"... and then, if you'll believe it, she calmly told me that I could have no idea of the weight attached to being responsible for the care and well-being of young creatures!" Hilda Annersley said, and her guest sat bolt upright in her armchair.
"She said that? Well - of all - the - cheek!" Nell Wilson exclaimed indignantly.
"Really, Nell, such slang from a Head. I'll have to fine you, if you're not careful," Hilda replied, laughing.
"Will you indeed, Hilda Annersley?" Nell said, her grey eyes sparkling. "In that case, I may as well speak my mind fully, and declare Mrs Pertwee to be... what was that pet phrase of Evadne Lannis's? Ah, yes, a rubber-necked four-flusher!"
The laughs of both mistresses rang through Miss Annersley's pretty sitting room.
"Shh! We'll wake the whole school if we carry on like this. Oh, I hadn't heard that for years! It doesn't seem to be in fashion any more, despite Joey using it in a few of her books," Hilda said, wiping her eyes.
"Honestly, though, I don't understand how you managed to keep your temper. I'd have given her a fine piece of my mind if I'd heard that," Nell admitted. She frowned as she spoke, her dark brows knitting together.
"I'm devoutly glad you weren't present in that case, especially if you've taken to using such slang! The Middles can manage very well in that line without any encouragement," her co-Head retorted.
"Didn't anyone try to put her right?"
"Mlle pointed out that we care for a hundred or more girls every year, only to be snubbed by the remark that they weren't our own children. We could hardly say much more after that, especially to a visiting parent - and in front of the whole school! Besides, I rather think most of the Staff were too busy fighting laughter to have a proper conversation."
Hilda continued her description of the eventful Mittagessen the school had enjoyed that day, and Nell laughed with a will. They moved on to other subjects afterwards, but Hilda noticed that her friend seemed rather distracted.
"Is something wrong?" she finally asked, when Nell had been staring into the distance for a good few minutes, ignoring both her tea and Hilda's talk about the Christmas play.
"What? Oh, sorry... no, nothing's wrong. I'm just thinking about that idiotic remark of Mrs Pertwee's."
"Which one?" Hilda inquired with a chuckle.
"That you couldn't understand what it's like to be responsible for children. Why, the whole school looks to you for help and guidance!" Nell said animatedly.
"Not to me alone," Hilda said, reaching out to take Nell's hand.
Nell squeezed it before replying. "True enough, but even if we were to divide the girls between the Staff, we'd each end up with more children on our hands than Joey, even - for pity's sake, don't tell her I said that, or she might really try for those quads she's always joking about!" They both chuckled at that, and she continued more seriously. "It's strange, really. I've heard other people say before that we can't care as much since they're not our own children, but we have them for far more of the year than their parents do."
"We don't spend as much time with each girl individually as their parents probably do in the holidays," Hilda pointed out. "Of course we care for them, and worry about them, but we always have to consider the school as a whole, too."
Nell nodded slowly. "You're right, I suppose."
Hilda looked at her, her keen blue eyes thoughtful. "Did you... did you ever want children of your own?"
The look of surprise on Nell's face reassured her that maternal longings weren't the cause for her pensiveness. "Children of my own? Heavens, no! Being an honorary aunt to the Maynards, Russells and Bettanys is more than enough for me. Whatever made you ask?"
"Oh, I don't know really. You just seemed a little wistful..."
Nell shook her head, smiling. "Not in the least, my dear. I'm more than happy with my lot in life." Her eyes suddenly glittered wickedly. "In any case, being in a relationship with a man is generally a prerequisite to having children."
Hilda blushed to the roots of her hair. "You're positively wicked sometimes, Nell!" she exclaimed, snatching back her hand in a pretend huff.
Nell grinned unrepentantly. "And proud of it!" Her expression sobering, she asked, "What about you? Did you want children?"
"No, not really. I'd have had to give up teaching, and I love it far too much. As you say, being an honorary aunt is quite enough. Besides, I was never really interested in men. Is that what was worrying you?"
"A little, perhaps..." she admitted. "I think on the whole, I'm simply still indignant with Mrs Pertwee on your behalf."
"Put it out of your mind! I'm not angry about it at all. In fact, I hadn't laughed so much for a good while."
Nell smiled. "All right, I'll forget about it." Rising to her feet, she held out her hands. "Now, I don't know about you, but I'm tired out. Coming to bed?"
Taking the outstretched hands, Hilda allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. "Of course I'm coming. I know I see a lot more of you now St Mildred's is up here on the Platz instead of down at Welsen, but you don't stay over nearly often enough."
"We must keep up some pretence of decorum, my dear," Nell lectured, before ruining the effect entirely by slipping an arm around Hilda's waist and pulling her close.
"Decorum indeed," Hilda snorted in a most un-Head-like manner, even as she returned the hug and added a kiss. "I don't believe you know what the word means!"
"Responsibility, then. Oh, my girls are well-behaved, and I'm rarely if ever needed at night, but I still feel I should be there as a general rule."
"I know what you mean," Hilda replied, and pulled a face. "I long to pay you a visit sometimes, but I'm always afraid I should be called back with the news that Emerence had burnt the school down, or something along those lines!"
"It's not always easy, but I think we can manage. It was terrible when we were already in Switzerland but you were still at St Briavel's," Nell said softly. "We'll just have to keep going as we have been. And there's always the holidays!"
Hilda smiled. "I'm looking forward to those. But weren't you tired out? Come on, let's go to bed."
Author's Chapter Notes:
Written for the "kids" challenge at fan_flashworks on livejournal, June 2013. Thanks to xsabrix for beta-ing!