The first of Jo’s invited guests arrived at half past twelve on the dot. Lesley Malcolm and Hilary Bennet were easily recognisable as the mischievous school girls they once had been, only their faces were older. Both had ventured into teaching briefly after school. Lesley in maths at a girl’s day school in the north of England before pursuing a career in banking, where she had met her husband. Hilary had spent several years teaching PT at the English branch of the Chalet School before also leaving to marry. With their respective children now teenagers or on the brink of adolescence, a day off was well earned. Doris Hill arrived shortly after the other two, she had never pursued a career having married and had a family at a young age. Around the new faces Abigail was initially tongue tied and shy, preferring to keep close to Jo, of whom she was now over her initial misgivings. As the afternoon wore on and her understanding of her mother grew Abigail emerged from her shell around the older women and she began to question them as her curiosity grew. Through the words of those who had been there with her, Abigail began to learn to see her mother as the schoolgirl she had been – mischievous, fun loving, caring and always the first to help. They had not provided the deeper meaning and understanding that Abigail had found with Nina, but they had helped her to see her mother as someone who had once been her age.
“How did you find it?” asked Jo as they cleared up the afternoon’s chaos later on.
“It was nice,” replied Abigail with a half smile as she gathered a pile of photograph albums up in her arms. “The Chalet School sounds like such a wonderful place to have been, I almost wish I’d been there too. They seemed to have had such fun.”
Jo grinned. “Well, I wouldn’t argue with the time I spent there.”
“It never crossed my mind that boarding school could be like that. I don’t suppose that I’d ever thought it through properly. Auntie Verity never told me much about her school days; dad didn’t like her talking to me about them.” Abigail sighed. “It’s a shame it’s taken him so long to accept that I want to know things about my mother. I didn’t like to ask before, it wasn’t fair on him; but I always wanted to know, I was just afraid of hurting him anymore than he already was.”
“Just like your mother.” Abigail grinned broadly and on impulse enveloped Jo in a bear hug. “What’s that for?”
“Thank you,” said Abigail looking up at the older woman her eyes shining. “For helping me understand.”
Jo laughed. “Just you wait until tomorrow.”
“Why? What have you planned to do to me?”
Hilda Annersley’s eyes had long since needed glasses, but that aside little had changed since her days as headmistress of the Chalet School. She and Nell Wilson had, admittedly much against their better nature, moved to a retirement village just outside of Armiford a year or so previously. The staff there had hardly been prepared for such an onslaught, particularly from Nell who saw it as an infringement of her civil liberties and was prone to open protest. Hilda, whilst firmly believing in Nell’s stance, preferred an altogether more tactical and subtle approach.
“Oh look, another trip to Skegness” remarked Nell with a forced brightness as they passed the notice board on their way to the car park that Sunday lunch time. “I never used to want to go to Skegness, why do they think I want to start going now?”
Hilda chuckled. “Honestly Nell, you’ll get us thrown out of here.”
“I think you’ll find that’s my intention.”
In the car park Abigail hopped nervously from one foot to the other. Jo was being too secretive about this for her liking and she had absolutely no idea what they were doing in the car park of a retirement village. It was Jo who noticed Hilda and Nell first since the latter pair were so engrossed in their own conversation they didn’t notice Jo waving wildly at them until they practically collided with her.
“Hilda, Nell, lovely to see you both,” said Jo warmly.
“You too Jo,” replied Hilda before she turned to Abigail. “I don’t need to ask who you are,” she said with a soft smile.
After mother, Gran and Auntie Jo, there was Miss Annersley and Miss Wilson who provided key guidance in my formative years. In my early years at the Chalet School they were joint Heads, it was only after the school moved to Switzerland and Miss Wilson went to head the finishing branch that Miss Annersley would come to the fore. They complemented each other well as co-heads with their beliefs, principles and desire to do what was best for the school. I held them in the utmost respect, whatever may have gone on behind closed doors they always presented a united front to the rest of the world. I admired their faith in human nature, the belief that there was good in each and every one of us, and their determination to bring this out. I was eternally grateful for their constant faith and support, their efforts to understand, and their unending influence on my life. I couldn’t have asked for better guidance throughout both my school life and the path I chose afterwards. They were the Chalet School, responsible for the way that each of us had turned out. They knew us almost as well as we knew ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and fears.
Jo caught Abigail’s confused expression and suddenly became mindful of her manners, realising that she hadn’t made any introductions.
“Abby, I’m sorry,” she said suddenly. “Forgetting my manners in my old age.”
“Less of the old age,” interrupted Nell with a wicked grin.
“Abby, this is Nell Wilson, and this is Hilda Annersley.”
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” said Hilda stepping forward to shake Abigail’s hand.
“Weren’t you at the funeral?” asked Abigail. “I’m quite sure you were, but I didn’t speak to you.”
Hilda smiled. “We were, but no we didn’t speak to you. It wasn’t the right time, besides you were having a pretty busy day of it.”
“You were the Heads of the school weren’t you?”
“We were indeed,” said Nell. “For more years than we care to remember.”
“They even taught me back in the dark ages,” put in Jo. “But we can discuss all that later. I don’t know about you but I’m famished and don’t much fancy spending the afternoon in this car park.”
“Too right Jo, come one let’s go, I for one really need to get out of here before they force me into another trip to Skegness or soggy rice pudding with lunch,” declared Nell.
Jo grinned at Nell’s blatant indignation before they all clambered into the car and drove off, Abigail burning with curiosity, Nell full of glee at her escape, however short, and Hilda outwardly calm as she wondered what she was going to say to Abigail.
“Mum, Robert’s on the phone for you.”
Vi looked up from the pile of papers scattered across the coffee table at her eldest daughter.
“Did he say what it was about Ruth?” she asked getting up.
Ruth rolled her eyes. “As if he’d tell me. He did sound a bit agitated though.”
Vi shrugged and went to pick up the phone.
“Vi, I’ve done something stupid,” he said. “Something so completely and utterly unbelievably stupid, Abby is never going to forgive me.”
“Robert, wait, just stop there a second,” interrupted Vi. “I’m afraid you’ll have to go back and start at the beginning as I haven’t got a clue what you’re on about.”
“Sorry, it’s just it’s been running round non stop in my head since yesterday how stupid I’ve been.”
“Robert!” exclaimed Vi exasperatedly. “Will you please tell me what you’ve done?”
“I entered Abby for the Chalet School.”
“You did what?!” Vi could hardly contain her surprise. “After all the moral high ground that you’d never send her to boarding school and how the local state school was wonderful for her? You’re right, she probably won’t forgive you, or not easily anyway. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, that’s the thing. I don’t even know what prompted me to do it. The head, Miss, what’s her name, Wilmot, said she’d only accept Abby provisionally.”
“Quite sensible of her,” replied Vi dryly. “Abby’s at Jo’s this weekend isn’t she?”
“Yes, I’m expecting her back later this evening.”
“Well, you can’t go making any more rash decisions until she gets back and you talk it over with her. You never know, Jo Maynard can be quite a persuasive woman and Abby may come home raving about the school and wanting to go of her own accord and she therefore might be quite amenable to your suggestion. Or she’ll never speak to you again. Either way Robert, you mustn’t do anything else until she gets back from Jo’s and talk to her about it.”
“I know you’re right,” was his miserable reply. “But I just don’t know what came over me. One moment I was despairing to myself over the state of her room and realising how little I know about her these days, and the next I was on the phone trying to get her a place at boarding school, something I promised I’d never do. Vi, I’m sorry to lump all this on you like this, I just didn’t know who else to turn to.”
“I’m glad you felt you could come to me then.”
Jo, Hilda, Nell and Abigail had enjoyed a pleasant lunch in an Armiford pub talking over the good old days and now Jo had left Abigail to Hilda and Nell whilst she went to call on some friends. Abigail was somewhat in awe of the two older women, but their calm air of self possession made her feel that they were people who she could trust completely. Hilda sensed Abigail’s unease before Nell and tentatively approached the subject.
“Abby dear, are we really so frightening?” she asked.
Abigail was somewhat taken aback by the question. “No,” she replied almost defensively. “I don’t think you’re frightening at all. It’s just… I’ve heard so much about you both that it’s strange finally meeting you properly.”
Nell and Hilda exchanged glances and secret smiles. “And just exactly what have you been hearing about us?” Nell asked.
“I… I…” stammered Abigail.
“Nell!” exclaimed Hilda. “Don’t put the poor girl on the spot like that, or she really will be believing that we’re holy terrors!”
Nell grinned wickedly, her eyes shining. “Don’t mind me Abby, it must be being let out of the asylum having a bad effect on me.”
Hilda rolled her eyes. “Abby, you really will have to ignore Nell.”
Abigail smiled. “She talked about you both when I saw her at the end, mum that is. And everybody else since has said how much they owe to both of you and the school.”
“Abby, we’re not miracle workers Nell and I,” said Hilda with a smile. “We simply believe that everyone is able to achieve their full potential, and we only encouraged them in the right direction.”
“But…” began Abigail.
“But nothing, change must come from within. Whilst people may have been praising us and the school, I would assume that they have been overlooking their own roles in the process. There was only so much that either of us could do, we could only help, point people in the right direction and then stand back and watch which way they would go.”
“Mum, she said that you were both always there for her.”
“Part of the job remit Abby,” said Nell. “But your mother was a very unique person. Remember, we first met her when she was younger than you. There are remarkable similarities between the two of you, but I suppose you’ve been told that so often.”
Abigail nodded. “Auntie Jo was the first person to tell me that.”
Nell smiled gently. “She would. She wouldn’t have been the first to notice, but she would be the first one to ignore convention and tell you.”
“I wish I’d had the chance to really get to know her. It’s always been me and dad and I never minded, I always knew we were different from other families but being at Auntie Jo’s this weekend has made me realise more than ever just how much I’ve missed out on by only having dad,” Abby paused, wondering how to put her thoughts into words. “It’s like, in a way, I’m happy that she didn’t stay as she would have been unhappy, only I can’t help but wonder what might have been if she had stayed.”
Hilda reached across the table and took Abigail’s hand in her own. “That’s something we all wonder Abby and it’s something nobody can ever answer. I know it’s hard, but it’s best not to dwell too much on it. What’s done is done and can never be changed. I often wonder how different it would have been if I’d been told that my mother had been ill before she died, whether things would have been different between us; as it is, it’s something I will never know as I was never told.” Hilda broke off, some aspects of the past were a different country and often not one she enjoyed visiting.
“With you mother,” added Nell sensing Hilda’s discomfort and taking the initiative. “It was hard for her, you have to remember that she grew up without a father. Seeing Robert with you was incredibly difficult for her because it reminded her that she’d never had the chance to know her father. She was already hurting a lot Abby, hurting because she felt that she couldn’t love you, and hurting because she realised how much she’d missed out on with her father.”
“I never thought of it like that,” said Abigail slowly. “Everybody talks about how she left because she felt that she couldn’t be the mother I deserved; but the fact that I made her miss her father all the more never cropped up.”
“Nobody ever expected you to Abby,” put in Hilda. “She only ever told us about it, nobody else knew unless they had worked it out for themselves and kept it quiet. What you must remember though Abby, is that your mother did love you and you were very much a wanted child and if she could see you now she would be incredibly proud of you. But please, you mustn’t be afraid to ask if ever there is anything you ever want or need to know. Nell and I will always be at the other end of a letter, or a phone call and for as long as we are here; we will be here for you. We may not always have the answers, but we are always willing to listen. I can only imagine that this must be a very confusing time for you to suddenly get to know your mother only after her death.”
“It is a bit,” replied Abigail with a weak smile as she tried to blink away the tears. “I’ve spent my whole life knowing nothing about her, or almost nothing, and then all of a sudden there’s so much information coming at me. And everyone keeps telling me how like her I am.”
Nell grinned back at the girl. “You most certainly look like her, before that ghastly tobogganing accident with Emmy Hope anyway. Has Jo told you the full yarn there?”
Abigail nodded. “I liked the bit where she found out that Dr, Uncle Jack, told her she couldn’t look like a skinned rabbit as she didn’t have a rabbity mouth.”
Nell laughed. “She was always one to stand out from the crowd, and she certainly did not have a rabbity mouth!” Abigail giggled at Nell’s emphatic statement.
“Jo’s back,” said Hilda suddenly looking up. “Abby, my dear, no matter what may happen, you must remember that you are never alone.”