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Matron Buys a Book

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Gwendoline Turner stood at the top of the long room, looking around her with eyes, so the staff under her could have told you, that missed nothing. Not a speck of dust showed; not the smallest item was out of place. The staff held their breath, one thought shuttling between them as though by telepathy: please let her not find fault!

After what seemed like an eternity, she smiled slightly and said, “Very good. Well done. Everything is as it should be. Carry on.”

And with that, she was gone. The young women breathed sighs of relief, then almost immediately began bustling about as the Ward Sister regained her normal sense of authority and began issuing orders. Even she had been nervous. After all, Matron Turner even had the consultants and surgeons quaking in their boots at times – Tartar Turner, that was her nickname throughout the hospital!

Matron Turner knew very well what her subordinates called her, and didn’t mind a bit. She was a stickler, certainly, but one had to be, in a hospital. Better to be known for cracking the whip over cleanliness than unemployed and unemployable because you had been responsible for the death of someone under your care. As she walked to the next ward on her rounds, she reflected on this, and once again gave thanks for the early slip in her career that had brought her to her senses before any real damage had been done. She had not been ready for the responsibility thrust upon her then, and when that had become clear she had moved on, and eventually she had even learned to profit from the experience.

Mentally she shook herself, reminding herself that it didn’t do to dwell too much on the past. What was done was done, and had brought her to where she was today, which wasn’t a bad place to be, when all was said and done.

Having completed her rounds of the wards, Gwen returned to her office, in such a brown study that she failed to acknowledge the salute of one of the senior consultants. He, poor man, spent the rest of the day alternately wondering what he had done to offend Matron Turner, and quaking in his boots at the dressing-down he would eventually receive at her hands!

Gwen sat her desk, staring at the only photo which graced it. If any of her staff had seen her at this moment, it’s likely they would have had difficulty in recognising her, even in uniform. Her gaze had softened, and an affectionate smile went out to the subject of the photograph: her daughter, Madeleine. Her only child, and at this stage she was unlikely to have another. Still, she was blessed with her little girl, and every day she gave thanks to God for so precious a gift as her bright, loving, darling daughter.

She gave herself a mental shake, telling herself that it was all very well to sit and stare at Madeleine’s photograph, but what was she going to do?

Strictly speaking it was a straightforward problem, if there was such a thing. Madeleine was ten years old, doing very well at her junior school and preparing for the Eleven-plus. But her mother was ambitious for her – no more than the girl was for herself, it must be said – and Gwen worried that even the best girls’ grammar school that Madeleine could go to might not stretch her enough academically. Even worse, what if it did prove challenging enough in that respect, but turned Maddy into a miniature bluestocking, concentrating so much on her lessons that she failed to make any friends or learn any social skills? Then again, it had been easy enough for Gwen herself to hold down the demanding job of hospital matron while rearing a school-going child, since Maddy had always gone to the home of her friend Charlotte Mercer after school. But now the Mercers were moving away and Gwen had no intimate friends living near enough to look after Maddy while her mother finished her shift. Perhaps boarding school was the answer? What a pity it was that the only school she could think of that would suit her daughter was the very one she must avoid! That early mistake, when she had thought herself up to a job that was really beyond her abilities! If only she had been able to foresee that its consequences would not be visited upon her, but on the most important person in her life. . .

This was as far as her previous ruminations had brought her. Money was not really an issue, thankfully. While Gwen could not have afforded not to work, her salary was decent and she was by nature thrifty. She had been left a legacy some years previously by her godmother, and Madeleine’s late father had also left some money in trust for his daughter. All things being equal, there would be enough to send the child to university eventually, if she chose to go. But in the meantime, Gwen had a decision to make, and time was running out.

Well, thinking wasn’t going to get anything done! She remembered that she had a half-holiday today, so she removed her headgear, changed into her outdoor shoes, put on coat and hat, and departed. She had an errand to run.


Some Months Previously

“Joey darling, I have a proposal to make to you!”

Thus Jack Maynard, Head of the Gornetz Sanatorium, reading his post at the lunch-table in Freudesheim.

“Why Jack, it was perfectly acceptable the first time, why do you feel the need to propose again?” his wife laughed at him.

Jack grinned at her. “Well, I thought making a proposition might not be quite the thing, you know.”

Joey laughed again. “Oh, I’m sure it’s perfectly above board between husband and wife, you know! It’s only when it’s a case of that young intern of yours and that poor ward orderly he took a shine to. . .!”

“Yes, well, he soon found out what a career-stopping mistake that was,” said her husband with a grim smile. “Seriously though, and retournons à nos moutons, or whatever the saying is, what do you say to coming over to England with me for a couple of months? I’ve been asked to speak at that conference in London, as you know, and Jem has taken advantage of my being there to ask if I’d look in on the Welsh branch. He’s a bit concerned by some reports he’s had from there recently and he wants me to check things out.”

Joey looked thoughtful, though not, Jack saw, as though she were about to nix his suggestion.

“It’s funny you should say that just now, Jack,” she said. “I’ve had a letter from my publishers, asking if I’d be interested in doing a brief tour of the UK, visiting bookshops, signing copies of my books, and so on. They think a publicity campaign would be a good way of maintaining my profile, and it might be a good time to announce the re-issue of some of my earlier books – they’re thinking about publishing the first three in paperback next year. What a lark! Isn’t it lucky they’ve both come at once!” she finished, somewhat obscurely.

Jack agreed, and from then the preparations for their trip began in earnest. The youngest of their long family, twins Geoff and Philippa, were still in the nursery, but old enough to attend the Kindergarten attached to the Chalet School, of which Mrs Maynard was both a former pupil and current trustee. The twins could easily be left to the care of Anna and Rösli, the housekeeper and nursemaid at Freudesheim. Their older sisters, Felicity and Cecil, were themselves pupils at the Chalet School next door, and as they were boarders there was no need to worry about their wellbeing in their parents’ protracted absence. Besides, the little British community on the Gornetz Platz was almost a family, and the neighbours and friends of the Maynards could be relied upon to step in should any problems arise. Anna and Rösli were happy to have the house to themselves for a period, and made arrangements with the Graveses and Courvoisiers about leave and holidays. So it was with light hearts that Joey and Jack, packing finally complete and flights and hotels booked, set out for London.

For the first few days they stayed in a hotel, while Jack attended his conference and Joey had meetings with her publisher. Once the conference was over, they travelled down to Winchester to visit their sons at school there, and after Jack had left to travel on to the Sanatorium in the Welsh hills that was a partner institution to the Gornetz San, Joey moved into a room at the Women’s Club she had joined just after the War. Although it seemed to the girls at the Chalet School that Mrs Maynard was always on hand to counsel them through the myriad difficulties of being a schoolgirl, in reality she frequently made trips home, either to visit her older children, her brother’s family, or her publishers. She had therefore decided that club membership was better than paying over the odds for rooms in hotels where one could never be sure of receiving adequate service. From here she was able to begin her publicity tour, being interviewed for the BBC – both radio and television – and visiting a number of bookshops in the city and suburbs, where she was thrilled to see her many fans. So many of them! Of late Joey had started to wonder if her books were still as popular as they had been, and it was reassuring to see such a mixture of children and adults clamouring for her autography on their copies of her books. Some of them, to judge by the tattered covers and broken spines, were much-treasured indeed!

Today was the last day of signings in London. Tomorrow she would be travelling westwards, to Slough, Reading and points beyond. But today her London stint was finishing with a flourish, for a baize-covered table groaned beneath the weight of gaily-jacketed Josephine M. Bettany titles near the front entrance of Hatchards in Piccadilly.

Joey enjoyed signing books and chatting to their owners. Mostly they were girls and boys, accompanied by parents. The occasional adult purchaser appeared, usually buying books for their children. One enterprising woman even asked her to write “Merry Christmas” in each of the four books she held out – it was April!

Gwen stood patiently in the queue, whiling away the time in picturing Madeleine’s delight when she opened the book and found it signed by her favourite author. Betimes she thought about the problem of school, and wondered if, despite all that had happened, she should consider the Chalet School for her darling. Surely they wouldn’t remember something that had happened so long ago? Why, the school itself had moved several times since then, and surely the same staff couldn’t still be associated with it? But at the back of her mind she recalled reading an article about the school in an issue of Country Life some years previously, where it had been described as

the perfect school for the daughters of the professional classes, combining as it does a wonderful setting in the Swiss Alps with a cosy family atmosphere and a dedication to the whole wellbeing of its girls, both physically and spiritually as well as academically. The School’s Head Mistress is a long-time member of staff, as are her senior colleagues, some of whom have moved with the School on its journey from Austria (where it was founded), back to Britain and to its current home. The girls of the School are themselves very proud of the fact that its First Pupil, renowned children’s author Josephine M. Bettany, is a next-door neighbour!

Gwen’s heart had sunk when she read that. It wasn’t all that long ago, when you thought about it, and she had made such a mess of things! She didn’t care much where she herself was concerned, but she couldn’t bear to think of her foolish actions causing trouble for Madeleine, and the Chalet School would have been so perfect for her!

She moved to the front of the queue, nervously wondering if Josephine Bettany would recognise her. It was more than twenty years since they had last met: the younger woman was herself unrecognisable compared to the gangling, delicate child she had been. But Gwen could not be sure, so she clutched the book she had bought to her chest and hoped for the best.

For her part, Joey was thrilling some of her young (and not so young) fans by noting down any name she found unusual, saying “I must use that in one of my books!” At length, Gwen stood in front of her, hands shaking slightly as she held out the book, saying, “It’s for my daughter, Madeleine.”

“What a lovely name!” exclaimed Joey. “Do you mind if I make a note of it? I collect names for my books, you see.”

No, Gwen did not mind. She stared at Jo, half-willing her to recognise the woman before her, half-hoping she would not. If Jo recognised her, then at least that would put paid to the idea of sending Madeleine to the Chalet School. But Joey simply signed the flyleaf and handed the book back to her, smiling pleasantly and saying she hoped Madeleine would enjoy it. No sign of recognition and a moment later, Gwen was gone, lost in the crowd.

But not so lost that she went completely unnoticed. As she made for the door of the shop, she bumped into a woman coming in at that moment, and stopped to apologise. She never got to finish her apology, for:

“Gwen Besly, as I live and breathe! How are you? Buying the latest J.M. Bettany, I see? What a crowd she’s got around her!”

Back at the table, Joey’s ears pricked up at the mention of a faintly familiar name. Where had she heard it before? Oh yes, Matron Besly, one of the few staffing disasters the Chalet School had experienced! That was a long time ago now, back in the school’s infancy in the Tyrol. She glanced in the direction the sound had come from, and noticed the woman who had purchased a book for her daughter Madeleine talking to someone who had just come into the store. The newcomer was a younger woman; too young, Joey immediately saw, to have been a school matron in the 1930s. So it must be the other, which was surprising, to Joey at any rate. Oh well, she thought, wisdom does come with age, after all, and I suppose even the likes of Matron Besly can improve with time!

At this, Madeleine’s mother turned and looked back at her, and there was something like sadness in her face as she realised that Joey had recognised the name and probably put two and two together. But Gwen was not alone in having learned hard lessons along the road of life, and as she saw Joey lift a hand in greeting and smile at her, she smiled back and nodded in reply. Nothing was said between them, but as Gwen Turner (née Besly) left the bookshop she felt a weight lifting from her. She knew now where Madeleine would be going to school next year, and she need have no fear of the sins of the mother being visited upon the daughter!