|The streets were a riot of noise and colour, and, alongside it all, the mighty river rolled on towards the sea. Every sight, sound, smell and taste was a thrill to the English tourist who tried to capture as many images as she could in the sketchbook which she carried with her everywhere. The book even lay on the table as its owner and her companion, a woman of the same age who, despite many years away, still spoke in the unmistakeable tones of the "Big Easy", waited in the legendary Café du Monde for their coffee and beignets.|
"Anne, will you put that sketchbook away before it gets covered in sugar or one of us knocks coffee over it?" Louise laughed. "You've drawn enough pictures to be going on with, surely? Some of the ones you drew of the parade were wonderful. Quite seriously, I'd hate for them to be spoilt; and the sugar on the beignets does tend to get everywhere."
Anne acknowledged the point and removed the book from the table, placing it carefully inside her large handbag. "There's just so much to see here," she said as she took yet another look at her surroundings. "I've never been anywhere like this before. Do you miss it, Lulu? Not that Victoria isn't absolutely wonderful, but New Orleans is … well, it's something else!"
Louise grinned at the Americanism. "It's certainly that! And I do miss it, I suppose; but this is February – you wouldn't want to be here in all the heat and humidity of the summer, believe me." Her face shadowed for a moment: the semi-tropical climate of the Louisiana coast had been the reason that she and the rest of her family hadn't returned here when the Nazi annexation of Austria had forced them to leave the Tyrol, where her brother Leonard had been being treated for tuberculosis. Instead, they'd settled in the Rocky Mountains, but sadly nothing had been able to restore her brother to health. Later, they'd moved to Vancouver Island, where she'd married and had three children. Her husband's work had taken them for a time to the Bahamas, but she was glad to be once again settled in Victoria, with its mild climate and beautiful gardens. Anne, making the trip of a lifetime to see her old schoolfriend and visit the two very different cities which Louise had told her so much about, had been enchanted to see so many flowers in bloom in Victoria so early in the year, but was finding New Orleans at this most colourful time of year an even greater inspiration for her lifelong love of art.
"I suppose not," Anne agreed. Guessing her friend's thoughts and hoping that she hadn't been tactless in her question, she moved to change the subject. "Gosh, it's almost like being back at school, you and me … and this milky coffee. Sorry, café au lait!" She smiled and the two of them thanked the waitress who'd just arrived with their coffee and with the square, sugar-covered doughnuts which were one of the trademarks of the city. "I only usually drink tea: coffee, on the odd occasion that I have it, always takes me right back to the Tiernsee!"
"This coffee definitely isn't the same as we used to get at school," Louise laughed. "To get the proper Café du Monde experience you have to have the café au lait, but they don't use that really creamy milk we used to get at the Chalet. And it's not pure coffee: it's got chicory in it. That goes back to when the café first opened, during the Civil War, when there was a shortage of coffee so they had to mix it with something else. People liked the taste, and so they've been serving it this way ever since! And it's not really a very Chalet School sort of holiday, is it? What do you think Mr Denny would have made of the music in that jazz club we were in last night?"
They both pealed with laughter. "Oh dear!" Anne said. "And what do you think Miss Durrant – I mean, Mrs Redmond – would have made of the dancing?"
"I think she might have enjoyed it, actually," Louise mused. "When she stayed with us in the Bahamas that time, she was quite different to how she used to be at school. I suppose most teachers are very different when they're away from their pupils." She bit into her first beignet and wiped the sugar from her mouth: it did go everywhere, as she'd warned her friend, who was finding the same thing. "Speaking of Marjorie Redmond, and of people being very different, she said in her last letter to me that it looks as if Nancy Wilmot's slated to take over as headmistress when Miss Annersley retires. I couldn't believe it. She was always lovely – Nancy, I mean – but she was hardly someone you'd have put down as a future headmistress!"
"I think she changed a lot when she was in the Wrens," Anne commented. "Mmm, these beignets are wonderful! I was stationed at the same base as Ida Reaveley for a while, if you remember; and she used to say that she could tell from Nancy's letters how much being in the WRNS was suiting her. They both joined up at the same time. I was surprised that Hilary Burn didn't join up with them: the three of them were always so thick together when they were at school. But apparently Hilary thought that the best way to do her bit was to teach PT to the Chalet School girls! Didn't you tell me that she was married to a doctor now, and living within walking distance of the school, with Joey Bettany as a neighbour? They must all think she's the perfect Chalet School girl! Well, they must have thought that anyway, seeing as they made her Head Girl when she'd only been there five minutes."
She winced as soon as the words were out of her mouth. "Sorry. I didn't mean that to sound quite so nasty. I always liked Hilary. I hope she's very happy. And what I said about being Head Girl … you know I always thought you did an excellent job, Lulu, don't you?"
"I did my best." Louise moved on to her second beignet. "Anne … did you mind terribly, not being Head Girl? I know you said you didn't, but I was never sure whether or not you only said that because you didn't want things to be awkward between us."
Anne drummed on the table with her fingers for a moment. "Did I mind terribly? Well, yes, I suppose I did – but please don't think I resented you for being chosen instead, because I didn't. I'm sure you did a better job than I'd have done anyway!" She frowned. "It wasn't as if I'd even expected to be Head Girl. I'd been helping Marie von Eschenau out with the tennis coaching, so I'd thought I might be chosen as Games Prefect, but then I was called in and told that I was going to be the new Head Girl. They always made such a big thing there about head girls and prefects: I was genuinely honoured that they'd chosen me.
"I'd always tried, you know. To be a Good Chalet School Girl and all that sort of thing. I don't mean that I was like some goody-goody heroine in a book, but I did try. It would have been before your time, but, one year, a group of us went on a half-term trip to a place called Fulpmes where there was a glacier that was supposed to be something really special; but we had Robin Humphries with us and she was just a young kid then and apparently it was too far for her to walk. So Bill said that one of had to stay behind to look after her. No-one else offered, and it was all getting a bit awkward, so I said that I'd stay with her. So I didn't get to see the glacier, and then they all got caught in a snowstorm and Robin went hysterical when they didn't come back when we were expecting them. It was a rotten day. But I thought I was trying to be helpful and unselfish and all the things we kept being told that Chalet School girls were meant to be, so I kept telling myself not feel resentful and not to say anything.
"But sometimes as it felt as if other people got away with all sorts, and everyone still thought they were wonderful. When I had that argument with Jo, it was because she was whingeing and moaning at the top of her voice and some of us were trying to work. It was all right for her – she was going to leave school and swan about at the Sonnalpe with her sister and brother-in-law supporting her. But plenty of us were going to have to go and get jobs: we weren't just at school to pass the time. And, to add insult to injury, she was moaning about how bored she was going to be when she'd left school and was swanning about at the Sonnalpe! Yet I was the one who somehow ended up being in the wrong, because apparently it wasn't appropriate for a sub-prefect to ask the Head Girl to keep her voice down!
"And that's what I minded about not being Head Girl – partly that I'd always tried so hard, and partly that it seemed as if there was one rule for some people and one rule for others. Yes, it was really stupid of me to go off like that, especially in my new sandals. If Jo and Miss Stewart and the rest of you hadn't … well, even now, I don't like to think of it. Imagine Mummy and Daddy being told that I'd been killed, all for the sake of trying to dip some stupid flowers in water. And poor Miss Stewart pulled a muscle yanking me back up, as well. I don't know what I was thinking of. It was silly and careless and thoughtless and irresponsible and … well, everything else that I was told it was.
"But it was the first time that I'd been in any sort of trouble since I'd been there. And it was an accident: it's not like I meant to fall. We were always being told about the importance of forgiveness, but they weren't willing to forgive me that one mistake. All those years, I'd always tried so hard … but none of it counted for anything, next to one moment of madness."
She finished her café au lait. "And yet look at some of the people who'd been Head Girl before me. Sophie Hamel told me once that Juliet Carrick bullied her into going off to pose in her swimming costume for a film crew."
Louise choked on a piece of beignet and it was a few moments before she was able to speak. "She did what?"
"You heard!" Anne had to laugh at the look on her friend's face. "It's all right – those costumes we used to have at school weren't exactly like the sort people wear now, remember! Anyway, it never happened: they got caught and brought back to school. But they did set off, even though Madame had been approached by the film crew and said that she didn't want the school having anything to do with them. That was when Juliet first started at the school, well before she was Head Girl, but even so. And you must remember some of the tales about Grizel Cochrane and Joey Bettany and all the things they got up to. Grizel running off to climb a mountain. Joey sneaking out to a rowdy ice carnivals when Madame had strictly forbidden it, and egging a load of others on into going with her. Even just before she was made Head Girl, Joey was putting cornflour in people's hair! None of them were perfect – far from it. So why wasn't I allowed that one mistake?"
"Oh, Anne!" Louise reached across the table and patted her friend's hand sympathetically. "You did mind terribly, didn't you? I would have done too, if I'd been in your shoes. As you say, it was a silly thing to do – my heart was in my mouth when Jo started yelling that you'd gone over the side, I don't mind telling you. And it was bad timing, happening right at the end of term like that. But I know what you mean about it being one mistake, and other people getting away with far worse. They weren't very fair on you. But please tell me that you haven't been thinking about it all these years, and being upset about it? It's all so long ago now."
"I know." Anne heaved a sigh. "It's stupid to feel resentful about something that happened so many years ago, especially when you think about everything that's happened since. I don't think about it. I don't think about school very much at all. Except when I'm drinking coffee, which is how this conversation started – and, as I told you, I very rarely do drink coffee! I'm not seventeen any more – I'm a very long way from being seventeen! And I've got too many other things to think about. But, when I do … well, it's hard not to mind how things ended up. I've got a lot of fond memories of my days at the Chalet School, don't get me wrong. And, if I'd never gone there, I'd never have met you, would I? And you're a wonderful friend, Lulu. You always have been. But … well, things there ended on a bit of a sour note for me, that last year."
"Don't hang on to resentment, Anne." Louise touched her friend's hand again. "We've been friends a long time, and I'd hate to think that you were still brooding over something that happened so long ago, and letting it spoil your memories of all those lovely times we had at school. Even if you only think about it occasionally, it's obviously still there. This week of all weeks, when we're supposed to … well, cleanse ourselves, for lack of a better way of putting it. Forgive others. Forgive ourselves. Start again. Can't you do that, Anne? Please? I was so happy at the Chalet School, despite all the worry about poor Leonard. I have such wonderful memories of our time there. I'd like it to be like that for you too. Please, Anne. I can see how you feel how you do, but can't you try to let it go?"
At that moment, a passing ship made such a noise with its horn that they both jumped. Then they both laughed, and any awkwardness which might have resulted from what had just been said was lost. But Anne looked across the table, and nodded. "You're right. I know you are. It's silly. I'm silly. I was silly back then and I'm still being silly now! All right, Lulu. I'll let it go. I'll try my best to, anyway."
"And that's all any of us can ever do," Louise said. "Try our best."
She didn't want to sound too much like the Head Girl that she'd been and Anne hadn't had chance to be. She'd said her piece. Time to move on … which was exactly the point that she'd just been trying to make. And, in the Café du Monde, how better to move on than with more coffee and beignets.
"It's not Lent just yet, though," she said. "Not that I really bother giving things up for Lent, but beignets are absolutely full of fat and sugar so I very rarely make them at home! But, seeing as we're on holiday, let's order some more. It is Mardi Gras, after all!"