A vague and meandering tale of Rhyll Everett and Peggy Burnett, loosely set alongside Shocks for the CS and Bride Leads the CS. Featuring various sibling cameos and probably many obstacles, but almost certainly culminating in a nice happy ending. I think.
Ste Therese's House Characters:
St Briavel'sSchool Name:
Domestic, Family, Friendship, Romance, Slash
Rhyll Everett/Peggy Burnett
16 Sep 2014 Updated:
23 Dec 2014
Title stolen from an Alain Chartier poem, here: http://modernismus.tumblr.com/post/20313074260/alain-chartier
(Not-entirely-authentically-so, as discussed here: http://copia.posthaven.com/out-out-you-must-be-prised-right-out - but I do prefer the modernist version!)
1. Rhyll 1 by crm
2. Peggy 1 by crm
3. Some unwise speculation by crm
4. A visit from Mary 1 by crm
5. Some gardening by crm
6. A day in Carnbach 1 by crm
7. A day in Carnbach 2 by crm
8. A visit from Mary 2 by crm
9. A lift to the airport by crm
10. Apples by crm
11. Julian by crm
12. Half-term in Aberdeenshire by crm
13. A bit of a walk by crm
14. Rosalie by crm
15. Rhyll 2 by crm
16. A conversation with Biddy by crm
17. A lack of judgment by crm
18. Staff evening by crm
19. End of term by crm
20. A Cardiff reunion by crm
21. Family Christmas 1 by crm
22. Bristol by crm
23. Family Christmas 2 by crm
24. First day of term by crm
25. Peggy 2 by crm
26. Rhyll 3 by crm
27. Rain by crm
28. Rain 2 by crm
29. Rain 3 by crm
30. Another half-term in Aberdeenshire by crm
31. Rhyll 4 by crm
With thanks to Beecharmer for commenting on an early draft of this and contributing a multitude of plot bunnies!
Women like that could be dangerous.
Oh, not in the glamorous, clichéd way she would have joked about with her underlings back at Les Arbres: whispers of the irresistible pull of a beautiful woman hinting that maybe, just maybe... and then there you'd be, making a fool of yourself in public, spending money you didn't have on drinks you didn't much care for, up all hours knowing you'd feel like death come morning, and at least half the time on a promise that finally melted away to nothing - a promise that wasn't even a promise, really, because she'd said nothing, just smiled at you with her eyes and you'd filled in the rest with your own flattered hope.
No, this was danger of an entirely different kind.
She was young - very young. Oh, Rhyll had seen enough women married and having babies at that age too, but she had her doubts about them, too - not to mention the men who married them. She tried to recall herself at twenty-one, was forced to concede she had been rather more worldly than she was currently giving credit for - but that had been different, anyway: the knowledge that, whatever she did want, marriage wasn't it, had shielded her from having to test too assiduously just how worldly she had been - or hadn't. She supposed it was possible that Burnett had given thought to these matters too, but felt quite certain that, whatever else, she would not have drawn the same conclusions. There was a cheerful innocence to her manner that strongly suggested she hadn't given the matter much thought at all, had been happily coasting along the usual paths, waiting for her world to fall into place as she went. Rhyll was not entirely comfortable with recognising that innocence, given the circumstances.
And yet, innocence notwithstanding, Burnett was dangerous: not because she was young and sweet and beautiful, and Rhyll was captivated by her - if only it were as simple! No, the danger was not in what Rhyll thought, or felt. Burnett was dangerous because of how she looked at Rhyll, when she thought nobody else was watching. Burnett - Peggy, her name was Peggy - with her eyes shining and a certain inviting smile that made Rhyll look away, lest she find herself unable to help reciprocating. Burnett - Peggy, beautiful sweet Peggy - was quite obviously besotted with her.
This knowledge should have gladdened Rhyll's heart, but instead it hung heavy over her, a grave responsibility. Not for its obviousness - it was a niche sort of obviousness, Rhyll reflected, and the person most likely to have noticed it was now far away in Switzerland, rather decisively averting that particular danger - but for its innocence, its ambiguity, its inconstancy. Peggy was standing steadily on the shore and flirting with uncharted waters; and if she chanced to dip her toes, or leap more wholeheartedly into dark currents she knew nothing of, there would be nothing for Rhyll to do but plunge in after her. Rhyll snorted to herself, first at the overegged metaphor and then at its unusual applicability, recalling Peggy's recent wholehearted leap across the Madonna lilies and into an almost-uncharted well.
And Rhyll had been here before, knew that women like that could be dangerous: knew that they relished the comfort of an imaginary liaison that wasn't; knew that it wasn't meaningless, not exactly, but that the risk of it meaning too much - and the pain of it not meaning enough - both fell squarely on her side of the bargain. She knew the affection was genuine, that it was never calculated to hurt or endanger, but invariably it did - one or the other; sometimes both.
Rhyll had been here before, enough to know that Peggy had not. Rhyll had been here before, enough to know that the right thing to do was to decide firmly against it and not give the matter even one more thought. So why did she find herself quietly trying to be where Peggy was, staying for meals she had no need of, conscientiously supervising the girls' gardening outside of formal lesson times, sitting in the staff room hours after she would normally have left to go home? There was no good reason to imagine Peggy would be any different. All the usual hallmarks were there.
No, she said to herself firmly, out loud, sitting at her desk under the open window in the darkness of her room, watching the stars twinkle encouragingly in the inky-black sky. No, this stops here.
Thank you for the comments!
Peggy sat at her desk in the staff-room, trying to arrange her timetable for the following week.
"Sure, that'll be no good," a familiar voice observed over her shoulder, making her jump. "'Tis meself's wondering when you're planning to eat on Tuesday? You've marked remedials in right through breakfast, and to make it worse you've netball practice across morning break."
Peggy cursed under her breath. Biddy was right. How had she made such a silly mistake? She sighed and scored through Emerence Hope's name on Tuesday, looking across the columns to find another time.
"Ah, leave it for now, won't you?" Biddy continued easily. "It's only Wednesday, you've not to worry about the finer details of next week already."
Peggy grimaced. "That's all you know. I have to run that timetable past Matey, who can be safely relied upon to throw several hefty spanners into the works - this girl can't rush her milk and biscuits, that girl is last on the bath list, and so back to the drawing board! If I can get this to Matey tomorrow, I'll be able to finalise it on Friday. Otherwise, it's weekend work."
She didn't need to expand on this: in a job where the usual notions of working hours scarcely applied, it became somehow important to minimise additions to 'weekend work'. Supervising the girls was one thing, but spending Saturday - or worse, Sunday - engaged in one's own paperwork was something all strove to avoid. Biddy patted her shoulder sympathetically and left her to it, turning to regale Ruth Derwent with a sorry tale of IIIa's ideas on History instead.
Thursday evening? No, then she has two days in a row. Wednesday, Wednesday - what gaps can we find on Wednesday? Peggy nibbled her pen thoughtfully. She heard the door open and close but kept eyes and attention trained firmly on her work.
Wednesday won't bend. Well, what about if we settle for Thursday evening and move the Friday massage to - Monday? She had her pen poised when she heard a throaty laugh which made her look round, immediately catching the visitor's eye with a warm smile. "Are you joining us for dinner, Evvy?"
Evvy nodded. "I stayed to see how IVb were getting on with their autumn pruning and got talking with them about their plans for next year. Predictably, their ambition rather outweighs anything we might feasibly hope to grow, which made for a lengthy conversation with no great conclusion..."
"They're a keen bunch," Peggy observed, still smiling. Evvy certainly wasn't what anyone might call pretty, but she was very good to look at: she held herself tall, strong and unapologetic; her face brown from the sun and wind, her hazel eyes displaying a frank intensity that likewise made no apologies. With a sudden flush, Peggy realised she had been staring. Embarrassed, she looked back at her timetable and swore quietly again when she saw the ink splashed on the paper from her sudden movement when she had realised who the newest arrival had been. She reached for her blotchy, trying not to listen as Evvy, Biddy and Ruth continued their conversation behind her. Emerence: Thursday evening, Monday morning break? It worked, at last, but she eyed her crossed-through timetable ruefully. Peggy was still far too close to her own schooldays to dare present Matron with such a mess.
She picked up a fresh sheet of paper and sneaked another glance across the room as she did so. Evvy was different from the others somehow, possessed of a sense of self that didn't seem to require the affirmation of her peers, nor to measure against them competitively. She stood apart, incomparable somehow and accepting it: apples and oranges. This self-contained assurance was clearly written into the line of her jaw, the breadth of her shoulders, the curve of her spine. There was a glorious unconsciousness to her mannerisms: where Biddy plainly knew her best sides, sensed each hair that fell out of place and tucked it back automatically and daintily, Evvy's physique was just that - a vehicle for living in. Functional, unadulterated, raw. Peggy listened wordlessly and yearned to join in the conversation; knew she had no comment to make; knew anything she did say would likely come out with a mumble and a blush. Sighing inwardly, she looked back at her task, wrote out the column headings carefully on the clean sheet and began once again by filling in her fixed teaching periods, leaving space to add in the precariously-balanced individual sessions. Her progress halted each time the gravelly rumble of Evvy's voice interrupted her concentration - unknowingly, quietly, inexorably.
"Oh, help!" Biddy squawked, at length. "The bell for dinner'll be going and just look at me! I must go and tidy up."
On that note she had whirled out of the room, leaving Ruth to perform similar protestations, though with less vigour, extending a thoughtful invitation to her newest colleague to join in the familiar ritual. Peggy smiled as she declined with a shake of her neat curls, and Ruth threw her a mock-bitter look: "I don't know how you do it, you know."
"I have to tidy up several times a day already," Peggy retorted to this misplaced envy.
Ruth grinned. "Occupational hazard, my dear! See you in a few minutes, then," - and she was gone too.
Peggy capped her pen carefully and put away the unfinished timetable.
"Shouldn't that be Rosalie's job?" Evvy asked, lingering beside Peggy's desk with an interested glance.
Peggy laughed. "Oh, I couldn't do that to poor Rosalie, since quite half of it changes from one week to the next. Actually, I wouldn't dare either - Rosalie's my cousin, you know, and she'd tell me in no uncertain terms where I could get off, landing her with that on top of everything else!"
Evvy laughed too and Peggy's heart soared to hear her. "Probably nicer to do it yourself, in some ways. More likely to get things arranged the way you want them."
Peggy gave her a curious look. "Is that why you don't live in? To have things arranged the way you want them?"
Evvy snorted slightly, but it was not unfriendly amusement. "My landlady isn't too encouraging of any of the rearrangements I'd prefer to make, but yes, I suppose it's something like that, in part at any rate. I've never yet lived with an employer, and though the School offered when we moved, I don't intend to start now. No offence meant," she added hastily, "I just like to have a bolt-hole of my own, that's all, and it's hard to think about going backwards once you've had that."
This was part of what held Evvy comfortably aloof, Peggy realised: when her working day was done, she still had a whole other life away from it. Peggy wondered who Evvy was, once the school gates clanked shut behind her in the evening and she strode off along the pebbly road to her rooms in St Briavel's village.
Evvy grinned suddenly: "Wouldn't you like to know? Come on, it's probably time we were going," and she extended a hand to Peggy, firm and steady. Peggy blushed and got to her feet awkwardly: she was both unaccustomed to the gesture and ensuing danse a deux of etiquette, and thrown by her colleague's clairvoyance. The dinner bell rang just as they stepped from the staff-room, saving her from having to prepare any kind of proper response to either.
Some unwise speculation by crm
Rhyll could still feel the ghost of Peggy's hand in hers, slight and strong, as she walked home that night. She inhaled heavily. Peggy was, on the whole, proving remarkably difficult to resist. Must try harder, she chided inwardly.
Then: If she initiates a conversation, it doesn't count.
Then: If she catches my eye first, it doesn't count.
Then: If nobody else is there to see, it doesn't count.
Then: If anybody else is there to see, there must be nothing to see, therefore it doesn't count.
She sauntered on, pebbles crunching noisily under her boots. These contortions were ridiculous, she realised that. Yet still they persisted: If I have no intention of doing anything more than talking, it doesn't count. Indeed, Rhyll mused, if Peggy had no such intentions, it couldn't count - and this was entirely probable, after all. She took a moment to contemplate her own intentions, the ones she definitely had no plan of trying to realise, and the resultant grin made her glad to be alone and unobserved. Night had almost completely fallen, and her path was lit only by her own torchlight; few enough people passed along the lane this late in the evening in any case. Comfortably alone, she savoured Peggy's blushes, the tinkle of her laughter; recalled the intense gaze of Peggy's sparkling dark eyes, eager to retain and bask in Rhyll's undivided attention, and smiled broadly - smiled even as she knew the trouble such an eagerness might ignite, if anyone else chanced to see it. Tonight, Rhyll could still feel the ghost of Peggy's hand in hers, slight and strong, and the thrill of it outweighed her anxieties for now.
Steady on, girl. She only touched your hand, and even that only because you offered it to her. She's hardly - well, she's behaving entirely decorously, by anyone's account. In Rhyll's mind, she gave a meaningful tug to the hand which still gripped her own, broke into a stride as they tumbled along together, hand in hand, feet tripping over each other, rushing breathless along the little lane that led up to St Briavel's village, nearly falling across the threshold of Mrs Morgan's modest townhouse, stumbling wordlessly up the narrow stairs with the worn green carpet Rhyll wasn't supposed to walk on, and into her own sitting room. What then? Rhyll mused, almost as if she were planning for such an occasion. Should she park Peggy insistently in the solitary armchair by the paraffin heater, whilst she busied herself with the little electric kettle on the windowsill? Peggy would slip off her sturdy winter shoes thankfully, shrug off her woollen coat and melt into the armchair as if she had always belonged there, smiling up as Rhyll brought her a steaming mug of tea and perched herself on the little step that served as both footrest and coffee table, as well as the purpose for which it was intended on the odd occasion that a lightbulb needed changing. Maybe they wouldn't last that long: maybe the door would close behind them and Peggy would turn to her expectantly, gripping both hands now with an unmistakeable urgency, that same sparkling intensity in her eyes now closer - what would she look like, up close? There would be some minute difference, Rhyll knew - there was always something, an unexpected golden hint to glossy dark hair, a hidden scar, the sweetness of ragged breath warm against her own neck - but it was impossible to guess at it in advance.
This kind of unwise speculation, Rhyll decided, was probably alright; it didn't count, after all - and made for a most enjoyable walk home. She dug in her coat pocket for her front door key, let herself in to a dark hallway though the glow from under the kitchen door at the far end indicated her landlady was still up.
"Evening!" she called, striking just the right balance of cheery and polite, stopping to haul off her muddy workboots before climbing the stairs, diligently sticking to the wood at the edges for the first few before deciding her socks couldn't possibly be such a grave threat to Mrs Morgan's precious carpet. She was, for the most part, prepared to give way to her landlady's foibles, but she also took a perverse pleasure in secretly making herself more at home in the rest of the house than she technically had leave to. Mrs Morgan was a good landlady, Rhyll reasoned, but then she was a good lodger too, and they both knew it; she remembered their first meeting, when she had called to inquire about the rooms, and how pleased the sallow-faced widow had been to see her, for all her attempts to hide it.
"Oh, a teacher," she had murmured approvingly, as she showed her prospective tenant around. Rhyll had already put her money on the table before the older woman added, almost as an afterthought, "of course, you'll not be expecting any male visitors," her voice dropping to a whisper for the last two words. Rhyll had smiled politely and shaken her head, knowing full well that the woman had already discounted the likelihood of male visitors on first sight. She wondered now what Mrs Morgan would make of female visitors - far less likely to be forbidden, ordinarily, and yet there had been a certain recognition in her eyes on that occasion which led Rhyll to doubt the straightforwardness of it, given the circumstances. The same instinct that drew her to walk on the stair carpet implored her to ask, theoretically, when she saw her in the kitchen the following morning. Only in your sitting room, dear, she imagined the reply. Best we keep things proper in this house, if you don't mind.
"But what if I do mind?" she murmured defiantly to herself now, as she put the kettle on and hung her coat on the back of her door. She had better not ask. She wasn't planning to invite anyone, after all.
Rhyll lay out her clothes ready for the morning as the tea brewed, and scrubbed her face briskly at the bowl on the dresser. These few tasks completed, she sank into the faded armchair and drank slowly, the warm mug clutched in both hands. Closing her eyes with a smile, she remembered Peggy's hand in hers, slight and strong; Peggy's cheeks glowing pink; Peggy's dark eyes sparkling; and she knew that, sooner or later, she would see Peggy sat here, in her sitting room, every bit as proper as Mrs Morgan would expect.
Edited for a couple of typos (sorry!).
A visit from Mary 1 by crm
Peggy had not yet grown out of the instinctive panic at being summoned to the study.
"Sit down, my dear," the Head said with a smile, indicating the armchair opposite. "I only wanted to check some details of your sister's visit. We're expecting her next Thursday, I believe - Thursday teatime?"
"Yes, Miss Annersley," Peggy confirmed. "She's spending Wednesday night at the Youngs', and taking the afternoon ferry from Carnbach. Gillian will drive her as far as Carnbach, I believe."
"Very good. As I imagine you've noticed, we do have an extra staff bedroom we could make up for Mary, or you might have a camping bed set up in your own room - which would you rather?"
Peggy thought for a moment. She wanted to make sure she would have Mary to herself for a while, knowing her colleagues would be eager to see plenty of her; but it seemed rather inhospitable to insist on sharing a room when another was readily available.
The Head's infamous understanding came to the rescue: "You feel concerned to have some time alone with Mary, I expect - and wonder if sharing a room is your best chance. Well, let's plan for the two of you to spend the whole of Saturday over in Carnbach - I'm sure we can arrange cover for any of your work commitments that morning - and I'll have the spare room made ready for her. Does that sound all right, do you think?"
Peggy nodded eagerly. "That would be wonderful, Miss Annersley. Thank you. I could get Bride to see to the netball practice, which is all I have that morning."
Miss Annersley flashed her lovely smile and nodded. "It will do Bride some good, too; she's still half-convinced Elfie will be back any day to step into her shoes."
Both mistresses grew sober at this reminder. "It's hard lines for Elfie," Peggy murmured, feeling that the silence ought to be filled, and mindful that she had not yet been dismissed. She remembered her eldest sister leaving school early, under rather similar circumstances; young and shielded, she had only realised much later the weight of responsibility - and the sense of personal loss - that Mary had borne so stoically.
"It is," the Head agreed. "But it needn't be the end of it all, as you and I both know. Now, I daresay you've things you need to get on with, unless there's anything else you need from me?"
Peggy shook her head as she rose from her seat, prettily thanking the Head for her help. At the door she paused instinctively, then flushed at the peal of laughter this had induced.
"Oh, my dear! That's a habit you'll have to break. I can't have my mistresses curtseying to me," the Head chuckled, eyes twinkling. "Good night, Peggy."
Peggy, still scarlet, mumbled something she hoped would pass for 'good night' and fled to the sanctuary of the staff-room.
"You'd never think the two of you were sisters!" remarked Cicely Armitage as she eyed the two Burnetts lounging side by side on the sofa after supper the following Thursday evening. It was a fair assessment: Mary was sturdy and quite fair, while Peggy was a much slighter woman, with short brown curls tumbling loose around a face which was paler and more finely-cut than her sister's.
"Don't let it fool you. For all they're opposite in some ways, they're very alike in others," countered Ivy Norman - who ought to know, having known them both as schoolgirls as well as mistresses. "I was thinking just the other day, in fact, how like Mary Peggy is in some of her mannerisms. When you throw back your head and laugh, Peggy -" this in response to the simultaneous raising of two pairs of eyebrows - "and when you sit up straight to listen to something that's caught your interest, you're quite startling in your likeness."
"This is all very well," commented Pam Slater drily from her perch on the pouffe near the fireplace, "but I'm still waiting to hear all Mary's news. How are you, Mary, and what brings you here - lovely though it is to see you?"
Mary smiled. "Well, we were down as far as Gloucester together, as Andrew has a brother living there, you know, and had some business or other to attend to with him; that's all taking rather a lot longer than anyone had expected, and there's not much use or interest for me in hanging around while they're trying to deal with it; so I spent a few days in Bristol, seeing Kitty who is working as a nurse in the paediatric hospital there, then I stayed two nights with Gillian Linton - I mean Young! - over near Armiford, and I thought I'd come to pay you all a visit too, especially seeing as my littlest sister is here now too. And how lovely it is to be back here! Life in Aberdeenshire is lovely too, of course - Andy's family have been so kind, and already I've heaps of acquaintances in our village and in the city proper too, but it still seems such a shame at times to be so far from here, so it's very nice indeed to visit. Especially with these thrills you've been having in the grounds! It's quite like something from a novel. And trust you, Peggy," she rounded jokingly on her sister, "to be the one to go falling right into it in the first place!"
Peggy managed a convincing laugh, but anyone who had looked carefully might have noticed that her merriment didn't reach her eyes: what she alone had noticed, as Mary cleverly diverted the talk back to the current big intrigue and everyone began to excitedly hold forth with their latest theories and wonderings, was a quiet sadness belying Mary's protestations of contentment. She ached to offer some kind of comfort - if only the comfort of acknowledging it was needed - but could think of no way she might do so uninterrupted before Saturday; Peggy was unaccountably fearful that even the smallest of tender gestures might shatter her sister's punctilious veneer of cheerfulness, and didn't want to chance such an incident if she was not immediately able to help put her back together afterwards. So she pushed the matter aside for now, and joined in as enthusiastically as she could. Evvy was not there tonight, which was a familiar disappointment to Peggy who always thrilled in her presence, and a shame to the conversation on the School grounds, on which topic she was certainly the staff-room's leading authority. At the same time, Peggy felt oddly grateful for her absence, with Mary as she was. Peggy often had the feeling that Evvy saw right into her and knew what she was thinking, and though this feeling held a certain appeal - a frisson somewhere between excitement and panic, perhaps - it was an unwelcome prospect right now, when her internal state was primarily reflecting someone else's; it would make for some kind of unwitting betrayal of an unspoken confidence, Peggy thought - nobody's fault, but certainly best avoided.
Rosalie was also in the staffroom for once - naturally eager to see the cousin she had grown up so closely with - and after a little while was dispatched to invite Miss Annersley to join them too. The conversation quickly turned to a great game of "remember when...?" and the whole staff shouted with laughter at some of the recollections shared. Peggy waited until the minute hand of the wall clock slid convincingly past the six, transforming 'nine-ish' to 'ten-ish', and then insisted to the room at large that Mary must be very tired from travelling and ought to be allowed to retire to bed now.
Mary paused, looking laughingly at her younger sister. "Do you hear that, you people? Fully ten years younger than me and she's ready to start sending me to bed!" But there was warm gratitude in her voice, undisguised.
Peggy stuck her tongue out. "Sisterly concern for your welfare. I learned from the best!" With which remark she followed Mary from the room, smiling cheerfully at the chorus of 'good night' from all around them.
I couldn't find an actual name for Mary Burnett's doctor anywhere, so I've made one up. If anyone does know his proper name, please let me know and I'll edit!
I've also made up the age gap between Mary and Peggy, on the basis that EBD is shockingly inconsistent with poor Peggy's age - but am likewise happy to edit that if someone persuades me that my own estimate is improbable...
From the big house, the bell could be heard to ring.
Rhyll straightened up and dismissed the girls, reminding them to wash their hands thoroughly before going for their milk and biscuits. Alone, she surveyed the vegetable patch and calculated how much more they would dig up this morning. Anything they did not, she decided, they would need to finish in their own time over the weekend, or early next week, for it didn't seem likely to keep until next Friday's lesson.
A distinctive figure in shorts was heading towards her from the house. The autumn sunlight danced over her dark curls, and the ref's whistle hanging from her neck bounced a blinding sparkle in every direction as she walked.
"Tea?" Peggy proffered one of the steaming mugs she held, smiling engagingly. Rhyll cast a doubtful glance at her own grubby hands, and Peggy shrugged. "They'll have to wash the cups up either way, won't they? It's no worse than Biddy's lipstick, anyway."
Rhyll took the tea gratefully, and grinned at the last comment, remembering Biddy and her crowd's first foray into lipstick - and several shades less appropriate, too - as recalcitrant Middles a number of years previously. Just as quickly her brow furrowed, and she looked at Peggy thoughtfully.
Perhaps Peggy didn't notice; or perhaps she noticed, understood, and was concerned to move speedily past that particular realisation. Whichever it was, she nodded towards the wheelbarrow beside them, piled with cabbages, cauliflowers and parsnips which had been laid there with all tender care and great ceremony. "That's a good crop, isn't it?"
Rhyll nodded. She'd been quietly pleased with it herself. Upper IIIa had insisted - uniquely in the school - on making what they had grandly deemed "wholesome use" of their form plot, and it had been very satisfying to watch them reap such a harvest whilst most other forms fell to tidying up flowerbeds in preparation for winter. "They've done themselves proud. Course, it's good soil, and we've been lucky with the weather this last year too, but the girls have put in all the work I asked for and more besides, and a lot of this is to be credited to them."
"And you," Peggy added gently. "They wouldn't have been able to begin any of it without you - they certainly wouldn't have been as enthusiastic about it without you."
Rhyll smiled in the general direction of her feet. She was not accustomed to being lost for words like this. "It's nice to see Mary again. How long is she staying?"
Peggy smiled, but her smile was tainted by something else, Rhyll thought. "She leaves on Monday. You should come up on Sunday, Evvy; I'm sure she'd like to see you properly. Unless you've already got other plans, I mean," she added hurriedly.
Rhyll shook her head. "I don't have plans. I'd like to come up and see you all." She watched Peggy drink her tea, both hands cradling the mug, velvety brown eyes still dancing and most definitely fixed on Rhyll; something nebulous but recognisable flickered in those eyes, a deliberate communication of something not spoken which Peggy surely couldn't have known the words for, even if she'd found the courage.
Rhyll looked away again, decisive rather than bashful this time. She drained the last of her tea and watched Griffiths, who had emerged from the potting sheds and was now engaged in raking up for a bonfire some twenty yards beyond them. She hoped he wasn't planning to light it until the girls had gone inside for dinner, such things having a fathomless capacity to fascinate and distract them from their own work, but she knew also that the still-unfolding watery developments in the grounds were adding considerably to his workload and she could scarcely ask him to adjust it to take account of whimsical Juniors. She wondered whether perhaps she ought to offer to take on some of the work herself, but it was a difficult matter to approach: she had been careful to avoid treading on his toes for as long as they were at Plas Howell, where he had been head gardener and she a visiting mistress with a garden of her own to worry about, but even those tentatively-defined roles were now obfuscated by the move to a new place where neither had prior claim. The physical ground-space had simply been divided into that comprising a number of form-plots and the remainder as Griffiths' responsibility, and beyond this - the decisions of people who knew nothing of what was really required in running gardens of such expanse, naturally - Rhyll and Griffiths had negotiated shared responsibilities easily enough. They got along without issue, but Rhyll was anxious to not put herself in a subordinate position to him, not only for the effect it might have in terms of how the attentive girls perceived her authority but also for her own sense of dignity. Rhyll did not believe in moving backwards, and the very same day she had been appointed head gardener at Les Arbres she had decided she would never again be anyone's junior.
She sensed Peggy step closer and felt a warm hand closed around hers for a moment, pausing there until Rhyll looked back at her again and returned her smile; prising Rhyll's mug from her, Peggy nodded her head in the direction of the Big House. "I'd better get these back inside before the bell goes - no, don't be such a mutt," she brushed off Rhyll's protests briskly, "I've got to head over that way towards the netball pitch in any case. You may as well have your last minute of peace before your eager young gardeners descend upon you again - if I were a gambling woman, I'd say they'll be thinking of pulling the whole lot up before dinner time."
Rhyll chuckled her agreement. "I almost think they're hoping it'll be served up at dinner, bless them."
Peggy flashed her a final brilliant smile as she turned to leave. "Supper, then! I hope you've warned Karen to expect this little lot - I shouldn't think she'll need to order anything in for the next fortnight at least!" and with this final remark, she was away, skipping lightly over the grass. Rhyll busied herself with a perfunctory inspection of Upper IIIa's proud haul, still watching Peggy out of the corner of her eye until she disappeared into the open side door.
"Happen the young lass is sweet on you, Miss," Griffiths commented, pausing on his way past to peer officiously into the wheelbarrow.
Rhyll gave him a cold look. "Don't be so vulgar," she rejoined austerely and turned away, trying to quell the anger and fear those few artless words had incited. Anger, that he had dared to speak so flippantly about lovely Peggy; fear, that he had seen something so unmistakeable he didn't think twice about giving voice to it. Rhyll felt fairly certain he wouldn't have mentioned it to any other member of staff - wasn't sure, now she thought about it, if he ever actually spoke at all to any other member of staff - but it resonated with what she had known all along: that Peggy hadn't the discretion required, or else simply stood out too much to ever go unnoticed; that the cloistered environment of the School was singularly incompatible with anything so - indelicate, she supposed was the word for it, even in its most innocent manifestation. She was relieved when she saw her class drifting happily back towards their plot, and for the rest of the morning she worked hard alongside them, grateful for the distraction they provided.
A day in Carnbach 1 by crm
Peggy spread a scone with cream and jam, and tried unsuccessfully to tune out the conversation taking place at the next table. They had only been in the tea-room five minutes and already she knew all about the grandchildren, neighbours, cleaning lady and dietary sensitivities of the louder of the two women, in greater detail than she would have cared for even from her dearest friends. She stifled a grin and looked across the table, hoping to catch Mary's eye and share the joke; but Mary was gazing straight past her, eyes looking unseeingly at the vast expanse of the sea outside, one hand still mechanically stirring her cup of tea.
Peggy reached across the table, laid her own hand on top of her sister's wordlessly. Mary looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, did you say something? I was miles away, sorry Peggy."
Peggy shook her head. "I didn't say anything. I say, Mary - shall we just drink up and go? It's a bright day out and I can scarcely hear myself think in here."
Mary nodded thankfully. "I'm sorry for that, too - I feel responsible, having chosen this place! It was much quieter when Gill and I came here."
"Oh, tosh - don't be such a goop, Mary. It does seem a jolly nice place, and perhaps we can come back later on," she suggested and added, sotto voce, "I think we've had the misfortune of visiting at the same time as the noisiest woman in Carnbach!"
Mary grinned suddenly, the first real sign of life Peggy had seen in her since she had almost crumpled into the ferry as they boarded. "Remind me, what was it Shakespeare said about a woman's voice?"
Peggy laughed, and crammed a rather unladylike portion of scone into her mouth. Mary raised her eyebrows but said nothing, making a valiant effort to choke down at least a sip or two of her own tea.
The day was every bit as bright as Peggy had observed, though a bracing wind along the seafront reminded them both it was late October and not early summer. They walked along in companionable silence for a while, Peggy stealing occasional glances at her sister: Mary seemed older now, somehow - something hard to locate, exactly, gave her a worn and faded appearance far beyond her early thirties. But how, Peggy wondered, could she be so much more tired now than she had been as a mistress at boarding school?
They walked on: the seafront shops were steadily replaced with houses, and the gaps between the houses became larger, until both the harbour and the little expanse of sandy beach disappeared from view and they were more or less alone, with nothing but rocks down to the sea on their left, and a very occasional cottage to their right. Finally Peggy spoke: "What's wrong, Mary?"
Mary stopped walking and looked at her for a moment, and her eyes seemed very far away. Peggy motioned to the rocks that separated them from the grey sea and, receiving no objection, clambered monkey-like over the sparse metal fence; Mary followed, rather more sedately ducking underneath. They sat on the coarse white rocks in silence for a moment, side by side, hand in hand, facing out across the water.
Mary sighed heavily, and Peggy was again struck by the weariness far beyond her sister's years: "Everything has changed, Peggy. I liked my life as it was, you know: my job, my colleagues, the girls. Evenings with one eye on a student's composition and the other on Hilary and Gill clowning around on the sofa. And I loved my subject - I always thought, if I'd left the School, that would be the reason for it - to return to my own scholarship, if I could only find a way to afford it."
Peggy squeezed her sister's hand gently, but inwardly she remained as confused as ever; nothing Mary was saying was news to her, and none of it seemed adequate to explain the profound sadness emanating from deep within her.
"I don't - I don't regret marrying Andy, exactly. He's a good man, Peggy, a very good man. But I..." Her voice trailed off and she took a breath, opened her mouth to speak, and closed it again.
"Mary? What is it, old thing?" Peggy tried to keep the rising worry from her voice. She might have fooled most people, but it couldn't escape her oldest sister's attention, as she realised to her chagrin. Mary had half-raised her: their mother, far away during term-time in any case, had never wholly recovered from an accident when the two were, respectively, eighteen and eight. In consequence, nothing Peggy said or did got past her eldest sister without notice.
Mary took another deep breath and closed her eyes. "I was going to have a baby in the Spring. I was going to have a baby, and now I'm not. Do you understand?"
"Oh, Mary. Oh, my darling." Peggy's arms went around her immediately and held her tightly. For a number of minutes, neither of them spoke, and when Mary eventually did, her voice was thick with tears.
"So you see, I gave up so much and none of it was worth it. I was a good teacher, and a happy one. And now I can't do anything. I can't even do the most basic thing..."
"That happens to lots of people," Peggy said firmly. "It's awful, darling, of course it's awful, but it's not your fault. How could it be? You can't think it was."
Mary sat in unconvinced silence, still slumped against her. Supporting her sister with one arm, Peggy reached into her bag for a hanky. Without saying a word, she pressed it into the older woman's hand.
"You know, I didn't even really want children. Even after I'd met Andy, even after the wedding in fact, the idea still didn't appeal. I mean, I thought we probably would - I expected he would at least want one or two - but it wasn't something I looked forward to, or could properly imagine happening to me. But then, when I knew I was - I wanted her, I wanted her very much."
"Of course you did," Peggy murmured softly. She paused. "'Her'?"
Mary shrugged and laughed a little, though not with any real humour. "I can't very well say 'it'. I always imagined her as a little girl, with dark eyes and masses of dark brown hair. I suppose," she added thoughtfully, "I was really just remembering you as a baby. You were a lovely little thing, you know."
"And where did it all go wrong?" Peggy quipped gently. Mary managed a shaky smile by way of reply. Peggy thought for a moment, unused to the topic of conversation and feeling very much out of her depth; she didn't want to make things worse, but she wanted to be clear on something. Could she make it worse, anyway? She drew a quick breath and asked before she could change her mind any more: "Mary - you can - have another - can't you? I mean, it didn't -"
Mary nodded quickly. "I daresay I could - at least nothing happened to indicate otherwise, if that's what you're asking. But I don't want another one, Peg. I wanted that one. I couldn't bear to go through it all again."
Peggy nodded and, having nothing to say, stayed quiet. The waves slapped feelingly against the rocks below them. On the horizon lay St Briavel's island, near enough to make out the collection of houses near the ferry-landing and the little village church standing just behind them. The ferry itself was docked there at the moment, bobbing very gently on the water: distant, familiar, unreachable.
Mary cleared her throat. "We should probably head back along to the town soon. It must be time for eats. I - I don't want to talk about this any more, if you don't mind, but I'm grateful to have been able to talk about it at all. Thanks for listening, and for..." She stopped, not being much accustomed to speaking of such things so frankly, but Peggy understood and gave her hand another squeeze.
"It's what I'm here for, silly. I'm only sorry I can't do more."
"You did plenty, littlest. But now we're done with all that - and we are! - what is it with you? And don't try to say there's nothing, for it's not like you to contrive some time alone like this for no reason." Mary had fully recovered herself, if only superficially, and to all intents and purposes sounded exactly like the infallible eldest sister Peggy had always envisaged her to be. She wondered now what other turmoils Mary must have hidden over the years, to preserve that unimpeachable stoicism.
"Oh goodness, there's nothing of interest at all with me! Or at least, nothing even vaguely fit to follow on from all that," Peggy told her seriously. "Sorry, I know you don't want to talk about it any more and of course I won't, but I can't just go leaping straight into my inconsequential chatter as if nothing had happened."
"But that's exactly what I do want you to do," Mary urged in equal seriousness. "Frankly I'd be grateful for the distraction - inconsequential chatter would be most welcome! Although, as I say, it's not like you to contrive time alone for something truly 'inconsequential', baby. Shall we walk? We could have some chips on the beach back at Carnbach."
"They'll think us mad tourists!" Peggy giggled, scrambling to her feet and holding a hand out to her sister.
A day in Carnbach 2 by crm
Thanks again for the comments. :)
They walked along the coast road in comfortable silence for a few yards before Mary poked her sister gently in the ribs. "So?"
"Ouch!" The younger woman rubbed her side and shot a reproachful look at the culprit.
"Weakling! You're convincing no-one. Come on then, what is it with you? I warn you now I mean to have it out of you, and I'm sure you'd rather that today than in the full company of your colleagues tomorrow." Mary fixed her with a stern look, and Peggy chuckled.
"You look just as you used to when you'd catch me at the sugar bowl as a tiny sprat! Nothing gets past you, does it?"
"I'd thank you to remember that - and I see nothing changes, by the way! You had quite half a scone in one mouthful this morning!" Peggy grimaced cheerfully, and Mary gave her another poke. "So?"
"You'll be getting nothing out of me if you carry on like that!" Peggy instinctively retorted, but even as she spoke, she relented. "Oh, all right, since you won't give me any peace! It's nothing at all really, I just - wondered," she paused for a moment, her face a perfect study in nonchalance, "you know when - with Andy? Well, how did you know?"
Mary raised an eyebrow at this unexpected query - she had fully expected the concern to be a work-related one, perhaps some aspect of managing relations with girls who had previously known her as one of their number, or working with mistresses who had been her own teachers in the still-recent past - but decided to take the question at face value for now. "You just know. When it happens, you'll know."
Her answer did not satisfy Peggy. "But what if you don't know?"
Mary shrugged, veracious to the last. "I don't know, if you don't know. Why don't you tell me about what exactly you don't know? - Who is he?"
Peggy gave an uncomfortable wriggle. "Just - don't ask, please, Mary; anyone could have given me the inquisition - I wanted to ask you because I thought you wouldn't."
Mary nodded, but a slight frown blighted her face. "You're not - you're not going to do anything silly, are you? Anything that might - that might have long-lasting consequences, one way or another?" She glanced at her sister's disgruntled countenance, and tried again: "I don't mean to offend you, and I'm sorry if I have - but you're so young, still. Time enough for all that in a good few years." She gave a bitter laugh, and it sounded so unlike Mary that Peggy gaped a little to hear it. "Oh, I'm jaded just now I know, so if I tell you marriage is a terrible idea at any age and you ought to value the job you have, I know you'll take it with the requisite bucketload of salt; but just as much as that, I'd... I'd want to avoid doing anything that might jeopardise your prospects of either, in the long term."
I'm not completely stupid, was Peggy's first thought. And then, but I'm still no nearer an answer to my own question. All she said out loud was: "Oh, I see," her voice cordial, noncommittal.
Mary gave her a small, conciliatory smile. "I suppose I'm not helping much, am I? Probably that little lecture was entirely unnecessary, but I only worried in case it might not be. I think - I think when it is, you'll know, and if you don't know then he probably isn't the right one. I can't really suggest anything more than that, I'm afraid."
Peggy returned the smile and slipped her arm through Mary's as they drew in sight of Carnbach proper. "In a great many ways, there's nothing much at all to tell. I would tell you, if there was."
"Such English!" Mary murmured. Her tone was pained but a small smile played at the corners of her mouth, even if it did not quite reach her eyes.
"Oh, don't start! It's ever so tedious to have to speak like a proper school-mistress all the time, you know. - No, don't even say it. I don't doubt you had no problem with it -"
"Are you suggesting I'm tedious, littlest?" Mary interrupted, her voice dripping with a deliberate blandness that would have quenched the most impudent of Middles.
Peggy, however, knew her too well for this, and merely grinned. "Hardly! But you always were a proper school-mistress. I've only ever been pretending."
Leaning over the rail and watching the surf as the little steam-ferry pulled back across the Sound to the island at tea-time, both women were quietly preoccupied with the conversations of earlier: Peggy's vaguely-articulated confusion, Mary's sorrow.
Mary, against her better judgment, was trying to list the possible options for Peggy's mystery interest. There were so few opportunities to meet men as a mistress at a boarding school - and even more so given the isolated location of the Chalet School these days. But for all the paucity of the school as a meeting place, she was drawing an even bigger blank when she tried to imagine non-school opportunities for Peggy to meet anyone in that way. She was grateful for the distraction, even if it was a mildly worrying one. Still, perhaps a more enjoyable distraction would have been ineffectual, only the concern for her youngest sister reaching through her dark cloud of grief; or would otherwise have left her feeling guilty for the enjoyment itself, somehow no longer appropriate in this new world she now inhabited. The slight but unshakeable concern, stemming from her family position of responsibility rather than any real logic, made it both possible and permissible to think of other matters.
Meanwhile Peggy was feeling desperately sad for her sister, and wishing impotently for something she could do to help. She had parked her unanswered question ('how do you know?') and was turning over a tentative conclusion to a different matter altogether: Mary's advice, she realised, had limited relevance for her; her guidance on 'knowing' and the tendency of such affairs to fall into place almost effortlessly, accurate though it might be in most circumstances, held little meaning in her own. As the boat pulled smoothly in to the landing-stage and Peggy took her sister's cool hand in her own again, she felt somehow much older and much more alone than she had felt earlier that same day.
Dusk was falling now, and the two women walked the short distance to the Big House without hurrying. By some unspoken agreement, they maintained a conversation of discordant lightness as they walked, both keen to build a semblance of convivial normality by the time they returned. Mary related the news from her recent time with Kitty, knowing that young woman to be a shockingly irregular correspondent; Peggy for her part bemoaned the state of the school pitches, thanks to the unseasonably dry weather - a single-minded viewpoint which drew forth a dismissive snort from her sister, who pointed out that Peggy was surely alone in her disappointment at an autumn which had been quite the loveliest in years.
Peggy chuckled. "Not quite alone, dearest. The hockey and lacrosse teams are none too delighted, either! Still, you're right I suppose. The rain will come eventually, and I'm sure we'll be quick enough to regret our present stance when it does. I've had - well, 'lovely' isn't quite the word for it, but I'm very glad for today. Thank you for coming." With which characteristically frank expression, Peggy pushed open the big iron gate and they entered the School grounds.
A visit from Mary 2 by crm
The staff-room was busier than usual for a Sunday, and buzzing gently with the excitement of its visitor.
"Have you all heard that our one and only Mary-Lou has taken it upon herself to invite Emerence Hope, of all people, home for the half-term?" Ivy Norman asked the room at large from where she sat curled up on a pouffe. "That's as well as Carola Johnstone and the Björnesson girls, of course. Quite frankly Signa Björnesson is handful enough without adding the Australian child into the mix - I would have thought."
"'Tis poor Mrs Trelawney I'm feeling sorry for," Biddy O'Ryan murmured with real feeling, perched gracefully on the arm of the sofa nearest the well-loved visitor. "Would you just imagine? I'm sure there's a number of white hairs in this room that weren't there this summer, and all credit to Emerence!"
"Oh, she can't be so awful, surely?" This interjection came from Mary Burnett herself, comfortably ensconced on the sofa and perceptibly more relaxed than she had seemed on Thursday evening, when Rhyll had last seen her. "It's not as though we've not had our fair share of firebrands in the past, after all. Come to think of it, Biddy, I remember you at fourteen -"
Much laughter greeted this reminder, and Biddy shrieked and covered her face in her hands. As the pealing laughter subsided, she peered above her fingertips and narrowed her eyes at her tormentor: "Oh, I'll admit I was no angel, but I was nowhere near the exploits of this one - or plenty of others I could mention, for that matter. But you've a point, we do usually manage to pull them in well enough - 'til now. Why, even Miss Jennifer Penrose is a different girl this term. I daresay she's doing her fair share in the garden these days, Evvy?" Her eyes twinkled as she asked the question in much too innocent a voice, and Rhyll grinned as she nodded in reply.
"Oh, keen as mustard, and very much ready to learn, too. As you say, quite a different girl." From the corner of her eye, she saw Peggy give her a curious look from where she sprawled against her sister, her head resting easily on Mary's shoulder.
"And it's no less a transformation than plenty of others we've seen." This was Dollie Edwards, over from St Agnes for the day and now standing at the lattice window through which afternoon sunlight streamed warmly, her cigarette hand resting on the open frame. "Just look at Elizabeth Arnett, not so many years ago..."
The smiling nods of agreement in response to this gradually became rather fixed, as most of those present silently recalled first the reformed sinner who had eventually grown into a well-regarded Head Girl, and then by association her erstwhile bosom friend Betty Wynne-Davies, one of the very few to have proven too great a task for the Chalet School.
"It's a shame," began Biddy, perhaps best placed to reflect on these two former classmates of her own. "It's a real shame Betty couldn't turn it around. I'm sorry to say it, and I hope to goodness I'm proven wrong, but it's her that this Emerence character most reminds me of, so it is."
"But in the end, it was not that Betty could not 'turn it around', as you say," interjected pretty little Jeanne de Lachenais, as usual carefully pouring oil on troubled waters. "Indeed, she wrote you a very thoughtful letter after it all, Hilda, did she not? For Betty, it was not the easiest route, but finalement the story is a happy one, n'est-ce pas?"
"That's quite right," the Head, thus addressed, put in from her window-seat. "In any event, I'm not so sure she is the right likeness for our Emerence, Biddy. Betty had had a difficult upbringing and, in a way, it very much threatened to warp her character. Emerence, whilst a perfect product of misguided parenting, has at least a very clear sense of herself as a real person who matters and is loved. There's a powerful foundation in that, and to an extent it is much easier to undo bad training than it is to create - or recreate - that inherent sense of self. I have every faith that our stormiest petrel will improve eventually - as has almost always been the case before."
The room was respectfully silent for a few moments as those present digested Miss Annersley's words, until Biddy's irrepressible cheer bubbled up once more. "And before we get too caught up recollecting my own misdeeds and reformation yet again, I seem to recall a number of hair-raising tales of Jo's own exploits in Tyrol, and we all know what a fine upstanding citizen she is today!"
With this rejoinder, the staff-room relaxed one again into easy laughter and reminiscence. In spite of her own lengthy tenure, and the unerringly welcoming intentions of the rest of the staff, Rhyll felt a familiar pang, an awareness of her own position on the outside. She was unable to disguise a grin of relief when Pam Slater, stood alone by the fireplace on the other side of the room, caught her eye with a conspiratorial wink.
Rhyll darted a quick glance around her colleagues, hoping none had witnessed this display of irreverent camaraderie; after all, Biddy had really only made the remark about Jo as a means to restore the atmosphere, and for all she invariably found Slater's candidness greatly refreshing, Rhyll had no intention of taking any position on the uneasy truce that existed between her two colleagues. Thankfully, all were fully engaged in the tales of days gone by: it seemed to be the story about Jo rescuing her friend Elisaveta, using skills learned through Guiding - Rhyll couldn't help but wonder at the rather juvenile efforts of the wayward Prince and his companion, thus undone - and even Rosalind and Ruth, both surely too new to have yet met Jo herself, were giving the tale their full attention.
Meanwhile, Slater had sidled up beside her. "You know, I suppose this was one of the better stories - the first time I heard it," she murmured, sotto voce. "At least it's not one of the 'Jo Bettany, the greatest Head Girl that ever there was' yarns. Cigarette?" Rhyll shook her head, and Slater continued: "Now Mary, you can see how she might have been the best Head Girl. Jo? I'm less convinced."
Rhyll shrugged, still balancing gratitude and respect against her desire to avoid forming a faction - or merely being perceived to do so. "I'm not sure there's really any glory in being the greatest Head Girl that ever there was, anyway. One of the great myths of schooldays, isn't it?"
Slater grinned. "Well, you were never Head Girl, were you, with such a circumspect attitude as that?"
"Nor were you," Rhyll surmised shrewdly, realising only after she'd spoken that her words could be conveyed as an insult.
Fortunately, Slater only grinned wider. "Touché! No, I wasn't quite the right sort - for a change. Not enough of an all-rounder, I don't think, - and probably too interested in my own work to boot."
Rhyll raised an eyebrow. "In a man, they'd call that 'single-minded' and grant you a promotion."
Slater snorted appreciatively. "I've often thought that might make for an easier life, all things considered."
Rhyll carefully didn't take a quick glance at Peggy before she spoke, though she heard her voice chime in with the main conversation at that moment, sweet and cheerful; she didn't let her gaze settle thoughtfully on Peggy's sparkling dark eyes set in a face which was pale and clear, and from which her good nature shone unabashed; she didn't even pause long enough to conjure up her most detailed mental picture of her younger colleague, flashing a beguiling smile revealing even white teeth and any quantity of charming mischief, lest her own face somehow give her away.
"Oh, easier, absolutely. But nothing like as interesting."
A lift to the airport by crm
"Well, this is scarcely goodbye at all," Mary commented with a smile, pulling Peggy into a warm embrace. "We'll arrange your flight as soon as I'm back, and I'll write to you immediately. It will be so lovely to have you to stay again."
Peggy nodded. "Thanks awfully, and thanks so much for coming here, too. It's been really..." Her voice trailed off, but thankfully nobody else was paying much attention. Rosalie had murmured her intention of fetching the car around, and then the clanging of the bell for lessons had sent the rest of the staff scurrying, calling out final goodbyes as they departed the staff room. It was left to Peggy and Miss Annersley to accompany Mary along the hallway to the great door which Rosalie had left open, the latter leading Mary genially by the arm as she thanked her for her visit and reiterated how welcome she would be on any and all future occasions, whilst Peggy followed a step or two behind, carrying her sister's bags.
As they reached the door and stepped out into a morning which was gloriously bright and breezy, a crunching of gravel heralded Rosalie's arrival in Miss Annersley's own little runaround. Mary turned and gave Peggy a final hug, taking her luggage as she released her. "I'm sure you have to run now - you'd better not keep the girls waiting too long! You'll hear from me by the end of the week, littlest - and I'll see you again in the middle of next! You take good care 'til then, my love."
Peggy nodded again. "I hope your journey is uneventful. Be good!" And before Mary could retort that she, for one, was always good, Peggy had flashed her a last grin and raced off to the hockey-pitch where Upper V awaited.
Helping to lift the luggage into the car, Miss Annersley announced that she would accompany them as far as Carnbach, where she had some business at the bank to attend to and also planned to drop in on the newly-established separate Kindergarten while she was in the area. Mary smiled her usual placid smile at this, so convincingly that no one who saw it could have guessed at how she ground her teeth inwardly, anxious to get Rosalie alone. Still, when Hilda finally hurried from the car on the main shopping street in Carnbach, after sundry fond farewells, Mary relaxed sufficiently to forget herself and leaned back with a long sigh of relief.
Amused blue eyes met hers in the rear view mirror, as Rosalie swung the car away from the kerb. "Go on, then, what do you want?"
Mary coloured, chuckling ruefully. "So much for my planned show of casual conversation!" Rosalie laughed at this, and Mary found herself reminded of how comfortable her company had always been. Rosalie had always been like this, she reflected - quietly reassuring, creating an atmosphere of great warmth without seeming to say or do very much at all.
"Well?" - yes, that too, Mary remembered: equally quietly, surprisingly insistent.
"I don't - I don't want this to go any further -" Mary began, already doubting the necessity of the warning: she had yet to meet anyone more intuitively discreet than her cousin.
Rosalie nodded, eyes on her driving as she turned onto the coast road and began to pick up speed. "Of course."
"It's about Peggy. Is she - is she, not exactly seeing someone, but - well, you know - approaching that point?"
Rosalie frowned, and Mary noted with some consternation that this was the first time she was considering the matter. "I don't think so. Or at least, I can't think of anyone - nor any time unusually unaccounted for, or any other changes or hints of anything along those lines."
Mary watched the vast grey sea in silence for a few minutes, inwardly digesting this. "I suppose I must have misunderstood, then - or jumped to the wrong conclusion, for she really was uncommonly vague! I'm sorry for asking, Rosalie, and I do realise it's a likely prospect, sooner or later. I just - I suppose I was just thrown by her vagueness, and I'd hate to think of her doing anything silly."
"Peggy's not silly, as a rule," Rosalie reminded her gently.
Mary fell silent, hearing the truth in her words, but her brow remained furrowed in confusion. She knew she had not misunderstood at all, and the mystery thickened. It occurred to her that Rosalie might be withholding something, thinking it quite reasonably none of Mary's business, but she did not really believe this to be the case: Rosalie was too conscientious for that - if she was unhappy to discuss the matter, she would have simply said so.
"Perhaps somebody she knew before, if there is anyone?" Rosalie suggested blandly. "Although that said, she's not one for a lot of letter-writing - or receiving. I know you can never be really certain of anyone else's business, but I can't see the scope for it, personally. If she really was as vague as all that, maybe the most likely explanation is - as you say - a misunderstanding."
Mary nodded her acquiescence, and moved to change the subject. It was not until Rosalie dropped her off at the airport, and Mary had succeeded in her insistance that she head straight back to the School rather than waiting around to keep her company, that she mentioned it again: "Don't let Peggy know I was asking, will you? I won't bring it up again."
Rosalie inclined her head, but her eyes were quietly serious. "Of course I won't, and I won't breathe a word to anyone else either. All the same, I'm glad you won't ask again. I wouldn't want to feel I was keeping tabs on her - I know you wouldn't want that, either," she added hastily. "Well, you know what I mean. Now, safe journey! And don't forget to write to us once in a while. It's been very pleasant seeing you again."
Mary kissed her on both cheeks. "You must come up and stay, when you have the time. We'd love to have you."
"I'd like that," Rosalie agreed as she climbed back into the car. "Well, you be good! Goodbye, Mary."
Mary cast her an indignant look. "That's exactly what Peg said when we left! Such slander from the pair of you!"
Rosalie grinned through the open window. "The chances are we're both right in thinking you need reminding, then! Auf wiedersehen!" And she swung the car around and drove off with a wave, leaving Mary stood in front of the airport building, smiling at the departing car and feeling in her soul the healing balm of kinship.
Rhyll paused for a moment, mopping her brow on her sleeve and gazing out towards the rippling grey sea. Water, always water, the constant theme of this term: water when the rain had been torrential, and water when the sun had shone hot and long and they had almost wondered if it would ever rain again; water in the old well beneath the roses into which Peggy had not so long ago leapt with all her usual untrammelled vigour, and water in the Hollow where the prefects had so dramatically discovered it; and all the time, in the distance, the constant rippling of the sea. Somewhere between all this water, and seeing Peggy and Mary together over the weekend, Rhyll's thoughts crept towards Julian, for the first time in a long time.
It was the thing Rhyll liked best about the island, being near the sea again. She could hear it from her bedroom at night just as she had as a little girl, crashing insistently against the rocks, and the familiarity both soothed and thrilled her. The sheer expanse of it, through space and time, diminished everything else in a rather pleasing fashion. What else could really matter, that it couldn't be washed away by morning? Rhyll tore her eyes away and reached for another apple, plucking it effortlessly from the branch and slipping it into her basket. And another, and another. Tentatively warming to her subject, she unspooled a reel of sepia-tinted film in her mind, recalling a childhood spent largely out of doors, unwatched and unimpeded: Julian knee-deep in the stream experimenting with boats of all varieties - first origami, then painstakingly-designed contraptions fashioned from wood offcuts filched from the joiner's yard, then at last a much-prized motorised ocean liner in red tin - whilst Rhyll herself performed a most exacting inspection of all nearby plant life, drawing careful diagrams in her precious notebook, scrupulous records of what grew where - and when - even whether it could be persuaded to perform otherwise. Later on, sitting at the table after the evening meal, she would pester Julian into helping annotate these meticulous sketches, and he would express dismay at the number of fruitless experiments she had conducted.
"But doesn't it make you feel very disappointed?" He would ask, writing easily in the space Rhyll had indicated, his mind clearly on any one of the proto-boats which had veered wildly off-course, tipped perilously to one side or other, or - most disappointingly of all - sunk steadily into the mud.
Rhyll would shrug, untroubled. "I didn't make them, did I? I just wanted to see what would happen."
"And now you know," he would remark with a fond grin, gently pushing the worn notebook back across the table with a reverent kindness which warmed Rhyll's soul, told her that at least one person in the whole world realised how much it mattered to her.
"Penny for them?"
Rhyll looked down from the ladder with a start. "Oh, hello you."
Peggy was looking up at her with dancing brown eyes. "You were miles away. You looked a bit gormless, really, but it was a happy sort of gormless." Rhyll pulled a face of mock outrage, but Peggy pressed swiftly on. "Isn't the harvest more or less over already?"
Rhyll shrugged amiably. "More or less doesn't make a season, does it? All done within the week now, I imagine."
"And isn't it a bit - well - below you, in a way?"
Rhyll laughed. "Well, yes and no. It does well to retain bit of an interest in everything, and it's a good opportunity to keep an eye on the general health of the trees. But also, it's rather a nice way to spend an occasional afternoon." As she spoke, she wrapped her palm around another swollen fruit and, with a deft flick of her wrist, liberated it from the branch, placed it swiftly and gently in the basket. Another. Another.
Peggy, watching, murmured reminiscently: "I remember picking apples in the summertime..."
Rhyll snorted, but it was a friendly snort and her eyes still smiled. "Child's play, no doubt. How many would you pick, maybe twenty? At a push? Do you have any idea how many we get down on an average day?"
Peggy grinned. "All day? Doesn't it get a bit boring?"
"Not when you've the pleasure of good company. Here, catch." She dropped an apple, smooth and shining and vibrantly red; watched as it land neatly in Peggy's waiting hands; and was rewarded with that glorious smile, broad and uninhibited.
Not a good idea, Rhyll reminded herself, and returned her focus to her work. Reach, hold, twist, basket. Reach, hold, twist - A brief scrabbling below and then Peggy was perched on the lowest branch, the apple held perilously between her teeth. She took it out and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, guileless, then stood up again to continue her ascent. A minute later she had drawn level with Rhyll and settled herself astride a sturdy branch, reclining comfortably against the trunk as she ate with undisguised enjoyment.
"So what was all that about Jennifer Penrose?" She demanded, cocking her head to one side questioningly.
Rhyll laughed. "Oh, it can't be good form to rake up past misdeeds, can it? It was scarcely remarkable, really: she just decided that her 'free' time ought not be encroached upon by gardening - I must say I'm not without sympathy on that point but then I never was a boarder, and in any case the garden won't tend itself; the unfortunate aspect was that she chose to spend the time reading Gone With The Wind instead."
Peggy giggled. "Well, it's hardly edifying reading for a young lady, but it's not as dangerous as it might have been, surely."
"You ought to take that opinion to the Head, you know. I'm sure she'll be grateful, for the insight into your own reading matter if nothing else!" Rhyll teased.
"Don't you be slandering my own reading. I don't think I've even read our Miss Penrose's tome, I just - what I do know of it has never struck me as particularly awful. I mean, it's hardly Lady Chatterley, is it?"
Rhyll surveyed Peggy for a moment, gratified by this evidence of a breadth of understanding beyond the cloistered world of the School and momentarily - foolishly! - emboldened by it. "'You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how'." She quoted softly, simultaneously regretting her impetuousness and rejoicing at the faint pink rising in Peggy's cheeks. "It's not quite the thing for schoolgirls, though I agree it is a rather mild literary rebellion, all things considered."
"You've read Gone With The Wind?" Peggy demanded, having rapidly regained her composure.
"Oh dear, no," Rhyll laughed. "Well, only a quick glance at the confiscated copy to see what was so much more interesting than dead-heading pansies. Lady Chatterley, on the other hand, I have read - though I somehow didn't feel up for a detailed comparison in the staff-room..."
"A valuable missed opportunity," Peggy sympathised drily. "Am I stopping your work, by the way, Evvy? I'll clear off if I am - sorry, I'd meant to ask that much sooner."
Rhyll shook her head. "Like I said, it's all the better for the company. I'm nearly done here, though."
"All right then. Plans for half-term?"
Rhyll shook her head again. "I'll just stay around here. I know Christy's planning on digging up near enough half the grounds - or rather, standing around importantly instructing other people to dig - so I might keep a little watch on that, see what they turn up; and otherwise pick fruit while the sun shines. Or if you really want tedious accuracy, it's a good opportunity to get on top of the tidying and the start of heavy winter pruning, and all the more so if Christy's decided Griffiths ought to be digging up underground streams instead of getting on with any of it." She grimaced slightly. "And you? You're off to Aberdeen, aren't you?"
Peggy nodded with a smile. "I am. It should be nice - when I went up last time they'd only just moved in and weren't properly unpacked yet, never mind any sort of decorating, so it'll be interesting to see how they're set up now that's all done. And I'd like to see the local area a bit more too, now that Mary knows it so much better."
"I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time," Rhyll agreed, surveying the tree once more. "I'm done here, I think. Do you want a hand down?"
Peggy raised an amused eyebrow and, by way of answer, set the half-eaten apple back in her mouth and slithered down gracefully, standing rather smugly at the base of the ladder as Rhyll descended.
"Your ankle's healed up all right, then," Rhyll observed cheerfully. "In that case, you might make yourself useful with the crate." As she spoke, she carefully emptied the apple-basket into the wooden crate on the ground; and, with the heavy load swinging between them, they strolled side-by-side, back through the orchard towards the shrubbery and the Big House beyond.
Having started thinking about Julian, Rhyll had found it difficult to put him from her mind again, and half-term provided insufficient distraction. She began to write letters, rarely getting beyond the first line before crushing the paper in an impatient fist and resolving not to try again. She lurked at the edge of all the digging, working with them for a time and then brusquely making her excuses to disappear elsewhere, shrugging off the good-humoured requests to stay where the real action was as easily as she batted away their gratitude. Professionally, she had resolved it was much the same principle as she had used in explaining the apples to Peggy: it did well for her to retain an interest in the events concerning the School and especially concerning the grounds thereof, without fully giving herself over to the job. Personally, she was enjoying the small doses of companionship. And privately, she was alternately grateful for the distraction and overwhelmed by the synchronicity: the physical digging-up of Michael Christy's family history alongside the uncomfortable mental unearthing of her own.
Rosalie and Matey had cheerfully insisted on her joining them for at least one meal each day of the half-term, Matron sternly remarking that this way they could at least all three be assured of one proper break from work and a healthy meal at a sensible hour each day. It suited Rhyll well to be thus held, kept anchored to the real world by the requirement to make polite conversation for half an hour with her colleagues. It also, she noted with satisfaction, helped disguise the meals she had not really had to stay for over the preceding half-term but had anyway, for the sake of a few minutes longer with Peggy. Matey, Rhyll found to her great delight, was gloriously uninterested in the secrets of Christy's unstoppered well and would only speak on the matter in harrumphing annoyance at the sheer inconvenience it caused, and the potential illnesses befalling girls who leapt around in swamp-mud. These mealtimes accordingly became a real break for Rhyll, and she wondered if in fact Matey had orchestrated this ban on shop-talk deliberately; for all Rhyll prided herself on being rather unreadable, she knew full well that very little in the School ever escaped Matron's notice.
Yet during the other hours of the day - the many hours during which she was not helping the men in their digging, nor making small talk with her two colleagues inside – Rhyll was revisiting memories she knew Matey couldn't have guessed at, for the only other person who shared them was likely thousands of miles away, somewhere far out in that wide grey expanse of sea. Chief engineer, her mother had murmured proudly the last time she had visited, scrutinising Rhyll's neutral nod of acknowledgement in the obvious hope of something more indicative - some comment, or question, that might explain why her two youngest children who had once been so close now appeared to no longer speak at all.
It was all or nothing, with Julian, and that was the problem. Coming eight years after the second son - fully ten after the first - he had been blessed with parents who had great reserves of experience to draw on, without the thinly-spread attentions of those with numerous other babes under their feet at the same time. Academically gifted, strikingly good-looking and with a gentleness of nature so marked it drew frequent comment from those who met him, it became evident at an early age how richly he had repaid them this privilege of circumstances. It might be easy to resent such a sibling, Rhyll knew, and yet Julian's truly remarkable kindness made such resentment impossible. He had been a boon and a blessing to her as much as he had to his parents; had advocated fiercely for her when her desire to read pure science for her BSc was met with doubtful faces, had sat patiently with her night after night trying to help her make sense of numbers and letters which had a baffling tendency to swirl together before her eyes; and above all, had always recognised her own capabilities, had maintained that his only assistance was in translating what she understood most thoroughly into someone else's imperfect shorthand - even when she herself had struggled to believe it.
Julian was guileless, in the way that the spectacularly gifted or fortunate so often can be. His support for his younger sister, explicitly and implicitly given, had none of the strategy Rhyll would have conceptualised herself - it was never that he consciously chose to exercise his superior powers of persuasion in her interests, or wished specifically to share the fruits of his relatively better-rewarded skills with his closest ally: rather, being so unaccustomed to disappointment himself, he simply believed she - and anyone else - had a basic right to do the things she most wanted to do. Rhyll didn't regard it as any misfortune to have been the disappointing child: at long last, after three sons, a daughter - a daughter who failed completely to be the sweet and gentle little girl her mother had yearned for through thirteen years of only boys. Having thus disabused her mother's dreams in mere infancy, she had been spared the pedestal and the eventual fall from grace; had learned early on to manage her own expectations, to keep back what was most precious - and had simply accepted this as pragmatic fact too early in life to perceive it as something to be hurt by. Even now, after time enough to be critical, she still tended to prize this pragmatism: after her BSc and her time at Swanley, she had not returned home other than for the briefest of visits and in so doing had managed to retain a relationship with her parents which was entirely cordial and disappointed no-one. Dutiful enough to visit at regular intervals, considerate enough to maintain a geographic distance which minimised the likelihood of any hint of scandal, and circumspect enough to recognise the freedom this accorded her, Rhyll had attained a peaceable satisfaction with family matters.
Not so for Julian! That early taste of acceptance and adoration had set him up poorly, had left him with a persistent desire for continuing closeness - and that very lack of guile, that gut-conceived feeling that there was honour in truthfulness had proved to be the spanner in the works. With their two eldest boys settled in New Zealand with their own families and unlikely to return, and whatever conclusions had been drawn from the mutual silence Rhyll and her parents maintained on certain matters, the hope that Julian would provide them at last with their 'real' - or rather, nearby - grandchildren had been palpable. Oh, he hadn't been quite foolish enough to actually spell it out to them, although on more than one occasion Rhyll had read the signs, spied him on the brink of doing so; but the secrecy, the insuperable distance opening up between himself and his family, the gnawing guilt had all robbed Julian of some kind of innocence which had hitherto been undisturbed. He wanted to tell them there would never be a daughter-in-law, much less any grandchildren, and he wanted to know from them that it would be fine; but he knew he could not tell them, that it would not be fine, and Rhyll had watched, powerless, as this disconcerting knowledge tore him apart inside.
What might have made for common ground between the two had become something powerfully divisive: Rhyll, sympathetic but characteristically blunt, had counselled a tactful evasion; Julian, angry and smarting from his first real threat of rejection, had retorted that her own long-standing appropriation of 'evasion' had so thoroughly redefined it that any such attempts on his part would be immediately tainted by that particular association - that he could not possibly exercise the luxury of simply avoiding any definite confirmation or denial, for Rhyll's own noncommittal stance had so firmly shaded that silence as a wordless confirmation. Rhyll, irritably prioritising justice over compassion in a rash moment she had since much regretted, had pointed out that it was scarcely her place to confess all sins, cutting herself off completely and upsetting everyone else into the bargain purely to cast a more convincing shadow over his own furtive secrets. These conversations - conducted and revisited over a period of some months, many years ago now - had grown ever more bitter and resentful, and eventually they had stopped speaking altogether; and Julian had gone off again, escaping his problems in some frigate engine room, the third son all but leaving the country too. Rhyll lacked certain knowledge of such matters, but she strongly suspected that a chief engineer could surely find an appropriate dry-land job in a shipyard somewhere, if he so desired - that this continual absence at sea was nothing more than a desire to run away and hide; she might know very little about the employment opportunities of a naval engineer, but she knew her brother better than anyone.
Raking up for a bonfire and watching Michael Christy stood knee-deep in running water, excitedly chattering about his long-gone relations and their pirate boats and their hidden smuggled goods, Rhyll was powerfully, painfully reminded of her own long-gone history, of her beloved brother standing knee-deep in the little brook proudly clutching a newspaper boat, of his sad and lonely secrets stowed somewhere among the steam turbines or wherever it was that he spent his time these days - and for the first time, she began to appreciate the true extent of her loss.
Half-term in Aberdeenshire by crm
"Shall we go out today?"
"In that?" Peggy jerked her thumb in the direction of the sitting room window, through which little could be seen beyond the rain lashing against it. "I think I'll pass, if it's all the same to you..." She grinned and laid down her magazine, turning expectant eyes on her eldest sister.
Mary dropped into an armchair with a sigh. "I just feel I'm not being much of a hostess, with you cooped up inside all the time. I'm sorry."
"Mary," Peggy began patiently, trying and failing to suppress an impish grin, "I know you are a woman of extraordinary power and influence, but I don't - yet! - hold you responsible for the weather. In any case, I did actually come to visit you, you know, not because I thought your house would make a convenient bolt-hole for a walking tour of Aberdeenshire."
Her hostess gave a rueful smile. "I just really wanted you to get an idea of what the place is like. It's beautiful around here, Peg. Not quite Tyrol, I'll grant you, but still rather lovely."
"Next time, then. What? You are going to invite me again, aren't you?" Mary's only reply was a very expressive look, one which lingered pointedly on her sibling's legs as they dangled insouciantly across the arm of the sofa, and Peggy returned her gaze with calm comprehension. "But of course you are. You're understandably delighted to have me."
Mary snorted. "I'm delighted to see how very much at home you've made yourself already."
"Well, naturally. Mi casa es su casa and all that."
"Oh, you think so, do you? You would, wretch. I do hope you're better behaved than this when you're visiting your mystery acquaintance." She sat up now, the better to seize her chance. "Who is he, Peg?"
Peggy eyed her with good-natured suspicion. "I told you, I'm not telling. Come to think about it, I believe I told you there's scarcely anything to tell."
"Oh, go on, Peggy. You're practically duty-bound to provide me with distraction -"
"Then I shall provide you with other distractions, my love! Have I already told you the yarn about the prefects - the prefects, Mary - leaping headlong into a pond which appeared suddenly from nowhere?"
"It sounds remarkably like the sequel to the mistress leaping headlong into a well which appeared suddenly from nowhere," Mary observed drily, nonetheless settling down comfortably to listen. Neither had forgotten the original question, nor did either expect the other to have already put it from her mind, but as Peggy had no intention of answering it and Mary saw little use in pursuing the subject - for the time being at any rate - they both allowed it to fall unmentioned by the wayside.
"Torrential rain notwithstanding, it's been a jolly nice weekend," Peggy murmured gratefully as she knelt on the floor to fasten her suitcase.
"It has, hasn't it," Mary agreed from where she sat on the guest bed, her knees drawn up to her chest and her feet tucked beneath the eiderdown. "Peggy? Just tell me. I promise I won't breathe a word, not even to Andrew or Kitty."
Her task completed, Peggy settled herself on top of the secured case and looked consideringly at her sister. Mary was straightforward almost to a fault: if she said she wouldn't repeat it, then she wouldn't. She was also reassuringly unflappable. Peggy recalled the cautious and irrelevant warnings she had issued that day in Carnbach, barely a fortnight ago, and concluded that to maintain her silence would lead her sister to fill in the gaps with explanations far more worrying than was necessary; for all Mary had demanded distraction, Peggy doubted that a distraction of quite that nature would prove beneficial.
Mary stayed quite still, her face impassive, and when she spoke her voice was just as steady. "Who is it - this person you've got nothing to tell me about? We don't have to speak of it again, but don't leave here without telling me at all, Peg."
"Evvy." She blurted it out quickly, dark eyes intent, sharp chin jutting forward: a fragile mixture of apprehension and defiance.
"Evvy?" As Peggy might have predicted, had she not been so preoccupied weighing up the reasons to break her silence against the knowledge that such a confession could not possibly be retracted, Mary's countenance betrayed no real surprise: no shock, no disbelief, no disappointment could be read in her placid face. "I don't think so, sweetheart. She's - she's an interesting woman, of course: she's that much older than you, and she's had a very different route from the one you or I might have taken. I can see why you might look up to her, and she's certainly an excellent teacher and a worthwhile colleague. But - no, I don't think you need to worry, littlest -" Mary's voice was growing surer as she went on, and the slight crease between her eyebrows melted away. "You said there was really nothing to tell, and that you weren't sure - no, you needn't worry about it at all any more. That's a very understandable admiration - especially considering this is your very first term, and after her role in your little underground escapade too! Oh, I must say I am relieved that that's all it is, Peggy - and glad that you decided to tell me. Now, have you everything you need? Then we'd both better get some sleep, you've an early start in the morning."
And with this soothing denouement, Mary gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and left the room, and soon both women were settling down for the night and reflecting on their short conversation with a great deal of relief. For Mary, the relief was somewhat impaired by a wish that her sister might learn to be more mindful; and for Peggy, by the desire for her sister to be a little more worldly.
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Rhyll glanced at her watch. "You have five minutes until prep, girls. Finish off what you're doing and then tidy your things quickly and go - you can hardly show up with your hands looking as they do now!"
A cheerful murmur of acquiescence arose in response. Rhyll surveyed the flushed faces and shining eyes and was pleased with the morning's work. She had only come in at the request of this small group of fifth-formers who had wanted guidance and a watchful eye over their transfer to the glass-houses of those plants too delicate to survive the winter outside.
"Would it be all right if we moved the rest this afternoon, Miss Everett?" Julie Lucy asked, dusting her hands off on her overalls as she spoke.
"By all means, if you'd like and have the time for it. Aren't you supposed to be receiving your parts for the play this afternoon? I'll be long gone I'm afraid, but you know what you're doing now and if you run into any difficulties I'm sure Griffiths or Jenks will be around to put you right."
Julie exchanged a few looks with her peers, evidently seeking their general approval before making a collective commitment on their behalf. "I'm sure we'll be fine. Thank you, Miss Everett."
Rhyll nodded with a smile, and gave the glass-house a cursory look. "Good. You needn't rush to finish it today unless you really want to, though - it's been a very mild autumn so far and I certainly don't expect it to cool much for at least another week yet. Well, this all looks nice and clear now so you'd better run along. I'll see you all on Tuesday."
The girls, thus dismissed, chorused their goodbyes and rushed off in the direction of the Big House and Rhyll stood for a moment, watching them from the glass-house doorway, her mind elsewhere as it so often had been of late. Her reverie was interrupted by a sudden movement near her feet, and she raised her eyebrows in surprise as she looked at a hockey ball, stopped neatly a matter of inches in front of her.
Walking towards her was Peggy, smiling broadly and looking somewhat dishevelled - very pleasingly so, Rhyll observed, before promptly chiding herself for the vulgarity. Rhyll picked up the ball. "Lost something, Burnett?"
Peggy rolled her eyes, still grinning. "Doesn't look lost to me."
"And so near all the glass, too." She gave her young colleague a look which would have quelled the most heedless of Middles, knowing that Peggy would not miss the twinkling of her eyes - knowing too that Peggy was scarcely so easily squashed.
"It wasn't anywhere near the glass," Peggy retorted defensively. "I'll thank you not to besmirch my aim so unjustly."
Rhyll shrugged amiably, acknowledging the truth of this. "Hockey?"
"Sharp, aren't you? That's my lot for the day now, though. Are you - do you fancy a bit of a walk?" There was a pause, and then Peggy rushed on, "Of course, maybe you already have other things to do -"
"That would be nice," Rhyll said slowly, keeping her features carefully neutral.
"Perfect. Wait here for me, while I quickly change and grab some eats? I won't be five minutes."
Peggy was as good as her word, and still rather appealingly dishevelled when she reappeared. She had changed out of her gym shorts, and her damp brown curls looked as though they might have had a comb dragged hastily through them, and in one hand she clutched a paper bag proudly. "Isn't Karen gorgeous?" she burbled, with rather more breathless excitement than her trot across the grounds and back seemed to merit.
"Are you absconding, Burnett?" Rhyll asked shrewdly as they set off in the direction of the shrubbery.
Peggy giggled. "Not exactly. I'm not technically on duty. But it's also not - technically - my weekend off. I haven't just run away, though," she added earnestly. "I saw Biddy while I was inside, and told her..."
Here, Peggy trailed off awkwardly. What she had actually told Biddy was that she meant to catch up with Ruth Derwent and Rosalind Moore, both of whom had a legitimate free weekend and were already heading up to the landing to catch the ferry over to Carnbach; Biddy had raised a sceptical eyebrow and had started to suggest that Peggy seek proper permission to do so, only to fall silent as she realised that her rapidly-departing colleague could no longer hear her, even if she had been at all likely to heed such advice. Peggy didn't exactly believe that she'd done anything wrong, and was quite certain it would not lead to any further comment or consequence, but nonetheless felt it prescient to keep the full details of her elusion from her companion. "Anyway, you shouldn't be here at all," she finished up feebly.
Rhyll gave a deep chuckle. "No, indeed. Did you have a good weekend away?"
"Splendid, thanks - although it rained more or less without a pause! I think Mary felt herself rather responsible for that too, bless her. How was your half-term - were you here? Watching as Commander Christy's insalubrious roots revealed themselves?"
Rhyll chuckled again, noting with pleasure the irreverence and perspicacity of Peggy's tone. "I was indeed."
They were crossing the shrubbery now, passing the dug-up old pond and the sunk path and making for the five-barred gate into the orchard. As they reached it, Rhyll pushed it open and held it for Peggy, who turned a curious face on her. "You know, Evvy, I don't understand: when Michael Christy brought round the old maps, you were all over it, but now - when it turns out to be rather sordidly glamorous - you don't seem at all interested. Aren't you?"
Rhyll closed the gate behind them. "I grew up on the coast. I grant you I didn't guess there'd be a smuggling connection, but now there is I'm not at all surprised by it. It's a perfect place for it, really." Inwardly, she was wondering wildly why Peggy was pursuing such a line of conversation, and for that matter what this walk was all about. "Where did you want to walk to? Kittiwake Cove?"
Peggy shrugged. "Could do. Or further along, to the Mermaidens? I don't mind, really."
Peggy kept up a steady flow of light-hearted chatter as they wandered leisurely through the orchard and along the little lane running down the side of the wheatfield, and Rhyll, though greatly enjoying her company, found herself increasingly bewildered and somewhat distracted by her attempts to second-guess what Peggy was clearly working towards, that she would risk slipping off without technically having leave to do so - Rhyll was unsure as to what this grey area between a free weekend and being on duty meant, and she felt quite certain Peggy had known this when she'd glossed over the matter so airily - rather than conduct what was really mere small-talk in the staff-room.
The conversation had reached a comfortable lull as they came in sight of the gorse-strewn cliffs and took in the great expanse of cold grey sea stretching beyond them; and it was here that Peggy - after a quick glance over her shoulder - suddenly shoved her hand into Rhyll's, defiant eyes meeting hers to ensure that the intent could not be misread. Rhyll looked from her face, so full of deliberate meaning, to the gloved hand in her own, wonderingly; and after a moment's pause and a backward glance of her own, she clasped tightly in response.
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Leaving her work on the desk in thankful anticipation of afternoon tea, Rosalie paused at the window to admire the earliest beginnings of autumn sunset, a fierce orange glow pushing at the blue of the sky and casting warm light across the School grounds and beyond. As she watched, stretching limbs tired from too many hours hunched over her typewriter, to her surprise she saw Peggy and Evvy coming back through the gate from the orchard, and her brows knit together thoughtfully.
That Evvy was walking this way, at this time, was unremarkable: outside of set teaching times, Evvy's movements could be difficult to predict and though she was not generally to be found in the School over the weekend, Rosalie was certain this was not the first such occasion. But Peggy? Biddy had definitely told her across the dinner table that Peggy had gone to Carnbach with Ruth and Rosalind - and yet here she was, returning from quite the opposite direction, and neither Ruth nor Rosalind in sight.
"Rosalie! You're not working?"
Rosalie jumped and turned around. Deep in thought, she had not heard the office door open. "Oh! I didn't know you were up. Are you feeling better?"
"Much better, thank you dear," the Head smiled, before looking stern again. "And I must say I shall be doing all I can to avoid spending the day in bed again, if this is what I find when I get up! Nothing is so important it can't wait until Monday, surely?"
Rosalie blushed and stayed still in the window, hoping the two mistresses were hidden from view behind her. Having not yet thought the matter through, there was nonetheless something indefinable about their easy gait and the closeness of their body language which instinctively seemed best shielded from public view. "I know, I know - but it's just so much easier to get on with things quietly now. I shall relax better tomorrow, knowing I've less hanging over me."
Miss Annersley, as ever, did not miss a beat. "When you say "tomorrow" the inference is that you don't yet consider yourself finished for today," she admonished in her gentle way. "I forbid it! Come and have tea and don't even think of returning to the office again before Monday, Rosalie."
Gentle or not, Rosalie knew better than to argue with this direct instruction, and - still not moving from the window - nodded. "I'd better tidy my desk quickly first, in that case. I'll follow you down, if that's all right?"
Hilda nodded with a smile. "Certainly you may - but make sure tidying is all you do. If you seem to be taking longer than that, I'll send Gwynneth up to enforce rest for the good of your health!"
They both laughed at this, but as soon as the door had closed behind the Head Rosalie's face grew serious and she turned to look through the window once more. The late afternoon sky was now fully aflame, and Peggy and Evvy had disappeared from view. Moving to put her incomplete work away safely, Rosalie frowned again to pinpoint the source of her discomfort. First and foremost was the discrepancy between where Peggy had been for most of that day, and where she had told Biddy she was going. Second had been Mary's questioning during that drive to the airport, unexpected and uncharacteristically inquisitive, which lent a certain background to the first point, hinted at secrecy where Rosalie might otherwise have assumed simple misunderstanding. And third, most ambiguously, was whatever it was she herself had glimpsed in her brief sighting of the two women walking together through the grounds, a kind of electric attentiveness that stood out and which she had automatically thought to hide from view.
Rosalie was a naturally cautious person, and had no wish to jump to conclusions on such a flimsy collection of irregularities. She was also a great believer in minding her own business and letting other people get on with minding theirs. At the same time, she felt a strong sense of duty, particularly to Peggy whom she had known from babyhood, and to Mary who had been not only a cousin but also a very close friend over a great number of years. She had been glad that Mary had immediately agreed that for her to keep notes and report back on Peggy's behaviour would have been both unacceptable and undesirable, and in any case she had an inkling that Mary was dealing with problems of her own at the moment and did not need further stresses added; but, seeing Mary's concern, she had quietly resolved to keep an eye out for her younger cousin's welfare herself. She had reminded Mary that Peggy wasn't given to being silly, and she absolutely believed it - but nonetheless there was a certain vivacious impulsiveness to Peggy's nature, a carefree belief that whatever happened she would land on her feet, and Rosalie found this worldview simply too alien to properly assess its practical merits and disadvantages.
She was distracted over tea, earning herself further remarks on the importance of taking a proper break from work over the weekend and accepting them humbly. When they looked in briefly at the staff-room afterwards, she was relieved to see Peggy in a huddle with Ruth and Rosalind, laughing and playing cards and looking to all intents and purposes as though she had spent the day with them just as she had said. Evvy was nowhere to be seen and Rosalie presumed she must have gone home. Had they only chosen to return from wherever they had been five minutes earlier or later, she could surely have had no idea that anything was amiss. Burdened with a confusion she didn't dare seek to clarify, she rather wished they had done so.
Passing Peggy in the corridor on the way to bed that evening and bidding her a cheerful goodnight, Rosalie wondered if she had missed an important opportunity. And yet, she reasoned as she turned out the light and got into bed, what might she have said, armed with only the flimsiest of 'evidence'? Had she been wrong, she could easily have caused awful offence - and even if she were right, what more might she have achieved apart from equally awful anxiety? Rosalie's own tentative suspicion was that such anxiety might be misplaced: what she had pieced together from occasional indirect mutterings - and one unusually indiscreet comment made by Margot Venables on a distant but memorable journey on the sleeper train as the two of them had evacuated the children of the Russell household from Austria to Guernsey, her face immediately clouding with guilty regret as soon as she had spoken and Rosalie, being Rosalie, tactfully changing the subject altogether - strongly suggested a precedent for quietly turning a blind eye. But then again, that had been a different time, a different place, a much smaller School operating much more privately; furthermore, she realised it was far easier for her to think such an anxiety misplaced than it might be for those actually concerned.
Turning over and closing her eyes, Rosalie decided firmly on the only course of action she could take: to watch, and wait, and trust in her own reassurances that Peggy was more than capable of looking after herself; and until such time as it became impossible to do so, to put the matter firmly from her mind.
Thanks again for some lovely comments. Here's yet more - I seem to be on a roll ATM!
Rhyll lit a cigarette and leaned out of the window, watching the trail of smoke snake away into the night air. It was a clear night: the moon glinted on the crests of gentle waves, shards of silvery light dancing beyond the ferry landing across the Sound, and she wished Peggy was still with her to see it. It had been a magnificent day.
Both still darting tentative glances behind them, hand in hand and heart in mouth, they had followed the cliff path in pregnant silence to the westernmost point of the island, where the Mermaidens lay. The grounds of the School now lay far behind, long since hidden from view; they were quite alone, but for the gulls that screamed overhead and the waves that crashed against the treacherous rocks below. And then Rhyll had realised that Peggy was shaking.
"Cold?" She asked with some concern, already making to take off her own coat.
Peggy had shaken her head, an embarrassed smile crinkling her eyes. "No, I - just -"
"Shh. It's all right." Rhyll had given her hand a warm squeeze before gently releasing it, catching her elbow instead to lead her the few feet across the uneven ground to the stout fence which stood at the very top of the cliff. They had leaned over together, watching the water breaking over the reef that ran some distance out to sea beneath them for several minutes, and gradually Peggy had unwound and started talking again.
Rhyll found Peggy a most fascinating conversationalist, slipping nimbly between ordinarily disparate subjects: her sometimes skittish commentary on their surroundings segued effortlessly into upbeat School chatter and so on to her time at college, her childhood, her family. Through it all shone Peggy's irrepressible good nature, her patent blend of treating each subject with disarming seriousness whilst taking herself uncommonly lightly. Rhyll listened more than she talked, always had done: but with Peggy, she felt entirely comfortable in this - knowing whatever she offered up was heard and welcomed, and knowing also that Peggy was happy to do the bulk of the talking, bouncing from one topic to another seamlessly in a sequence which was often refreshingly lateral.
"I'm lucky, really," she had observed at one point. "There are no major boxes left for me to tick: Mary was the great scholar, then the teacher. Kitty did the Florence Nightingale thing. And now Mary's done the wedding thing. What I do doesn't really matter to anyone. It's a freeing state of affairs."
"Grandchildren?" Rhyll had asked, recognising the familial check-list herself, then immediately winced as she saw a cloud darken Peggy's face momentarily. "Oh dear, I'm sorry. I didn't realise. Poor Mary!"
Peggy shook her head and looked away for a moment, pensive, before looking back at Rhyll, smilingly, searchingly: "How do you do that? How do you see exactly what I'm thinking?"
Rhyll shrugged, returned the smile. "It's not difficult. I just look at you and I see it, I suppose."
A bad idea, Rhyll reminded herself now.
Still talking, they had retraced their steps, slipping ghost-like down the path hewn into the cliffs to eat lunch on the beach at Kittiwake Cove. Afterwards, they had relaxed on the coarse white sand, watching the clouds drift by slowly, as though it were the height of summer rather than bright and brisk November.
"We'd better go," Peggy had suggested at length, raising herself to a sitting position with some reluctance. "There's nothing to say some of the Seniors won't come for a walk down here after dinner. Oh, rats - my hair!" - this latter exclamation in some dismay, as a quick tidying comb-through with her fingers showered a quite extraordinary quantity of sand about her shoulders.
Rhyll began to laugh, only slightly stifling it as Peggy turned an outraged face on her. "Come here," she had murmured placatingly, running her own hands softly through tangled curls, leaning close on the unspoken pretext of getting a better look as she gently brushed the sand away.
"You'll never get it out like that," Peggy had protested, colouring pink and studiously avoiding eye contact as she rubbed at her head with rueful vigour.
"You'll have your brains falling out through your ears if you go on like that," Rhyll had remarked, hauling herself to her feet and collecting together the discarded paper in which their sandwiches had been wrapped.
Peggy's scowl had sat discordantly with her shining brown eyes. "It'll need washing tonight, but I'd at least like to be spared the bother of explaining to our esteemed colleagues exactly why I'm sprinkling sand all over the place with every nod of the head. Can you just picture it, and the fuss that rabble would make? No, thank you! I'll gladly risk my brains to avoid that."
She had still been batting feverishly at her scalp as they began their ascent of the narrow steps. "Where can we go, now?"
Rhyll was silent, trying to guess Mrs Morgan's plans for the day. The landlady hadn't been across to the mainland since Tuesday, so there was a fair chance she would be going that day, but whether she would be making a day of it or simply doing the shops and then heading back was another question altogether. Perhaps she was back already. Either way, to suggest Peggy came back to hers would be a bad idea.
A very bad idea. Rhyll hadn't meant to speak out loud, but the words melted softly into the black sky anyway.
Peggy hadn't paused for long, in any case. "What's past the Mermaidens? Do you know, Evvy?"
Rhyll had suddenly felt hot with shame at the suggestion she had so nearly made. She shook her head vigorously, more to rid herself of the prior thought than in response to the question, for she was following Peggy up the cliff staircase and knew she would not be seen. "I've no idea. No time like the present for finding out."
Peggy threw a beaming smile over her shoulder and skipped lightly up the last few steps. "No-one will come that far. They never do. It's rare enough they go as far as the reef, for that matter."
"And you are a fugitive today," Rhyll agreed, falling into step beside her. "You're not going to get into trouble for that, are you Burnett? I'd never have come with you if I'd known."
Peggy shrugged, insouciance written into her whole demeanour. "I don't expect so. The Abbess is in bed with a bilious attack, anyway."
That certain knowledge that everything would always work out well in the end. It lay at the core of Peggy's charm, and it was precisely why this was all so inadvisable. Rhyll did not wish to be that turning point, that first experience of everything not working out easily.
Beyond the Mermaidens had turned out to be an little-explored site: the cliff path rapidly disappeared into nothing, the previously-scanty gorse thickened and the grass underfoot became greener and heavier, evidently less disturbed by footfall than the ground they had covered earlier. The two picked their way through until, by some wordless agreement, sufficient distance had been created behind them; then sat down against a large rock, looking out beyond a cliff edge that might just as easily been the edge of the earth, some ten feet ahead of them. Peggy leaned comfortably against Rhyll's shoulder, and Rhyll had fought the urge to hold her breath, as though the contact were too fragile, the moment too easily broken.
Because, realistically speaking, when will we ever get the chance to sit like that again?
A conversation with Biddy by crm
Thanks again for lovely comments! Bit of a short one this time I'm afraid... and have to admit that I'm not entirely happy with it, but I can't quite see how to improve it and I'm champing at the bit to get on with the next few chapters, so here it is.
Peggy's gamble had not quite come off.
It had crossed her mind, as she sat playing a rather raucous game of canasta with Ruth and Rosalind after tea, that she could quite easily have asked them to say she had been to Carnbach with them that day. On balance, she felt they would have agreed to it. Ruth, certainly: she had settled in quickly, almost as though she had always been there, with just the occasional hints of jumpy eagerness revealing her status as staff-room new girl - or Chalet School new girl, really, Peggy reminded herself; after all, as a mistress she was every bit as new as Ruth. Rosalind, in fairness, was a touch cooler; somewhat more difficult to predict. But in the end, she had decided against mentioning it: even if they had both readily agreed, they would doubtless have talked about it between themselves later in curiosity, looked instinctively for some kind of explanation in anything even slightly anomalous that Peggy might chance to say or do in the future - and all this for a confirmation Biddy might not even seek. No, far better if she spoke to Biddy herself.
Speaking to Biddy was both easier and more difficult than speaking to the other two - easier because she knew Biddy, harder because Biddy knew her. So it was that Biddy narrowed her eyes when Peggy approached her in the staff splasheries not long before supper, requesting a quiet word in uncharacteristically meek tones.
"Biddy - about earlier. I'm afraid I - I wasn't quite straight with you..."
Biddy watched her blandly in the mirror, fingers moving deftly through glossy black hair as she twisted it back and pinned it firmly. "I know."
"You - know?" Peggy paused, uncertain.
"Sure, for I said something to Ruth along the lines of 'I hope the three of you passed a pleasant day at Carnbach' and she looked at me as if 'twas mad I was." Biddy raised her eyebrows and waited.
"Ah. And - um - what did you say?" Peggy traced one foot up and down her calf nervously, keeping her face as impassive as possible.
"Sure, I said I must've misunderstood what 'twas you were telling me, was all." Biddy rammed a final hairpin into the neat bun at the nape of her neck and stood with her arms folded across her chest, all the while eyeing Peggy in the mirror. "So, come on."
"Oh dear. I'm very sorry I put you in that position. I did try to catch those two up, but I suppose I must have just missed them. And then - having left - I could hardly bring myself to come back again. So I, er, waited for the next ferry and went over to Carnbach by myself. I thought I might bump into Ruth and Ros but of course I didn't. You were right in the first place - I shouldn't have gone at all without asking leave." Peggy hung her head, thankful to break eye contact. She was not accustomed to lying, and she hated how it was tainting what had hitherto been a day so glorious her heart was still pounding.
Biddy was still watching carefully, but if Peggy had looked up she would have seen concern, not suspicion, clouding her face. "Hardly bring yourself to come back again? Are you all right, my love? That doesn't sound well, at all, at all."
"Oh!" Peggy's hand flew to her mouth, genuine dismay at the anxiety she had inadvertently caused. "No, no. Nothing like that at all. It's just different, isn't it, Biddy? After being away at Bedford, and then coming back as a mistress - some of it is just the same, and some of it is so different. I just relished a moment's freedom from being all grown-up and responsible, in a way I could never have dreamed of - even as Head Girl. But I'm not unhappy at all." Seeing her colleague still looking doubtful, she kept going. "Biddy! Look at me. Do I look unhappy?"
Biddy turned to look at her properly, a theatrical scrutiny which gradually subsided into ringing laughter. "All right, then. I'll believe you! And what's more I'll forgive you for landing me in an awkward situation earlier on today. All the same, you mind you don't shout too loudly about feeling out of sorts or even just plain tired. 'Tis meself's sure there's just the thing in Matey's medicine cupboard for that!"
Peggy grimaced. "I don't doubt it! Well, I'd better get going. I've a few things to take care of before the bell, if I can."
Biddy paused. "There's another thing I've just remembered. Rosalie asked me at dinner if I knew where you'd got to. Sure, an' didn't I tell her, for 'twasn't any great secret as far as I knew of it."
Peggy shrugged, her nonchalance now as truthful as her dismay a moment earlier. Rosalie was the last person given to speculation, and even less inclined to chatter. "Of course. Well, I'm not worried about that."
Biddy gave her a stern look, and Peggy was suddenly reminded of being a Middle facing her now-colleague as a Prefect. "'Tis lucky you are, that the Abbess has been abed most of the day. Don't rely on that kind of luck coming round twice, will you? You can't just go haring off on ferries whenever the fancy takes you."
Peggy was spared answering this by the timely entrance of Pam Slater, and took her opportunity to slip away with nothing more than a final nod of contrition. Rushing to her bedroom to make her own toilet before the gong sounded for supper, she checked the coast was clear before hanging her head out of the window to brush her hair thoroughly. She recalled Evvy's sinewy fingers running through her tangled crop of curls only a few hours earlier and closed her eyes, trembling slightly, wishing she had not pulled away so quickly.
Biddy had been right, of course: with the benefit of at least some distance, Peggy could see how much of a risk she had taken in slipping off as she had done. But how very much worth it today had been! And - risk or otherwise - it had all worked out quite smoothly in the end anyhow. With more careful preparation and just a little luck, what could possibly go wrong? She laid her hairbrush down carefully and paused to gently touch the coarse sprig of bright yellow flowers, carried back in her coat pocket and laid lovingly on her bedside table; tangible proof that it had not been a dream. Giving her reflection a quick glance as the bell rang, Peggy was already firmly contemplating future plans.
A lack of judgment by crm
Thanks for lovely comments - here's yet more! (Am I procrastinating from other stuff? Absolutely!)
It had occurred to Rhyll that continuing to spend unnecessary evenings in the staff room was far from advisable: in addition to the curiosity it had always invited - all the more pointed as the term rolled onward and nightfall came ever earlier - she couldn't shake the fear that something tangible had shifted, that whatever it was that was now undeniably going on between her and Peggy might become somehow visible to others. But knowledge did not translate so readily to action, and she found it exceedingly difficult to tear herself away, each 'last time' being inevitably followed by another, and another.
It was Friday evening, and the room was thick with weary relief that another week had come to an end. Biddy, Ruth and Peggy, especially, were feeling the effect of their involvement in rehearsals in addition to their normal duties. Perhaps it was this unprecedented tiredness that explained what happened next, or perhaps it was simply a lack of judgment that might have occurred at any other time. Either way, the cause seemed decidedly less important than the incident itself: Rhyll, having stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray on the mantelpiece, sank thankfully into the armchair nearest the fireplace - and scarcely a moment later, Peggy crossed the room and perched herself jauntily on the armrest. She flashed a wordless smile at Rhyll - a smile which was endearing and terrifying in its casual familiarity - and continued the conversation she had been having with Ruth, who was curled up on a pouffe nearby.
Rhyll concentrated on regulating her breathing, interjecting briefly - the topic was, of course, the Christmas play - when she could. Peggy was sitting as close to her as the armrest necessitated, and then closer again. She leant easily against the high back of the chair, facing inward rather than out, and when she laughed, Rhyll could feel her breath.
Glancing at her watch barely ten minutes later Rhyll excused herself, nodding round at the chorus of farewells. She had retrieved her overcoat from the staff Splashery and was standing near the great front door buttoning it up when Peggy appeared, eager and sprightly, a little way back along the corridor.
Rhyll raised a warning finger to her lips. Peggy skipped closer, all bright smiles and heady abandon, and something in Rhyll snapped. "What on earth are you playing at, Burnett?"
A frown crumpled Peggy's face; shock and confusion. "I don't - oh, for goodness' sake, Evvy. I'd sit like that near anyone! They know it. You know it."
Rhyll shook her head, keeping her voice quiet in spite of her annoyance. "It's not the same thing." She stopped there, helpless, not sure which explanation to offer. It's different because I'm different, because nobody else would park herself near enough on my lap and think nothing of it? Because something changes, once you've been out walking hand-in-hand with someone, and nothing can ever make that innocent again - and how can you be sure nobody will see and understand that? Because even if you think you're unreadable, I know that I for one am not, and cannot ever again act at being 'normal' with you in such intimately-close proximity?
Peggy's scowl deepened; stubborn. "It may as well be, for all any of them know of it. I don't know why you're so - so keen to borrow trouble!" she flashed, with more strident defiance than Rhyll would have ever imagined possible for speech so quiet. Anger became Peggy, she noted against her better judgment: something heart-stoppingly wonderful could be seen in her animated face, her flashing eyes, the sheer strength of unapologetic feeling so visible as she stood tall, shoulders back, feet firmly planted on the floor, chin tilted upwards. Rhyll swallowed hard.
"'Trouble' doesn't begin to cover it. What anyone knows means nothing, Peggy. It's worse than enough just to give someone pause. I don't -" She stopped, seeing Peggy's countenance quieten, the younger woman already starting to calm down just as quickly as she had fired up. "Let's not squabble. You probably ought to be getting back to the staff-room now."
Peggy stood still a moment in consideration. Rhyll bent towards her, voice dropping lower still, close to the other woman's ear. "Please go now... I think if you don't go right away, I might kiss you."
She had half-expected Peggy to blush or look away; perhaps even to turn and run off altogether. Instead, to her utmost admiration, Peggy raised steady dark eyes to her, unabashed; and reached up, whispering so close that Rhyll could feel soft lips grazing her ear: "I'm not sure how that's supposed to inspire me to leave."
Rhyll nearly ducked straight out of the door without a backward glance, but Peggy deserved better than that. Rhyll caught the tips of her fingers gently, holding eye contact as she took a backward step in the direction of the door. "I need to go now. Goodnight, Peggy." And - cursing inwardly; heart soaring; eager to escape before she thought worse of it again - she swung open the heavy door and darted out into the darkness.
Thanks again for some lovely comments! They are always so nice to read. This bit feels a bit like filler but I'm fairly sure of where I'm going with the next few updates so hopefully it won't be too long til there's something a bit more 'proper' to read.
"Oh, it'll be fun once you get going, my lamb!"
"I daresay," Ruth conceded, sounding anything but convinced. "I just feel all done in as it is - I could use a nice early night, and instead I shall be roped into goodness only knows what energetic feats the prefects have in mind for us. I must say, some of the tales of past staff evenings you people have been regaling us with have signally failed to reassure me!" Her stern gaze fell most heavily on Biddy and Peggy, who had provided perhaps too spirited an account of the staff evenings they each remembered preparing in their own schooldays.
"Ha! How old are you, Ruth Derwent, twenty-eight or eighty-eight?" The twinkle in Peggy's eyes was not noticeably quelled by the dark scowl her colleague turned on her.
"You want to take pity on your more elderly colleagues, so you do," Biddy added with a wicked glance across the table at Pam Slater, who was pouring another drink for herself and Jeanne who sat beside her. "However hard it is for you to find the energy for Saturday night games after a long week, just think how much harder it must be on poor old Slater, for example."
Pam glanced across at the younger three mistresses, the polite smile on her lips not even attempting to reach her eyes. "Thank you for your kind concern, Miss O'Ryan, but I'm pleased to inform you that it's thoroughly misplaced."
"Ah well, 'tis reassured I am to hear it, for sure," Biddy replied, earnest round eyes betraying only the tiniest flicker of mirth. "See, Derwent, you can't let down the side with your mithering when even Slater says she's no need to worry just yet." Grinning triumphantly as both the mistresses named turned icy glares on her, Biddy turned her attentions to Peggy. "Now you, on the other hand, are demonstrating an extraordinary volume of bounce today. What's the why of that? Sure, you look as if you've won your fortune, or something equally impressive."
"Do I hear you indirectly accusing your colleagues of gambling, Bridget?" The low, melodious tones of the Headmistress floated down the table, laced with enough amusement to be clear that Biddy was not being criticised in earnest, but not quite so much to prevent that young woman from colouring deep red as she fell silent.
Peggy smirked at her, carefully keeping her face shielded from the view of the more senior staff and earning a snort of reconciliation from Pam Slater. "I'm looking forward to tonight, in spite of Derwent's grousing. It does feel strange, having done the planning and the inviting and the arranging and so forth before, to finally be standing on the other side of it! And they're a good bunch, Bride and Tom and co. I don't doubt they'll do us proud."
"Staff baby!" Slater retorted bracingly, but there was a genuine good humour to it which had been lacking in her previous exchange with Biddy. Peggy merely grinned, relieved that her protests had apparently been convincing. She had been trying to contain her irrepressible 'bounce' all day, and most of the night before as well, tossing and turning with great contentment: Evvy said she wanted to kiss me, Evvy said she wanted to kiss me. Peggy was looking forward to the evening's entertainment of course, with an almost schoolgirlish sense of carefree anticipation, but she knew it could not possibly be credited for the full scale of her cheerful mood. Evvy had not been in today, she had noted with a brief pang of disappointment, but even this had not noticeably quenched her jubilance. In any case, she was the mistress on duty that afternoon, so in some ways it would have been more frustrating to have seen Evvy and known she would not be able to slip off with her even for half an hour's private chatting in the orchard.
"Have you all got your outfits ready?" Dorothy Lawrence asked in her soft, musical voice.
"Not I!" Ivy Stephens lamented, a dismal expression on her face. "I can't even think of one. I had hoped that inspiration would have come to me by now, but alas it hasn't! As soon as Mittagessen is finished, I'm straight off to my room to empty the contents of my wardrobe all over my bed and find something I can be!"
"Better hope Matey doesn't hear you, making such slatternly plans," Ruth chastised laughingly.
"Pah! Matey'll think nothing of it." Rosalind cut in confidently. "Not when she's already had to contend with Peggy requesting needle and thread for her own get-up. The look on her face was most enlightening, Peggy, on the subject of your needlework!"
Peggy laughed and exchanged a knowing look with Jeanne, who had - in her patient, good-natured way - torn her hair on many occasions at Peggy's ideas of sewing. "I've done a perfectly nice job of it, thank you very much. And I happen to know Biddy's been at the acting-cupboard to supplement her own outfit, which I call something close to cheating! You lot should all be impressed at my managing from scratch without resorting to such tactics."
"Using the things from the acting-cupboard isn't unsporting," Ruth objected defensively. "It's simply resourceful. If your imagination is limited then that's your lookout, Burnett."
Peggy opened her mouth to retort that, if anything was proof of limited imagination it was resorting to the acting props, but at that moment Miss Annersley's little bell rang and the staff table, along with the rest of the dining room, fell silent to be dismissed.
"Ouf! How I ache!" Rosalind Moore grumbled contentedly in a low voice as a select group of the staff climbed the stairs late that night.
"Didn't I tell you all?" Ruth demanded, righteously smug as she hauled herself dramatically up the stairs with the aid of the bannister.
"Lazy little objects! All the same," Biddy yawned, "'tis glad I am tomorrow's Sunday."
As they mumbled a general agreement, those towards the rear of the party were startled by the sudden quiet appearance of Cicely Armitage. "Hey, where's the fire?" Peggy demanded as her colleague slipped in front of her.
They had none of them been talking very loudly, knowing that the House was filled with sleeping girls - or, if any chanced to be awake, at least they ought not to hear their responsible elders still up and having fun at such an hour. Even still, Cicely's voice was noticeably lower than the rest: "Shhh! I'm hiding from Matron..."
A brief puzzled silence and then the whole group chuckled almost noiselessly, recalling that formidable woman's face when Cicely had calmly finished her crab apple.
"She's not altogether wrong, you know," Rosalind put in. "I rather think the responsible thing to do would be to march you promptly over to her -"
Suppressed howls of indignation arose from the rest. "I think I shall go and ask Matey for some embroc'," Peggy murmured innocently. "Anyone else? You get yourself off into bed sharpish, Cicely. She won't wake you up for the sake of castor oil!"
Cicely Armitage flashed her a grateful smile and shot along the corridor to the bathrooms, and Peggy, Biddy and Ruth all trooped slowly off to find the School's beloved domestic tyrant.
"It's been a lovely evening," Biddy commented quietly as they went. "Still, I don't expect we'll any of us be feeling rested any time soon, at all, at all. These weeks always fly by and Christmas will be here before we know it. I shall love my bed tonight!"
And another one, so soon!
"Well, thank goodness that's over!" Peggy murmured contentedly to Evvy, as the Christmas play came to an end. The two were stood at the back of the great hall, leaning against the door which, in another moment, Evvy would open and stand supervising the guests as they left, just as she had done when they were on their way in.
Evvy chuckled. "You don't mean it as flippantly as all that," she admonished with a smile.
"No - no, I don't," Peggy admitted. "I do think it was all rather lovely, as it happens. Nonetheless, I shall be thankful to have that off my plate! My normal work will feel practically part-time, in comparison."
"And off for Christmas tomorrow," Evvy agreed, catching sight of another colleague approaching. "Hello! Here comes Slater. I suppose that's my cue to swing this open. Will you stay here for a bit, or are you needed elsewhere?"
"I'll stay," Peggy replied with a bright smile, trying valiantly to disguise the disappointment that had surged through her when Evvy had reminded her that the end of term was tomorrow. Biddy had been right: the last few weeks had flown by.
"As long as you really aren't supposed to be anywhere else," Evvy muttered, sotto voce. "I know you have form for dereliction of duty!"
Peggy turned indignant brown eyes on her, but already Pam Slater had reached them and so she bit back her acid reply. "Hello, Slater! Wasn't it wonderful? I imagine there's scarcely a dry eye in the house!"
She stood close to Evvy, watching the audience mill out slowly, smiling and wishing them merry Christmases; all the while trying to ignore the electricity that buzzed loudly between them, her almost visceral desire to move nearer, to close the gap. In between exchanging pleasantries with the departing guests, the three chatted easily about their plans for the holidays.
"I almost can't think of it until we've finished the escort duty! But I'm spending Christmas itself with my folks, then I'll stay a week or so with my sister - she had a baby in September, you might remember, so that will be rather exciting," Peggy stiffened slightly on hearing this, and was grateful for an imperceptibly-brief nudge of sympathy from Evvy. "I've a few friends I'd like to catch up with, too. But they're all very much local to each other, and to my parents' and my sister's homes, so that's not as much travelling around as it wearily sounds like! What about you pair?"
You pair, Peggy grinned to herself. "I'll be staying with my family the whole time. I think Mary and Andrew are coming for a few days, though I'm not sure which - and Kitty's still waiting on her shifts for the Christmas period. She'll either be off for Christmas or for New Year, but definitely not both, she says. I'm rather hoping Rosalie might be coming for a bit too, but I'm not sure whether she will. Since her father's latest move, they're really not as near us as they used to be. Evvy?"
"Also staying with my parents for at least the first part of the holidays and Christmas. All three of my brothers are out of the country - the first two permanently settled overseas, the third currently somewhere off the coast of Korea I believe - so I could hardly not stay for the main day at least. After that, I'm not sure: I've had a few offers from friends but I've not gotten around to arranging anything yet." Evvy's eyes were curiously distant, and Peggy wondered which particular thought had distracted her. She felt a sudden and inexplicable rush of jealousy.
"I didn't know you had a brother in active service, Evvy." Pam commented when the silence threatened to become oppressive.
Evvy shrugged. "I don't suppose I ever talk about him. We've not really been in contact much for a while."
The flow of people leaving the hall had petered out, and their attention was now drawn to the small crowd who remained near the front, just below the stage upon which Ruth and Biddy were cheerfully directing the elder members of their flock in dismantling the props and scenery. "Oh, Jo's here!" Slater muttered wickedly. "Do you know, I hadn't even noticed."
Evvy snorted, clapping a sheepish hand over her mouth as she turned to Peggy in some uncertainty. Peggy also smiled, her brief flash of jealousy forgotten. She couldn't remember a time when she had not known Joey, who always had been a rather larger-than-life type of person to be around; Peggy was accordingly very used to her by now, and as fond of her as you might expect her to be, but she was also clear-sighted enough to recognise that Lady Russell's gregarious younger sister might - justifiably - not be quite to everyone's taste.
"I'm going to go over and see those babies of hers, then. Evvy, you're not heading straight off, are you? I expect there'll be mince pies and whatnot in the staff-room once everyone's done here."
Evvy nodded with a smile, the dreamy look now definitely gone from her face. "I'm going to go and see if I can help with the stage, but I'll see you again later - you too, Slater," and with that she strode off decisively. Peggy watched her go, her stomach somersaulting, as she herself hurried over to Jo's little group.
The atmosphere in the staff-room that evening was one of celebration mingled with justly exhaustion; the conversation, though unerringly cheerful, was marked by a certain languor, and as the first few weary souls made their excuses and headed bedwards, the others sighed in agreement. For a great number of them, this was not yet the end of term: they would be supervising any number of girls travelling to various major train stations tomorrow, a potent combination of somnolent rail travel with the grave responsibility for their girls who - as Pam Slater observed - might mostly be fine and sensible, but nonetheless contained an impressive handful of loose cannons.
Having exchanged an affectionate continental double-kiss with Jo, who was spending the night at the School but intending to remain hidden from view until all pupils had departed - a condition Peggy suspected might have been enforced by someone other than that woman herself - Peggy flung her arms around Evvy. "Merry Christmas! And see you both next year."
For a long time that night, Peggy lay awake remembering the solid warmth of Evvy's torso, how precisely it had fitted against her own, how perfectly her tired head rested below Evvy's firm chin, rising and falling with Evvy's ragged breathing.
In the books, I believe Rosalie's father moves to Kent as soon as he comes back from the Caribbean/when Rosalie leaves after Head Girl. With an EBD-like disregard for chronology, or alternatively by drawing on Peggy's extraordinary ageing/lack thereof in the series, I'd like to suggest Peggy at least remembers spending a number of Christmases with Rosalie, even if they weren't quite as recent as her comment here maybe suggests...
"Well! Aren't we an impressive collection of international jetsetters?" Nell demanded, once they had all been generously served with coffee and buns.
"That's not the half of it," Hilda returned demurely, twinkling at her secretary. "Why, Rosalie and I are beginning to think ourselves frequent customers of this cafe, we've had reason to be here so often this term."
Rosalie smiled. She had frequently noted the difference Nell's absence had made to Hilda this term, and there was something fitting about this temporary reunion in Cardiff: a familiar cafe, and a very familiar old friend. "But this is the nicest reason yet. It is good to see you again, Nell. Without wishing to cast the slightest aspersion on Hilda's single-handed navigation, there've certainly been moments this term where we've wanted for your, ah -"
"Lack of tact?" Hilda cut in wickedly. "You seem to be managing that perfectly well on your own, my dear."
Rosalie laughed. "Actually, I was more inclining towards 'forthrightness', if that's even a word; but now I see you've got that angle very well covered yourself!"
Nell snorted. "Thanks for the flowers! That's some welcome, from the pair of you! And I suppose you think I've simply been twiddling my thumbs and gazing through the window in Switzerland?"
"Haven't you?" Hilda demanded sweetly. "Girls of seventeen and eighteen are never even a fraction of the bother the younger girls can be, when they put their minds to it."
"Oh, don't I know it? I've more than earned my spurs in dealing with Middles, if you'll remember, so just you keep off trying to teach me about the perils of schoolgirls and in return I'll neglect to correct your dubious maths. 'A fraction', indeed! Any fraction in particular, Hilda?"
Hilda rolled her eyes dramatically. "I foresee a tediously detailed maths lesson over Christmas - probably actually on Christmas morning, knowing you. Is it too late to put you on the next plane back to Welsen?"
Rosalie realised that she, too, had missed the warmth of their bickering. "You can't just put everyone you find hard work on an aeroplane," she pointed out now. "Nell, honestly, you ought to have seen her joy once we'd handed Emerence Hope over at the airport. I almost expected you to break into a victory dance, Hilda - and that would have been most undignified!"
"Fortunately, you are already scheduled to be flown far, far away this afternoon, my dear - and then I shall be free of your cheek, too. That really may call for a victory dance! All the same, I was enormously relieved to hand her over. Emerence is a lovely child, underneath, but - oh! So trying."
Rosalie saw a chance, and grabbed at it. "Well, we all know who we can blame for that. Do you hear from Con Stewart much these days, Nell?" Bland, impassive, conversational.
"No." Nell replied shortly.
Hilda's gaze flicked between the two of them: her glance was only momentary, but there was a certain something in those blue-grey eyes which had never yet needed glasses - enough to leave her closest colleague embarrassed for her curtness, her secretary for her apparent thoughtlessness. Both were quick to change the subject.
The conversation moved swiftly on, the three women comparing the terms they had just finished and finding much to laugh over - although, as Hilda was heard to remark plaintively, sometimes it wasn't that the occasion was funny so much as that one could find no better way of coping with it. But in that solitary syllable, Rosalie had heard enough to answer the lingering question in her mind; and when Nell and Hilda dropped her off at the airport, where she was immediately met by Jack, Jo and the two small babies, she began to realise that a certain underlying anxiety she had been carrying for a number of weeks was now significantly eased.
Family Christmas 1 by crm
Christmas was forced. But then, Rhyll wondered in indifferent silence, when was Christmas ever not forced?
She had spent much of that first week of the holidays unobtrusively taking care of the jobs around the house which now lay beyond her parents' comfort; she worked silently and out of sight as far as possible, wanting to avoid offending her father's pride or inflaming her mother's eternal disappointment in having a daughter who could cheerfully carry the coal and shovel the snow from the front path with such ease. Some people might think that fortunate, Rhyll retorted in her mind, seeing as I'm the only one here to do it. The observation was made with more amusement than resentment: who would ever have predicted that she would be the sole Christmas visitor, year after year? And how could that stinking disappointment - disappointment which was supposed to be her fault, her wrong clothes, wrong hair, wrong attitude, her persistent lack of any husband - be squared with these demonstrable benefits all her uncompromising wrongness provided? Who would now be clearing the path and excavating the attic if she, too, had been hundreds of miles away, fully - daintily - occupied with a family of her own?
Nobody tells you how the echoes of happy childhood will deafen you when everyone else is gone, when no other children arrive to take their place. It is an odd beast, this adult family Christmas when reminiscence is too delicate to attempt; when none of the indelicate next generation huddle nearby, clamouring too noisily for attention to permit their parents and grandparents enough time to notice that the transient closeness of their own childhood has passed and all that remains is a disparate collection of people who no longer know each other. She sat politely to be shown what seemed like an endless collection of photographs of cousins, second cousins, their spouses and their children: children she had known vaguely as friends once, but not given any thought to in years. There were no photographs of her, she knew that much for certain, but did she at least get a mention? No pretty pictures of chubby toddlers smiling shyly at the camera, granted; no uniformed portrait, a smart cap perched above a rakish grin, no reverent whisper of chief engineer, you know. Head gardener, had that counted for something? Did schoolmistress make for a respectable improvement or a pragmatic compromise of some sort? Best not to know.
Rhyll and her mother prepared the Christmas dinner together, Rhyll doubting that such effort for the three of them could truly be worth it and wondering whether her mother secretly entertained the same doubt. What she lacked in a certain daughterly femininity she knew her mother still coveted, she made up for in industriousness, scrubbing and peeling and remembering not to swear over the temperamental gas cooker. She permitted herself a small reminiscent smile at this, choosing to reflect on the noisy familial impatience with disobedient household objects - a habit she recognised in almost all of her immediate family, could have filled an album with similar moments from Everett Christmases through the years - rather than on the double standards which held her expressions of irritation as less permissible than those of her father or brothers.
"Might I copy down the address for Julian later?" she asked nonchalantly, her back towards her mother as she wiped down the kitchen table. "I think I'd like to write to him soon."
Had she turned around, she would have seen Mrs Everett's eyebrows fly upwards in surprise, followed by a creeping curiosity. As it was, she heard only the careful restraint of her mother's voice matching her own. "Of course you can. I'll fetch it out after dinner. You know it can take quite a time to hear back, naturally."
Rhyll nodded briskly, returning the washcloth to the big cast-iron sink by the window. "I shouldn't wonder it does. Thank you, I appreciate it."
Something about the request, she suspected, had eased her mother's mood - opening up the possibility, perhaps, that she might yet at least get both her youngest back for one future Christmas. Perhaps Julian's presence might even overcome the emptiness of these austere occasions, bowing under years of unspoken regret and disappointment. Probably it would, in fact: Julian had the goodwill and vivacity for it, or at least he had done once. Whatever the cause, Christmas day was the most relaxed day since Rhyll's arrival a week earlier. Dinner was quietly acknowledged by all three to be a great success, and after it had all been cleared away they reconvened in the sitting room, where Rhyll curled up in her armchair with a light novel, politely resisting the urge to jump up to help her father who was fiddling with the radio and muttering crossly under his breath.
As if she had been waiting for this distraction, Mrs Everett laid down her knitting and leaned forward to pass Rhyll a torn piece of note-paper. "There you are. You may as well keep that for yourself, Betty - I have it written down in the address book in any case," she hesitated for a moment, seeming to want to add more, but then sat back, as if she had decided against it.
"Thank you," Rhyll murmured, glancing down at the address before folding it neatly and tucking it safely between the pages of her book. A burst of music from the radio announced the victor of that particular battle, and Mr Everett stood back in satisfaction so pronounced it was all she could do to suppress a grin. The interruption cemented the end of any discussion with her mother, and this too pleased her; whether, what and when she planned to write to her brother was something she was still debating with herself, and she had no intention of committing to any of it by talking about it, even if it concerned subjects she could broach with her parents - which it didn't.
The year which was ending had been, for the most part, an unexceptional one; but the year stretching out ahead held far greater promise. It felt at least as auspicious a time as any other to try mending bridges. She began another two letters to Julian after retiring to the bedroom they had once shared that evening, before sighing and folding them over and over, compact little rectangles as small as she could make them, kept carefully by her pillow until she could discreetly drop them in the blazing fire downstairs the next day. Three attempts - even more hesitantly begun - addressed to Peggy Burnett met the same fate, and Rhyll was by this time cold and fed up; taking it as a sign, she gave it up for the day and extinguished her lamp before getting into bed. Christmas was over, and her duty here all but done. In another two days, she would be off and away again, taking some much-needed time by herself, and maybe then she would be able to think more clearly.
Thanks for reading and commenting. :)
The pub was long and narrow, and had a sort of snug bar at the back, divided from the street end by a step and a curtain: she had sat in there once, young and belligerent, but it was years since she had been here and she knew better, was too world-weary, to tread on anyone's toes tonight. Arriving not long after eight o'clock, on a rainy evening during the oppressively-familial season of goodwill, Rhyll had plenty of choice for a seat, settling for a small table halfway down the dingy room from which she could watch idly, her thoughts elsewhere.
She supposed she knew what she had come for, since she hadn't found herself a room anywhere. It wasn't only that, though: it was the freedom of these four grubby walls and the dark low ceiling, the simultaneous sense of novelty and coming home. Her train had limped into Temple Meads at half-past five, not as far behind schedule as she had anticipated, and as she left her big bag at the left-luggage office she had considered picking up some bottles from the off-licence and knocking hopefully at a handful of familiar doors; but that could all wait until tomorrow. The first thing she had wanted to do, the thing she had come here for, was to sit and watch and breathe more easily, at least for as long as she stayed inside here, and it wasn't only that, it was to finish the occasion properly by going home with somebody else.
Somebody who wasn't Peggy.
Rhyll had thought it through over and over; had written, in her mind, a hundred thousand more letters to follow those three she had dropped carefully into the coal fire on Boxing Day morning. She knew what to do, knew Peggy was just too dangerous, knew she needed to stop all contact bar the most innocuous: if she wouldn't say it to Hilda Annersley, she shouldn't say it to Peggy, was the pleasingly-simple solution she had come to. Peggy, warm sinewy arms clutched tight around Evvy in guileless affection, right there in the staff-room with no regard for who else was there or how cynical, how un-Peggy-like they might be in their thoughts, could not be trusted. So Rhyll knew what to do, and going home with somebody else would be the way to do it.
(How tawdry it sounds; how unthinking towards the other party. But, Rhyll reasons with herself, the 'other party' will be pursuing an agenda equally tawdry. In the end, this is an unspoken meeting of secret needs by accident more than design; it is the mutually-recognisable desire to prolong the novel-familiarity of this pub beyond the time they call for last orders; it is a desperate - measured - indifferent grappling for some moment of connection, no more or less than two amiable strangers making polite conversation on a train station platform.)
Rhyll had thought it through over and over, and didn't know what to do; she saw little sense in resolving once again to pull back, to do nothing with Peggy that she wouldn't do with her Headmistress, and she saw even less sense in not making such a resolution. She must speak to Peggy - writing was even more dangerous, she had realised that on Christmas night as she lay in bed eyeing the screwed-up letters anxiously, pulling them right under her pillow before she could relax enough to sleep - and she must make her understand. Understand what? Rhyll remembered Peggy leaning into her, warm sinewy arms clutched tight around her, such guileless affection - not only affection - and glanced blankly down at her glass. Maybe Peggy was the one who understood. Rhyll sighed: she didn't know what to do, but going home with somebody else would help her work it out.
"Penny for 'em?"
Rhyll looked up, putting a face to the woman she had only been aware of as a vague shape moving decisively towards her. She was tall and handsome, with coppery red hair pinned loosely back from her face. She was definitely not Peggy. Rhyll smiled. "They're not worth it. As a matter of fact, they're all gone..."
The tall woman grinned, exposing slightly crooked teeth. They suited her, Rhyll thought. "What're you drinking?"
Familiarity. Rhyll retraced the steps she had made time and again before as they sought refuge in a conversation which was both scripted and truthful, the clichèd lines a shorthand for truths they both recognised and understood, giving away much but confirming little. It was more than an hour later, emerging from the pub doorway after a tentative glance to see who might be nearby, that her companion leaned confidentially towards her to ask her name. "After all," she muttered below the steady patter of rain, "I'll be needing to call it later..."
Rhyll laughed automatically, delighting in such an explicit exchange after the stifling silence of the time at her parents, but struck again at how very emphatically this woman was not Peggy. She felt a wistful pang even as she answered, tucking the other woman's arm more tightly through her own. The name she gave was not her own; she wondered whether her companion's answer was any more truthful.
The flat was not far away. Ten minutes, if that. Five corners, Rhyll mapped them in her mind as they walked, deep in superficial conversation. Her host flicked the lights on impatiently as she closed the door behind them, and Rhyll could not help but pick out the little traces of male presence in the small sitting room. The tall woman with the red hair followed the direction of her gaze, landing squarely on a small bottle of aftershave tucked away on the dresser.
Her face set. "Not here. Not been here for a long time. Korea. You can just go if you want-"
Rhyll interrupted gently, laying a soothing hand on a willowy, agitated arm. "Navy? My brother, too."
The woman gave her a look, as if to check she had really understood, was not imagining that the man missing from this flat was merely another brother. Rhyll nodded and she seemed to relax again. "Let me get you a towel."
She ducked through another door into a dark hallway beyond, reappearing seconds later clutching a grey towel which had clearly seen better days. With a sudden shy smile she stepped close and rubbed at Rhyll's drenched hair. "You'll catch your death like that..."
The unexpected husband had not perturbed Rhyll, but this small tenderness somehow did. Apologetically, she edged backwards. "I'm sorry - I can't - I have to go now, Jean. I'm sorry-"
Her face fell. "No! Oh, look, I'm sorry, I should have said something sooner. I didn't expect you to notice - people don't, as a rule - oh, at least stay and have some tea. You can't go back out in that, and where are you going to go at this time of night anyway? Stay here, sleep on the sofa."
"It's not that - it's really not that. Not at all. I just - I shouldn't be here."
Her host looked at her consideringly, eyes narrowed in thought. "Oh, you too? Well. Let's just have a pot of tea, then. Nothing else. You shouldn't be out in that so far from home, and I'll be glad of the company - even if it's a touch different to what I'd been expecting."
Rhyll stood for a moment in thought, caught off-balance by this unexpected frankness. Had she been quite clear enough? She didn't want to have to go through this again later; she felt bad enough for doing it once. But perhaps this woman who strolled confidently from her marital home to the Radnor and back again would be as good as her word; in spite of a rather glaring omission, she had shown herself formidably plain-speaking thus far. Tea sounded appealing, and all the more so for watching the cold rain outside trickle down the window-pane. And it was true: where else, at this hour of the night, could she go?
So she turned gratefully to her companion for the night and nodded. "Tea would be very nice."
Some of the detail here - including the opening sentence - has been lovingly borrowed from the fabulous OutStories Bristol website: http://outstoriesbristol.org.uk/places/pubs-clubs/radnor-hotel/
Family Christmas 2 by crm
"So, how was Canada? The detailed version this time, if you please!" Mary stifled a grin as her genial tones were met with identical embarrassed grimaces from her younger sisters. "Yes, I know you two were happy to let it go as a brief pleasantry over lunch and get on with your own lengthy enumerations-"
"We were getting there," protested the middle sister, flushed with indignation but nonetheless unable to suppress a grin of her own.
Peggy snorted sceptically. "Were we? You speak for yourself, Kitty! I'm sorry, Rosalie. It's just because it's so thrilling to have you here again - hasn't it been such years since we've all been together? Still, that's no excuse for appalling manners." Her smile shifted rapidly from apologetic to winsome as she rearranged herself comfortably in the big armchair by the blazing fire. "Now, let's hear all about it. Another chocolate?" She indicated the box, though her sprawling position had left her unable to reach and offer properly, earning another look of sanguine disapproval from Mary.
Rosalie shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm stuffed. How you can, after such a meal!"
"She's still growing - or trying to," Kitty put in with a grin, and Peggy rolled her eyes, pointedly returning her attention to their new visitor in expectation.
Rosalie chuckled before continuing. "Canada was gorgeous. Such lovely crisp air - I couldn't help being reminded of the Tyrol. You can see exactly why they pitched on there for Margot and Josette - and quite fine specimens they're growing into, as well as all the rest! Jo's latest two are perfect darlings - pretty little flaxen-heads, and such a funny contrast in Jo's arms."
Mary gave a distant smile. "Yes, Peggy said that too. And Madge? How is she?"
Rosalie thought for a moment. "Better, I fancy, than when she was over before Christmas. All that dreadful business with Mollie Bettany rather took it out of her, and I think between that, her own twins - who are a thoroughly charming pair but brimful of wickedness! - and keeping a watchful eye on Jo and her brood, it's probably taking her a while to buck up again. Madge takes on a lot, though sometimes so quietly people don't fully notice it."
"It takes one to know one," Mary murmured pointedly.
Rosalie's cheeks coloured and she shrugged self-consciously. "Perhaps. Not this Christmas, however! I feel very much rested."
"Even now, after all the travelling you've done since?" Kitty wanted to know. "You've been to Kent already, haven't you?"
"Only for a couple of nights. It's a busy time of year for a curate, you know, and I shouldn't want to impose with my mere presence." She giggled suddenly. "I saw Hilda briefly at Exeter on my way here, and the first thing she wanted to know was whether I'd already undone all the good Canada had done me by pitching in too generously with the parish work! Well, she put it rather more grammatically, as you might expect, but that was the gist of it. I must be growing rather more assertive with age, or otherwise making great strides in my endurance, for I could honestly say I'd exerted myself very little over it."
"And that's why you've come here in a car!" Peggy exclaimed. "I'd meant to ask you about that."
Rosalie nodded. "Hilda's taken the train to see the Bettanys. I think she's still not supposed to be driving long distances, after that head injury years ago. Nell Wilson had driven them as far as Exeter - I'm not sure if you've ever heard Hilda on the subject of Nell's driving, but you can rest assured it's not something she tends to submit gladly to without good reason!"
"I for one don't blame her!" Mary shuddered. "Bill gave Hilary and me a lift to Armiford once. One such journey was more than enough!"
They all laughed heartily, although Rosalie was moved to acknowledge that at least nobody could ever arrive late on Nell's watch.
"H'mph. Punctual, but hair-raising? No, I still maintain that once was more than enough. I'd rather be late! Not that it even need be such a trade-off at all. Why, you're a rather nifty driver yourself, without all of the - the -"
"The heart-in-mouth racing panoply?" Rosalie supplied with a ringing laugh. "I suppose you might put it like that..."
"Still," Peggy interjected. "There's a place for heart-in-mouth, isn't there?"
"There's a place for a peaceful life," Mary retorted, "and you'd do well to heed the value of it."
Peggy, catching an unexpected undercurrent of sincerity in her sister's flippant remark, gave her a curious look; both Mary's tone and Peggy's glance were momentary in the extreme, but neither were so minuscule as to escape Rosalie's notice. Her good mood sank inwardly, as she rapidly ran through the coded reassurances she might offer each of them, the implicit understanding that simply maintaining a surface silence ought to be sufficient - but of course she couldn't; no level of obliqueness was enough to escape the tangled web of confidences that that particular implicit understanding was founded on. Outwardly, she didn't miss a beat: "I'm not so sure it's always so stark a choice, really. And on that note, didn't I see some cards lying on the table over there? Rouse yourself and fetch them, Peggy! Ten rummy?"
Two days after Rosalie had arrived, the time came for her to return to the School. Fortunately for Kitty, this coincided neatly with the end of her own leave, and Rosalie instantly offered to drive her up. Peggy, who was on escort duty, and Mary, who had volunteered to accompany her brothers as far as Southampton, whence they would be met by their own escort masters and she would fly home, had another afternoon's holiday still ahead of them.
"Three whole weeks!" Kitty had remarked with undisguised envy as she leaned through the passenger window to bid her sisters farewell.
"Yes, and I earned them too," Peggy retorted with a kiss on each cheek. "For once I'm back, my time shan't be my own again for weeks on end. It's not like you, my lamb, walking out of the hospital at the end of the day and answerable to no-one but yourself-"
"-for eleven whole hours, Peg! Eleven hours to eat, wash, sleep, wash, eat and get back there again for more. Don't strain yourself in your envy, my dear, I scarcely think you'll find it's worth it!"
Mary looked past her at the sunny-faced driver and rolled her eyes affectionately. "Come up and see us at half-term, Rosalie. I don't expect we can compare too favourably with Canada but it would be lovely to have you."
"I will! I will. Write to me and we can arrange it. Kitty, all ready? Then we're off! See you tomorrow, Peggy. 'Bye, Mary!" and they were away, Kitty still waving madly from the window until the car had rounded a bend in the lane and disappeared from view.
Peggy turned to her eldest sister now. "And what was all that about the value of a peaceful life, the other day?"
Mary glanced quickly at the open door behind them, ushering her a little further away from it. "Don't shout like that! No, we needn't get our outside coats, for I've very little to say."
"Could've fooled me," Peggy muttered, sotto voce.
Mary laughed a little, a gesture of goodwill and intimacy to sweeten the pill. "I hope you don't use such awful Americanisms when you're teaching! It's only this: here we are, weeks - even months! - later, and you're still mooning about whenever you think nobody's watching you, like - like a girl in love. You need to stop it, Peggy. Maybe you don't realise how - how completely transparent you are. I don't know what you're thinking, and I don't want to. You mustn't go on like this - making something out of nothing and never heeding the risks that might bring!"
Peggy's face darkened. Of course her relief had been premature; of course Mary's placid acceptance had been conditional. "It's not 'nothing'," was all she could manage, her voice choked with disappointed ire. She remembered Evvy's hand in hers, Evvy's rough hands gently teasing the sand from her scalp, her head resting below Evvy's chin, feeling her unsteady breathing as she'd hugged her goodbye. It could not all be nothing.
"You said it was nothing before. You see, that's the problem: you dwell on something too long and then you can't let it be nothing any more, you make something - something morbid of it. You're not being careful, don't you see? I know you, Peggy, and I love you - and in any case I couldn't care less if - if - but anyway, that's me. Other people who don't know you so well, they might jump to all sorts of conclusions and then - do you remember Joey's story, about Eilunedd Vaughn and the chicken feathers? You can't get it back, if all this misplaced daydreaming makes anyone think twice. Don't let it come to that, don't throw everything away for something you don't know about, for something even you said was nothing at all."
Peggy stared at the cold ground, biting down her instinctive defensive retorts and instead carefully weighing the contents of Mary's impassioned plea: if the understanding was incomplete, it was still a strikingly-perceptive assessment, given she had had so little but intuition to go on - and yet, you expected that with Mary, somehow. And for all Mary's frenzied insistence, a thread of unswerving support weft perceptibly through her ukase; her good intentions could not be faulted. Peggy reached out for the olive branch, choosing diplomatic love over quibbling truth as she met her sister's worried gaze with a slow nod and motioned back towards the house, conceding that the discussion was over.
Thanks again for the comments!
Women like that could be dangerous.
Rhyll was acutely aware of Peggy's gaze along the table at Abendessen, and this awareness stiffened her resolve. She kept her attentions very carefully focused on the chatter of her nearer neighbours, Jeanne de Lachenais and Pam Slater, and silently hoped that she would get the chance to speak quickly and privately with Peggy before leaving that evening. She intended to begin this term as she meant to go on - and to say what she meant to say, before she changed her mind again.
"There's not much to rival the schoolgirl grapevine, is there?" Slater murmured with a nod in the direction of the tables buzzing with excited chatter in front of them.
"I do not know how they do it," agreed Jeanne, "but indeed, I have lost count of how many girls seem already to know the details of Loveday's departure - or at least, to know that there is something to be known."
Rhyll gave a quiet mumble which she hoped would pass for agreement. It was true, and it was unsettling, the speed with which news travelled from nowhere to everywhere. It reflected more than just the intimacy of the community: it was also accounted for by the very nature of schoolgirls, to no sooner have a passing thought than that they gave voice to it. She wished Peggy would stop trying to catch her eye.
"I imagine tomorrow's news will fill their minds so comprehensively that this evening's will be quite forgotten," Slater added with a conspiratorial grin. Quite. But it never really is, is it? And yesterday's news can still be damage enough, even if most people forget it in time.
Rhyll did not say this out loud - in any case, it belonged to an entirely different conversation. With all the casual dissonance she had spent much of her life refining, not missing a beat in the outward conversation whilst frenetically working through another in her mind, she offered up a perfectly bland remark: "I wonder how all that will go? I foresee teething problems, at the very least."
"Don't be such a Cassandra!" Rosalind Moore put in laughingly from the other side of the table. "I'm sure it will be fine. What do you think, Mlle? You've done this before, haven't you?"
"But yes, with the Saint Scholastika's - and you are correct, on this occasion it was all quite smooth. But it was a long time ago - when we were still in Tyrol - and a much smaller school ourselves. Finalement it depends, I think, on how these girls will be: with Saint Scholastika, we inherited an excellent group of prefects - including our own Hilairie among them! - and this was indispensable. So we will see, who are the leaders of our new enfants this term."
"Well, however it will turn out, there's nothing to be gained from fretting about it now." Slater concluded pragmatically. "Let's not borrow trouble."
This, too: there is some great truth in it.
"Peggy! Have you five minutes to spare me?" They were standing in the hall, low voices unheard below Dorothy Lawrence's uptempo march and the inevitable noise of even the most sedate of schoolgirls leaving the room in form-lines.
Rhyll's heart lurched guiltily as Peggy's eyes shone up at her in response. "Come along to my remedial room when we're done here. You know where it is?"
She nodded, trying to keep her face composed, the better to thwart any attempts Peggy might have made to guess her intentions: neither misplaced excitement nor premature anxiety would be a kind gift at this point. It was a matter of less than five minutes, she knew - and she also knew just how much damage could be done in such a short space of time, with a mind racing fast enough; so she held her face still, blank eyes straight ahead, chin lifted, every ounce of self-control she possessed fully engaged in this charade of grotesque neutrality.
"So?" Peggy demanded cheerfully, as she carefully wedged a chair below the door-handle. What a room this is, Rhyll thought, what a room to have at one's disposal. It was very small, and rather Spartan in its furnishing; she would not truly want to work forlong in such a windowless box, but - unseen, remote and apparently almost lockable - it surely offered certain advantages. Peggy turned to her with a dazzling, expectant smile. Rhyll winced and closed her eyes, as if by doing so she could just make it all go away.
"Evvy?" This time her voice was far less certain.
Rhyll opened her eyes. "You can't sit and stare at me all through supper like that."
Peggy was watching her, impassive, waiting.
"And - what happened last term. It can't happen again."
Peggy gave a short laugh, but made no effort to disguise its despondent tone. "So we've both done some thinking over Christmas, then? Perhaps you don't need me to tell you that this isn't quite the conversation I'd been planning on..."
Rhyll hadn't expected to be met with such frankness, and correspondingly felt even smaller than she had done when Peggy had first smiled excitedly up at her in the hall. Still, as she had begun, she had to continue now, had to make a thorough job of it. "I think you don't have the faintest clue as to what you're letting yourself in for," she said abruptly. "I think you've just been drifting along and now here you are and whatever it is that's going on here, Peggy, it's not something you can just drift along with."
"English as she is spoke!" Peggy commented, almost automatically. "Look, Evvy - don't treat me as if I were some kid who didn't know her own mind. All right, so I haven't thought all this through as much as you might have done, but I'm thinking now. You have to believe me." Perhaps seeing an almost imperceptible softening in Rhyll's tense face, she pushed on: "You know, I don't think you do think I'm some kid who doesn't know her own mind. I think you're just frightened of the possibility I might be."
Rhyll almost felt herself begin to trust in what she said; there was something to Peggy, some kind of edge that always caught her breath when she noticed it, sudden hints that however much Peggy's formative life might have always been strongly governed by the narrowly-drawn structures of boarding school, she had somehow seen beyond them with unusually clear sight; odd little moments of reprieve. This occasion was no different - how on earth had Peggy grasped so thoroughly a doubt which Rhyll would never, ever have given voice to, much less have summarised so succinctly?
But with the same well-practised dissonance she had used with Slater and Mlle over Abendessen, her voiced response gave nothing away: "That's not it. At least, that's not all of it. You don't have the duplicity for an affair of this kind, Burnett. You shouldn't try to acquire it, either - that's not who you are, and it's nothing to aspire to. All the same, it's just not possible. I don't know about you, but I need this job."
She paused a moment to let this sink in, then laid her hand on the chair by the door. "I'm going to go now. I will see you around as usual, and I will talk to you just as I would to anyone else, but we will never mention this again."
Thanks again for some lovely comments!
Bits in bold are taken directly from 'Bride Leads the CS'.
Peggy fidgeted with her final bowl of flowers, tweaking restlessly at the hyacinths and jonquils, the better to keep her head down until Miss Annersley arrived and provided sufficient distraction for both herself and the rest of the room.
"Will you stop worrying at those flowers, now?" Biddy O'Ryan demanded from where she knelt at the fireplace, carefully nurturing a aromatic blaze of applewood and fircones. "They looked just fine five minutes ago, so they did, and they look precisely the same now. Evvy! You'll be the authority on this. The flowers look just grand, don't they?"
Without looking up, Peggy could hear the grin spreading across Evvy's face as she spoke. "What have I ever done to give you the impression I'm any authority on flower-arranging, Biddy?"
"You look the sort," Slater murmured innocently from across the room, to be met with shouts of laughter. Peggy forced a smile; if she at least smiled, then anyone who chanced to look too closely at her bent-over face might not notice anything amiss.
"Well, I'm sure I don't know what the big difference is," Biddy retorted. "A flower is a flower is a flower, whether it's in a vase or in the earth or sketched neatly on the background with all of its composite parts clearly labelled."
"Indeed. Yes, for all it's worth - which really isn't all you seem to credit it, Biddy! - I do think they look very well, Burnett."
Peggy glanced up at this, offered a quick and cautious smile: to do otherwise would be more conspicuous than anything. She looked away again, her eyes taking in the clock on the wall. The Abbess would be arriving at any minute, thank goodness. Peggy did not want to have to engage with any more truly informal chatter, and the Head's presence, even in this supposedly-informal capacity, would shift the tone most satisfactorily for this purpose. Nobody would expect too much gregariousness from a mere staff baby in the company of the Head. She left the bulbs alone at last, retreating to a pouffe near where Rosalind Moore and Cicely Armitage were sat talking quietly and, after a quick smile of greeting at them both, curled up with an expectant eye on the closed door.
Two weeks had passed, two weeks since Evvy had told her so abruptly that it was all nothing, had to be nothing, that some incurable and charming quirk of her own nature made everything impossible. Peggy had reeled privately, then turned to and got on with her job as wholeheartedly as ever, and in the daytime at least she had scarcely a spare moment to dwell on any of it. But the evenings were difficult, trying to force the usual jollity of the staff-room; she wasn't sure if the worst evenings were those like tonight, when Evvy was there, being her normal brisk self, talking with as much impenetrable nonchalance to Peggy as she did with anyone else; or whether worse were the times that she wasn't there at all, when Peggy's old familiar yearning returned but more powerfully, coloured with a feeling of loss that hadn't been there before.
The Head sniffed delightedly as she entered. "Apple-wood! How I love the smell of burning applewood! And what gorgeous bulbs! Who is responsible for those?"
Peggy gave a small smile and an embarrassed murmur at this effusive praise. Then someone pushed forward a big armchair for Miss Annersley and she sat down and produced a letter from inside her box of candies, at sight of which most people exclaimed joyfully.
"That from Jo?" demanded Evvy, and Peggy felt a surge of resentment that the other woman dared to be there, so unapologetic in her presence, resolutely refusing to sit quietly in a corner, cheerfully and unfairly sticking to her promise that everything would carry on as normal. None of this can be normal. Didn't you once say that, Evvy? Didn't you say that 'it's not the same thing'?
Not to be outdone, Peggy found a breezy smile and reached forward enthusiastically as Miss Annersley doled out the photographs. "Jo's right about herself, anyway," she said with a chuckle. "The woman looks a regular tub!"
"What? Let me see!" Biddy squeezed in beside her to peer at the snaps, and Peggy was uncomfortably aware that Evvy had moved nearer in order to see over their shoulders. Biddy's protests that much of the 'tub' was merely clothing drifted past Peggy largely unheard, as she tensed at the familiar reverberation of Evvy's voice, so close - too close. Resentment at her unrelenting indifference was, to Peggy's great annoyance, quickly met with sudden breathlessness; and when Ruth Derwent crowded in too at Biddy's behest, Peggy was both relieved and disappointed by the diluting effect her proximity had on Evvy's, the clandestine intimacy shattered.
Peggy felt that same mix of gratitude and chagrin when Jeanne de Lachenais judged the moment right to move the conversation from Jo to the evening's great problem, Diana Skelton. It was a topic on which she herself had very little to say, and it made for quite pleasant respite to sit demurely on the pouffe and listen with quiet interest to the expositions of her colleagues around her; and yet, at the same time, it was almost unbearable to sit serenely listening to Evvy holding forth with unusual preoccupation, from the other side of the room now, her breath no longer growling and tickling down Peggy's neck as she gave vent to her annoyance.
And this is how it is now: the rain lashes against the window panes, day after day and night after night, and the absence of something which can only ever be nothing whistles around Peggy just like the chill winter wind. She spends long days trying to blast the restlessness from her young charges, always in the vain hope that it will achieve something similar for her own hot turmoil. She grasps at the moments of humour, and practises this absurd new normality which exists between Evvy and herself. But none of it is ever quite enough any more.
Thank you very much for the comments!
I think I have the ending in sight at last... I reckon there's another five chapters or so to go, depending how efficiently I can tie up the loose ends which seem to be spilling out all over the place.
Let's not borrow trouble.
Rhyll rolled Slater's words around in her mind as she sat in an empty staff-room on yet another rainy February day. She was not, on the whole, given to dwelling on past decisions; but this time, bitter regret lingered stubbornly, stalking her in quiet moments such as these. But for the weather, she would have been faced with far fewer such occasions: it had been decided, and with great reason, to restrict the Junior Middles' gardening to practical lessons only, extra dictation and arithmetic taking their place when the rain made going outside impossible.
"It doesn't seem very fair," she had offered with tactful honesty at that first staff meeting of the term, "if I'm not even to take them for their spellings and sums in those periods. Isn't there anything at all I could usefully do?"
Her diffidence had been met with breezy unconcern. "Well, that's your good fortune, isn't it?" Slater had shrugged, any number of quick nods around the room indicating that she spoke for all of them. "It's nothing to apologise for. Doubtless these things even out over the course of the year."
"All the same," Biddy had put in thoughtfully, "'Tis young Peggy'll have the lion's share for as long as the bad weather holds out. 'Tis a job and a half to wear out the young demons when they're starved of their outside exercise, I can tell you! If you've the inclination, Evvy, and it pleases Peggy, I'd say that's the best direction for your spare time."
Peggy had looked up at the mention, and flushed as she nodded with her usual engaging smile. "That would certainly be helpful, if you could, Evvy. I don't doubt I'll have a lot on my plate. I'll have a think and throw you some ideas later this week?"
But of course the following evening Rhyll had pursued a wholly different discussion, and neither had ever broached the subject of this possible delegation again. She felt a further stab of guilt now, on top of the worm-like feeling from looking Peggy squarely in the face - that excited, open face - and telling her that nothing further could ever happen between them; as if that hadn't been enough, she had added insult to injury by failing to make good her offer of help, as an obvious and direct consequence of her own harsh pronouncement. So much for professionalism! She contemplated walking away altogether, before she could make anything worse. It was not the best time of year for finding a new job. She thought of her work here with the girls, the plans they had made only this week for this year's crop rotation in the kitchen garden, the flowers waiting the winter out in the glass houses. She thought of her rooms, sparsely decorated perhaps but still her own, and far more private than many tenants might have; her address printed neatly at the top of that letter she had finally re-drafted to her satisfaction and posted. She couldn't just walk away; she had too many other things to get on with here first - and where could she go, anyway?
Let's not borrow trouble. It was true, but it was also glib. It had been the right thing to do, to head off the mere possibility of trouble at the start of term. A clean start to the new year. If she did now insist on entertaining some futile and self-indulgent regret, surely the only defensible regret was to have not dealt with the matter decisively far sooner - as she had always known she ought.
"The fact of the matter is this," her hostess had opined with a slight slur, that night in Bristol when numerous cups of tea had been followed with too many glasses of something stronger, "the famous fact is that people do silly things for love. Now, I think more fool them, but then what do I ever know? But the fact of the matter is this: what you're talking about isn't even love. How can it be? You scarcely know the girl. Goodness, I've lived with Mike years longer than I care to admit and I don't even know him enough to love him..."
Rhyll had raised her eyebrows. "Or you don't love him enough to know him?"
Her companion had taken this in dispassionately, weighing it up through the fug of late-night gin and pouring them both another as she did so. "Maybe that, too. But we're not talking about me. We're talking about you, and I'm trying to hold you back from doing silly love-things for the sake of someone you don't even know well enough to love."
"And who you're saying I'm not allowed to get to know," Rhyll objected, with a petulance that would have better suited a young child than a woman well into the thirties.
"And she says it like it's come as a surprise! I don't make the rules, remember. I'm just reminding you of them. Lord, why did I ever bring you back here tonight? Cigarette? No? Well, I will. - All right: maybe you are in love, though I can't see how; or maybe you're just silly regardless, though I must say you don't look it. But if you do love her, that's even more reason to stop all this nonsense now, because it can't end well. How can it?"
Rhyll pulled a face, reached out for the cigarette packet on the table after all. "So either way it's bad?"
"Either way it's bad," Jean agreed, all disarming morose pragmatism. "If you cared about her, you wouldn't put her in that position. Think of her job - think of her future. Don't make trouble for her, even if you can't seem to steer clear for your own sake. Likely enough she'll be hoping to marry, sooner or later."
"Like me." Their eyes met fleetingly, and if either had had a trenchant comment ready in response, they thought better of it. Not that for Peggy.
Rhyll gathered together her notes and set off in the direction of Upper V's formroom in almost unconscious anticipation of the bell. The passage of time would see to it. I don't make the rules, remember.
Thanks again for the comments!
Peggy turned with a smile as Heather Clayton nearly fell, breathless and red-faced, into the gymnasium. "Yes, Heather?"
"Please, Miss Dene says will you go to her office? Sorry, I've been looking for you all over. You weren't in here the first time I looked; then I went to the remedial room, then to the staff-room, then I thought I'd better check here once more -"
"- and that time, you were in luck!" Peggy finished cheerfully. "I'd gone over to look at the state of the netball pitch. I'm hopeful that, as long as it stays dry overnight, we might be able to get out there tomorrow. All right, I'm on my way - and I'll explain to Miss Dene that it's not your fault at all that I'm not there sooner."
"Thank you, Miss Burnett," Heather said with a polite nod, before racing off, presumably to find her pals and enjoy the last few precious minutes of their break.
Peggy shoved the crates back into her now half-tidied cupboard. She had been comfortably relaxing in the knowledge that her work was done for the day, intending to finish rearranging the gym equipment before retiring to the staff-room with some light reading and a well-earned cup of coffee, but she rather suspected Rosalie's summons would put the kibosh on that particular plan. Even still, this unforeseen request did not dent her good mood. It was, of course, a rather more subdued good mood than she might have enjoyed last term, pointedly lacking the fresh-faced excitement and blissful ignorance of that time; but it was Friday afternoon, the bad weather seemed at last to be easing off, and things seemed, superficially, about as agreeable as they ever had in that month or so since the new term had begun and Evvy had so decisively rearranged all of Peggy's grand intentions. There was at least something to be said for superficial enjoyment, she reflected rather resolutely as she shot the cupboard bolt and switched off the lights on her way out; something to be said for superficial enjoyment and for plenty of busy distraction.
"Enter!" Rosalie's pretty voice almost sang, and Peggy pushed the door open with an expectant smile. Rosalie returned it with a brisk one of her own. "Lovely! Just the person I was hoping for. I'm sorry to ask it, since I'm sure you must be worn out, but I need you to run these -" and she tapped a small pile of envelopes at the side of her desk - "over to the post office in Carnbach, please. They really do need to go off before the weekend, and I just have too much else to see to before Abendessen to take them myself."
"Of course," Peggy nodded equably.
"And mind you don't miss the last ferry back! They still stop after half-past five these days, and it's not even as though you could stop over at Cartref, since Jo's still away." As she spoke, Rosalie was opening the cash tin with characteristic dexterity.
"I won't," Peggy returned, carefully unruffled.
"And are you quite all right? I really, really haven't the time to sit and chat right now, but you've seemed much quieter since we came back after Christmas." Having doled out the money and replaced the tin in the safe, Rosalie pushed both money and envelopes along the desk towards Peggy and looked questioningly up at her.
"Tired: too much rain, too much youthful energy to dispel, and frankly if I never see another beanbag or call another dance it'll be too soon. I'm fine, though, apart from that," Peggy said bracingly, taking up the envelopes and pocketing the money. "Oh, that reminds me - it's not Heather's fault she took a while to find me. I'd gone over to look at the pitches. If we can only get a dry night, I think they'll be okay for tomorrow."
Rosalie narrowed her eyes, then glanced out of her office window. "Hmm. I'm sorry to say it, but I think you might have dancing and beanbags to attend to for a while yet. That might only be dusk rolling in, but unless I miss my guess I think we'll see more rain tonight. I hope you don't get caught in it."
"It's just dusk!" Peggy retorted, not even bothering to look through the window. The denial was far more a statement of desire than of belief. "Either way, though, it's my sign to scram! See you at Abendessen, my dear." And without waiting to hear a reply, she sped from the office.
Peggy eyed the dark clouds ahead with sinking gloom as she shivered at the Carnbach quayside. Darkness had now definitely set in, but even still she could no longer avoid seeing the heavy rain suspended above, waiting to fall. Well, that put paid to her hopes of netball tomorrow; but for now, this disappointment was now simply overtaken by the desire to get back across the Sound and up the wide road to the school before the heavens opened as emphatically as they were threatening. Glancing around at the few other passengers waiting for the ferry to pull in and pick them take them home, she could see she was not the only one issuing up this silent prayer.
Their luck was out: halfway across to St Briavel's, just as the lights of the little village and the landing by the queer little bay came clearly in sight, Peggy felt first one drop of rain, then another; after that, it came down fast and thorough, lashing against the sides of the little steam ferry, running down Peggy's burberry in rapid little rivulets. They were all quick and eager to disembark when they reached the island, and by the time Peggy stepped onto quayside, her co-passengers were already scurrying away quickly to the dry warmth of their homes.
The boatman had pulled his oilskin more thoroughly around himself and was preparing to crank up the gangplank in readiness for his return journey, the final trip of his day, when it happened: in the dark and rain, Peggy took a wrong step on the ankle she had ricked the previous term, and pulled up in pain. "Oh!"
In an instant, the man from the ferry was standing over her as she crouched at the edge of the path. He helped her take a few steps back to where she could sit heavily against the iron bollard, and waited in silence for a few moments while she went through the motions of ascertaining whether she would be able to walk on, after a minute's rest; she knew already that she could not.
When she thinks back to this occasion, she calculates that she must have squatted there for at least three or four minutes, but at the time it does not feel anything like as long as that. The next thing Peggy became aware of, through the driving rain and the closing darkness, silvery torchlight bouncing off raindrops and puddles as she tried not to think about the searing pain in her ankle, was a splash of hurrying footsteps and that most familiar voice, the one she still kept an ear open for daily and heard far too often in her daydreams: "She's all right - she's all right. I'll take her now."
Thanks for the comments!
This is a bit of a long one, but it didn't seem to split sensibly at any point...
Rhyll wasn't sure what made her look through the window at that moment: she had lost track of how many times she had seen the ferry pull in, awkward and ungainly, in the time she had lived here. Still, once she did catch sight of it she tended to lean and watch the boat's awkward gait as she swung up alongside the landing stage. There was something mildly compelling about the erratic and improbable efficiency of her movements, jarring oddly with the rhythmic swelling of the sea's waves, that held her attention as she laid down her wooden mushroom and needle on the windowsill and settled herself to watch.
It was rather dark already, but the last passenger to disembark was one she would have recognised anywhere. She smiled wistfully as she watched Peggy stepping gracefully, fluidly from the boat, hurrying across the worn timber of the jetty to the road - and then, suddenly, crumpling to the ground.
Her heart in her mouth, Rhyll watched for a moment longer, hoping Peggy might spring to her feet, dust herself down and hurry on; but Peggy stayed where she was, crouched at the edge of the path. Rhyll dropped her freshly-mended socks and grabbed up her boots and overcoat. No thought of stepping carefully around the precious stair carpet crossed her mind as she flew down to the hallway, jamming on her boots with more haste than grace and rushing through the door even as she threw her heavy coat on.
Peggy was squatting against one of the great bollards, watched over anxiously by the gruff old boatman who seemed on the brink of offering to carry her home himself.
Peggy's face was white, but she did not look as bad as Rhyll had briefly feared. "She's all right - she's all right," Rhyll called out, not entirely certain for whose benefit this reassurance was intended. "I'll take her now."
Peggy looked up with a bright grin which was only slightly marred by the lines of pain in her face. "Evvy!"
"This gets to feeling rather familiar," Rhyll remarked as she bent to haul Peggy up carefully. "Now, do you think you can manage to walk a bit, if you lean on me?"
Peggy grimaced as she took a tentative step forwards. "Not as far as the School."
"No; not to the School. I'll take you back to mine. See?" Rhyll pointed clearly to where Mrs Morgan's house stood in the next street beyond the main parade of cottages, and drew her arm more tightly around Peggy's waist. "Can you make it? Or had I better throw you over my shoulder?"
Peggy chuckled, and the boatman withdrew with an approving nod. "You make it sound so... practical," she chided as she began to limp laboriously across the road.
Rhyll snorted. "It is 'practical'. You'd prefer something more gallant? You want me to swing you up in my arms as if I were carrying you over the threshold?"
"If you're offering," Peggy murmured coyly, then immediately recanted. "No, I'm sorry; I shouldn't have said that."
Rhyll was silent for a moment. No more bad decisions. She reached a conclusion in her mind, tested it cautiously, and stuck to it firmly. "I'm glad you did. I did offer, didn't I?" She glanced appraisingly at the distance still to cover, then down at Peggy's dark head. "Come here, then."
Peggy giggled in delight as Rhyll matched the action to the word, and the sound of it rejoiced Rhyll's heart. "I didn't think you really would - you - you -"
"Surely you aren't scratching around for some slangy put-down or other, Margaret Burnett, while I'm here saving your clumsy soul yet again? Hi, keep still! I'll drop you if you carry on like that!" Rhyll felt that, if she could pause time, this was the moment she would always want to keep: she did not notice the cold, nor really feel the weight of Peggy's body. All she knew was the precious moment alone together, Peggy's writhing laughter and shining brown eyes, the rain washing over both of them. She dropped her voice now as they neared the house. "I'm afraid I can't make good the business of carrying you over the threshold, for I'll have to put you down to open the door. My landlady'll be in the kitchen, most likely, so don't say anything - anything silly, will you?" She made a question of it to avoid sounding too imperious; not because she entertained any real fear of Peggy saying or doing anything untoward in such circumstances. Easing the invalid gently to her feet and keeping one strong arm around her, she unlocked the door and helped her step inside.
"Let me take your coat off," Rhyll instructed, already busily engaged with that particular task, "then you sit just here for a moment." She parked Peggy in the upright chair by the hall table as she hung first her colleague's trenchcoat, then her own, on the peg nearest the front door where the drips would not matter. Kicking off her own boots, she knelt to unlace Peggy's, easing them carefully from her feet and placing them gently to one side. "You're wet through! You must be frozen. Now, you sit here and phone up to the School -" she tapped the Bakelite telephone on the table as she spoke - "and I'm going to go and explain things to Mrs M. You're very welcome to stay here tonight, if you'd like; either way you need warming up and drying out before you go anywhere, and we'll have a look at that ankle. I'll be back shortly."
She padded along the hallway and into the kitchen where, as she had predicted, she found her landlady, sat in the chair nearest the hot stove, knitting needles clacking rapidly. She looked up as Rhyll entered. "Tea? Kettle's not long boiled."
"Thanks - I will. Another for you?" Mrs Morgan shook her head, and Rhyll kept her voice steady as she went on. "I've picked up a colleague of mine - Miss Burnett - soaked to the skin and having ricked her ankle, coming off the steam-ferry. She's just out in the hallway now, ringing up the School - I'll pay the phone call, of course, if she's not thought to reverse the charges."
Mrs Morgan looked up; Rhyll thought she detected a hint of excited interest in her face, but even if there were such a hint, her expression was mostly one of concern. "Oh, dear. Can I do anything to help?"
Rhyll shook her head, pouring two mugs of tea as she spoke. "Thank you, no. Well - I hope to at least get her warm and dry here, of course; and if they can't come and collect her in the car, then I'd like to put her up tonight."
"Yes; of course you must. Have you enough blankets?" The enquiry was a bland one, and yet Rhyll suspected it was one she ought to navigate carefully.
"I think so. I'll check, once I know what they've said on the 'phone. I've a chest of such things I rarely look in. Thank you, Mrs Morgan. I appreciate it."
The old woman just nodded, rising to her feet and following Rhyll towards the kitchen door, peering past at her latest house-guest. Rhyll could hear Peggy's clear, sweet tones wafting down the hallway, and noted that even in her injured and bedraggled state, she somehow had enough poise and unconscious charm to reassure the most suspicious of minds. She slipped past Peggy, taking the mugs upstairs to her own sitting-room and returning with a clean towel just as her visitor was replacing the receiver. She handed it over, a little awkwardly; the kitchen door was closed now, but she felt very conscious that they were not truly alone.
"Rosalie says I may as well stay here," Peggy murmured, taking the towel and rubbing briskly at her scalp before wrapping it around her shoulders.
Rhyll nodded cautiously. At length, she offered an arm. "We'd better get you upstairs, then."
Peggy's ankle seemed to be faring better than either had expected - and apart from the ankle itself, she was in fine form. Navigating the stairs proved accordingly manageable. Rhyll opened the door with a shove and held it open as Peggy half-hopped in, leaning lightly against the wall as she did so.
"Tea!" She announced brightly, over the loud thumping of her own heart, closing the door firmly and ushering Peggy into the shabby armchair beside the oil stove, handing her one of the hot cups before pulling up the little step and settling herself astride it. "Let's have a better look at your ankle." Peggy, still seeming unaccountably shy, stretched out her leg, and Rhyll caught it in both hands, running her fingers thoughtfully across it. "It's a sprain, all right, but nowhere as bad as I'd feared - not like last time at all. Well, that's one blessing. What are we going to do about clothing you, though? You mustn't stay in those wet things a moment longer, but I can't think I've much to fit you..."
Her voice had felt unnatural and forced, but at this remark Peggy promptly burst into pealing laughter. "I should say not!" Then she dropped both her gaze and her voice, and Rhyll had to lean forward to hear her blushing whisper: "You could just take me to bed."
Rhyll stayed very still, hardly daring to breathe, much less to assume she had understood Peggy's intentions. The prospect of guessing wrong at this point seemed too awful to contemplate.
Peggy lifted her face, still flushed but much more certain, her finely-cut chin jutting just slightly. "Yes, you lunkhead, I do mean what you think I mean!" They both laughed softly, glad to disrupt the curious awkwardness that had descended since the telephone call, and Peggy jerked her head in the direction of the adjoining door: "Is it that way?"
Rhyll nodded, still not trusting herself to speak. Peggy paused for a mouthful of tea, then made an impatient gesture, accompanied by twinkling eyes. "You'd better open it, then, so you can more easily carry me through."
She affected outrage at the cheek of this bare-faced demand, but blithely rose to obey. "Actually, as boringly practical as it is, I'd better grab some blankets to set up in here. Just in - in case," she finished up vaguely, having decided that none of the reasons making a second bed in the sitting-room made for appealing conversation at this particular moment. Taking her own mug with her, she slipped through the connecting door and began to rummage through her battered old trunk, retrieving a pile of blankets to carry back through to where Peggy sat...
Where Peggy sat. Rhyll's jaw dropped slightly as she came back into the room, but this time Peggy did not hide her gaze. "What? I scarcely think you'd thank me for getting your sheets wet. Anyway, can you imagine what Matey would say?"
"You think this all meets with Matey's approval, just as long as you take your wet clothes off first?" Rhyll demanded, one eyebrow raised. "That's one of Matey's edicts? The one true way to strip a bed, the one true way to dry a bathtub, the one true way to brush your hair out, the one true way to quickly take off all your clothes before - before -"
"Evvy," Peggy looked serious for a moment, and Rhyll dumped her armful of blankets and looked expectantly at her. "Evvy, stop yattering and take me to your bed."
Thanks again for the lovely comments! Sorry this has taken a little while - real life keeps interfering ATM...
"Do you want some tea?" Evvy's voice was more tender than Peggy had heard it before.
"Depends. Do I have to move?" Peggy demanded; her head was resting comfortably on Evvy's shoulder, and she had an arm flung possessively across her firm waist.
"It might help," Evvy conceded, and Peggy giggled, luxuriating in the shared warmth, bare skin against bare skin, the one almost running into the other until she could hardly tell where she ended and the other woman began.
"It'll have to wait, then."
They lapsed into silence again, and without turning her head Peggy let her gaze drift methodically across their tangled limbs, walking her fingers attentively across Evvy's torso to supply the mental picture with some sort of feeling, careful not to overlook any precious detail. She wondered how much time had passed since her arrival here: minutes? Hours? It could stretch to days, for all she could tell.
"Late," Evvy murmured, as if she had read her mind. "And much too late for such a frown of concentration as that."
"I don't want to forget anything -" Peggy began immediately, then stopped; too much unrefined truth.
Evvy was quiet for a moment, and Peggy wondered if she had already said too much. "I don't see why you should have to rely on memory alone."
A sudden rush of energy coursed through her, excitement overtaking comfort, and she turned over quickly, propping herself up on her elbows to look up at her companion. "What do you mean?"
Evvy's smile, like her voice, had an unfamiliar tenderness to it. "Just what I say. I mean - there are always the holidays, aren't there? We'd have to be so careful, of course - but if we could only get far enough away..." Her voice trailed off wistfully, before she hurriedly added: "If you'd like, that is. It's just an idea."
Peggy reached up to kiss her. "I'd love to."
"Your hair feels nice," Peggy murmured appreciatively, stroking the short velvet at the nape of Evvy's neck.
"No! Really?" Peggy opened her eyes wide.
"Just that bit."
"Well, obviously," Peggy teased.
Evvy raised an eyebrow. "Obviously?"
"Oh, you know what I meant. Anyway. It feels nice."
"You're still trying to remember everything," Evvy chided lazily as she inclined her head, no small element of obedience, in response to Peggy's ministrations.
Peggy shrugged, quietly enjoying both the obedience and the incipient pleasure evident in Evvy's response. "It's a long time 'til half-term."
Evvy grinned, undisguised amusement: "It's less than a fortnight! You should go to sleep, you know. I can't take you back tomorrow with dark circles under your eyes."
"Then keep me here." Peggy retorted dreamily. "They'll understand. Bed rest is restorative, after all."
"That's what they taught you at Bedford? A slightly strained ankle needs several days lounging around being delicate? That sounds somewhat outdated..."
"I'm sure Dr Jem and Dr Jack would approve."
"They're TB specialists."
"Yes, but they also know everything," Peggy corrected with a smirk, and was rewarded with a deep chuckle.
"Your meekness becomes you, Peggy," was all the comment Evvy would make, but there was a decided glint of approval in her hazel eyes and Peggy basked in it.
"Should I call you Evvy?" She asked now, suddenly struck by Evvy's switch to her Christian name and wondering when that had happened, whether she ought to reciprocate.
Evvy shrugged. "I don't mind either way. It's all anyone ever calls me, most of the time."
"I don't think I even know your first name," Peggy admitted in slight consternation. "Did I - did I hear the Head call you Betty before?"
Evvy grimaced. "Ah. Yes, don't call me that. You are right, technically, it is my name, although only my mother still calls me that - and, seemingly, the Head too this term - maybe she's been at the personnel files recently." She lapsed into contemplative silence before casting a wry scowl at her lover: "What?"
"Sorry," muttered Peggy, not very sorry and at no pains to prove otherwise as she barely stifled her giggles. "You just don't look much like a Betty..."
"No, well, that's rather the point, although my mother, poor thing, persists with it in the hope I might become a Betty. In the meantime, my middle name is Rhyll, and that's what people call me, if they're not calling me Evvy."
"Rhyll." Peggy tried it out ponderously, paying no heed to the other woman's performed disapproval. "Rhyll..."
The name's owner held up a hand - powerful, supple, with all the easy dexterity that told of their work: "Stop there! I can see you, preparing to put your foot straight into your mouth again."
Peggy laughed and took the advice, entwining her own fingers, slighter but no less strong, amongst Evvy's. "Where shall we go for half-term, then?"
Evvy looked thoughtful. "I'd quite like to go to Southampton..."
Peggy waited, giving her an impatient nudge when it became apparent that no further details were forthcoming. "Why?"
"To see my brother," Evvy began, then shook her head decisively. "But I can tell you that story another time."
"Why not now?"
"Because now, I have better ideas..."
Another half-term in Aberdeenshire by crm
Thanks again for the comments!
And thanks also to Beecharmer for reading and commenting helpfully on a draft of this chapter.
"I didn't want to ask you this again," Mary's voice was hesitant, but Rosalie could detect in it a steely determination - one she well recognised from over the years. Mary was not a forceful person, but when she had settled her mind to something she would invariably stick to it and see it through; a sturdiness to her character.
She sat back in the great armchair and kept her face neutral. It was Saturday afternoon and the pair were alone in the house: Mary's husband had some visits to make, and the house-keeper had taken the afternoon to visit her mother in the next town. Rosalie had sensed almost since her arrival that Mary had some pressing concern on her mind, and had a good idea of what it might be; she was not at all surprised that her cousin had chosen this moment to begin the conversation. "But you've changed your mind."
"I'm just worried." Mary had picked up her knitting and was watching the dancing needles with great concentration. Instinctively, Rosalie averted her own gaze. She waited. "It's not about what I think is wrong or right, Rosalie, it's about other people."
"But people love Peggy, and you can't underestimate the value of that," she answered gently. "There is any amount of goodwill towards her at the School."
It did not offer quite the reassurance she had hoped for: "Then you know what I'm getting at - oh!" Mary flung down the wool in frustration. "Don't you see? This is exactly why I worry. If you know, then who else already suspects something?"
"Mary," Rosalie interrupted firmly. "Mary, there are lots of things I know and nobody else guesses at. That's me, that's my job. I seem to recall some dubious absences around the time of your engagement, do you remember?" Suppressing a smile as the other woman flushed darkly and began to mumble awkwardly, she waved a hand and went on. "No, stop that - you weren't the only one to find yourself stranded "at Janie Lucy's" overnight on a number of occasions, not by a long chalk. I only meant it as an example of the things nobody pries into, unless they're made to."
"It was in wartime," Mary muttered defensively. "And anyway, it's not the same thing."
"Not quite, I'll grant you. But there are similarities, my lamb. And actually, the same point holds - if Peggy is, you know - I don't think she'd be the first."
Her host looked up sharply at this, as Rosalie had expected. "What?"
Rosalie performed a quick mental calculation: the benefit of hopefully putting her cousin's mind at rest, less the risk such knowledge posed. How much damage could Mary possibly do, from here in Scotland? The School was far away - and Switzerland even further. And in any case, what damage would Mary possibly do, being Mary? To unveil silent knowledge like this was not an action with which Rosalie was familiar; and yet she had a clear sense that on this occasion, it was somehow warranted. She nodded slowly. "This is not to be repeated, ever. I'm speaking now strictly as a cousin - almost a sister, really - not as a colleague. You know how much I'm given to gossip, as a rule." She waited a moment for the seriousness to sink in, for Mary to give a convincing indication that she committed herself to this discretion, before continuing: "Nell."
"Bill?" Mary had started in disbelief, but just as quickly she sat steadily again and Rosalie could almost see the cogs whirring in her mind. "But how do you know?"
"I could be wrong," Rosalie began carefully, inwardly entertaining no such notion and doubting whether the suggestion of caution really persuaded her cousin. It was a significant enough thing for Rosalie to be repeating information she knew to be true; could Mary possibly believe her capable of speculating on the basis of idle gossip alone? "It was mainly from something Margot Venables said - do you remember Matron Venables? You would have left long before she arrived, and she'd sadly passed away before you came back, but you must know of her as Daisy and Primula Mary's mother. I saw rather a lot of her, since I was working as Dr Jem's secretary at that time. The two of us escorted the small fry of the Russell household out of Austria during all that terrible business with Hitler - goodness, I was young then." She broke off wistfully, pausing to gather her thoughts. "Well. Nell, Joey and the others had had to go on ahead - I'm sure you've heard that part of the story enough times before. I spent a long day over at the School, helping to sort and pack ready for the move to Guernsey, before Jem sent us straight off with the nursery folk. It was a difficult time, understandably - tensions were running extremely high. Con Stewart tore pieces out of me."
"She always did have a quick temper," Mary murmured reminiscently.
"That's true; but I scarcely knew her then - I'd left before she started, remember - and even by her standards, it was pretty awful. And worse, Hilda saw the whole thing and didn't say a word to her. I was really upset." Rosalie stopped again, automatically lowering her voice even though she knew the house was empty. "I was still upset when we got on that train at Innsbruck. Mrs Venables asked me what was wrong. I explained as best as I could - leaving the worst of it out, of course, but I'm sure she anticipated it -"
"Yes?" Mary prompted.
Rosalie took a deep breath. "Mrs Venables said I mustn't take it personally, as it was only to be expected when the woman she loved was fleeing for her life."
"That doesn't prove anything, though," Mary argued. "They were good friends, I remember that. And then Miss Stewart married not long after..."
Rosalie shrugged. "It wasn't just what she said. It was her behaviour after she'd said it - she looked horrified at herself for it. And there've been other comments, here and there. Even now, Nell won't speak of her - which is frankly odd, given the amount of 'remember when' we do all go in for. I got such a disapproving glare from Hilda when I tried mentioning her."
"Con Stewart, though?" Mary persisted.
Rosalie shrugged again. "I don't see why not."
Mary slumped in thought. "I suppose so. I just hadn't thought about it before. I rather idolised her when I was a kid, you know. That was part of why I ended up reading History rather than Languages. That, and all the business with my mother, of course..." She sat ruminating for some moments. "I'm shocked, Rosalie. Of course it doesn't matter to me - but I'm shocked."
"Well. Of course I can't swear to any of it, but I rather think it all adds up to a precedent for ignoring these things, as long as nothing happens to make that impossible. If Hilda was concerned about unproven rumours, she wouldn't still be working so closely with Nell, would she? Nell would be gone."
A queer look crossed Mary's face. "You don't suppose - Bill and the Abbess -?"
Rosalie raised her eyebrows. "It hadn't occurred to me to wonder before. As you said yourself, sometimes people are just good friends. Still, who can say? I don't wonder, and I don't ask. Nor does anybody else, in my experience."
Mary's attentions seemed to be absorbed in scrutinising her knitting, and when she spoke her voice was quieter than usual. "I hope you're right. I just worry, is all. She's my sister and I love her unconditionally. I just want life to be normal and easy for her."
Rosalie reached for her hand. "But you don't, really, do you? Life is never 'easy' - you know that - and surely all you can do is be there when she needs you. Aren't all the decisions mere compromises, when you stop to think about it? Aren't all of us just making the compromise we can best live with?"
Mary smiled, and Rosalie noted that if her face was wan and lined where it had not been before, she still glowed with an inner comfort which had not been in evidence the previous autumn. "We don't tell them that at school, do we?"
"Would they understand? I don't know that I would have done."
Mary laughed, newly-regained comfort still apparent. "No, nor would I. I thought I would spend the rest of my life learning and teaching. I wouldn't have believed anyone who suggested I could give that up for marriage." Her eyes took on a faraway look, and Rosalie gave silent thanks for the reassurance that had enabled such a shift in subject matter. "I have missed it. I wondered for a while if it was completely the wrong decision - not the right compromise, as you put it. I spoke to Gill, and she didn't seem to miss it in the same way..."
"But teaching wasn't a vocation for her as it was for you," Rosalie interrupted swiftly. "And after Joyce had married, she had little family of her own. It was very different."
"Yes, I suppose you're right," Mary conceded reflectively. "The Rural has been a blessing, anyway. It's nice to feel useful again."
"Oh, I can imagine. Madge said much the same thing, in fact - and that it was all the more important for being a long way from home."
"That's been the nicest thing of all, as it happens. This feels like home now. As you say, it never is 'easy', but it was the best compromise after all."
Thank you all very very very much for sticking with this, and for all the comments. It has been really lovely to know people have enjoyed this - I have!
Also many thanks to Beecharmer again for commenting helpfully on an earlier draft of this chapter.
“And so, are you going to tell me the story of your mysterious brother now? If you leave it much longer, I’ll have to hear it directly from him instead, and a fine first meeting that would be.” Peggy clambered back down from stowing the night-cases overhead and looked expectantly up at her travelling companion.
Rhyll chuckled. What time she had spent with Peggy since that night she had first voiced her vague suggestion of Southampton at half-term had either been too public to begin such an intimate account, or too private to waste in conversation at all; but now, having managed a compartment to themselves as the train pulled out of Swansea, the ideal balance of privacy and propriety seemed to have arrived and, as Peggy had observed, it was no longer a tale that could be delayed. “You’d make quite an impression.”
“I do my best,” Peggy grinned cheerfully, then suddenly looked serious. “Actually, what kind of impression am I supposed to be making? I mean –“
Rhyll shrugged. “I’m going to introduce you as a friend. He’ll correctly assume otherwise, and no doubt make disapproving faces when your back’s turned. Oh – not about you, idiot. My indiscretion, or my corrupting you, or something.” She paused, trying to gather her thoughts, wanting to share the understanding she most wanted Peggy to grasp, rather than the conversation she herself might find most cathartic at that moment. “It’s complicated. You have to know that Julian was never anything but generous and supportive towards me. You have to also know that his disapproval – whatever it appears to be directed at – is actually about him, not me or you or anyone else who might be passing by at the time.”
She stared out of the window thoughtfully, as if answers might be found in the fine mist of morning rain. Several moments passed before Peggy prompted her gently: “Rhyll?”
Rhyll exhaled heavily. “We’ve not spoken for close to ten years now – precisely because he disapproves of my indiscretion, or perhaps it’s my particular brand of discretion, it’s hard to know.”
“So why do you want to see him now?” Peggy demanded bluntly, and blushed. “Sorry, that was a bit strident.”
“No, it wasn’t, you’re being defensive and it’s very sweet. Yes, you are sweet, so don’t look at me like that. Oh, if it were only that I don’t think he’d mind at all – he is a good person, Peggy, he really always is, effortlessly so. The problem isn’t me, the problem is that it becomes too much like looking into a mirror for him.” She frowned, tearing her eyes away from the grey outside to face the younger woman.
“You mean -?” Peggy’s eyes filled with sympathetic comprehension.
“Yes, exactly that. Firstly the whole business is awkward for him in itself – he wanted to ignore all of those things and instead he had to confront them every time he saw me. Secondly, he felt that I somehow illuminated him, in a way. And then I didn’t exactly help. I tried to at first, but I lost my temper because for goodness’ sake, I’m not responsible for his nature, nor for how he chooses to reveal or disguise it, nor for how other people react to it.” Peggy nodded emphatically, shades of the same doting defensiveness she had shown just moments earlier, and for Rhyll it served as a reminder that wanted to be as clear and as fair as she could. “But I ought to have kept my patience much longer. He supported me so much – I wouldn’t have made it through my degree without him, not even as far as starting at Holloway in the first place. I owed him more than that. For me, it was really only an annoyance and I should have held my tongue. For him, the world as he knew it was hanging in the balance. He couldn't bear for anyone to know, he couldn't bear to lie, and I'd already acquired something of a monopoly on tactful evasion. I think 'a loss of neutrality' was the phrase he used...”
Peggy looked at her curiously. “Do you mean your parents -?”
“Know? I couldn’t say. I don’t mention it, and they don’t ask. But I was always like that. He wasn’t – he’s not made for that kind of deception.”
“You said that about me before,” Peggy murmured.
“I was right, wasn’t I?”
Peggy considered it. “It’s not my favourite thing. But I think it’s worth it.”
Rhyll smiled, blushed in spite of herself. “That’s the difference, then. I don’t think Julian does think that.” Peggy leaned against the window. “So you haven’t seen him for years because he’s hiding and you’re nursing a grudge?”
“Yes, this is precisely the kind of tactlessness I meant when I said you weren’t the right person to be keeping secrets.” Rhyll teased, rummaging in her pocket for the chocolate she had brought and offering it across. “Well, as you so incisively point out, that all makes for a rather silly state of affairs, so I wrote to him just after Christmas. And then he wrote back, much quicker than I’d expected, and so – here we go.” She jerked her hand vaguely in the direction of the endless grey countryside they were travelling through, as if gesticulating at Southampton in the distance. “I confess I’d rather take you somewhere more...” Fun? Romantic? Secluded? Having begun the sentence, she found herself unable to accurately complete it. “But I also really want to see him again, and this might be the only possible occasion for some time. What was that disparaging term you used before? ‘Practical’? It does seem a sickeningly practical use of the long weekend.”
“We’ll have other trips,” Peggy put in, self-assured, raising her eyebrows at Rhyll’s quizzical grin. “What? Of course we will, you goop. I've planned half a dozen already.”
“I think we can call that a success,” Peggy yawned cheerfully as she perched in the window-seat of a hotel room that night. “Your brother’s very nice.”
“He said much the same about you,” Rhyll confessed. “With definite overtones of disapproval, as predicted. You are perfectly delightful and wasted on me, or words to that effect.”
Peggy drew her knees up to her chest with a smirk. “I like him even better now.”
Rhyll scowled good-naturedly, and threw the tie she had just removed across the room by way of retort. “It was a good afternoon, yes." She paused, a little awkwardly. “Thanks for coming with me.”
Peggy lifted the tie from where it had landed across one shoulder, rolling it up haphazardly: “I always like being with you.”
“You’ve not changed at all,” Julian had said, pulling her into his arms with an easy grace she recognised instantly, in spite of all the years that had passed since she had last seen it.
She had laughed a little, almost shyly. “You’re either very kind, or your eyesight’s not what it once was. It’s good to see you.”
“I’m only sorry it’s taken so long,” they apologised in unison, and burst out laughing. That perfect synchronicity. Rhyll had missed it more than she had realised.
Peggy was walking over to them now, three glasses confidently balanced in her hands – easy grace, Rhyll noted with an inward smile.
“This is Peggy,” was all she said, wincing a little at the hint of defiance that crept unbidden into her voice as she spoke.
The defiance had not been necessary: Julian raised his eyebrows, as if to give her an opportunity to correct the assumption that hung questioningly in the air between them, and when no correction was forthcoming, he gave the new woman a warm smile. “Very nice to meet you, Peggy.”
Peggy had smiled back with equal warmth – and how could Julian be anything but charmed? Rhyll grinned now to remember it; and at that moment all remaining traces of resentment – resentment for the unfair blame, for the imbalance in her pitying Julian’s position which really had fallen no lower than her own but merely from a greater height, resentment for the sense of familial duty his own persistent absences had conferred upon her – all simply melted away. The past could not matter, when the future loomed so promisingly.
She sat on the bed now, tired from the day and invigorated by all the hope it held. Peggy slipped softly from her window-seat to kneel on the big bed behind her, arms wrapped tightly around her waist, forehead leaning gently against Rhyll’s shoulder. No words were necessary, and time seemed to stand still. She inhaled the moment, realising with a smile that she felt more contented than she could remember feeling at any time since she had been that little girl, crouching down in the long grass with her treasured notebook and pencil, the familiar sound of Julian splashing industriously in the stream nearby. Whatever the future might bring, for that moment all was well in the world and she had every intention of enjoying it.
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