|Nell Wilson was walking in the grounds of Plas Howells just before the beginning of the autumn term, fingering her Rosary beads in her pocket and worrying about her closest friend. Hilda Annersley, Headmistress of the Chalet School, had been involved in a coach accident duting the Easter holidays, along with Nell herself and two other mistresses.|
It was Hilda who had received the most severe injuries. Even now, four months later, she was still in hospital. Nell had a sense that Hilda was keeping the full extent of her injuries from her. She was hiding things so as not to cause concern, as was her wont. Nell had just been to visit her, and what she did now know was that Hilda would not be well enough to return to school for a very long time. That was upsetting Nell. She wanted to be there for her injured friend, wanted to support her. Instead, she was now acting Headmistress and had to be here, to run the school in Hilda's place.
As she brooded, a bright red squirrel scampered down the trunk of huge oak tree and hopped towards her, breaking into her thoughts. The squirrel was searching for nuts. When it became aware of the human nearby, it stopped, sat up on its haunches and stared at her, its big eyes shiny bright. Startled more than the squirrel, Nell also stopped, and stared back. The squirrel was so near she could have reached out to touch its soft red fur. Something tangible seemed to be taking place between them, some form of communication. Being a pragmatic woman, not given to idle fancies, Nell was half-tempted to move on, but the squirrel’s gaze seemed to mesmerise her, holding her in place.
Without warning, Nell sneezed. The squirrel took fright and darted off, shooting back up the tree. Nell went on her way oddly comforted, even while laughing at herself for her whimsical thoughts.
Later, she forgot all about the squirrel, and indeed her worries about Hilda, as she became embroiled in preparations for the new term. She went to bed exhausted, wondering if she could ever take Hilda’s place, even though she had been Senior Mistress for several years. How had Hilda got through all the necessary work and still taught so many lessons? Crawling into bed, she feel instantly asleep – and into a strange dream.
She was in a church, a church she had never seen before. Music was playing, people were singing, and there, on the altar, in front of her astonished eyes, danced a slim figure dressed all in black. Long brown hair cascaded down the girl’s back Her hazel eyes glowed. She was lithe and graceful, her lovely face filled with great peace.
Watching this moving scene, worries about Hilda crept back into Nell's mind, so she was taken unawares when the slim figure on the altar began to dance towards her. In her arms she held a small, quilted blanket of a rich purple colour. She came to a halt before Nell and proceeded to wrap the blanket round her. A great warmth surged through Nell as it covered her shoulders.
“This is to keep you safe and warm and at peace,” said the girl, speaking in a softly-lilting voice. “I'm to tell you that all is safe in His hands. You must cease worrying and trust in Him.”
"About Hilda?” asked Nell, breathlessly. “But how could you know?”
“Hilda, too, will be comforted. In the end, all will be well,” continued the girl, dancing slowly backwards away from Nell.
“Who are you?” called Nell, even as a deep peace flowed through her, calming and upholding her.
“They call me Squirrela,” came the girl’s soft whisper.
The scene slowly faded from sight...
The following day, Nell’s thoughts kept returning to that strange dream, and she felt she could touch the soft, silky texture of the blanket which had been wrapped so lovingly around her. Returning to the library after a particlurly gruelling science lesson, she decided to ring the hospital, but when she reached for the phone, it began to ring under her hand. She was astonished to hear Hilda’s voice.
"My dear, how are you?” Nell pondered the meaning of this coincidence as she spoke.
"All the better for hearing your voice, Nell.” Hilda's voice was warm with affection. “I hope the new term hasn’t presented you with too many difficulties. I know what the start of the year can be like.”
After telling Hilda as much as she thought was goood for her still-aching head, Nell once again asked how her friend was feeling. Hilda’s reply seemed to be changing the subject, and Nell was puzzled.
"I wonder could you give Jeanne a message for me, dear? Tell her I received the package and the contents are beautiful.”
" So what did she send you, dear girl? A silk nightdress? A new bed-jacket?” Nell guessed that Jeanne de Lachenais must have been putting her wonderful sewing skills to good use yet again.
"Oh, Nell, she's excelled herself.” Nell noticed that Hilda’s voice had regained something of its old mellow richness. “It’s a quilted bed jacket, in a most wonderful deep shade of purple. Tell her I'll feel like a queen when I wear it.”
Nell nearly dropped the phone, but there was more! Hilda spoke again, her voice brighter than it had been since the accident. “Oh, Nell, I feel so much more like myself today. The headaches seem to have eased a little and I have a sense that, if I'm patient enough I'll finally get better and return to you all. I'd almost given up hope.”
Nell remained silent. If she tried to speak, her voice would tremble with unshed tears. Hilda carried on talking. Nell turned her face absently towards the window. What she saw there made her eyes widen in wonder. The mellow voice faded in her ears...
Sitting absolutely motionless on the grass near the window, was a little red squirrel, staring straight in at her with its bright hazel eyes. She could have sworn it gave her a broad wink before it hopped gracefully away, its russet fur rippling in the breeze.
I posted this little story on the board way back in 2005 in St Agnes, as a birthday gift for Squirrel, and thought it ought to see the light of day once more.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that time...