As she ate her sandwiches and sipped at her coffee, Darrell looked out at the still water of St Ives Harbour. There was a time she'd been familiar with the Cornish coast in all its glory, from those perfect summer days where the sun glinted off the waves, to the grey, windy, stormy days when the threatening sea lashed against the rocks on the shore. She'd taken it for granted all through her teenage years, the way she'd accepted so many other things, and then she'd pushed it all away inside her and moved on.
She didn't often get down to Cornwall these days; or for that matter anywhere near the seaside at all. Life as a reporter at a busy London daily left little time for such luxuries.
She had been sent to St Ives by her editor, to do background research and provide local colour for a story to be written by one of the senior reporters. “Cornwall is your old stomping ground, isn't it?” he'd said. “Weren't you at school there?”
And Darrell had answered yes, she was, uncertain as to whether he was making fun of her. She had half started to suspect that she was becoming one of those people who talked endlessly about one's old school, to the annoyance of those around her. Oh, dear! She had tried so hard not to be.
She had come down on the early train, and spent a productive morning conducting interviews. That afternoon she'd have a few more, before spending the night in a local bed and breakfast and taking the train back to London in the morning. It would be a long day, and truth be told she wasn't particularly excited about it. However, in St Ives she was; and if she wanted to get on at the paper she must do well.
In that determined mood she packed away her empty thermos, stood up, and turned away from the sea. There, facing her on the other side of the road, was a woman of her own age with a once known, half familiar face. “Darrell?” said the woman. “It is you, isn't it?”
Gwendoline Mary Lacey. Six years of memories came racing back to Darrell; memories of fond farewells, of a girl splashing unhappily in the pool and weeping in bed on the first night of term, of silly boasts and an affected laugh. She had never much liked Gwen while they were at school – no one had – yet here she was, in St Ives of all places, and at the same time as Darrell. “Gwen,” she said. There was no getting out of it; she crossed the road, and they shook hands as though they were old friends.
“I'm sorry,” Gwen said, without even a 'how do you do.' “I suppose you'd rather not have known I was here.”
“Of course not,” said Darrell, with half a mind to the time and her interviews. “But what are you even doing here?” she asked, stupidly. What was she even doing in St Ives? It wasn't as though she belonged there any more than Gwen did.
“I'm on holiday. And you?”
Darrell remembered that Gwen had had a job working in the office of her father's friend after she left school, and then, to Darrell's great surprise, she had taken a position at a nursery school. Darrell had heard it in a long, detailed letter from Mary-Lou, the only one their number who had stayed in touch with Gwen. Darrell herself had meant to, after receiving that sad, sorrowful letter – perhaps the first genuine letter Gwen had ever written – but it had seemed mean to tell Gwen all her exciting doings at St Andrew's, when Gwen's life had become so dull and sad, and so the letters had trailed to an end. “I suppose you could say I'm here on business. I'm just here overnight.”
“Where are you staying? What kind of business?” Gwen asked, almost eager, excited; Gwen had never been one to take an interest in other people's doings, unless she thought it might benefit her. Darrell was inclined to distrust this line of conversation, and yet Gwen sounded really sincere.
Darrell explained, naming the bed and breakfast on a narrow street that fit her employer's budget, if not her own taste.
“Why,” said Gwen, “I'm staying just down the road.”
All Darrell's half formed hopes of a quiet evening spent alone by the sea with her memories fled. Remembering that she had once been Head Girl of Malory Towers, with all the responsibility that came with it, and that she had done plenty of things to be ashamed of in her time, Darrell did what she must, and suggested they meet for dinner.
The pub they found, after Darrell's day of tiresome and pointless interviews, at least had a view of the sea. It wasn't the kind of place any good Malory Towers girl would expect to find herself, but times changed, and so did finances. The fish was fresh, the chips hot and plentiful, and the lemonade cold, if weak; Darrell had had many worse meals in her time.
They ate in silence at first. Catching Gwen's face from the corner of her eye Darrell found herself wondering, from time to time, what it had been like to be Gwen at Malory Towers. Knowing that no one liked you, that they were glad when you weren't there and wished you would go away when you were – Darrell remembered how she had felt when the first form had believed she was responsible for the damage to Mary Lou's things! But of course, she hadn't been responsible; it had been Gwen herself. Gwen had brought it all on herself, and had had to live with the consequences.
But there was an uncomfortable feeling, too, somewhere deep in Darrell's stomach. Could they have been kinder to Gwen? Could they have helped her and showed her and taught her, through the kindness which Miss Grayling had preached, and not the cruelty which had come easiest?
But we were so young, Darrell reminded herself. It wasn't fair to expect twelve year olds to lead and guide each other, and by the time they were older, Gwen's personality and her reputation had been sealed. When the harsh, horrible lesson had come, it was too late for Gwen. Too late – and that was the worst of it.
She felt guilty, all the same.
When they spoke, once their plates had been cleared away, it was about their school mates – about Mary-Lou's success at the hospital, about Irene's fame in the music world, about how, after a few rough years, Bill and Clarissa's riding school was now well established in Cornwall. “We have done well,” Gwen said, “Haven't we?”
Darrell supposed they had. Her dream of becoming a famous playwright – or a playwright at all – hadn't come true, and perhaps never would. The one play she had had a hand in at St Andrew's had received only lukewarm reviews, and with classes and lessons and later, her job at the paper, there had never been enough time to try again. She had been afraid, after all, of another failure, of letting down all those who had believed she could write plays. Better to hold onto her one perfect pantomime, than to sour it with delusions and false hopes – but was it better not to have tried again? What might have happened with the next play, or the one after that? Well, she would never have to find out.
Too late for her, as it had been for Gwen.
Darrell felt ill.
Gwen was still talking – about Mavis now. She had been to see Mavis perform in London, and had taken her mother. “She doesn't often get out of the house these days,” Gwen said, quietly. “So it was a treat for her, you see. Mavis really was splendid. Do you remember how she used to talk about her Voice? Well, she was right.”
“Yes – I remember.”
“I'm so glad she got it back.”
There wasn't even a hint of insincerity in Gwen's voice, and Darrell marvelled at that. When had Gwen learnt to be really, truly happy for someone besides herself? “I think she would have been miserable if she hadn't. She would have made the best of it, of course – but it would be so hard to think of what might have been.” Oh, everything she said came too close to that hidden ache inside her! She wished she had never seen Gwen, or that she had been quick enough to avoid asking her to dinner.
“Yes, well, I suppose we all have those, don't we?” For the first time, a note of something less than cheerful entered Gwen's voice.
“I do,” Darrell said, surprising herself. She hadn't meant to admit to anything – not to herself, and certainly not to Gwendoline Mary Lacey, of all people!
“Yes – me too. I'm sure you can guess.”
Darrell could think of no polite response to that, so she said nothing and merely shrugged, looking around her at the bustling, noisy pub. It was probably better to say nothing at all.
“If I could go back and fix things – Darrell, I would have been so much nicer. I would have thought less of myself, I would have been one of you, I would have thought more of what father said and less of what mother and Miss Winter said.” Gwen bowed her head, casting her gaze at the floor.
Darrell rather thought she was struggling to collect herself, and suppressed a sigh. If only she hadn't come! If only she hadn't run into Gwen! Because all this was rather – rather uncomfortable. Darrell's worst memories of Malory Towers usually lived deep in her brain – memories of slapping Gwen and pushing Sally, memories of Mary Lou and Mavis being lost in storms, memories of the night Thunder almost died, of the day they found out Daphne was a thief – and, yes, memories of things she had said to Gwen, of the day they had laughed at the creations Maureen had been so proud of, of all the times she had let Alicia's cutting words pass without comment. Really - had she been what Miss Grayling had believed her to be? No – she hadn't – not always. She had learned as much about herself since she left Malory Towers as she had in all the years she'd spent there, and she didn't like it as much as she'd expected.
She blinked away her own tears and then, as she turned her gaze to the window and the darkness outside, her eyes met Gwen's, and recognised regret. “Well, there's nothing we can do about it,” she said. “Not now.”
“Not about the past, anyway.”
This seemed as good a chance as anyway to talk about the future, and Darrell seized it with both hands. “What are you doing these days, Gwen?”
“I'm about to start a new job, actually.”
“Really? You were at a nursery school, weren't you?”
“Yes, I was. And I did love it, but then I heard of this position. Darrell, don't laugh, but I'm going to be a matron at a girls' school.”
Darrell was too stunned to laugh. Gwen! Gwen a matron! She tried to picture Gwen, with her fluffy blonde hair – now hanging loose around her shoulders, the way she had always preferred it – as a matron, doling out medicine and dealing with miscreants and malingerers, of the kind Gwen herself had been. Well – perhaps – that was an experience that would set her in good stead!
“It isn't Malory Towers, of course,” Gwen said. “It's a big school named St Clare's. I won't be the only matron – I wouldn't want to be, not at first.”
“I wouldn't, either,” Darrell said, inwardly amazed. Gwen was full of surprises! “Why – Gwen – do you think you'll enjoy it?”
Gwen gave a determined nod. “I think I will. And I think I can help girls, too. You mightn't think so – but I feel I can understand girls who are unhappy or lonely – and the spoiled ones, too. They need help too, Darrell.”
Darrell looked at Gwen – really looked at Gwen for the first time that day. Selfish, senseless Gwen – who would have thought? Was it the shock of what had happened to her father that had changed her – or something more? Who would she have been at Malory Towers, if her mother and governess had had more sense, and her classmates more patience? Yes – perhaps Gwen was right – girls like her needed someone to understand them – not to bully them, or to ignore them, but someone who could help them to see the world in a different way – and someone who could help the girls around her, too.
Perhaps Gwen could be that person. Perhaps she could be the kind, strong woman of whom Miss Grayling had often spoken – a Malory Towers success, when Malory Towers might have hindered her more than it had helped.
Darrell thought of the small flat she shared with a colleague from the paper, of the weekends visiting Sally's family, or Felicity's, of the job she did faithfully, writing articles for which someone else would likely take the credit. For the most part; she was happy. She was ambitious; her editor was pleased with her work; he expected she would move up the ranks at the paper. But sometimes she did long for the simple, straightforward days at Malory Towers, when they had had the whole world before them. Irene had seized that world – so had Mavis, Belinda, Bill, Clarissa, Mary Lou; even Alicia, who had become a barrister and was making a name for herself. And Darrell had tried – hard at first - but some things had been just out of her reach, and she'd given up. Why, there was a small amateur theatrical company near her office that she had walked past dozens of times – and yet she had never even brought herself to go in, while Gwen could find a position so different from anything she'd done before! “Then I think the girls at St Clare's will be lucky,” she said.
“Maybe I'm the lucky one. I am sorry, Darrell, for all the awful things I did. I was horrid. And I deserved all that happened to me. Father didn't – but I did. I'm just sad for everything I put him through.”
“But you were able to make things right with him,” Darrell said. “He must have been proud of you.” Gwen's father had lived two years after that awful shock had come to Gwen, and from what Darrell had heard from Mary Lou, Gwen had devoted herself to his comfort, care and companionship.
“Yes – but it would have better if he could have been proud of me for his whole life.”
“Well, I'm sorry too,” Darrell said, seeing in the Gwen who sat opposite her not the spoiled schoolgirl, but the person she had become. “We didn't give you a chance.” She sighed, pushing away those memories – why, they had made up their minds about Gwen before the school train had even left the platform! All these years, and she hadn't even realised. “I do hope you'll keep in touch,” she said. It was true.
“Oh, I will. I'll let you know how I get on – what school is like from the other side! I do miss you all, Darrell – that might sound strange, but I do.”
“I do, too. I miss all of it.” Darrell missed the friendly chatter over breakfast or in the common room in the evenings, missed Sally's sleepy, smiling face in the mornings, missed the clamour of morning break and the exhilaration of racing down a lacrosse field in pursuit of the winning goal. “It was the best time of my life.”
“Would you do this again sometime, Darrell? Just talking?”
“Yes, I'd like that, I think. Perhaps we could invite some of the others, too. Maybe Bill and Clarissa would take us all riding.”
“Goodness,” Gwen said, “I haven't been on a horse since I was tiny. I thought they were such smelly, ugly creatures. We ought to do it, though. At least I could amuse you all.”
“All right. In the summer. I'll write to the others.”
“Tell them – tell them I've changed.”
“They'll see for themselves,” Darrell said, though doubtless she would have to say it anyway – to some people, like Alicia! And she would tell Sally, of course, though Sally would believe it easier than Darrell had seeing it. Sally always saw people better than Darrell did.
“I hope so.” Gwen checked her watch. “Well – it's getting late, I suppose. And you have an early train in the morning?”
“Yes. I have to get back to the office and write up all these interviews so they make sense to someone who isn't me. It's a shame. I wish I could have spent more time here. I wasn't really sure I wanted to come at first. I'm glad I did, but then I didn't really have a choice.”
“Well, we'll come again. In summer.”
“Yes,” Darrell said, smiling at Gwen's newly familiar face. “I'll look forward to it.”