“I see, thank you, yes. Goodbye Commander Christy.”
Hilda Annersley replaced the receiver on its cradle with a sigh of desperation and turned to her colleague.
“It’s no good, Nell. This naval friend of Jack’s says his house just isn’t suitable for a school - it’s in dire need of repair and is completely unfurnished. We simply couldn’t manage to take all our furnishings over to St Briavels.”
Nell leafed through the pile of papers on her lap as she replied.
“Well, we still have this one left as a possible - you remember, the other island place. I know we thought it looked too damp a climate for the girls, but we should only be there a year and, well, beggars can’t be choosers.” Having found what she was looking for, she slid a typewritten sheet across the wide desk.
Miss Annersley skimmed it with interest “Oh yes, off the west coast of Ireland. It could certainly be cold and damp, but it’s a decent size and having the parochial house so close is certainly an advantage - they say here that one of the priests would be happy to take Mass and so on for the Catholic girls.”
“Well, let’s call them again, Hilda - as you say, the drains should be fixed at Plas Howell before the year is out so we don’t need to look for the perfect location.”
A swift phone call to the letting agents followed, leaving the two heads of the Chalet School looking forward to a visit to Ireland the following weekend. The vist passed off well, all things considered, as the island was not too distant from the mainland and was possessed of a general store, and a regular ferry service. The house was large and well-appointed and perfectly suited to the school’s needs.
“Gosh, what a ducky little place!” exclaimed the irrepressible Mary-Lou as she stepped off the coach and spied the island across the bay. “I hope the mistresses let us explore about a bit.” “What?” replied Verity-Anne, somewhat abstractedly. “Oh, yes…” In truth, she had heard little of her chum’s animated speech, being unable to take her eyes off the rather strange fellow directing them all up the gangway of the little ferry. She had never seen such a queer creature, with his shock of untidy hair and rather grubby shirt bearing the intriguing legend “I shot JR.”
An hour later saw the girls marching smartly up the driveway of their new school. “I wonder who that is with the Abbess,” remarked Peggy Bettany to the prefects in general, inclining her head towards the small, wiry woman talking to the head on the doorstep of the big house. “Not a clue,” replied Nita Eltringham. “she must be the housekeeper - that’s a blooming big tea-tray she’s holding.”
They had to be quiet just then, for they had reached the house and Miss Annersley had raised her hand for silence.
“Welcome to our home for the present, girls. I am sure you are all tired after the long journey, so please follow your house matrons inside. They will direct you to your splasheries and show you where to go for tea, which will be served in twenty minutes.” At the mention of tea the face of the small woman holding the tray lit up in a beam of joy and she scurried into the house.
Tea was certainly a copious affair, as Blossom Willoughby later remarked. The girls had never seen so many urns of steaming tea - each with its own cosy - nor such towering mountains of tiny sandwiches. They had only made a small dent in the spread before them when the bell rang for prayers.
Instantly, silence fell and they formed up into long lines, to be led into the assembly hall by such of the mistresses as were present.
Miss Annersley came to the podium and her beautiful deep voice filled the room as she addressed her pupils. “Good evening girls - and welcome to Craggy Island. I hope you will all be very happy during our stay here, and that you will respect the habits of the local community. Now, before we separate for worship, I should like to introduce the local priest who will be taking the Catholics for prayers, and also some of your New Testament classes. Father-” And there she was cut short by a series of muffled crashes and shouts from the passageway. Heads turned and there were giggles of amusement from the Middles, over which could clearly be heard the clarion tones of Mary-Lou asking “what does ‘gobshite’ mean, Clem?”
At that point point the double doors were flung open to admit - backwards - a stocky grey-haired man in priest’s robes, dragging the apparent source of the disruption with him. This, it transpired as he came into view, was a second priest holding forth in rich Irish brogue. Though such a priest as the girls had never seen! He was tall and gaunt, and his eyes appeared to look in two different directions. His prime concern seemed to be the square glass bottle which the younger priest was attempting to wrestle from him.
Miss Annersley struggled to regain control. “Father Crilley! Father Hackett! What is the meaning of this?” At her stern question, both men stopped. The taller of the two spotted his chance and caught his opponent a swingeing blow to the chin, gleefully seizing the bottle from him as he fell painfully onto the piano. Then he slowly rotated himself to face the rows of stunned pupils. His face spread into a contorted grin.