Plas Howell was strangely quiet, that warm summer evening. The Chalet School’s first term there had just ended. The girls, and most of the staff, had left that day; only the Head, the Senior Mistress, and the domestic staff remained.
Pouring out two drinks, Hilda handed one of them to Nell before taking her place in one of the armchairs that adorned their little sitting-room. Nell had abandoned her own usual armchair for the couch, where she could feel the faint breeze from the open window.
“Here’s to our first term at Plas Howell,” Hilda said, raising her glass.
“May the next one be less eventful!” Nell replied with a grin, lifting her own glass to clink against Hilda’s.
“A quiet term at the Chalet School? We wouldn’t know what to do if such a thing happened,” Hilda answered, laughing.
Nell joined in the laughter, but soon sobered. “It won’t really be very quiet with the war on, will it?”
Hilda shook her head, sighing. “The Great War was supposed to be the one to end all wars. Oh, I didn’t believe it would do that really, but I never thought I would live to see another.”
“I know... I wish it needn’t happen, but Hitler must be stopped, you know that as well as I do.”
Both fell silent for a while, caught in dark memories of their last days in Austria, of Nell’s mad escape, of the School’s departure from Tirol.
“You were right, you know,” Nell said abruptly. “Right to bring the School here as quickly as could be managed, instead of staying in Guernsey,” she clarified at Hilda’s puzzled look. “I’m sorry I didn’t support you when you proposed it.”
“At the time, even I wasn’t sure I wasn’t being overcautious,” Hilda replied.
“I should have backed you up, though. I don’t know why I didn’t, I knew deep down you were right - and I’d seen first hand what Nazism does. I suppose... I suppose I wanted to forget. To pretend I didn’t know, to pretend that things could carry on as usual.” She sipped her drink. “Actually, what I really wanted was to go back, but since that was impossible, I must have thought the next best thing was not going forwards. Except you can’t do that, can’t freeze time. It keeps moving, and takes you with it whether you want to go or not.”
Hilda hesitated, unsure what to reply. Perhaps this was the time to ask, to get a reply to the question Nell had been avoiding all term... But she doubted, and before she could make up her mind Nell began to talk about exams, and the moment passed.
They talked about the various happenings of the term for a while. Finally, as she refilled both their glasses, Hilda decided she had to tackle it.
“Simone had a beautiful wedding, didn’t she?” she began obliquely. “I’m happy for her, but I do hope no more fiancés turn up out of the blue, or we shall have trouble maintaining the Staff! Simone married this term, Con the term before...”
As Hilda had expected, Nell flinched slightly at Con’s name, gripping her glass tightly. It was now or never.
"Nell? What happened between you and Con?” she asked gently.
“Does it matter?” Nell said sharply, not without bitterness. “She's married. Gone. That's all there is to say.”
“It isn't, though, is it?” Hilda insisted.
“Why do you want to know?” Nell asked defensively.
“Because I know what a broken heart is, and I know you shouldn't - can’t - deal with it alone. You're my friend, Nell, and I want to help you. Please don't push me away.”
Nell didn't answer for a while, turning her glass in her hands and staring into the amber depths of her whisky. Hilda watched her with bated breath, afraid she’d said the wrong thing, pushed too hard, or too soon, or too late, and Nell would shut her out again as she had all this term.
Nell turned Hilda’s words over in her mind, trying to decide what to reply. The straight question had been unexpectedly painful - so far, she had managed to avoid Hilda’s delicately worded queries, pretending to miss their meaning, and buried herself in work. There was no work to be done now, though, no misunderstanding to pretend. And suddenly, she realised what a relief it would be to share the thoughts that burdened her.
“It... it was several things, I suppose,” she said slowly, not sure how to begin. “It ties into what I said earlier, in a way. You can’t go back. My escape from Austria, and what happened before it... it changed more than my hair.” Unconsciously, she lifted a hand to touch the now white curls. “To see that mob chasing Herr Goldmann, people we knew, people who knew him, just because he was a Jew... I was so terrified for the girls, even though I knew that trying to save him was the right thing. And Vater Johann, rescuing us from the crowd at the cost of his own life - I feared from the moment he shut the trapdoor that he’d sacrificed himself for us. If he’d only come with us...”
“Don’t torment yourself with it, Nell. You weren’t to blame,” Hilda said, placing her glass on the table and reaching out to take Nell’s free hand. “He chose to rescue you, and he knew what the price would be. Even if he hadn’t chosen to save you, he would have fallen foul of the Nazis soon enough, rescuing some poor unfortunate from their hands. He would never have stood idly by while atrocities were committed against his people.”
Nell sighed. “It just seems such a waste. It isn’t even as if Herr Goldmann had managed to escape, they caught him in his house with his wife and killed them both.” She sniffed and gulped.
“You did your best, and you gave them time to see each other again, to say goodbye. You could never forgive yourself if you’d just stood by and done nothing.” Hilda spoke forcefully, looking straight into Nell’s eyes. Had this brave, stubborn woman been tormenting herself with these thoughts all this time?
“I know that really, but... the lesser of two evils is still an evil. I know we tried to do the right thing, I just wish it had ended differently.”
She pressed Hilda’s hands softly in thanks, then lifted her glass to her lips and drank deeply from it before speaking again.
“I seem to have got a bit sidetracked, you wanted to know what happened with Con. Like I said, everything in Austria changed me. The person who arrived in Guernsey wasn’t the same one who had left Tirol.”
“You’re still you,” Hilda disagreed. “Still loyal, and a wonderful teacher - and stubborn as a mule!” she added, as Nell shook her head obstinately. “You have changed in some ways, we all have, but you’re not an entirely different person.”
“I think we’re arguing about semantics, which means I may as well give up, since I’ll never win such an argument against an English mistress!”
The cheeky smile would have fooled most people, but Hilda could see it was forced. It faded quickly, and Nell fell silent, her eyes thoughtful as she stared into the distance, lost in her memories.
“Anyway,” she finally continued, “I had changed, and Con found it hard to cope with. She didn’t really understand, and I didn’t know how to explain it... I suppose she had changed too, and we couldn’t seem to find a way back to what we had been. And there was Jock, too...”
“Did she love him?” Hilda asked quietly, then wished she could take her words back at the look on Nell’s face.
That question... Nell couldn’t help wincing when she heard it. It was the same one that she had tortured herself with through long sleepless nights, simultaneously wishing for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to be the answer. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to seem careless and suspecting she wasn’t succeeding.
“She cared for him, though I was never quite sure how much. I tried to ignore it for as long as possible, tried to forget he existed. We lived in the moment a great deal. I do know she wanted what he could give her; a home of her own, children... she really wanted children - well, she still does, I shouldn’t be talking about her in the past tense! You remember Con and I lived together in my cottage for a while, before we started up in Guernsey?”
Hilda nodded in answer to her inquiring look, and she went on.
“In a way, that was a last attempt to get our relationship back on its feet, but it couldn’t be done. There were just too many things in the way. I think we both knew, by the time the School restarted, that it was over, but we didn’t want to admit it. We spent most of that term arguing...” There was pain in her face as she recalled that time, and she hurried to wind up her speech. “Well, you know how it ended. I came to England before the rest of you, Jock showed up at Guernsey, and he and Con got married and left for Singapore.” She hesitated. “Hilda, you were at the wedding. Did she... did she seem... happy?”
Hilda thought back, remembering Con’s wedding. She had seemed to be happy, and truly in love. Hilda, knowing of her relationship with Nell, had wondered; but in the frantic rush of those days, she had never been able to get Con alone for long - and even if she had managed it, what could she have said?
“Yes, I think she was,” she finally replied. “It all happened in such a hurry, and we were so busy trying to get the School things packed at the same time; but I think she was happy.”
Nell gave a strange, twisted smile. “I’m glad of that,” she said, her voice choked. “I want her to be happy - but, oh, Hilda, I do miss her so!” Her self-control, strong as it was, could hold no longer. Burying her face in her hands, she wept bitterly.
Swiftly, Hilda moved from her armchair to the couch, where she sat next to Nell and pulled her into a tight hug. She didn’t try to hush the sobs or soothe away the tears, aware that Nell had been holding them in for far too long as it was. She just held her close and let her cry, hoping to comfort her by simply being there. She knew how much it helped to have a friend by your side at times like this.
Nell never knew how long she sat like that, sobbing, Hilda’s arms around her. Eventually, the worst of the storm passed, and she felt able to pull herself together once more.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice shivery, doing her best to smile at Hilda. “I’m sorry.”
Keeping one arm around Nell’s shoulders, Hilda felt in her pocket with her other hand. Pulling out a handkerchief, she passed it to her. Nell took it and rubbed her face fiercely, as if she wanted to wipe away not just the tears but also the sorrow that had caused them.
“Don’t be sorry,” Hilda said firmly. “You needed that. In fact, you’ve probably needed it for a while. I should have asked sooner...”
“I wouldn’t have answered,” Nell replied honestly. “I think I needed time to come to terms with it on my own first. And you have tried, I’ve just pretended not to understand what you were asking.”
“I should have asked in a way that didn’t allow that pretence,” Hilda said, feeling guilty as she thought of how much pain Nell had been bearing all term. “I was afraid of pushing you away, of hurting you more... and with all the dreadful things that happened this term, I needed you by my side. I’m sorry, Nell. I should have been braver, and less selfish.”
“Don’t be such an ass!” Nell retorted, leaning against her friend. She felt suddenly exhausted, and was grateful for Hilda’s arm still around her, for the strength, belied by the slender frame, which supported her. “It was the right thing to do. You gave me the chance to talk if I needed it, and the chance not to if I wasn’t ready - and I wasn’t, not then. I’d just have felt worse for wailing about my own problems when there were so many bigger troubles around us. So don’t blame yourself!”
Before Hilda could reply, the clock chimed, and she was horrified at the time it struck. A glance at Nell’s tear-stained face showed how tired she was; her eyes, still red from crying, were half closed. Even more than her expression, though, it was the way she leant against Hilda which told her that Nell was bone-weary. “I think it’s time we were in bed,” she said. “You look worn out, my dear.”
“Sleep does sound like a good idea,” Nell agreed, rising slowly to her feet. Working in companionable silence, they quickly set the sitting-room to rights and headed for their own bedrooms. They moved quietly through the corridors; even if there were no students at the School now, Matey had trained them well.
At the door to Nell’s room, Hilda paused.
“Will you be all right?” she asked, her keen blue eyes searching Nell’s face.
Slowly, Nell nodded, returning her gaze frankly. “Yes, I think so. Thank you for making me talk, I needed it.”
“What are friends for?” Hilda said, smiling. What she had seen relieved her; Nell’s face showed the signs of her bitter tears, and there was still grief in her eyes, but Hilda could see a new hope there, too. “Good night, Nell.”
“Good night, Hilda,” Nell answered, then suddenly gave her a fierce hug. “I’m glad you’re my friend,” she whispered in Hilda’s ear.
Stepping back, she vanished into her bedroom, leaving Hilda to go on to her own, alone with her thoughts.
Title taken from "Impossible", by Shontelle.
The timeline for this fic assumes Hilda was 30 or 31 when she became Head in New Chalet School; she did say she was "not much over thirty" in Challenge for the Chalet School... of course, followed by "barely a year older than Miss Wilmot is now", when Nancy would have been 37! But that would make Hilda eight years older than Nell, when they always seemed much of an age to me, so I blame EBD's maths for that ;)
With thanks to the lovely readers at Lime Green Musing, whose comments helped make this story what it is.