From the big house, the bell could be heard to ring.
Rhyll straightened up and dismissed the girls, reminding them to wash their hands thoroughly before going for their milk and biscuits. Alone, she surveyed the vegetable patch and calculated how much more they would dig up this morning. Anything they did not, she decided, they would need to finish in their own time over the weekend, or early next week, for it didn't seem likely to keep until next Friday's lesson.
A distinctive figure in shorts was heading towards her from the house. The autumn sunlight danced over her dark curls, and the ref's whistle hanging from her neck bounced a blinding sparkle in every direction as she walked.
"Tea?" Peggy proffered one of the steaming mugs she held, smiling engagingly. Rhyll cast a doubtful glance at her own grubby hands, and Peggy shrugged. "They'll have to wash the cups up either way, won't they? It's no worse than Biddy's lipstick, anyway."
Rhyll took the tea gratefully, and grinned at the last comment, remembering Biddy and her crowd's first foray into lipstick - and several shades less appropriate, too - as recalcitrant Middles a number of years previously. Just as quickly her brow furrowed, and she looked at Peggy thoughtfully.
Perhaps Peggy didn't notice; or perhaps she noticed, understood, and was concerned to move speedily past that particular realisation. Whichever it was, she nodded towards the wheelbarrow beside them, piled with cabbages, cauliflowers and parsnips which had been laid there with all tender care and great ceremony. "That's a good crop, isn't it?"
Rhyll nodded. She'd been quietly pleased with it herself. Upper IIIa had insisted - uniquely in the school - on making what they had grandly deemed "wholesome use" of their form plot, and it had been very satisfying to watch them reap such a harvest whilst most other forms fell to tidying up flowerbeds in preparation for winter. "They've done themselves proud. Course, it's good soil, and we've been lucky with the weather this last year too, but the girls have put in all the work I asked for and more besides, and a lot of this is to be credited to them."
"And you," Peggy added gently. "They wouldn't have been able to begin any of it without you - they certainly wouldn't have been as enthusiastic about it without you."
Rhyll smiled in the general direction of her feet. She was not accustomed to being lost for words like this. "It's nice to see Mary again. How long is she staying?"
Peggy smiled, but her smile was tainted by something else, Rhyll thought. "She leaves on Monday. You should come up on Sunday, Evvy; I'm sure she'd like to see you properly. Unless you've already got other plans, I mean," she added hurriedly.
Rhyll shook her head. "I don't have plans. I'd like to come up and see you all." She watched Peggy drink her tea, both hands cradling the mug, velvety brown eyes still dancing and most definitely fixed on Rhyll; something nebulous but recognisable flickered in those eyes, a deliberate communication of something not spoken which Peggy surely couldn't have known the words for, even if she'd found the courage.
Rhyll looked away again, decisive rather than bashful this time. She drained the last of her tea and watched Griffiths, who had emerged from the potting sheds and was now engaged in raking up for a bonfire some twenty yards beyond them. She hoped he wasn't planning to light it until the girls had gone inside for dinner, such things having a fathomless capacity to fascinate and distract them from their own work, but she knew also that the still-unfolding watery developments in the grounds were adding considerably to his workload and she could scarcely ask him to adjust it to take account of whimsical Juniors. She wondered whether perhaps she ought to offer to take on some of the work herself, but it was a difficult matter to approach: she had been careful to avoid treading on his toes for as long as they were at Plas Howell, where he had been head gardener and she a visiting mistress with a garden of her own to worry about, but even those tentatively-defined roles were now obfuscated by the move to a new place where neither had prior claim. The physical ground-space had simply been divided into that comprising a number of form-plots and the remainder as Griffiths' responsibility, and beyond this - the decisions of people who knew nothing of what was really required in running gardens of such expanse, naturally - Rhyll and Griffiths had negotiated shared responsibilities easily enough. They got along without issue, but Rhyll was anxious to not put herself in a subordinate position to him, not only for the effect it might have in terms of how the attentive girls perceived her authority but also for her own sense of dignity. Rhyll did not believe in moving backwards, and the very same day she had been appointed head gardener at Les Arbres she had decided she would never again be anyone's junior.
She sensed Peggy step closer and felt a warm hand closed around hers for a moment, pausing there until Rhyll looked back at her again and returned her smile; prising Rhyll's mug from her, Peggy nodded her head in the direction of the Big House. "I'd better get these back inside before the bell goes - no, don't be such a mutt," she brushed off Rhyll's protests briskly, "I've got to head over that way towards the netball pitch in any case. You may as well have your last minute of peace before your eager young gardeners descend upon you again - if I were a gambling woman, I'd say they'll be thinking of pulling the whole lot up before dinner time."
Rhyll chuckled her agreement. "I almost think they're hoping it'll be served up at dinner, bless them."
Peggy flashed her a final brilliant smile as she turned to leave. "Supper, then! I hope you've warned Karen to expect this little lot - I shouldn't think she'll need to order anything in for the next fortnight at least!" and with this final remark, she was away, skipping lightly over the grass. Rhyll busied herself with a perfunctory inspection of Upper IIIa's proud haul, still watching Peggy out of the corner of her eye until she disappeared into the open side door.
"Happen the young lass is sweet on you, Miss," Griffiths commented, pausing on his way past to peer officiously into the wheelbarrow.
Rhyll gave him a cold look. "Don't be so vulgar," she rejoined austerely and turned away, trying to quell the anger and fear those few artless words had incited. Anger, that he had dared to speak so flippantly about lovely Peggy; fear, that he had seen something so unmistakeable he didn't think twice about giving voice to it. Rhyll felt fairly certain he wouldn't have mentioned it to any other member of staff - wasn't sure, now she thought about it, if he ever actually spoke at all to any other member of staff - but it resonated with what she had known all along: that Peggy hadn't the discretion required, or else simply stood out too much to ever go unnoticed; that the cloistered environment of the School was singularly incompatible with anything so - indelicate, she supposed was the word for it, even in its most innocent manifestation. She was relieved when she saw her class drifting happily back towards their plot, and for the rest of the morning she worked hard alongside them, grateful for the distraction they provided.
Author's Chapter Notes:
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