whilst running away from her woes, in search of a fresh start with some essential part of herself left far away. That might well be as far as the similarities ran but just now, with Mr and Mrs Lucy inside together and Michel and Vallance enjoying their day off with their respective families, it was a welcome connection.
“Rhyll,” Nan tried it on for size, and Rhyll noticed the Irish lilt of her voice. “Well, pleased to meet you. And pleased to find someone else to be the new girl instead of me, now!”
“How long have you been here?” Rhyll asked, doubting Nan would find it rude when she herself had brought up the subject.
“Only since August. My mother died – I was staying with a cousin in England – but now I’m here. It’s complicated. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. Where were you before?”
“Bristol. I had a post there as an assistant. Before that, I was at Swanley in Kent, and before that I was at Holloway, in Surrey.”
“So you’ve been all over.” Nan smiled, bending down to scoop up Betsy who had been staring in wonder at Rhyll’s secateurs.
“I suppose you could say so. I grew up in Devon. It’s very nice to be near the sea again now.”
The smile spread more broadly across Nan’s face, reaching her eyes and lighting them. “I love the sea. Have you been down to the beach here much yet?”
Rhyll shook her head. “Not at all, yet. I should go down tomorrow. I thought I might last Sunday, but it rained so hard, I thought I might do better to stay indoors and unpack.”
“Why don’t you come down with me later today?” Nan suggested impulsively, her face suggesting she had almost taken herself by surprise offering. “What time do you finish?”
Rhyll pulled her watch out. “I could probably be done by four, if I get a push on. I’d like that.”
Nan nodded, shifting the weight of the child on her hip, and smiled again. “I’ll let you do that, then, and see you later.”
5.3 De Garis - part 2 by crm
But when Nan appeared at the door of her potting shed at five minutes to four, Rhyll saw from her face immediately that she was not ready to walk on the beach.
“We’re going to tea at the Chesters’,” Nan explained apologetically. “I am sorry – I didn’t know earlier – I don’t know when Janie fixed it up –“
“Don’t worry.” Rhyll reassured her. “We can go another time. Have a nice tea.”
Nan lingered awkwardly, looking as if she might be about to say something but evidently deciding against it. She flashed Rhyll another smile, then disappeared, picking her way carefully across the grass back to the big stone house.
Rhyll finished cleaning her tools, and glanced skyward. She had finished for the day, and it was a fine afternoon. She might as well go to the beach now anyway: she could pick out a good spot for the next day, maybe then she could take a little picnic and bathe if it was warm enough. It was almost November, and before much longer the beach would be nothing but a defiant march through swirling sandy wind, cold sea spray stinging the raw skin of her face, daylight coming too late and departing too early to spend much time there even if the wind abated long enough to make it an appealing possibility.
The salt in the air intensified as Rhyll drew closer to the sea, and she inhaled deeply. Sitting on the sea wall, she untied her boots and pulled them off, quickly knotting the laces together to dangle them around her neck just as she and Julian had done as children. The familiar sand beneath her feet grounded her and she closed her eyes for a moment, her mind empty and her senses taking in nothing beyond the wonderful feeling of the sand in her toes, the wind in her hair, the salt in the air and the sea lapping roughly against the rocks on the beach. Opening her eyes again, she picked her way instinctively across the mass of sand and stones, one eye on the coastline, the other on the pretty town that stood by the sea. She had meant what she had said in her earlier comment to Nan, being back by the sea was an enormous pleasure.
The tide was coming in, and Rhyll squinted along the town, trying to guess where she was headed and how long she could stay on the beach for before having to rejoin the road. She picked up pace, but it was difficult to go very fast over the uneven mixture of rocks and damp sand; the seaweed strewn liberally across the stones added further hazard. She swung herself over the timber groyne, glancing up again at the town and where she thought she would exit the beach as she did so - and promptly cursing her stupidity as she splashed into ankle-deep water the other side. Trousers wet and clinging to her, she strode on; again she tried to speed up, and again she was thwarted by the large stones and the dipping sand, all the more treacherous now they were hidden beneath the cold murky water. Before she knew it she was knee-deep and sinking, moving ever slower and knowing that one wrong step could see her slipping down to sit shoulder-deep in the driving sea. Reaching a large rock which stood as tall as her shoulder, she scrambled up onto it with calves seized up by the cold, finally sitting back on it and wondering what on earth to do next. After all that rushing, she could not understand how she came to still be so far from the shore, and how the tide had overtaken her so decisively.
Straining her eyes in the half-light, she tried to guess how far up the tide would go before turning. The man-made sea wall did not make her feel very hopeful, but – looking at how close to the shore the whole town stood – she entertained the possibility that it might have been constructed on grounds of the consequences of the risk, rather than its likelihood. The salt water, still rising, reached her feet where they dangled now: she would be lucky to wade waist-deep back to shore, and now one wrong step would send her wholly under. Her boots still hung pathetically from her neck. For the first time - and even as she thought it deriding herself for being melodramatic - Rhyll had a sudden vision of her own death.
The sheer absurdity of this final image pulled her back to her senses. There was something laughable, and acutely embarrassing, in her being outwitted by the sea, of all familiar and cherished things. The sea! It was too ridiculous to come to pass. She stood up, buying herself more time to hope that the tide would turn and retreat once more, eyeing up the groyne she had climbed over not so long ago. Could she swim it, if left no choice? The question at this point – the water still rose – was redundant: there was no other choice, so swim it she must. She did not relish the idea, the water moving as fast as it was and the muscles of her legs already rigid with cold.
She looked again at the incoming tide, eager to see any sign of it ebbing away, and realised with a jolt that she was no longer alone. A shadowy figure on the beach was waving to her. Her insides an odd mixture of unease and relief, she waved back, and wondered what could happen now. She did not have to wonder for long: the figure on the beach was quickly pulling off his own boots and outerwear, and after the briefest of pauses darted to the same timber groyne, stepping up onto it at the landmost end and advancing cautiously but speedily along until he drew level with her. At maybe twenty yards, she suddenly recognised him: de Garis!
Standing with one hand on the upright post to stabilise himself, de Garis gestured for her to first throw the boots. Rhyll was once again struck by the ridiculousness of caring about the damned boots now, of all things, before deciding it was more ridiculous still to behave as if she wouldn’t need them on Monday, even if she could manage without for tomorrow. With the powerful sense of being somehow in a dream, she did as instructed, and watched as de Garis scooped them from the water in front of him to hang them carefully over the wood. Then he slipped into the sea and swam straight to her. The tide was still rising, and the sky was growing ever darker: she held her breath watching him, and though the distance was modest the time seemed to stretch out endlessly, until at last he threw an arm up onto her rock, gasping for breath:
“Can you swim?”
Rhyll nodded, more decisively than she really felt. She could swim, of course, but she had never swam in such choppy water as this. But there was no alternative, and something about his manner soothed her. Emboldened by his presence, she climbed quickly down into the freezing water and made for the groyne.
It was cold enough to freeze the breath in her chest, and her limbs tightened as she tried to stretch through the water; waves pushed against her and more than once her head ducked beneath the surface, coming up with her eyes stinging and her mouth choking. If de Garis’ journey out to her had felt unending, the journey back with him through the water felt longer still, and she began to think it might be easiest to just give up, just stop fighting and slip away. There was something almost relaxing in the rhythmic force of water, if only she could just close her eyes and melt away into it...
De Garis grabbed her hand and yanked her forward, and then there she was, bumping up against the slimy timber. With the last bit of strength left in her arms, she pulled herself up onto it, wheezing and nauseous, heavy with seawater. She stood a foot nearer land than de Garis, and he motioned her along towards the tiny strip of sand remaining. Teeth chattering, she edged along, and as she approached the sand she saw that the tide had finally turned and was gradually withdrawing. She climbed down onto the sand and leaned against the wooden fence, looking back out to sea. The very top of her rock was still visible: had she stood there, quite possibly for hours, she would not have drowned.
De Garis threw a large rug around her, and she drew it right under her chin, shaking all the while.
“I heard Miss Blakeney saying you might go down to the sea,” he answered the unasked question. “Not to offend you, but I worried you might be in trouble. The tide here turns so quickly, it easily catches those who are unfamiliar with the sea – with this sea,” he emphasised, so oddly at pains to not hurt her feelings when he had just all but saved her life. “I believe there was a similar incident involving Mrs Lucy’s sister many years ago. People do get caught here. Especially when it’s a full moon, as it will be tonight.”
As he spoke, he was dressing again, and motioned towards her boots which he had carried back for her. She sat down to put them on. “Thank you,” she managed at last, her voice croaky and unfamiliar. “I don’t know how I shall ever thank you enough.”
“It’s nothing.” De Garis was courteous as ever, and generous with it, Rhyll realised. She recognised the same generosity ran through their every interaction: his willingness to aid her when she had supplanted him; his daily choice not to invest time or energy in comparisons.
“It’s not nothing,” she retorted, as softly as she could manage, and offered up an awkward smile. “I’m sure this isn’t very proper, when you’ve just done so much for me already, but... may I ask you one last favour?”
He nodded, the same open and deliberately blank face he turned on Mrs Lucy every time she made a request of him, and Rhyll decided that for all his lack of professional training he was the quintessential servant. She had perceived him to be an employee out of personal obligation, his family seeming to be tied to Mrs Lucy’s family ever since the latter’s arrival on Guernsey years earlier; now she wrote this off as yet another misguided assumption.
“Please will you not tell anyone about this?” She smiled again, embarrassed, and for the first time she saw a half-smile cross his face too.
“But of course. In any case, who would I ever tell?” He finished lacing his boots and stood up straight, ready to leave. “If you please, I should escort you home. I wouldn’t like to think of you walking the streets alone in this condition.”
“Thank you,” Rhyll murmured. She knew she was indebted to him, and she also knew he was too much of a gentleman to hold it against her.
And while they would never be close friends, a certain intimacy from that awful shared experience bonded them together, thawing the last of the frost that had hung between them and cementing a mutual respect which now extended beyond professional civility into reciprocal esteem and affection.
After the warmth and promise of last December, Rhyll had prepared for the run-up to this Christmas to be correspondingly painful; and it was true to say that some of those winter evenings, as she sat brooding in her sitting room and gazing blankly out at the glowing streetlamps of Lemesurier Square, she felt with acute awareness the yawning distance between this year and the last. The season of goodwill had not permeated Rhyll’s own dwelling-place: no wreath, no holly, no candles found their way in, and the only two Christmas cards she had received – from Norah, and from Meg – were sufficiently private to keep hidden in the drawer of her bureau.
At work, however, the approaching festivities were regarded as an entirely different prospect. In the childish excitement – which was certainly not confined to the children – she found the unexpected comfort of memories long buried: not since before the War had she known such wholehearted anticipation, and though it might be an overstatement to say the Lucys’ enthusiasm was infectious, it was at least a powerful influence on her own disposition. An enormous Christmas tree had been acquired, and decorated to great fanfare by the children, and it seemed that every other word that fell from the children’s mouths related to the impending celebrations. Never in the least bit maternal, the charm and ease of the children’s presence continued to take Rhyll pleasantly by surprise.
Julie and John had become regular companions as she worked, even in the worsening weather, sometimes together but often separately seeking out her company when they were bored. She would listen absently to their chatter, contributing brief answers when questions seemed to be asked of her, pleased when those questions pertained to matters of the garden. She was glad that Janie Lucy had taken up her suggestion to give them a shared flowerbed of their own as a Christmas present; thoughtful planning of how they might make best use of it at this discouraging time of year had eventually nudged her into extending a gift of her own, a tray in the potting-shed. The bed itself had, in one sense, been Rhyll’s to give, but the decision was an easy one and the hardest thing was broaching the subject with Mrs Lucy – who had smiled, yelped agreement, and presumably thought much the same of it as Rhyll herself had: the gardens were extensive, one bed was insignificant to them, but to its proud new owners would be significant in the extreme. In contrast, the small space in the potting-shed had been spared rather more generously, since that space was at such an extraordinary premium through the winter, and – if truth be told – Rhyll felt no small pang of anxiety about opening up the sanctity of the shed; she still almost held her breath when any one of the garden staff entered unsupervised, for all she trusted their competence and their character.
This anxiety, she knew, was entirely related to her own over-zealous concern for her plants, her garden and its prospects. The men themselves had settled in perfectly; working with them, she felt all the ease she had enjoyed back at Southleaze, with the added benefit of knowing that she was the boss. Without inviting their opinion, she had kept them well informed of what she planned for the grounds of Les Arbres and how she intended to deliver it, and had set to work alongside them to demonstrate that if she was rather standing on her dignity, she wasn’t too proud to get her hands just as dirty as the rest of them. They had all rubbed along well, and the passage of time had brought an agreeable degree of intimacy: Vallance talked affectionately of his daughters, Michel talked with humorous despondency about the latest pretty girl to whom he was quite sure he had lost his heart, and very gradually Rhyll permitted herself to join in, occasionally contributing passing remarks which hinted at a life beyond the grey stone walls of Les Arbres. Between these fleeting advances and the Springtime plans which lay buried deep in cold wet soil in careful preparation for the coming year, Les Arbres was becoming a real home.
One person stood slightly aloof, as the Lucy children wound ribbons through the lowest branches of the trees nearest the house and painted fir cones with gold enamel. Rhyll, guessing at the turmoil that young woman faced in her first Christmas without her own beloved family and suspecting that the subtlety of her quiet sorrow had escaped her hosts’ notice, let her gruff exterior drop momentarily as she said her goodbyes: gruff, she inferred, was fine for most situations and certainly most comfortable for her, but probably not quite right for the girl who seemed sometimes connected to the present world by the most slender of threads. She did not say too much, other than to quietly acknowledge that Nan must be feeling inclined to think back on past Christmases in sadness more than joy, but the acknowledgement alone seemed enough to brighten Nan’s pallid countenance a touch and she flashed a grateful smile as Rhyll moved on to be wished a happy Christmas, many times over, by Mrs Lucy who held a gurgling Vi on her hip as she spoke and radiated familial warmth in a way that made Rhyll suspect another addition to the family might be expected the following year.
Familial warmth was decidedly lacking from Christmas itself: duty took Rhyll home, the only one of four children to return this year. Ralph and Charles’ absence was to be expected, of course, and Julian was laid low with ‘flu and would not travel from London. This news seemed not to be new, and Rhyll noted the surprise on her parents’ faces when they realised she had not known this already. Julian’s absence made her stay far less complicated than she had worried, and her relief at this fact mingled with guilt and uncomfortable sympathy for his illness, neither sentiment acute enough to prompt her to get back in contact with him. It was not only her relief that he was not there, whatever the reason, that caused her to feel guilty in relation to her brother; unlike her, his attendance at family Christmas would have been joyful and open, in contrast to her reluctant obligation, and even in his absence his disappointment was as palpable as her lack of enthusiasm.
Rhyll skirted the subject of Julian deftly, knowing no half-disclosure nor outright lie would make good the mess of the truth of their quarrel. In fact, she evaded any number of perilous conversation topics with such consummate skill that she sardonically wondered whether she wasn’t her mother’s daughter after all. After the year she had had, she might have expected the frenzied anticipation at Les Arbres to ring false this Yuletide, but in the end that had felt as real and as valid as the episodic grief she had observed in silence some evenings between supper and bed. What did feel false was this pretence at a family Christmas here, only the wayward child in attendance at all, and all three carefully stepping around any mention that might admit this fact.
Still, the truth of it was plain to Rhyll, and what was more the candour with which she saw her own sense of duty in all this led her to a pleasing conclusion. This year, duty was done. Next year, with little explanation – lest explanation lead the whole family into conversations they did not wish to hear – duty could be temporarily made to subside, and she would spend Christmas as she wished. She knew exactly how she wished to spend it, and Norah’s Christmas card – left safely in the locked bureau of her Guernsey let – reiterated the invitation she knew would always be open to her anyway. By then, enough time would surely have elapsed to make a return visit to Bristol free from anxiety, awkwardness or hurt; and – this last thought with only a small pang of guilt, as she sat at the self-conscious silence of her parents’ dining table – perhaps chosen family were the most valuable, after all.
“Don’t you miss your family?”
Rhyll lifted her head sharply, for she had not realised anyone was there. Nan stood at the open door of the potting shed, cloak wrapped around her thin shoulders. It was a very Nan-like opening gambit to conversation: no trivial pleasantries to soften her entrance. She pulled out the stool from under the wooden bench and patted it. “Coming inside? Bitter wind out there.”
Thus invited, Nan slipped inside and perched herself on the stool, sitting hunched over with her hands beneath her.
Rhyll gave her another glance of appraisal and silently handed across the mug of coffee she had been saving for after she had finished oiling her tools. She busied herself again before she answered. “Not especially. We aren’t close. Not the same thing as you and your folks.”
“Why not?” Nan persisted, her own eyes concentrated on the view through the dusty window to the dimming garden beyond.
“We’re not much alike. I don’t think they entirely approve of me.” She inspected a hand-hoe with rather more attention than was strictly necessary, and waited.
“My mother and I were very much alike.” Nan’s observation was delivered impassively, save for a slight break in her voice over the last word.
Rhyll, not knowing what to say, said nothing.
“And now Papa has died too, and the old house will go to a distant cousin. So there really is nothing left of all that.” Nan finished flatly, and twisted her head round in search of some response.
Rhyll nodded solemnly, trying not to look surprised. From what Julie Lucy had said to her soon after her arrival, she had assumed that Nan’s father was dead already, but Nan had never mentioned either parent to her directly.
Perhaps this lack of previous conversation had also occurred to Nan, for she snorted at herself under her breath. “He was dying for a long time before he went, so in one way that’s a blessed relief. It still seems so final now he’s really gone, though. And the house too – well – it’s just a clean sweep of the past, I suppose.”
Rhyll nodded again, avoiding any platitudes about the memories Nan must still carry within her. She recalled the gleaming rosewood of her grandfather’s desk, the irreplaceable smoothness of it beneath her infant fingertips, and - despite the very different context - knew the physicality of loss to which Nan referred. She would not make the comparison aloud, for unlike Nan she had left Edgecot without leaving her family; but she knew what it was to leave the bricks and mortar within which generations of family history lived and breathed. “Will you go back to sort things out?”
Nan shrugged, face wan in the approaching dusk of the unlit shed. “I don’t know. Julian’s gone over to the Willoughbys, to decide what happens next.”
Rhyll winced at Nan’s powerlessness in it all. That the Lucys were good people who would look out for her best interests and do whatever they could to care for her was not in any doubt; but nonetheless it seemed a lonely and uneasy position to be in.
Nan took a gulp of coffee, and gave her an apologetic smile. “I shall buck up soon, I promise. It’s a tough old time of year for it though, isn’t it?” She gestured gloomily at the cold grey outside.
Rhyll shook her head, eyes twinkling now she was on surer ground. “Not in the least bit. Snowdrops are up, look. You can’t call it a tough old time of year once they’ve poked through.” Nan gave her a curious look, perceptibly more alive than she had looked moments earlier; emboldened, Rhyll went on. “Snowdrops don’t wait for the sun, but push on through frost anyway. For all they look so pure and delicate, I rather admire them their sturdiness.” She let the comparison hang unspoken, and rubbed her oil-rag over an iron dibber in silence.
It was not just Nan’s hidden resilience that Rhyll found enchanting; it was her peculiar mix of romance and pragmatism, the wicked subtlety of her humour, the distinctive regard she obviously held Rhyll herself in – neither wholly as a friend nor as a sweetheart nor as an elder sibling nor parent substitute but some inimitable mix of all of these, demanding nothing of Rhyll but accepting without question that her presence would be welcome and no explanation necessary. For all these charming idiosyncrasies, Nan was also very astute and very controlled; her attentions flattered Rhyll, without creating any risk; there was a safe boundary, which Rhyll had established mentally and which Nan never once pushed against – the friendship at once too casual, too sisterly, too maternal for that.
“I’m going to train as a secretary,” Nan announced some weeks later. “Everybody keeps telling me it’s not necessary, but I should like to. Then I can work for Julian. They say it’s not a bad plan. I think they think it’ll keep me from festering.” Rhyll grinned at her wry perception of what Janie thought was good for her, and instantly wondered whether her own instant approval – that trained employment was a matter of identity, of proving her worth, and perhaps of contingency planning – was of equal amusement to Nan’s detached eye.
“We’re all going to Ireland after Easter, to sort everything out.” Another later announcement, again with no preamble. No preamble, and no explicit indication that this event had any real emotional significance, that Blakeney Place represented the last vestige of precious memories, and that this visit to it would be Nan’s last. Mrs Lucy would have known what to say, would have cut right across her feigned indifference with loud acknowledgement and clucking sympathy; but Rhyll was Rhyll, and merely nodded acceptance, allowed her to go on by asking simple questions about when and for how long she was going. Nan was not shy: if she wanted to say something more about it, she would.
“I think I shall marry David.” Once again from the blue, once again deadpan, and Rhyll reflected again on that elderly mixture of romance and pragmatism, wondering which was the greater force driving this particular conclusion. Wild desire or safety net? It was all but impossible to say. Eighteen and rootless, Nan could justifiably be tempted to anchor herself to the best and most reliable option. Resilient and ambitious, Nan could not conceivably be tethering herself for any reason other than that she wholeheartedly wanted to.
By this time, the garden was a riot of springtime colours, the hardy snowdrops a distant memory. Nonetheless, Rhyll was reminded of them. No matter the path she chose, she knew Nan would make a success of it; and no matter her past, she knew that sympathy was the wrong sentiment to feel towards her. That level of spirit was to be admired, never pitied. Ostensibly older, wiser and more worldly, Rhyll suddenly wondered just how much she might have to learn from snowdrops too.
Spring bloomed into summer; the gardens exploded into vivid technicolour; Rhyll grew browner, leaner, happier; the days grew longer, and the conversations which filled them – with Vallance and Michel, or with Nan – grew deeper, more rewarding, more intimate. The change in seasons brought new life to Les Arbres in more ways than one, as Janie Lucy’s fifth child arrived in June. If the wind was blowing in the right direction, Rhyll could hear the gentle roar of the sea nearby; other times, the soundtrack was the shouts of the children playing in the sunshine. In every sense, it was a restorative environment.
The sky was not completely cloudless: the small matter of Germany was never far from mind, in the exchange of pleasantries in the town or on the wireless. But how remote that all felt, from the summertime idyll of Guernsey – as distant as a bad dream. It was easy – almost too easy – to disregard that thought, believe nothing so bad could ever happen, not in this world where the sun shone and the baby cooed and kicked on a blanket in the shade, overjoyed with the new feeling of flailing limbs through glorious summer air.
Nan sat with the baby, contentedly dividing her attentions happily between her book, the infant, and Rhyll. The passage of time and the arrival of summer had done her good, too. Her complexion, while still pale, nonetheless glowed with health, and she carried herself with greater confidence and ease. Her smile was less cautious, always lurking at the corners of her mouth which had had such a tendency to droop downwards when Rhyll had first arrived the previous autumn. Rhyll deftly picked out the best young raspberry canes, tied them gently to the wire and carefully picked the weaker young stems from the ground, still listening to Barney’s happy gurgling – and then she became aware of Vallance gesturing for her to come to him.
Standing up and stretching out her earth-stained fingers as she did so, she strode towards him in curiosity. He led her through to the flower garden at the rear of the house, where Mrs Lucy often entertained her visitors; as they grew nearer, he finally spoke – as if he had realised it would do better if she knew what she was expected to see.
“The asters,” he muttered, in a voice that was almost pained. “They’re all ripped out...”
Rhyll craned her neck as she quickened her pace, and even at this distance she could see the damage. The beautiful clumps of purple flowers, tenderly sown from seed only that Spring, had been reduced to clumps of broken green foliage mingled in with disturbed soil. Her lips tightened in anger.
The wilful destruction of any part of the garden would have upset her, but the asters held a particular place in her heart. They were one of a relatively small number of plants she had introduced herself, since she had wanted to see a full year of the garden as it was before making too many substantial changes, and she had chosen them deliberately to retain the colour and beauty of the garden as much of it subsided into Autumn. More than that, she had planted the seeds alone, observing the definite thaw of the past winter as she had done so, thrilled to feel it melt away and be replaced with the newness and promise of Spring, knowing all its potency for her as well as the garden. She had remembered the asters at Southleaze the previous summer, how they had bloomed in the days before Alice had left and how they had gone on blooming, garish and inconsiderate, in the weeks afterwards. Only a few weeks ago, she had pinched them back with the devoted assistance of Julie and John. This year, the asters stood tall and strong and proud and she didn’t hate them, she loved them. Only now, they didn’t stand at all. She clenched her fists in her pockets and turned to Vallance. “Who’s done this?”
He shrugged, helpless. “I don’t know. I just came through and found ‘em like it. Kiddies?”
Rhyll frowned. “They wouldn’t – would they? The bigger two wouldn’t, anyway. And it’s far too big an undertaking for any of the babies.”
He looked doubtful. “Could be an animal of some sort, I suppose – but that’d be a rum happening, in the daytime and all at this time o’ year. With all due respect, my money’d be on the kiddies Evvy.”
Rhyll digested the truth of his words, squatted down to take a closer look at her pitifully butchered plants.
A noise nearby caught her attention, and she twisted her head to see Nan pushing the perambulator back towards the big house. She waved cheerfully across the garden and Rhyll, momentarily swallowing her displeasure, forced a breezy wave in return.
“Thanks,” she said finally, by way of dismissal, and Vallance nodded sympathetically and disappeared. Rhyll wondered whether to march straight in to find Mrs Lucy and demand – demand what? And then she heard her own name called from above.
“Rhyll! Hey, Rhyll! Come up here?” Nan was leaning halfway out of a window, and Rhyll remembered that her bedroom looked out across this part of the garden. She frowned doubtfully up, not much in the mood for games or tricks and mindful of her grubby hands. Nan seemed to read her reluctance, for she nodded more sombrely and repeated her command. “Do, really. It can’t wait.”
Still wary, but supposing she had been given a direct instruction by one of the household, she tugged her boots off at the door and rubbed her hands free from any loose dirt and marched inside and up the stairs. Nan greeted her at the bedroom door, an almost apologetic look on her face and a rather bashful Betsy Lucy clinging to her legs.
“Those beautiful purple flowers –“ Nan began uncomfortably, and at the reminder Rhyll’s face tightened again. Little Betsy pressed her face into Nan’s legs, almost hiding – and with another look, Rhyll suddenly realised why. In Nan’s room stood three – four – five vases of differing shapes, sizes and patterns, and each stuffed with the stolen asters. Rhyll’s jaw dropped, and Nan gave a wordless little groan. “Oh, Betsy! You bad bad girl. What were you thinking of?”
Betsy burst into noisy tears at this juncture, overwhelmed by all her hard work and the unexpected disapproving reaction it had wrought. “Thought you’d like vem! Beautiful flowers, for Auntie Nan’s room. Picked vem and found ve vases and carried vem all the way up here. And some of vem was hard to pick,” she complained, evidently feeling most aggrieved that all her efforts had gone unappreciated by their beneficiary.
Rhyll still stared, speechless. Nan reached down to catch up a pudgy little hand, still tinged with the telltale signs of her labours in the flower garden, and Betsy’s wails subsided into hiccupping whimpers. “But the flowers were beautiful just where they were, chicken.” An inscrutable look flickered across Nan’s face, and she looked over to Rhyll. “I’m sorry – I feel I ought to apologise, since your lovely flowers are now in my room and the bed outside is ruined.”
Her mouth twitched slightly, and Rhyll suddenly realised what that look had been: amusement. She widened her eyes, averted her gaze from the disarray of her once-immaculate flowerbed through the window.
“It must have taken her ages.” Rhyll faltered, unsure of what to say or think but feeling quite certain that a response was called for.
“It did.” Betsy informed her sorrowfully, big brown eyes shining with tears and indignation. “Ages and ages.” She turned back to Nan, half-accusingly and half on the brink of howling. “Thought you’d like vem, Auntie Nan!”
Nan collapsed onto her little bed, drew the unhappy child onto her lap and smoothed her hair down softly; but with another glance at the mismatched vases overflowing with asters, her mouth twitched again. This time, she could not contain it and laughter bubbled out. “I’m sorry – I’m sorry,” she was addressing Rhyll, but the kisses she smothered Betsy’s brown hair with conveyed an apology to the bewildered toddler too. “I don’t know-“
Rhyll marvelled again at the thought of Betsy’s dogged persistence, emptying her mother’s cupboards in search of the vases, tugging the hardy stems until they gave way again and again until each vase was filled, carrying it painstakingly up the stairs and choosing the best spot for it in Nan’s room. The flowers were still beautiful in Nan’s room, for all no adult would have chosen to match such an incompatible assortment of jugs to display at the same time. They would die that much sooner now, but they would have died anyway. There was no national shortage of aster seeds...
She caught Nan’s eye and smiled a little, then more broadly, and in the end she joined in properly, a full belly-laugh at what she could not fix and ought not fret about. Nan gave her a fond smile over the top of Betsy’s damp hair. “Poor Betsy – poor Rhyll!”
Rhyll shrugged, still helpless, but knowing that if the asters were some sign of resilience, there could be no resilience in disconsolately mourning their premature loss.
Bonita appeared at the top of the stairs, pausing briefly as though making some decision before addressing Nan. “Miss Nan, I wanted to ask you to fetch Miss Everett – but I see...” Nan nodded, and she quickly grasped that further explanation was not required. “A telegram. On the table.” She finished, still directing her words towards Nan but darting a quick look of kindness towards Rhyll. The look was momentary, but it jolted Rhyll’s stomach.
Nan nodded again, her own face puzzled. “Thank you, Bonita,” she murmured, and Bonita curtsied softly before slipping away back down the stairs.
Rhyll looked at Nan, the laughter all drained away now. Even Betsy had been silenced, sitting very still in Nan’s lap staring out at the adults as if something of great import was taking place.
“Do you mind if I go downstairs-?” Her own voice sounded unfamiliar, as if she heard it through the sea of a dream, and she barely registered Nan’s acquiescence as she lurched hesitantly down the stairs. She had no idea what she might expect to read in the telegram, other than what she had read in Bonita’s face.
The unassuming pastel Post Office paper sat quietly on the table, and Rhyll felt time slow as she approached it. Blood drummed in her ears.
The office of origin was in Bristol. Rhyll read on, not breathing:
“BAD NEWS NORAH DEAD FUNERAL 21ST WILL WRITE. E”
Sorry this is a bit long...
Ethel’s letter arrived the following day. Rhyll saw it waiting for her on the hallway table the moment she opened the door at Lemesurier Square, Ethel’s neat handwriting on the envelope: small, unassuming, and yet at the same time having extraordinary presence in the dim passage.
Rhyll hung up her coat, took off her boots and carried them up the stairs in one hand, the letter clasped in the other. She had not slept the previous night, and the tiredness and the oppressive August warmth imbued her world with a dreamlike quality where nothing seemed quite real. She dropped the envelope on top of the untidy heap of letters which covered the surface of her small bureau and poured herself a glass of water. She sat for a moment, considering the papers on her desk: reams of paper filled with Norah’s easy scrawl, the words almost falling off the edges of the page and the pages almost falling off the edges of the table – and there on top of them all, Ethel’s tidy lettering; it fitted beautifully, and horribly. She steeled herself, and slit open the envelope.
The letter was as Rhyll might have expected: efficient in length, managing to be gentle in tone without employing any redundant pleasantries. She wondered how many such letters her friend had had to write. Norah’s illness had been unexpected in diagnosis, short in duration, and undisclosed to all except Ethel herself. A cancer of the larynx had marched resolutely through the rest of her body, and by the time she had been seen by a doctor, she was riddled with it. Rhyll laid the letter down on top of all the old screeds she had spent half the night poring over, feeling no less dazed than she had before reading it. There was no sense to be made of it all. Norah was not even fifty. Her booming presence belied the prospect of her withering away, her own body poisoning her from the inside. Even at this distance, even with almost a year since Rhyll had last seen her or heard her voice, Norah was so very much alive – in all these papers, all the treasures which they held and which Rhyll had hitherto not wholly appreciated – so much humour, so much proffered wisdom and, more frequently than she had recalled, so much affection. Reluctantly, she swept them all back into a smaller pile and deposited them safely in the bureau drawer, locking it and removing the key. Today she had left them out, the first time she had ever felt reckless enough to do so, half-thinking that their discovery couldn’t be such a bad thing if it meant one more person in this world would have to acknowledge the kingpin that Norah was, the hole she left behind; but now, adrenaline dampened, prudence reigned, and she knew that the chance of anybody else reading such frankly-observed correspondence was not one she could afford to take, ever. It had been hard enough to navigate Mrs Lucy’s polite sympathies earlier, when she had explained that she would need to take leave to attend the funeral; Mrs Lucy had been sincere enough in her sentiments, but it had been impossible to explain just who Norah was, and between the necessary stoicism and the inadequacy of simply referring to her as a friend, there was no comfort to be had from it.
The sun was setting across the square. Rhyll stood for a long time, watching in silence as gold gave way to blood-red and finally slipped beneath the horizon. She dug around in the trunk at the foot of her bed for a moment until she found the bottle, and replaced the glass of water with a large brandy. On a whim, she lit a candle too, and settled herself on the thin carpet to observe what she supposed must amount to a spontaneous, solitary and somewhat unorthodox wake.
A knotty and unspecified fear had kept Rhyll away from Bristol for the year she had been gone, but the idea of it keeping her from Norah’s funeral had not occurred to her until she left the station at Temple Meads and walked slowly towards the church, clinging to the fragments of denial which her solitude – until now – in Norah’s death had allowed her. The bells of St Mary Redcliffe had an eerie familiarity, for all the times she had heard them – in Norah’s car, or arm in arm with Alice when they had walked with the same slow reluctance as she did now, stretching out the time they spent unnoticed in the shadows, always mindful of the implications of the soft gas light thrown out by the streetlamps, savouring the sanctuary the gloom afforded them. In the midday summer sun, that world seemed insurmountably distant, and she was glad for it.
The church was heaving with people, and it temporarily took Rhyll by surprise; but as she let it sink in, the thought that such a lot of people held Norah in such high regard ceased to surprise her. Norah was not somebody whom you might meet and promptly forget. Ethel’s teasing over the years had gently revealed a far greater degree of professional success and recognition as a writer than Norah herself had ever attested to. Rhyll suddenly felt very small, amongst the diverse coalition of mourners; there had been so much more to Norah’s life than she had ever known, in spite of many years of intimate friendship. She had never held Norah in anything short of awe – even if it was a comfortable sort of awe, the kind which didn’t demand Rhyll stand on ceremony or disguise her own truth in conversation with her mentor – but now that admiration instantly doubled, tripled. The countless lives Norah had touched, and had left a gaping wound in... Outside, after the service, in that glorious sunshine which somehow seemed an affront to circumstances where mists and driving rain would have been more fitting, she spoke with a number of guests – so many, and all so interesting, that her initial aim of avoiding anyone she might have known last year was speedily forgotten. A cousin who had been warned away from Norah by both of their parents; an editor who had worked with Norah for many years and remembered her persistent arguments about alterations he had asked for and which she had stubbornly refused – always correctly, with the benefit of hindsight, he said – and Rhyll trusted his sincerity on this, could not believe that someone who had argued vociferously with Norah in her lifetime would roll over and concede defeat in some misguided attempt at honour in her death; a woman who had lived, worked and campaigned with her, when they had both been suffragettes in London; an MP who had known Norah from their schooldays; a barrister with whom Norah had met during the research for a book she had half-written some twenty years earlier, before growing disillusioned and abandoning it, using the work for a series of articles but declaring that what she truly wanted to write would never find a willing publisher – Norah’s tenacity and bluntness had made a remarkable impression on the young lawyer and the two had retained a friendship and mutual admiration in the time since.
Across all the breadth of those coming to pay their tributes, Rhyll was very much struck by their common acceptance of who Ethel was to Norah, and she said as much that night, when the last of the guests had melted away and her host had poured them each another sherry. The two glasses looked too few on the big dining table, obscenely few, when so many times three drinks had stood together there and seemed to fill the space just right. Rhyll sat automatically, in the same chair she had occupied every occasion previously. Ethel remained on her feet, one hand resting on what had always been Norah’s chair, almost as if it was Norah’s shoulder she laid it on. She looked thinner and older than Rhyll had remembered, more frail; her quiet dignity, and her broken heart.
But her voice, when she spoke, was as quietly strong as ever. “I don’t think the Victorian notion of romantic love has ever quite gone away – much as that always disappointed Norah. It frustrated her tremendously, you know – the extent to which people can still be so wilfully blind. She was never one to take well to being ignored.” She smiled, and though her smile was wan it was also quite evidently heart-felt. “Of course, demanding people see what’s black and white in black and white is all very well and good when you’re Norah. Or me, for that matter. But for plenty of people, there’s hope in the shadows. They make things possible – life is infinitely more possible than some popular books would have you believe. People are good, for the most part: they have nothing but compassion for the woman who spent every night sleeping in Norah’s arms, and no interest for what did or didn’t take place beneath the covers. I’m not naïve enough to believe there aren’t those who’ll wonder. But they’re better mannered than to ever suggest it.”
Rhyll nodded, and sat in silence to digest this. Ethel reached for the glass, had a sip of sherry as if to steel herself before replacing it on the table. “I’m tired,” she said simply, “and I need to go to bed soon, even if I don’t hold much hope of sleeping. There are some things I need to give to you first.” With these words, she lifted a small box from the dresser behind her, and placed it on the table in front of Rhyll.
The first thing Ethel lifted from the box and laid carefully in Rhyll’s hands was a set of car keys. “I would never have imagined that old thing outliving my old thing,” she continued calmly. “However, it appears she has. I don’t know how much longer she’ll last – I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t on the brink of extinction – but Norah would have wanted you to have a try at least.”
“She’d also have been unrepentant if the engine gave up on me not six yards from here.” Rhyll murmured, holding the keys as if they were a precious relic. “Are you quite certain, Ethel? I mean – thank you.”
“Quite certain.” Ethel had picked up the next item from the box, and was holding it gently in both hands. It was a rather large certificate, and she laid it carefully on the bare table in front of Rhyll. “Quite certain about this too, if you please. Norah wouldn’t want it thrown out, but I can’t bear to keep it. I don’t want to remember her suffering.” She paused, waiting for Rhyll to slowly read it and understand: it was a certificate of thanks, signed personally by Emmeline Pankhurst, commemorating Norah’s three periods of hunger strike in prison. “They killed her, Rhyll. There’s no way to prove it, but I can’t believe otherwise. The bastards ruptured her vocal cords. They took her voice. And here she is, dead at forty-eight of a throat cancer. I can’t see how it wouldn’t be connected.” Ethel didn’t raise her voice, but it shook with cold anger and Rhyll wished Norah were here to take her hand, to soothe her back to her usual mild manner. But Norah wasn’t here. Rhyll laid her own hand gently on top of Ethel’s where it still rested on the yellowed certificate.
“So those are definitely for you to take, whatever you choose to do with them thereafter,” Ethel went on, her voice steadier now. She pushed the box a little closer towards Rhyll. “These are more a question of first refusal. They’re your letters. I sorted them by handwriting only, I haven’t read them. Norah would have let me read them in her lifetime, she certainly wouldn’t be fussed about me reading them after she’d gone, but I trusted her to mention anything she thought might interest me and otherwise keep her privacy. I still feel the same now.” Ethel was watching Rhyll, who so far remained nonplussed by the offer. “Privacy, of course, was not a particular concern of Norah’s – not for herself, although she was persistently interested in the impact privacy – or its lack – had on the lives of other people. Anyway, she would certainly have fancied herself the subject of a biography or two.” Another smile, Ethel’s familiar dry affection. “She would also have appreciated the necessity for those left behind to ensure any such endeavour was suitably edited. I think it was probably the idea of someone writing up a total fiction of her life which tickled her the most. I won’t write it; and when someone else does – because they will – I won’t read it, either; it would be farcical to read someone else’s account of who Norah really was. But that’s the reason I’m offering these to you now, for your own editorial requirements.”
Rhyll stared into the box, sheets and sheets of paper, almost enough to rival those she had pulled out of her own bureau the day she had received Ethel’s telegram. She had somehow not realised how much she had written, knowing it was never something she would find a quick or easy task to attend to. She knew instantly she would never read them again, her own laboured handwriting, the stilted sentences when she was slowed not by her brain nor her courage but by her dyslexia; and she knew also that nobody with a view to publication must read them. Solemnly, she pulled the box as close towards her as she could and tenderly replaced the WSPU certificate and the car keys on top of the papers therein. “Thank you. I’ll have them all, please – though naturally you reading them would never have been a problem.”
Ethel nodded. “I know.” Her face sagged suddenly with tiredness, as if with the final task of the day completed, the last vestige of energy had deserted her.
“Go to bed.” Rhyll implored, feeling guilty that she had not done anything like enough to help since arriving. “I can clear up down here.”
It was perhaps a mark of how bone-tired and disconsolate Ethel was, that she simply nodded, patted Rhyll softly on the shoulder and absented herself without protest. Alone downstairs, in the big open rooms Norah had always so effortlessly dominated, she thought she felt just a trace of the loss Ethel must be living with.
I believe this story has one final 'part' to go! I only have about half of this mapped out in my head though... So not sure how exactly it will all pan out... Thank you for bearing with me!
More than a decade later, and Rhyll could still hold in her mind's eye every detail of those high-ceilinged rooms in Clifton - almost more clearly than the room where she sat now, slumped in the high-backed armchair in the window bay. The window was behind her, and the curtains needed drawing now. In front of her was Peggy, sitting cross-legged on the double bed with the remnants of bread and cheese dusted lightly around her.
Peggy's gaze followed hers, and she offered up a muted version of her usual grin in response. "Can't take me anywhere, can you?" She brushed the crumbs away with both hands, kneeling up to lean and sweep them over the edge of the bed, and then sat back on her heels. "Do you want to keep going, liebling – or would you rather wash and brush up and head out for some proper supper now? You must be exhausted..."
Rhyll tilted her head, considering. "It all runs into the present day rather soon now. We might do as well to get the whole lot out tonight - leave tomorrow clear for the fun stuff, just for us, before half term is over." Put the ghosts of my past away before we too have to go back to hiding in the shadows, she thought – but did not say it out loud.
Peggy came across the room to sit on her lap, wrapping fierce arms around her with a silence that was wonderfully communicative. "I'm so very, very sorry about Norah," she murmured into Rhyll's collarbone. “She sounded just remarkable.”
She was. Rhyll wished ardently that Peggy and Norah could have met; didn’t have to wonder what each would make of the other; even now, glowed gently in the unreserved mutual approval she knew would have instantly come to pass. Peggy’s admiration would have been no less genuine in Norah’s life than it was in her death, and Norah would have seen Peggy for her spark, her steadfastness, her unfailing grasp of the inherent good humour of all life. With an effort, she wrenched herself from her reverie and back into the present moment, where she was at least with someone she loved and who held her when it was necessary. She might take Peggy to meet Ethel one day, perhaps. It might be the next best thing...
Peggy’s fingers traced a wordless question in the palm of one hand. “I was just thinking how sorry I am that you two will never meet: you would have liked one another very much indeed. Perhaps we ought to visit Ethel instead – I’m not sure.” She lapsed into silence once again, and Peggy curled further into her, curly hair nestling under her jaw, fingers interwoven, even their hearts seeming to beat in synchrony. “I haven’t seen Ethel in a very long time, I’m rather embarrassed to admit. We write a couple of times a year – at length over Christmas and around the time of Norah’s death, and a brief birthday card each in addition. Ethel was always good to me, but Norah was my greatest friend. And then, when she was gone – who was I to help Ethel? She had so many friends of her own nearby – all of them older, wiser, better placed than me to look out for her. I do feel rather a low cad over it all, though.” She flushed, even all these years later, and was grateful that Peggy was still burrowed into her and did not see it.
Peggy shook her head gently, one arm squeezing tighter around Rhyll’s waist. “I daresay I’m prejudiced, but I don’t really see it myself. You were so far away, anyway – what could you have done? Writing letters is very well and all, but it’s rather lacking in the immediacy of proper comfort and healthy distraction.”
Rhyll inclined her head at this, taking the opportunity to land a grateful kiss on her companion’s tousled head, and chalked Peggy’s absolution up as yet another crumb of reassurance which did not succeed in fully abrogating her guilt. Peggy thought she had done no wrong; there had been so many others who could, and did, do better than she might have done if she’d only tried; she had herself so desperately needed someone to act as a comforter and she could not have laid that burden on Ethel herself. And yet there had been no one: she had lost Norah, lost Julian, Meg was in a different world, even Nan would be gone soon... Rhyll reined in the temptation to self-pity, which made an uneasy encumbrance in addition to the guilt, and pushed the conversation forward.
“I suppose one of the losses I felt most keenly was the absence of Norah’s unsolicited commentary on the events which continued to unfold in the world and, increasingly, at home. I’d taken it for granted, you know, that things would happen – any things – and Norah would be there with a quick opinion, always cautious, more question than answer, but very prompt to absorb the news and suggest her idea for it. I remember so many of the affairs of that time through her lens – not that that was ever consistent from one conversation to the next! Norah would make good use of an idea, but she was rarely truly wedded to what she said about a matter. And at that time, so very much was happening.”
“Yes.” Peggy took her cue from this and sat up to meet Rhyll’s eye, although one hand remained intermingled with hers. “I’ve done the maths. This must have been mere weeks – barely even that – before the start of the war?” Rhyll nodded, and Peggy fell silent, ruminating on memories of her own. Rhyll squeezed her hand softly in acknowledgement. War had something of a levelling effect: when everyone carried their own grief with them, there was no longer any need to express sympathy or measure stories and losses against each other; no need, either, for explanation. Even beyond that, their history from this point must become increasingly closely shared. Where another might have commented on the proximity of Guernsey to mainland Europe at such a momentous time, Peggy had no need, because Peggy too had been there...
“I came back to Les Arbres to discover I had been kindly promised to the School, in my absence.” She said it as lightly as she could, but it was hard to skip over the affront she had felt at being casually informed of such a thing when she reported for duty barely three days after burying her constant friend. Peggy’s grimace conveyed the same disapproval, although whether she had been led there by Rhyll’s poorly veiled indisposition or by her own objective sense that this subleasing of someone else’s labour was not quite cricket, Rhyll could not be sure. She grinned suddenly. “I was rather miffed about it all. Still, I can’t say it hasn’t served me well, all told.”
Peggy giggled and ruffled Rhyll’s clippered sides affectionately. “I’m glad you recognise that! Although crikey, shall you find it too odd telling me about all this now, given..?”
“Given..?” Rhyll teased, grateful for the welcome levity Peggy had once again managed to bring to an evening where she might have hitherto thought such flippancy inconceivable. “Sweetheart, you do choose some odd moments to suddenly start worrying about propriety, discomfort, inappropriate tales of your past teachers, or whatever exactly it is that you’re coyly not referring to! I think we shall do just fine, although do please tell me to stop if any of the following revelations cause you any distress, or defile your pleasant girlhood memories...”
Peggy poked her firmly, and Rhyll could not claim she had not earned that much with her ragging. So she cast her memory back once more, to the waning warmth of the late summer, the recurrent dilemmas which the beginnings of wartime posed, the shifts in personal, professional and international allegiance which left one feeling almost that nothing that had been true yesterday could be confidently assumed to remain true today/
This one got a bit long - sorry, I hope not too long - and possibly is still quite tangled. I may come back and edit it. But right now I am sleepy and reckless, so shall upload it as it is!
For a long time, Norah had held the safety net beneath her, had been there to break her fall; now she was gone, and Rhyll was surprised and somehow comforted to learn that she could manage for herself. Leaving Bristol behind once more was painful, but arriving back in Guernsey she found her professional face quite easy to assume once more: with less effort, she set aside her pain more convincingly than she had done when she first came to Les Arbres, than when she had been at Southleaze in the weeks after Alice had left, than in the time immediately after her argument with Julian, even – or because of – knowing she no longer had Norah’s indomitable force right behind her. Rhyll locked away Norah’s prison certificate with the other precious documents in her bureau, tucked the box of her own letters away in the ottoman at the foot of her bed, responded graciously to her landlady’s sympathetic clucks and returned the half-smile and “nice to see you back” from the young secretary Miss Hathaway, her neighbour across the hall. She spent an evening in quiet contemplation, sorrowful but not in anguish, and reported for duty the following morning with effortless stoicism and a strange awareness that she was somehow much more grown-up this week than she had been the previous one.
Janie Lucy insisted Rhyll join her for tea and thickly buttered gache, inquiring about the funeral with a genuine interest and warmth which stood in stark contrast to the stiff politeness of her landlady’s pleasantries. She had a knack for knowing what to say, all the more valuable because it so clearly came from her natural empathy rather than any learned habits or scripts.
“I finally met Mrs Maynard yesterday,” she said through a mouthful of her second slice of cake. “You do know her – the family who moved in at Les Rosiers some months back now, only of course I was unwell, and then they were away, and so on and so forth, so it’s only now we’ve finally come to know one another at last. Her sister is Mrs Russell – Dr Russell’s wife – I suppose you might not know them just yet; my sisters are already great friends with her – she runs the school that’s opening up at Sarres this week. Wonderful families – they’ll breathe new life into the place, not that it was particularly lacking before, but I’m thrilled to have them here all the same.”
Rhyll nodded and smiled politely, sensing correctly that this was all that was required of her for the time being. For all she was very conscious of how strongly she was coping with her grief, it still blunted what curiosity she could muster for the snippets of gossip Mrs Lucy liked to acquire and lay out conversationally; through the thick lens of grief, it was difficult to pay much attention to inconsequential people and their inconsequential deeds, blurry and distant and unconnected to the seismic shifts in Rhyll’s own life.
“The school has moved here from the Tyrol in Austria, after all that awful business with Hitler,” Mrs Lucy continued. “Terrible for them – and for any number of continental girls who attended happily until they had to leave, Mrs Maynard tells me – but though I’m sorry for that, in another sense I’m grateful they’ve ended up here. Beth will be able to go, of course, and that’s a great blessing for us. Julie, too – and the others, in time.” As she spoke, she topped up Rhyll’s teacup without asking. “Have you seen Sarres before? It has lovely big grounds to it, barely used at the moment I’m afraid, and they’re not in a position just now to set much of it up in the way of sports pitches and the like. Mrs Maynard said they proposed to hand over as much as they could to the girls – take up gardening in a big way. I’ve said you can go up there one day a week to oversee things, set them to work in the right direction. I’m sure Vallance and Michel – and De Garis – can get along without you here for just one day. Sarres is far more in need of horticultural attention than Les Arbres could ever be! And of course we’ll just keep your salary the same while you’re doing one day there instead of here, at least until something more permanent can be sorted out with the school. I certainly shan’t see you out of pocket over this, you can rest assured of that.”
Mrs Lucy did not appear to be asking a question, nor to expect any answer other than by way of acknowledgement. Rhyll kept her face carefully composed as she digested this surprise, hiding her irritation but still finding the prospect of immediate agreement sticking in her throat. “Did you say the school was opening this week?”
Mrs Lucy nodded. “Term begins tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow!” Rhyll choked slightly on tea, too much tea – she wished Mrs Lucy had asked before pouring out the third cup.
“Less time to grow inexplicably nervous about the whole thing,” her employer countered teasingly, her playfulness reassuring Rhyll that her own displeasure remained suitably concealed. “Don’t say you’re worried about it, Miss Everett? I’ve seen how you are with my own little gang of nuisances – I feel quite certain you’ll be a natural born teacher.”
Rhyll forced a smile, hoping it didn’t too closely resemble a grimace. “Not worried in the least. But that’s certainly my cue to go and attend to the garden here now! I’ve not a moment to waste. Thank you for the tea, Mrs Lucy – and please pass on my compliments to whoever it is deserves them, for the marvellous cake.”
Without further ado, she rose and headed through the side door to her own realm in search of her garden boys. She wanted to find out how the last week in the garden had been, but before that she wanted to let off some steam about the bombshell Janie had so blithely dropped. She was not at all sure of the practicalities of losing a day’s work each week; however reliable Michel and Vallance were, too many aspects of the garden simply called for her own attention and ready availability. The amount of work to be done here remained the same, only now she was required to condense it into fewer hours in order to take on the equally intensive coordination of another, newer and by all accounts needier garden. Beyond that, she resented on principle this casual sub-contracting of her labour, as if she were a mere servant to be shared around the way Mrs Lucy and her sisters did with their children’s nursemaids.
Michel and Vallance were together in the kitchen garden, squatting over the rows of onions. Rhyll joined them, watching with silent approval as Michel gently loosened the bulbs from the soil with a small fork. Unasked, he handed one to her as he piled the others into the crate beside him, and she looked it over meticulously. It was impeccable, as everything in this garden so far had always been; she remembered Julie Lucy’s confident assertion that the very soil of the garden was superior, that almost anything would grow perfectly here, and smiled to herself with the suspicion that young Miss Lucy turned out to be quite right. She laid the onion down in the crate tenderly, and Vallance looked up from his work.
“How was the funeral then Evvy? It’s good to have you back.”
She smiled, inwardly agreeing emphatically with the sentiment. It was good to be back, especially with these two. They had by now all worked together long enough and well enough that she could consider both friends, if always with one eye on her dignity, and at that moment it was good to feel that she was with friends. “It was a good funeral,” she answered judiciously, surprised to find that she had no desire to expand upon this observation. With these two she had shared enough short half-stories that perhaps she could have explained who Norah had been to her, how she had picked her up lost and confused and green as anything at Paddington station and set her right; certainly she could have explained how Norah had set her right all over again last summer, after Alice had left and her world as she knew it had fallen to pieces, because more than one of those half-stories had featured Alice, or Alice leaving. Choosing the words might have been tricky, but if she had wanted she could have explained to Michel and Vallance now about her time in Bristol, about living in a community of like-minded women, about a world in which Norah had been the axis. Knowing she could explain it was enough to put her mind at rest. That story could keep for another time.
Vallance nodded his approval and turned back to the ground; both men’s solemn heads bowed in understanding paid a silent respect which no amount of sympathy and platitude could better. Rhyll paused to appreciate the prayerful silence, hearing only the wind rushing through the trees behind them. She glanced once more at the harvest; autumn seemed a suitably time to die, a time of completion and reflection before the intransigent freeze of winter would set in and make everything difficult, everything painful, everything lonely and dark and cold. Quite seriously – although with a vague sense that she was being halfway ridiculous – she found herself once again admiring Norah’s muscular elegance, her unerring acumen for a proper way of doing things which made perfect sense yet had surely never been codified in any ladies’ guide to etiquette – or gentlemen’s, for that matter: of course Norah would die in the autumn.
“You’ll have to get me up to speed on how the week has been here,” she said, allowing the annoyance she had suppressed in Mrs Lucy’s company to creep into her voice now, squatting down herself to help tease the ready onions free from their roots. “Seeing as I shan’t be here tomorrow either. I’m told I will be spending a day each week at that new school down at Sarres, directing the young ladies in the art of gardening. I daresay you’ll manage without me – truth is you haven’t a lot of choice in the matter.”
Michel lifted his head to raise an eyebrow at her. “You sound – how to say? – not so impressed.”
Rhyll grimaced, but her eyes smiled a little at his good-natured recognition.
“I’d be not-so-impressed myself,” Vallance retorted. “You weren’t invited to go and play schoolmistress, then? But ‘told’? I’m quite sure it won’t be meant for cheek, but it’s cheek all the same if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Rhyll grinned. “Out here, just between us three? I don’t mind your saying so in the least. Still, it’s what’s happening, so I may as well get used to it. Could hardly argue, could I?”
The two men grunted in commiseration, knowing she was right, knowing she was wronged, and knowing there was little possible consolation to be had; and between them, delivered a summary of the work they had undertaken over this last week. It was a busy time for harvesting fruit and vegetables, for pinching back and cutting down and keeping the weeds at bay, but this garden, they all agreed, made things as easy as possible simply through the natural good luck and health it seemed to be endowed with. They would be fine without her one day a week, which wasn’t to say they wouldn’t miss her of course, and certainly not that she was the least bit dispensable.
The usual busy-ness of late August into September combined with Rhyll’s unexpected new job, and the recent seismic shifts in her personal world. She pushed through and worked on, almost as if in a dream of hard work and big changes which could not be questioned, a fug of effort and healthy tiredness and unsettling upheaval.
The days felt weighty, momentous; and yet when on Sunday the news everyone had been half holding their breath over finally came, wholly expected but no less shocking, it rendered the gravity of the preceding week almost flimsy. In every home, Chamberlain’s radio announcement was accompanied by sighs of relief that there was no more waiting, together with the apprehension of a world which understood all too well what horror was about to be unleashed; it was barely twenty years since that the last desperate peace had been won at great cost and with grave difficulty. Rhyll, old Miss Grainger and young Miss Hathaway were sitting round the wireless on the dining table when the news came through; even Miss Grainger’s cat seemed to pause in his indifference to prick up his ears and pay attention. Unlike Michel and Vallance, these two had never grown to be friends, but they had all shared the house for long enough that some secrets could not help spilling out: enough for Rhyll to read the renewed grief on Miss Grainger’s face, grief for the young man lost in the trenches when she was herself a young woman, for the suffering she must live with knowing he had known, for the promised life which she herself had lost along with him; enough to understand that the strikingly similar expression on Miss Hathaway’s face was for her young man now, a man she knew deep down she had no right to think of as hers. Miss Hathaway’s promised life was, in its way, already every bit as lost to her as the one Miss Grainger had once dreamed of; the man she loved was not yet fighting in Europe, though undoubtedly he would be soon; and if he too died there, she would not be the woman to whom the telegram would be sent. Rhyll shied away from contemplating whether this invisibility and illegitimacy would make the pain more or less. For a long time after Miss Grainger switched off the radio, all three sat in stunned silence, each lost in a tangle of complicated lives and silent prayers, and a weary hope to cling to.
6.2 The Chalet School by crm
Another unedited "it's late, I'm tired, may as well post this now" chapter! (And as such, may be tweaked in the next few days when I'm feeling less stuff-it-that-will-do about things!)
You just got on with things. Unprompted, Rhyll would not have remembered this from that last war – she had been little more than an infant, after all – but in the days and weeks that followed the declaration of war, the memory jolted in her and she shrugged to herself as if to dismiss the idea that it might be any way other than this. The news hung in the late summer air, buzzing insistently in the background, lending a faint air of surrealism to quotidian proceedings – but nobody acknowledged it out loud, or if they did it was only with a passing comment as trivial as one might make about the weather. Rhyll wondered whether this was true everywhere, suspected it might not be; that in the cities, in the gentlemen’s clubs and the working men’s pubs, over the rickety garden walls where women did the washing and children ran free, in all the homes where sons and husbands and fathers and brothers were leaving in uniform, this new war must be a constant topic of conversation and speculation, and not a dirty word one felt one mustn’t even allude to lest it sound prurient, or uncouth; lest it shatter the unblemished lazy late summer here on a pretty island closer to Europe than to England. She knew immediately it would have been freely up for discussion back at the Radnor in Bristol, and surprised herself by feeling disappointed to be missing it. Not half as much as Norah must be, she thought to herself with fond amusement, and the small smile which crept across her face surprised her too. Remembering Norah with tender appreciation, without sharp pain or bitterness, was new and valuable.
Perhaps it helped that she found herself with so much to just get on with. This business with the School, she quickly came to admit, had proven to be something of a blessing. She had not been wrong in her estimate of how much extra work it entailed – one day at the school was never enough, and five days at Les Arbres were never enough, and consequently she found herself busily occupied at one garden or the other every hour of daylight each week – but she had neglected to anticipate just how rewarding it would be, and how unexpectedly well-suited to teaching she found herself. She remembered Miss Somerville’s cast-iron offer of employment at Swanley, before she had even graduated, and the confidence with which she had declined it, declaring that whatever her proficiency in the garden – and she had been just that immodest, she recalled with another grin – she hadn’t the requisite skills for coaching others to the same expertise; a few short but instructive years later, and rather less blinded by the certainties of youth, she was no longer sure whether that had been a considered opinion or just something polite she had said when the only priority had been to find a way from Kent to Bristol. She remembered now how easy she had always found it to teach Julie and John Lucy, almost effortless, and wondered whether that had been something she had learned as she went along or something she had always had inside her. Teaching at all had never been an aspiration, and teaching children had barely occurred to her; teaching, as far as she had given it any thought at all, was something other women did when an income was necessary and an alternative was missing. It seemed to her very similar to Miss Hathaway, the other tenant at Miss Grainger’s, who worked joylessly as an accountant’s secretary – only at least schoolmistresses must be protected from the particular hazard which had befallen her housemate: Rhyll supposed that few teachers found themselves sleeping with their employer, an arrangement which appeared to bring Miss Hathaway occasional moments of happiness punctuated by lengthy periods of rueful pining and much loneliness.
She had kept these reflections very much to herself, when she reported for duty at the Chalet School on the second day of term. Her first meeting was with the proprietress, a woman who seemed much too young and vivacious to know much about schools – but then, how should Rhyll know such a thing, she quickly amended in her mind, when this was the first and only school she had ever been to? Madge Russell was courteous, with a warm sincerity which made Rhyll take to her immediately, and her own passionate interest in the school and its pupils even now she was married – and well married, at that – led Rhyll to rapidly revise her ideas on teaching.
Meeting number two, following directly on from her audience with Mrs Russell, was with the headmistress herself. Hilda Annersley was rather more the creature Rhyll had expected to meet running a school, although once again there was a great sincerity and an unexpected level of professionalism that further cemented Rhyll’s new ideas on what teaching might be about, as a positive choice for some women rather than their last remaining option. She listened politely to the teacher outlining her vision for the school and in particular how gardening might fit into that; the speech was a carefully inoffensive one, and little of it was anything additional to Mrs Lucy’s rambling explanation just two days earlier. Far more interesting was the headmistress’s sidekick, a tall and sinewy woman with a shock of white hair which made it rather difficult to put an age to her. Rhyll nodded at appropriate moments when Miss Annersley paused in her speech, the history and underpinnings of the Chalet School and how it came to be in Guernsey, well-versed and relayed in a melodious low voice which was most pleasing to the ear, but still rather too detailed for Rhyll to feel especially attentive towards. She wondered whether another lesbian on the teaching staff was cause for celebration or caution – not that the answer to that question could easily lead her to walk away from the job she had been promised to before she’d even begun, anyway. She might be wrong, too – although she thought that an unlikely possibility. The pricking of her thumbs, as Norah described it, had never served her wrong yet. She had the distinct feeling the other woman was going through a similar, or at least related, thought process of her own: she would not meet Rhyll’s eye; but perhaps that was just her manner, regardless of what or whom.
“But I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough about us now,” the Head was concluding with a charming smile. “Please, do introduce yourself at greater length now. Mrs Lucy has told us enough for us to feel confident engaging you, naturally – but it would be helpful to hear from you directly.”
Rhyll sat up a little straighter. “I read pure Science for my BSc at Holloway before going on to Swanley,” she began slowly, and immediately the Head smiled again.
“Ah, that I did not know! That will be of interest to you, Nell,” she turned to her colleague, before turning back to enlighten her new employee. “Miss Wilson teaches science – all science in the school, in fact. Could you use another science mistress, do you think?” She inquired, returning her attention to her deputy once more.
The white-haired woman lifted her head and looked directly at Rhyll for the first time, dark eyes casually appraising her, and her nonchalance made Rhyll suddenly doubt what she had been quite certain of only a few moments ago. “Possibly.” She responded, her manner indicating she was yet to decide and would not be induced to share her deliberations aloud. She directed her words towards Rhyll for the first time: “I daresay there are rather stringent limits on the time you can spare us, though.”
Rhyll nodded, matching her indifference. “That’s very true. I must also be frank – I read science to better inform my gardening. Naturally I was well trained in it, and I learned it well, but I wouldn’t want you to think of me as a scientist, for I’m not. My interest begins and ends with the application of science to the garden.” She was exaggerating; and had she been one of the hapless creatures she’d imagined schoolteachers to be, she would have confidently talked up her own abilities in this department, her good grades, all the knowledge committed to memory which probably no effort would have absolved her of; all the symbols and graphs she had traced with her fingers against Alice’s naked back, well into the early hours of those long-ago mornings when the future was golden and hinged on her getting through those hideous exams at Holloway. But she wasn’t hapless, she didn’t need or even want to teach botany, and she was keen to put as much distance between herself and this new woman, the science mistress, as possible.
She thought she saw a flicker of relief in Nell Wilson’s eyes, before they turned back to Miss Annersley. “Well, it’s a reassuring thought for emergencies, perhaps. But I really am fine to continue as I am, thank you.”
The Head nodded, and indicated that Rhyll should continue, so she did. In few words, she relayed graduating from Swanley, summarising the expertise she had amassed in her years there, whether she had used it in the intervening period or not; her time working under Jones at Southleaze in the ambitious gardens where everything was to be altered quickly and dramatically, where anything that could be entered for a prize must be entered, and must win, where the forces of nature were broadly perceived as something which must be defeated, or at least controlled and harnessed to work as you wished them to, rather than freed to work their own magic; the past year at Les Arbres, where the gardening had been much more light-touch and based around cooperating with nature’s own bounty, and where she had had no direction but her own. She mentioned the coaching she had offered to the elder Lucy children, acknowledging that she would expect things to be somewhat different with the older girls at the Chalet School but tentatively suggesting that the principles were much the same – identifying interests where they already lay, sowing the seeds of curiosity where they did not, allowing the freedom to work out the answers for themselves when this did no harm and when they could do so before getting bored and giving up, but providing firm direction when required. She described gardening as the meeting place of imagination and discipline, skipping over the magic of turning seeds into beautiful flowers or appetising fruits because it sounded frightful even to herself once spoken out loud, and instead reiterating the reward and importance of producing something worth having. And especially in wartime, she didn’t say; but like every other thought of the war, it hovered adamantly between them all, and she imagined they must know it too.
To all this, the Head merely nodded with the same politeness Rhyll had offered during her own history. The science mistress’s gaze was once more fixed on the carpet in front of her. “We’ve already ordered the necessary equipment,” Miss Annersley said in her lovely voice, “I’ll get Rosalie to give you the list of what we’ve ordered, so you know what to expect. And I’ll get someone to show you around the gardens so you can think about how you plan to have the girls use them – that much will be entirely up to you. I would show you around myself, but I’m teaching the Upper Sixth in ten minutes’ time. I hope you will be very happy working with us, Miss Everett.”
I always thought there had to be a reason that Rhyll didn't end up covering any of the science teaching in Nell's absence during 'Gay from China'! Within the space of a mere 2 pages or so, EBD mentions that Rhyll has read pure science at Holloway, but decides the only person who might be able to cover any of the science teaching at all is Hilary Burn (who can help out with anatomy), and perhaps someone will have to be found to cover the botany... Erm..?!
6.3 School gardening by crm
Thank you very much for the comments - and thanks shesings for teaching me a new word :D
This chapter is a bit long, sorry. The bolded bits are taken directly from 'Exile'.
She was happy working there, in a qualified sort of way, and it surprised her how much it felt like a natural development. At least once each week, as she cycled to the school in the morning, she would reflect and consider it quite bizarre that she held any responsibility for developing the hearts and minds of the next generation. Her inner Norah mocked first her and then the poor misguided school, for who would entrust anyone to Rhyll’s care – but it was a wry joke, of course, and Rhyll recognised, through the mirage of Norah’s teasing pride, her own satisfaction.
After being required to reflect and discuss at length during her apprenticeship at Southleaze, and patiently watching the garden unfurl during her first year at Les Arbres, it came as something of a shock to find herself obliged to make quick decisions – and to be accurate and assured in this snap judgment, since there seemed no way she could retain her dignity if she backed down later. Once the initial jolt of surprise had passed, she found she quite liked it; it suited much better how she thought of herself, how she had always been as a preference. She erred on the side of caution, drawing on vague memories of Julian’s tales of his schooldays and an instinctive feeling to decide it would be better to start off by being almost too strict, rather than find herself needing to claw back control after being too gentle. She had little to measure herself against: she had never been at school, never spoken with anyone else who had been a teacher. There was little guidance available from the school itself though she did not doubt that, had she asked for advice, it would have been forthcoming. However, being in only weekly and having much to fit into that time, not to mention wanting to leave swiftly afterwards so as to have time to drop in on Michel and Vallance before they finished for the day, she felt herself only partially connected to the rest of the school and its staff. She rarely saw the staff other than at lunchtime on her day at the school – and even that much she did not manage to find time for, some weeks – and so she was slow to meet and get to know them.
The girls’ behaviour in those first few weeks offered her some reassurance, that she had judged this matter of discipline correctly; better yet, there was an early enthusiasm for gardening amongst most of the girls. Much of this she attributed to the novelty, and she was keen to sustain that early surge even as summer faded away, making the garden an instantly less appealing prospect; this was best done, she felt, by moving as quickly as possible in the first few weeks as term to ensure no form would have to wait too long to experience the encouragement of tangible success. It was largely time to plan and prune back and set the plants ready to rest through the winter and emerge triumphant in the spring, and she believed strongly in the virtues of patience and discipline and fully intended to tolerate no slacking in the preparations department; nonetheless, she was also pragmatic – not to mention keen herself – and so she saw to it that the beds were well-prepared in advance of the girls’ lessons, opted for some quick planting of winter vegetables, delivered the entirety of her lessons out of doors rather than making use of the form-rooms offered to her, the better to maximise their productive time in lessons. Time would come, soon enough, that they would all be grateful to sit inside and annotate careful diagrams; for now, she wanted to spend every minute of the lesson-time overseeing practical work that her girls could be proud of.
It was an attitude which necessarily spread, osmotic, into all areas of her life: the loss of a whole day at Les Arbres cost her exactly as much as she had anticipated, no matter how competent and trusted the garden boys might be, and she found herself unable to resist working at least part of the day on Sundays to catch up on herself. Perhaps by November – October, even – she would be sufficiently accustomed to the new arrangements, and the seasonal shift would be better suited to less intensive labour; but for now, she gardened and she planned for both Les Arbres and Sarres, and when she was intentionally doing neither of these things her mind often crept back to them anyway, either spilling over with ideas or otherwise panicking at how much needed to be done against the incessant forward movement of time. Harder were the rare occasions when her busy mind crept elsewhere. Julian had joined the Royal Navy almost immediately war was declared – Rhyll knew this from her mother’s letters, of course, and not from any direct communication with her brother – and her own blank lack of feeling at this news bothered her. Nan had seemed to travel back in time a year or more, had once more become the shadowy strained figure Rhyll had first observed in her early weeks on Guernsey, and her worry for David seemed a perfectly adequate explanation for her pallor and the sharper jut of her clavicle. Rhyll, in turn, worried for Nan without seeming capable of feeling a similar concern over Julian, and her own selective callousness was not something she liked to confront too frequently. Nightly, she wondered whether she ought to join up too, or at least give of herself to the war effort in some way: she remembered the unwavering manner in which her father had given up Edgecot – remembered Julian’s comment, which had scarcely made sense to her at the time, that her father had been glad to have something to offer. She understood it now.
It was almost a month after she had joined the school that she had her first real experience of naughtiness, followed closely by her first brush with inter-staff frustrations. She had dealt with low-level bad behaviour already, of course – girls whispering when they should have been listening, arriving late or not suitably equipped or attired for their work – but nothing that a stern look and a few trenchant words could not quell. On a small number of occasions, usually when some wretched child had blithely disregarded her precise instructions and looked about ready to undo all of her classmates’ efforts with her thoughtlessness, she had been sufficiently roused to show her anger, and this vocal approach – as she gleaned from the girls’ conversation when they did not realise she was nearby – had been sufficiently impressive to pre-empt the vast majority of mischief-making. She began to relax, allowing herself to take a modicum of pleasure in what was evidently a good start to the term and the post – and perhaps it was this misplaced satisfaction which made what came next sting most smartly.
Her first class of the day was with the Fourth Form – a feat of timetabling which she thought best described as starting with the hardest job so that every task thereafter seemed almost effortless. She led the class swiftly to the tool-shed, beginning her instructions for the first part of the class as they walked, and found that all the garden tools had been scattered. With little effort spent looking, two spades, a fork and five hoes turned up. Someone found a couple of trowels in the rockery. But most of their implements were not to be found.
Sparks flashed from her hazel eyes. “Who had them last?”she asked, an ominous calm in her tones.
“The Fifth,” came a chorus.
“Very well. Elizabeth and Betty, go on fixing the strings for those seed-lines. Biddy and Nicole, begin to dig at the first ones. Myfanwy, you can sprinkle the seed – very thinly, please – and Mary Shand may help her. The rest of you can rake the soil over as soon as the seed is sprinkled. Only lightly, mind. You don’t want to give the spinach too thick a layer to grow through.” And she swung round and marched off to the house, indignation in every line of her figure.
The Fifth, of all forms! The surprise of learning that such negligence had come from girls she thought far beyond that sort of babyish heedlessness compounded her irritation. Hadn’t she drummed it into them all, right down to the Second Form babies, that the tools must be properly cleaned off and safely stored ready for their next use? Six days of the week, the School gardened without her supervision; she had been crystal clear as to what the procedures and protocols were for this time, had stressed that it was a privilege of the senior forms to be able to access the tools for themselves. And here she was, already quarter-of-an-hour into the lesson with nothing accomplished and half the necessary equipment thoroughly lost. She stalked through the corridors at no less a pace than she had marched across the gardens, until she reached the fifth form room, where she knocked furiously on the door, barely waiting for the “come in!” from within.
“Do you want me, Miss Everett?” Miss Annersley’s voice was quiet, courteous.
“Yes, Miss Annersley!” cried Miss Everett. “At least I want to know why the Fifth did not put away the garden tools when they had finished with them. Here am I, stopped in my work, and the tools probably lying out in the grounds rusting, just because girls of fifteen are such babies that they can’t be trusted to put their own tools away!”
Miss Annersley turned to face the form, and Rhyll turned to them now too. Having given voice to her anger in front of the culprits, the red mist subsided slightly – enough for her to pause over whether going in with quite such a blaze of anger, when the Head was teaching, had really been the best of ideas. The Fifth had given her little choice in the matter; she waited.
“Robin, you are form prefect,” said the Head. “When did you last use the tools?”
“Yesterday afternoon, Miss Annersley.”
“Where did you put them when you had finished with them?”
“In the tool-shed, Miss Annersley. Cornelia and Maria saw us,” added Robin.
Rhyll listened as Robin continued, quietly surveying the surprised and indignant faces of the form in front of her. She realised she had been very hasty in her conclusions: the complete emptiness of the tool-shed should have given her a clue – no gardening session could possibly have required all the tools in one go; and it was inconceivable that not one single girl had remembered to put her own tools away. She should have smelled mischief; she should have known it was a deliberate ploy; she should have paid heed to who the audience of her ire had been...
“Who is your class, Miss Everett?” asked Miss Annersley quietly.
“The Fourth, Miss Annersley.” She paused a moment before turning to face the class again. “I’m sorry I accused you girls like that, without hearing your side, but I was annoyed at being delayed.”
“Oh, we all make mistakes,” said the Head quickly, although at that minute it did not feel to Rhyll as though other people made mistakes of such magnitude and in front of so many people – in front of the Head herself, no less. She could have kicked herself for her immediate pursuit of the last known owners of the tools.
Miss Annersley set the wildly curious and still indignant Fifth Form some work and came back across the garden with Rhyll to address the Fourth. With a few short questions, she had the confessions of the two sinners – Betty Wynne-Davies and Elizabeth Arnett. Rhyll’s annoyance at herself bubbled up once more. Had she been asked, out of the whole school, to pick the two most likely causes of any trouble, she would have instantly named the pair who stood sulkily in front of her now.
“Miss Everett, will you please excuse Betty and Elizabeth?”
“Certainly, Miss Annersley. But first may they tell us where to find the tools. All our work is being held up for the lack of them.”
“Of course. Be quick, you two, and tell Miss Everett what she wants to know.
“They’re everywhere,” said Elizabeth, still sulkily. “Some of the spades are in the ditch, and the forks are in the shrubbery–“
Rhyll gave a cry of dismay. “Our beautiful tools among all that damp undergrowth? They’ll be ruined! Run quickly, some of you – you, Faith, and you, Myfanwy – and find them. Where are the other things?”
She listened in rising consternation as Elizabeth continued her sullen account. It had rained overnight; the tools were scattered far and wide – just how long had these little idiots devoted to hiding them? – and not only would it take the best part of the lesson to retrieve them, but they would be in a sorry state indeed once they were recovered.
Miss Annersley was evidently coming to the same conclusion, and her grim face mirrored Rhyll’s own. In icy tones Rhyll had not previously heard her use, the Head announced that the lesson was to be given over to finding and collecting the tools, and the Fourth would then lose their netball practice that afternoon so that Rhyll might finally deliver the lesson they would miss. “Will that be quite convenient to you?” she finished, turning to Rhyll with the same courteous expression she had used when Rhyll had first irrupted into her class some twenty minutes earlier.
It would not be at all convenient: it meant that she would not have time to visit her real garden, and would be late home that night into the bargain. But there seemed to be no possible response other than dour agreement, so that was what Rhyll offered, continuing inwardly to curse the wretched pair and the numerous inconveniences to which their foolish joke had put her.
The Head departed to follow the unfortunate miscreants to her study, and the girls who arrived red-eyed at the tool-shed some time later to mumble a shame-faced apology seemed unlikely to cause another such fuss in the foreseeable future. Rhyll accepted their apology graciously, but reiterated the damage they had done to the tools and explained, in painstaking detail and with no small glimmer of satisfaction, what they needed to do to restore each to their original condition.
The rest of the Fourth were naturally furious at the loss of their netball practice, but nonetheless made a very good effort at the afternoon’s gardening, and by the time the two hours drew to a close most were in good spirits – and so too was Rhyll, buoyed by their progress. She dismissed the class to go and change for prep, and turned her own attentions to the tool-shed, tidying the few items which had been replaced with just slightly less than her usual military neatness, running through an inventory in her head yet again, just to make sure all were accounted for.
A smart rap at the open door and she turned round, somewhat surprised and even more surprised by the sudden memory that blasted her. This woman’s build was very different, and so too was her face when Rhyll blinked and looked properly again, but her Titian colouring, that vibrant red against delicate pale skin – two years later, the image of Alice still had the power to startle her. She must be one of the staff, but Rhyll did not think she had seen her before.
It was, apparently, no time for pleasantries. “I gather my form missed most of their English lesson today because you couldn’t sort your own class out.” It didn’t sound much like a question, but she appeared to be waiting for an answer. When one was not forthcoming, she raised her eyebrows and went on, “and then, it seems, just to add insult to injury, you unjustly accused them of the naughtiness your own class had the unfortunate responsibility for.”
Rhyll snorted audibly, her patience very much exhausted and her inclination to defend herself to this new party to the matter very low. “I beg your pardon – who are you?”
“Con Stewart. History mistress, and form-mistress for the Fifth. Who, as I say –“
“Missed part of their lesson and yes, I erroneously blamed for the missing tools. For which I’ve apologised to them.”
“You have?” Miss Stewart’s voice was instantly softer, less sure, and she flushed. “I wasn’t aware.”
“Mm.” Rhyll looked pointedly away, and then it occurred to her – the irony of being annoyed at the Fifth Form mistress, for doing exactly as she herself had done that morning, racing across the school in such a fury without pausing to think about matters from the other side. Lifting her head, she saw that the other woman was thinking very much along the same lines, and the pair exchanged a sheepish smile and an apologetic nod.
“I am sorry they missed their lesson, too.”
The other mistress shrugged. “Oh, that’s just one of the hazards of lessons with the Head. I’m sure they won’t suffer over it. I’m sorry too.”
“I’ve forgotten already.” Rhyll assured her, and cast a final glance around the tool-shed before stepping through the door. Miss Stewart stood back to make room for her, and Rhyll bolted the door firmly.
“Well – good night, then”
“Good night,” Rhyll answered, bending down to shoot the other bolt. As she stood and turned to leave, she noticed a familiar white-haired figure waiting impatiently at a slight distance as the history mistress made her way across the grass towards her. Rhyll idly wondered whether proximity to the senior mistress had emboldened Con Stewart’s unrestrained anger, or whether she would have approached the matter with such fervour no matter who her friends were. She glanced at her watch. Quarter past five. She would have to cycle hard to make it home for six.
Thank you for the comments!
Rhyll's guilty suspicion that she ought to join the armed services persisted. She felt acutely aware of the passage of time, that she had achieved very little of any civic worth thus far. Her mother's letter proudly noting Julian's appointment to the Royal Navy sat in her bureau drawer, glowering accusingly alongside Norah's certificate; her own lack of any contribution to major social advancement hung heavily over her. For all her years, and all the freedoms she had enjoyed, she felt she had very little to show – other than uncommon levels of personal contentment, comfort and privacy. With every news bulletin she heard on Miss Grainger's radio after supper, her mind returned to this same question. Oughtn't she to join up?
Just occasionally, these wonderings were somewhat placated by her work at the Chalet School. What she had initially suspected to be mere lip service from the smooth-talking and non-committal Head, and misguided idealism from her enthusiastic young boss who had such an obvious flair for current moods and emerging ideas, began to feel increasingly credible: gardening, on a mass scale, really might prove essential to national self-reliance; a tiny but genuine contribution towards winning the war. More than that was the weighty responsibility of shaping the hearts and minds of this next generation, in the hope that they might manage better than the current lot; Rhyll supposed that this concern for the moral development of young people must have been a feature of education from time immemorial – must have preoccupied Swanton, for one, and even her own little succession of governesses – but it seemed somehow more pressing in the current political climate; cultivating the girls' intellectual understanding and practical skill in the garden somehow merged indelibly into the war effort, the fight to take down Hitler, the creation of a better international future. She could not wholly convince herself that what she was currently engaged with was any comparison to the war effort proper, but it was nonetheless a productive and satisfying engagement with something far bigger and more important than herself.
Aside from the opportunity to do something useful, or as a sop to her conscience depending on her perspective on any given day, the School offered another unexpected comfort: the undemanding ease of the single-sex environment. Rhyll was not without a great deal of ambivalence on this matter, but on balance believed it was probably somehow a good influence on her as well as a tonic after years now of spending six days a week in the sole company of men. This sort of uncomplicated female company, one which she realised she had not known since her time at Swanley, was more nourishing and congenial in many ways than the various complicated inter-relations and tensions of the scene in Bristol permitted.
With unwitting irony, Michel and Vallance wasted little time in suggesting that the School might be the ideal place for her to find herself a "nice young lady" (or "une copine", as Michel alluded more decorously). Rhyll merely laughed off the suggestion, with deflections clever enough to ensure her amusement would not be taken for tacit confession. There was a certain great pleasure in being able to share such chatter with her staff, and she did not take it for granted: she knew too many places and occasions when it had been necessary to restrict her inner life to whispers and shadows, too many people who had to do likewise. The real joke of the matter, which was too long and serious and involved to explain to either of her pals, was that if she were to seek a new lover, an institution within which the staff's personal lives were so limited and intertwined and their privacy virtually non-existent would be the last place she might hope to find one. Even beyond the narrow confines of the school community itself, the reality of teaching at all made the prospect of pursuing a lesbian lifestyle pretty much a suicidal one - especially within the closed geography of Guernsey, quite literally an island, with no escape and few places to hide. She did not imagine such secrets could be kept here, with no porous borders to slip between two worlds under cover of nightfall; and off-duty peccadilloes which might be politely ignored in the case of an otherwise faultless gardener could not possibly be tolerated in the case of a schoolmistress. To Rhyll's private consternation, two people seemed to take a very different view of these matters – and they, she thought tartly, were certainly no advertisement for the joys of finding a nice young lady amongst one's boarding school colleagues.
She would never be able to recall the point at which she first noticed that something irregular was going on with Nell Wilson and Con Stewart, for it was a gradual sort of noticing, the pricking of her thumbs together with numerous observations of incidents and behaviours unexceptional in isolation but illuminating in combination. It was their unease around each other, intermittently punctuated with an intimate familiarity, which first drew her attention; and once she had seen it, she began to find it impossible to unsee the frequency with which the two women would disappear together for evening walks, or excuse themselves from the mistresses' common room within mere conspicuous minutes of each other; she could not avoid recognising the intensity with which their every encounter was fraught. She stumbled across them on the beach at St Peterport one Sunday morning, stony-faced in the brisk wind, both staring too determinedly into the horizon to notice her as she swerved to avoid an awkward meeting. The image stuck with her a long time after, knowing that the pair must have contrived so carefully to be alone together at what had to be great personal risk, and yet the time they had carved out to spend together appeared to be completely lacking in joy. She wondered for a time whether everyone else had noticed too, whether it might be an open secret like the one everyone had known at Swanley, where the force of Miss S’s personality had pre-empted any comment on her unorthodox sleeping arrangements, but swiftly decided this could not be so: for why else would the self-assured Senior Mistress have treated Rhyll herself with such obvious wariness from their first meeting? Rhyll hung it all together in her mind, tried to imagine explaining the facts of the affair to Norah as a sort of test of whether the assumptions and conclusions were stretched too far. She was not sure whether or not she convinced Norah, but she remained quite certain for herself. Far from the world she had inhabited in Bristol, there was something endearing and wonderful about seeing this so close to her new home; she found it unusually difficult to maintain her usual detachment from the private lives of others. The arrangement looked unenviable, from the outside, and she felt that she herself was not exempt from the potent risk of discovery it generated in the cloistered community of the School; but it was validating, and totemic, and somehow, strangely, both comforting and admirable. Perhaps she had it the wrong way round: perhaps they were not as indiscreet as she imagined; perhaps she was watching too closely because it spoke to her so deeply, and so unexpectedly.
Perhaps because she felt so personally implicated in it, she was more sensitive to the unexplained turbulence which surrounded the two women and seemed, in Rhyll’s view, to emanate specifically from Con Stewart. She formed this opinion tentatively, mindful that this perception of volatility and danger might derive unfairly from her passing resemblance to Alice, or from their unfortunate first meeting following that business with the Fifth, the Fourth and the mistreated tools. But she had once, just once, caught sight of Nell Wilson’s face as she watched Con at her desk, and saw quite plainly great adoration mingled with unmistakeable disappointment. It was a split second vision, before Nell had rearranged her features and cleared her throat to announce her entrance to the others in the room, but the uncharacteristic passiveness stuck in Rhyll’s mind. Nell Wilson frightened her a little because she was so serious, so restrained. Rhyll wondered what introspection she might have had to go through, to find herself in the position Rhyll perceived her to be in; she suspected it had involved far more self-interrogation and discipline than her own journey, and – unusually – flinched at the judgment she suspected the Senior Mistress might make of her own life, had she known it. But Con Stewart frightened her more, precisely because she seemed to lack that seriousness and restraint; because one day her changing moods drew the attention of people other than the one they were aimed at, and Rhyll felt herself implicitly involved in this, because any scrutiny of the suitability of the staff would surely see her off too. It was in this roundabout way that Rhyll first learned how attached she had become to her new role, in the short time she had been there.
Autumn cooled into Winter, the ground hardened and the days shortened. Rhyll’s first term at the school was nearly over.
6.5 Voyage to England by crm
Thank you for the comments!
This bit follows on from the end of the first chapter of 'CS Goes To It', which ends thus:
“And, to cut matters short, in half an hour’s time, [Madge Russell, Hilda Annersley and Ernest Howell] returned to the Staff room to say that it was all settled, and the Chalet School would remove once more, this time to Plas Howell, where, it was hoped, they would find a certain amount of peace and security for the rest of the war.”
Rhyll listened intently, keen not to miss any of the details in the distraction of unexpected satisfaction. Her medium-term future had hung in the balance over the last fortnight or so, ever since Janie Lucy had gravely informed her of the family’s intention to relocate to the Welsh borders for the duration of the war. It had come as no real surprise – after the German fighter had crashed at Pleinmont, the sense that their island idyll had been somehow disconnected from the war on the continent and over England’s cities had taken an irretrievable bashing; few felt this more keenly than Mrs Lucy herself, who had always treasured the peace of her beloved island and who now felt so personally connected to that fateful plane, given the proximity of its demise to La Rochelle, still her most precious place of all. This much Rhyll had understood from Nan, who had once again taken to clinging tightly to Rhyll as she worked, standing nearby with her warm cloak pulled snugly around her shoulders, talking about almost anything and everything except for David, who presumably occupied her mind most of all.
Mrs Lucy had been as thoughtful and generous as ever, explaining at once that Rhyll’s salary would be paid up-front for the next six months while things worked themselves out, whether Rhyll would move with the family to Armiford or remain with the School on Guernsey – if the School remained on Guernsey. Neither Rhyll nor Janie speculated aloud on this possibility, beyond brief acknowledgement, but such a move seemed as ineluctable as the Lucys’ own departure: after that plane came down, everything had changed. Mrs Lucy’s generosity was, as usual, tempered with her presumption, and Rhyll wondered how her employers might react if she graciously declined to accompany them to Armiford. Nonetheless, generous it undoubtedly was, and she was grateful for the material certainty it provided: even still, the question-marks over her future role and location had left her feeling restless. And now here it was, all worked out nicely, the School moving in tandem with the Lucys and Rhyll’s role likely to be exactly identical with only the setting changed; and after so many new homes already, what was one more?
The message from that initial staff meeting, at which plans were laid out and a schedule of dates proposed, was simply “all hands on deck”. It was as well that the Lucys departed later that same week, together with Nan and most of the small Chesters: Rhyll gave up entirely on the senseless efforts to care for the garden at Les Arbres, which would soon be surrounding a house empty of inhabitants and even furniture, bid a sad farewell to Michel and Vallance, and worked full-time at the School, preparing the grounds to be left unoccupied for an unknown period of time, helping to pack, and – more importantly – helping to maintain a semblance of normality, to keep the girls level-headed when the excitement of the move and the alarms of the war threatened to overtake the more highly-strung amongst them.
The School was to move together, the ferry booked out specially for this purpose: there was, as Miss Annersley had observed, little sense in first escorting the girls as far as Weymouth and then having the whole staff return to continue removing the school property – and arranging for two separate major transportations was a far greater burden than a single journey. The packing was haphazard, and grew more frantic as the day before the journey drew nearer – but the plan for escorting the girls on the day was set out with military precision. Rhyll, in common with those few other staff who did not have a form of their own, was initially earmarked as an extra attendant to the Fifth and Sixth Form – an easy allocation, by anyone’s guess, and she assumed it was a reflection on her newness.
A further meeting of all staff was called, a fortnight before their journey was due to take place. Miss Annersley, grave-faced, tapped at a folded letter as she summarised its contents and their implication: the advance-guard of Nell Wilson, Jo Maynard, her children and her good friend had suffered badly on their journey by boat; the danger faced by all who currently resided on Guernsey, and all who sought to travel from Guernsey to England, could not be overstated; with this in mind, Rosalie Dene the school secretary had succeeded in persuading Mr Howell to speed up arrangements at his end; the school would now move before the end of the week. In amongst the gasps and exclamations of the rest of the staff, Rhyll looked for Con Stewart in interest: she sat in silence, her face shadowed but inscrutable. Nell Wilson’s departure had had a curious effect on her anyway, Rhyll had noticed: that she appeared alternately snappish and withdrawn was unsurprising, her general air of emptiness had been entirely as one might expect given the circumstances, but Rhyll had been surprised to observe that she had lost the impression of frenzied anxiety which had fizzed restlessly around her until now. She could not fathom why or how, but the woman seemed – in spite of her wan appearance – to have reached a peaceful resolve. Her quiet acceptance of the hair-raising experiences on Nigel Willoughby’s yacht was congruous with how she had been since the yacht had sailed – but out of place alongside the outward volatility which had characterised her over the preceding months.
An answer to this – or perhaps a further complication of the riddle – arrived without warning the day before they moved. It was the busiest day of the lot, as all the staff and girls, right down to the most junior of juniors, rushed to finish packing so that the men might load the boat that evening, ahead of the voyage first thing the following morning; and somewhere between the mid-morning milk and the mid-day meal, Con Stewart slipped away to be married. Rhyll winced; decided it either made perfect sense or simply proved that there was no sense to be taken from any of it; found herself unexpectedly appointed interim Fifth form mistress for the duration of the journey to England.
The day they travelled was a rainy one: the whole school trooped out of Sarres with in unanimous gloom, each girl clutching her own small case, hoods pulled well up against the drizzle. The journey was anticipated to take anywhere up to two days, although it was hoped they would not be as long as all this. The Sixth marched onto the boat first, followed by the Fifth, and as the last of Rhyll’s charges stepped smartly aboard she glanced behind at the Fourth and mentally paused in gratitude that the Fifth, at least, could largely be relied upon to look after themselves and each other. From the time the move had been confirmed, it had been impossible to avoid confronting the dangers of war as they applied here: the safe bubble of Guernsey, which Rhyll had felt so guilty for inhabiting, had been nothing but illusion. As the boat pulled away across the grey expanse of sea, it became inescapably clear just how unsafe an island could be: for the gift of feeling removed from war in the ‘big’, real countries, the price they paid was to be trapped in this bubble, the only means of passage by water or air, neither of which were as comfortably safe as one might wish – all the more so when responsible for other people’s children. Excitement, fear and seasickness emanated from the children around her: for the sake of quelling theirs, she suppressed her own disquiet. Rumours about Mrs Maynard and Miss Wilson’s voyage seemed to have spread throughout the school, to the staff’s consternation, and those who were tasked with looking after the younger forms were much occupied with steadily refuting the worst excesses of the tale, providing reassurance and issuing matter-of-fact commands that they stop being melodramatic – the balance of which partly a reflection on the nature of the girl in question, partly the natural inclinations of the mistress attending. Rhyll caught sight of Miss Cochrane amidst the youngest forms, and felt a pang of sympathy for any junior seeking comfort there.
“Miss Everett?” The tones were gracious and gentle, with only the faintest hint of a pretty Continental accent.
Rhyll turned to the tall girl who stood tentatively before her. “Yes, Robin?”
“May we go and sit with some of the younger girls, please? I know many of them are upset or frightened, and there are such a lot of them and so few of the staff – but if all they need is a bit of reassurance or reminding to buck up – I mean, to remember that we must all remain calm – well – if it’s not too impudent, mightn’t we be able to help?” As she spoke, she gestured with a hand at her own good friends who stood politely away to one side, clearly waiting for Robin to ask on their collective behalf.
Rhyll considered, briefly. The offer seemed a sensible and kind one, and she could not imagine the child who would not be comforted, or inspired to act more conscientiously, in her presence. “As far as I’m concerned, you may. You must get the permission of the appropriate form mistress before you intervene with her class, though –she may have other ideas.”
Robin nodded seriously, thanked her courteously and returned to her chums to relay the conditions of Rhyll’s permission. As she moved across the crowd to the Second Form, Rhyll shuffled discreetly nearer and pricked up her ears to listen. Robin’s tones were coaxing, with the softness of speaking to a younger child combined with the firmness of certainty. “We can only trust in Him,” she was saying, evidently in response to some remark from one of her new little companions. “He will keep us safe, and would not want to see us upset – or upsetting other people, with such dark suggestions. At least you must only think such thoughts inwardly – it isn’t kind to share them with others and so worry them too, or to get yourselves all worked up into a state about them when the staff have enough else to attend to on this journey. If you must talk, then talk to Him, and He will guide you. Here, take my hanky; drink a little water. We will see England before you know it.”
I have modified this a bit from canon: EBD has the end of term happening between the staff meeting at which Plas Howell is offered, and the move itself (by the time they are packing up, the only girls who are still present are those with exceptional circumstances, eg Robin and Cornelia). But she doesn't actually describe when/how the girls leave at the end of term, presumably because it's all a bit logistically difficult and not part of the story she wants to tell. I hope this still works OK, and I'm certainly happy to listen to alternative ideas and rework this as necessary to make it fit as well as possible. As an adult, I'm fascinated by imagining how the whole-school moves from Austria and from Guernsey must have worked, but I can completely appreciate why EBD wouldn't have chosen to write or even loosely plan them!
I'm also not sure whether I might have employed Rosalie earlier than is factually accurate - I couldn't find exactly when she starts working for the School rather than for Jem. I'm happy to change this if I'm wrong and it jars, since it's an inconsequential comment, but I like to imagine it would be Rosalie who could coax Mr Howell into hurrying up - in fact I think an efficient and well-managed mass move from Guernsey to Armishire has Rosalie written all over it.
Rhyll made her home in Armiford with the Lucys: war, after all, disrupted all manner of preferences, and as she shivered inwardly on that boat across the Channel, knowing just how vulnerable they all were in the wide expanse of grey sea beneath grey sky, she could not get worked up about this aspect of the move.
It was more pleasant than she had expected to be reunited with the small Lucys, and from the time she made a start on the garden – rambling and unloved, with great natural promise but little evidence of any human attention in recent years – she welcomed their company as she worked. She knew better than to broach the subject of additional staff with Mrs Lucy, for the likelihood of finding anyone now would be slim to none, and so she recruited the children in her efforts, from eight-year-old Julie right down to three-year-old Vi: they came to the garden with all the enthusiasm one might expect from infants of their age and the wild garden provided tasks enough that they could easily be entrusted, the chances of there being anything precious and fragile in the tangle of weeds being roughly equal to the chances of finding any men to work to her. She dragged Nan into her schemes too, not quite selflessly but nonetheless with a certain regard to that young woman’s peace of mind. Nan, who harboured the deep-rooted fear that those she loved would one day fail to return to her, had still not found an easy way to muddle through the separations of war; this terror – an understandable one, in Rhyll’s opinion – was perhaps further worsened – also in Rhyll’s opinion – by the strong friendship Mrs Lucy had struck up with Mrs Maynard. Either of them would have been horrified to think it, and both took steps – when they remembered – to include Mrs Lucy’s young ward in their conversations and plans; but with the best will in the world they did not always remember, and even when they did, their similarities often served to perpetuate Nan’s own feeling of otherness. Wild horses would not have dragged these reflections from Rhyll, especially not in conversation with Nan herself, but she was a firm believer in the therapeutic benefits of gardening, and of keeping busy in body and spirit, and so she set Nan to work with the same brisk vigour as she had the small fry.
As to her own sanity, she made a weekly trip to the public house in Armiford, nursing a drink alone for an hour or two of the evening, unobtrusive and self-assured: nobody else from the Lucys’ assorted social circles did so, and certainly none of the other Chalet School staff ever ventured here; it was therefore the perfect hideaway, the space necessary to reassert to herself the distance between her work and herself; a miniature replacement, in function, for the tired but homely rooms back at Lemesurier Square and her undemanding co-existence with Miss Grainger and Miss Hathaway. And so it was here she found herself the evening following Chamberlain’s resignation, mulling over the implications this should have for the war: undoubtedly, the coming months – years? – must have a very different character to what had come before. It was the sort of outsize in events which led to complete strangers conversing with each other, even in the usually insular Armiford pub; and through these means, one significant alteration to the world at large resulted directly in an additional alteration to the world which was Rhyll’s own.
“Just when you might’ve been forgiven for thinking we were working hard enough!”
Rhyll looked up, startled at what seemed an incomprehensible greeting. The speaker was a woman of much the same age as her, with a Northern accent she could not immediately place. She had placed her drink on the table at the table of which Rhyll had previously enjoyed sole occupancy, and perched herself on the stool opposite. She was of fairly average height and equally average build, with averagely brown hair swept neatly back from her face; her face itself was, in contrast, quite remarkable – it was a most astonishing shade of yellow. Between this curiosity, and her affable grin – Rhyll couldn’t help noticing the considerable gap between her front teeth, and it seemed in some way a pleasing indication of a jolly character – Rhyll decided she was pleased to make her acquaintance, even if she did not understand at all what the woman meant. “I’m sorry?”
The woman blinked, but her smile only widened. “Oops. You’re not one of us, are you?”
Rhyll suppressed a chuckle. As far as her incomprehension demonstrated, it seemed likely she wasn’t. And yet... She surveyed the other woman thoughtfully, and couldn’t help but wonder. A look of recognition passed across the jaundiced face, and that very likeable grin became broader still. Rhyll grinned back: it was amazing – wonderful – just what you could come across, a long way from home. Even still: “I think, technically, the answer to your question is probably ‘no, I’m not’.”
“If you have to wonder, I’m sure that’s the case,” her new companion agreed, “for I’m hardly in disguise, what with –“ she waved her hand meaningfully about her unusually-coloured face and, clearly noting Rhyll’s continuing blankness, nodded in satisfaction. “Still, no less pleasant to meet you, as a consequence – though you’ll understand I’d better change the subject now. Fortunately, given the week in Parliament, there’s no shortage of conversation fodder.”
“Everything has to be different now,” Rhyll agreed, inwardly fighting an unusually powerful curiosity. It was rare enough to see another woman in here at all, and this one seemed particularly intriguing. She considered the strange hue of her skin again, the secret explanation she had hinted at; remembered, quite unexpectedly, Alice’s permanently-stained fingers, the clinging aroma of tobacco leaves; recalled from the foggy depths something Miss Gray had once held forth on... phossy jaw... Annie Besant...
“And not before time.” Her new friend interjected. “This shoddy mess up ‘til now is no way to win a war.”
Rhyll nodded. Well, assuming the discoloration was industrial in origin, the most obvious answer was probably the right one – and fitted neatly with the opening gambit, that the impending change in pace overseas would result in even harder work right here in Armiford... She felt that familiar pang of guilt at her own non-contribution to the war effort.
“You’re not from ‘round here, are you?” The other woman was viewing her with the same keenness of her own thoughts, and Rhyll smiled again.
“No. I teach at a school near here. Also rather off limits as a general topic, although probably far less nobly so than is the case with you...” Teaching seemed a legitimate thing to be doing, at least; admitting that she was working as a mere gardener while Rome burned – no, she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. “I was raised in Devon, although I’ve found myself here after a good few other stops along the way.”
“Whereas it took a war for me to finally succeed in getting away from the place I grew up! I’m May, by the way.”
“Rhyll.” She took the proffered hand and shook it firmly.
“I should probably head back to my pals over there,” May remarked after a pause, indicating a small crowd of women who were gathered in an opposite corner of the room. “You’re welcome to come and join us, if you’d like. No chance of talking shop – no joy in that, either – so you wouldn’t be out of place at all.” That conspiratorial look flitted across her face again, and for a moment she appeared to hold her breath, awaiting Rhyll’s response.
Rhyll duly glanced across the bar at the group indicated, and grasped May’s meaning quite well. She smiled to herself at the unlikely fluke of it all, and had she been a religious woman, would have felt promptly moved to offer up thanks for this perfectly coordinated gift. It was exactly the sort of thing Norah would choose to arrange, if she really were up there watching over it all.
She was thrilled; she was comforted; she was – still mindful of herself as a schoolmistress, in a school which sought to integrate itself properly in the local area – wary; she was, suddenly, very tired. “Thank you, but I have to be getting on now. Not much fun cycling round here in the dark, especially when sleep calls.”
May nodded, unperturbed. “Maybe see you here again, then.”
“I hope so,” Rhyll responded truthfully, finishing the last of her drink and reaching for her overcoat. “Good night.”
“Good night. Ride safely.”
It is, pleasingly, a matter of historic accuracy that there was a filling factory at Hereford during WW2. And if anybody else would like to pick up this idea and write literally any other story based around the co-existence of the School and the munitions workers, I would absolutely love to read it!
Understandably, much of the history of munitions work is undocumented - plus this is supposed to be for fun and not an all-consuming piece of research-driven work. ;) However, if anything feels so implausible that it jars, please don't be too polite to say - as ever, I'd like this to work as well as possible.
Sorry for leaving a longer gap than intended! Life got in the way...
How quickly they moved from the shallowest of small-talk to a depth of intimacy: since so much "polite" conversation lay strictly out of bounds, with a common accord they plunged straight in to the personal and the political; a typical evening wended its way from women's rights to childhood trauma, from books they had read to loves they had lost; on Saturday evenings, the alcove of the quiet little inn became theirs, and they never knew a bored moment in it. Leaving under cover of blackout darkness seemed perfectly fitting, a reminder that all they shared at these weekly meetings existed in a curious underworld, unseen and unimagined by the rest of the world with whom they interacted so innocuously by day. In this unassuming rural corner of the Welsh borders, not somewhere she had ever expected to find even herself, Rhyll found the solace of a crowd she had not known since her time in Bristol, and she treasured its every detail: the comfort, the frisson, the fear, the nourishment it stirred deep within her.
May was the closest Rhyll herself, in manner, personality and background; like Rhyll, she had left a too-comfortable home where the expectation of her ever taking paid employment had veered somewhere between the unnecessary and the undesirable. The details of how she had come to leave that life for this one were eternally skated around, shrouded in all the secrecy of her employment – although as far as Rhyll was concerned, plausible explanations for that peculiar yellow hue were markedly few: the awkward cloak-and-dagger act merely confirmed her suspicions. Duty mingled with adventure in May's imprecise and incomplete account of her journey from an East Anglian market town to Armiford, accompanied by an appropriately-stifled gurgle of pride. It seemed definitely possible, Rhyll speculated, that May had signed up for factory work rather than the WRNS or WAAF as an act of deliberate provocation; but whether or not that was so, her unwavering air of exhilaration more than justified that decision.
"How can I ever go back?" She demanded of her select group one evening, breaking off in the middle of a tale of well-heeled parochial life to underscore the distance she had travelled with this flourish of rhetoric. The question was one of amused satisfaction, rather than the cry of anguish it might well have been – easily so, had life seemed anything but good to them, for the prospect of the war ever ending seemed a remote one. When she dwelt on it, Rhyll wondered whether there might not be something rather tasteless in the pleasure they found in their new existence, given the cause that had brought them all to Armishire; but, she reasoned, this was wartime – and keeping one's spirit up meant taking one's pleasure where one found it.
More than once, they contemplated – in quiet tones – what the more regular clientele of the public house must make of their gatherings. The pub was still very much a male domain – in Armishire at least as much as elsewhere in the country – and the departure of many men to war had done little to alter this. That women might increasingly take on men's roles in professional and civic life, the previous War had persuasively demonstrated; that women might take advantage of such a situation to encroach on the privileges of the menfolk was quite another matter. Still, the bartender was happy enough to take their money and if any customer felt something stronger than bemusement, they gave no outward sign. It was not, in the factory girls' case, that there was no other alternative: on the contrary, the biggest reason for their appearance in this establishment on a Saturday evening was that they flatly declined to attend the weekly dances held nearby, which many of the other women who lived in their hostel attended, along with a good number of servicemen stationed in the vicinity.
This was something Rhyll learned from Nancy, whom she had noticed with May that first evening. With admirable frankness, Nancy had informed her that she was not your type, but had decided to tag along with the others simply because she much preferred their company to the dances with the GIs. "An outsider among outsiders!" she had laughed, occupying that position with such comfort and confidence it was hard not to admire. Unlike May, Nancy was much more typical of the women from the factory. She had worked in a soap factory since her girlhood in the Wirral, having grown up in a household and a town where everyone else did the same. The decision to leave that particular industry in wartime had required no soul-searching on her part, for her employer had closed their normal operations and redirected their efforts into war work: they had moved into munitions, and she had moved with them – had moved on past them, in fact, when the opportunity came up near Armiford which paid one-and-a-half times as much each week and offered her the chance to see a new place besides.
The factory girls’ company was a tonic to her, and she often wondered what it would be like to spend the rest of the week with them too, instead of her own existence hovering between the Lucys' and the School. Her mild envy was tempered by experience: Rhyll had lived too intimately with Alice to be completely persuaded of the romance of factory work – knew that the camaraderie and the unfussiness and the good money and the gratifying physicality of production were more than matched by the long, backbreaking shifts and the ever-present danger – so much more so at wherever these cocky young women worked than had ever been the case at Will's Tobacco in Bristol.
These wistful thoughts were not to say there was anything notably unsatisfactory about her own employment situations. The School seemed to suit her more and more, until she felt herself as fully integrated into it as she would ever hope to be: there was an inner core of staff which she knew she could never hope to join, with their years-long shared histories, their fond recollections of life in the Tyrol, their attachments and their peculiarities and their gleeful visits to tea at Jo Maynard's. It would be easy to feel left out but for Rhyll, being spared that close familiarity felt like a blessing because of the privacy it offered; she could remember feeling much the same at Holloway, though she might not have been able to put her finger so exactly on it back then, the value of her privacy or indeed the price of that which she intended to keep private. The job itself, she loved – too much to risk losing it with ill-advised friendliness with her colleagues. The remit seemed to grow and grow, and yet because she loved it, it never felt too much: when the school took on cows and chickens, providing all its own milk and eggs much to the pride of all concerned, she was only too pleased to help out with the livestock; when they acquired a tractor, she had to fight herself to disguise her delight just as she had when she had learned on the old Ferguson at Swanley, driving around in feigned nonchalance with a vivid memory of the woman she had seen driving one all those years earlier at Exmouth.
Life with the Lucys was perfectly agreeable too. The place they had found was of a good size, complete with a gardener's cottage which whilst very modest in size was nonetheless an entity of its own, and Rhyll made a home of it with great pleasure. Once a week, Nan would visit her for tea – both of them making a great show of the occasion, with uncharacteristic attention to the social rules of visiting and deliberate overlooking of the various irregularities the setup posed: both took care not to acknowledge that, for example, as the cottage only had one chair, Rhyll habitually perched on a small cupboard at the equally-small table opposite her guest; definitely avoided looking towards the other side of the room, which served as Rhyll's bedroom; pretended not to notice that the crockery was old and mismatched, and so few in number that it took careful planning on Rhyll’s part to avoid having to jump up and wash up midway through. This performance of a social call took up a large part of their entertainment; the other frequent topic of conversation over tea was, inevitably, Nan's engagement to David and her complicated mixture of feelings around it. Inexperienced, anxious, and feeling the renewed pain of her mother's absence when her advice would have been so welcome, Nan worried over the matter at great length. Her thoughts and problems seemed unreachably alien to her hostess. Rhyll searched her memories, of her brothers at war and her brothers in courting; of the men she had worked with and the way they spoke of the women in their lives; of Alice, and of Norah and Ethel; of her own mother, and father, of their hopes and expectations for her life; none of it seemed to have any bearing on Nan's soul-searching, and Rhyll wondered whether Nan might not get some better advice if she opened her heart to Mrs Lucy instead. Oftentimes it seemed that what the girl really wanted was permission to become engaged, and certainty around who might be qualified to grant that permission: not only was Mrs Lucy far more cognisant than Rhyll of such matters, she was the person who most of all stood in loco parentis to that young woman, morally if not legally; but perhaps that was why Nan wanted to make her own decisions on the matter, before approaching Janie for an endorsement. Privately, Rhyll could not help doubting the wisdom of forming a contracted attachment to a man Nan clearly feared for the life of on almost a daily basis. It seemed foolish to obsess about a marriage she did not seem to believe had any future. But then she remembered Miss Hathaway, her neighbouring tenant back at Lemesurier Square on Guernsey, the premature grief she too had suffered at the onset of the war, the loneliness of the mistress who would have no claim on the man she loved whether he lived or died; perhaps Nan knew what she was asking after all. A fiancé in service was so much more tangible.
It was enormous whenever one paused to think of it – and consequently one didn’t often elect to do so. The thousands – millions? – of young men out there, not far away, dying and killing and seeing things that nobody who loved somebody would ever want them to see: fiancés and sweethearts and sons and brothers. Brothers. For the first time in whole years, Rhyll stopped to wonder what Julian was doing, and to send up a short, awkward and doubtful prayer for his wellbeing.
Thank you so much for the comments!
The bolded bit is re-appropriated from 'Gay from China'.
She didn't follow up on her sudden wondering about Julian: unexpected news from the School pushed it from her mind the very next day, and by the time she turned her thoughts back to him, the old veneer of stubbornness had crept back in. He was evidently safe and well, or at least there was as yet no reason to believe otherwise – always allowing for the delay of international communications methods during wartime – because if that was not the case, she would hear from her mother; in any event, Rhyll's own well-wishes would have no bearing whatsoever on his actual safety. All that was left, then, was mere sentimentality – extending an olive branch she wasn't yet willing to concede was hers to offer, purely because he might die. No, she could not be doing with morbid sentimentality – and did not think he would have much use for it either. In any event, he felt so distant now – not someone who was part of her life any more than her parents, or her distant elder brothers at their far-flung ends of the earth. Julian would be fine, anyway: that was the story of his life, he would always be fine.
The news which came through just ahead of the Easter term provided an unsettling distraction in the way that bad news always does, in addition to the more practical distraction of requiring a solution. At the first meeting, ahead of the girls' arrival for the summer term, a number of people were conspicuous by their absence, and something in Lady Russell's face let them all know at once that this subject was no matter for joking about:
"My dears! a calamity has befallen us. Four of our mistresses have been involved in a terrible accident which has cost the lives of three people who have nothing to do with the school. The driver of the bus in which they were was killed on the spot. The conductress and an old man have since died of their injuries. For some days there was great reason to fear that Hilda Annersley would also die. Thank God that fear seems to be at an end. But for a very long time we must do without her. She has suffered serious concussion, and only a very grave operation has overcome the worst of her injuries. She is still very, very ill. All danger has not yet ended, but her doctors now believe and hope that she will recover, though it will be very slow. Nell Wilson, Jeanne de Lachennais, and Dollie Edwards, who were also with her, are all more or less badly hurt. Nell we hope to have here before the term ends. Jeanne, too, may be with us. Dollie, who received more dangerous injuries than either of them, will not return till September, though we may hope to have her back then." She paused for a moment, looking gravely around the staff room as the news sank in. "You see what this means? Four mistresses who all hold important positions in the school have been hurt. This is examination term, and the girls' work must not suffer if we can help it. Simone de Bersac, better known to a good many of you as Simone Lecoutier, is coming to take up her old post as senior mathematics mistress, and Pam" - here, she indicated that worthy with a nod and a grateful smile - "will take Dollie’s place as head of the junior school. Julie" - another smile - "has agreed to take over all French in the school, and we are fortunate in having the services of another old mistress, Marjorie Redmond, whom a number of you will still remember as Marjorie Durrant. Marjorie was with us in Tirol, and left us to marry. Now her husband is with his ship, somewhere at sea. She has no home, for that was bombed during the terrible raids on Portsmouth. She has no other ties, for her one little daughter was killed in the same raid that destroyed her home. She read an account of the accident in a local newspaper, and at once wrote, offering her services. She arrives later this week, and will take over the English classes. But she has begged to be excused the organising work. So I have arranged with a Miss Bubb" – Lady Russell’s eyes swept round her staff as she uttered the name; but all were too horror-stricken at what had overtaken them to smile - "who was formerly a High School mistress, but who retired some years ago, to act as head-mistress pro tem. Miss Bubb, who is a brilliant classical scholar, will undertake the senior Latin. Joey will come up three mornings in the week to take junior Latin.’ She paused here, and when she went on, here voice was brighter. "I know I need not ask you to be good to Marjorie Redmond. But I do ask you to give Miss Bubb all the loyalty that you have shown Hilda, and to Therese Lepattre and myself before her. We may hope that Hilda will return to us in time. Until then, stand by Miss Bubb. She won’t have an easy task. I do not think there has ever been anyone - girl or mistress - in this school who knew her who did not love Hilda Annersley. She has been with us eleven years, and is as much a part of the school as you still count Joey – or myself. Miss Bubb is a complete stranger. She knows none of our traditions. She may sometimes seem to us to be ignoring them. But she is taking up this work because she feels it is her duty during war-time to help where she can. Also, remember this – that it is good for all of us to be stirred up occasionally, for we are liable to sit complacently in a rut, and desire nothing else. That is good for no one. Miss Bubb will come to us on Saturday. I look to you – all of you – to give her a real welcome, and to help make sure the girls do the same."
Wild whisperings began almost immediately the meeting was over, as well they might: Madge Russell's cautious plea for patience conveyed little to inspire hope, or heartfelt welcome, from her staff towards Miss Bubb. First impressions – and second, third, weeks-long impressions – bore out every one of their collective concerns, and much more besides. Rhyll was pleased to be able to escape the School several days a week (and to escape much of the staffroom grumbling even when she was there), for Miss Bubb drained all of the joy and inspired hitherto-unknown levels of discord. She saw less of her colleagues out-of-doors too, in addition to seeing less of them simply by venturing inside as little as possible: where free periods had once seen other mistresses heading outside for a few minutes in the fresh air and sunshine, their ‘free’ time seemed to be greatly curtailed and the use they made of it more strictly controlled. Roaming the School’s extensive grounds did not meet with Miss Bubb's approval; nor did gardening, and Rhyll wondered what chance of survival her subject might have had, if not for the impetus of wartime. Perhaps Rhyll had not helped herself, by declining to offer her services in science teaching when the staff had talked about filling the gaps which still remained; perhaps, had she done so, she might have lent her subject some valuable academic credence. But keeping the cautious distance she and Nell Wilson had maintained by unspoken agreement for years now had seemed to take precedence over justifying the role of gardening in the girls' education, and as nobody had asked her to step in she presumed she was not truly letting anybody down. With a sense of obligation to her pupils, she threw in far more theory to their work than was strictly required, and in her heart she believed that for most of the school this would be a more effective learning experience than that acquired in the classroom anyway. To a small number of particularly keen or promising students, she extended an offhand invitation to help out with the cows and the poultry: the breadth of experience was, in her opinion, inherently beneficial; and it offered an application of biology which they would not otherwise access so easily. She half wondered whether it might bring her into conflict with the pro-tem head, but it never did. Perhaps Miss Bubb's fanatic interest in those girls who showed promise in her own preferred subjects meant that, relatively speaking, "wasting" the time of budding scientists went unnoticed.
Back at the Lucys', a flurry of excited activity made for a stark contrast to the fretful atmosphere of the school. Nan's wedding was to take place at Armiford cathedral in June. The whirl of preparations seemed to reinvigorate her somehow, bringing colour to her cheeks and curving a smile at the corners of her mouth. The whole business also had the effect of restoring her to the bosom of the community she would rightly belong in: cosy chats about the wedding seemed to come in from all sides, Ann Chester and Elizabeth Ozanne, Madge Russell and Jo Maynard all warmly questioning Nan on arrangements and pulling her firmly into their conversations whenever they visited, as if she had always belonged there; above all, Janie Lucy seemed in her treatment of the wedding planning to have reaffirmed Nan's central place in the Lucy household. Nan would be given away by Julian Lucy, the reception would be held at their home, and in all practical ways Mrs Lucy was playing the role of 'mother of the bride' with gusto. Rhyll watched matters unfold with baffled acceptance. It was not a world she had ever herself yearned for, and she had not entirely expected it to be to Nan's liking either. Perhaps it came down to families – perhaps the reason for this mysterious preference lay in Nan's own liking of her own family, a desire to replicate what they had, whereas for Rhyll the idea of becoming her mother filled her with horror; or perhaps that had nothing to do with it. Perhaps Nan would feel equally horrified if confronted with the public house on a Saturday evening. Rhyll was glad of the change in her young friend: after long years of undisguised sorrow and anxiety, it was a boon to see the old Nan emerge once more.
May was early summer, in Rhyll's book; she remembered Alice had insisted it was late spring, that first spring-summer they had known together, the months Rhyll had spent dashing about between Surrey and Bristol, their world fresh and growing and full of life and colour and purpose. It was a time of year she always revelled in, perhaps more than any other. It was not a time of year she expected to be confronted with sudden death.
Lily had been a quiet, gentle presence on the outskirts of the bawdy group on their Saturday gatherings; someone who had not registered as much with her presence as she did now with her absence. Lily had been in Group One, May had informed Rhyll upon introducing her during her second or maybe third week with them, with undisguised admiring envy. "I'd never make Group One," she'd grinned, self-deprecating and honest. "I haven't steady enough hands – or a steady enough nature, if you come to that." Rhyll had not known what to say, although it seemed to her then and now, on reflection, that it came as no surprise that this peaceable young woman – barely eighteen when they had first met – would have a steady hand, an easy calm. She did not ask what exactly “Group One” entailed; it was enough to hear that note of admiration in May’s voice, to realise the importance of careful dexterity. Both hinted at skill, and at high stakes; perhaps a level of precision that could not hope to be sustained indefinitely; perhaps a danger so great that the steadiest hand in the world could not avert it forever.
Lily had died the Thursday night, and the group were still stunned when they congregated that Saturday – the first chance they had had, most of them, to speak of it at all. The heartless coping mechanisms of wartime somehow meant that the untimely and violent death of a girl not yet twenty-one years old was not measured with the same depth of sobriety that it would have compelled under any other circumstances; the party must continue – how could it not? What, then, would those who remained be left with? A drink or two loosened a few quiet tears, here and there; a searing silence burned through the group at regular intervals that night. The war felt winnable, now – the idea of victory seemed as if it might be somewhere just over the horizon; not a certainty, nor something within touching distance – but a definite possibility, even a likelihood, where before it had seemed unimaginable, as if this war must drag on forever. This perception did not ease anyone’s grief. If anything, it begged an unanswerable question, and one which at least three people gave voice to that night: Why now? Why now, when the prospect of survival seemed so attainable?
When it was Rhyll’s time to leave, and she had bid a subdued farewell to the rest, May accompanied her through the door, out into the twisting lane which led back into Armiford proper and Rhyll’s home. Neither one of them spoke; but neither one was surprised when May suddenly caught Rhyll’s hand in hers, holding her still in the empty darkness; nor when Rhyll leaned closer, and their lips met, seeking comfort and hope and meaning in a world where these were suddenly so scarce.
It was a bad idea – a ridiculous one, an awkward one, one which would never have even occurred to either of them otherwise – and after a long moment both pulled away, embarrassed, tripping into the brambles that lined the rutted lane. In the invisibility of darkness, they laughed gently at themselves, and in the same breath, May choked on a sudden sob. She sank to the ground, sitting cross-legged at the edge of the path, and Rhyll squatted beside her. Silence was enough: the stars watched them from above, and without needing to share a word, they grieved together until – still wordless – May stood, held Rhyll tight in her arms for a moment, and then made her way back towards the little inn. Rhyll watched her go, for her eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness by this time, and then turned and made her way home, slowly and with a heavy heart.
Thank you very much for the reviews!
The end of war seemed to inevitably prompt reflection always and everywhere: after the interminable stint spent pushing blindly through, now came the time to count the cost. For Rhyll, that was not only Lily – although Lily's death still stuck in her throat, painful and disjointing, unforgettable, an uncomplicated indictment of all that was wrong in war; Vallance, too – cheerful, good-hearted, dependable Vallance – he had been called up in the final year and had died in service, leaving his wife and four daughters, the youngest barely more than a baby. May's sister and her young family had died in a bombing raid on their home in the Wirral; helpless; another incomprehensible outcome. Not Julian, of course – never Julian; to say Rhyll was relieved was an understatement, although her relief was somewhat tempered by the shock of realising she had not spoken to her brother in eight years.
In addition to counting the cost – and God, but it was a high toll – the end of the war gave them pause to count the blessings which had been spared, with a sense of finality and relief which the bated breath of wartime had necessarily precluded. Nan's husband David came home. Gradually, others followed: Julian Lucy, Jack Maynard, Meg's husband Clive (for Rhyll and Meg had kept up a fairly impressive correspondence over the years, given their multiple commitments), Ernest Howell. Rhyll's entire family had survived unscathed, with the exception of a cousin who had lost an eye at El Alamein and another who had been bombed out on the south coast, her family losing a much-loved home and most of its contents but – having been away the night in question – thankfully suffering no injury or loss of life. The school too, had collectively suffered remarkably little. And yet – viewing those losses which had happened to all those within its ranks – to call this suffering "little" felt callous and inappropriate; and likewise, beyond the palpable relief, any notion of 'celebrating' the end of the war seemed untrue, incomplete. There was still too much raw grief to grab joy with both hands.
The guilty combination of happiness that it was all over, with sadness for those who were not here to witness it, was not the only uncomfortable mix. The immediate understanding that the women from the munitions factory would go back home now, to families and Lux flakes or Stork margarine, to a regular working day; their wartime affaire was over, and this ending inspired a new grief of its own.
In almost no time, Janie Lucy was making plans and talking excitedly of the collective return to Guernsey, and – against this backdrop of losing her friends from the factory – Rhyll realised with a jolt that her primary loyalty was now to the School, rather than the Lucy family. Her role at the school – as a member of the staff room, as a doorman at school plays, as someone who could engage the less academically-minded girls, as someone who could generally quell the Fourth into submission – had gradually expanded over the years; and now that it became clear that pure geography precluded the possibility of maintaining both jobs, an unexpected preference revealed itself. Rhyll had never set out to become a schoolteacher, and yet teacher she had become. Gardening at the school had, quite surprisingly, become more immersive and somehow more true; required less deviation from the actual matter in hand, the seed in the ground and what the gifts of soil and rain and time would do for it. The enthusiasm of at least some of her charges for the sheer magic of her subject nourished her own passion for it. She remembered, with fondness, Miss S’s offer of a teaching post immediately she had graduated Swanley. The idea had been undesirable and impossible then; now, it was exactly what she wished to do.
Whether it was what Miss Annersley or Madge Russell still wished to offer, or whether it was at all compatible with Janie Lucy’s intentions, remained another matter entirely. Regarding the former, Rhyll felt a degree of confidence: Britain was ravaged by war, and the tangible contribution of the kitchen-garden and the cows and poultry would likely be considered valuable for some time yet; all of this work – the professionalisation of it, and its seamless inclusion in the School curriculum – did not seem likely to disappear overnight. On the other hand, Rhyll had never quite been privy to the conversation that had been had between Mrs Lucy and the School all those years ago on Guernsey, when her time and labour had been handed around so freely – she still bristled rather at the thought of it, and now grudged it afresh, not having any indication of either party’s expectations for the future or what delicate politics might colour such negotiations. She wondered whether, under other circumstances, Nell Wilson might have been a useful person to be able to talk with: she would surely have known how matters had been decided initially, and would have a very good idea about what both Hilda Annersley and Madge Russell might be intending – and yet, co-Head or otherwise, speaking with her would never have been as formal or as binding as the same conversation with Hilda would have become. But the two women had remained resolutely at a distance, in every sense, throughout Rhyll’s time at the school, and so there seemed to be nothing else for it but to take the bull by the horns and request a difficult conversation with Mrs Lucy.
“I have always enjoyed my work in your gardens – here and at Les Arbres,” she began, firmly and truthfully but with no unnecessary delays, “but I don’t wish to return to Guernsey now.”
Janie Lucy, if she were surprised, did not let it show. She nodded, that understanding nod she always had, and gave Rhyll a quick smile as if to reassure her. “Quite so, quite so. Naturally I shall be sorry to let you go – I have also always enjoyed your work, or at least the fruits of it! Pun not intended. But you moved with us once – there’s no reason to assume you should want to do the same thing all over again.” This moment of insight intrigued Rhyll, and she wondered whether she had underestimated Mrs Lucy, for all of her excitements since the war had ended and she had started plotting her return to Guernsey had seemed to assume that undoubtedly the world and her wife would want to tag along. Her employer rested her chin in her hands, and looked keenly across the table at her. “Have you already made alternative plans?”
Rhyll shook her head. “Not yet. I want to teach. If not at the Chalet School, then probably at Swanley. I’ve surprised myself with how much I enjoy it, and it’s what I want to do now.”
A smile crinkled Mrs Lucy’s face. “Ah, so I’ve only myself to blame! If you ask me, I’d say they’d be thrilled to have you full-time. Do you want me to have a word?”
She could not decide whether the suggestion was generous or outrageous: she suspected good intentions, and yet the idea that Janie Lucy should once again decide her fate in a meeting at which she was not present was rather too much to take. “Thank you, but I should like to talk to the Head directly.” And swiftly, she added to herself. She suspected that Janie would mention the idea to either Mrs Russell or her sister before too much longer, and she did not wish to be pre-empted.
This conversation successfully navigated, the second one seemed much more straightforward. “I’ve come to make you an offer,” she explained, emboldened by success. “As of next term, I am available for full-time teaching and I think the School could make good use of it.”
In her quiet way, the Head was every bit as cordial as Mrs Lucy. She too nodded and, unhurried, drew a sheet of paper across the polished desk and wrote a few words on it, holding her pen still poised as she spoke. “Naturally, I have to speak with Mrs Russell before making a decision on the matter. What more do you think you would be offering us, if you were with us full-time?” She paused, thoughtful. “I do recognise that you have frequently gone above and beyond what was initially agreed, for which we have always been grateful. What you are proposing, nonetheless, is perhaps two times the work you do at present.”
Rhyll had been prepared for this question. “Well, a lot more of the same wouldn’t go amiss,” she answered stoutly. “In particular, we’ve an increasing number of girls hoping to go on to gardening colleges, and they would benefit from far more coaching than I’m currently able to provide them with. I’d also be willing to take on form-mistress duties.”
Miss Annersley nodded and made another note, her expression inscrutable; but it was later the same day that she came out to the potting-sheds to find Rhyll, and with a wide smile give her the news that Mrs Russell had approved the appointment and both were glad to be keeping her on in this new capacity, and in spite of not quite belonging, the news warmed her; took the edge off the losses of May, Nancy and the rest, of Nan Blakeney twice over – to David, and then back to Guernsey – of Michel and Vallance, bloody Vallance who she had expected to find waiting for her in Guernsey and had he been there, perhaps her feelings about going back might have been entirely different. The School staff-room was not the Radnor, and nor was it the gathering of women from the munitions factory; but it was a good enough place, viewed from her comfortable position on the sidelines, and her future was agreeably settled.
Thank you for the comments!
In spite of the deceptive chapter title, this isn't *quite* the very end...
"Well - you know more or less what comes next now, I think. You were there too, after all."
"Do you remember me, back then?" Peggy asked, interested.
"I try not to!" Rhyll quipped, and they both laughed. "Well, I stayed in Armiford. It wasn't hard to find rooms there - so many people were vacating theirs, one way or another. And not everyone who'd left came back." A new generation of widowed and spinster landladies, just like Miss Grainger, she thought sadly. "What else happened? Various mistresses got married, your sister included. There was that business with the drains, and off we went to St Briavel's -"
"Did you mind much about that move?" Peggy asked, curious.
"Much, much less. Mostly I was simply glad to be back near the sea - again! - and of course I had almost nothing to keep me in Armiford. And they didn't assume, which helped. They offered me the chance to live in, but I never was a boarding school girl..."
Peggy grinned, and tilted her head thoughtfully. "So that's all of it, really? Nothing else of any note?"
"You." Rhyll looked directly at her, nothing disguised or veiled in humour, and a bolt of electricity shot through her. The shadow of a rather satisfied-looking grin seemed to tug at the corner of her mouth, as though she knew this effect and was really rather pleased with it. Peggy bit her lip and looked away.
"Julian, it turned out, had quite the adventure..."
"'M! I'd wondered what tale he was nearing the end of when I rejoined you two the other day."
Rhyll smiled, a hint of bashful pride creeping across her face now. "He only went and got himself awarded the George Cross. I didn't know before now, which almost certainly means he's somehow found a way to keep it from my mother, too."
"That's funny," Peggy commented. "Oh - not the GC itself; that seems perfectly normal Julian, from all you say - and from what I've seen, too. But that he didn't tell your family. That was half his trouble, wasn't it? Wanting to be able to share things with them."
Rhyll nodded, visibly pleased by Peggy's evident understanding. "I think that accounts for why he never mentioned it, actually. He saved he lives of two of his crew: the ship was torpedoed. Julian was on watch in the engine-room at the time. He at once shut off the engines - and then he remembered two firemen were on watch in the stokehold. The engine-room was in darkness and water was already pouring into it. He groped his way to the watertight door to the stokehold and pulled it open - at grave risk of disastrous flooding, by anyone's guess, but he couldn't not. The two firemen were swept into the engine-room with the inrush of water. One man had a broken arm and injured feet and the other was badly bruised and shaken. Julian tried to hold them both but lost one... So he dragged the other to the escape ladder and helped him up on deck, before going back for the other and practically carrying him to safety, choking in the cordite fumes all the way. I imagine it was all far worse than Julian has really let on, though it sounded bad enough already. He's in love with one of them, you know: quietly, privately, desperately in love with him. He would never dare make anything of it - can you even imagine? - but he was, and is; has been all these years, for they're still dear friends now. I think he just couldn't tell the story and miss that part out."
"That sounds unbearable." Peggy frowned in contemplation. "Not the torpedoing - well, I mean, of course that sounds horrific too, but-"
"Being in love with someone for years on end and never daring to breathe a word of it? It probably is," Rhyll agreed. "I rather think he fancies it as his cross to bear. It might be that his staying in the Navy had to do with that, one way or another. Or, more likely, it's one way of running away and hiding. But that's his lookout, I suppose." She paused. "That's what I've believed all this time, and I've felt so angry at him for it. Silly, really."
"Is it?" Peggy challenged, gently.
"Isn't it? It's hardly my business if he wants to run away - if that's what he's done."
"Maybe it's not about that, though; maybe it's not about him. Maybe it's about you, being brave enough to go where you want and be who you are."
Rhyll turned a considering face on her. "And why would that make me angry?"
"Because it was hard, and because his life was much easier - until it became hard, and then he ran away instead of standing and fighting like you'd always had to do." Peggy felt her tongue loosened by sleepiness, her thoughts crystallised into the deceptive simplicity which tiredness often seems to bring; but perhaps these doubts were unfounded, or otherwise Rhyll was similarly affected, because she gave only a slow nod which said yes, perhaps you're right; I hadn't thought of it like that.
"We could visit Ethel," Peggy suggested tentatively.
They sat in meditative silence for a time. Two glasses stood on the hotel writing-desk, the empty bottle beside them; Rhyll's crumpled cigarette butts lay in the ashtray. The hour on the clock did not bear looking at.
"Tired?" Rhyll asked presently.
"Very," Peggy acknowledged. "I feel rather as thought I might be dreaming, or sleep-walking, or somesuch..."
"Poor old thing!" Rhyll chuckled softly. "I don't wonder you are. But look, we've all of tomorrow just for us. And no morning bell to disturb the peace, either!" She stood up and made for the bathroom, pausing and turning as she reached the door. "Thank you for listening, love. I hadn't known I needed to tell it all, but I'm glad I have. And glad it was you I told."
"I love you," said Peggy simply. "I'm glad to have heard you tell it."
Rhyll's smile widened, and she ducked her head away. Peggy watched her go, still smiling, and a contented warmth coursed through her veins.
I have cheekily borrowed the story of Julian's GC (including some of the wording used here) from that of Gordon Bastian, which caught my eye at the IWM a few months back and seemed exactly right: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Bastian
"Will I do?" Peggy asked anxiously, pulling at her dress.
"Always." Rhyll replied with confidence, though her attention at that moment remained focused on her own reflection, eyes narrowed as she teased her hair back with the comb.
Peggy rolled her eyes, but she couldn't resist a grin at the same time. "You're not even looking."
"I don't have to." Rhyll retorted, but she turned her head anyway, abandoning her own grooming for the moment. She made a grand performance of studying Peggy in detail, her face an exaggerated picture of concentration.
Peggy folded her arms in mock annoyance. "You're still not taking me seriously."
Rhyll widened her eyes, protesting her innocence with gleeful fervour. "I'm taking you very seriously! Look at me taking you seriously. You look beautiful."
This last comment was quieter, all jokiness put to one side. Peggy blushed, unexpectedly; looked away from her girlfriend and the mirror, tongue-tied.
Rhyll turned back to the mirror and took up the comb again. "I was right though - I didn't have to look to tell you that. I don't think you need worry, by the way - well, you never need worry in any case - but honestly, I don't want you to be disappointed: I don't think it's going to be exactly the height of sophistication, all right? I don't want you imagining this place as some sort of splendid dance hall..."
"I can't imagine it at all." Peggy interjected. "Hurry up, Evvy!"
They had slept late that morning, rising too late for breakfast at the hotel and therefore finding scant incentive to get out of bed at all much before midday. One last day without bells, Peggy had murmured contentedly as they lay entangled, but it hadn't been the bells she was thinking of at all and both of them knew it. The warmth of Rhyll's skin against hers was precious: the steady thump of her heart reverberated through Peggy's own torso, the regular rise and fall of her breath just like the sea outside, soothing and constant.
When hunger had finally driven them from beneath the bedclothes, they had found a backstreet cafe which was still serving breakfast, where they ate well and with enthusiasm, enough that the kindly proprietor smiled and remarked upon the powers of the good sea air.
"Something like that," Peggy agreed cheerfully through a mouthful of scrambled egg, catching Rhyll's eye with a wicked smile, and to her pleasure Rhyll grinned too when he had passed on by.
In the afternoon, they had met with Julian once more, and Peggy and he had engaged in a little more direct conversation, both being more inclined to chatter than their mutual companion. He was quite obviously pleased with her, and she had been so delighted by his approval that it took her until some time later to reflect that she also liked him very much. He was more like his sister than Rhyll herself had ever reported, and Peggy suspected this perspective would come as a surprise to her. She stored up this observation for some future occasion, sure that some good purpose for such enlightenment would present itself. The three of them had sat at the water's edge, legs dangling down the concrete as they gazed out at the sea, and at the docks further along the coastline, and Rhyll had made her nonchalant suggestion of going to the bar tonight.
Julian had quickly declined, offering a genuine smile but nothing in the way of a reason; Rhyll had seemed unsurprised, and returned his smile with a reassuring one of her own before turning a quizzical expression on Peggy.
Peggy's eyes shone at the thought, and she barely needed to find the words at all.
"How do you know?" she had managed to ask later, and Rhyll had laughed.
"Practice? Instinct. The pricking of my thumbs... Don't look at me like that! I'm not being facetious. It might be hard to explain, but it is true and you'll learn it soon enough for yourself. It's rather amazing just how much is offered up to you, unasked for, if you only listen carefully. There's a whole other world going on, out there in the shadows."
And with this half explanation Peggy had had to content herself, turning her attentions instead to the suitability of the only good dress she had brought away with her, and wondering what on earth one wore to such a place. She believed Rhyll - believed both her truthfulness and the objective truth of what she said - when she insisted that Peggy needn't worry; yet at the same time, she had never seen - nor even imagined - Rhyll taking such meticulous care over her own appearance as she seemed to this evening. She perched on the edge of the counterpane to watch her, wriggling her toes inside their shoes in impatience.
"I suppose it's not really Julian's thing?" She ventured as they weaved a path through the town at some speed, darting past all the people returning home from work or otherwise going about the routine of their early evening, oblivious to their grand adventure.
Rhyll tossed a casual glance about her, checking there was nobody properly in earshot. "No, not really. Although he made use enough of it back in London, when he was at the university and I was pretending to be visiting him - in truth, it's just not him. Not only that, though. It's a very different kettle of fish for the boys." She saw Peggy's confusion, and expanded on her theme. "Raids. Police. Far more now than five years ago, even. Now, you and I - well, naturally we'd far rather not get caught up in any of that sorry business. But it's not our sorry business. The stakes are that much higher for him."
Peggy nodded, sobered at the thought.
Rhyll threw her a concerned glance. "We can go straight back to the hotel, if you'd rather. I wouldn't mind."
Peggy mustered a grateful smile, and meant it. "I would, though. I'd be horribly disappointed to funk it now."
Rhyll grinned, grabbed at her elbow to steer them round a sharp left turn. "So would I, really. It's a rare and wonderful opportunity. Still, any time you want to leave, we can." With a nudge, she jerked her head in the direction of an unremarkable pub a little further ahead on the other side of the street. "That's the place."
Unconsciously, both picked up the pace as they crossed the road, slipping inobtrusively inside when they reached the door. Inside was noisier and brighter than Peggy had imagined, and on impulse she stopped to stare.
Close beside her, Rhyll snorted affectionately. "Don't just stand and gawp, idiot." She muttered, taking her by the hand - proudly, definitely, with none of the enforced jollity that the same action would have necessitated outside; no quick glance over her shoulder - and leading her across to the low counter which ran the length of the left-hand wall. Finding one stool and dragging another nearer to it, she released her and grinned. "Sit here and gawp instead. We can get a drink in a minute," she added, "but you have your time to look around first."
Peggy needed no persuasion. She had never seen anything remotely like the scene before her now. Rhyll had been quite right to call it unsophisticated ("it's a bit rough," she muttered apologetically into her ear), but Peggy decided at once that she would love it. There were more men than women - a startling range of men, some obviously fresh from a day's work down at the docks, others wearing lipstick and rouge. And the women - at least as much variety among the women. Peggy was captivated. Her gaze fell on a tall woman halfway across the room: she wore a dark skirt to just below the knee, a well-starched shirt which was decidedly masculine in style, and her blonde hair was cropped close. She had a monocle screwed into one eye, and as Peggy watched she looked straight across and relaxed her stern countenance into a smile, before her gaze slid from Peggy to Rhyll and then back to her own friends. With a jolt, Peggy came back to herself and turned sheepishly to her partner.
Rhyll grinned too, knowing, and Peggy was filled with a rush of affection.
"I wouldn't swap you," she blurted out, speech moving ahead of thought.
Rhyll gave a shout of laughter. "I'm glad to hear it," she remarked drily, slipping an arm around Peggy's waist just because she could, drinking in the environment which, if most definitely rough, was equally definitely recognisable and possible and could be accurately described as 'home'.
Peggy leaned in to her, happy and warm with a marvellous comfort and pride she had not hitherto realised had been lacking. "Is this what the Radnor was like?"
Rhyll considered for a moment. "It was more similar than not. A touch more genteel than this. There are some truly nice places, if you go up to London. We should do that some day."
"I think I might always like this one best," Peggy murmured. "Does that make sense?"
"How unfortunate for you! No, I know what you mean. It makes perfect sense."
"Isn't it funny..." Peggy began incoherently, "isn't it - I mean - us - all of these other people - that we all manage on, somehow - secrets and evasions and worrying about who might find us out and what they'll do if that ever happens - and yet... And yet here we all are, and somehow we find each other even though we're all so different, and..." She gave up, quite sure she was not getting her point across, since even she no longer knew what exactly she had been trying to convey.
"No," Rhyll answered simply, seeming to understand exactly. "No, I don't think it's funny at all. I think it's the most natural and obvious thing in the world."
And for the rest of that night - the last night of their holiday - they spent a wonderful time, drinking and talking and watching and laughing, finally walking back to their hotel brimful with happiness and giddy with love, beneath the soft gas glow of the streetlamps.
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.