“I never thought I’d end up spending another birthday back here,” the new headmistress of the Chalet School remarked as she dumped another pile of decades-old exam papers into a large black bag marked “rubbish”. “Never mind end up spending it – and the rest of half-term – clearing out a load of junk that probably hasn’t seen the light of day since the mid-1960s! Most of this lot must’ve been here since before Auntie Nell and Auntie Hilda retired: wouldn’t you’ve thought that Nancy and Kathie would’ve cleared it out when they took over? That someone would’ve done, anyway?”
The new chairwoman of the Chalet School Board of Directors burst out laughing at the pained expression on her cousin’s face. “They were probably all terrified that they’d be struck down by thunderbolts if they dared to tamper with any of the relics of the Chalet School’s sacred past! And as for you thinking that you’d never be spending another birthday here, I never intended to come back here at all. I still can’t quite believe that I’m really doing this - but with Michael leaving the Navy and getting this job in Geneva for the next five years just as Mummy finally decided to retire from the Board it all just somehow seemed to make sense for me to take over.” She smiled wryly: she was well aware that no-one had expected her actually to take the job on; and she was equally well aware that those members of the Chalet School Old Guard still actively involved with the place had expected her to be a pushover, or at the very least not to try to bring about anything that smacked of even the slightest change. Well, they were now realising just how wrong they’d been. “Oh well, that’s that lot done, anyway. What’s in the next box?”
“A load of stuff from the school san.” Len peered inside it. “Most of it dating back to Matey Lloyd’s day, by the looks of it. Starting with a pile of old books which’re all covered in mildew.” She giggled. “D’you think one of them might be a book of recipes for her “patent doses”?”
“It’s going straight in the bin if it is! They look like novels, though, although I don’t know what on earth a pile of old novels would have been doing lying about in a cupboard in the san?” Sybil picked up the first half a dozen books and sat back to investigate further. Then she began to laugh. “Ah – I get it! Gone With The Wind, Forever Amber, and four copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover! Do the rest look as if they’re more of the same?”
Len, who’d begun going through the remainder of the pile, nodded. “All the books confiscated over the years and considered too shocking ever to return to their rightful owners, obviously!” She sighed deeply. “One of the many great sins of Chalet Schooldom – daring to read anything that wasn’t judged suitable for Chalet girls’ unsullied little minds! Keep them young, keep them innocent … and try to make sure that they marry the first man who comes along and feel guilty if they even think about doing anything else.”
She put the books down on the floor with a heavy thud, and then reached back into the box. “What else is in here? Oh, two packs of cards. Also mildew-eaten! I wonder whom these belonged to. Presumably someone who got caught playing for matchsticks and got a lecture on the terrible evils of gambling! Like … oh, what was her name? You know who I mean: the girl who smashed up Bride’s study.”
“Diana Skelton,” Sybil supplied. “And, yes, playing cards – well, anything other than Patience or Snap! – was a definite no-no, wasn’t it? Mind you, most hobbies were a definite no-no, unless they involved making something to be sold at the next Sale. Heaven forbid that anyone should do something purely for their own enjoyment: we’d’ve been made to feel thoroughly ashamed of ourselves if we’d even dared think like that for very long!”
“I don’t think I ever did think like that, in those days,” Len said wryly. “I even used to find it quite shocking that Con went off into daydreams about her stories during school hours. She wasn’t doing anyone any harm, but she’d go off into a world of her own instead of concentrating on whatever we were supposed to be concentrating on and I just couldn’t understand how she could do that. I don’t think I could understand how anyone could think for themselves. About anything. It just never occurred to me to question any of it. The rules, the system … the whole idea that no-one was supposed to be different. In any way. “She shook her head. “Anyway! And these books and cards aren’t going to be any use to anyone any more, the state they’re in. Something else for the rubbish bag!” She shoved the cards into the bag, then helped Sybil to do the same with the books, and then turned her attention back to the box. “ I wonder what other delights we’re going to find in here - I hope we’re not about to uncover a load of stale old food confiscated from people who dared to try to eat anything outside set mealtimes!”
“Ugh.” Sybil pulled a face. “No, I can’t see it: the matrons here have always been much too fussy to leave food lying about! We’ll probably just unearth some of Joan Baker’s dresses which weren’t deemed to be appropriately maidenly! Or a supply of ribbons to be handed out to people like Yseult Pertwee who didn’t comply with the school rules about hairstyles. Or maybe we’ll come across a load of old sheets needing to be sewn side to middle – poor old Matey, it really wasn’t very fair the way she was always the one who had to supervise anyone who’d been made to miss one of those awful rounds of paper games! And when we were in Armishire and at St Briavel’s, anyone who didn’t want to join the Guides had to spend Guide meetings sewing sheets side to middle, as if not being a Guide meant that they were committing some sort of terrible sin!”
“The terrible sin of non-compliance,” Len said shortly. “Of any sort of individuality. Being made to feel selfish if you even stopped to consider what was right for you rather than for the School. The School, with a capital S. Or the Family, with a capital F.” She paused, and then turned back to the task in hand. “You know, you were quite right about the hair ribbons - there are loads of them in here. All in Chalet School gentian blue, naturally! And there’s a load of make-up, too. All sorts – powder, lipstick, eye shadow, blusher … just think of all the speeches Matey must’ve delivered over the years about being vain and making yourself look cheap.”
She stopped for a moment, remembering. “I remember Ted saying once that she felt that she couldn’t win where this sort of thing was concerned – that if she did wear make-up she’d be condemned for showing vanity, and if she didn’t then she’d be condemned for not making enough effort to make herself look attractive. And I’m afraid I was probably one of the ones who made her feel like that.” She blushed. She’d been such a prig in her schooldays. As well as being fussy and interfering and everything else that Mary-Lou Trelawney had said she was. Although, ironically, anyone might well have said the same about Mary-Lou. Or about an awful lot of the girls who’d attended the Chalet School over the years, and the women who’d taught there. Always so sure that they were right. And always so sure that anyone who saw anything differently from the way they did had automatically to be wrong.
She began to take the various items of make-up out of the box and putting them into the rubbish bag, as she did so glancing curiously at Sybil, who’d stopped her work and was twisting one of the old hair ribbons through her fingers with a thoughtful look on her face. “What’s the matter, Sybs? I was just going to throw all this old stuff out - you don’t want any of it, do you? I think most of it’s only fit for the bin: I’d’ve suggested trying to find homes for it myself otherwise. And it’s not even as if ...”
She stopped. It’s not even as if you need to use make-up anyway, was what she’d been going to say, but even these days Sybil could be sensitive about any mention of her undeniable beauty. And at school, a school somewhat obsessed with physical beauty despite its staff’s crusade against either personal vanity or any attempt to express individuality in style of dress or hair, it had been common knowledge that the quickest way to make Sybil Russell angry had been to make any mention of her good looks. Admittedly, Len herself had been told from a very early age that no-one could help their looks and that she and her siblings were just “as God had made them”; but with Sybil it had always seemed to be more than that and she’d never known the reason why. Part of her was tempted to ask, but she decided that it was probably best not to bring the subject up. Everyone had things that they were sensitive about, after all, quite often for reasons which no-one else could even make any sense of. Anyway, it was none of her concern. Shoving the various cosmetics into the rubbish bag as quickly as possible, she turned her attention to a collection of scripts from previous years’ Nativity Plays.
“Not even as if I use it?” Sybil asked abruptly. “Make-up, I mean. Was that what you were going to say? Because I do, you know. Not a lot, but I do use some. It took me a long time to accept that it was all right for me to do that, though. And it was hard. Very hard. You’ll never know how hard.”
Len looked at her in surprise. “I was going to say that it wasn’t as if you needed to use it, if you really want to know! Cecil’s the beauty of our side of the family but even she’s not a patch on you: none of us are. You’ve always been the beauty of the family. And you were the beauty of the entire school when we were kids.” She reached out and touched her cousin’s arm awkwardly. “But most of the time no-one ever dared to say so, because they knew you’d fly completely off the handle if they did. Sybs … I wasn’t going to say anything, but seeing as you have … tell me to mind my own business if you want, but something about people commenting on your looks obviously bothered you pretty badly, and even just then I didn’t want to say anything in case I upset you. Was it that people gave you a hard time about how you looked? If they did, they were probably just jealous, you know. Some people can be awfully jealous of anyone who’s prettier or clever or more popular or more anything than they are.”
“The only one who was jealous was me.” Sybil sat down on top of one of the boxes and Len sat down next to her. “I was jealous of Peggy, jealous of Rix, of Bride, of John, of Daisy, of Primula, of Robin ... maybe I was even jealous of Auntie Jo. Possibly even of David, sometimes. They were all there, all the time: there were always so many of us, so many of them, and I just felt as if no-one ever had enough time for me. Sometimes I didn’t feel as if anyone even remembered that I was me, and not just one of the many.” She bit her lip. “And most of all I was jealous of Josette. I was jealous of Josette because until she came along at least I was my parents’ only daughter. I had that to myself, even if I didn’t have anything else. And then along came Josette and suddenly I didn’t even have that.”
“That’s not an unusual reaction,” Len said carefully. “Most children are a bit jealous when a new sister or brother comes along: Ruey’s Eva was terrible when little Bobby was born. It’s nothing to feel bad about: it’s fairly normal.”
Sybil nodded. “I know it is. I know that now. Michael helped me to see that: he helped me with everything. But still, I was jealous, of all of them, and Josette most of all.” She reached for her cousin’s hand. “But I would never have hurt her, Len. Not deliberately. I’d never have done that.”
“Of course you wouldn’t!” Len exclaimed. “Why would you even ... oh, the accident with the kettle, you mean. But, Sybs, that’s exactly what it was - an accident. They happen all the time. And I know Auntie Madge and Uncle Jem were worried about Josette for a while afterwards but she’s absolutely fine now: she has been for years. You’re not still fretting about that, surely?” And what on earth’s any of that got to do with wearing make-up?, she wanted to ask. She sat still, wanting desperately to say something that might ease her cousin’s obvious distress but not at all sure what the right thing to say might be. She and Sybil, with six years between them in age and not a great deal in common, had never been particularly close, but she sensed an anxiety in her cousin which she recognised all too well. And it wasn’t just anxiety, she realised: it was guilt, and guilt was something which she knew all about. It was something by which she’d felt burdened as far back as she could remember and for much of her life. Even when she’d done nothing wrong. Even when it was other people who were in the wrong. Even when no-one had done anything wrong at all. Now it seemed that Sybil was troubled by it too, for reasons which somehow, at least her in own mind, connected her self-consciousness about her looks with an accident which had happened when they’d all been just children.
“It was because of the way I looked,” Sybil said abruptly. “At least, that’s how they chose to interpret it. They. My father. My mother too, to some extent. And your mother as well. That’s what they said.
“I knew that I wasn’t supposed to touch the kettle, because it was dangerous, but I wanted to be grown-up. I wanted to be a grown-up lady instead of a little girl, so I decided I’d make myself a pot of tea instead of a glass of milk or a glass of lemonade or a glass of orange juice. But the kettle was heavy, because I’d filled it right up; and then Josette stood on my toe and I dropped it, and the boiling water went all over her. And I got her undressed because her clothes were covered in boiling water and I thought getting them off her would help. But it made things worse. I didn’t mean to make things worse. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen. I didn’t want to hurt Josette. I just wanted to make myself some tea. But the adults said that it was my fault because I’d been disobedient. And they said that the reason I’d been disobedient was that I thought too much of myself, and that I thought too much of myself because people were always saying how pretty I was and it’d gone to my head.
“After that, I just couldn’t bear to hear anyone talk about how I looked, because every time anyone did it was as if I was back there, standing in the Round House kitchen hearing Josette screaming out in pain because of what I’d done to her. I couldn’t forgive myself, and I thought no-one else could forgive me either. When Ailie was born, I wasn’t at home – we were on holiday at Many Bushes, remember? – and I thought I’d been sent away because everyone thought I’d hurt the new baby. And then Dad and Mummy went off to Canada and left David and me behind – and I felt that I deserved to be left, especially after I heard them say that one of the reasons they were going was that the climate’d be good for Josette’s health.
“And then, later on, Dad was asked to go to the conference in Australia and Mummy said that she wanted Josette and me to go with them. Correction – she said that Josette and I were going with them. But that time I didn’t want to go. Neither of us wanted to go: Josette wanted to have her year at St Mildred’s before going on to university, and I wanted to concentrate on improving my art needlework. But we went, and that’s how I met Michael and Josette met Harry, and so somehow everything worked out all right for us. Michael’s the one who helped me to start putting it behind me at last. He says that I’m beautiful, inside and outside, and even though I don’t really believe that I know that he does and that’s done a lot to help me. He’s the one who finally made me realise that I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life feeling guilty. And he told Josette how I felt, and although I was furious with him at the time it was the right thing to do, because Josette came to see me and we talked it all through - and she said that she’d never blamed me for anything, and that everyone else had put it all behind them years ago.
“It’s just being back here that makes it difficult. I suppose it was bound to. This place ... it takes me back to the person I used to be. Always feeling guilty. And always knowing that I wasn’t good enough, certainly not for Lady Russell’s eldest daughter. I wasn’t clever like Josette, and I wasn’t a leader like Mary-Lou, and I wasn’t good at sports like Blossom and Kat and Ailie. Apart from my being able to do art needlework, I felt that all anyone thought about me was that I was one of the “pretty ones”, and that was the last thing that I wanted to be.” She shook her head and smiled affectionately at Len. “Whereas you ... well, you were everything you were supposed to be. The perfect Chalet School girl!”
“Sensible Len.” The sudden bitterness in Len’s voice shocked her cousin: she’d never heard her speak like that before. She said nothing, sensing that Len needed to talk now, but she squeezed the younger woman’s hand tightly and waited to see what was to come.
“Sensible Len,” Len repeated. “Responsible Len. Len, the eldest of the family. By half an hour! I’m the eldest of the Maynards by half an hour, and somehow that gave me the job of being the responsible one. As far back as I can remember, I had to look out for Con and Margot, because I was their elder sister. Even though we were all the same age! And for all the others as well. And for Mamma, of course. We all knew that we must never upset Mamma. And for everyone at school too. I didn’t want to be a prefect as soon as I was: did you know that? And I plucked up the courage to tell Mamma that, and she said that she’d speak to Auntie Hilda about it; but Auntie Hilda said that the Chalet School needed people like me as prefects, and that she knew that I was ready to become one. When I’d just said that I wasn’t! And I was happy to be Head Girl when the time came, happy and honoured, but Con and Margot and I wanted to have a year at St Mildred’s like most other people did and yet we were told that we couldn’t have one because we were needed where we were!
“And you’re right: people did say that I was the perfect Chalet School girl. I never got into any trouble, did I? I worked hard. I obeyed every single letter of every single rule. I tried so hard to do everything that was expected of me. But, looking back now, I can see that that wasn’t me. I wasn’t being me. I didn’t even know who Len Maynard was, not really. I just didn’t dare to be anything other than what was expected of me. And, believe you me, an awful lot was expected of me.”
She laughed ironically. “Or maybe I should say that not an awful lot was expected of me. I was just supposed get my degree, teach at the Chalet School for a little while, and then marry one of the doctors from the San and settle down on the Gornetz Platz to produce a tribe of children to follow in my footsteps, my husband’s footsteps and my parents’ footsteps. Only I didn’t.”
“Reg.” Sybil looked at her cousin curiously, then apologetically. “Sorry: should I not have mentioned him?” It had sent shockwaves through the whole family at the time, she remembered. And she’d never really known exactly what had happened. If her mother, or Josette, or Ailie, had known why Len, careful, conservative Len, had come home from her first term at university and gone straight to give Reg Entwistle his ring back then they’d never told her. She could see herself now, sitting in her home on the other side of the world, expecting the first of her three children, answering the phone to hear David’s voice. She’d thought that he’d just rung for a general catch-up, as he’d done and still did every so often, but instead he’d stunned her with the news that Len had broken off her engagement and that Auntie Joey and Uncle Jack were so angry that no-one could get a word of sense out of them.
“Ah, yes. Reg.” Len raised her eyebrows. She’d felt terrible about it at the time, of course, but she didn’t any more. It had been a long time ago. Reg had left Switzerland shortly afterwards and she hadn’t seen him since, but she knew from Phoebe Peters that he was living in Yorkshire, not far from where he’d grown up, and was married with two sons and a daughter. He didn’t bear her any ill will, Phoebe had assured her: he’d come to realise that he’d been wrong to pressure her into an engagement the way he had done. And he was much happier away from the stifling atmosphere of the Gornetz Platz and could hardly blame her for feeling the same. In fact, even when she’d told him, he hadn’t taken it as badly as she’d feared. It was her mother and father who’d taken it badly. Them and all their Gornetz Platz cronies.
She’d heard it all. That poor boy. Breach of promise. Letting everyone down. Playing fast and loose with people’s feelings. And worse. But she’d stuck to her guns: for the first time in her life, she’d put herself first. And she’d been right to do so, not only for her sake but for Reg’s too, because the two of them would simply never have made one another happy. Oh, maybe the Len that she’d been at school, the Len who always felt responsible for everyone else and whose main concern was always the concerns of everyone else, could have made Reg happy, because that Len would just have let him mould her into whatever he’d wanted her to be. But the Len that she’d become during her first term at Oxford, her first term of being free, her first few months of being herself, had been a completely different person. And that person had made the only decision that she could have made.
“Reg and I weren’t right for each other.” She shrugged. “I knew that, and once he’d calmed down he knew that as well.”
Then she laughed. “I really shocked everyone, though, didn’t I? And I think I’ve gone on shocking them ever since – going off and living in France for two years after finishing my degree, then going back to England and taking a job at a state school instead of rushing back to Switzerland or to Carnbach to work at the Chalet School. Wearing what I wanted to wear instead of what young ladies were supposed to wear. Which, back then, was exactly the sort of thing – the clothes, and the make-up, and for that matter the hairdos as well! – that would’ve had dear old Matey and everyone else at the Chalet School howling out in anguish. Oh, and reading what I wanted to, of course. And thinking what I wanted to. Did you ever feel like that, about being at school? Like we weren’t even supposed to think outside the prescribed limits?”
Sybil nodded. “Oh yes. Woe betide anyone who dared to think too much for herself. Woe betide anyone who didn’t conform. Woe betide anyone who didn’t do what was expected of her. Woe betide anyone who wasn’t what her parents and her school wanted her to be.”
She fell silent then, lost in memories. They both did; and for a few minutes there was absolute stillness in the room, the quiet broken only by the sound of a bird calling out from a tree outside the window. But then, suddenly, she sat upright and smiled, picking up a photograph from a pile on top of another of the many boxes awaiting their attention and gazing down at the rows of young faces with a poignant expression on her face. “We had some good times, though, didn’t we? Some amazing times, times I never want to forget. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of fun. And we made some good friends. I’m still in touch with quite a few people from here, you know.”
“I am as well.” Len leaned over to look at the photo. “That’s a copy of the group photo from the coming of age celebrations, isn’t it? I’d recognise it anywhere. It was a good term, that one, wasn’t it? The trips to Tyrol, and the visits from people whom we hadn’t seen for years. And the Sale. We used to get so excited about the Sales, didn’t we? And about the pantomimes. And about the Nativity Plays. All the things that marked out the stages of the school year.”
“The half-term trips,” Sybil reminisced. “Ski-ing and tobogganing in the winter. Swimming and boating in the summer. Going out on rambles. Karen’s lovely food! All the adventures we used to have: we never seemed to get through a single term without there being some sort of drama, did we? And, most of all, that lovely family feeling we used to have, as if we were all together, all part of something.” She sighed. “I miss it all, sometimes.”
“Me too,” Len confessed. She giggled. “Or should that be “I do too”? Seriously, I know just what you mean: I had some wonderful times here. Some very happy days. If only I could just have been allowed to be myself, though! And if only I hadn’t always ended up feeling that everything was my fault. And I’m so sorry about everything you went through when we were younger, Sybs. I never realised how much Josette’s accident affected you, how you went on blaming yourself for it all that time and how you were made to feel so bad about yourself. I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks.” Sybil put her hand on her cousin’s shoulder. “And I’m sorry about everything you went through, too.” She sighed. “That was the way it was for us, though, wasn’t it? So much blame. So much guilt. So many things that we weren’t allowed to do. Say. Wear. Read. Or even think. She looked thoughtful. “That’s the main reason I took on this job, you know. To make things different, to make things change, to move the school forwards. To try to keep the good, but to get rid of the bad. To put an end to the guilt and to let people be themselves.”
“That’s exactly how I feel,” Len said soberly. There’ve always been so many good things about this place and I want other people to be able to enjoy them, as we did, but at the same time there’s a lot that needs to change. It’s time to move on.”
She stretched, stood up, and laughed. “And most of this lot’s got to go, for a start! Although how on earth it’s all going to fit in the bins I’ve got no idea. They’re full to overflowing already, and look how much we’ve still got to get through!”
“I think I might just have the answer to that,” Sybil said thoughtfully. “Given what today’s date is.”
Len looked at her in confusion, and she grinned wickedly. “Come on, Len! Today’s date! It’s your birthday, of course, but … come on, what else is the significance of the Fifth of November?”
“Bonfire Night!” Len clapped her hands. “Of course! We’ll have a bonfire! We’ll burn it all! Everything that doesn’t belong here any more; everything that was used to make us feel guilty; everything that ever made us feel that we were bad! We’ll watch it all go up in flames and we’ll watch it all burn to ash. What shall we call it - the Burning of the Bad Times?”
Sybil shook her head. “No. There’s a better name for it – a proper name. I came across it once, when I was reading a book about Renaissance art for ideas for some designs I was working on. What this is called, what we’re going to have here, is a Bonfire of the Vanities.”