The staff room at Plas Howell was busy, which was not at all surprising for Friday morning break. Hilary Burn was in a corner with Pam Slater and Grizel Cochrane, talking about the under fourteen hockey for the coming year; at a side table, Gillian Linton was chattering in French with Julie Berne and Dollie Edwards was exchanging knitting patterns with Mdle de Lachennais. In the far corner, Mr Manders the cello teacher and Mr Denny had sought refuge from this world of females and were discussing the coming Proms season with some excitement. Peace had been declared barely a month ago and the whole school was still thrilling with it, though the girls, at least, were currently revising hard for their end of term exams and had had to defer their celebrations for a little while longer. The staff, happily, had no such inhibitions.
“I think I’ll go into Armiford this afternoon,” said Nell Wilson, who was reclining on the sofa nearest to the empty fireplace. “Anyone fancy running over with me? Room for three, probably - four if you’re all skinny.”
“That counts me out, then” said Sally Denny, who was sitting opposite her, leafing idly through a magazine. “But Nell, have you got the petrol for a trip to Armiford and back? I seem to remember Colonel Black…”
“Oh, pish to Colonel Black,” said Nell. “Rationing will be over soon and we can all stop worrying. For now, I intend to enjoy myself.”
“I’ll come, if I may,” said Hilary. “I want to look for a pair of summer shoes, now that there’s something to celebrate.”
“And I’d like to pick up some wool, if there’s any to be had,” said Dollie Edwards. “You’re turning my head with your patterns, Jeanne!”
“If there’s no-one else desperately wanting to make up the party, I’ll come along for the ride,” said Pam Slater. “I haven’t been to Armiford in an age…and isn’t that the library telephone, Nell?”
“And Hilda isn’t here. She’s gone across to Plas Gwyn to see Joey.”
“In that case,” said Nell, standing up with a nonchalant stretch of the arms, “I suppose I had better go and answer it.”
“You had, rather,” said Pam, but only once Nell was safely out of the room. The others laughed and turned back to their various pursuits.
“I can’t believe we’re at peace,” said Gillian Linton.
“You’ve said that every day for the last month,” said Hilary, “but it’s still true! As for me, I can well believe it. It’s almost like it never…”
“You can’t say that,” said Grizel, quickly. “We wouldn’t be here, for one thing, if it hadn’t. And think of all that we’ve lost, or nearly lost. We’re jolly lucky that Jack came back alive.”
They all saw the set of her jaw, and Gillian swiftly and tactfully changed the subject.
“Well, if it keeps like this, we should have nice weather for the end of term garden party. I’m really starting to look forward to it.”
“Let’s get through exams, first,” said Pam Slater. “Hullo, Nell. Something the matter? You’re as white as a sheet.”
“I’m afraid something is the matter,” said Nell, who was standing in the doorway, ashen-faced. “Ladies, I have something very upsetting to tell you. That was Hilda, calling from Plas Gwyn. She’s just told me that - that Dr Jem is seriously injured in a motoring accident, and isn’t expected to live.”
In the hubbub of horror and excitement, no-one noticed Mr Denny, who had risen from his seat as Nell came in, turn a deathly shade of white, then sink down into his chair, his cheeks flushing with a sudden rush of pink. If he went missing from the room shortly afterwards and never reappeared that afternoon, nobody noticed; it was only old Plato, after all, and everyone was rather more preoccupied with the fact that Sir James Russell, eminent physician and husband to their beloved founder, Madge Russell, was dying, possibly even dead by now. They probably never even stopped to wonder where the eccentric singing master had gone.