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This is something that's come up on both the CBB and the Facebook group recently ... and July is usually prize-giving time at schools. I've used a bit of poetic licence, so the whole school, rather than just the prefects and staff, are voting (which I thought was what actually happened, until I re-read it properly!), and Jack Maynard isn't involved in counting (I'm sure that the head of the San had better things to do than count votes for a school prize!). Direct quotes in bold.

"Well, I think we've got everything organised," Rosalie Dene informed Hilda Annersley and Nell Wilson as the three of them enjoyed Kaffee und Kuchen in Hilda's office. "At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, I must say that I'm glad that we don't have big celebrations like these every year! There's been an awful lot to deal with. The one remaining issue is the Margot Venables Prize, but that's Joey's affair. I've got all the voting slips here" – she indicated two boxes – "and I was planning to hand them over to her when she "pops in" later this afternoon, which she informed me over the phone earlier that she was planning to do."

Nell groaned. "I do wish she'd remember that this is a school, not a social club! Oh well, if she's got the votes to count up, at least she won't be relying on us to keep her occupied." She looked at her two friends thoughtfully. "Are we going to tell her that yarn that Elinor Pennell reported to us? About some of the girls wanting the name changed to the Josephine Maynard Prize? I assume that some of them, especially the juniors, like the idea of having a prize bearing the name of a famous author, but the prize is given in memory of Margot Venables and I can't believe that Joey will agree to that being changed. I should think she'd be quite upset at the very suggestion."

"From what I can gather, it's only a few of the girls who've made the suggestion, and it is, as you've said, because they like the idea of having a famous name attached to the prize," Rosalie confirmed. "I've always thought that it was very kind of Joey to give a prize in Margot's memory, but she's always been very close to Daisy, in particular. So has Robin, and I think she had a hand in it all, originally. I loathe the idea of it being renamed: it would be very disrespectful to Margot's memory. And think how hurt Daisy and Primula, and Sir Jem, would be. But I suppose we ought at least to mention it – unless you disagree?"

"I don't see that we can do otherwise, now that the subject's been raised, but I'm quite sure that Joey will never agree to it," Hilda said decidedly. "The prize bears Margot's name and that's how it should stay."

They were right. Joey was horrified at the thought of changing the name of the prize which she'd set up in memory of her friend and "sister-in-law-by-marriage", as she put it. No more was said about that particular matter, and Joey was left to count the votes whilst Hilda, Nell and Rosalie busied themselves with various other matters requiring their attention. "Do count carefully, Joey," Nell said with a grin. "We all know that mathematics has never been your strong point. I'd hate to think that the prize was going to the wrong girl because you'd got your numbers wrong."

"Cheek!" cried Joey. "I'm quite capable of tallying up a couple of hundred or so votes, I'll have you know. Anyway, it isn't as if it's likely to be close, so one or two votes miscounted won't matter anyway. If the prize doesn't go to our one and only Mary-Lou, I shall eat my hat."

The other three returned at the appointed time to hear the results. "Well?" Nell enquired. "Has Mary-Lou won?"

"She has indeed. Every single girl's voted for her. Just as I expected!" Joey announced. "And every blessed member of the Staff has voted the same way, too."

"What, every single one!" Rosalie exclaimed. "I can't believe that. Didn't anyone vote for someone else? We've got more than one girl in the school whom people see as kind and helpful, surely! And I can't believe that no-one voted for … well, her friend or her sister. Are you sure, Joey? That doesn't sound right to me."

Hilda and Nell exchanged glances. "I've got no idea how those little monkeys have done it, but I suspect that we've fallen victim to a rather ingenious prank," Hilda said with a sigh. "As Rosalie says, it's simply not possible that everyone's voted for the same girl. Someone – or several someones, I would think – must have, somehow or other, got hold of the original voting slips and replaced them with others all bearing the same name. Oh, I'm not suggesting for a moment that Mary-Lou herself has had anything to do with it, but you know what some of those Juniors and Junior Middles can be like. I suppose they thought it was funny. It is original: I'll give them that. You'd better hand the voting slips to us, Joey. Between the three of us, we should be able to recognise the handwriting on them. I just hope that the little darlings have kept the originals, or we'll have to ask everyone to vote all over again. Joey? Are you feeling all right?"

Joey had gone a rather strange colour. "I … er, actually, no, I'm not," she stammered. "I think I'd better go and see if I can find Matey." She fled from the room, and her friends looked at each other in bemusement. "You don't think …?" Rosalie began.

"Oh, surely not," Hilda said. "Cecil's barely a year old. It's probably just a headache brought on by having to exercise the mathematical part of her brain! Nell, you probably know the girls' handwriting better than Rosalie or I do, now that you're taking science lessons here. Do you want to have a look and see if it's immediately obvious who the miscreants are?"

Nell reached for the pile of papers which Joey had left scattered on the table, looked at the first few, and then looked up at Hilda and Rosalie with a puzzled expression on her face. "I don't understand. They're all in different handwriting: these are the original voting slips all right. They aren't all for Mary-Lou at all. What was Joey talking about? Oh, these two are for Mary-Lou all right, but this one isn't, nor that, nor that … I don't understand. Here, look." She thrust a few of the papers at her two colleagues. "This doesn't make any sense. What's going on?"

"I don't know," Hilda said determinedly, "but I intend to find out. Rosalie, would you mind going to find Joey, and asking her to come back here immediately? In the meantime, Nell and I will count these votes properly and see what the real results are!"


"Well, that's the lot, thankfully," Nell declared. "Plenty for Mary-Lou, as we expected. Quite a few for Blossom Willoughby: she's been very good at helping the younger girls with their cricket. Games Prefects are always popular with the Juniors and Junior Middles! Most of the other prefects have got some votes as well: it's nice to know that they're doing their jobs so well. A few for various girls lower down the school, as well – including several which I strongly suspect are votes for friends or sisters, but I suppose that was inevitable. But the winner is Sybil Russell."

"Sybil!" Hilda exclaimed. Then she looked thoughtful. "Well ... that wasn't the result I was expecting, but she has turned into a very kind and helpful girl. In fact, if you remember, Betsy Lucy and co actually asked us if she could be made a sub-prefect, and I don't think that's ever happened with any other girl in the entire history of the school. I remember remarking only last term that she'd become a lovely, trustworthy girl, and one of our best prefects. I don't know why I'm surprised, really.

"I must confess that I was expecting Mary-Lou to win, but Sybil's a very deserving recipient." She tapped her fingers on the desk. "You know, Nell, it will mean a great deal to Sybil to know that her schoolfellows thing so well of her – more than it would to perhaps any other girl, I think. Oh, I know that she was a little madam when she was younger, but I've always thought that that was largely attention-seeking. Madge and Jem always had so many children living with them, for various reasons beyond anyone's control; and I think it was difficult for Sybil. Then, after that terrible business with Josette, she became almost a different child. I remember, when I first came back to work, thinking how much she'd changed. I don't think she's ever really stopped feeling guilty about it, and I think she's still very unsure of herself. This will mean so much to her.

"I voted for Mary-Lou, myself, but I'm glad that Sybil has won. What I can't make any sense of is why Joey said that everyone had voted for Mary-Lou. I can't understand it at all."

"We're about to find out," Nell observed, as Rosalie escorted a sheepish-looking Joey into the office and closed the door behind them. "Well, Joey? We're all ears. Why on earth did you tell us that everyone had voted for Mary-Lou?" She shook her head. "I don't understand. Why would you want the prize to go to the wrong person?"

"Mary-Lou didn't win?" asked Rosalie. "Who did, then?"

"Sybil Russell," Hilda informed her. She turned to Joey. "I assume that there's some sort of explanation for this, but I'm struggling to think of one. Why would you want the prize to go to the wrong person, as Nell's just asked? It's grossly unfair to Sybil. It's grossly unfair to Mary-Lou as well: she would hate to think that she'd been awarded a prize which should rightfully have gone to someone else. Why would you want to cheat the real winner out of what's hers? Your own niece, as well!"

"Because she is my niece," Jo cried. "Don't you see?" She looked round the room, at each of the three faces looking at her with suspicion. "Don't you remember us all sitting in Hilda's office in the Big House at St Briavel's whilst I told you about that nasty campaign that that little ass Eilunedd Vaughn had been waging against Peggy, saying that she'd only been made Head Girl because she was Madge's niece? And you said yourselves that Bride should have been the next Head Girl, but that you appointed Loveday Perowne instead because you were worried that there'd be a repeat performance if Bride followed on straight from Peggy.

"Sybil's my niece, Margot's niece, and Madge's daughter. If the prize goes to her, who's to say that someone wouldn't take a leaf out of Eilunedd's book and claim that that was the only reason she'd won? They'd say that the vote was rigged. There'd be all sorts of unpleasantness. Think how upsetting it would be to have Sybil's last term and the entire Coming of Age celebrations spoilt by something like that. Sybs would be heartbroken. So would Madge. If the prize goes to Mary-Lou – who was a good second – then there'll be none of that, and what neither she nor Sybil know won't hurt them."

"All right, Joey," Hilda said, when she and Nell and Rosalie had had a couple of minutes to digest their friend's logic. "I can see your point, and I must confess that it was something I hadn't thought of. I'm sorry if we sounded harsh. I understand that you were acting with good intentions. But the prize is Sybil's, and it must go to Sybil. Anything else would be cheating her, cheating Mary-Lou and cheating everyone who voted. Surely you can see that?"

"I suppose so," Joey admitted. "And I'm pleased that so many girls think so well of Sybs. She's a good girl, and she hasn't always had an easy time of it. I was just trying to avoid any unpleasantness."

"You'd have had more chance of fooling us if you'd said that a majority of people had voted for Mary-Lou, rather than that everyone had," Rosalie pointed out. "Honestly, Joey! I was expecting Mary-Lou to win and I wouldn't have thought twice about it if you'd just said that she'd got the most votes, not that she'd got every single vote! What on earth possessed you to come up with?"

Joey had the grace to blush. "I suppose I thought it'd sound … er, convincing." She smiled ruefully. "It didn't, did it? Oh dear, I haven't exactly covered myself in glory with all this, have I? Sorry!"

"Really, Joey – you never did stop to think when you were a Middle, and I'm not sure that you've ever grown up that much, mother of eleven or otherwise," Nell said bracingly. "Still, I can see that you meant well, even if your actions were rather … misguided, shall we say?"

"We won't even be announcing who's won the prize until the last week of term, so, even if anyone has got anything to say, they'll only have a few days to say it in," Hilda said firmly. "I doubt that anyone will be interested in it by the time the summer holidays have come and gone. However, just in case, I suggest that we announce how many votes Sybil got, and how many were cast in total. There's no need to mention how many votes anyone else got. Does that sound reasonable?"

The others all agreed that it did. And so, when the prizes were presented, at the conclusion of Sports Day, the Margot Venables Prize was awarded to a stunned and blushing Sybil Russell, who, despite being almost overwhelmed by the honour, accepted it with her usual grace and dignity. Madge Russell almost burst with pride, and the entire school let itself go in cheers for Sybil.

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