The first day of term at the Chalet School was always somewhat chaotic and this one proved to be no different. Seated at her desk in her study Nancy Wilmot watched an endless stream of faces come and report their arrival to her, but this term there was a new one of particular interest to her. She glanced up at the clock as one of the second form left her study having reported, it was still too early for the coaches to have arrived from Exeter station, those who had already arrived were those who had been brought by parents. Nancy had just enough time to catch her breath before there was another knock at the door.
In the back of her father’s car Abby Fenchurch listened to the eager chatter of her friend Livia Warrington with half an ear. In a way she was glad that she was starting a new school with someone she already knew to give her a hand but that wasn’t stopping the knot of nerves in her stomach. She and her father had stayed with the Warrington’s the previous evening so Abby and Livia could travel to school together, now Abby wasn’t so sure it had been a good idea and wondered if she’d have been better off on the train and getting the coach from Exeter, at least that way she would have had the chance to get to know a few more people before arriving.
Kathie Ferrars had found over the years that the first day of term never got any easier. She’d excused herself from dealing with the girls en masse and had hidden away in the staff room checking over supplies lists.
“Think you’ve got the right idea there Kathie,” said a voice over the top of Kathie’s list.
Kathie looked up and saw the young English mistress, Colleen Winters, known to all and sundry as Coll, whirling about the staff room clearly looking for something. Coll had arrived at the Chalet School the previous year straight from college and had instantly become a favourite with the girls and staff alike with her bubbly and happy personality
Kathie smiled. “Somebody has to do the boring jobs around here,” she said. “I take it that it’s chaos out there.”
Coll nodded, her short brown curls bobbing about her face. “And the coaches haven’t even arrived yet,” she added emphatically.
“I thought you were on escort.”
“Me? Goodness no, thankfully, not this time. Ju and Webb have gone, and… didn’t you write the list anyway Kath?”
Kathie flinched at that particular short form of her name; there had only been one person in her life who’d been allowed to call her that. “Yes I did,” she replied shortly. “Did you want something Coll?”
Coll grabbed a pile of papers from one of the shelves. “Yes, this, dormitory lists,” she said quickly before rushing out of the room.
Abby wasn’t too sure what to make of the Chalet School on her first glimpse of it, the old manor house with other buildings scattered about it, it was an awful lot different from her concrete eyesore state school. She was too lost in her own reminisces about her old school to hear Livia pointing out various parts of her new school to her. Abby shrank back in her seat realising only now just how real it all was as the niggling doubts bubbled up to the surface once more. Her farewell to her father was short and sweet before Livia grabbed her arm and dragged her up to the Head’s study to report their arrival.
On the Welsh border Jo Maynard’s thoughts turned, as they so often did, to the Chalet School as she wondered how the first day of term would be going. Her own granddaughters were now pupils at the school where she’d been the first all those years ago in the Austrian Tyrol. Her thoughts turned from them to another of the school’s ‘grandchildren’ as she wondered how Abby was getting along. At the same time another girl came into her thoughts, Megan Webb, the motherless girl who had made Abby’s own mother rethink the path her life had taken. Thinking through her granddaughters at the Chalet School, Jo remembered that Felicity’s eldest girl, Katy, would be in the same form as Abby. Had Felicity and her family not been spending the summer in Spain with her husband’s family she would have been able to introduce Katy to Abby, but it hadn’t happened in that way. Still, thought Jo to herself, at least Katy knew to look out for Abby and to help her out should she need it. Jo didn’t doubt that Abby’s time at the Chalet School would be as successful as her mother’s and that she would be able to challenge successfully anything that got in her way.
Nancy looked up at the clock once again, she’d lost track of the number of times she’d checked the time but it didn’t seem to be going any faster but at least the coaches were due soon and then things would get a bit easier.
“Come in,” she called as there was yet another knock on the door.
“Don’t forget to curtsey when we go in, don’t question, just do it, it’s tradition,” muttered Livia to Abby as she opened the door and dragged her friend in behind her. “Good afternoon Miss Wilmot,” said Livia as the two of them bobbed clumsy curtsies.
Nancy smiled instantly recognising Livia’s companion. “Good afternoon Livia, Abigail,” she said crossing their names off the arrivals list. “Did you have a pleasant holiday Livia?”
“Very nice, thank you Miss Wilmot, mum sends her best wishes as well. She would have come up to say a quick hello only she had to get back because she left Alexis with Ruth. Not that she doesn’t trust Ruth in charge of the house or anything…” Livia tailed off and smiled as she caught the twinkle in Nancy’s eye. “Anyway, I’m here and Tacy and Cathlin are on their way up, I think Tacy had been mobbed by some of her own form.”
Nancy smiled again. “Three A for you Livia, but you knew that already.”
Livia beamed. “Yes I did, thank you Miss Wilmot, mum was really impressed with that since she’s forever reminding me that it was Ruth and Tacy who came off best for brains in the family.”
Nancy chuckled. “I think that’s all for now Livia, if you can just wait outside a moment whilst I sort Abigail out and then the two of you can run up to Matron and get sorted out there.”
“Okay then Miss Wilmot,” and with those words Livia bobbed another awkward curtsey and left the room.
“Now then Abigail,” began Nancy.
Abby looked up from where she had been studying the carpet pattern with a start. She’d been completely lost in her own thoughts and concerns wondering how to deal with her new Headmistress. At her comprehensive school the Head had commanded a certain level of respect but Livia’s breezy manner here had thrown her and she wasn’t sure how to react now.
Nancy noticed the fleeting worried expression cross Abby’s face. “Abigail?”
“Abby,” muttered the name’s owner shyly, almost under her breath.
Abby looked up. “Abby,” she repeated. “I mean, I’m always known as Abby, with two b’s and a y. I don’t mean to be cheeky about it but dad always said that Abigail was too long for everyday use.”
Nancy smiled as she remembered that another father had once said that about his daughter. “He has a point, however Abigail is a nice enough name on its own.” Abby’s face fell and she went back to studying the carpet pattern. “But, since you already seem to have a bit of a reputation as Abby perhaps we’d best leave it at that.”
Abby smiled. “Thank you.”
“Now,” said Nancy as she shuffled through a pile of papers on the desk. “I’ve had a look through the work your old school sent me and I think we can quite happily put you in 3A along with Livia, and Katy Johnson,” Abby looked blankly at her. “Jo Maynard’s granddaughter,” Nancy qualified. “But about your languages, how much French and German do you have?”
“I’ve done two years of French, but it’s only very basic still, and I’ve done no German at all. I was meant to start that this year though.”
Nancy frowned. “I think we can timetable you down to 3B then for languages and we can fit in some extra coaching, but when you hear nothing but French and German around you, you’ll soon pick it up. And as for extras, clarinet and piano lessons will be arranged once we’re aware ourselves of teaching arrangements. Now I think that’s all we need to worry about for the moment, Livia should be waiting for you outside still and you can get sorted out with Matron.”
“Thank you Miss Wilmot.”
“And Abby,” Nancy said as Abby turned to leave. “It’s a pleasure to have finally met you, and I’m glad you felt that you could follow in your mother’s footsteps, it can’t have been an easy decision to make.”
Abby smiled. “No, it wasn’t, but I had some good pointers in the right direction.”
“If there’s ever anything you want to know about your mother, or if you ever want to talk about her, then my door is always open. And if I’m not around, then find Miss Ferrars and she will be just as happy to talk to you, or Miss Kennedy, my secretary, she was friends with your mother at school.”
“Thank you Miss Wilmot,” mumbled Abby gratefully.
“You’d best run along to Matron now.”
The next hour or so passed in a whirl for Abby as Livia whisked her through everything that she needed to know. They reported to Matron, discovered that they were in the same dormitory before heading there to discard their night cases and then heading to the cloakroom to get rid of their outdoor things. From there Livia dragged Abby through a maze of corridors that Abby was convinced she would never figure out for herself and then through a door which led into a large, light and airy room. The walls were painted white and lined with shelves which had name cards pinned to them. The wooden floor was covered by a few scattered rugs in various colours. Three big sofas were against each of the walls and sundry chairs, beanbags and cushions were scattered throughout the room. A record player sat in the corner with a box of records next to it and a box of magazines beside that.
“This is our common room,” announced Livia with a note of pride in her voice. “It’s for the third forms only and it’s so much nicer than the one we had in the second form last year. You’ve got a space on the bookshelves for your library books and what not. There’s a TV room down the corridor for us middles as well but no one really uses it.” Livia stopped suddenly aware that Abby was no longer by her side. Sure enough she found her crouched beside the box of records. “Not sure there’s anything you’d like in there,” commented Livia as she crossed the room.
Abby looked up her eyes shining. “Well it’s mostly pop rubbish,” she said ruefully. “But there is this,” she added lifting out a copy of London Calling by The Clash.
Livia stared at Abby momentarily. “You’re crackers…”
She got no further as the door was flung open and her select band of miscreants tumbled in all talking at once.
“Livvie” one of them called over the Babel. “Where have you been?”
Livia held up her hand to stop the torrent of voices. “I’ve been here, I didn’t come on the train this year, mum drove Tacy, Cathlin and I down. And this,” she said gesturing at Abby. “Is Abby Fenchurch, she’s new, but her mum was friend’s with mine when they were at school here.”
“Are you Mary-Lou’s daughter then?” asked a voice from the back of the group as it’s owner, a small dark haired girl pushed her way through. Abby nodded. “Hi, I’m Katy Johnson, you know my gran, she told me about you, don’t worry. We would have met before but I was in Spain all summer staying with my grandma, my father’s mother.”
“Nice to meet you,” replied Abby realising that she’d heard about Katy already from both Jo and Livia.
Livia quickly introduced the rest of the group, whom Abby was to find out were also in the same dormitory and form as her. Red haired Scottish Jinny MacDonald was easy to remember, as was Jilly Wheeler, who was Jinny’s best friend, since they were hardly ever apart. Anya Martin was their dormitory monitor, small with long black hair in a plait down her back, her mother was Russian and her father English. Cari Parker was half Turkish on her mother’s side but had always lived in England, and Rhianna Sharples came from Wales.
“So we’re all in A then?” asked Livia as she finished the introductions. “And in Pansy dorm?” The others nodded. “Excellent, do you know who else is in A then?”
Katy nodded. “I peeked at the list on the door of Carnation,” she grinned. “There’s Coralie Barbier, Lara Davis, Madeleine Dupont, Iona Maine, Tansy Marchington, Freya Petersen, Heidi Richter and Emilia Thackery. So for a form we’re not a bad bunch really, but I think our dormy’s the best.”
“Tansy Marchington’s a bit of a know all,” grumbled Jinny. “Always thinks she’s better than the rest of us. And Iona Maine’s quite dull, I thought she’d be staying down in B again this year but obviously she managed to pull something off to make it up to A.”
“The rest of them are okay though,” interjected Jilly. “Lara and Emilia should sort them out and keep them in check, and hopefully those two can do something to bring Freya and Heidi out of their shells. Those two have been at this school too long to still be so quiet, it’s not natural.”
“And if Coralie and Madeleine would stop talking French for five minutes then we’d all be perfect,” grinned Livia irrepressibly. “I wonder where the Carnation crew are then? And everyone from B, it’s odd that it’s just us lot in here.”
“You don’t think they forgot we were in the third now and went back to the seconds common room, do you?” asked Katy a little cautiously. “I mean, we nearly went piling into there instead of here.”
“You moose,” retorted Livia. “You don’t get any better for keeping Katy Johnson.”
Katy smirked. “I take after my gran apparently. How was my gran when you saw her anyway Abby?”
Abby looked a little startled at being addressed so directly. “She was well,” began Abby.
“Good oh then,” replied Katy. “I expect I’ll see her soon anyway, I’ve never known her to keep away from the school for an entire term.”
Abby looked puzzled but had no chance to question Katy further as the door to the common room opened and the other members of her form began to arrive in groups. The chatter revolved principally around the summer holidays and Abby gradually learned which names belonged to which faces.
The first day of term was always too long from the staff perspective and it was always a relief when it was over. As far as Nancy was concerned it hadn’t gone too badly, everybody had arrived and was sorted into forms and dormitories with no complications. The first assembly had gone well, the announcement of the prefects and the Head Girl had gone down well with the rest of the school. In fact, thought Nancy, as she switched off the light in her study to go to the staff room, it had gone a little too well, she was sure that it wasn’t meant to go quite so well but harboured the secret hope that she had done every term that maybe this time they would survive until the holidays with no disasters. Nancy knew that expecting a smooth and peaceful term was perhaps a little too much to ask. She had hoped that moving back to England from the Alps would have lessened the school’s incredible ability to attract disaster but it hadn’t been so.
Entering the staff room Nancy was greeted by a torrent of welcoming voices and a chair was pushed in her general direction. Aside from herself and Kathie there were very few who left from the early days in Switzerland, most of the current staff having joined the school when they moved back to England. She waved to Davida Armitage the science mistress who was engaged in an animated discussion with her fellow scientist Ju Rawling and Lucy Webber, known more commonly as Webb, who taught mathematics. She scanned the room to see who else was there and quickly spotted Sharlie Andrews, or Sharlie Fernley to give her married name, and crossed the room to join her and a group of younger mistresses.
“Seen Kathie?” she asked Sharlie under her breath, pretending to be engrossed in the tale Coll Winters was relating to the rest of the group.
“Not since Abendessen,” replied Sharlie. “I assumed she’d gone to see you.”
Nancy shook her head. “I’ve not seen her all day, except for meals and she was being unnaturally quiet.”
“She’s probably in her room,” said Sharlie.
“I’ll go and have a look for her in a bit then.”
Nancy tried to push her concerns to the back of her mind and concentrate on the conversation she had just walked into, but she couldn’t help worrying about her friend. The last few weeks had been the usual rush and stress in the build up to the start of term on top of Kathie’s seemingly unnecessary worries about Abby, not to mention the fact that the start of winter term was always hard for her. It had been four years Nancy realised, but she supposed that living with something like that never got any easier.
“Don’t you think Nancy?” Coll’s voice cut through Nancy’s thoughts.
“Think what, sorry?” she asked.
“That we should paint the staff room lime green with a pink border,” replied Coll her face deadly serious but there was a twinkle in her eye.
“I… um…” Nancy was temporarily at a loss for words until the others burst out laughing at her and she remembered that Coll could make the most outrageous and blatantly untrue statements with an air of serenity and honesty about her. Nancy grinned. “Sorry, I really wasn’t listening,” she said apologetically. “I had other things on my mind.”
“It has been a long day,” put in Sharlie sympathetically knowing what had been on Nancy’s mind.
The Pansy dormitory was chaos when bed time rolled around, despite the fact that its inmates had only unpacked their nightcases under the careful supervision of Matron a number of things had turned up in the wrong places.
“I can’t believe I’d have been so daft!” exclaimed Livia as she wriggled under her bed to pick up her hairbrush.
“It must have fallen off your drawers,” replied Katy. “Oh, Rhianna, your spongebag is in my cubicle for some reason.”
“Oh good,” replied Rhianna catching the offending article as Katy tossed it across the dormitory.
“Nobody would be stupid enough to be playing mad pranks this early on in term, would they,” mused Jinny as she combed her hair in front of her mirror.
“You’d have thought not,” came Anya’s voice as she poked her head through the curtains to her cubicle. “I’m telling you something though, I’m glad there’s no sign of Matron doing the rounds or we’d be in for it.”
Katy sighed heartily from her own cubicle. “I just don’t understand it. Livia and Abby unpacked their stuff before the rest of us arrived but Livia’s things seem to be just as messed up as ours.”
“Why not mine then?” asked Abby.
“You’re a new girl, no one in their right mind would do something like that to a new girl on her first day.”
“Anybody seen my pyjamas?” asked Jinny suddenly. “They’re the only thing I’ve got missing now.”
A general agreement came from the others that they now had all their things in their rightful places.
“Your pyjamas?” asked Jilly incredulously. “How could you lose something like that?”
“I don’t know!” exclaimed Jinny. “But I put them on my bed when I unpacked, and Matron saw me,” she added for emphasis. One by one the others agreed that they didn’t have Jinny’s pyjamas in their cubicle. “This is most unusual.”
There was a sharp tap on the door and Lara Davis crept in carrying a pair of pyjamas. “Jinny, you fool, your pyjamas were in my cubey, how on earth did you get them there?”
“Absolutely no idea,” groaned Jinny taking them from Lara. “But I wish I knew who’d done it ‘cause I’d like to wring their neck!”
Anya appeared from between her curtains in her pyjamas. “Really Jinny,” she said. “Do you not think that’s taking it to extremes…” she broke off on hearing sniggering from Katy’s cubicle. “Katy Johnson!” she exclaimed pulling Katy’s curtains open. “I do believe it was you!”
Katy sat up on her bed grinning broadly at her dormitory. “You have to admit, it was funny seeing you lot think you’d gone mad.” She got no further in her explanations before her friends leapt on her attacking with their pillows. Katy pushed them away laughing. “Don’t be idiots, I know Matron’s not been yet but do you want to risk her wrath on the first night?” Silence greeted her in reply. “I thought not. Look I’m sorry, it was a silly joke but we really should be going to bed, and Lara you should be back in your own dorm!”
From outside of the dormitory there was a familiar step approaching in the corridor and Lara fled from Pansy back to Carnation. As she snuggled down to her first night in Pansy dormitory, Abby decided that life at the Chalet School probably wouldn’t be that bad after all. She was too tired to stay awake and think any longer and sleep came easily to her for the first time in weeks.
There was no reply when Nancy knocked gently on Kathie’s door later that evening when she’d managed to slip away from the staff room; the lack of response didn’t deter her and she pushed the door open anyway. Noticing her friend’s form in the doorway Kathie pushed the photograph frame face down on her desk hoping Nancy hadn’t noticed, but she had. Nancy crossed over to sit beside her and lifted the frame from the desk, it was the picture she’d thought it was – Kathie, the dark haired tall man and the young girl who so resembled her mother just a few short days before the tragedy that had changed everything.
“What was it this time?” Nancy asked softly slipping a comforting arm around Kathie and handing her a handkerchief.
“How did you know?”
“That I was here.”
“Intuition,” replied Nancy with a grin. “You weren’t in the staff room so I took a lucky guess. Sharlie said you’d been quiet all day, I thought you might have been thinking about them. It’s been a while since you were like this.”
“It never gets any easier,” said Kathie taking the frame from Nancy. “It dulls and then you think it might, but it never goes away. Marcie would be thirteen now, she’d be in the third with Abby and Livia and Katy. It was silly, I was fine until Coll called me Kath. I know she didn’t mean any harm in it, she just never thinks before she speaks sometimes; but then again I can hardly expect her to know that only Ivan ever called me Kath. It’s always the little things that set me off like that. After they died I couldn’t bear to hear a car engine being turned on, or hearing the telephone ring in your study.”
Nancy shuddered as she remembered the phone call that Kathie had received four years ago, on the first day of winter term telling her that Marcie and Ivan had been involved in a road accident.
“There are times when it doesn’t feel like four years, it seems like weeks, other times, it feels like an eternity,” said Kathie staring at the picture before putting it back on the bedside table. “Some days they don’t cross my mind at all, as though it never happened, but then I remember that it did happen, they were real, they were my family.”
Don’t you ever think that I don’t love you, for one minute I forgot you, but sometimes things don’t work out right and you just have to say goodbye.
Kathie and Nancy stayed up talking long into the night about Ivan and Marcie. Ivan had been a visiting doctor to the Swiss San in 1969, thinking about taking up a job offer there when he’d met Kathie who had made up his mind for him. They had married after a whirlwind romance in March 1970 much to everyone’s delight. By this time both the San and the school were beginning to decline in need as the fight against TB was being won, Ivan’s post was a research one and Kathie had declared that being a married woman wouldn’t stop her from teaching. Their happiness had been completed in February 1971 with the arrival of their unexpected daughter, Marcelia. Too much for everyday use, Ivan had told Nancy when she’d first been to visit, she’ll be Marcie for that. Motherhood, like marriage, hadn’t put a stop to Kathie’s involvement with the school as she’d recognised the rapidly changing situation on the Gornetz Platz needed stability in its leadership. Kathie and Marcie had moved back to England with the school in 1974, Ivan following a year later having sorted out the necessary paperwork and taken up a consultancy position in an Exeter hospital. On the first day of the winter term in 1980 Ivan had been driving Marcie to her primary school in the nearest village before going to work when the accident had happened, Marcie had died instantly and Ivan of his injuries later that day in hospital. It had been four years, but it never got any easier.
Nancy awoke early with a sudden pain in her neck. She shifted uneasily, a little disorientated, before realising that she hadn’t fallen asleep in her own bed but in a sitting position on Kathie’s bed. She glanced down at her friend, her face still streaked with tears leaning against her shoulder and remembered what they’d been talking about the previous evening. Realising that her arm had gone numb Nancy shook Kathie awake before slipping back to her own room. It was 5am as she sank into her own bed wondering how she’d make it through the rest of the day without needing to sleep.