The pitch was in remarkably good condition, Nancy Wilmot mused, all things considered. Shivering a little in the crisp March air, she pulled her thin blue coat tighter around her as she watched the flock of overgrown schoolgirls flitting hither and thither across the turf. The match - a friendly, Nancy had been informed by the elderly porter who was gatekeeper to the college - was being played with a keen passion. The air was filled with the crash of sticks, eager calls of encouragement, and the sporadic whistle of a referee's decision, and the two teams battled for dominance as if, right at that moment, nothing in the world was more important.
The girls on the pitch - their breath furiously turning to steam in the chill air - did not seem to mind the bracing temperature, but on the sidelines Nancy was not so lucky. Wondering at what point she'd become so unable to cope with the cold, and trying not to nostalgically dwell on the trim, snug jackets she'd had when she'd been at school in the Tyrol - jackets which made her regulation-issue coat seem so inadequate by contrast - Nancy was starting to regret turning down the porter's kindly offer that she wait for her friend in the cosy back room of the lodge. But having managed to get an earlier train than she had intended, it had seemed a shame to sit in the room fending off the well-meaning but nosy enquiries with which he was bound to press her when she could be using the extra time she had gained to see her friend. So, there she was, on the edge of the hockey field, waiting for the game to reach a close and trying to find ways stay warm. She jogged a little on the spot, and amused herself with the though that she might volunteer to join in the game, then amused herself even more by imagining her boss's face if he could see her running around on the pitch in her uniform, and finally, alternated between praying desperately that the game would soon finish and fantasizing about the warm woollen cap that she had just resolved to knit herself as soon as she had aquired enough wool.
Alongside such mental exertions, Nancy kept an idle eye on the proceedings on the pitch. She watched as the team captain of the home side took possession of the ball. She accelerated and then with a tremendous crack-wallop directed the ball through a crowd of defenders. It was heading straight for the goal when the keeper blocked it, shin-height, with her well-padded legs, and knocked it behind the goal for a corner.
On the sidelines, Nancy winced in sympathy, glad that she hadn't put herself forward as a volunteer for the game. She distinctly remembered having got in the way of one of those rockets when she'd been at school - unfortunately, having been an outfield player at the time she hadn't been half so well insulated as today's victim. The incident and the resultant bruise, recriminations and repentance had become one of the cornerstones of her friendship with her assailant, something that, whenever they had quarrelled or had too much to drink, one or the other was liable to bring up, either as an instance of Nancy's clumsiness, or her friend's viciousness.
The whistle went - a draw, by all accounts. The two teams, so fierce in combat only moments earlier, now addressed each other in friendly tones, and the captains of the two teams shook hands warmly.
"Unlucky with that final shot, Hilary," the captain of the opposition said.
With a rueful grin Hilary Burn nodded. "Your keeper's impossible to beat when she's on her game - till next time?"
Her opposite number barely got a chance to answer, for just at that moment Hilary had recognized the figure on the sideline, and with a shriek she ran over to her.
"Nancy! How long have you been here?" The joyous embrace disguised a shrewd glance that registered that Nancy was a lot paler, thinner, and visibly less exuberent than the last time Hilary had seen her.
"Early train, my dear," Nancy replied. "So I thought I'd come and see what you were up to. Still as violent as ever, I see?"
"Not violent enough, I'd say - a bit more pace on that shot and I'm sure it would've beaten her..."
"You've never been a good loser, have you?"
"Not I - and anyway, we didn't lose. It was a draw. Or don't they teach people to count on mathematics courses nowadays?"
"It's not all jolly hockey sticks, you know." Hilary was kneeling in front of the little stove, making tea, and Nancy was taken aback by the seriousness of her tone.
"I just don't want you to think we're here playing games all the time. It's not like that, you know. Just because we don't have uniforms and things, it doesn't mean we aren't doing our bit. We do clinics with some of the injured soldiers. I've seen some things...terrible things...." Hilary trailed off.
Nancy looked at her friend, puzzled by this outburst, and uncertain of how to reply.
Hilary shook herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "So do you see much of the others? Ida, Elsie, Anne, that lot? I had a letter from Jo saying they were all in the Wrens too."
"Yes - there's quite a brigade of us. The service is actually rather glad that there's so many of us fluent in French and German. But I don't see the rest of them very often. They're on separate details to me and I don't get much time off, really."
"You do look tired."
"I suppose I do."
There was a silence.
"I don't know if you've heard," Hilary changed the subject. "- I'm going back to the school - games mistress. My course here is nearly finished, and they've asked me to go back."
"And you said yes?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
Nancy let the question pass. "They're coming back to England then?"
"Yes, I don't think setting up in the Channel Islands was the best idea anyone's ever had..."
A chuckle, and then another silence.
"Triplets," Hilary said, filling the void. "...triplets...honestly, Jo does nothing the easy way, does she?"
"I can't imagine having one baby, let alone three."
"Each to their own, I suppose..."
Yet another silence.
Nancy couldn't quite work out why talking to Hilary had suddenly become so difficult. It was almost as if they were strangers, as if neither of them understood the other any more. Had they changed so very much since they'd left school? Stirring her tea, Nancy mentally reviewed all that had happened - all that had happened since the war had started. Her life had changed in so many ways. So many things had happened that she hadn't told Hilary about, and indeed, wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to.
"This is hard, isn't it?" Hilary broke the silence once more.
Nancy grimaced. "It's all so hard, these days."
"Pub?" This time it was Nancy who spoke first.
"Yes. Yes, let's go to the pub."