“So, did you find it all terribly romantic, then?” Peter Young, a half-smile on his face, enquired of his companion as they made their way arm-in-arm through the crowds leaving the cinema. The picture house in Armiford, like most across the nation that chilly November evening, had been full to capacity, crowds on this very special day drawn not so much by the latest offerings from Hollywood as by the newsreel coverage of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, heiress to the British throne, to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and newly created Duke of Edinburgh. “You certainly looked as if you did.”
“She looked so happy,” Gillian said softly. “It’s just like a real life fairytale. After everything that’s happened, and everything that’s still happening, it was like ... ” She paused, not quite sure how to explain what she meant. Over two years after the end of the war, times were hard and there seemed no prospect of their improving significantly any time soon. Rationing was if anything even more stringent than it had been whilst the war was actually being fought. And the long-cherished dream of the Chalet School returning to Austria seemed at the moment, whatever the talk which had accompanied the recent decision to return to the trilingual system of the Tyrol days, to be a dream and nothing more. She wasn’t a gloomy person, but it was hard not to feel sometimes that the world had lost much of its joy and colour; but seeing those pictures just now had been like taking a step out of the world in which they were currently living and into another one, a world of beauty and romance and glamour. A world of fairytales.
“It was like stepping into one of the story books that Joyce and I used to read when we were little girls,” she said finally, smiling up at Peter as they began to walk away from the cinema. Time was getting on and she supposed that she really ought to be thinking about getting back to the school – it might well set tongues wagging if she were seen returning too late, especially when it was known that she was out with a young man – but somehow she couldn’t seem to care about any of that tonight. There was something special in the air this evening; and she certainly wasn’t going to spoil that by rushing back to the Chalet School for cocoa in the staffroom and a chat about which of the Middles were presently been particularly trying. “Just like Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. The beautiful princess marrying the handsome prince, and the two of them all set to live happily ever after.”
“Is that what you used to dream about when you were a little girl, Gillian?” Peter’s tone was surprisingly serious for what might purely from the words have seemed to be nothing more than a light-hearted question about a little girl’s love of fairy stories. “Marrying a handsome prince, and living happily ever after?”
Gillian blushed. She hoped fervently that, in the dim light, he wouldn’t notice. Had she always dreamed about getting married and living happily ever after? Yes, she supposed that she had. Meeting the right man, falling in love, marriage, setting up home with her new husband ... yes, she’d dreamed of all that; but until this year it had been a dream that she’d never really been able to think about in terms of any sort of reality. She’d seen it happen to her sister, and she’d seen it happen to many of her friends; but it hadn’t been something that she’d ever truly been able to think of in connection with herself. Because she’d never met anyone that she’d been able to imagine it happening with.
Only she couldn’t say that, could she? It would be impossibly forward of her. What on earth could she say instead, then? Something light, presumably. They were only discussing fairytales, after all.
She gave a little laugh. “Oh, it was always Joyce who used to imagine herself marrying a handsome prince! She always loved playing at being a fairytale princess. Of course, she’s always looked just like one, with her lovely golden hair. You’ll ...” She stopped. You’ll see that when you meet her, was what she’d been going to say. She wanted them to meet each other, and very soon. It was so strange to her that Peter and Joyce had never met, strange to her because they were the two most important people in her life. But she couldn’t say that out loud, could she? Not to him, anyway. Not even on a magical night like tonight.
“I’ll what?” She didn’t answer and he didn’t press her, although he wished that she’d say whatever it was that she’d clearly been about to say. Give him some sort of clue, on this special evening. Still, the evening wasn’t over yet. At least, he hoped it wasn’t. “Would you like to see if we can find a cup of tea and a cake somewhere?” he asked. Cafés and restaurants were exempt from rationing, at least, and he’d taken her to several since they’d first met. Tonight, though, he was hoping that somewhere a bit more special than just your average tea shop might be in order. “Maybe the Green Dragon?” he suggested. “I’ll understand if you’ve got to get back now, but ...”
“No: it’s fine. I’d like that.” She smiled up at him. “I’d like that very much.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” They were well away from the crowds by this time and walking at a much slower pace, and, as they turned towards the Green Dragon hotel, opposite the city’s beautiful Norman cathedral, he stopped and looked at her closely. “You know, Gillian, I don’t think that fairytale princesses look like you seem to imagine at all.”
She looked back at him. They weren’t really discussing fairytales, she knew that, but she wasn’t quite sure what was coming next and she was nervous now. She didn’t dare let herself hope that ... no, no, she mustn’t think that ... but what was she supposed to think, and what was she supposed to say? “Don’t they?” she stammered. “I mean, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. And no, they don’t either.” He smiled. “Well, Princess Elizabeth doesn’t, does she? She’s got beautiful dark hair. It’s rather like yours, really. In fact, quite a lot of things about her remind me of you.”
“Of me?” She was genuinely taken aback. “Oh Peter, you do talk some nonsense sometimes! How could anything about the princess possibly remind you of me? The princess is beautiful, for a start.”
“So are you.” He held his hand up when she opened her mouth to protest. “No: I mean it, Gillian. You’re beautiful. Anyone’ll tell you that; although I like to think that you’re even more beautiful to me than you are to anyone else. I’ll tell you something else about the princess that reminds me of you, as well. I suppose we shouldn’t believe everything we read, but everyone seems to agree that she’s the much more responsible one of the two sisters. And she’s determined to do her duty: we all know that.”
“Well, she has to be.” Gillian thought of the young princess, suddenly at ten years old finding herself in the position of future monarch. “She’s going to be our Queen and Head of the Commonwealth one day. She’s bound to be responsible, and she’s bound to feel the importance of carrying out her duty.”
Peter nodded. “That’s true. But, even so, not everyone would feel that way, even in her position. Well, look at her uncle, the Duke of Windsor. But then look at the King, and the Queen, and the princesses: look how they’ve coped with everything that they’ve had to cope with, without shirking any of it. And you have too, haven’t you, Gillian? You’ve had so much to cope with, and you have coped with it. You’re the sort of person whom everyone relies on, the sort of person whom everyone knows will always do the right thing. Just like the princess is. And I know that it’s not always easy to be like that. It’s not easy, is it, Gillian? But the princess didn’t look as if she was concentrating on duty and responsibility today, did she? Like you said, she looked so happy. She and her prince - they both looked so very happy.”
They were almost at the Green Dragon now, but, instead of crossing the road towards it, he guided Gillian gently into the grounds of the cathedral. The centuries-old stonework gleamed softly in the moonlight, and, once out of sight of the street, they were entirely alone. “Do you think that one day you and I could be as happy as Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh are, Gillian? Do you?”
“I think we could,” she murmured. “No: I know we could. In ... in those circumstances.”
He took her hand. “Oh, Gillian. I can’t offer you palaces, or glass coaches, or tiaras ... much as I’d love to, because you deserve all those things and more. But I can offer you all that I am and all that I have. And, above all I can offer you all my love. If you want it.”
“Of course I want it.” She was tearful now. “It’s all I want. I don’t want anything else and I don’t need anything else. And I love you too.”
“How do you think Philip asked Princess Elizabeth to marry him?” he asked quietly. “Do you think it might have been like this, Gillian? Like I’m asking you now?” Still holding her hand, he knelt down in front of her. “Will you marry me?”
Joy flooded through her, so much so that at first she couldn’t even speak. She’d hoped, she’d hoped so much for this moment, and she’d allowed herself, just a few times, to dream of it, to imagine what it would be like, and the reality was better than all her hopes and dreams combined. “Yes,” she managed at last. “Yes, yes – YES, of course I’ll marry you, Peter! Of course I’ll marry you … oh!” He’d reached inside his pocket and taken out a small box and, as he opened it, the brilliant rays of a diamond shone brightly up at her.
“I tried to pick something I thought you’d like. It doesn’t matter if you don’t; we can change it, but ... do you like it?”
“I love it.” Shyly, she held out her left hand, and he slipped the ring into place. “It’s not exactly the Crown Jewels,” he said tenderly. “But it does come with all my love.”
“And I’ll wear it with all my love.” She looked up at him. “For ever.”
“That’s the idea.” He smiled. “Happily ever after. Just like the beautiful princess and her handsome prince. We’re going to get married and we’re going to live happily ever after. Aren’t we, my love?”
She squeezed his hand in agreement and, as they walked into the Green Dragon with the diamond ring gleaming on her finger, he had a quiet word in the waiter’s ear and it wasn’t two cups of tea which were brought over to their table a short time later but two glasses of champagne.
“We’ve gone through quite a lot of that this evening,” the man said with a smile. “I think a lot of people are splashing out today. Well, it’s not a normal day, is it?”
“It certainly isn’t,” Peter agreed, sharing a smile with his bride-to-be across the table. “It’s a very special day. It’s a day of celebration!”