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Hilda closed her eyes for a moment, and tried to steady her nerves. She had looked forward to being back at work so much, all those days when lying in her hospital bed, or gradually recovering at Penny Rest. Her head barely ached now, and she was physically fit, there was no reason to be nervous. No reason to wonder if she would get dizzy, or need help, might feel confused or lost. No reason to feel as though the walls were closing in on her, as if there were no way that she could do anything but sit there, frozen behind her desk.

If she were advising someone else, she would work through with them, make them see each possible fear as unlikely, would advise faith in themselves and show them their own strengths. She would think that they could control the feelings, could use their strength of will to tell themselves that they were being irrational.

She wondered slightly whether she was coming down with a cold, for her throat felt half closed, she wished she had time for a drink, or to lie down for a bit. However she knew the feeling for what it was, her brain trying to distract, look for a reason to leave.

"It's time" came a soft voice, as if from very far away. Hilda held onto the desk briefly, then nodded, and followed her friend and co-head out of the office and into the great room used for Prayers. They had decided to make the announcements first, then split the girls for services, since then if Hilda didn't feel up to staying all through it would not be noticeable. Nell had been firm on the point that Hilda be the one to make the announcements, saying that otherwise the girls and staff would feel confused as to who was in charge. "I've only been keeping your place warm. I'll be your co-head if you insist, but you really don't need me to do so, I do wish you would believe that, trust yourself enough to be sole head again."

Hilda knew that Nell was only trying to help, but how could she explain the fear, the dread that her strength was not enough, that she would never be able to return to her previous role? That she would never pick up the many threads of leadership, the hundreds of little actions that made sure that everyone worked together smoothly. She felt as though the simplest tasks were beyond her, what if there were a crisis and she just froze? So she insisted on Nell remaining as co-head, and her friend reluctantly agreed. They would share tasks, be officially joint leaders, but Hilda would be the more senior, and despite sometimes feeling that it was impossible, she would be the public voice of their partnership.

Her head felt heavy, and she lost concentration for a moment, as all of the possible problems that could happen cascaded through her brain. She wasn't ready, she would never be ready...

Even as she felt the panic rise to an almost unbearable level, she sensed that the room was finally full, and stood, trying not to show how unsteady she felt. The massed faces of the girls and staff swam in and out of focus, and she found herself gripping the lectern far more strongly than normal. It was absurd, she'd done this so many times, she knew the beginning of term speech so well that she could give it in her sleep, with only minor variations for different news, or rules. The lights too seemed bright, almost painful, in a way that she had never known before the accident, but had been almost unbearable for months afterwards.

She knew that she was physically well now, and hadn't felt the headaches or issues with lights for a long time. She knew what was happening, it was her system trying to direct her to mental safety, another way to focus on the physical, to control the worries that threatened to overwhelm her.

Hilda opened her mouth, and for a moment that seemed like a year, nothing came out. The faces looked up at her expectantly, and she almost felt like stepping back, running from the room. She swallowed, and blinked, then felt someone come and stand next to her, distract for a moment by apparently adjusting something on the lectern desk before asking the confused girls to be quiet, despite that fact that they already were as nearly silent as that many children could be. As the familiar shape of Nell stepped back from the front of the stage, having given her that extra moment to collect herself Hilda alone heard the low tone, and the words

"You can do it. Just be you".

She felt the tightness of her throat slightly loosen, and from somewhere, she wasn't sure where, the words began to flow. She started slightly hesitantly, then became stronger, capturing the attention of everyone in the room with the melodious voice that was her greatest asset. She sat down and the glow of having achieved it, having pushed past her terror, washed over her. She knew it was perhaps a silly thing to have become so frightened, but she really had dreaded that first speech, that first public appearance after the accident and being away so long.

She'd felt theoretically capable, ready for work, but somehow not quite prepared for that, for the moment of returning officially to command. She knew it was irrational, but despite herself, she had wanted to do all she could to avoid it. Nell had been determined that she do it, and now that it was over, Hilda was glad. She wasn't yet at full strength, but she would get there. Today's small victory over her panic showed her that she would get back to herself eventually, if she just kept herself moving forward, one step at a time. Tiny steps maybe, but one at a time, and she'd make it. She wasn't just Hilda, after all. She was The Abbess, and she was back in her school, her home.



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