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. There was a date written on a piece of paper and stuck through the ribbon. The date 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 as Hilda made her slow and painful recovery. Nell visited a few times, but had been burdened with keeping the school going in Hilda’s absence.
Hilda was stunned! Why had Nell saved all these, even the postcards? She was the most unsentimental of people, although Hilda herself knew her gentler side. Had Hilda’s words meant so much to Nell that she would save these letters, when she actually hoarded so 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 still in hospital, still suffering those appalling headaches, to judge by the illegible scrawl. Pulling out another, she saw it was the Christmas card she had given Nell that year. They had stayed in Nell’s cottage for the holiday season.
Without warning, the impact of the love her friend had had for her, and the fact 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 the arms that would never hold her again, for the sound of a voice that would never come again. She didn’t hear 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. She lay there, silent and shivering. Matey smoothed the hair away from the damp face, feeling very anxious. “It was too soon, Hilda. You should have waited.”
“Gwynneth, I was fine,” Hilda whispered, her breath still catching on sobs, “until I saw what was in Nell’s drawer. Go and have a look.”
Matron was 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,” answered Matey. “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,” Nancy added, “that when she thinks nobody's looking, her face is unbearably sad.”
Matron’s face became very serious, her eyes grave. “And nobody knows that she barely sleeps. I’ve stood outside her door and listened to her pacing the floor.”
“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 to suffer alone. “I’ve been hoping she would cry, Nancy, and give in to this appalling grief. She needs the release. The trouble is that she’s too self-controlled, but she can’t begin to heal while she holds it all inside her. Perhaps these tears will help a little.”
“She also needs to eat,” Nancy murmured. “Several people have commented that her appetite is non-existent. Can’t you do something?”
Matey nodded. “I’m working on it. Now let me put these letters back in ............”
“Leave them, Gwynneth,” said a quiet voice behind her. “If Nancy could find 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, making Hilda drink it, and they watched thankfully as a faint tinge of colour crept back into the white cheeks. Matey leaned over her. “I’m taking you back and you’re going 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 o’clock 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 said and 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 had brought a tray, on which lay a very small, daintily laid out lunch, and had stood over her Headmistress until it was all gone! As she finished, Hilda had looked up at her, warm appreciation in her eyes. Matey had leaned down and kissed her.
“You’re a brave lady, Hilda Annersley,” she had affirmed and taken away the tray.
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 for the school. He was a tall, fair-haired man, a little older than Hilda, with impossibly green eyes usually holding an amiable expression. Just now, though, they were looking 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, 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 had given her Communion while she was in the San, but she had refused to open up to him or to anyone. 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. He decided not to beat about the bush.
“I can see you’re in agony, Hilda. Are you able to tell me what’s wrong?” 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,” she said huskily. “Just at the moment I am sadly in need of absolution, I fear.”
“Why do you think you need absolution?” His voice was even gentler.
“For my selfish wallowing in my own grief,” she burst out, her beautiful voice 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. Also, I rejected God totally. 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 Stuart. “Those were God’s words to Catherine of Siena. He has 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. He took her cold, trembling hands and tried to reason with the wise and 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 thirty years. You’d worked together, lived side by side, 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 that was 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. You made each other’s job easier, and spent all your spare time together. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was all 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 yourself 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. The 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. He wasn’t getting through! He went on, his voice soft, “You say you rejected God. Hilda, God is 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 had cracked, who did you turn to, immediately, for help?”
“God,” she whispered, recalling how she had called on God repeatedly as she lay, weeping unrestrainedly, for the whole of the first two 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 the 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 am very sure. There is nothing to forgive.”
“But I can’t forgive myself,” she whispered, her face a mask of agony. “Oh, Ian,” she sobbed, “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 she wept bitter tears. Finally, she sat up and blew her nose. He went to his desk, sat back down beside her and 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 thick with tears.
“A place where you might just find the peace you so desperately crave. It’s in England, in Norfolk, a convent of Anglican nuns, the Grey Ladies. They offer retreats, or individual help if you want it.” He paused while she picked it up. “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 at every corner, might help you where I don’t seem able to.” She was silent as she looked through the leaflet. “At least think about it, Hilda. You can’t go on feeling as you do. You’ll have a breakdown.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she whispered. “Nell has left me her cottage in Devon, but I couldn’t face going there this summer. On the other hand, I can't face staying here and I’m certainly not fit company to be with others.” 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 said urgently. “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. He had made no mention of it to Hilda, but the Mother Abbess of the convent was his sister, who was a wise and compassionate woman. He had a feeling that she and Hilda would get along famously together, for they were alike in so many ways. He was quite sure his sister would get through to Hilda where he had failed. He put through a trunk call to Norfolk.
That night, lying awake, Hilda began to see that maybe 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. She made a decision, and in the morning fired off a letter to the Convent before she could change her mind. Then, thinking about Matey’s own grief, 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, her own eyes wet, her throat too tight for words. Life was so unfair, she thought to herself. The tears slowed but Hilda simply sat on, staring round at the now empty shelves and surfaces, as though trying to imprint them on her mind. Her heart was filled with such anguish that she wondered how she was to survive. The future stretched endlessly, bleak and empty.
“You don’t want to leave, do you?” whispered Matey. Hilda shook her head and when she spoke her voice was thin and trembling.
“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 to that sounded more like a sob and Matey stood up.
“Come on, you’re exhausted,” she said and helped Hilda to her feet. After one last silent farewell to her friend, Hilda went meekly with Matey 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?” she asked.
“I felt too sick to move,” Hilda whispered, her eyes closed against the severe pain.
Matey left the bed to return moments later with tablets, water and bowl. Gently, she put her strong arm under Hilda’s shoulder and began to lift her to get some painkillers down her but immediately Hilda gasped. “I think.... I’m...going to............”
Quickly, at a signal from Matey, Nancy held the bowl and Hilda was violently sick. As they laid her down she rubbed her head to try and 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, her brow still deeply furrowed.
“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 that 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 gone but she felt as though she had been beaten black and blue. Feeling Matey’s 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 there silent for a few moments, collecting her thoughts, then smiled faintly up at Matron.
“Thanks for taking care of me, Gwynneth,” she whispered. “I wonder if you could ask Nancy to come and see me for a moment.”
“Oh, no, you don’t! You need to rest,” Matey ordered, her lips firmly set.
“Gwynneth, 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!” Hilda begged.
Matron’s response was sharper than she intended, out of anxiety for her friend. “Okay, but first, you have a drink and some dry toast.”
“Bully!” Hilda wrinkled up her nose at her friend, an action which really cheered up that friend.
Half an hour later, Nancy let herself into Hilda’s pretty bedroom to find her propped up on a
couple of pillows, looking very white and listless. She smiled when she saw Nancy, however, and held out her hand. “Thank you for this morning, Nancy. I’m sorry I put you through it.”
“I never realised just how bad your headaches were,” answered Nancy, sitting on the bed and holding the slim hand.
“They’re not usually as bad as that,” grimaced Hilda. “But that’s not why I wanted to see you. Nancy, I owe you an apology.” Nancy looked at her questioningly and the Head continued, “I was in such pain when Nell died that I didn’t think about your 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 like this.”
Nancy was dumbstruck and stared at her Head open-mouthed. Hilda’s lips twitched as she saw Nancy’s expression.
“Is there anything you don’t know about?” Nancy finally managed to stutter.
Hilda paused to consider. “Not much,” she conceded. “I wouldn’t be any good as a Head if I didn’t keep my eyes and ears open, now, would I?”
“How long have you known?” Nancy asked, her blue eyes very wide.
“As soon as it started, I would think,” smiled the Head. “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 asked with genuine puzzlement. “You’re both superb teachers and set a wonderful example. I would hardly have made you Head if I were concerned,” she added with a distinct twinkle in her eyes. Nancy would never know how hard Hilda was finding it to produce that twinkle, but she did want to put Nancy at her ease.
“Am I to take it that Nell knew as well, then?”
“And agreed with me! But I’m concerned that I’ve made your times together rarer than they were.”
“You and Bill managed,” said Nancy, greatly daring.
“Yes, we did, didn’t we?” answered Hilda reflectively. “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, Nancy.”
Hilda looked searchingly at her co-Head, who suddenly 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. “But, oh, Nancy, it’s so hard to be the one left behind.”
Nancy sat quiet for a moment, shocked by the raw agony in Hilda’s voice. Then she asked tentatively, “Hilda, would you rather have been without that love than be in this pain now?”
“Never!” flashed back Hilda, her rich voice throbbing with emotion. “It was worth every moment of this agony.”
“Then don’t worry about Kathie and me,” said Nancy, very softly. “Love and pain are intertwined. Yes, it’s difficult at the moment, but we’ll work it out. There are week-ends away 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 that you talked about.”
“I understand, Nancy,” whispered Hilda, “and please know I am very happy for you....and will help...in any...way....I can...”
Her voice trailed off and Nancy saw she had fallen asleep. She moved over to the chair, still holding Hilda’s 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 this minute, she felt she would have walked through the fires of Hell for Hilda, if it would ease some of her pain.
During the last half-term of the school year Hilda managed, with Nancy’s unfailing support, to keep 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 the girls were still so upset at losing Miss Wilson that this was not a great problem, and her morning and evening prayers had an added poignancy. If she saw any girl or mistress in any way upset or weepy she would take them to one side and comfort them and it was noticeable that even more girls than usual wanted to see her during the two hours she always left free for them every evening.
Those closest to her, however, could see the toll this was taking as she grew ever thinner. It was obvious to them all that she was still finding it difficult to eat much and purple smudges under her eyes spoke of broken nights, but she refused to burden any of them with her problems, despite several approaches by Jack, Joey and Madge. Only Nancy and Matron had some inkling of all that was going on inside her and their silent support and love meant much to her, but she kept her own counsel.
Four weeks into the 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 go in and disturb her.
“Leave her be, love. She needs to be totally alone to break down if she wants to, without having to put on a brave face. Words won’t help her.”
The treatment seemed to work, for she returned to school on the Monday morning looking her usual smiling 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 with a broad smile as they began their summer holiday. After they had all gone, the smile fell away. She stared blankly into nothingness. 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.