|Two women were working in the silence of the light and airy room, one seated at the huge desk answering letters, the other ensconced on a nearby settee, surrounded by books and science equipment. Sheets of lists lay on a small table in front of her. The tall figure at the desk raised her head, her keen eyes smiling at the total concentration revealed by the white-haired woman on the settee as she counted books, checked equipment and ticked lists.|
“Nell,” she murmured. No answer. She cleared her throat and raised her voice. “Nell? Are you listening?”
Nell Wilson held up a hand. “In a moment, my dear. Let me just get these sums to come out right or Rosalie will be after me.”
Hilda Annersley laced her slender fingers and rested her chin on them, regarding her friend and co-Head fondly. It was the second week of the autumn term and they were both looking tanned and fit after the lengthy world cruise which had been gifted to Hilda the term before, on the occasion of her coming of age as Headmistress. Hilda’s eyes grew soft. Such depths of affection her friend had shown her that day. So much careful planning had gone into the celebrations. The cruise itself had been counted a great success by both of them and had brought them even closer together, if that were possible. There had been such fun and laughter, such gentleness and beauty, so many moments of quiet and ease.
She came back to reality as Nell threw the pen on the table, gathered her papers together and sighed with relief. “Done! Everything accounted for! Everything adds up!” She stretched and yawned. “Now, my dear, what did you want to say?”
Hilda glanced at her watch and rose from her seat. “Ready for coffee?” When Nell nodded, Hilda went through to her secretary’s office, returning moments later to sit in the armchair across from Nell. Without speaking, she looked at her speculatively.
Nell began to feel uncomfortable under the blast from those X-ray eyes. “What’s the matter? Smudge on my nose? Ink on my fingers? Hair untidy?”
“All of those, actually,” laughed Hilda. “You do tend to unravel, rather, when you’re concentrating.”
Silenced by such home truths, Nell glared at her friend before giving her a huge grin. One could always rely on Hilda to tell it like it was! Nell sat back and folded her arms. Silence was the best way of getting anything out of Hilda, and there was surely something simmering in that secretive brain of hers. Hilda shrugged, seeing that no coaxing was on offer. Her eyes wandered to the window, through which the sun was shining.
“Maybe it’s the cruise. I just feel....flat!” Her eyes narrowed against the brightness. She turned back to Nell. “It’s your birthday shortly. We never did celebrate your fiftieth birthday, did we? There was too much else going on. So I was wondering whether you’d like to go away somewhere and celebrate it now.” She winked. “It’s only two years late. We’re both free that weekend, and I think I could be persuaded to take some time off, seeing as a certain person is always willing to do my correspondence for me.”
Nell frowned, her cool grey eyes growing intent. “You’re not thinking of turning the tables and spoiling me, I hope.” Her voice was laced with acid.
Hilda whistled under her breath. “I thought I had turned the tables - on my twenty first birthday.”
Nell ignored the provocative comment and stared at Hilda, gnawing her bottom lip. Hilda, however, had herself well in hand, and gave nothing away. Rosalie entered with the coffee but, seeing the anxious look on Nell’s face and hearing the silence, assumed they were having a serious discussion about something relating to the school and glided away as smoothly as she had entered.
Hilda leaned forward to pour the coffee. Nell broke the silence. “Just the two of us? Not the whole school?”
Hilda grimaced at her across the coffee pot. “Like you did to me?”
“Yes, but I didn’t cart them half way round the world!”
“Who said anything about going halfway round the world? Here, take your coffee before I throw it at you! What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander! You put me through hoops that day! Anyway, why would I involve the school, when I know you wanted to keep your fiftieth a secret? Or to put it another way, how could I? There are far too many to bus them all anywhere!”
“Oh, knowing you, vile creature that you are, you’d manage it! I swear you’re omnipotent!” Nell fingered her wavy hair. “I didn’t want anyone to know, though that seems somewhat pointless since I’ve looked old for the last twenty years or more, since this happened....” She tugged her white locks.
“You have never looked old, Nell. Your hair merely emphasizes the youthfulness of your features. To many people, that white hair of yours is your badge of courage.”
Her voice was gentle, her eyes warm with affection. Nell blushed. The two of them were not given to making pretty compliments to each other, but she had recognised the sincerity in Hilda’s beautiful voice. “So! We’ve established you’re not bringing the girls. Nor the staff? Definitely just the two of us?”
Hilda eyed her over her coffee cup, not even a hint of mischief in her eyes, but Nell knew her well enough not to trust that innocent face. “I was just thinking...... You remember Sophie Matthieu? She left us two years ago. Her parents run a hotel in a small village in the French Auvergne. It’s not an area we’ve ever visited. I thought all those extinct volcanoes might hold some appeal, seeing as you’re a geographer.”
Nell, in her turn, eyed Hilda over her coffee cup. “It’s hardly your cup of tea, though, is it?” She winked when she heard Hilda moan, as though in pain, and toasted her with the coffee cup. “Sorry, but I couldn’t resist.”
“You know I hate puns, intended or otherwise. Volcanoes may not be my cup of tea, but it’s not my birthday. It’s your treat. I can always go looking for a bookshop.”
“In an extinct volcano?” asked a scandalised Nell.
“Oh, you’d be surprised where I can find them.”
“No, I wouldn’t! I’ve seen where you find them, and some pretty escapades you’ve put me through in the process. No bookshops - or I won’t go!”
“That’s a pity, because I’ve already made an executive decision. I’ve told Gill to make sure your diary is free the Friday afternoon before the big day. Rosalie is doing the same for me.” Hilda’s expression could only be described as smug.
Nell’s eyebrows rose. “Just what are you up to? You never go away from the school for frivolous reasons in the middle of term.”
“Hardly frivolous, Nell. You only get to celebrate fifty once in a lifetime – even when the celebration is two years late.”
“Even so! I have feelings....” Hilda gazed at her, giving nothing away, and Nell was goaded into saying waspishly, “You’ve done more than just keep our diaries free, haven’t you? I know that look! Butter wouldn’t melt!”
Something flickered in Hilda’s eyes, and Nell gasped in shock. “You’ve already booked the place, haven’t you? All this chatter and asking permission was just so much blinking window dressing, you evil woman!”
Hilda’s face was an equal mixture of mischief and sheer bravado. One just never knew which way Nell Wilson would jump. “I’ve also bought the plane tickets! We fly to Clermont-Ferrand on the Friday afternoon.”
Nell gaped at her, once more silenced by Hilda’s gentle high-handedness.
According to Shakespeare, revenge is a dish best served cold. Does Hilda Annersley find it so, when she takes her revenge on Nell Wilson for putting her in the limelight on the 21st anniversary of her headship.
Author's Chapter Notes:
This story begins in much the same way as Turning the Tables, but that changes after a chapter or two.....
Chapter End Notes:
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