|“Well, reading between the lines, which is all one can do with the newspapers these days, things in the Far East and North Africa are not going at all well.” said Hilda Annersley to her colleague Nell Wilson The pair were busy pondering how much information about recent war setbacks should be conveyed to their senior pupils.|
“So much for Jock Mackenzie's confident assertion that the Japanese would never dare to challenge the British Empire,” replied Nell with a wry smile. “I hope he and Con did take the trip to India that she mentioned in her Christmas letter. On the whole, I think we should be sparing with details to the Sixth until there is something definite to say.” Hilda nodded in agreement.
Suddenly the study door opened and the women looked up in some surprise. Rosalie Dene entered with a mischievous smile on her face and two impressively large embossed cards in her hand.
“Mail at this hour?” exclaimed Hilda. “The next delivery isn't due till noon at the earliest!”
“Didn't you hear the motorbike?” enquired Rosalie. “ A despatch rider, no less, from the army camp at Hexington Hall. Ladies, you are invited to grace with your presence, on Saturday evening, a formal dinner for senior allied officers including an advance party of Americans. Transport will be provided!” she ended impressively.
“Goodness,” said Nell, inspecting the invitation with interest, “I wonder why we have been honoured in this way? I don't think we have ever met Lieutenant-Colonel Rimmington.”
“Perhaps he wants to impress the Americans by introducing them to two charming and cultured English gentlewomen!”, teased Rosalie.
“I make the sarcastic remarks in this school, if you please, Miss Dene!”said Nell with a grin. “Come to think of it, I did meet Mrs Rimmington at one of Madge's fund-raising events, a thin dyspeptic-looking woman as I recall.”
“Enough, the pair of you!” said Hilda. “ The important question is - can I get the smell of mothballs out of my fur wrap and my only decent gown in just two days?”
Getting into the provided transport, a little coach with whitewashed windows, was not the easiest manoeuvre to accomplish when wearing a long dress and court shoes. Hilda and Nell gave a smiling greeting to a couple of acquaintances and sat in the only available seats which were fairly close to the door.
“Should I start a singsong?” whispered Nell.
“Yes, it does rather have that first day of the holidays feel.” returned Hilda with a smile. “ Do you know, I can't recall when I was last out in full regalia!”
“ In Guernsey just before Christmas '39, I think”, sighed Nell. “Dinner at the Russells with the Lieutenant-Governor. How long ago that seems!”
Though Hexington Hall was only some three miles as the crow flew from Plas Howell, the road took a roundabout way and it was a good thirty minutes before the bus turned into the long drive and stopped at the guard post. The Hall was a large 19th century mansion house, the creation of a well-travelled and eccentric member of a wealthy family. Requisitioned by the Army in early 1940, the Hall had first housed a Pay Corps unit but its location and the size of the estate had brought about a recent change of use to a training base. Even in the blackout Hilda and Nell could discern new prefabricated buildings scattered round the area.
After greeting Lieutenant Colonel Rimmington, the Commanding Officer, and his wife who, dyspeptic or not, seemed pleased to see them, Nell and Hilda each accepted the proferred glass of sherry and looked round with interest at the lively scene.
By this third winter of the War both women could identify the rank and nationality of most of the allied forces but the beautifully cut uniforms of the Americans were new to them.
“You could slice roast beef with the creases in those trousers” murmured Nell “ and that officer is wearing a very impressive tally of medals when you consider they have only been in the war for five minutes!”
Hilda nudged her in the ribs. “Let's just be glad they have arrived. And Nell – please behave! I do not want any of your remarks about the Cash and Carry scheme being 'all aid short of actual help'!” Fortunately, before Nell could make any rejoinder they were summoned to dinner.
To their surprise they were seated at the top table with the Rimmingtons, the senior American, Canadian, Polish and Free French officers, an ATS Senior Commander with a wicked twinkle in her eye and a very young woman who, Nell was interested to note, wore the dress jacket of an RAMC lieutenant.
Hilda fell into the clutches of Mrs Rimmington. “So delighted that you could come, Miss Annersley. Of course, I have heard so much about you from dear Mrs Russell – she and I met through our WVS work, you know - and I did want to tell you that I so admire what and your colleagues are doing. Real womanly work! Maintaining our cherished standards is just so important in these days when all our old values seem to be falling by the wayside, don't you agree! ”
Hilda, not quite sure where this was going, murmured something non-committal.
“Of course, tonight's affair is not to be compared with our wonderful pre-war dinners. How splendid they were, the beautiful gowns, the full dress uniforms, the silver, the flowers, the glow of candlelight, the elegance of the drawing room! And, of course, in those days, one knew who people were; one knew that one's officers were gentlemen. One knows, of course,that there is a war on - I am quite exhausted by my own small war efforts,” this last said with a self-deprecating smile, “and I am sure these people are competent at their jobs but, really, one does wonder if the background is ever sufficiently considered. Knowing how to deal with servants and men, to keep one's dignity and their respect, and not allow over-familiarity is so important, is it not? And one feels the men know, you know, the troops always understand these things. And you must share my worry about all those young gels in the services and being called up to factories far away from their homes. There is bound to be lax behaviour and a loosening of the moral codes.....”
“Oh, I don't believe that is at all true!” interrupted Hilda firmly. “ A number of my former pupils are in the forces or doing other war work and I am confident that they have not forgotten their ideals.”
Nell, though deep in recollections of Paris, a city that she and her Polish and French neighbours knew well, was still able to monitor Hilda's conversation and her lips twitched. Looking across the table she caught the eye of the young army doctor who gave her the ghost of a wink before returning to her own discussion with the ATS officer and the American Brigadier on US plans to form a women's army corps similar to the Auxiliary Territorial Service.
“Oh, I didn't mean the lady officers, of course,” said Mrs Rimmington hastily remembering the uniformed women at her table. “They, for the most part, are very well bred. Our own Senior Commander Grenville is the grand-daughter of an earl. Her family has a long and proud military tradition.”
Feeling somehow that she needed to recover lost ground, she glanced across at the RAMC Lieutenant with a slightly crooked smile.
“Tell me, Lieutenant Kelly,” she began. “ Are you following in the family tradition? Is your father a army or medical man?”
The girl smiled sweetly. “No, ma'am,” she said in a marked but attractive Scottish accent. “My father is in the Merchant Navy and works in the engine room. I thought I had told you the family joke that my mother weaves the sacking that carries the coal he shovels onto the fire.”
Mrs Rimmington looked as if she had unwittingly bitten into a lemon, the American Brigadier smiled and said “Hey, that's neat!”, Senior Commander Grenville grinned broadly, Lieutenant-Colonel Rimmington looked as though he had just wakened up and Nell opened her mouth to speak but was forestalled.
“Doctor Kelly” began Hilda Annersley . “Do you think you would have time to come and talk to our Senior pupils? I am sure they would be delighted to meet you and hear about your experiences.”
The doctor looked at the C.O questioningly. “Oh splendid idea!” he said amiably, not really quite sure what was going on, “Must have good relations with the neighbours, what?”
“Thank you, Miss Annersley” replied Meg Kelly. I should like that very much!”
Author's Chapter Notes:
This was meant to be just one chapter telling how Hilda and Nell came to meet Meg Kelly but the characters seem to have taken over so there will be a bit more! Remarks about the uniforms, medal tally and pay of the US Forces were very common, particularly from the Tommies who had to compete with them for the attention of the girls!
Chapter End Notes:
Edited to take note that Jem did not become a baronet until June 1942 (Birthday Honours mentioned in Highland Twins)!! Still, as the wife of a renowned doctor and owner of a respected school, Madge would still impress Mrs R!