Hope this is OK – it’s set during half term in Trials. I don’t like this nasty cold weather so I wanted to write a story set somewhere with lots of nice warm sunshine!
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to come to St Moritz with you after all, Jeanne,” Kathie Ferrars said apologetically to Jeanne de Lachennais. “Originally very few of Vb and none of Inter V were going to have to be considered for the half term holidays, but there’ve been several changes of plan so quite a big group of them need to be accommodated now. They’re nearly all from Vb, my own form, so it’s been agreed that I ought to be in charge of them. There’ll be sixteen of them altogether. Nancy Wilmot’s going to join you instead.”
“We shall be sorry not to have your company on our trip, ma chere, but these things happen,” Mlle said. “I understand perfectly that you are the best person to have charge of the girls from your own form.”
“All the same, Kathie, with that number of girls you’ll need at least one other mistress with you,” Davida Armitage said. “Peggy Burnett and I are going to Vevey and you’d’ve been very welcome to come with us, but we’ve got twenty two girls to take as it is and there’s no way that the pension we’re staying at could take any more. Where are you thinking of going?”
“I’m not quite sure yet,” Kathie said quickly. She did have an idea, but it would have to be put to the Head and she wasn’t at all sure that Miss Annersley would agree. There was one other person whom she wanted to discuss it with first, though.
“Which girls are we talking about?” Davida asked curiously. She didn’t envy Kathie. Both Inter V and Vb contained more than their fair share of firebrands.
“Well, Joey’s not feeling well – she’s “busy” again, as you know – so Jack thought that she ought to be kept quiet and asked if the triplets could stay with the school over half term. Emerence Hope, Richenda Fry and Rosamund Lilley were all supposed to be spending the holiday at Freudesheim as well, so that gives me six to start with,” Kathie said. “Then there are ten others – Joan Baker, Jo Scott, Alicia Leonard, Betty Landon, Heather Clayton, Francie Wilford, Priscilla and Prudence Dawbarn, Primrose Trevoase and Odette Mercier.”
Several other people within earshot shrieked in sympathy. “Oh Kathie, you poor girl!” Ruth Derwent said. “Margot and Emerence, Francie Wilford and the Dawbarns, plus Heather Clayton and Primrose Trevoase who can also still be imps of the first order on occasion, Odette Mercier who always looks ready to burst into tears, Joan Baker who’ll probably take a load of make-up and unsuitable clothes with her, and Con Maynard who spends half the time in a daydream! Even Betty and Alicia can’t always be relied upon to stay out of trouble.”
“They’re not that bad at all,” Kathie retorted indignantly. Honestly, for a school that prided itself on its success with “difficult” girls, it was remarkable how quick the staff could be to criticise the pupils. She didn’t know why they should feel entitled to be so judgmental. After all, it was hardly as if everything in a school staffroom was ever exactly as it might appear to be, was it? Sometimes she wondered just how many of her colleagues hid secrets that they hoped no-one else knew about.
“Could I have a word, Miss Denny?” Kathie asked diffidently. She knew that Sarah Denny was famed for her blunt speaking and would say in no uncertain terms if she didn’t approve of Kathie’s plan. Then again, she knew that everyone thought well of the older woman, who was after all one of the school’s “foundation stones”. Kathie sometimes felt a bit sorry for her. The Dennys lived in a little chalet down the road from Freudesheim and didn’t spend much time in the school when they weren’t teaching, meaning that Miss Denny missed out on much of the camaraderie that the other mistresses shared.
“Oh do please call me Sally,” Miss Denny said. “What was it you wanted to talk about? I’ve just been marking Italian essays by some of your form, by the way: you seem to have a fair number of keen linguists there. Len Maynard, of course, wants to learn as many modern languages as possible because she intends to teach them; Con Maynard’s been fascinated with all things Italian ever since they started studying the Renaissance; Joan Baker wants to be a secretary and she’s realised that having extra languages will help her; and Ricki Fry seems to be developing an interest in Italian art as well as Chinese art.” She yawned. “Oh do please excuse me: I seem to be very tired at the moment. I think it’s the anxiety about Tristan: he’s just getting over a bad cold. He’s all right now, but after that bout of pneumonia he had last year, when he had to pull out of conducting the orchestra for the pantomime, it’s difficult not to worry.”
“Has he always suffered from poor health?” Kathie asked sympathetically. She knew that Mr Denny was considered delicate and that his sister worried terribly whenever he was ill.
Sally shook her head. “It was the War,” she said. “The Great War: the war that was supposed to end all wars and didn’t. His platoon was caught up in one of the German mustard gas attacks. A lot of the men didn’t even live to return home. Tristan did, but his lungs were badly damaged. He was only a young man then, and he’s had health problems ever since. I was a nurse during the war so sadly I saw many men affected the same way.”
“Oh I’m so sorry!” Kathie exclaimed. “How awful for him, and for you.” Maybe that was why the Dennys never spoke much about their lives before they’d joined the staff of the Chalet School, she thought. Maybe it was too painful for them.
“At least he survived,” Sally said simply. “And here on the Platz we’re in the mountain air and there are always doctors always on hand. Now, what was it that you wanted to talk to me about?”
“It was what you were saying about the girls being keen on learning Italian, really,” Kathie said. “With Rosalie still recovering from scarlet fever, I’ve got to make the arrangements for my group’s half term excursion, and I thought that it might be an idea to take them to somewhere Italian -speaking for a change.”
“Ticino, you mean?” Sally looked thoughtful. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t. In fact, there’s some talk of taking the Sixth Form there next half term.”
“Not exactly,” Kathie said. She wasn’t sure what sort of a reaction she was going to get to this. “There’s no rule that says that we can only go on excursions within Switzerland, is there? We’re not all that far from the Italian border, and so long as we didn’t stay anywhere too expensive it shouldn’t cost that much more, and the girls really deserve a treat after all this scarlet fever business. I was thinking more along the lines of somewhere in Italy itself.”
Sally raised her eyebrows. “Well, that would certainly be different! As you say, though, we aren’t all that far from the border. And it would certainly do the girls good to hear Italian being spoken all around them. Where would you go, though? I suppose that the nearest big city in North Italy would be Milan, but I’m not sure that that’s quite the place for a school trip.”
“I wasn’t thinking of Milan,” Kathie said. She took a deep breath: she was going to have to come out with it sooner or later. “Ruth Derwent’s been doing The Merchant of Venice with them, and I know that Herr Laubach’s been showing them some Canaletto paintings. I thought that I might take them to Venice.”
“Venice!” Sally exclaimed. “That’s rather a long way, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be so bad if we were still at Briesau, but it must be a good 350 miles from here.”
“I’ve been looking into it,” Kathie said eagerly. “We could get a coach to take us as far as Lugano – it’s be a shame to go that part of the way by train because the St Gotthard Tunnel’s so long that we’d miss the scenery going into Ticino – and then we could take the train from Lugano to Venice. It’d take us the whole day to get there and another day to get back at the end but we’d still have three whole days there. We could stay on the Marghera side of the lagoon where it’d be cheaper, and go into the city by motorboat: coaches aren’t allowed into Venice proper anyway. And … would you come with us, Miss Denny? I mean, Sally. My Italian isn’t up to much so I could really do with an Italian-speaking mistress coming with us, and you said yourself that you were tired so the break would do you good. It’d be lovely if you’d come.”
“Oh Kathie, how kind of you … but I’m not sure that I’d be much use to anyone in Venice. I’ve always been rather afraid of water, you see. Is there no-one else you’d rather ask?” She looked at Kathie keenly. “How about Nancy Wilmot?”
“Nancy’s going to St Moritz with Jeanne de Lachennais and the Sixth Formers,” Kathie said. “I’ve already pulled out so it wouldn’t be fair if Nancy pulled out too.”
“That’s a shame,” Sally said quietly. “I’ve noticed that Nancy seems to be a special friend of yours.”
Kathie was alarmed. Her relationship with Nancy was still in its early days and she wasn’t at all sure where it was going or whether she was doing the right thing. She certainly wasn’t anxious for anyone else to find out about it. Sadly, she was sure that some of their colleagues would hold prejudices that would lead them to disapprove. Sally noticed her discomfiture and patted her shoulder gently. “It’s all right, my dear,” she said quietly. “I have no intention of prying into your private life. So long as you’re happy: that’s all that matters. And I think that I would like to come with you and your Fifth Formers to Venice: it’s usually heavy rain that upsets me, rather than lagoons and canals, and I’d be a fool to turn down the chance of seeing one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Shall we go and put the idea to Hilda Annersley?”
Miss Annersley might under ordinary circumstances have protested that Venice was too far away and the cost of the trip excessive, but with Rosalie Dene still recovering from scarlet fever she had so much work to do that she really didn’t have time to argue. So, on the first day of the half term holiday, the two mistresses and the sixteen girls were up at first light and waiting for the driver to bring the coach round to the door whilst most of the other inhabitants of the school were still asleep. The majority of them were wildly excited about the forthcoming trip, but there were a few people who for one reason or another were holding misgivings about it.
Odette Mercier hated expeditions of any sort. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy seeing different places, but they were always told that they weren’t to go off anywhere alone. Inter V and Vb were notorious for being broken up into little cliques and she didn’t really belong to any of them, meaning that she always had to tag on somewhere and feel that she was in the way. And this trip would probably be even worse than usual because she was the only non-British girl in the group. Con was the only one who made any real attempts to include her with the others. Len and Ricki had seemed inclined to be friendly towards her at one point the previous term, but it hadn’t lasted very long.
Joan Baker was another one who always felt like an outsider. She knew that she’d made some mistakes in her early days at the school; but they’d been fairly mild compared to some of the things other people had done, and yet even after months of trying to fit in no-one ever seemed to want to have much to do with her. She wished that she could have gone home for half term, even though it would have meant spending most of the time travelling, but her parents’ financial problems had made the cost of the journey prohibitive.
Francie Wilford had been looking forward to the trip, seeing as it as an opportunity to spend some time with Margot Maynard whom she’d always had a secret admiration for, but Margot and Emerence seemed to be practically glued to each other’s sides and Francie was in a bad mood as a result. She’d found herself standing next to Con, Margot’s sister, who didn’t interest her at all. “I can’t wait to get to Venice,” Con said dreamily. “I keep thinking about Marco Polo and the Fourth Crusade and the Levantine traders and the Venetian Empire. If only Napoleon hadn’t…”
“Oh dry up, Con!” Francie snapped. “We’re meant to be on holiday: no-one wants to hear you droning on in that stupid moony way. It’s no wonder Len and Margot’ve both got friends and you haven’t: even Ricki prefers Len to you.” Con’s eyes filled with tears and Francie stalked off.
Kathie didn’t hear what Francie had said, but she saw that whatever it was had obviously upset Con, and that both Odette and Joan also had faces like wet weekends. She wasn’t feeling too happy herself, worried about whether or not she was doing the right thing by becoming involved with Nancy. She really needed someone to talk to during this trip away, but the only other adult in the group was Sally Denny and she certainly wasn’t sure that Sally, whom as far as she knew had never had a romantic relationship in her life, was the right person to approach. She sighed. Maybe she should have just gone to St Moritz as she had planned and insisted that someone else take care of Inter V and Vb.
Sally saw the worried look on Kathie’s face and wondered what was troubling her, but didn’t like to ask. She was already concerned that she might have offended the younger mistress by the remark she’d made about Kathie and Nancy Wilmot. She hadn’t meant to interfere. It was just that she of all people knew how difficult it could be to be young and far from home and to have no-one to talk to about personal matters, especially when it came to affairs of the heart.
“Girls, please make sure that you have everything with you that you’re going to need during the journey,” Kathie called. “We’re going to be making one brief stop before Lugano for you to have coffee and freshen up, but there won’t be time for you to be getting things out of your cases. Prudence, will you take this basket of apples, please? Girls, you may have an apple each on the coach if you’re really hungry, but I’d rather that you waited until we stopped. Karen’s kindly packed these for us because the only food they’ll be likely to have at our coffee stop will be cream cakes and I don’t think it’s a good idea to be eating those in the middle of a long coach journey. The roads through the Alps are fairly twisty-turny and we don’t want anyone feeling travel sick.”
The girls began to file on to the coach. Kathie was too busy ensuring that none of the cases got left behind to notice that Prudence had deliberately shoved the basket of apples behind a bush. Apples instead of cream cakes didn’t seem like a very good bargain to her.
Odette had been the only one to hear what Francie had said. “Take no notice of Francie,” she whispered to Con in French. “Everybody likes you: she is just jealous because they do not all like her.” She offered Con a boiled sweet, which Con accepted gratefully. The two of them sat next to each other on the coach and Con, seeing Joan hovering about uncertainly on her own, invited her to take the seat across the aisle from them.
The smaller school coaches had already been booked when Kathie had arranged this trip, so the one that was to take them to Lugano was meant for a much larger party. It suited the girls, who crowded together near the back knowing that the two mistresses, who were sitting at the front, wouldn’t be able to hear what they were saying.
“It’s a good job that Sally-go-round-the-moon’s coming with us,” Jo Scott, who was sitting next to Ros Lilley, said. “I don’t think Ferry speaks Italian very well. By the way, how long have Plato and Sally been at the school, anyone? Len, you’ll know.”
“Since the first year it started,” Len said. “They came to spend the winter at the Tiernsee, for Plato’s health. He was a singing master in England and he asked Auntie Madge if he could teach the girls at the school. Sally first came to the school when there was a flood, because the school was on higher ground than the place where they were staying and she’s scared of running water. They’ve been with the school ever since.”
Francie’s eyes gleamed with interest. So Miss Denny was scared of water. That was interesting, considering that they were going to Lugano and Venice. No-one else seemed to have picked up on that, though. They were all listening to Betty Landon, who was famed for being inquisitive. “That was a bit weird, wasn’t it?” Betty was saying. “If he was a singing master in England, then didn’t he have a job to get back to there? And what about their parents: didn’t they mind both of them taking off to live abroad?” She giggled. “Maybe they’d robbed a bank or something and they were on the run.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Betty,” Rosamund said firmly. “Presumably either he’d packed his job in before he went to the Tyrol or he wrote and told them that he wasn’t coming back. And maybe their parents had died by then, or maybe they were happy for them to live abroad if it was good for Plato’s health. All the same, it can’t be much fun for Sally, looking after him all the time. You’d think that she might have wanted to get married and have a family of her own.”
“Probably no-one wanted to marry her,” Francie said spitefully. “She’s not exactly pretty, is she?”
“Don’t be so rotten, Francie!” Len exclaimed. “For all you know, she might have had a sweetheart who was killed in the 1914-1918 war: she’d be about the right age. I must say, though, I don’t think I’d want to be living with one of my brothers for the rest of my life.”
“That’s hardly likely to happen, is it?” Ricki Fry laughed. “I bet you’ll be engaged to a doctor before you’ve even left school.”
“No fear!” Len said. “That is definitely not going to happen! I’m going to be a languages teacher and I won’t be even thinking about getting married until I’m at least thirty!”
Kathie wasn’t at all amused when they arrived at their coffee stop and it transpired that the apples had been left behind. She was quite sure that Prudence had done it on purpose, but she didn’t want to start the holiday on a sour note so she said nothing. They’d had breakfast very early and it would be some time yet before they reached Lugano, where they were to have lunch, so they really needed something to eat now and, as she’d suspected, the small café served no food other than cakes. Most of the girls sensibly restrained themselves to the plainer cakes, but Prudence and some of the others insisted on indulging in the ones that came with large quantities of whipped cream. The small roadside café wasn’t really equipped for dealing with such a large party, and what had been intended to be a brief stop turned into quite a long one. Then, when they’d finally got going again, they had to stop because Prudence felt sick. Then they had to stop because Primrose felt sick. Then they had to stop because Heather felt sick.
Luckily, the traffic on the road leading into Ticino was fairly light: they were running some way behind schedule and a traffic jam would have been the last straw. Despite the trials of the morning, Kathie and Sally didn’t regret the decision to come by road rather than miss the views by taking the train. Even the most talkative of the girls fell silent to concentrate on gazing out of the windows in admiration at the glorious views as the coach wended its way into the lovely Italian-speaking canton and headed for Lake Lugano. It was a bright, sunny day and the beautiful blue lake gleamed in front of them as the coach drew up outside a row of elegant shops and busy cafés.
“We’re running a bit late, so I’m afraid we’ll only have time for sandwiches if you want to see anything of Lugano,” Kathie said. Luckily they found a café where the service was relatively quick, and soon she and Sally and the girls were tucking into delicious Italian-style panini filled with ham and cheese. Some of the girls wanted ice-creams as well, but the mistresses forbade anyone from eating anything sweet. Having to ask the coach driver to make three unscheduled stops had been bad enough: they could hardly expect the cross-border train to draw to a sudden halt if anyone else felt sick.
“We haven’t got much time, girls, but I’m sure you’ll all want a look round the lakeside,” Kathie said when everyone had finished eating. “The coach driver’s gone down to the station to put our cases on the train and then he’s coming back for us. Please make sure that you’re all back here in half an hour sharp or we’re going to miss the Venice train and then we really will have a problem. You can walk about wherever you please so long as you don’t go too far, but in groups of no less than three.”
“Margot and Emerence, you’d better come with Ricki and Ros and Jo and me,” Len called authoritatively. “You’ll probably end up falling in the lake like you did at Lucerne if you haven’t got anyone keeping an eye on you. Con, you come with us as well. You know what you’re like: you’ll be wandering off somewhere in a daydream about the history of the Swiss Confederation and making us miss the train.”
“I can’t believe the way she speaks to you and Margot sometimes,” Joan said incredulously to Con. “I know she’s always saying that she’s the eldest, but it’s only by half an hour! My sister Edna’s years older than my other sister Pam and me but there’s no way she’d ever speak to either of us like that.”
Joan had a point, Con thought resentfully. As if she’d be thoughtless enough to spoil the whole trip by being late for the coach and making them miss the train. “Why don’t you and Odette and I go for a walk along the lakeside, just the three of us?” she said to Joan. “Thanks Len,” she called back, “but I’m going for a walk with Joan and Odette. See you back at the coach. Don’t be late!”
Kathie spent most of the free thirty minutes sitting on a bench by the side of the lake, fretting. Was she doing the wrong thing? She tried to imagine telling her aunt and uncle that she was involved with another woman, and failed completely. They were probably hoping that she’d meet a nice doctor, a nice male doctor, from the San, especially after everything she’d told them about Biddy O’Ryan’s wedding. And what would Hilda Annersley say if she found out that two of her staff were having a relationship under the school’s roof? She and Nancy could both lose their jobs. Maybe she should just quietly give in her notice, go back to the Cotswolds, and try to forget that any of it had ever happened.
Sally, heading back towards the coach as the end of the half hour approached, sighed. Years of working first as a nurse and then as a teacher had taught her a lot about people, and she could guess what was troubling Kathie. She said nothing, though. She certainly wouldn’t want anyone quizzing her about her personal life, so she wasn’t going to start quizzing anyone else about theirs. Everyone had their secrets, after all.
This was only my second attempt at drabble-writing.