For a long time, Simone wasn’t conscious of anything but a ringing sound in her ears. When she opened her eyes all she could see was white. Then, slowly, it came back to her – the trip to the Platz to see Joey, going upstairs to make sure the triplets hadn’t left any windows open in the on-coming storm, the triplets telling her about their secret holiday project – her lips twitched. Joey would certainly appreciate her next birthday present! Then her thoughts had taken her back to the school’s early days, and her cousin, and the storm had suddenly been right over head and then-
She slowly became aware of someone talking. A man, with a pleasant tenor voice and Parisian accent. “…about now? No, that hasn’t worked. Maybe if you had something to eat? No, you wouldn’t even know you were eating something, and if you couldn’t event taste it there wouldn’t be much point. Oh, hello!” The white had started to fade away, and Simone found herself looking at a man who wasn’t much beyond a boy. He looked like he had dressed in a storm himself – his jacket sleeves were too short, and he wore a bow-tie, instead of an ordinary cravat. His hair looked as thought it might have been cut in the dark. And yet – there was something reassuring about him.
“Vision’s back, then,” he said happily. “Feeling?” He reached out a finger and jabbed her with it.
“What did you do that for?”
“And speech, that’s good. Hearing?”
Simone looked at him doubtfully. “There was ringing…”
“Yes, that’s normal. Well, not normal, because most human don’t experience temporal displacement syndrome, but when they do their senses tend to shut down on them. You’re lucky you only have five senses.”
Most of what he said didn’t make very much sense, but Simone did catch the word “syndrome” and latched onto it like a liferaft. “Are you a doctor? Am I ill?”
“No, and no. Or not in the way you’d think of as being ill, anyway. Tell me – what was your name?”
“Simone de Bersac.”
“Tell me, Simone de Bersac, what’s the last thing you remember?” She told him, and his look changed from one of helpful concern to deep-furrowed worry. “Then we’ve got to move fast. If it’s who I think it is-”
“If what’s who you think what is?” Simone asked, feeling more confused than ever. The man gave her a hand so she could stand, and she noticed that she was in an alleyway. And then they were running and he was talking, and –
He called them Vermin, because he said she wasn’t going to be able to pronounce their real name. They fed off not food, but on potential. A young boy who had the potential to become a great concert pianist – they would kill him, and feed off all the lives that were never changed because audiences had never heard him play. But they didn’t just travel the land, doing that. They travelled in time, finding a victim and then burrowing back through the years like rats, finding a critical moment in their life and killing them before they had the chance to live it. Simone must have fallen in to one of their burrows, coming out the other side in another time.
“None of that explains why we are in London,” she told him, when they had stopped running. He cocked his head.
“Weren’t you in London before?”
“But no! I was in the Oberland, visiting a friend. I – oh, is she the one they’re trying to kill?” Panic took her, and she reached out and gripped his arm. “Not Joey! Please, it can’t be Joey it – it can’t.”
“Was Joey in London in 1924, Simone de Bersac?” Simone’s lips moved frantically as she did the arithmetic, and then she shook her head. She and Joey had only been 7 in 1924. She’d been in France, still; Joey in Devon. Joey hadn’t been to visit London until she was 8.
“Then it must have been someone else in the house. Who was in London in 1924?”
Simone thought furiously. “There was Jack,” she said. “But no – he wasn’t in the house at the time.”
“Hmmm.” The man looked thoughtful. “If it wasn’t anyone who was there… What were you thinking, Simone de Bersac? What were you thinking of when the storm struck?”
“My cousin,” Simone replied. “I was thinking that, even though she was so kind to me and my sister – she helped to put us through school – there was so much about her I never knew. She was even our headmistress, at my boarding school, but she…” Her hand flew to her mouth. “Cousin Elise! She lived in London in the 1920s, before she was offered a place in Devon. Is she-”
He was running again. “Do you have any idea where she’d be?”
“She was working at a girls’ school! Oh, but I don’t know which one! It was a day school, and she had a little apartment nearby-”
She’d been to the apartment before, though. Cousin Elise had been an invalid by then, in London, waiting until her relocation to Guernsey had been approved. Simone had been waiting too – desperately hoping for word of her family before she took up her new post as Maths Mistress at the Chalet School. Cousin Elise had demanded she take her out, one day when she was nearly beside herself with worry. She’d pointed out the building she had once lived in. “It was a terrible place,” she’d said. “I was so glad when I was offered the post of governess. And then Marguerite came to me with her wonderful idea, and I was glad to leave the post of governess, too.”
Simone’s feet slipped on the street as she turned a corner, instinct as much as memory driving her towards her cousin. Her eyes registered posters and fashions that had not been seen for thirty years – perhaps later she’d have time to marvel at that. For now, she was running – because something in her believed everything this odd man had told her, and she had to hurry, had to get there before the Vermin did.
“Is this it?”
It didn’t look the same as when she had last seen it; the paint was fresher now than it had been then, but it was the right building. She rattled the front door impatiently. “It’s locked!”
“Here-” There was a buzz, and the door was open. Simone clambered up the stairs, ignoring the ache in her legs. She wasn’t as fit as she’d been as a girl; she’d really have to convince André that they should both take up tennis again, as soon as she got back. The door at the top was open, slightly ajar; Simone slammed it wider and – stopped.
The man was only a few paces behind her. He looked distraught. Simone wasn’t. She couldn’t feel anything. No syndrome, no pain. Nothing.
“Simone de Bersac – I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry…”
Simone nodded, but in truth she barely heard him. Her cousin looked so much younger than she remembered her; the pain she’d lived in during her last few years had etched deep lines across her face, but here she looked untouched – almost. There was touch of sadness to her mouth, though. Unhappy with her school placement? Or unhappy for other reasons? Cousin Elise had never mentioned there being anyone in her life, but she’d not been a born teacher the way some were. There was so much she’d never known about her…
“This is real, isn’t it?” Simone asked after a while. “I’m really in London in 1924. That’s – that was really my cousin.”
“As real as anything is. Simone- ”
“But she can’t be dead,” Simone said. “I know. She helped raise me. She – how can she be dead?”
The man cleared his throat. His face was still drawn tight. “Time parallax. Um – the past that you remember, this time’s future… It never happened. You told me she was a headmistress. There’s all those girls she would’ve helped, those teacher she employed… that can’t happen now. That’s what the Vermin are eating.”
Simone had spent years at school being teased over her crying. She’d learned not to cry; she’d learned logic in the face of emotion. She wasn’t going to give in to tears now. “There’s more than that,” she said, her voice sounding stony even to her own ears. “Cousin Elise founded the school. It wasn’t her idea, but without her – I don’t think it would ever have happened. It isn’t going to happen. I- I have to do something about this. It’s not just the girls who were there when she taught; it was all of us. Joey – Marie and Frieda, our daughters – Madame. Gay Lambert. Robin-” André. Would she even have met him, if Cousin Elise had not encouraged her to aim for the Sorbonne? “I have to save her,” she said again.
“Simone,” his voice was kind, his eyes soft. “It’s too l…” His voice trailed off. “It’s not too late,” he said. “In fact, we’re probably too early. There is a way to fix this. But –” he looked at her doubtfully. “It’s going to make a long wait, for you. A very long wait. What year did you say you came from?”
His plan seemed ridiculous at first. Impossible. For many years afterwards, Simone wondered if it was only shock that had let her agree to it. But then, what else could she have done? If he was to be believed – and she couldn’t help but believe him – there was no way she could return to her own life. Her own life no longer existed. So she took over her cousin’s life instead.
She moved to Devon, where she joined the WI and found herself making friends with the young Madge Bettany. It was strange to see the woman who had been her Headmistress and employer now so much younger than herself; it was stranger still to meet Joey, a scrawny pale child with infinitely more passion than energy. Would she still grow into the strong woman, the wife and mother that Simone adored? She would, Simone hoped. She had to.
Her first visit to see her parents – Elise’s cousins – was hard. Her parents, although tired, were so young and happy. She wanted to throw herself into her mother’s arms and weep, but instead she held back, choosing instead to just be glad they did not seem to notice that she was not the same they had met so many times before. Her father mentioned that England was clearly good for her; she was looking younger and prettier than she had when he’d seen her after the war. Simone laughed, and hoped that her near-hysteria was not apparent.
Her first triumph came when Madge sent her a note asking her around for “tea and a chat”. That was the first hint that the Chalet School really was going to happen. Madge sounded her out carefully; and Simone could answer truthfully that she spoke both English and German fluently, and had taught in an English girls’ school. And yes, she had been to Austria before. In fact, she’d visited the Tiernsee several times. Was she interested in going into a partnership with the Englishwoman? Perhaps. Yes.
But once the school had started up it became far more difficult to keep things running as she was sure they should. While there were some events etched in her memory – cutting her hair, Jo and Grizel’s fateful trip up the Tiernjoch, her paper dolls almost causing the Robin to drown – there were other events she had long since forgotten about. What had she done to cause Juliet to confess her parents misdeeds to Madge before her parents had abandoned her? She’d had to intervene then, suggest that they keep Juliet on rather than force the Carricks to take her back. Madge had agreed reluctantly at the time; later, she told Simone she was glad that she had, that she thought the Frenchwoman’s kindness had been Juliet’s salvation. Simone thought differently; but she accepted the praise all the same. What else was she to do?
It was Margot’s arrival that threw the first large spanner in the works. Up until then, she had been doing her best to follow the choices her cousin had made. She’d been told that it was important that the potential that Elise had was not lost. But Margot, even after Simone had consoled her, and explained to her everything that had happened, would not see it.
“But you aren’t Mademoiselle Lepâttre,” she argued. “How can you do everything the same way she did? As long as you’re Headmistress, aren’t you fulfilling her role anyway? How much is it going to matter to matter if things go a little – wonky?”
It wasn’t until Grizel and Deira’s fight that Simone finally accepted that change was inevitable. Her own memories of the event were hazy, but she was sure that Madge had attempted to talk to both of the girls. This time around she didn’t, believing that Simone had dealt with them as well as was possible on her own. Simone had been proud – and a little distraught. Had Madge not trusted her own cousin to deal with disciplinary matters? She’d never thought about it before, but now she was starting to wonder if Elise had ever really been fit for the post. Still – she started trying to make things better, using her own memories and her own skills to guide her, rather than making the decisions that she thought Elise had made. She seemed to have more successes than failures. She thought Elise would be proud of her.
The coming of the war frightened Simone. Not only was she scared at the thought of having to live through all that death, despair and destruction a second time, she knew that the Anschluss had signalled the beginning of the end for Elise. Was her own time drawing to an end? She tried not to think about it, tried to stay focussed on the school and on Simone’s – the younger her, the real her – news that she was soon to be engaged. Not to André, though – and Simone wasn’t sure whether to be happy or triste at that. André was still hers, and hers alone. But – where was he, in this new reality? Was he with someone else? Alive or dead? If she died, now, would she see him again? Or was he lost to her forever?
The war came, but Simone stayed as strong as ever. More than that – she found she was thriving on the work involved in relocating an entire school to a different country, and continuing to keep everyone in good health and cheer as rationing set in. Her parents arrived, refugees from France; she was happy to have them near her again. The investments she’d made with her small amounts of earnings before the war meant she could keep them in good comfort until they were well again, with enough left over to continue to help girls that needed it. The Thérèse Lepâttre scholarship had helped many poor girls; the least Simone could do was carry on Elise’s wishes.
When the school announced its removal to Switzerland, Simone announced her own retirement. Madge had been unhappy at the decision – she’d even sent Jo over to plead with her, much to Simone’s amusement.
“I’m old,” she told Jo over a cup of tea. “No, chérie, don’t argue. I’m not long off 70 – and it’s more than time for someone else to take over the running of the school. Someone who won’t make too many changes, perhaps, but who has the energy to tackle the problems I don’t.”
“Diana Skelton?” Jo queried. “The school did everything they could, Therese-”
Simone shook her head. “But it wasn’t enough. Once upon a time I would have been able to help her properly – you remember Thekla?”
Jo nodded. “Of course! We’re still in touch. In fact she’s invited us to stay during our trip to the Oberland, in fact – but that’s neither here or there. Surely Diana was worse than Thekla! Thekla never destroyed the Head Girl’s office in a fit of – of petty revenge.”
Simone’s mouth twitched. “But did she not have a child’s tantrum when she couldn’t have the book she wanted? They were both products of their upbringing, in their own ways. But I couldn’t see a way to help Diana. No; it is time for me to go.”
Jo obviously saw that her mind was made up, and instead asked whether she had thought about a replacement.
“Of course,” Simone replied demurely.
“You’re not going to make me guess?” Jo laughed. “Well – to my mind there’s only two real options. I know Pam Slater is ambitious enough, and she’s been Head of the Maths department since the school left Wales.”
“And the other?”
“Hilda Annersley. She did an excellent job when you had that ‘flu. That’s who you were thinking of, isn’t it? Hilda’s marvellous, Therese – but she’s not you.”
“No more should she be,” Simone replied firmly. “Hilda will do wonderfully – I wouldn’t be surprised if she surpassed me, in fact. No, my Joey, I have made up my mind. I will go and stay with my cousin for some time, and then – perhaps you will find me some small residence on the Gornetz Platz. I love our school too much to leave her completely.”
That was the truth, even if it wasn’t the whole truth.
She’d meant to have a real retirement, but she found that on her own, with nothing to keep her busy, her thoughts strayed too often down paths she did not want to walk. She took to helping out with the girls at Hobbies Club who needed extra guidance with their needlework, tutoring some of the children at the San who were well enough to learn but not well enough to attend the school, and looking after a company of Guides. Many of her former pupils stayed in touch with her, particularly those she had mothered – Corney Flower, Biddy O’Ryan, Betty Wynne-Davis – but it was Margot and Len who came to see her almost daily. It was funny – and a little sad. Even though they had both lived fulfilling lives, here, neither of them was truly happy. Was it just missing their sister and their family? Simone wondered. Or had they each lost more than they were prepared to say?
She was out for a walk one afternoon, planning an expedition for her company, when she finally received the sign she’d been waiting for, for all this time.
“Hello, Simone de Bersac!”
It had been more than thirty years since she’d last heard that voice, and yet Simone recognised it instantly. Besides – there was no one around who knew to call her by that name, except the triplets.
“Hello,” she said calmly. “It’s been a long time.” She glanced him over. “Or perhaps it hasn’t, for you.” He didn’t just look well-preserved; he looked entirely unchanged. He was wearing the same jacket and shirt, the same trousers, even the same terrible tie.
“Only a couple of days,” he told her cheerfully. “Would’ve come straight here but I had to drop a honey-mooning couple off at the Suivain Delta. Did you know,” he continued, “that you’ve managed to starve the Vermin to death? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my life, and I have lived for quite a long time.”
“I – killed them?” Simone asked. She hadn’t really considered the possibility that in trying to save history she was committing murder.
“Yes! Well, sort of. Death isn’t really a finality for the Vermin, it’s more of a slightly uncomfortable set-back.”
“Oh,” said Simone faintly.
“The thing is, even though you’ve managed to stop them on this end, they’re still going to arrive very shortly, and do the whole thing again. That’s the problem with circular life-lines, they just sort of go on forever unless you can pip them at the source. A big temporal disturbance ought to throw them off, but I don’t know – yet – how to make one. Usually I’d just whip something up with the TARDIS, but she’s been acting a little off since the last time I had to rebuild reality. What?”
“I just – thought I should tell you,” Simone said. “I’m not the only one who got caught up in – in this. The triplets – my friend’s daughters, who I was visiting – they did, too.”
“Triplets?” he asked, interested, “Really? Are they identical- ooh! That’s it!” He suddenly seized Simone and hugged her tightly. “Perfect! If all of you managed to meet at the same time – the four of you, and the four of your from this timeline – and if you were all together when the Vermin struck – that storm you talked about – it would probably send them away from Earth altogether. All eight of you in the same place? The universe hates it when that happens.”
It took a moment, but Simone thought she understood what he was saying. It would take some careful manoeuvring but – yes, she thought she could do it. The triplets would do it – they would be overjoyed to finally be back with their family, in their own time. And she – well, she’d be young again. And she’d be back with André, and the children.
“How will we know if it’s worked?” she asked.
“Because,” he told her, “If it works, none of this –” he waved a hand around wildly “- will have happened. You won’t remember a thing.”