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When Hilda arrived for breakfast the following morning, the morning of Boxing Day, it was evident to anyone who cared to look that she was not at all well. She was as white as the proverbial sheet, there were dark smudges under her heavy eyes and lines of strain about her mouth. Mother Abbess and Sister Infirmarian exchanged worried frowns. They had allowed Hilda back to her own room the night before. Had she had a nightmare?

Unaware that her face had given her away, Hilda bent to give Ellie a kiss before sitting down. She exchanged pleasantries with Sister Patricia and the others at the table and accepted a cup of tea, but shuddered at the thought of food. That little man who had taken up residence inside her brain since the accident was now hammering away remorselessly, making her feel distinctly nauseous. Even so, she dredged up energy from somewhere to enable her to agree when Ellie asked if they could have a chat later on. Focusing more closely on the girl, she could see that she was looking very tired and rather lost, and needed her mind taking off whatever was troubling her. Hilda suggested she should bring her origami books and Vivien’s papers and they would see what they could achieve.

When Ellie turned up, her arms laden, she was accompanied by Polly and Patch, who scampered in and darted hither and yon. Hilda and the girl ensconced themselves at the little table by the window and the early morning sunshine poured in on them as they searched the books for a design to suit Ellie’s mood. Remembering how the butterflies had helped her own despair, Hilda steered the girl in that direction and soon the latter was cutting and folding, much to the delight of the cats, who pounced on the scraps that fell to the floor and *killed* them. Before Hilda could draw breath, she came under fire from a barrage of questions about the school.

She laughed. “Have you been awake all night thinking these up for me, child?” Ellie merely grinned and carried on folding. Giving in to Ellie’s need, they were deep in conversation when there came a tap at the door.

At the sight of Mother Abbess and Sister Infirmarian walking through the door, Ellie’s face developed a resentful frown and she pursed her lips. Hilda immediately reached over and laid a hand on the girl’s arm, saying something in an undertone. For once, however, her words had no effect. Mother Abbess smiled grimly. She could guess why the girl was behaving in such a manner, but she would lay odds that Hilda would not let it pass unremarked. At some point during the day, Ellie would be made to understand the error of her ways!

Sister Infirmarian had noticed nothing, or, if she had, she high-handedly ignored it and advanced towards the littered table. “Ellie, would mind leaving us for a while, dear, as we would like a word with Madame.”

Three pairs of eyes watched, two with interest and one with indignation, as Ellie’s eyebrows drew together thunderously and she glared at the two intruders. Her sense of self-preservation stopped her passing any comment, but she tossed her scissors on the table and stood up abruptly. Without a word, she turned and stalked with outraged dignity to the door, where a soft voice stopped her dead in her tracks.

“Ellie, don’t be angry. I’ll come and find you when we’ve finished, but I also have to be obedient while I’m here, and good manners dictate that I listen to what the Sisters have to say. Do you understand, chérie?”

Ellie stood still for a moment, her hand on the doorknob, but she could not ignore the plea in that lovely voice. Taking a deep breath she turned and walked back to the table. Ignoring Hilda’s eyes, in case she might read censure there, she bent and kissed her on the cheek. “À toute à l’heure,” she whispered.

Ignoring the other two women completely, she walked from the room and closed the door with an audible click, almost trapping Patch as he scampered after his pal.

“Oh dear!” Mother Abbess grinned. “We are not in good odour, Pauline.”

“Nonsense!” fumed Sister Infirmarian. “What bad manners! How can you treat it so lightly? She mustn’t be allowed to monopolise Hilda like this!”

Hilda sighed as she tidied up the little table. “It’s partly my own fault. I’ve rather spoiled her this last week. But it’s mostly the let-down that comes to all of us after Christmas, even adults. I can feel it myself. I suspect all her losses have woken up and hit her this morning. She was very sad earlier and seems very tired.”

“But she’s not a child,” snapped Sister Infirmarian. “She’s growing up, needs to be punished if she can’t learn self-control.”

“Not so, Sister,” interrupted Hilda, and Mother Abbess listened with interest to the two women. “No, she’s not a child, but she’s not an adult either, is she? She veers from one to the other wildly. They all do at that age, still need mothering yet also need the utmost respect for their opinions. Someone once told me that adolescents are consistent only in their very inconsistency. Even at sixteen, they are totally unpredictable and one has to be constantly on the alert. No wonder my hair is turning grey! Ellie is no different, and if you factor in her losses…”

Hilda shook her head sadly, remembering another grieving girl so long ago who had simply needed someone to listen, to understand. “We just have to be patient with her.
She’s so loving, Sister, and surprisingly mature, for all her momentary lapses into moodiness.”

“It’s not mature to go off pop, is it? To treat you like that, when you’ve done so much for her…”

“She’s a teenager, Sister. Her own needs are paramount – to her! And I don’t want her gratitude!” Hilda shuddered. “I don’t really think she knew what she did want this morning. Although she ostensibly came to discuss the school, I felt she just wanted to be quiet, but not alone. Tricky, isn’t it?” She flashed a smile at Sister Infirmarian.

Mother Abbess had to restrain a huge grin. What fun and frolics there would be between these two when Hilda entered. What fireworks! For Hilda, despite her vow of obedience, would always speak her mind, just as the nursing sister would. Hilda would state her case frankly and fearlessly, and not be daunted by the nun’s brusqeness and irritability. But she would do it quietly and gently, and would win hands down, every time. Sister Infirmarian knew it, even as she fought a rearguard action. She knew it, and would enjoy the fray, for she already loved Hilda dearly, and had a very healthy respect for the wisdom that was hers.

Mother Abbess had a sudden thought that Hilda would make a wonderful Novice Mistress with that loving severity. No matter what their age, she would understand the trembling hopes and fragile sensitivities of the aspirants to the religious life. She would nurture and encourage, but would not be lax in opening their eyes to their faults and failings.

Even as these thoughts edged into the Abbess’s consciousness, she heard Hilda add, with a gentle, teasing laugh, “Children are angels really, you know, Sister. After all, do we not come into this world trailing clouds of glory, if we are to believe Wordsworth?”

“What?” gasped an outraged Sister Infirmarian. “You can’t, after all your years as Headmistress, be so naïve as to believe that?”

“Why not?” asked Hilda, her weary eyes full of mischief. “It’s just that our wings tend to shrink as we grow up, and disappear altogether as we get older. After all, I don’t see any at all lurking under your habit, nor even any lumps and bumps – and yet were you not once an angel of mercy on the wards? So you must have had wings, once upon a time.”

Mother Abbess snorted at the sheer incredulity on the younger nun’s face. “Give up now, Pauline. I do so hate to hear people scream in pain as they beat their heads against brick walls.”

Hilda’s face creased in amusement. “I promise I’ll try to keep her on the straight and narrow, both here and at school. I’ve already made it plain to her that I need time to myself while I’m here. She understands, I think, although I shall go on making the point. Just for now, accept that Christmas was added pressure, not to mention going to the Chalet School. Can you do that and excuse her?”

Sister Infirmarian searched Hilda’s white face, thinking to herself what a wonderful advocate she made. “You know, refusing you, when you speak in that tone of voice, is like kicking a dog when it’s down – so consider that a yes.”

Hilda smiled her gratitude. “Now, what did you want to see me about? For I’m sure the reason wasn’t Ellie.”

“Quite right, my dear,” said Mother Abbess. “You’re why we’re here.”

“I beg your pardon?” Even as Hilda spoke, the sunlight illuminated her face, exaggerating her pallor, although Mother Abbes noted to herself that the heavy eyes were quiet and peaceful.

Sister Infirmarian laid her fingers on Hilda’s wrist. “Have you looked in the mirror this morning, my girl? It’s not a pretty sight. Your head’s bothering you and you’re exhausted. We both noticed it earlier. In fact, I doubt if the pain has stopped since you arrived.”

Hilda stared at her, unusual anger stirring in her at having her privacy invaded like this, but then flinched when Mother Abbess spoke. “The truth, Hilda.”

Hilda’s eyes flew to her friend’s face. For a moment or two there was tension in the room as a battle of wills took place between these two resolute women, but the starch soon went out of Hilda. Her shoulders sagged and she leaned her forehead on her hands. “You’re right. It doesn’t seem to want to take itself off, but I’m used to it. After all, I’ve had years of practice.”

“What about those awful flashbacks? Are they disappearing?” asked Mother Abbess.

Hilda struggled to resist that inexorable demand for the truth, but finally she crumbled. “I’m still getting some, but not nearly so many or so vividly. You’ve both done your work well.” She shivered as she recalled the nightmare when all her lost and loved ones had turned on her. That was going to haunt her for the rest of her days.

Mother Abbess read her mind with practised ease and ached with sympathy, but she refused to let Hilda know that. Instead, she set about delivering some stinging home truths. “You know, you took a year to recover from that terrible accident years ago.”

She sat down across the table from Hilda, who raised her head and watched her with wary eyes. “How long did you give yourself this time? I know it wasn’t as serious, even if you did nearly decide to leave us at one point. You gave yourself less than three weeks before you returned to school. I know Gwynneth supported you in that, but you were both wrong. The state you were in when you arrived here proved just how wrong.” She smiled ruefully. “As usual, the people over there let you walk all over them. Jack Maynard is really no match for you at all, is he? I suspect no one except Nell has ever been that. I know Gwynneth tries hard, but fighting you is rather like shadow-boxing. You slip away just when your opponents think they have you and then you spring at them on their blind side. Believe me, I know exactly how they feel!”

Hilda glared at her, but the nun simply smiled grimly. “We know the rest, don’t we? Your body finally gave up on you and we thought we had you, but you did it again. You slipped under our guard and swanned off to London. And we allowed it, because you make it all sound so sweetly reasonable. Hah! Talk about being wise after the event!” She paused for effect, then asked, in a dangerously soft voice, “Tell me, Hilda, why did I think you would be good for Ellie? To put someone so pig-headed in charge of a young and impressionable girl was surely the stupidest thing I ever did as Abbess.”

She cocked her head sideways and raised a mocking eyebrow at Hilda, who acknowledged all the hits with a quirk of her lips. “Your direct line to Nell must be working overtime today! I really should be angry with you - and indeed in some distant part of my mind I am cross! - but Nell would have agreed with you in every particular. She’d have told me I’m too used to getting my own way, and would have hit just as hard. She’s taught you well.”

“Oh, love,” murmured Mother Abbess, and reached out a hand to Hilda. “It’s the only way to get through to you. I feel a great deal of sympathy for Nell Wilson. But putting Ellie in your charge wasn’t stupid, child, it was probably the best thing I ever did in my life, for only you could have got through her barriers. Hard as you are on yourself, you cosset everyone else. You would never demand of Ellie what you demand of yourself. I just wish you could treat yourself as leniently as you do others, and I’m sure Nell must often have wished the same.”

Hilda folded her arms on the table and laid her aching forehead on them. “You’re trying to get round me now, softening me up for the blow. You two need no lessons in pig-headedness. You’re about to tell me something I’m not going to like and will stand there till I give in!”

“Quite right, child,” Mother Abbes replied. “You’re still under obedience to Sister here, remember. I haven’t rescinded that.” She looked up at the nursing Sister who knelt by Hilda and took a deep breath, ready to do battle.

“First of all, you’re going to bed right now and you stay there for the rest of the day.” She held up her hand for silence when Hilda raised her head and opened her mouth to argue, even though that was all she really wanted to do. “Obedience, remember! If you sleep now, Ellie can see you later for a short while. In fact, I might just send her to bed as well, the imp.”

Hilda’s lips twitched but then straightened as Sister Infirmarian hurried on, “If your head is better tomorrow, which right now I take leave to doubt, you may get up – after lunch! Any argument from you and you stay there for the whole day.” Hilda wondered idly how Gwynneth Lloyd had managed to metamorphose into this bossy nun. “For the next week you will follow to the letter the regime we‘ve worked out for you. Mother and I are going to insist on that convalescence you didn’t allow yourself earlier. I’m quite sure a sensible woman like yourself has no more wish to keep collapsing than we have to keep watching you,” she said, with wholesale irony.

Hilda stared at her fearfully. How much was she going to be curtailed and how could she worm her way out of it? “Oh, no, my dear, this time we will have our way, make no mistake. We’re becoming wise to your little tricks. Deep down, you know we’re right. From now on, until I say otherwise, you get up only in time for breakfast. No early morning service for you. You may have the mornings to teach Ellie. You take a nap after lunch – a nap, dear, a nap, not a three hour siesta,” she snapped, when Hilda tried to intervene. Hilda subsided.

“After that nap, you may have your daily session with Mother here.” Mother Abbess snickered at this point, for the other nun’s voice was autocratic in the extreme. The latter glared. “Far be it from me to interfere with this mutual adoration society you’ve got going between you! After that, if the two of you can bear to stop talking and part company, the rest of the afternoon and evening is yours, or yours and Ellie’s. Your evening ends, however, at nine o’clock, at which point you take yourself off to bed. Ellie may not see you after that until the morning – unless her need is desperate. This continues until I’m satisfied all effects of this concussion and your subsequent bravery have departed.”

There was silence. “And when Miss Knowles visits us I see no reason why she can’t take over with Ellie a little and give you even more time for rest and reflection.”

Hilda stared at her impassively for a long, long moment. “Have you finished or is there more?” Sister Infirmarian snorted. “You know, I have a reputation throughout the school as someone who can quell the hardiest offender.” Hilda’s voice was pensive. “And Gwynneth has a fearsome reputation, even among the staff. Yet we’re mere infants compared to you. That reputation of yours on the wards was well deserved. You see me here a beaten woman.”

“Hmmm! Somehow I doubt that.” The nursing sister’s tone was sour. “Your ability to cow others has simply gone into temporary storage and will come out with renewed force just when I’ve lost my boxing gloves. Gwynneth, now, she sounds like a woman of sound common sense, unlike your good self. When do I get to meet her?”

Hilda pulled a face. “For some inexplicable reason, I invited her here for Easter, when I have no doubt at all that the pair of you will make common cause against me.”

“Oh, indubitably! Where you’re concerned, Hilda, two heads are definitely better than one.”

Hilda’s heavy gaze met Mother Abbess’s and she raised her eyes to heaven, which caused the nun to chuckle out loud. She reached over and laid her hand against Hilda’s white cheek. “You said you would be biddable, love.”

Hilda covered the hand with her own. “I feel as though I’ve been ambushed, but I know you both worry about me, and that warms my heart.” She searched Mother Abbess’s face and looked up at Sister Infirmarian. “What about Mother? She’s exhausted as well. It’s no sinecure keeping you all in order and Christmas is a very busy time for her.”

Pauline let out a bark of laughter. “You two defy belief. Cut from the same cloth, the pair of you! Yes, my dear, I have her in hand as well. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s also about to be marched off to bed.”

“But I can’t…”

“Oh yes, you can,” the other two parroted, and Mother Abbess subsided. The biter bit!

“Now all I have to do is get Ellie there, too,” mused Sister Infirmarian with a satisfied smirk, having settled the hashes of these two women.

“All you need do is tell her to rest with a book,” Hilda laughed. “She’ll be over in five minutes. Just don’t mention the word sleep. That would be fatal.”

“You know this for a fact, do you?”

“It works every time, I promise you. In fact, tell her it’s my suggestion and I’ll see her later.”

There was laughter in the nun’s voice. “That should do the trick. It would seem your every utterance is law where Ellie is concerned.” Her laughter faded as Hilda closed her eyes in sudden pain. “Have you taken anything for that head?”

“Yes, but without success.”

Mother Abbess rose to her feet. “Leave me to have a word with Ellie and settle her down, Pauline. You see to Hilda.” With a brief squeeze of Hilda’s hand, she was gone.

Sister Infirmarian helped Hilda to her feet and saw the pallor increase. “Do you need help to undress?”

Hilda sighed as she unbuttoned her cardigan. “No, I can manage. I’m sorry for being such a nuisance, and for being so pig-headed, to use a certain someone’s very elegant phrase.”

“Hmmm! I’m afraid in her case it’s the pot calling the kettle black! I’ll be back in a little while with something stronger for that head. I want you in bed by then.”

However, by the time she returned, Hilda was already fast asleep, curled up in a ball. It was only when she drew near that the nun realised why. She was curled round Polly, the little body fitting neatly in the crook of the arm holding her close. Sister Infirmarian smiled. Patch was curled up in Ellie’s arms in similar fashion. The girl had fallen asleep five minutes after opening her book, just as Hilda had forecast. As for a weary Mother Abbess, she had fallen asleep in the middle of arguing that she was fine and had work to do. No cat needed there!

Three down, one to go, thought Sister Infirmarian gleefully as she headed for the kitchen and Sister Aiden. No use having a reputation for bossiness, if one didn’t make use of it now and then. It should make for a very peaceful Boxing Day.

*******

Mother Abbess slept for an hour and woke feeling much refreshed. She made her way to her office to get on with some work, only to be waylaid by a very irate Sister Infirmarian.

“Just where do you think you’re going? Whatever you were about to do, forget it. It’s Boxing Day, for goodness sake. You can just take that holiday you’ve given everyone else one. Go and sit by Hilda, if you want something to do, and let me know when she wakes.”

Feeling rather like a naughty schoolgirl berated for spilling ink, Mother Abbess meekly fetched her book and settled by Hilda’s bedside. She laid the book in her lap but found herself unable to concentrate. Instead, her eyes wandered round the room, on which Hilda had imposed her own personality.

Books lay everywhere, on every surface. It was true they were stacked tidily, but they were there, taking over. Did the woman not realise there was a library here, or did she just automatically stuff her case with them wherever she went? Draped over the mirror was the scarf Ellie had given her, its blue a vivid splash of colour in the rather dark room, and in front of the mirror stood a wooden crucifix which succeeded in being both very simple and exquisitely beautiful. Had Nell offered it to her? Dangling from two of the knobs on the chest of drawers were embroidered lavender sachets, the aroma subtly permeating the room and making it a pleasant place to be.

The nun’s eyes reached the picture on the wall opposite the bed, the triptych painted by Sister Patricia. The more one looked at it, the nun thought in quiet amazement, the more one saw in it. No wonder Hilda had been overcome. Nell’s face was so strongly delineated that her character leapt off the canvas. This was not a woman you forgot in a hurry. Her eyes caught and held you, the eyes of a woman at peace with herself and with the world around her. You could see quite clearly how she had been able to bully Hilda on occasions - and why Hilda missed her so dreadfully. She would be a rock behind you, just like:

…That tower of strength
Which stood four-square to all the winds that blew.
(Tennyson)

But there was something in Nell’s eyes and posture which told you that standing there beside her was her heart’s dearest, the one she trusted above all, the one she could not do without.

Hilda had been right. Sister Patricia was an artist of calibre, for she had seen only photographs of Nell and the schools, and yet had produced this masterpiece. The picture lived and breathed. Mother Abbess felt sudden shame that it had taken Hilda to point out Sister Patricia’s true worth. She determined that the artist and her work should not be hidden away any longer. They had something tender and beautiful to say to the world.

Mother Abbess’s eyes drifted to the bedside table, where was set a small bowl of Christmas roses. Always flowers when Hilda was around, she smiled to herself. Why did they mean so much to her? The origami angels were also there, standing beside the small, framed photo of Nell. Again, the eyes caught and held you, as did the courage in the strong-jawed face. It was the face of a woman who would never let you down; the face of a heroine. The simplicity of the frame and photo were in marked contrast to the elegance of Vivien’s angels, whose rainbow-hued wings shimmered in the sunbeam peering in at the window. Like the picture, it was a true work of art, and also greatly treasured by Hilda.

The nun’s eyes swept the room again. She frowned, then shivered. Her neck prickled.

Nell was as strong a presence in this room as Hilda herself. She would not be shut out, especially not when Hilda was ill. Mother Abbess resisted the temptation to glance over her shoulder. She had been right in what she had said to Hilda: Nell would most definitely haunt this convent. How could the bodily presence of one conjure up the spiritual presence of the other? That gossamer curtain again! Even in death, they walked side by side.

Mother Abbess did not dismiss her feelings. She had heard too much that was strange and other-worldy in her years of counselling. As Tennyson wrote: More things are wrought by prayer/ Than this world dreams of. Or by love, added the nun to herself. By such a love as these two had had for each other.

Well, Nell, I think you’d better switch allegiance and take the habit here. You’re everywhere, around every corner. We just can’t see you. I don’t mind, you know, but please don’t hurt my gentle daughter with that strength of yours. Don’t force yourself into her presence too much. She needs some ease from her grief. It’s difficult, though, isn’t it, because she still needs you so much, is so aware of your nearness and so comforted by it. How did you sweet talk God, my dear? Or did you leave Him no option?


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