Gen, U, no copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made from this work.
Final part, with a guest appearance by Rowan. Thank you to everyone who's been reading: I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Make Me A World
And now the term sped on towards Christmas. The weather worsened, to the point that even the most determined of fresh-air fiends saw the point of working in the library rather than on the roof. Nicola, playing more than competently in the final match of the season, thought that the new school tracksuits would be very welcome, and it was a pity Keith hadn't thought of them years ago. The cold air made a tiny icicle-cavern of her throat, and her arms and legs felt as if the moment they left off being warm from the game's exertions they would be very cold indeed. And then she leapt to receive a pass from Jodie, pulling the ball out of the sky; and had no more time to think about the weather, or anything else.
They lost the match, in the end, a close-fought twenty-one goals to twenty-two; but the Second Seniors won theirs, and that, Nicola thought, watching a glowing Bunty drinking tea and chattering in almost the old style to Meena at the tea afterwards, was the way round she'd have had it, if someone had offered her the choice of one or the other.
And then, surprised at finding such an Ann-like cuckoo thought in her own breast, and conscious of her social duties, she saw the Brockhurst games mistress looking stranded, and went to make polite conversation about the next term's hockey.
The Dress Rehearsal for the Play went, as Dress Rehearsals often do, in so halting and accident-prone a fashion that Tim was rumoured to have gone to ground in one of the music-rooms and to be refusing entry to all well-wishers except Lawrie. "I don't see how it's ever going to come right," said Olwen heavily, as some of the Sixth-form members of the cast and crew sat around in the Theatre afterwards. "I mean, a pyramid nearly fell on me. That's not right. And I'm sorry, and I know there's all those little Chorusers to be daubed with makeup, but letting Claire whats-her-name do her own Eve makeup is a disaster. She looks like she's been dead for a fortnight. I don't know why Tim doesn't take her in hand."
"She's using the wrong colour base," said Helen, drifting in with a large box of chocolates. "The lights pick up all the yellow pigments in it."
Everyone looked at her respectfully. "You should give her a hand," said Daphne loudly. "You know about all that kind of stuff. At least, I suppose you do. Or is it other people making you up?"
"Yes, mostly it is," said Helen, not taking offence. "But you get to see what kind of thing they use. And I do my own for going out and stuff."
"You could do Claire's for her, if she doesn't mind," said Nicola, thinking how it might be arranged. "You're not on as Pharaoh until miles later."
Helen, in an infuriatingly Helen-like fashion, looked noncommital. She opened the box and passed it along the row of seats.
"Lovely chocolates," said Barby enthusiastically, taking two and passing the box on to Bonnie. "To wish us luck?"
"To wish me luck, actually, from all my friends in IIIA. It must have taken nearly all their pocket money. I don't know how they're going to afford flowers for Miss Ussher."
"If I were Ussher, I'd settle for a Chorus that sang on key, and came in on time," said Olwen in her mournfully trumpeting voice. "And hadn't you two Maths people better get moving? The bell's about to go, and you know what Crommie's like."
Nicola hastily unbucketed herself from her seat and hurried out, grateful that her fellow Maths person was Erica Shelland, whose long legs had got her the part of Adam, and not, for example, someone built on a miniature scale like Stella Afford; and reflecting that if Moses had been anything like Olwen then the Israelites must have been deeply, deeply thankful to get out of that desert.
The bell was just clanging away into silence as they returned to the main building. Nicola and Erica made faces at each other. "We'd better run," Nicola decided. "It's not like the Seconds will see us and get ideas - they should all be virtuously tucked away in their classrooms by now - "
Erica nodded dubiously. But then Miss Redmond came round the corner, laced-up black shoes clicking on the floor, and said "Ah, Nicola. Just something I meant to have a word about with you, if the occasion presented itself - "
Erica made helpless faces; Nicola gave a no, you beetle along twitch of her head and fell reluctantly into step beside Miss Redmond. It must be about Patrick, she thought, one hand shaking ridiculously under her pile of folders, Mrs Clements must have let slip something about the phone call amidst her nattering... "Yes, Miss Redmond?"
"About the way you handled the vacancy on the First Senior netball team. Whilst I appreciate that you thought you were working to bring the two schools together, I don't think Anna's parents would have been too happy if they'd heard how you went about it, do you?"
Nicola thought that Anna's parents probably had bigger things to worry about, but one couldn't say that to a staff. Instead, she said in the flattest, most neutral tone of voice she could muster "Is Anna feeling better? Did she get the card we sent her?"
"Yes, I noticed you making yourself busy about that. Perhaps you could think about giving the others a chance, sometimes. No one likes a bossyboots, Nicola."
"No, Miss Redmond."
Miss Redmond hesitated, sensible feet turning towards the cookery classroom, body not quite turning with them. "Nicola, I do wish you would understand that when people give you advice, they generally mean it in your best interests. Not even the Games Captain is perfect, you know."
"No, Miss Redmond," said Nicola again, stonier still. Miss Redmond looked as if she might say something more, but instead gave a small constrained shrug and went into the classroom. Nicola, embarrassed and annoyed, ran the rest of the way to her tutor group. She arrived to find Miss Cromwell watching with her usual expression of amused ferocity as Pomona worked through an equation on the blackboard.
"Ah, Nicola. How good of you to grace us with your presence."
"I'm sorry, Miss Cromwell. Miss Redmond kept me."
"I was under the impression that you had given up Home Economics. Or does Miss Redmond now do remedial work among the non-cooking masses?"
"No, Miss Cromwell. It was about the netball team."
"Despite the fact that the last netball match of the term took place last week? Sit down, Pomona. Nicola, since you are on your feet, kindly continue from there."
Nicola, receiving the chalk and a sympathetic glance from Pomona, found, to her relief, that the equation was of a class that she had come across in a Past Paper the week before. She worked it through methodically, and was rewarded with a nod from Miss Cromwell, and permission to pick up her pile of papers and her calculator and, finally, sit down at her desk.
After Maths came lunch; and, since Lower IVB were out at the Minster Museum making notes and brass-rubbings to embellish their project on monks, Nicola took her tray to the Sixth's table. Miranda sat down next to her. "Are you all right? Pippin said Crommie was madly insulting."
"I'd sooner have Crommie being insulting than Redmond calling me a bossyboots," said Nicola. "Miranda -"
"Would you mind doing my stint keeping an eye on the Junior common rooms this evening? I'll do yours next week."
"Yes, if you like," said Miranda tolerantly, not bothering, as Louise undoubtedly would have done, with a prefatory we're not supposed to swap. "I had one of the music-rooms booked, but I can always practice before breakfast. For all I know Tim's still lairing in there, anyway, licking her wounds. What is it you need to get done?"
"Not me. You. In your role as Oldest Inhabitant. I want you to tell the Thirds and Fourths a story. All about when you were in IIA, and how Keith had a special assembly and tore into the people who were cracked on Eileen Benson and Joyce Craig. With particular reference to the foolishness of buying seniors presents."
Miranda looked at her, a slow smile beginning to curl about her mouth. "You know," she said, stretching luxuriously back in her most unluxurious chair, "it might just work."
The Play itself went by, for Nicola, improbably quickly. It seemed only moments from the muffled sound of feet and chocolate-boxes out in the auditorium, and the deep wish that the curtain would never come up and reveal them, to Lawrie's comic turn creating the Garden of Eden at Nicola's behest; and from there to the backchat between the angels, so unlike the dignified angels of Christmas Plays of yore, and then to Claire and Erica, managing a sort of poignancy as Adam and Eve, expelled from grace, even though Claire, poor thing, was obviously rigid with nerves.
After that, there was Melissa, looking dislikably smug in her angel's white robes, but at least not making a total mess of singing her solo, East of Eden; and then - and the sudden upward shift of interest in the audience was a tangible, disconcerting thing - Helen was coming on to play her small part as Pharaoh. There was a small outburst of clapping from the front - visitors, Nicola thought, not, after all, the hero-worshipping Fourths - and some camera flashes went off.
But fortunately there wasn't much more. A bit more backchat with Helen and Lawrie - Lawrie liking the attention, not, Nicola thought, realising that it wasn't for her - and then Olwen singing Let My People Go, her doom-laden voice sounding, for once, entirely full of the proper kind of gravitas.
Applause. A call for the producer. Flowers for Tim - flowers, much showier ones, in cellophane, from someone in the audience, for Helen, which were quickly intercepted by Miss Kempe - and then the curtain came down for the final time and the audience were filing out, and Nicola was being roped in, the moment she'd removed her own greasepaint, to help wipe the faces of the shrilly excited Juniors in the Chorus.
"It was all right, wasn't it?" said Bonnie, on the same duty; and Nicola, amazed, was able to agree that it was, and that honestly, she'd never met a Play that had gone more smoothly.
Nicola was not usually one for dreading social occasions, but for some reason she felt rather more like going up to the Common Room, or reading in the Library, than mingling with the audience after the Play. She felt vaguely drained and vaguely flat, and as if she had keyed herself up for rather more than had actually happened. Still, it had to be done; so she dragged on uniform winter skirt and blouse and blazer, knotted her tie, and went out to be social.
The Assembly Hall was full of a lot of very adult, cocktail-party chatter, echoing up to the painted ceiling. Lawrie, to her sister's astonishment, was off making herself very amusing to the person who had brought the flowers for Helen, who Nicola had rather expected to have been ejected from the premises. Nicola saw Mr and Mrs Merrick, without any sign of Patrick or Thomasine. She smiled and waved, and was fallen on by her own family, or at least by her mother and Chas, who wanted to tell her all about his chicken-pox; and then by Rowan.
"I suppose this all could have been mine," said Rowan, looking about her with much the same expression with which she might have surveyed a headhunters' longhouse in Borneo, or a yak-butter-scented lamasery in Tibet. "You know, when you're on This Is Your Life, I shall say, I still recall the exact moment on which my little sister surpassed me..."
Nicola grinned and looked embarrassed, and took a sandwich from a plate being passed round by Bunty. "It has its moments," she admitted. "You get to hear what the Staff really think of people - a bit, at least - "
"I always think one's better off not knowing. Feet of clay, and all that. Clay all the way up to the elbows, in some cases," said Rowan, smiling sweetly as Miss Keith went past. "Who on earth was the girl playing Nefertiti - "
" - and why all the fuss about her? Local beauty queen?"
"Oh, that's just Helen," Nicola was able to casually say. "She's quite famous."
"All the stage presence of a steamed pudding, though." Rowan smiled and nodded politely to Mr and Mrs Merrick and extricated herself smoothly at the end of the good-evenings.
"My dear, what an effort!" said Mrs Merrick, glowing in emerald-green satin cunningly draped.
Nicola was not at all sure how to respond to that. She asked after Thomasine instead, and came away, she couldn't see how, with the impression that Mr Merrick was a hugely doting papa and Patrick a hardly less doting brother, whereas Mrs Merrick herself was quite happy to leave it all in the hands of the very expensive nanny. "How - how is Patrick?" she asked, and then wondered whether she would have been better off not asking.
"Doing as well as can be expected," said Mr Merrick, beaming paternally. "I did ask him whether he'd seen anything of Ginty, but he said, not at all."
Nicola supposed he was trying to be reassuring, but honestly, how embarrassing, to have such things noticed by Mr Merrick. She excused herself as soon as possible, on the pretence of relieving Louise, who was circulating with a tray of sherries for the parents.
After a while the compliments, and the remarks about the school, and the guesses as to whether Nicola was herself or Lawrie, became terribly wearying. The crowd was beginning to thin out. Mrs Marlow came up to hug her, smelling, perplexingly, of the two-days-early scent of home, and congratulate her again on a job which Nicola hadn't realised had been all that well done.
It was all, Nicola thought, going on far too long - longer, it felt, than the Play itself. Not that Lawrie seemed to be flagging. She, along with Elaine of all people, was still chattering vivaciously away to an elegant person with a Canadian accent and an expression of amused, sympathetic detachment which could not have been bettered by Miss Latimer herself.
"Are you all right, Nick?" asked Louise, appearing responsibly at Nicola's elbow. "You look worn out. I'd go to bed if I were you."
Nicola supposed that she must look like a wrung-out rag if Louise had noticed. "I do hope that's not Lawrie spilling all to a gossip columnist," she said darkly.
"I shouldn't think so for a moment," said Louise sensibly. "I think she's some kind of aunt of Miranda's. An archivist, or something."
That sounded reassuringly respectable. And whilst, at any other time, she would have been delighted to meet an aunt of Miranda's, even the one who had become a nun, Nicola thought that just this time, she wouldn't. She felt stretched like old elastic, and more than anything, she wanted peace and quiet, and for the voices to stop revolving in her head.
And then it was the last day of term. "A real review of a play I was in," gloated Lawrie, tossing away the body of the paper and eagerly opening the Arts pages, "in a real paper!"
"It'll probably only be a mini bit," warned Barby. "It usually is in that paper."
"He said it wouldn't be..." Lawrie spread the paper on the common room table, gave a cursory glance to the large photograph of Helen in costume, and read eagerly.
It was only a paragraph. She read it three times over.
"You'd better keep it in case Helen wants to read it," she said with an attempt at dignity, and stalked out of the room.
"Where's Lawrie?" Daisy Lewis asked Nicola at lunchtime, just as Linda had asked before Mark Reading, and Esther immediately afterwards. Nicola said that she didn't know, and waved Daisy off to her own table; but just the same, she thought as she ate roast beef that might as well have been cardboard soaked in gravy for all she tasted of it, she probably better had look, before Tim asked, and made herself unpleasant about the asking.
Lawrie was in none of her usual haunts; not, apparently, in any of the places that people seeking her for her address had been looking for her, not in the music-room where she occasionally went for some peace and quiet, not the common room, nor the form-room, nor the Theatre, nor her dormitory, nor - as Miranda suggested, quite madly, as Nicola kindly told her - saying goodbye to the netball courts.
"Well, let's go up to the roof, anyway," said Miranda. "Daddy will be here any minute."
It was on the roof that they found Lawrie. Nicola sat down beside her, and put her own coat over her improvident twin's hunched shoulders. "Lal - what on earth is the matter?"
"Shall I find Tim?" suggested Miranda, tactfully.
Lawrie looked up. She looked rained-on, and had evidently been drenched in tears before she had cried herself out to a series of dry and wrenching hiccups. "It wasn't a review of the Play at a-a-all! It was just a little jokey bit - sneering - and wrong, too, saying our uniform was a tartan mini-skirt. Can you see the likes of Olwen or Pomona lumping about in a tartan mini?"
"What, one between them?" said Nicola, rubbing circles between Lawrie's chilled shoulder-blades. "There'll be other reviews, you see. And when you're famous, you can tell people about this one, and they'll laugh, the same way authors are always going on in prologues about their rejection letters."
"Oh, look, there's Daddy," said Miranda, looking out over the front drive and shrugging herself back into her home persona like an invisible coat, the way she had shrugged herself out of it at the beginning of term. "I'd better go - bye, Nick, bye Lawrie, have a great Christmas, write to me sometimes - " And she was gone.
"Have you packed?" Nicola asked Lawrie, though she knew it was a foolish question. Lawrie stared up at her, face woebegone, eyelashes spiky, mouth wobbling open, and generally looking about thirteen and as if she'd just stumbled out into the cold dawn at the end of a horror film besides. "Your case, clot. You'd better hurry or you won't be done in time for the train. It's a good thing they make us do the trunks days in advance."
"I haven't said goodbye to Tim!"
"I don't expect she's gone yet. I'll send her over to your dormitory if I see her." Nicola propelled her twin over towards the fire escape. As they walked back through the school - past Elaine Rees, harrassedly putting out a wire basket for returned library-books, past Olwen in an improbable print frock, past a crocodile of very well-behaved Thirds carrying stacks of chairs, it felt as if school were being shaken up into pieces, like a jigsaw-puzzle, only to be put together again at the beginning of the next term.
There was an hour before they had to be ready for the train. Thinking, sensibly, best to stretch her legs before all that sitting, Nicola walked out towards the coast road, enjoying the wind from the sea, and the small, indecisive puffs of snow. She thought how, really, this term had been nothing like how she had expected. There had been Miss Redmond, and the teams, and the Play, and the Wade House girls, and the trouble over the record-token...
She saw a group of girls, standing under the elm-trees exclaiming at the snow. They looked, she thought, rather like one of the covers for the School Magazine, all brightness against monochrome; two tall fairish figures and two short dark ones. Esther and Helen, Barby and Winnie, with Winnie front and centre to make sure that the school appealed to the overseas prospective-parent market...
Except that it wasn't like that at all. Esther and Helen and Barby and Winnie were a settled group, proper friends, and had been for some time; just as Jodie and Melissa had become a twosome, and Victorine had fallen in with Renée White. It was odd, Nicola thought, how people changed. Sometimes you were the person moving away, and sometimes the person left behind, and sometimes you felt like one but actually turned out to be the other, like a stopped train seeming to move when seen from the window of another train on a parallel track.
She lifted her face to the papery, snow-blowing sky. She could think about all that next term. She would be home soon. There would, she supposed, be Patrick.
And there would be Christmas.
Many thanks to thewhiteowl for betaing!