It was the break between terms, and Joey was hosting another of her infamous mini Chalet School reunions. This time, the reunion consisted of as many of the former Maynard wards, adoptees, in loco parentis and honourary god-daughters and nieces as could be persuaded to come, spurred on by a rare visit to Europe by the McDonald girls.
The McDonalds had remained in Canada. Shiena was firmly settled in Sherbrooke with her husband, a biology professor at Bishop's University. Flora was living near Winnipeg managing a large farm with her husband, and Fiona was in PEI helping to run a family bed and breakfast with her husband. Shiena's two eldest were at university, but she had brought her younger daughter, Elspeth, who had her hands full helping with Fiona's three children and Flora's two, who ranged in age from thirteen to four.
Jo Martin (née Scott) had come from Jersey with her three children, although her husband hadn't been able to get away from the family business, a fruit and flower farm. Her mother had died a few years ago, of continued delicacy after her ordeal in Kenya, and her father now lived with her family. Juliet O'Hara had come alone. Donal had died unexpectedly two years ago, and she was planning on going back to teaching in the form of private coaching in mathematics. Her three children had all left home long ago, and she was the grandmother of four, with a son in law and a daughter in law as well.
Cecila hadn't been able to get out of helping with the festivities this time, and on a sunny spring day was conducting a tour of the new guest houses and coffee shops on the next shelf over, with Mary-Lou, Verity and Clem and their families.
Mary-Lou, now a junior faculty member at the University of London, had remained resoulutely single until a year ago, when she had shocked everyone by eloping with her graduate student, a brilliant, highly opinionated young man of twenty-five, and by subsequently keeping her maiden name (Keith, however, had switched his advisor to another member of the department). Verity and Alan were content in their home in a suburb of London, their eldest son Roland followed by daughters Anne-Louise and Doris. Clem had married a writer, and the couple travelled extensively in pursuit of their respective artist pursuits. Until now, their twin daughters had travelled with them, but they were to start at the Chalet school in the fall, now that they were eight. The twins were particularly excited at the trip, as they were delighted to see their prospective school close up. Tony hadn't been able to make it, as he and his fiance were visiting her parents in Wales on one of his rare breaks from the office.
"So," said Clem conspiritorally, once the kids were out of earshot. "What's the gen on these new school developments? I nearly fell over when I received the addendum to the school prospectus."
Cecilia groaned and pulled her sun-hat over her face. "Please, don't remind me."
Verity looked at her curiously. "Aren't you pleased? I can see that your mother is more than a bit dubious about it all, but the changes look very sensible and a lot of fun. I know I for one had a terrible time talking to the male students when I went to the conservatory."
Mary-Lou looked over from where she and Keith had been wandering along, hand in hand, heatedly debating an editorial they had read in the morning paper. She laughed, and looked slightly self conscious. "I, on the other hand, had no problem talking to anyone. I just couldn't figure out why they weren't listening to me." That prompted a general laugh from those who had known Mary-Lou as a school girl. Mary-Lou was still opinionated, strong willed and fond of being in charge, but over ten years away from the Platz and the varied experience of being a travelling archaeologist had broadened her view of the world, mellowing her slightly.
Verity, on the other hand, had blossomed in her adult life. She managed her house and children with a calm competency, and their cheerful home in a London suburb was a haven for her widely travelling family members. Verity projected an air of serene contentment with her world. Her eldest son, Roland, was a cheerful, steady boy, taking after his father, and her youngest, Doris, was (at the age of four), a retiring, rather shy girl. Seven year old Anne-Louise, on the other hand, had convulsed family and friends by taking very strongly, in spirit if not in looks, after her godmother, Auntie Mary-Lou.
Clem and her husband had established a cheerfully bohemian life, in many ways like the one she had grown up in, although both she and Richard were rather more organised and practical than the Barrass parents had ever been. They travelled widely, with a nanny for the twins up until now, settling in one location or another for six months or a year at a time. Clem painted and sketched, while Richard made notes and wrote, and they had a wide circle of artistic friends around the world.
Verity was still looking at Cecilia curiously, and the girl finally responded seriously. "Mother really isn't happy with the changes. Some of the other prefects and I helped start the whole thing out, with a petition to the staff, and so she isn't all that happy with me, either. It's like she thinks I'm letting down the school, or something like that. I'm not, though. I like the school, I just want it to be better."
"Oh, so that's what those letters at the beginning of year went for," said Mary-Lou with sudden understanding. She thought for a moment, as they stopped to appreciate the alpine view. "I can see it, though. Your mother hasn't spent much time away from the Platz, and I don't think she knows how different the world is now. Oxford came as a shock to me, and I'd only been in Switzerland for five years. I loved my time here, and most of what we learned was fantastic, but we were rather isolated, weren't we."
The others nodded in sympathy. "And that was over a decade ago," said Clem. "If the school hasn't changed at all since then, then it's got to be much worse now." The conversation was broken then by the twins, who clamoured to go and hear the echoes, and the group moved onwards.
Mary-Lou, tidying herself in one of the many guestrooms at Freudesheim, looked over at her husband. "So, what do you think of Switzerland, dear?"
"It's beautiful," he responded with a grin. "We should come back during the skiing season. I do have trouble picturing you growing up here, though. It's so quiet and stodgy and away from everything."
"This says the man who spent six months in the Sahara!"
"That's work, though," he responded seriously. "And you know it's just for six months, so you can deal with it. Some of the school and San staff have been here for decades."
"You mean like Aunt Joey and Uncle Jack?"
"Yes, like them. Dr Maynard strikes me as your typical workaholic doctor. A nice man, loves his family, but rather quiet and shy and lives for his job. But Mrs Maynard..."
He paused for a moment to consider his words. The initial acquaintance between Keith and Mary-Lou had been stormy, to say the least. He was a brilliant, opinionated, perceptive young man, who, while he loved debate and wrangling over ideas, was always willing to listen and consider other points of view. His childhood and adolescence had been spent in all sorts of odd parts of the globe, as the son of a diplomatic attache, and so he had an extremely varied set of experiences to draw on. Mary-Lou had initially been very taken aback by this student who could argue with her on her own level, and wasn't at all intimidated by her self assurance and air of competence. Over time, she had learned to value his opinions, and his willingness to tell her what he thought, and why, even when he disagreed with her. Clem had laughingly told Mary-Lou that it was a good thing she had found a husband who could stand up to her, otherwise she'd be totally unstoppable.
"She's a nice woman, very friendly and kind and hospitable," he continued thoughtfully. "But she's a strange one, isn't she. It's as if the world for her consists only of the school and its connections, and everything else in the world is somehow not important in comparison."
Mary-Lou sat down on the bed. "I can see what you mean," she replied. "When I was a student, I thought she was everything that was wonderful. She was like a mother to me when my mother was too ill to do much, and when we moved to Switzerland and mother and Gran were back in England. And she is so ready to help everyone, and means well. But she doesn't think of the world outside of the school. She was one of the ones who encouraged me in thinking that I was better than everyone else."
"You mean you aren't?" said Keith, in mock surprise.
"You know what I mean," said Mary-Lou. "At school, I was the leader. Everyone gave way to me, everyone talked about how I could get away with things no-one else could, because I was Mary-Lou. The mistresses and Auntie Joey told me that I had special insight, and was the only one who could reform problem girls. They confided in me, and gave me special privileges. And then, at Oxford, I discovered no-one else knew I was special - they just thought I was this obnoxious, meddling, bumptious hick." Mary-Lou looked down at the floor. She could joke about it now, but her first few years at Oxford had been hard ones in many ways.
Keith sat down beside her and put his arm around her. "But you learned, and you adapted. Maybe Mrs Maynard can do the same."
Mary-Lou steeled herself for the task ahead. The lessons of responsibility and caring she had been taught at school had stuck, but of all the problem girls she had helped over the years, this one was the hardest. Fortunately, she had learned some subtlety and a bit of tact over the years.
"Hi Auntie Joey!"
"Oh, Mary-Lou. What have you been up to this afternoon?"
"I stopped by the school, and had tea with Miss Ferrars and Miss Wilmot," she replied. "We had a really lovely chat about the changes to the school, and what things will be like next year." Ignoring the tensed jaw and inward drawn breath that was sure to herald one of Joey's now infamous tirades on the new situation, Mary-Lou breezily ignored her, and continued before she could be interrupted.
"I will say I was pretty shocked when I heard the news. The Chalet School has been the Chalet School for so long that it seems impossible that it could change now. But now that I've had a chance to think about it, and talk to the people doing the planning I realize that a lot of what they are doing is just plain common sense. They need to make these changes, and make them now."
Joey looked stunned. "You mean you approve! After all the school has done for you?!?"
"Exactly," replied the younger woman calmly. "The school needs to change so that they can keep doing what they've always done best. The Chalet School taught me to be responsible, and kind, and to think of others. They gave me a good, well rounded education, and looked out for my health and morals. The thing is, though, that the Platz is pretty isolated, and up here it's easy to forget how much England has changed since we moved here. The school has a responsibility to send the girls out into the world prepared to handle life, not to hide from it, or collapse from the stress."
There was a pause, and Mary-Lou continued more thoughtfully. "The one thing I think the school failed me on was learning flexibility. They taught us that there was one proper way to do things, from making our beds, to making choices about our life and relationships. The Chalet School way is a good one, but it's not for everyone. The hardest thing I had to learn when I left was that other people could have equally valid ways of living their lives, and that making different choices didn't make them bad people."
Mary-Lou looked at Joey. "Do you know the one thing I am ashamed of, from my school days?"
"Ashamed of?" she replied. "I can't think of anything you did that was quite that bad, however mischevious you were as a middle."
"It's how I treated Joan Baker," Mary-Lou went on doggedly. "I saw she wasn't fitting in, and I decided she needed help being a proper Chalet girl. I lied to her about why I invited her to visit. It wasn't because I liked her, or thought she was good at tennis, it's because I wanted to make her less of a disgrace to the school. She found out and ran away, and when she came back she had to apologize to me for being underhanded and eavesdropping. I was so caught up in being the perfect Chalet girl who could help anyone, that I didn't even see her as a person, just a stereotype of the wrong sort of girl. I don't think she ever looked me in the eye again, and she was never really allowed to fit in after all, even when she changed her behaviour and settled down."
The sound of the younger kids coming in from their walk disrupted the conversation, but Joey was left looking very thoughtful.