In Nell’s bookcase were other poetry books Hilda had gifted her over the years, alongside Nell’s own beloved detective novels and science fiction. Hilda laughed softly, remembering Nell’s expostulations every time another book of poetry appeared in her room. She always read it and gave Hilda the benefit of her pithy comments, making sure that a book about some recent scientific discovery appeared, as if by magic, in Hilda’s room.
Hilda opened the wardrobe door, but immediately slammed it shut again. That she couldn’t face today. Returning to the other room, she sat at Nell’s desk. How tidy it was! Most unlike its usual state when its owner had been working there, books and papers piled high, and often tumbling to the floor when she scrabbled through them searching for a particular document or book. Hilda opened the top drawer. Stationery and pens. Closing it, she opened the bottom drawer and grew still. Staring up at her was her own handwriting. The drawer was full of letters, tied together with ribbon in small bundles. Not Nell’s style at all!
Hilda felt herself go cold. She recognised these letters. They were ones she had written to Nell during the many years of their friendship. Forcing herself to move, she picked up one bundle and placed it on the desk. A small piece of paper with a date written on it was stuck through the ribbon. It was the year Nell had come out to the Oberland to open St Mildred’s. She picked up some of the others. All had dates on them. Rummaging through the drawer, she saw that the largest package was dated the year of the coach accident. They had been apart for a whole year then, as Hilda made a slow, painful recovery from her head injury. Nell visited a few times, but had been burdened with keeping the school going in Hilda’s absence, so time was scarce.
Hilda was stunned! Why had Nell saved all these, even the postcards? She was the most unsentimental of people, although Hilda knew her gentler side. Had Hilda’s words meant so much to Nell that she would save them all, when she actually hoarded so very little? Slowly, carefully, Hilda untied a ribbon and picked up an envelope. Drawing out the letter, she saw it was one written while she was at her cousin's, and still suffering those appalling headaches, to judge by the illegible scrawl. Pulling out another, she discovered the Christmas card she gave Nell that year. They had stayed in Nell’s cottage for the holiday season.
Without warning, the impact of the vast love her friend had had for her, and that it was now gone forever, hit her like a sledgehammer. A wail burst from her. Pillowing her head on her arms, she sobbed wildly, desperate for arms that would never hold her again, for the sound of a voice that would never come again.
She never heard Nancy knock and enter the room, nor Nancy's phone call to Matey. She was scarcely aware of Nancy’s arm round her, or the words she crooned to her so softly. It was only when Matron and Nancy between them lifted her and carried her through to Nell’s bed, that awareness returned. Matey covered her gently while Nancy went off to make some tea. Gradually, Hilda’s sobs eased, and she lay there, silent and shivering. Matey smoothed the hair away from the damp face, feeling very concerned.
“It was too soon, Hilda. You should have waited.”
“I was fine,” Hilda whispered, her breath still catching on sobs, “until I saw what was in Nell’s drawer. Go and take a look.”
Matron was still staring down at the letters when Nancy returned with the tea. The latter moved to the desk to see what was causing Matey such consternation, and saw all the bundles.
“Such love!” she whispered in awe. “How can she bear it, Gwynneth?”
“She’s bearing it like so many others have to bear it. She’s bearing it with such grace that most people think she’s already accustomed herself to her loss. All they’ve noted is an added sweetness in her manner.”
“Few have noticed that, when she thinks nobody's looking, her face is unbearably sad.”
Matron’s face grew serious, her eyes grave. “And nobody knows that she barely sleeps. I’ve stood outside her door and listened to her pacing the floor many nights.”
“Gwynneth!” Nancy gasped, her eyes wide with shock. “Why don’t you go in and comfort her?”
Matron looked at her, wondering if she could possibly explain how much it hurt to leave Hilda suffering alone.
“I’ve been hoping she would cry, Nancy, and give in to her appalling grief. She needs the release. The trouble is, she’s too self-contained, but she can’t begin to heal while she holds it all inside. Perhaps these savage tears will have helped a little.”
“She also needs to eat. People are commenting that her appetite's non-existent. Can’t you do something?”
Matey nodded. “I’m working on it. Let me put these letters back in ...”
“Leave them, Gwynneth,” came a quiet voice behind her. “If Nancy finds me a box, I’ll take them with me, and this photo.”
“Hilda, you should be resting.”
Matey anxiously guided her to the chair. She took the tea from Nancy, insisting Hilda drink it, and they watched thankfully as a tinge of colour crept into the white cheeks.
Matey leaned over her. “I’m taking you back so you can go to bed for a couple of hours.”
Hilda put her gently to one side and stood up in one fluid motion, turning to the desk where the letters were lying. “I’m fine, Gwynneth. I don’t have time for a nap. I have an appointment at the San at fourteen hundred and it’s half eleven now.”
Her voice was calm, but her eyes were grey and flat. With trembling hands she took the box that Nancy brought and filled it with the letters. Placing the photo on top, she picked up the box and walked to the door.
"I'll see you both at Mittagessen." She was gone!
“I’ll leave her to find her own way back,” Matron sighed “Those tears are still very close, and might help her where I can’t.”
She was right. Tears were trickling down Hilda’s cheeks as she walked back. By the time she reached her rooms she was shaking. Putting the box down, she went to wash her face, then, going into her bedroom, she opened a drawer and took out a large box. She sank down onto her bed, opened it and withdrew packages of letters tied up with ribbon. She began to read, shutting out the sad present and listening to her friend’s beloved voice.
Thirteen-thirty saw her driving away from the school towards the San, reflecting on the last two hours. She had been so immersed in Nell’s letters that she had completely forgotten the time. In the end, Matron brought a tray, on which lay a very small, daintily laid out lunch, and stood over her Headmistress until it was all gone! Laying down her knife and fork, Hilda looked up at her, warm appreciation in her eyes.
"You're a brave lady, Hilda Annersley!" murmured Matey.
Hilda entered the San and turned down a side corridor, knocking on a door labelled Chaplain. It was opened immediately by Ian Stuart, the Chaplain for the San and the school. He was a tall, fair-haired man, a little older than Hilda, with impossibly green eyes that usually bore an amiable expression. Just now, though, they seemed rather worried, for he was not sure he was wise or sensitive enough to help his grieving friend.
He had got to know Hilda and Nell well over the years since the school came, having had many interesting theological discussions with them, but never before had the Headmistress called on him for help for herself. He had seen the frozen state she was in at the Memorial Service and given her Communion while she was in the San, but she refused to open up to him or, indeed, to anyone except Helen Graves. Now, looking into eyes filled with pain and sadness, he winged up a prayer for help. Guiding her to a chair in his pleasant, wood-panelled room, he settled himself opposite and saw her gazing out of the window.
“I see you’re in agony, Hilda. Are you able to tell me what’s wrong? Is it just your grief, or is there more?” His voice very gentle.
Her eyes swung back to him and he saw the sheen of tears. “Ian, I could wish the Anglican church had more use for the sacrament of Confession. Just at the moment I'm in great need of absolution, I fear.”
“Why do you think that?” His voice grew even gentler.
“For my selfish wallowing in my own grief,” she burst out, her beautiful voice seeming full of tears. “I wasn’t there for anyone after Nell died, yet I’m the one to whom they should have been able to look for help. I rejected God totally, blaming Him for Nell's death. I couldn’t pray, not even to give solace to the girls. I don’t know which was worse, but I am quite sure there can be no forgiveness for either.”
"'My mercy is incomparably greater than all the sins you could ever commit,'” quoted Ian. “Those were God’s words to Catherine of Siena. He's already forgiven you anything you think you may have done.”.
She shook her head in denial. He left his chair, pulling up a stool close to her, took the cold, trembling hands in his warm ones and tried to reason with this wise, tender woman he had grown to admire deeply over the years. There was no shadow in her. She was a woman of the utmost integrity, a woman to be trusted.
“My dear, you lost a friend you were extremely close to for nearly thirty years. You worked together, lived side by side for years, spent most of your free time together, went on holiday together. It must have been like losing the best part of yourself.”
She nodded, her eyes never leaving his, willing him to say something, anything, that would remove the intolerable burden weighing her down.
“Hilda, why are you being so infernally hard on yourself?” He sounded almost angry. “You and Nell were close friends, supporting and loving each other at all times. You made each other’s job easier, discussed all your problems with each other, and spent all your spare time together. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone, all that companionship and support. Your shock and grief were entirely normal but, instead of giving in to them, you packed them away inside, and tried to carry on as though nothing had happened. You paid a hefty price for that.”
She closed her eyes, said harshly, “I didn’t pay the price, Ian. My girls and staff did. They looked to me for comfort, for reasons as to why it happened. I couldn’t help them.”
“Of course you couldn’t. You were too wounded. Everyone understood that. Their greatest grief was that they were unable to help you. You expect far too much of yourself, Hilda,”he added, with great tenderness.
In silence, he watched the tears coursing down her cheeks, and guessed at the agony within. This woman never gave in to her emotions, being too self-controlled, so these tears must have hurt her. But he wasn’t getting through, so what to do to ease this dreadful pain?
His voice was soft as he added, “You say you rejected God, but He's used to people rejecting Him, or yelling at Him. He understands grief. Did He not watch His own Son die? The Psalms tell us: 'The Lord is close to those whose hearts are breaking.' He knows you couldn’t pray. He’d have been surprised if you could. Once that icy calm of yours cracked, who did you turn to for help?"
God,” she whispered, recalling how she had called on Him repeatedly as she lay in Helen Graves' arms, weeping unrestrainedly for the first five days in the San, her grief for Nell overwhelming her, almost annihilating her. Once she had let go, let the grief out, she had found it impossible to stay that weeping, so vast was the pain.
“You’re desperately lonely and unbearably sad, Hilda. Every inch of the school is filled with Nell’s presence. Everything - your loneliness, your anger, your guilt, your unbelievable sorrow - is all knotted up inside you and you’re getting things out of proportion, which is unlike you. You were always the sane one in our discussions, with a cool head and infinite patience. You need help to sort yourself out, yes, but of one thing I'm very sure. There is nothing to forgive.”
“But I can’t forgive myself. Oh, Ian,” she sobbed, her face a mask of agony. “How can the world change in an instant with no warning? I am so lonely, so tired of trying to put on a brave face. There’s nothing but silence from God and I’ve lost my way completely.”
He slipped an arm round her slim shoulders and held her as the bitter tears flowed. Finally, as she blew her nose, he got up and went to his desk. Sitting back down beside her he dropped a leaflet into her lap. She looked down at it but made no effort to pick it up.
“What’s this?” she asked, her voice still thick with tears.
“A place where you might just find the peace you so desperately crave. It’s in England, in Norfolk. It’s a convent of Anglican nuns, the Grey Ladies. They offer retreats to those like you who are suffering. Individual help, too, if you want it. They’re trained to support the grieving, the lonely, even the sick.” He paused while she picked up the leaflet and looked at it. “Why don’t you go for a week? They do excellent work. Talking to one of them, away from here where you still see Nell round every corner, might help you, because I don’t seem able to. At least think about it, Hilda. You can’t go on as you are. You’ll have a breakdown.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” she whispered. “Nell left me her cottage in Devon, but I couldn’t face going there this summer. Nor can I face staying here, and I’m certainly not fit company to be with anyone else.” She paused in thought, her face a bleak mask. “Would they let me stay for two weeks?”
“As long as you like. Write to them, Hilda,” he urged. “You’re worth far too much to lose yourself this way.”
She left him a little later, saying she would see him on Sunday. He returned indoors and went straight to the telephone to call Norfolk. He had made no mention of it to Hilda, but the Mother Abbess of the convent was his sister – a very wise and compassionate woman. He had the feeling she and Hilda would get along famously together. They were alike in so many ways. He was quite sure his sister would get through to Hilda where he had failed.
Lying awake that night, Hilda began to see that perhaps she was being too hard on herself. A small measure of peace pierced the loneliness, but she knew she needed more help than she could give herself, if she was to pick up the threads of her life without Nell. First thing the next morning, she fired off a letter to the convent, before she could change her mind. After that, thinking about Matey’s own grief, she asked for that good lady’s assistance in clearing Nell’s room. They both broke down several times during the course of a long day but, in the end, it was done. Even the wardrobe was clear.
However, as they stood staring at the bare rooms, now stripped forever of Nell’s presence, Hilda collapsed. Sliding down the wall till she was sitting on the floor, she laid her head on her knees and shook with silent sobs. Matey sat beside her and held her close, her own eyes wet, her throat too tight for words. Life was so unfair to those who gave their hearts, she thought to herself. The tears slowed but Hilda sat on, staring round at the now empty shelves and surfaces, as though trying to imprint them forever on her heart. It was filled with such anguish that she wondered how she was to survive. The future stretched endlessly before her, bleak and empty, and God seemed impossibly far away.
“You don’t want to leave, do you?” whispered Matey.
Hilda shook her head. “I feel as though I’ve removed all trace of her, that people will now forget she ever existed.”
“You haven’t, love. Her presence will always move through this school. Those who knew Nell Wilson will never forget her. She’ll make very sure of that!”
Hilda’s laugh in response sounded more like a sob and Matey helped her to her feet.
“Come on, you’re exhausted,” she said.
After one last silent farewell to her friend, Hilda went meekly and allowed herself to be fed and put to bed like a baby, even accepting a sedative to ward off any more thoughts of Nell for a few hours. Matey shook her head sombrely as she watched Hilda relax into sleep. God willing, she thought, surely things could only get better.
Unfortunately for Hilda, the stress of the previous two days caught up with her the following morning. She was woken very early by one of the excruciating headaches she had suffered periodically since the coach accident so many years before. Groaning, she made to get up to take some painkillers but fell back as nausea overcame her. She lay there, fighting pain and nausea, until Matey came to see why she had not appeared for Frühstück. Nancy, who had come over early to see the Headmistress, was with her. One look at Hilda’s face had Matey reaching for her pulse. She didn’t like what she could feel.
“It’s a bad one, isn’t it? Have you taken anything?”
“I felt too sick to move,” Hilda whispered.
Matey left the bed to return moments later with tablets, water and bowl. Gently, she put her strong arm under Hilda’s shoulder and lifted her head so she could swallow some painkillers but Hilda immediately gasped that she was going to be sick.
As they laid her down again after her violent sickness, she rubbed her head to ease the agony. No point in trying to get painkillers into her now, thought Matron. For the rest of the morning, Nancy and Matey took it in turn to stay with her and hold her as she vomited time after time, her face becoming increasingly ashen, perspiration beading her brow. Nancy’s admiration for her Head increased a hundredfold that morning, for she could see the pain was almost unbearable and yet neither moan nor complaint passed her lips. By early afternoon, just when Matey was considering phoning Jack Maynard, the vomiting eased. Hilda was so exhausted that she fell into a deep sleep.
“She’ll sleep it off now,” sighed Matey, tucking the blankets round Hilda’s shoulders and ushering Nancy out of the room. “But she’ll feel like a limp rag when she wakes up. It’s very rare she’s sick like that.”
“Probably due to what she’s put herself through the last two days,” Nancy replied.
When Hilda woke in the late afternoon, the headache had eased but she felt as though she had been beaten black and blue. Feeling cool fingers on her wrist she opened her eyes wearily.
“You’ll not be going anywhere in a hurry,” said Matey bluntly, not liking the way Hilda’s skin seemed to be stretched too tightly over the bones of her face. Hilda lay silent for a few moments, collecting her thoughts.
“Thanks for taking care of me, Gwynneth,” she whispered. “I wonder if you could ask Nancy to come and see me for a few moments.”
“Oh, no, you don’t! You need to rest,” Matey ordered, her lips firmly set.
“Don’t worry, I won’t move – I don’t think I could – but I do need to see her. I’ve been very remiss about something and I need to put things right. Pretty please!” .
Matron’s response was sharper than she intended, so anxious was she. “First, you have a drink and some dry toast.”
“Bully!” Hilda wrinkled up her nose, an action which lightened Matey’s heart a little.
Half an hour later, Nancy slipped into Hilda’s pretty bedroom and found her propped up on a couple of pillows, looking white and listless. She smiled when she saw Nancy, and held out her hand. .
“Thank you for this morning, Nancy. I’m sorry I put you through that.”
“I never realised how bad your headaches were,” answered Nancy, sitting by the bed and taking a slim hand.
“Nancy, I owe you an apology.” Nancy looked at her questioningly. “I was in such pain after Nell died that I didn’t think enough about your own feelings when I asked you to take over at Millie’s. To my shame, it only occurred to me last night that you and Kathie must be finding it extremely difficult to be separated.”
Nancy was dumbstruck and stared at her Head, open-mouthed. Hilda’s lips twitched.
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Nancy stuttered.
“Oh, quite a lot, I should think,” Hilda conceded, “but I wouldn’t be much good as a Head if I didn’t keep my eyes and ears open, now, would I?”
“How long have you known?”
“As soon as it started, I should think. It’s very hard to hide happiness, my dear, and you and Kathie make each other very happy.”.
“Aren’t you concerned for the girls?”.
“Why should I be?” Hilda looked genuinely puzzled. “You’re both superb teachers and set a wonderful example. I would hardly have made you Head if I were concerned,” she added, a distinct twinkle in her eyes. Nancy would never know how hard Hilda found it to produce that twinkle, but she wanted to put Nancy at her ease..
“Am I to take it that Nell knew too?”.
“And agreed with me! But I’m concerned your times together are now rarer than they were.”.
“You and Bill managed,” said Nancy, greatly daring. “Yes, we did, didn’t we? A phone call here, a quick coffee there, snatched moments in a busy week. Not much to keep a friendship going, you might say, but the bond was always there.” Hilda looked searchingly at her co-Head, who blushed scarlet. “Nancy, don’t ever be embarrassed or ashamed. If you have with Kathie that same love and trust that Nell and I shared - even if we did express it differently - then count yourself one of the lucky ones.” Her voice broke, and she closed her eyes. “It’s just so hard to be the one left behind.” .
Nancy was shocked by the raw agony in Hilda’s voice. “Would you rather have been without that close friendship than be so desolate now?”.
“Never!” Hilda flashed back. “It was worth every moment of this agony.”.
“Then don’t worry about Kathie and me,” whispered Nancy. “Love and pain are intertwined. Yes, it’s difficult at the moment, but we’ll work it out. There are week-ends and school holidays to be together. Relationships are more than moments of passion, after all. They’re built slowly day by day in those odd moments you talked about.” “I understand, Nancy, and please know I am very happy for you, and will help... in any way I can...” Hilda’s voice trailed off and Nancy saw she had fallen asleep. She sat on, still holding the slim hand. She gazed at the sensitive face before her and realised that the admiration and liking she had always felt for this gentle, generous woman were fast becoming devotion and love. Just at that moment, she felt she would have walked through the fires of Hell for Hilda, if it would ease some of her sorrow.
During the last half-term of the school year Hilda succeeded, with Nancy’s unfailing support, in keeping everything on an even keel for girls and mistresses alike. She was as sunny and gentle as ever, her lessons as rigorous, her office work as meticulous. The girls found her unusually lenient towards wrongdoers, but most of them were still so upset at losing Miss Wilson that bad behaviour was not a great problem. Her morning and evening prayers in the Hall held an added poignancy, moving many to tears. If she saw any girl or mistress in any way upset she would comfort them, and it was noticeable that even more girls than usual wanted to be with her during the two hours she left free for them every evening.
Those closest to her could see the toll all this was taking, as she grew ever thinner. It was obvious to all that she was finding it difficult to eat, and the dark shadows were testament to the broken nights, but she refused to burden anyone with her grief, despite approaches by Jack, Joey and Madge. Only Nancy and Matron had some inkling of the turmoil going on inside, and their silent support meant much to her. Still, she kept her own counsel.
Four weeks into the second half of term saw her walking into Frühstück one Friday morning looking so white and ill that Matey promptly walked her out again. She sat her down in the study and stood over her as she choked down some coffee and a croissant. Then Matey phoned Jack. He took one look at Hilda and marched her over to Freudesheim, where he put her to bed and sedated her for twenty-four hours to give her body and spirit some much-needed rest. When she came round, he forbade anyone, even Joey, to disturb her.
“Leave her be, love. She needs to be alone, to break down or scream or pray or whatever, without having to put on a brave face for us. Words won’t help her.”
The treatment seemed to work, for she returned to school on the Monday morning looking her usual impassive self. At the annual School Fête she was as welcoming and gracious as she had always been, and the following day saw her waving off the school coaches with a broad smile. After they had all gone, however, the smile fell away. She stared into the abyss. Loneliness and emptiness swamped her soul to the exclusion of all else..
For those of you who have never read any of this story, you might first like to read Lesley’s Tension - an Aside, which you will find in the archives on the board. It is only short but sets the scene for this saga of mine. ( I have no idea how to make links, I'm afraid.) When I joined the board, that was the first thing I ever read – and, immediately, a whole story dropped into my mind, which was bizarre as I had never written anything in my life before. Lesley was kind enough to allow me to appropriate the basic tenet of her story into mine.