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Rhyll's guilty suspicion that she ought to join the armed services persisted. She felt acutely aware of the passage of time, that she had achieved very little of any civic worth thus far. Her mother's letter proudly noting Julian's appointment to the Royal Navy sat in her bureau drawer, glowering accusingly alongside Norah's certificate; her own lack of any contribution to major social advancement hung heavily over her. For all her years, and all the freedoms she had enjoyed, she felt she had very little to show – other than uncommon levels of personal contentment, comfort and privacy. With every news bulletin she heard on Miss Grainger's radio after supper, her mind returned to this same question. Oughtn't she to join up?

Just occasionally, these wonderings were somewhat placated by her work at the Chalet School. What she had initially suspected to be mere lip service from the smooth-talking and non-committal Head, and misguided idealism from her enthusiastic young boss who had such an obvious flair for current moods and emerging ideas, began to feel increasingly credible: gardening, on a mass scale, really might prove essential to national self-reliance; a tiny but genuine contribution towards winning the war. More than that was the weighty responsibility of shaping the hearts and minds of this next generation, in the hope that they might manage better than the current lot; Rhyll supposed that this concern for the moral development of young people must have been a feature of education from time immemorial – must have preoccupied Swanton, for one, and even her own little succession of governesses – but it seemed somehow more pressing in the current political climate; cultivating the girls' intellectual understanding and practical skill in the garden somehow merged indelibly into the war effort, the fight to take down Hitler, the creation of a better international future. She could not wholly convince herself that what she was currently engaged with was any comparison to the war effort proper, but it was nonetheless a productive and satisfying engagement with something far bigger and more important than herself.

Aside from the opportunity to do something useful, or as a sop to her conscience depending on her perspective on any given day, the School offered another unexpected comfort: the undemanding ease of the single-sex environment. Rhyll was not without a great deal of ambivalence on this matter, but on balance believed it was probably somehow a good influence on her as well as a tonic after years now of spending six days a week in the sole company of men. This sort of uncomplicated female company, one which she realised she had not known since her time at Swanley, was more nourishing and congenial in many ways than the various complicated inter-relations and tensions of the scene in Bristol permitted.

With unwitting irony, Michel and Vallance wasted little time in suggesting that the School might be the ideal place for her to find herself a "nice young lady" (or "une copine", as Michel alluded more decorously). Rhyll merely laughed off the suggestion, with deflections clever enough to ensure her amusement would not be taken for tacit confession. There was a certain great pleasure in being able to share such chatter with her staff, and she did not take it for granted: she knew too many places and occasions when it had been necessary to restrict her inner life to whispers and shadows, too many people who had to do likewise. The real joke of the matter, which was too long and serious and involved to explain to either of her pals, was that if she were to seek a new lover, an institution within which the staff's personal lives were so limited and intertwined and their privacy virtually non-existent would be the last place she might hope to find one. Even beyond the narrow confines of the school community itself, the reality of teaching at all made the prospect of pursuing a lesbian lifestyle pretty much a suicidal one - especially within the closed geography of Guernsey, quite literally an island, with no escape and few places to hide. She did not imagine such secrets could be kept here, with no porous borders to slip between two worlds under cover of nightfall; and off-duty peccadilloes which might be politely ignored in the case of an otherwise faultless gardener could not possibly be tolerated in the case of a schoolmistress. To Rhyll's private consternation, two people seemed to take a very different view of these matters – and they, she thought tartly, were certainly no advertisement for the joys of finding a nice young lady amongst one's boarding school colleagues.

She would never be able to recall the point at which she first noticed that something irregular was going on with Nell Wilson and Con Stewart, for it was a gradual sort of noticing, the pricking of her thumbs together with numerous observations of incidents and behaviours unexceptional in isolation but illuminating in combination. It was their unease around each other, intermittently punctuated with an intimate familiarity, which first drew her attention; and once she had seen it, she began to find it impossible to unsee the frequency with which the two women would disappear together for evening walks, or excuse themselves from the mistresses' common room within mere conspicuous minutes of each other; she could not avoid recognising the intensity with which their every encounter was fraught. She stumbled across them on the beach at St Peterport one Sunday morning, stony-faced in the brisk wind, both staring too determinedly into the horizon to notice her as she swerved to avoid an awkward meeting. The image stuck with her a long time after, knowing that the pair must have contrived so carefully to be alone together at what had to be great personal risk, and yet the time they had carved out to spend together appeared to be completely lacking in joy. She wondered for a time whether everyone else had noticed too, whether it might be an open secret like the one everyone had known at Swanley, where the force of Miss S’s personality had pre-empted any comment on her unorthodox sleeping arrangements, but swiftly decided this could not be so: for why else would the self-assured Senior Mistress have treated Rhyll herself with such obvious wariness from their first meeting? Rhyll hung it all together in her mind, tried to imagine explaining the facts of the affair to Norah as a sort of test of whether the assumptions and conclusions were stretched too far. She was not sure whether or not she convinced Norah, but she remained quite certain for herself. Far from the world she had inhabited in Bristol, there was something endearing and wonderful about seeing this so close to her new home; she found it unusually difficult to maintain her usual detachment from the private lives of others. The arrangement looked unenviable, from the outside, and she felt that she herself was not exempt from the potent risk of discovery it generated in the cloistered community of the School; but it was validating, and totemic, and somehow, strangely, both comforting and admirable. Perhaps she had it the wrong way round: perhaps they were not as indiscreet as she imagined; perhaps she was watching too closely because it spoke to her so deeply, and so unexpectedly.

Perhaps because she felt so personally implicated in it, she was more sensitive to the unexplained turbulence which surrounded the two women and seemed, in Rhyll’s view, to emanate specifically from Con Stewart. She formed this opinion tentatively, mindful that this perception of volatility and danger might derive unfairly from her passing resemblance to Alice, or from their unfortunate first meeting following that business with the Fifth, the Fourth and the mistreated tools. But she had once, just once, caught sight of Nell Wilson’s face as she watched Con at her desk, and saw quite plainly great adoration mingled with unmistakeable disappointment. It was a split second vision, before Nell had rearranged her features and cleared her throat to announce her entrance to the others in the room, but the uncharacteristic passiveness stuck in Rhyll’s mind. Nell Wilson frightened her a little because she was so serious, so restrained. Rhyll wondered what introspection she might have had to go through, to find herself in the position Rhyll perceived her to be in; she suspected it had involved far more self-interrogation and discipline than her own journey, and – unusually – flinched at the judgment she suspected the Senior Mistress might make of her own life, had she known it. But Con Stewart frightened her more, precisely because she seemed to lack that seriousness and restraint; because one day her changing moods drew the attention of people other than the one they were aimed at, and Rhyll felt herself implicitly involved in this, because any scrutiny of the suitability of the staff would surely see her off too. It was in this roundabout way that Rhyll first learned how attached she had become to her new role, in the short time she had been there.

Autumn cooled into Winter, the ground hardened and the days shortened. Rhyll’s first term at the school was nearly over.

 




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