Chapter 1 - Much Promise, Little Performance by A.J. Hall
In sheer shock Janet jerked bolt upright, letting The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II fall with a thump to the grimy floor of the SCNF carriage.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis the entire Kingscote Staff had spent each break glued to the wireless, convinced the next hour might be the world’s last. Even Miss Keith had succumbed. Only Penelope Latimer had calmly switched channel to the Third Programme, observing that, if the end of the world were imminent, Fernanda Knowles playing Brahms would be a fragment to shore against one’s ruin. Also, it would be discourteous to an Old Girl not to celebrate her success, whatever distractions the world might try to throw in her path.
“Botherisation” on the lips of Penelope Latimer was more earth-shaking than a torrent of profanities from a less serene mortal.
Janet bit her lip. “Something wrong? Bad news?”
“Dreadful. Here, read it.” A pile of letters were sitting on the formica table; Penelope flicked the top one across to her. Conscientiously, Janet reserved judgment. She had been brought up to finish her bread and butter before starting on cake, and, in the same spirit, had tackled her own correspondence before leaving Kingscote. Not so Penelope. Only once the monotony of the Normandy countryside had become unbearable had she turned to her unread letters.
The handwriting was familiar, recalling uninspired but thorough screeds on the Agrarian Revolution or the French Wars of Religion. Janet flipped to read the signature. Karen Dodd. Handwriting and Christian name abruptly combined, flint and steel sparking recognition.
“Karen Marlow? Married?”
“In Hilary Term of her first year at Somerville. The most promising candidate for Greats I ever tutored. All that promise, absolutely thrown away. Why do the little beasts do it?”
The fields rushing past outside the window were acid-yellow with the flowers of oilseed rape. Not exactly sukebind, but still —
Janet had been teaching girls too long; the most obvious reason why the little beasts did it sprang inexorably to mind. Indeed, one of the letters waiting at Kingscote had informed her one of the conscientious plodders of Form VB would not be returning to Kingscote for the summer term, news that only confirmed certain suspicions Matron had confided, shortly before taking to her bed with a temperature of 103°F.
She exhaled. “I wish Miss Keith could be persuaded to relax her view that it’s the girls’ parents’ prerogative to inform them about life beyond school. Birth control, to name one obvious example.”
Penelope nodded; her thoughts obviously tended in the same direction.
“Keith’s touching faith in parental wisdom in the teeth of all available evidence. Exemplum, I gather Mrs Marlow ran away with a junior lieutenant at the age of eighteen and then proceeded to produce eight offspring over the next dozen years. Says it all, really.”
The Channel lay between them and Kingscote, and Penelope’s indifference to Authority was legendary. Surely Janet’s rule against gossip about the parents could be treated as relaxed for the duration. Besides, Rowan Marlow’s essays on the Agrarian Revolution and the French Wars of Religion had been at least as thorough as her sister’s, and enlivened by flashes of wit, water in the desert to any teacher. Someone who could amass a logical, compelling and amusing argument from a mass of contradictory and confusing facts (and an argument in favour of such a mauvais sujet as Francois I, to boot) might well have given serious thought to studying for the Bar. Instead —
Janet put her elbows on the table (a vulgarism which prompted Penelope to raise her eyebrows) and leant forwards.
“I don’t like playing armchair psychiatrist, but if you ask me there’s something wrong with that family. First Rowan and now Karen. I read a very clever article once on the pressures on children, especially girls, to step up and take the place of physically or emotionally absent parents. It does neither party any good in the long run.”
Penelope waved a lazy hand at the steward, now passing down the carriage. “Deux bières, s’il vous plait. Merci beaucoup.”
Janet suppressed a squawk of protest. After all, what were holidays for?
“Thank you.” She raised her glass. “Slàinte.
Penelope arranged herself more comfortably in the corner seat, and waved, inviting Janet to continue. She barely needed the invitation.
“A year ago Rowan Marlow didn’t know one end of a cow from the other. And, what’s more, cared less. A complete Londoner. The very last person to toss away Sixth form and university to run the family farm — or rather, to keep it warm for her father or elder brother. Her parents should have put their foot down. Still, girls do get these notions of service and self-sacrifice from time to time —”
“Usually about retreating into a nunnery rather than a cow-shed, in my experience.” Penelope’s eyes were wide and amused above the rim of her beer glass. “But the Marlows are nothing if not original, as Keith pointed out that time Nicola arrived back at school with a hawk in tow.”
The memory of her Second-years, entranced and respectful under the hawk’s unblinking gaze, was sudden and vivid. Janet took a deep swallow of beer, relishing its bite.
“I liked that bird. Livened things up a bit. Died in the Christmas holidays, I gather. Pity. Young Nicola was, I suspect, a lot more cut up about losing it than she let on.”
Penelope flicked lighter-flame to cigarette-tip, and tilted her head to avoid the smoke.
“All that pent up emotion and an unbreakable taboo about expressing it. No wonder Marlows erupt like Vesuvius when the pressure gets all too much.”
Janet snorted. “Repressed emotion is the last thing that young flibbertigibbet Virginia suffers from. And last year she took half a term off with no good explanation. Some sort of kerfuffle about an accident in the holidays.”
“Pushed her sister Lawrence under a bus, and couldn’t cope with the guilt?” Penelope observed, irreverently. “Wasn’t that idiotic child off with a broken leg at about the same time?”
Now she came to think about it, Janet recalled she had been. “Anything could have happened, given it was Lawrence. Scatty and ill-disciplined. But it’s a pattern, nonetheless.”
Penelope flicked ash into the flip-down ashtray.
“The Malaise of the Marlows. Make a good title for a Father Brown story.”
Not greatly caring for Chesterton, Janet let that slide. Anyway, another thought had struck her.
“Does Karen say whether she’s informed Miss Keith? Because if not, you should write to her from Paris. She’ll need to speak to the Prosser Trustees, and let them know we have to select one of the Thirds or Fourths to inherit Karen’s scholarship.”
The expression on Penelope’s face spoke volumes, although, Janet mentally noted, if any of said volumes reached the school library they would assuredly be on the ‘Restricted’ list.
“Lor’, I hadn’t even thought of that. Look, when we’re going through English Customs on the return leg, do me a favour and pretend I’m a Pyrenean Mountain Dog you’re smuggling home? I’ll buy a wig and a shaggy Afghan coat in the Boul’ Mich’. Six months in a quarantine kennel would be infinitely preferable to ten weeks in the Staff Room if there’s a Prosser up for grabs. Good grief! Can you remember the last time?”
Janet kept her tone severely level.
“Janice Scott is a credit to the school; no-one doubts she was a worthy inheritor of Fernanda’s scholarship. I trust she will go on to great things.”
Phidias might have sculpted Penelope’s cool, blank face.
“Her father’s a doctor. At least he must have heard of the Pill. I suppose she’s got a better chance than many. But you said ‘no-one doubts’. Perhaps not now. But they certainly did back then. And said so. At length. Don’t pretend you’ve forgotten.”
Janet had not.
“It took a lot of argument, granted. But for all Miss Cromwell’s special pleading, one can’t have two sisters holding two out of three valuable scholarships at the same time. Much as it pains me to admit it, I have to say, I had to accept Miss Keith’s argument there. And as between Val Longstreet, Janice Scott and Lois Sanger —”
“One had no doubts, at least, of Evelyn Redmond’s preference. Then or later.”
Too honest to pretend not to have understood, Janet temporised.
“Perhaps not. But Miss Keith made the right decision in the end.”
Penelope’s gaze never flickered. “The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Janet had no more time for Eliot than she had for Chesterton. But now, thank God, the steward was approaching again. She raised her hand.
“Deux autres, s’il vous plais. A quel heure est-ce-que le train arrivé à Paris?”