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Politics of Living

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‘Lights out, girls. And I don’t want them on again until the dormitory doors open for your morning doses. Do you hear? It’s 1949 now. New year, new term, new you.’

Patience Elizabeth Mount did indeed hear Sister Ursula as she made her by now predictable pronouncement, but paid little heed. It might well be both a new (calendar) year and a new term, but if the officious nun and nurse made no effort to come up with a new phrase for the really rather old rule, she saw no reason to abide by it. Consequently, having lain awake for long enough to be sure the other, mostly younger, girls were sound asleep, she chose to keep to her old routine. Namely slipping out of bed to read in the relative quiet of the lavatory. When she found her way there, however, it seemed she would not have the usual luxury of late night loneliness she had so come to crave after three and a bit years of what often felt, perversely, like even closer living than the camps. Papa had promised more privacy, but she had yet to be given visible evidence of this supposed bonus of St Gideon’s Infirmary and Academy for Invalid Girls, and now apparently the smallest sliver she had secured was about to be snatched from her hands. By a snivelling scrap of a brunette, to boot, the redhead thought with none of her namesake virtue as she clicked the central door of the convenience closed.

As she heard her own voice speak softly the words and tone were kinder than she would have thought herself capable of composing. ‘All right, old thing? Or, I should say, new thing – since I don’t believe I’ve seen you before.’ She cringed inwardly at this second sentence, with its pathetic attempt at a pun, and blamed the blunder on being bemused by the bleary blue eyes suddenly staring directly into hers.

The smaller girl (in both stature and apparent age) was at last looking up from the book balanced on her knee as she perched precariously on the edge of one of the basins. ‘Iawn, diolch,’ she replied, with a timid flash of dimples, before realising her mistake and modifying as she wiped away some tears with a handkerchief hiding beneath the book. ‘I mean, fine, thanks. And you won’t have seen me yet. I just started. ’M from West Wales.’

The taller girl found herself utterly disarmed by the delightful combination of dimples and a lovely Welsh lilt. ‘That explains it then,’ she said with a genuine grin. ‘You’re brave, though, being up after lights out on your first day.’

Those bright blue eyes grew ever so slightly bewildered. ‘I know,’ the brunette admitted anxiously. ‘But I’m having private lessons with Sister Julienne first instead of joining classes right away.’

The ginger grinned even wider at this information. ‘I did that, too, when I arrived. Sister J is a gem.’

‘She is. She gave me notebooks to make into a diary to fill in each day, but it’s been so busy I didn’t have a chance before bed.’ The petite girl paused at this point, gesturing at the one in her lap but pondering whether to offer more detail, and then decided. ‘No, that’s not true,’ she went on, ‘I forgot. Like I forget everything else. Which is silly because the diary’s meant to help with that. Sorry.’ She paused a second time, smiling sheepishly, ‘It’s why I’ve been sent here. I had an accident on my bicycle in October and now my memory’s muddled.’ She stopped completely now, a look of horror growing on her face prior to starting again. ‘So muddled I’ve told you where I’m from without giving you my name!’ Snapping her diary shut, she stuck a small hand out, which was willingly grasped by a larger one as Patience began to comprehend the strange mixture of maturity and childlikeness her new companion seemed to display. ‘I’m Delia Busby, I’m from Tenby in Pembrokeshire, and I’m eleven years old, twelve at the beginning of April. I’m in the First Form of the Upper School.’   

The older girl was pleased by her correct assessment of their relative ages. ‘Well, Delia Busby from Tenby in Pembrokeshire, I’m Patience Elizabeth Mount, Patsy to my very few friends. I’m from Singapore, and I’m fifteen, sixteen at the end of this month. And I’m in the First Form too.’

Delia’s eyes grew round at this introduction. ‘Patience,’ she breathed, ‘Patsy – does that mean we’re friends? Already?’

Patsy nodded primly, but her smile was sincere. ‘We’ve become bathroom buddies, haven’t we? We might as well go the whole way,’ she said, giggling.

The younger girl caught her giggles. ‘I guess so. And we’ll be in the same class when Sister Julienne says I’m ready. But wait –’ Delia halted, and Patsy obeyed orders, waiting patiently and finally embodying her designated virtue as she watched confusion flicker across her new friend’s face. ‘Didn’t you say you’re sixteen? Have you been here long?’

‘Fifteen. Nearly sixteen. And I’ve been here a little while – since I was twelve. But I’m like you,’ was the older girl’s honest answer. ‘My mind’s muddled – though perhaps in a different way –’

Delia jumped in at that point. ‘In a way that you don’t need a diary to write in as a reminder of what happened?’

Patsy wanted to laugh aloud – it was more that she needed not to remember, at least not as well as she did – but she simply smiled. ‘Yes – although Sister J did try and convince me it’d be good to write things down. I used to when I was little.’

‘Well,’ the Welsh girl suggested kindly, ‘I have lots of notebooks if you’d like one to give it a go.’

The English girl almost grimaced at the prospect, but then remembered her manners and grinned instead. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured, before thinking of a diversion, ‘or what was the Welsh word you said earlier?’

Delia smiled in surprise. ‘Diolch. I could teach you, if you’d like to learn? It’d help me, too.’

Patsy thought her heart might literally melt, if that were medically possible. ‘Oh, yes,’ she breathed, ‘I love languages.’

‘Do you know a lot of them?’

Now Patsy’s heart clenched. Delia’s question was so innocent and innocuous but evoked everything she tried so hard to avoid. Yet, somehow, it seemed she did not mind. ‘Quite a few, yes.’

‘Which ones?’

Patsy’s heart clenched tighter but she made herself answer. ‘English, French, Dutch, a few different dialects of Chinese,’ she paused, wondering if the word “dialect” would be too difficult for an eleven-nearly-twelve-year-old to understand, but remembering Delia was Welsh, went on. ‘A bit of Japanese and some other languages from the Far East.’

The shorter girl giggled. ‘And I thought I’d be the foreign one around here.’

This response was so unexpected that the taller redhead found herself physically rocking as she joined the brunette’s laughter. ‘I like you, young’un,’ she said when they both regained sufficient breath to speak.

‘Oi,’ Delia remonstrated playfully, ‘that’s not fair. First you called me “old thing” and now I’m “young’un”. You might be older than I am but you said we’re in the same class, so…’ She trailed off, smirking, stretching the silence for as long as she could before she burst into (quiet) laughter again. ‘I like you, too, though, oldie. You make me feel less of an “invalid”.’

Patsy screwed up her face in symbolic solidarity. ‘Gosh, that’s such a horrid word, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ the shorter girl spat out. ‘I’m perfectly valid, thank you very much. And so are you. Even if our minds are muddled.’

Her taller friend grinned at this. ‘I like that. You’re wise beyond your years, aren’t you?’

The brunette shrugged, which made her hair shift against her shoulders. ‘My Mam calls me a “little madam”. At least she does when she’s not swearing at me in Welsh because she thinks I don’t understand. But I do. I guess I’ve just had a lot of time to think recently.’

The redhead nodded. ‘I relate to that. I try and hide in here to reflect most nights.’

Delia’s expression grew guilty. ‘Sorry, have I taken your time?’

Patsy shook her head in an effort to pacify the younger girl’s concern. ‘No, no. It’s been lovely to meet you. I was just going to read.’

‘Oh. All right. What book?’ Delia asked, returning to inquisitiveness.

The redhead refrained from correcting her grammar – she knew all too well how much people condescended when you were a patient-student at a place like “St Gids” – and just answered the enquiry. ‘Jane Eyre. I always choose it for the first night of term.’

The brunette visibly brightened, bringing back those darling dimples. ‘I love that book. My Mam says I’m a “wilful child” and so’s Jane.’

‘She is, yes. And she gets sent away to school,’ Patsy added, pleased she had found a fellow rebel – or renegade, as Sister Ursula might say.

‘Yes. But it isn’t like Lowood here, is it?’ Delia asked in a dramatic whisper.

‘No,’ the redhead reassured quickly, ‘Not at all. Sister U can be a bit of a dragon, but not half as bad as Brocklehurst.’ She left out the observation of having spent her childhood in much harsher conditions – that was too far for the first night of a new friendship. Instead she deflected with a different sort of bravery. ‘When I was younger than you, I called my diary “Helen”.’

‘After Helen Burns?’ The brunette could barely breathe for admiration.

‘Yes. I didn’t really have friends then,’ the English girl admitted, adding in her head that she did not really now, either.

‘Well you have me,’ Delia insisted, her Welsh lilt growing more pronounced. ‘And I’m definitely giving you a notebook for a diary. D’you think you’ll call it “Helen” again?’

Patsy was pensive for a moment. ‘Yes, I think I might,’ she declared eventually, ‘but not until tomorrow, mind. We ought to get back to bed.’

The younger girl grumbled, but let her older friend guide her back across the dormitory, pointing out the pathway to her own bed – which gave rise to silent squeals when they discovered they slept side by side. Patsy was not one to consider coincidences, but she decided she must have dropped off earlier without noticing, and therefore missed the movement nearby.

But she could not care, now, because she had a proper companion in convalescence.

And a new diary to help her deal.

~

Saturday 21st June 1941

Dear Diary,

Papa got home from London today. He brought me you, and a book of poetry for Gracie (my little sister), as well as a new record for us both. It’s by a girl almost two years older than I am called Ann Stephens. She sings some of the songs from Gracie’s new book. We heard them on the wireless when Papa was away. He says she was picked from lots of girls to play Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. I like that story, although bits of it seem too silly to be real. No-one could be as mean as the Red Queen, could they?

Except maybe Hitler. But I’m not meant to know much about him.

I’m not allowed to listen to the wireless on my own any more. That hasn’t stopped me from figuring out that he’s horrid, though. Mostly because I do know he’s the reason Mama gets worried whenever Papa goes away for work. I don’t like it when she’s worried because there’s nothing I can do. She never got so worried when I was little. Now she’s worried from the minute he leaves until the minute he gets back and we hardly get to see her at all. We didn’t see her much before but when we did she was smiling. And she played her piano. Now I’m the only one who plays and I have to do it quietly so she isn’t disturbed.

She didn’t even smile when Papa got back. She was just sad and quiet. She told him he mustn’t go any more unless he takes us too. He said no. It’s safer for us to be here. She said well then it’s safer for him to stay with us. His voice got very loud and hers got softer and softer, like the contrasts she taught me about in a piece of music. I hate it when they talk like that. Gracie does too. Mama says it’s not good to hate anything and I try hard but sometimes it’s too hard. Like when they row. It’s scary so we hide. It doesn’t happen often but that makes it worse. And then no-one talks about it. I have no-one to talk to.

Except you.

At least Mama came in to say goodnight and listen to our prayers. I tried to sneak in bits about everyone being nice to each other but she told me I was rambling so she must’ve known what I was up to.

She’d probably tell me to stop rambling if she read this. And I should really be asleep. So I’ll sign off and stop “going on”.

It’s just nice to have someone to talk to – even if you are “only a book”. I won’t keep you so long next time.

Your Friend,

Patience Elizabeth Mount, Aged Eight

~

Sunday 22nd June 1941

Dear Diary,

Actually, I’ve decided, if we’re going to be friends, you should have a name. How would you feel about Helen? Only I’ve just finished reading ‘Jane Eyre’, and that was the name of her best friend. It was very sad, though. They were such good friends and then Helen died. I can’t imagine how poor Jane must’ve felt, being left all alone in that horrid excuse for a school. I’ll pray tonight to give thanks for my lovely lessons at home and my loving family. I’m so lucky. I hate to think how hard it would be to lose someone so special.

Because we are a loving family, no matter what I wrote yesterday evening. (I’m writing a lot earlier today – Papa wants us all to have Sunday afternoon together so I’m not sure I’ll have time later.) Grace and I got to join them for a late breakfast just now. I think it might be called “brunch”? Mama was much happier. She let Gracie sit on her lap for the first time in a long while and kept looking over her head at Papa. That was a clear sign they’d reconciled. (You will tell me if the words I use are too big, won’t you? I read a lot and Papa says my vocabulary is very advanced. When we were eating he tested me on some of the new words I learnt over his time away. I haven’t told him I read ‘Jane Eyre’. It was meant to be a present for when I’m older but he should know by now I can’t leave books alone.)

Anyway, they’ve definitely made up. I needed to get up last night and I decided to walk around the house a bit afterwards. It was naughty but we go to bed so early and I was wide awake. I ended up near their door and I think I heard them kissing! Papa was talking in a low voice and he said ‘I’ve missed you, Lizzy.’ She laughed and asked ‘How much?’ Then there were what sounded like kissing noises, not that I’m meant to know about kissing. Except from the pictures or from books, but Mama says they aren’t like real life. But Jane and Rochester kiss, and Jane seems a very real-life girl to me. And I like Mama and Papa’s real-life love best of all. And they kiss! Oh, I hope someone looks at me how they look at each other one day.

Here’s me going on again, though, after saying I’d best be quick.

More soon, Helen, I promise. I’m not quite sure when. Oh, and since we’re on first name terms, I go by Patsy.

For now, your friend always,

P.E.M.

(Lots of the authors in the books I read use initials instead of names, so I’m trying that.)

Chapter Text

‘Pats? Are you dressed?’

‘Yes, Deels, I am,’ Patsy replied, calling cheerily through the barrier of the two individual curtains they each closed around their beds every morning and evening. A spontaneous grin spread over her face at their mutual use of the nicknames which signalled how firm their friendship had become over the past fortnight, and she paused for a moment, before pulling herself back to the present and pulling her curtain open. The swishing sound it made as it moved along its rail was nearly as satisfying as the sight of the shorter girl standing on the other side – even if she seemed to be feeling rather sorry for herself. ‘Is your tie being tricky again?’

‘Yes,’ her petite pal muttered, pouting and sporting a mutinous look. ‘I know it’s “good for my co-ordination” to do it myself, but it just takes so long. And Emily gets to attach hers, pre-tied, with a pin. She showed me.’

The taller girl tutted in gentle sympathy, although aware she ought to adjust this perception of their fellow pupil who was pushed about in a wheelchair. They had never talked much, in part because Emily found the very act of talking tiring, but Patsy thought she was plucky. Not in a patronising way, either, as she was fairly sure she had seen the Fifth Former (with whom she was a peer in age, if not academic stage) sneaking a variety of stuff down the sides of her seat over the years. So, smiling at her scowling friend, she simply said, ‘Come here, let’s tackle it together.’ Then, whilst the brunette was busy untangling the material for her to re-tie, the redhead felt able to remark, almost offhandedly, ‘I think Emily’s brain injury was rather different.’

Delia grinned guiltily. ‘I know,’ she started, and the words of what turned out to be a fairly long speech were slightly slurred, because her tongue was poking out in determined concentration. ‘I’m not comparing, not really, since I’m glad I can tie my own tie. But she’s taught by Sister J, too. Not every day, just some, but we’ve had time to chat. And we’ve set up a kind of competition because we’re both Welsh.’

Patsy’s heart swelled a little in pride at the understanding of her feisty new friend’s real motivations. ‘Really?’

Brown hair nodded as the untangled tie was triumphantly passed over. ‘Mhmm. Her surname’s Thomas. She’s from Swansea. Her speech hides her accent quite a bit, until you spend time and listen properly.’

Red hair nodded too, as the older girl slipped the loop of the tie carefully around the younger’s neck. ‘You’re good at that.’

‘I am? Listening?’

Delia seemed so surprised by this that Patsy placed her free hand in support on her shoulder, worried she might take a tumble. ‘Yes,’ she said sincerely as she set the tie symmetrically in the centre of her friend’s chest. ‘You listened to me when we met in the loo on the first night back. And we’ll get you good at ties, soon,’ she went on with a wink, ‘but for that you need strength, which means breakfast.’

Delia agreed without any complaint, happy to follow in her friend’s wake as they trooped from the dormitory to the dining hall, collecting the rest of their row along the way. The Welsh girl had been terrified of appearing provincial. Thankfully, however, the students Patsy counted among her “very few” friends (brought together primarily by the proximity of their beds) seemed accepting, so far. There was Barbara, who went by “Babs”, and had had something called sepsis which had cost her her right thumb and (as she put it) “the odd finger and toe”. Delia had already decided, if she could, she would make Babs her best friend – aside from Patsy, of course. They were the same age, born in the spring of 1937, and had shared experience of another kind of stigma beyond that of their disabilities: an accent. The other brunette was from Liverpool and, although her lilt was slighter than Delia’s Celtic equivalent, it remained present enough to cause comment. This made both girls grateful for the fierce protectiveness of the fourth member of their group, whom Delia supposed Patsy might term her best friend. Beatrix, or “Trixie”, was as brightly blonde as Patsy was redheaded (a connection which led the new girl to wonder quietly whether their brilliance might have the same synthetic source). Her consonants were as clipped, too. And, having watched Delia trying to deduce why she was a student at this sort of school, she had given an almost identical answer – her mind was muddled. Unlike Patsy, though, Trixie was much more open; if not about the specifics of her struggles then with regards to the ways she coped. These mostly involved her detailed attention to style and fashion, albeit within the rules of the strict dress code. But, somehow, Delia thought, she managed to look glamorous even whilst wearing the bottle green jumper and grey skirt which made up their winter uniform.

Along with the absolute terror of a tie.

Once the quartet had filed into the hall, they found their seats, and revelled (as they did every morning) in the relief that their places put them closer to the end of the table presided over by Sister Julienne than that of Sister Ursula. As the Deputy Headmistress at St Gideon’s, her primary responsibility when it came to education was pastoral care, and this put her much higher in all the girls’ estimations than the more severe woman who was supposedly her superior. Whether she knew of this preference, she was far too professional to betray, but she certainly took great pride in protecting her pupils from what could frequently be a pernicious world outside the walls of the convent school. Acting as a buffer between these two extremes, and sitting almost exactly equidistant to each of them, was Sister Evangelina. She served as the primary day nurse, and was as brilliant as she could be brusque so, whereas mentions of “Sister U” were mostly kept to wary whispers, everyone was as effusive in their praise of “Sister E” as they were of “Sister J”. Time with the latter two nuns was enjoyed whilst that with the latter was endured.

Especially when, often, her only interactions involved shushing them for sleep or solemnity.

Like that moment, as she called for silence to recite the blessing and waited expectantly for their responses, which were given dutifully or begrudgingly depending on the temperaments of the speaker. It was almost as if she considered the children and teenagers in her charge beneath her notice, perhaps because, in a larger institution, a headmistress might count on little contact with the pupils. Such was not the case at “St Gids”, due to the specialist nature of the care required. So it may, in fact, have been the opposite – that she felt awkward around them.

Either way, they sensed her hostility, and returned it wholeheartedly.

Once grace was eventually over, Mrs B brought out the breakfast, pausing between bowls of porridge to pronounce, in her kind and careful Cockney, ‘Cornflakes for our patient Patience.’

Patsy grinned gratefully at the jolly cook’s joke, and was about to reach for the milk jug, when a vicious voice floated across the table. ‘Camp girl’s still getting coddled, then.’

‘Janine Baxter, I hope the Sisters wash your mouth out with soap, you beast,’ Trixie spat back from a few seats down, bristling in solidarity with her friend.

Everyone was silent without prompting, now, and watched wide-eyed as Sister Evangelina looked to Sister Julienne, who gave a noiseless nod. ‘Thank you, Miss Franklin,’ Evangelina said in a level tone, ‘but I believe it’s our prerogative to decide on appropriate discipline. That being so, Miss Baxter, what is the first rule of conduct at this school?’

Janine was suddenly a little less confident. ‘That we do not pass comment on other pupils’ treatment plans,’ the sallow-skinned girl muttered glumly.

Evangelina nodded, still unimpressed. ‘Precisely. And I’d especially advise against it given that this is your first communal meal after your own recent stint in isolation, on a medically-mandated restricted diet. I’m sure Miss Mount wouldn’t take you to task for that.’

Janine’s deep blush was stark against her black hair, but she continued to be cutting.  ‘Patient Patience ought not to be a patient here at all. She isn’t even properly sick.’

Barbara joined Trixie in an outburst. ‘How dare you compare like that? That’s not how it works. I know that, and I’m missing my thumb, so you should be better behaved because your illness is just as invisible as Patsy’s.’

The referenced redhead reached behind Delia’s chair to stretch and place a placatory hand on Barbara’s shoulder. ‘’S’all right, Babs,’ she insisted softly, with a gentle smile for emphasis, before turning to Evangelina. ‘May I please be excused, Sister?’

Following a second significant glance between the two nuns, Sister Julienne elected to answer instead. ‘You may, Miss Mount. Bring your bowl and we’ll sit in my office so you may eat in peace. I’ll ask Mrs B for some extra milk.’

‘Thank you, Sister,’ Patsy said timidly as she stood up, painfully aware of how tall and gangly she was, and how awkward she would look whilst she walked from the room trying desperately not to trip because her eyes burned with held back tears. ‘Take care of Deels, won’t you?’ she whispered to Barbara. She knew both brunettes would be comforted by the gesture, and watched as the Welsh girl blinked in complete bewilderment at a series of interactions for which, in her relative “newness”, she had no point of reference.

Sister Julienne stood up too, and stepped swiftly to Patsy’s side, looping a gently-guiding hand around the girl’s shoulders at the same time as taking her bowl herself. She might be upholding a fairly firm façade, but the spoon was beginning to clatter against the edge of the crockery, and she deserved to leave with dignity. The nun was unsure how her student would respond to such support, but she merely leant a little closer, so the woman once known as “Louise” let her lips curve into a relieved, if fleeting, smile.

Patsy was making progress – of both the literal and metaphorical kind – and that was particularly important today.

Once they had sequestered themselves inside her office after a detour to the kitchen for a splash of milk, Julienne dropped the Deputy Headmistress persona and took up the one she inhabited much more comfortably; that of a counsellor. Placing the bowl on her desk slowly to avoid any sudden startles, she motioned for Patsy to sit, and the girl gladly let her legs give way as she sank into the comfy chair. ‘Eat,’ she said, keeping her words kind but imperative, whilst she walked around to sit in her own seat.

Patsy pulled a face. ‘I don’t think I can.’

‘I do. Tell me, Patsy, where are we?’

The ginger girl giggled in spite of her sadness, and met the nun’s calm yet searching gaze. She had forgotten just how good Julienne could be at her job. ‘In Poplar, in London, in England,’ she offered, simply.

The Sister smiled. ‘Indeed. And which year is it?’

‘1949.’

This garnered a second, wider, smile. ‘Quite. And what do you do, in Poplar, London, England, at breakfast-time, in 1949?’

Patsy giggled again, in gratitude. ‘I eat cornflakes. Because it’s my choice and I have the power to choose things.’

Julienne hummed approvingly. ‘And how do you eat those cornflakes?’

‘I take small spoonfuls, I chew, and I swallow.’

The nun nodded, now. ‘Go ahead.’

Patsy complied, dipping her spoon into the bowl and drawing it out again with a small, manageable mouthful. Chew, chew, chew, swallow, she reminded herself. As she repeated the motion for a second, then third, time, she realised she really was hungry. Not really hungry, because those pangs would have catapulted her psyche right out of the present and into the past, but hungry enough to enjoy eating. So much so that she did not stop and, suddenly, heard her spoon scraping the bottom of her bowl. The sound of this achievement was accompanied by the welcome glug of water being poured, and the proffering of a glass to clear the slight stodginess of cereal from her palate.

‘Well done, Patsy,’ Julienne said, her tone entirely devoid of condescension.

‘Thank you,’ the redhead responded with a tiny but triumphant grin. ‘I feel a bit better for having some food.’

The nun nodded again. ‘I’m sure. And I’m sorry your initial efforts were so rudely interrupted. Janine will be disciplined accordingly.’

Her student shook her head sincerely. ‘She doesn’t deserve punishment, Sister. What our bodies and minds put us through is difficult enough to deal with. Janine is just jealous because she doesn’t understand why, if I can eat something, I would “choose” not to – even though we’re all aware that none of this is a choice. I don’t mean to say I’m not upset – she tried to humiliate me in front of everyone – but…’

She trailed off as her tutor hummed thoughtfully. ‘Very pragmatic of you.’

‘More resigned than pragmatic, I think,’ the teenager answered honestly. ‘In any case, as you always say, emotions are easier to deal with after eating.’

‘That they are,’ Julienne agreed with a soft smile, before going on, ‘which reminds me, there was one thing I wanted to raise with you today, but after the events of breakfast, I wonder if we should wait a while.’

‘No, Sister,’ Patsy pleaded, ‘knowing there’s something you want to discuss but delaying it will set me more on edge. Especially this close to my birthday.’

‘Very well,’ the nun acquiesced with a third nod, ‘not least because it’s to do with your birthday.’

‘Is it Papa?’ Patsy paused briefly, but then rushed on, unable to bear even the shortest of silences. ‘He isn’t coming, is he?’

Julienne’s heart jolted at the way her pupil was already prepared for possibly the worst of a daughter’s disappointments. Then she reminded herself to be a better surrogate mother, and shook her wimpled head. ‘I’m afraid not, no.’

‘And what’s his excuse this year? If he even bothered to say why, of course.’

Her student’s tone was sarcastic, but this somehow threw her anguish into sharper relief. Julienne drew a deep breath to bide some time to form an adequate approximation of Charles Mount’s utterly inadequate answer. ‘You’ll recall he granted permission for you to have your hair dyed last year, along with Trixie,’ she started, eventually.

‘Yes,’ Patsy returned, ‘Sister Monica Joan suggested it because she thought it might help me feel more connected to Mama, and be a beneficial part of my treatment. Trixie got hers done for moral support.’

‘Indeed she did,’ Julienne said softly, still so glad of the almost sisterly solidarity which had sprung up between these two girls in particular, even after three years.

‘And that’s relevant because…?’ the redhead asked, completely bewildered, and attempting to ground herself by twirling one of the referenced locks around her index finger.

‘Because it would appear he cannot quite bring himself to see you when you’ll remind him even more of his “dear departed wife”.’ Julienne struggled with the end of this sentence, but knew the astute young woman facing her would prefer no prevarication.

Patsy was silent for a moment, stunned by the degree of callousness in such comments from a father to his child, even by their previous standards of estrangement. Then, through gritted teeth, she forced out, ‘He could’ve told me before I got it dyed, in that case. I don’t believe him. He paid for it, for pity’s sake.’ At this, her voice wobbled, ‘I’ll dye it back. He thinks he can mollify me with money, when all I want is him. I couldn’t care less what colour my hair is –’ She stopped, spent with the effort of talking, and began to sob, defying all decorum and hiding her face in the Deputy Headmistress’ desk.

Sister Julienne sat quietly, paradoxically relishing this rare, unmitigated release on her pupil’s behalf and content to let her cry it out until she was spent with that effort, too. When Patsy’s shoulders at last ceased shaking and she summoned the strength to sit up, the nun fumbled in the pocket of her habit for one of the handkerchiefs she kept pre-folded for just these kinds of situations. The ginger girl took it, chuckling inwardly at the thought that she had accrued quite the collection of these cloth tokens over her years under the convent’s roof and in the Order’s care. Then, having wiped her eyes and nose as discreetly as she could, she felt brave enough to try and talk again.

‘It’s a good job I stopped now,’ she began, giggling outwardly this time. ‘Any longer and you’d’ve been calling Dr Turner for a sedative.’

The Sister shook her head sternly, but smiled to soften her speech. ‘Completely comprehensible sadness doesn’t require sedation, Patsy, and well you know it. However much you might want to numb your feelings, it’s important to express them. And besides, any additions to your medication –’

‘Would have to be planned ahead and properly managed,’ Patsy interrupted impishly. ‘I know, Sister, don’t worry. I’m just being silly and childish.’

‘Childlike, you mean,’ Julienne corrected gently, ‘which is also utterly understandable in the circumstances. And leads me exactly to what I’m actually going to suggest – a morning spent in the Music Room. I’d have you stay here, if I could, but I need to check in with Delia –’

The redhead brightened considerably at the mention of her brunette comrade. ‘Oh no, of course,’ she said kindly, ‘I wouldn’t dream of depriving Deels of time with you. I remember how much I depended on it in my own early days here. Still do,’ she added, with a sheepish wave of the sodden handkerchief she had hidden in her fist.

The nun grinned at the girl’s admission. ‘Well, I’m sure our newest young Welshwoman would have little objection to me observing how much she depends on you.’

‘Really!?’ Patsy flushed in surprised pride.

‘Yes. She’s told me how you’ve helped with homework and her tie these last two weeks and that she thinks you live up to your name, because you’re a very patient instructor. All qualities which set you in excellent stead for your chosen career, Nurse Mount. But now be off with you, before your head grows too big to fit through my door.’

The young teenager obeyed with a shy giggle, waiting until she had left the room to react properly to this information and, more importantly, validation. Once she was out in the corridor, however, she let herself skip slightly as she navigated the labyrinthine route to the sanctuary where she could seek safety and sanity again by playing the piano.

Oh, how her heart soared when “Sister J” used the title she so longed to have.

~

When she got there, she left the door a little ajar, partly because that was prescribed by the rules but mostly because she did not entirely trust herself to stay present, and could not even contemplate what would happen if it locked and she got trapped. It was for this reason, too, that she had no desire to faff around with sheet music, and consequently chose to fall back on pieces she knew not just well but by heart. Whether this was a sensible strategy would remain to be seen, but for now she just needed to feel her fingers flying over the keys. And not all the music from the camps held morbid memories, she reminded herself as she ran through the mental reserves of her repertoire. Some, like Beethoven’s “Minuet in G”, she associated most strongly with Mama and Grace romping around as they snuggled on the balai-balai when proper dancing seemed too difficult.

She therefore started with that, swaying on the piano stool in time with the reassuring rhythm of the first part, grateful for its almost even-tempered mixture of light and dark tones provided by the left and right hands. As she listened to her own playing, it seemed almost like a lullaby, and she was proud that she had picked it. Then, though, came the trio, and that seemed simultaneously too short and sweet for her to stomach.

So she stopped, abruptly.

Determined to continue, she decided next on something both longer and a little more languid, yet still hopeful, since it came from a symphony often nicknamed the “New World”. Yes, Dvořák’s Largo movement felt almost like destiny today, following the rather cruel confirmation that she needed to forge a new world for herself from this point forwards. She had realised, with little irony, she no longer possessed the patience to wait for her Papa.

Even if, as she said to “Sister J”, all she wanted was him.

Whilst she played the opening chords, a sense of serenity washed over her, and she knew that, in future, this would be the piece most likely to provide her with peace. She had always avoided it before, because of its bittersweet beauty, and preferred to stick with smaller snippets like the Preludes bequeathed to her in practice sessions with Miss Dryburgh. But she knew it just as well as any of the others, and today called for a more ambitious endeavour. She was soon to be sixteen, after all, and the tumult of her mid-adolescent years was echoed and evoked by much of the movement’s eleven minute span. Yet, also, it repeatedly returned to that gently reassuring refrain, signalling the stable sense of self which was among her highest aspirations. Of course, none of it was meant for piano, not really – but then it had not initially been imagined for vocal orchestra, either.

So she sat, smiling, and focussed her attention on the sensation of her hands as they hovered above the keyboard, and her feet as the pressed the pedals, daringly denying distraction until the final chords came to their comforting conclusion.

Once silence descended at last, she stayed put, not wishing to leave right away. She figured she would have been excused from more general studies, and besides, no-one on the staff could accuse her of idleness if they happened upon her in here. She did feel a bit bad about abandoning Delia, though, so turned around on the stool, meaning to stand up and go in search of her smaller friend, since it would soon be the call for Elevenses. When she did, however, she found she would not have to venture far – if the bright blue eyes peeking around the still-ajar door belonged to the brunette she supposed they might.

‘Deels?’

‘Pats.’

‘Come in, you silly goose.’

‘I didn’t want to disturb you, you were playing so beautifully.’

The older girl giggled, blushing at this unsolicited compliment. ‘Come in and sit by me. Did Sister J say you’d find me here?’ she asked, turning around again.

The younger girl giggled too, bounding across the room and onto the stool. ‘Mhmm. She said she’d made you come. She said music makes you feel better when you’re sad.’

‘She’s right, it does.’

‘I’m glad. I’m sorry you were sad, though. And I’m sorry Janine said those horrid things, even if I’m not sure why she did or what she meant.’

‘I’m not sure why she did either, although I do know what she meant. I’ll tell you about it,’ Patsy added sincerely, as a promise, ‘but this morning I’d rather we just play the piano together. Would that be all right with you?’

Delia looked both delighted and dubious. ‘You want to play with me? Really!? But my memory is –’

‘Muddled. I know. That’s exactly why I think it’s a good idea. It might help.’

‘I hadn’t been learning for long before my accident,’ the Welsh girl said warily, ‘I’m not half as good as you.’

Her English friend blushed again. ‘You’re very kind. I’ve known that piece for a long time, though, so it’s just that I’ve had plenty of practice. Let’s start with something you know well, hmm?’

Delia thought hard. ‘“Chopsticks”,’ she offered eventually.

Patsy nodded. ‘This one?’ She paused to play the opening few bars. ‘Or this one?’ She played another melody.

The brunette’s eyes widened. ‘There are two!?’

The redhead reigned in a giggle at her confusion. ‘Yes. The first one is actually “The Flea Waltz”, or “De Vlooienmars”, as my Dutch friends would’ve said, but gets called “Chopsticks” in this country. Which is very confusing, because what I called “Chopsticks” before I came to school was the second one.’

The smaller of the two girls suggested a sensible solution. ‘Let’s play both!’

So they did just that, repeating their parts of each short piece over and over until they felt proficient as a pair, then growing bold and increasing the tempo. Delia was so excited to be deemed worthy of accompanying her wonderfully talented friend that she soon forgot to think too much and simply let her fingers fly. Patsy, meanwhile, was pondering the fact that she had not had such fun sharing a piano stool with anyone except, well, Grace. And, had her darling sister met Delia, she felt sure she would have approved of her new partner.

Then their hands touched because they got distracted, and both girls were filled with very different feelings they did not quite have words to articulate. But, in that moment, all they wanted was to communicate in their new mutual language of music. And, for today at least, it seemed like more than enough.

~

Monday 28th July 1941

Dear Helen,

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I wrote to you. I’ve just been spending all the time I could with Papa because we never really know when he’ll have to leave again. He has offices here but it’s “better for business” if he’s in London or America. I understand, like Mama and Grace do, but sometimes I wish very hard he would stay with us. The most he manages is usually a month, and that’s what it’s been now. It’s been a lovely month, of course, and I mustn’t moan. But he’s gone again. I don’t want you to feel I’ll only write to you when he’s not here. It was just sudden and none of us expected him to need to leave so quickly. Not even him, I don’t think. I shouldn’t’ve been listening but it’s something to with Japanese “assets”, which I don’t properly understand. Whatever it is, it sounded serious, and Mama just nodded when he said he had to go.

He felt bad, though. I know that because he left two extra records by my bed. I guess he must’ve been saving them for Christmas, but he thought he should make up for going by giving them to me early. Mama said he got them in America. I realised he travels in between countries a lot without coming home. I find that a bit confusing. Anyway, the records are funny because they’re actually the same song. Just by different people. Sammy Kaye, and The Andrews Sisters. It’s called ‘Daddy’, and is about a girl who wants all sorts of presents. It’s a bit strange, but it makes me giggle, because Papa knows it’s not how I feel. I just want to spend time with him.

When he joins us in the Music Room and whirls Grace across the floor as I play the piano I think I might be the happiest I’ve ever felt. No, that’s not true. I like it the best when Mama’s there too. When we’re all together, and they sit and listen to Grace and me playing duets like ‘Chopsticks’. They’re easy, but fun, and it’s nice to do things as a family.

I miss him. I hope he hurries back.

And now I’m going to sign off because I don’t want to be mopey and boring.

Your friend,

P.E.M.       

Chapter Text

Keirei! Keirei!

In the very early hours of the next morning, Delia was shocked awake by the sound of her friend’s desperate cries – likely along with the rest of the dorm. Unlike everyone else, however, she did not simply roll over and return to sleep, being as yet unaware that similarly sudden interruptions could be such regular occurrences in their environment that they were regarded as almost routine. Instead, she lay still, silently assessing if she ought to leap out of bed and peek through the pair of curtains.

Keirei! Keirei!

After that second outburst of strange words, she did at least get up, and was nearly at her own curtain when she heard another, softer, voice speaking several soothing sentences.

‘Shhh, Patsy. You’re all right. I’ve got you. Stay with me. Yes, that’s it. There’s a good lass.’

The brunette breathed out a brief sigh of relief at the sound of the Leeds lilt floating through the flimsy fabric. Nurse Crane, the primary night nurse, was with the redhead as she fought off whatever it was that made her so afraid.

Keirei!

‘No, lass, none of that now. It’s night time.’

‘But I need to bow!’

The smaller girl halted in her tracks on hearing what was unmistakeably her taller (and apparently very awake) friend’s voice, for all the timidity of its tone. That meant this was more than a nightmare. Worse, it meant she might be heard if she now tried to tiptoe back to bed, and she would hate to think Patsy might think she was a nosy busybody. She could not care a jot about being caught by staff. Still, she would have to stay put until they stopped talking, which did not seem as though it would happen soon. In fact it sounded like Nurse Crane was chasing Patsy around the bay of her bed.

‘Oh no you don’t.’

‘I. Need. To. Bow.’

This repetition was punctuated by soft thuds of the sort which, in a younger child, might suggest stamping feet after being gently restrained – but Delia could not comprehend that kind of behaviour from the grown-up girl she had fondly (if secretly) started calling her “very proper pal, Patience”. Neither the petulance nor the running nor the stamping. The young Welshwoman was rooted to her spot, regardless.

‘No, you don’t, lass. You need to get back into bed. Preferably without being carried.’

The girl responded to this instruction by bursting into peals of laughter. ‘Where? We don’t have beds, only sleeping mats.’

The nurse tutted at the louder noise. ‘You have one right here, Patsy. This is London, not Sumatra.’

Delia was completely confused by these developments. She could have sworn Patsy said she grew up in Singapore… but she had no time to think them through now, because the conversation in the next “cubicle” had changed considerably.

London!? No…’ Patsy gasped suddenly. ‘Phyllis?’

The brunette wanted to gasp, as well, at the knowledge of the formidable Nurse Crane’s first name, but she held her breath, too invested in listening intently.

‘Yes, lass. Welcome back to Poplar,’ Phyllis said, with a smile in her voice.

The redhead groaned; her voice restored to its usual timbre. ‘I’m so sorry. I thought we’d got this under control.’

‘No apologies, Patsy, it isn’t your fault.’ The veteran nurse was far too professional to add that she had several choice phrases for the person whose fault she felt it was, this time, at any rate: a certain Charles Mount.

‘I know that, but I’m still sorry,’ the sleep-deprived student said sullenly. ‘Slightly selfishly, actually, because I suppose it means another spell in isolation – and that’s hardly the present I was hoping to get for my Sweet Sixteenth.’

Phyllis held back a chuckle at this return to her charge’s customary sarcastic humour. Delia, by contrast, was so surprised by this seemingly sudden shift that she wobbled. Not just a little, either, but enough to land her squarely on her bottom, with a much louder thud than her friend’s earlier stamping.

The said friend was the one gasping now. ‘Deels?’ she whispered as she walked to open both their curtains in a single swish, ‘Is that you?’

Patsy – and Phyllis – received an answer through the sight of the smaller girl sitting on the floor, a rather stunned expression on her face. The night nurse bent down, bemused, to give her fellow brunette a onceover. ‘Now, Miss Busby,’ she started softly as soon as she was satisfied Delia had had nothing more than a slight scare, helping them both upright, ‘what are you doing out of bed at this late – or should I say, early – hour?’

The Welsh girl felt both wily and awful as she lied. ‘I needed the loo. I should’ve turned my light on but I thought I could see without it and I slipped. Sorry to disturb you.’

Her English neighbour shook her head primly. ‘Gosh, no, I should be the sorry one, since it was probably my bally brain that woke you. But I’m leaving now, so it won’t happen again.’

‘What? Why?’ Delia had no need to fabricate her distress at the thought of her friend’s departure.

Phyllis decided it was her duty to intervene at this point. ‘Because Miss Mount doesn’t need the additional worry of keeping other students awake,’ she said, succinctly.

Delia outright refused to accept this explanation. ‘That’s not fair, though,’ she replied defiantly, albeit still whispering. ‘Patsy doesn’t deserve to be banished because of something her mind makes her do. Especially just before her birthday.’ The petite girl paused, thinking, and then asked a question which formed the beginning of a proposal. ‘Nurse Crane?’

‘Yes, lass?’ The older woman, usually punctilious about protocol, was impressed by this new pupil’s principles.

‘Is there an isolation room with two beds?’ The younger of the two girls decided she had gone so far already that she might as well be bold.

Phyllis was pensive for a moment, pondering how liberal she ought to be with the facts, and then conceding companionship, if offered, would do both children a world of good. ‘Well, yes,’ she began, before hedging slightly, ‘but only in case overnight observation is required –’

Delia did not require anything further to reinforce her decision. ‘I’m coming with you,’ she blurted out, this statement directed at Patsy.

Phyllis nevertheless prompted caution. ‘Very well, but we’ll have to clear it with Sister Julienne. Follow me, girls.’

They did so, Delia slipping her hand into Patsy’s in a visible sign of solidarity, the older girl accepting the physical contact without a murmur of awkwardness because she was so bowled over by her young friend’s bravery. No. Not just bravery. Desire. Desire to be beside her even when her mind was muddled. But, she thought as the trio stopped outside the Deputy Headmistress’ bedroom door and waited for her word of either approbation or refusal, that was what Delia had meant when they met in the bathroom two weeks ago.

They were both perfectly valid. And deserved to be treated accordingly.

Thankfully, Sister Julienne was already up to prepare for morning devotions, and considered it a delightful idea. So, following a whispered discussion, Nurse Crane led the pair of pupils to their destination for this brief respite from communal company and comments.

The only slight snag was that Sister Ursula saw this little huddle in the hallway as she left her own room, and consequently called her remaining colleague over for an explanation. ‘I hope particular preferences aren’t clouding your judgement and leading you to be overly lenient without cause,’ she said in a stern, dismissive tone.

‘Certainly not,’ Julienne replied evenly, ‘but both students will struggle with the separation whilst Miss Mount is in isolation, so it seemed sensible to keep them together, as Miss Busby was willing. Especially because we are all aware of how difficult Patsy finds birthdays.’

Ursula was not amused. ‘Be that as it may, we cannot create the expectation of personal support at every turn. We are here to nurse our patients, not to nanny them.’

Julienne frequently felt out of her depth when it came to confrontation with her superior, and wished she possessed Monica Joan’s mammoth store of literary references to engage as weaponry. On this occasion, however, she knew exactly which quotation would suit to quiet her colleague’s professional qualms, and needed nothing beyond the realms of scripture. ‘“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God”. Luke, Chapter Eighteen, Verses Fifteen to Seventeen,’ she said, softly, prior to signalling that that brought an end to the issue. ‘If you’ll excuse me, Sister, I’ll see you in Service.’

~

Patsy and Delia, of course, were totally oblivious to this extra interaction, so merely got settled in their solitary shared space. Whilst they had each brought a single change of uniform and their washbags along to their new bedroom already, Sister J had assured them they could collect extra clothes and the like when everyone else was in classes later, so as not to cause comment. For the sake of self-preservation on both their parts. Also, though, the wise older woman hoped this promise would persuade her young pupils to prioritise and spend their time trying to sleep instead of stressing about school. And she was half right, because they sank onto their respective beds a mere minute after they arrived, once Nurse Crane had left them to do her rounds in the dorm again. But the redhead had a question to ask the brunette before she could feel comfortable enough to give in to the call of her pillow.

‘Deels?’

‘Yes, Pats?’

‘You didn’t really need the loo, did you?’

‘Why?’

‘I’d’ve expected you to use the en suite when we got here, that’s all.’

The younger girl giggled, caught out. ‘I was worried about you.’

Her older friend hummed, flashing a lopsided grin. ‘Well, diolch, Welshie.’

Croeso, Saesneg,’ Delia deadpanned, covering for the fact that the sudden appearance of a certain smile had made her insides flutter in a way she could not quite comprehend.

‘“You’re welcome, English?”’ Patsy guessed, pouting. ‘Rude. I didn’t even live here ’til I was older than you are now.’

The shorter girl shrugged. ‘You still sound more English than me. Than I. See? My grammar’s terrible.’

The taller girl tutted. ‘It isn’t your first language.’

‘It isn’t yours either, not really,’ the Welsh girl retorted, before realising what she had said and blushing so deeply she almost matched her English – no, British, friend’s hair.

The referenced redhead had the grace to giggle. Her petite pal had a point, after all, and her way of simply saying things other people tiptoed around was really rather hilarious. ‘Touché, Deels.’

‘Do you mean that lit-er-al-ly or fig-ur-at-ive-ly, Pats?’ the brunette asked, her speech slow as she tried to get her lips accustomed to the longer words this early in the morning, and sought a solution through splitting them into separate syllables.

This query was greeted with a roar instead of a giggle, which left the younger girl staring and her older roommate in bemused silence for several moments. ‘Sorry,’ Patsy spluttered eventually, panting a little as she calmed down. ‘It’s just, well, this is hardly the appropriate environment for fencing.’

Delia nodded sagely. ‘I will have to learn, though, won’t I?’ she clarified with a devilish grin, causing her friend to roll her eyes.

‘Not today, Busby. I might be a “patient instructor”, but I think we’re both too tired for me to live up to my name right now. Let’s try and sleep. If anything happens, flick the second switch by your bed – the one marked “buzzer”. It’ll alert either Nurse Crane or Sister Evangelina, depending who’s on duty at the time we call. Do you think you can manage that?’

‘Yes, Nurse Mount,’ the brunette breathed cheekily, adding a mock salute, at which gesture the ginger girl was sorely tempted to lob her spare pillow towards her petite pal’s head.

She had no chance, however, being suddenly overcome by exhaustion herself after the early morning excitement.

~

By contrast, Delia’s response to their expedition was the polar opposite to her roommate’s, and had left her brain buzzing. She therefore stayed awake, painting pretty pictures on the ceiling and walls by shifting her hands in the low light filtering through the gaps of the curtains on the sash window in this additionally secluded section of the school. It wasn’t really a “sick bay” or “san”, she decided, because the whole building played that role. Regardless, wherever they were, she was more than happy to hear the steadily deepening breaths coming from the bed just across the room – because they meant Patsy felt safe enough to sleep. And that thought filled her with more energy than a whole night’s rest ever could. No. She was being silly. She was tired, too, and would probably be nudged towards a nap by one of the nurses. The trouble was she never took to sleeping at strange times that well at all. She much preferred to keep to a routine than rearrange too many things.

Consequently, she would choose to stay up, staring at her hands and the shapes they made, in serene and satisfied silence. She had done just that in the days immediately after her accident, so it seemed suitable as she adjusted to these surroundings as well. It was oddly anchoring. No, not oddly, actually, because she had asked a nurse about it then, too, and the nurse had said it made sense. She was becoming reacquainted with her body. For a moment, the younger girl’s focus shifted from inward to outward as she looked over at her sleeping friend’s form, wondering if that was how the older girl felt when Nurse Crane said things like “welcome back to Poplar”. She guessed it must be, although she still did not fully understand what had happened last night – this morning – somewhere between the twenty-fourth, and twenty-fifth, of January, nineteen-hundred-and-forty-nine.

Rather than let this conundrum confuse her, Delia doggedly returned her attention to the pictures her hands were fashioning on the wall, delighted they showed up slightly more clearly now. Time passed so quickly when you supposed it would not, she thought, quietly pleased by her own attempts at philosophy. Not that it was anywhere near proper daylight yet – early January dreariness put paid to that, almost no matter the actual time – but she did not mind.

As long as Patsy slept, they could be left alone, and she could amuse herself in ways far younger than were strictly age-appropriate.

This bubble burst almost as soon as it had formed, however, by way of a sudden shriek.

Mama! Mama!

Delia slid her gaze over a second time to check on the other girl. Patsy was still lying down, beneath the bedclothes, and her eyes were tightly shut. Her arms and legs were flailing about a little, although, in comparison to the antics of earlier, that barely counted as movement. This was just a normal nightmare, then, if nightmares could ever be considered normal. But the younger of the two pupils knew how to deal with those, having had many herself, and thought she would try a strategy from her own Mam, since Patsy was calling out for her mother.

Mama! Mama!

Stopping her instinctive desire to help from a distance through soothing speech, Delia now slid more than her gaze in Patsy’s direction, slipping as silently as possible out of bed. Padding the few strides across the floor, she stood beside the taller girl and watched her thrashing for a while, wondering if she was brave enough for this independent intervention. Then, deciding her friend’s distress took precedence over her dithering, she stooped to stroke her forehead.

‘Shhh, Pats, shhh, cariad,’ she whispered, choosing to mimic her mother’s words along with her actions.

The combination seemed to work, since four lanky limbs grew still and, following a few more rounds of the rhythmic movement, the older girl opened her eyes. ‘Deels?’ she croaked groggily, bewildered by the brunette’s presence at her bedside.

‘Yes, Pats, it’s me. You were having a nightmare so I came to help.’

The redhead gave her a grateful, if ginger, grin. ‘Thank you. I’m all right, though, so you can go back to bed.’

The Welsh girl was wary and made no move to return to her side of the room. ‘I actually thought I might join you for a cwtch – a hug – if you wanted. My Mam always does after I’ve been scared and it helps me sleep –’

The English girl (in accent, at any rate) was oblivious to this second sentence, her eyebrows raising several inches on hearing the first. ‘And risk the wrath of Sister Ursula on top of all the rules we’ve already bent?’ she asked incredulously, ‘Have you lost your marbles, Busby?’ Then, registering her rash phrasing, she rushed to apologise. ‘Gosh, that was a jolly careless thing to say. I’m sorry. Come here,’ she coaxed, pulling her friend onto the fancy counterpane embroidered at each corner with the school crest.

Delia slumped down on the duvet and cried into Patsy’s shoulder. ‘I – just – wanted – to – help –’ she choked out between heaving sobs.

Roles reversed, the taller girl tucked the shorter’s head beneath her chin and stroked her hair. ‘I know,’ she whispered, her own voice wobbling, ‘and you did, you really, really did. I become a bit of a beast after a bad dream, which is unfair on you. You’ve been an utter darling to me today, Deels, and I’m not sure I deserve it. Or a pal like you.’ Patsy paused, pensive, and pressed a platonic kiss, of the kind she would once have given Grace, to her friend’s scalp. ‘Thank you.’

When her friend sat upright, Delia raised her head defiantly and looked her directly in the eye – a rare possibility afforded by their mutual seated position. ‘Yes you do, Pats,’ she said decisively as she stretched to place a quick kiss in the centre of the teenager’s still slightly furrowed forehead. Then, to cover yet again for the fizz she felt at this physical contact, she turned her tone to wheedling. ‘But if you feel bad, you can make it better by letting me snuggle under the covers. It’s cold…’

At this dramatic display, the older girl collapsed in giggles, complying by budging up to make space in the warmth of her bed. Of course, comfort and cosiness in sitting soon led to them both lying down, and shared tiredness then led at last to sleep. As a consequence, when Nurse Crane checked in just prior to handover at seven, she found them folded in each other’s arms – and out for the count. Phyllis smiled to see this sight, and personally would have preferred to leave them there, but professional protectiveness made her lift Delia gently out of Patsy’s bed and settle her back into her own. It would not do for one of the Sisters to discover them similarly ensconced. 

~

Rather later on that morning, having woken and adjusted to the fact they had been moved apart (presumably by the kindly Nurse Crane), the two girls took it in turns to use the en suite to wash and dress, swapping exclamations at the luxury of the facilities. Then, every layer sorted (including the irritation of the green-and-purple ties), they ventured to the door of their new room. There, just beyond the threshold, was found breakfast – or at least its constituent parts, in the form of two bowls, a milk bottle, and a packet of cornflakes.

Patsy smiled at the symmetry, and turned to her friend in surprise. ‘Did you ask for cereal too?’

Delia nodded, extending the symmetry by reflecting the taller girl’s grin. ‘Porridge would’ve got cold,’ she said, sensibly. Apparently this answer was accepted as sufficient, since her friend bent to pick up the bowls, so she took the box and the glass bottle, and they both brought their bounties back to the fold-out table set to serve as their dining area for the next few days. Once they sat and said a hurried blessing, Patsy sniffed the milk and pronounced it fit for consumption, which allowed them to eat in companionable silence, save for chuckles at the extra loud crunch of the occasional cornflake. The older girl was grateful for her younger friend’s seemingly implicit understanding that she would need to focus on her food instead of the effort involved in keeping up conversation – but she supposed that was a benefit of them both being “sick”. One, in fact, she had not properly pondered on before today, in part because of the divisive comparisons of people (and particularly fellow pupils) like Janine. The hierarchy of how much they each were hurting often felt so fraught that she held herself back from full honesty.

But that made it even more mortifying when her fragile façades fell flat.

Like they had yesterday.

And this morning, too.

Yet, as they sat opposite each other and watched their individual attempts at eating their collective meal, Patsy realised something really rather refreshing. Not only were her façades not there, she did not need them to be. No, she did not mind. She could not quite say she was glad they were gone, but she did not actively notice their absence. And that was a significant, if small and subtle, start. It might not last long, never mind forever, but whilst it was here she would make the most of it.

So, when they had scraped their bowls clean, whereas she would once have leapt up immediately (to rinse everything off and place it back in the corridor for collection), she stayed sitting, making them drinks with the remainder of the milk by pouring it into the glasses from the bathroom they would later use to brush their teeth. Then, smiling as she sipped, she selected a subject. ‘All set for school?’

Delia did her best to hide her shock at this voluntary interaction – not to mention its nature. ‘I thought we weren’t going?’ she asked, answering a question with a question in the way that always annoyed her Mam, and then taking a sizeable mouthful of milk.

Patsy found this avoidance tactic adorable, and reached across the table to give her friend’s hand an affectionate squeeze. ‘We’re excused from classes for a few days until I sort my sleep, yes, Deels – but that doesn’t mean we get out of doing work. I think Sister U would have something to say otherwise, don’t you?’

The brunette grumbled as she gulped to swallow prior to speaking. ‘Sister U might not be as bad as Brocklehurst, Pats, but she’s at least as mean as Miss Minchin.’

The redhead nearly spat out her drink at this unexpected reference to another stalwart story from her childhood – the one, indeed, Papa had given her as a present when she was packing to travel to this very school. She had read it before then, of course, but (like with Jane Eyre or The Secret Garden) it had mattered more after the War. Now she was missing her ever efficient masking of emotions, but she wondered if she could merely laugh it off, and thought she would try. ‘You’ve made me give myself a milk moustache,’ she muttered, giggling.

It worked, because the Welsh girl giggled too. ‘Sorry,’ she said, her face suggesting she was not sorry at all.

The “English” girl put on her most pretentious accent. ‘For that behaviour, Busby,’ she drawled, a devilish glint in her eyes to match the teasing tone of her Received Pronunciation, albeit mitigated by the moustache, ‘we’re definitely doing some Prep this morning.’

Delia groaned dramatically. ‘But Pats, I hate Prep, it’s hard for me to learn things in the first place, let alone remember them.’

Patsy patted the hand she was somehow still holding, then pulled away, suddenly self-conscious. ‘I tell you what,’ she offered kindly, ‘we can study sitting on your bed so it feels less serious and stressful. And,’ she added as an extra incentive, ‘we can play the piano again afterwards. I’ll even let you pick the piece.’

The shorter girl seemed satisfied by this, because she jumped up, kicked off her school shoes and got settled almost without another word, whilst the taller pottered about with the dishes. Well, no. Delia had offered to help, but Patsy had insisted, and the younger of the two was still skittish following her friend’s slight outburst when she had woken up. The ginger was therefore aware she had a great deal of ground to make up, and had decided to do things very differently for today’s studies.

Walking over to join her petite pal, the taller girl perched primly on the edge of the bed, absentmindedly smoothing over the covers. This automatic action gave her the perfect, impromptu, lesson plan. Pointing to one of the embroidered crests, she posed a simple starter question. ‘What does that say?’

Her friend smirked. ‘Don’t know. Can’t see. Too small.’

Patsy sighed, shook her head in exaggerated exasperation, and poked Delia’s school jumper to reference the same symbol. ‘Smarty pants. Try that, then. Read it off mine.’

The brunette grimaced, but complied. ‘Ex fato fortitudio.’

The redhead nodded. ‘Which means?’

‘Out of fate… fortitude?’

‘I suppose so. I think the Sisters would translate it as “courage”, but it’s a complicated word. As is fortitude, actually. I’m impressed you know it.’

The younger girl grinned at this praise since, from a fellow pupil, it did not seem patronising. ‘You know what else I know, English?’ she asked impudently.

The older pupil-teacher played along, wondering fleetingly if this was how Sara Crewe or Jane Eyre had felt instructing other students. ‘What, Welshie?’ she prompted, poking out her tongue.

Amo.’

‘Oh yes?’

Delia deflated a little at this lacklustre response, but then saw that Patsy’s eyes were sparkling, and this was all a ploy to coax her to continue. So she did, aware that, afterwards, there was the prize of piano practice. ‘Amo,’ she began again, stuttering now, ‘amas – um, amat amamus –’ she paused, pulling a face, and received a redheaded nod in reassurance that she was right, ‘amatis, amant.’

Sensing that this single conjugation required a significant amount of concentration on the smaller girl’s part, her friend stretched her own lanky limbs and stood up, smiling broadly. ‘Well done, Deels.’

Da iawn, you mean,’ came the cheeky correction.

‘Is that the Welsh?’ The brunette nodded, beaming, and Patsy reflected the smile outwardly, whilst inwardly reflecting on their repeated moments of symmetry this morning. ‘Da iawn, then, Miss Busby, and diolch for teaching me, too,’ she said, taking Delia’s hand so she could get to her feet, slip on and buckle up her shoes, and skip the several (metaphorical) miles to the Music Room.

~

On arrival, the older of the two pupils had expected some deliberation over their next duet, because she could not immediately summon up the memory herself of any tunes as simple as “Chopsticks” – and she was dubious that something more difficult would be doable today. Her younger companion, however, seemed to be fizzing with anticipation. Plonking herself down on the piano stool, her petite pal asked excitedly, ‘Do you know this?’ and promptly started playing. The redhead did indeed know the introduction, but had not heard it since long before her hair colour changed to match her mother’s. Actually, now she thought of it, her mother had taught her it. She had a strange sense it was a song, too, although she could not fathom why, or what the words would be if that were true. So she simply sat down beside the brunette and played the harmonic undertones her hands were itching to add to the melody already being made.

The girls grinned at each other as their confidence grew, becoming braver with each beat, and lost themselves in the comforting chatter of the musical conversation. This left them oblivious to the entrance of someone else, who listened in silence until a mistake threw them off and they turned around – both freezing in fright, then calming when they realised it was merely their Music Teacher. ‘Oh hello, Sister Bernadette,’ they chorused kindly, amused they had translated unison from the song to their speech. Delia had yet to be formally introduced, but she knew the Scottish nun by sight and sound.

‘Hello, girls,’ she replied with a grin which made her eyes glint behind her glasses. ‘That was a lovely little rendition of “Heart and Soul”.’

That’s what it’s called,’ Patsy put in, slapping her skirt in frustration at having forgotten.

‘Yes,’ Bernadette said, ‘and there are lyrics too, you know.’

‘Really?’ Delia asked, delighted at the grander proportions of what she had proposed as an easy duet.

‘Really,’ the Sister repeated. ‘I tell you what – why don’t you play it again and I’ll sing along?’

So they did; desperately trying not to giggle when one of them hit a wrong note this time, in case the Sister thought them rude.

‘Heart and soul, I fell in love with you,
Heart and soul, the way a fool would do,
Madly...
Because you held me tight,
And stole a kiss in the night...

Heart and soul, I begged to be adored,
Lost control, and tumbled overboard,
Gladly...
That magic night we kissed,
There in the moon mist.

Bernadette faltered over the final line. ‘Perhaps we ought to stop there,’ she suggested sheepishly, suddenly realising the topic wasn’t entirely appropriate information for either a nun or nurse to impart to her pupil-patients. Not that she herself had any direct knowledge of such things, but still… It seemed the girls were glad, too, because they were blushing as brightly as beetroot or tomatoes, and apparently avoiding both her and each other’s gazes. She therefore saved them all further embarrassment by changing the subject. ‘You play very well together,’ she said, and meant it. ‘I don’t suppose you’d fancy learning something for the Easter concert?’ The wide smiles of wonder she got back were all the answer she needed. ‘In that case, I’ll leave you to practice. Thank you for such a lovely surprise.’

Her swift exit was accompanied by (now unconstrained) squeals, signifying simultaneous terror at the task they had been set and joy at the sanctioned extra time together. Moreover, as with any composition, their emotions on each side (fear and excitement) had an additional layer – because they were both consumed by, and trying to forget, the fact that the lyrics were actually apt in relation to their own experiences. Especially the friendly kisses exchanged earlier that day.

They each felt they were falling, and the funny thing was, they were both a bit “mad”, medically speaking. They had the paperwork on file to prove it. But the strength of their connection seemed to be offering a pathway to some sort of sanity. And they were prepared to take it, in whatever way they could.

~

Tuesday 29th July 1941

Dear Helen,

I’m very busy today but I don’t want you to think you’re only good for company when I’m bored, so here’s a short note. You’ll never believe it! Mama’s normally dreadfully distant when Papa’s away, I wrote before about that, but today she’s been ever so attentive. Listening to me and Gracie playing piano and everything! But not only that, when she heard one of our duets, she said it was a song, too. I was surprised because she taught it to us in the first place and didn’t tell us about the song then. But maybe she forgot. I guess that’s what happens when you get old. No, older. Mama says it’s rude to call people old. Anyway, the song is ‘Heart and Soul’, and she even sang it to us. She has a beautiful voice. Then she played us a record by a lady called Bea Wain. Miss Wain’s voice is lovely too but I like Mama’s best. The words are strange though. A bit mushy. Grace and I tried hard not to giggle but I think Mama could tell we found it funny. This is a very odd entry, Helen, I know. I just have so many feelings and I’m not sure what to do with them so I brought them here. I hope you don’t mind.

Now I’m going to play the piano with Grace some more. I’m so happy she wants to, and we’re allowed. Then tonight Mama says she’ll start reading us a new story. Papa normally does but she will because he’s not here. It’s called ‘A Little Princess’. I’ll tell you what I think of it tomorrow.

Your Friend,

P.E.M.

Chapter Text

Their few hours of fun at the piano were followed by an unusually lovely day spent in shared solitude. As Patsy listened to her little friend chattering away from the other bed or the opposite side of their small table (trying very hard to avoid contemplating the undertones of the French translation of that phrase, “petite amie”), she found she finally had the answer to one of the puzzles which had most preoccupied her childhood. Delia’s excitement about Sister Bernadette’s interest in them (not to mention the offer of a slot in the concert at the end of term) put the older girl in mind of her own joy at the generosity of someone similarly musical. Dear Miss Dryburgh. But that wise woman, as equally devout as Sister Bernadette, had offered her more than songs and scripture. She had given the gift of poetry for perseverance.

Poetry that Patsy had not always understood, but now, thanks to Delia, she did.

Because the apparent paradox of pining for, and being petrified of, privacy was actually not a paradox at all – but a very real response to the reality of what she had lived through. And, without even knowing it, this “Welsh Wonder” was helping to ease the “English” girl back into the thing she most longed to experience, by them being alone together.

It was too early in their friendship to say any of that aloud, however, so she merely made conversation. Proper conversation, too, not simple small talk. She kept the topics connected to their shared experience of school, of course, and was grateful that the combination of the younger girl’s newness and neurological difficulties gave her real and reliable reasons to do so. But somehow the brunette’s brain, when paired with her endearing personality, managed to make the redhead feel she was imparting vitally important information, about even the most mundane of matters, like the key to deciphering the fortnightly timetable changes. Now that she was talking her friend through it, Patsy pondered just how ridiculously unfair that structure seemed at a school supposedly set up for students who might struggle with such sudden shifts. Yet, as Sister Monica Joan often sarcastically said (à propos of almost anything instigated by Sister Ursula), it was “theirs not to make reply”. Not that Patsy contemplated the context of that particular poem unless the elderly, eccentric, English and Drama teacher absolutely insisted she should. Obviously. It was far too close to home for comfort, however meaningful the underlying message might be.

Nevertheless, she recited the relevant triplet now, hoping it would give the younger girl a giggle as they sat digesting their supper before investigating the options for something sweet. She loved hearing Delia laugh – and the release would be a good way to convey gratitude for her uncomplicated, unconditional and unquestioning companionship. ‘Theirs not to make reply / Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.’

The strategy was successful, sending the smaller girl into shuddering spasms of glee at the surface silliness of the statement, and Delia’s delight pulled Patsy into her own brief paroxysm of mirth. Then, though, it stopped as suddenly as it started, surprising them both. ‘Sorry,’ the Welsh girl whispered, reaching across the table to grasp the slender hand she was beginning to consider the epitome of English elegance, despite its owner’s more complex heritage. (“Epitome” was on her spelling list from Sister Julienne’s lesson yesterday, and had been in her mind since, as it sounded especially intelligent. But now she was woolgathering, and poor Patsy was staring at her like one of the rabbits she had sometimes freed from local poachers’ traps at home, because she was still holding her hand. Pull yourself together, Busby, she scolded silently as she smiled and spoke again.) ‘It’s just – I know we’ve only been friends two weeks, but I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.’

This honest admission was not answered, as she was afraid it may be, by an affronted removal of contact. Instead, the older girl matched her grin, gave her hand a soft squeeze, and said, sincerely, ‘I’m the same.’ At least, that was what she did outwardly. Inwardly, Patsy was both exhilarated and panicking, convinced Delia must have acquired telepathic abilities during their chat and could decipher not only the timetable but her earlier thoughts about the peace she felt in her proximity. So, searching for any sort of subject from their surroundings and situation, she relaxed their hold and added (in her best banal tone), ‘I hope pudding’s passable tonight, I don’t particularly like cake.’

Her younger friend smirked at this discovery of one more similarity. ‘Me neither, much to my Mam’s horror. It’s almost unheard of in Pembrokeshire,’ she went on in a conspiratorial tone, using particularly precocious phrasing for effect.

That second sentence, and the cheeky wink which came with it, filled Patsy with further exhilarated panic. She was no longer entirely sure they were safe with the subject of pudding. But, if it had morphed into a metaphor, did that mean Delia was like her!? Gosh, she thought a bit giddily, how wonderful it would be to have a friend who understood that side of things as well as all the other awkward aspects of her life. Not that she should let her hopes get too high. Not yet. For now she should – would – play the hostess her initial upbringing suggested she ought to be, and ring (or rather buzz from beside her bed) to request pudding be brought. It could not be cake, anyway, she realised as she rose and walked to flick the required switch, since that was far too substantial to be considered suitable supper fare. Especially in isolation. There were enough possibilities for night time disturbance without the additional issue of indigestion.

Her rambling ruminations were proved correct when, mere moments later, there was a smart rap on their already ajar door. Crossing the room again to open it fully, she expected Sister Evangelina, who would be reaching the end of her shift. Instead, she was greeted by the sight of two giggling girls, each holding (or, more accurately, juggling) two bowls. ‘Hello, you two,’ she said, grinning. ‘And here I was thinking that, tomorrow night, we should probably save someone a trek by organising pudding before they bring supper – but, if it means we get visits, I’ll do no such thing.’

‘Hello yourself, Patience,’ Trixie trilled. ‘We thought you could both do with some company. Frankly, it’s dull as anything without you at the table, so we asked if we could join you and Sister E said yes on condition we brought pud. She wants to save her shoes because the soles are coming away but she’s “taken a vow of poverty”. Isn’t that right, Babs?’

‘Yes,’ Barbara agreed amiably, despite the awkward angle of the bowls she was working very hard to keep balanced, knowing they were supposed to have helped with grip but wishing what were comparatively tiny treats could have been carried in something smaller. ‘Hello, by the way, although Nurse Crane would probably tell me off for not saying “Good evening”. May we come in?’

Patsy registered the effort the younger of the two girls was expending holding their pudding and reached out to take two of the portions, apologising profusely. ‘Of course, old thing, come in and sit on my chair. It’ll be easier for you and Deels to eat at the table. I can perch on my bed, and so can Trix.’

With that she stepped back into the room, glad her height made holding the door open at a distance relatively easy, even whilst balancing bowls as well. How lucky she was to have the full use of both hands, she mused; watching fondly as her youngest friend flopped down in fatigue on the suggested seat but mustered joyful grins and greetings for the next eldest of their group. Then, once they were all inside, she propped the door in its prescribed ajar position and went to sit herself. Settled in her spot next to Trixie, she at last looked down at her bowl, and spluttered in surprise. ‘Is – is this a cake made from cornflakes covered in chocolate?’ she asked her best friend, bemused.

‘Yes, sweetie,’ the blonde girl said, biting the inside of her cheek to stop herself sniggering at the frankly adorable frown creasing the forehead beside her and ruffling the ginger fringe above it. ‘Mrs B’s showing solidarity with you after Janine was so awful.’

Patsy bit her cheek, now, preventing the tears pricking behind her eyes at this kindness from spilling over, and simply asked a second question. ‘How did she get enough chocolate for everyone, though?’

Barbara piped up at that point. ‘Oh, they don’t take much to make when it’s melted,’ she offered knowledgeably, ‘but I think Fred called in some favours.’ The other three girls were now having to hold back giggles at the combination of their friend’s grown up language and the thought of the school handyman’s various ways around the remainders of rationing, and Barbara realised that a vicar’s daughter ought not to mention such things, so she tried to justify these morally-questionable actions. ‘He had to, anyway, if they wanted to be ready in time for your party.’

The redhead’s brows shot up at this addition. ‘What party?’ she put in, softly but very sternly, observing the daggers being directed towards the suddenly blushing brunette.

Trixie tutted. ‘Babs!’ she scolded, groaning theatrically. ‘I told you not to say anything.’ Then, turning to Patsy, she resigned herself to ruining the surprise. ‘Sister J took us aside after breakfast this morning and explained that your father isn’t coming to take you out for tea, so she thought tea ought to be brought to you here.’

Delia broke her rather uncharacteristic silence on hearing this revelation. ‘Your Tad isn’t coming to tea? Poor you, Pats, why didn’t you tell me?’

Patsy shrugged, hoping the gesture and her subsequent speech would seem sufficiently nonchalant. ‘It didn’t come up. I only found out yesterday, Deels, and it’s nothing new. He’s made some excuse or other for each of the birthdays I’ve had so far at St Gids. You were worried enough as it was, young’un.’

This diversion worked well, because the Welsh girl stuck out a tongue in defiance at the use of the diminutive. ‘A pal’s prerogative to worry, oldie,’ asserting her age with the assistance of another word from Sister Julienne’s spelling list. She knew that one had been added merely to mark her progress and she was not expected to remember it right away, or even for a few years, but it made her proud to bring it out whilst she could.

Her “English” friend’s eyebrows raised again. ‘You know what prerogative means, but you were whining about conjugating a single Latin verb earlier? Unimpressed, Welshie,’ she said, pouting.

Sori, Saesneg,’ the smaller girl replied, her dimples discernible even from across the room. ‘Or I should say, “mea culpa”, she added with a wink, before at last taking a bite of her cornflake cake.

Se ipsum,’ the taller girl shot back, revelling in the blush reddening that rather cute pair of cheeks in response to recognition of the apparently familiar phrase. It would seem Delia had been anything but a docile pupil prior to her accident. ‘Behave yourself, Busby,’ she continued for clarity, and then paused to take a cautious nibble of her own crunchy treat. ‘It’s quite good,’ she said, grinning, once she had swallowed.

‘I can’t believe this is the first time you’ve had one, Pats!’ Her brunette roommate’s head was bobbing in genuine bewilderment as she caught a stray crumb with her teeth.

‘Well,’ the redhead admitted resignedly, ‘I’ve never lived independently, and my family weren’t really the type for bonding over food. Certainly not like this,’ she offered, waving her free hand around to use their current gathering to illustrate her point, and chuckling at the crunch when she took a second bite.

Delia wanted desperately to ask more, in the hopes of better understanding this upbringing which – as was dawning on her even more with almost every conversation – had been so drastically different from her own childhood. But, since Barbara and Trixie were saying nothing (and had not at breakfast yesterday, either, except for their indignant retorts to Janine), she doubted it was wise right now. Not that the other girls did not know. They clearly did, along with the rest of the students, or else Janine would not have said what she did in the first place. Delia, however, did not, and she felt that (whilst it might indeed be “a pal’s prerogative to worry”) it was not one to pry. Instead, therefore, she simply said, ‘Fairy snuff.’

On registering this slightly-accented example of Cockney rhyming slang, the three pupils more familiar with the local area howled with laughter at the accuracy. As she had hoped they would. When they eventually calmed down, though, the atmosphere changed rapidly, as Trixie caught sight of the clock and sighed. ‘Oh gosh, Babs,’ she put in, pointing, ‘we’d best eat these sharpish and scram. It’s nearly time for eight o’clock doses.’

Patsy paled at that and popped the rest of her small, sweet snack into her mouth in its entirety, hiding her endeavours to eat quickly behind her hand. ‘I fear the wrath of Phyllis, sorry, Nurse Crane,’ was the explanation she gave Delia when she saw the Welsh girl watching her. ‘You’ve not been here long enough yet to see how strict she can get, and she’ll probably turf these two out if she finds them in here.’

‘I think she’s a softy,’ the brunette responded, shaking her head. ‘Like you,’ she added under her breath, glad the distance between them would decrease the redhead’s likelihood of comprehending her extra comment.

What she did not factor into this calculation was the other brunette across the table. ‘Patsy’s a complete softy,’ Barbara repeated immediately in approval.

Babs!’ the eldest girl moaned, mimicking the second eldest exactly in both tone and expression from earlier, and letting the second youngest of the group realise how endearingly annoying the very youngest could be. ‘Right. Out. Both of you. Before your absence gets too conspicuous and Sister U comes sniffing, never mind Nurse Crane.’

The invocation of the former was enough to halt any speculation about the latter because, whilst they could all entertain the idea that Nurse Crane might well be a softy (if a well-concealed one) called Phyllis, their hopes were not high that Ursula’s seemingly frozen heart would ever thaw. For one thing, they would never even come close to knowing her first name. For another, she held sway in the school as well as the hospital, which made her doubly dominant and domineering.

No, they all agreed, once they stood up in silent surrender (either to wave off down the passage or be waved off) she really was not worth the risk. Pushing boundaries was far too much fun, though, so tomorrow they would leave it until the last second for a second time.

And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as Sister Monica Joan would say, Patsy thought, permitting herself a wry smirk whilst she propped the door ajar again.

~

Now that their sanctuary was restored, however briefly, the two remaining girls made the most of it, calling quick, successive dibs on the bathroom in order to be in pyjamas prior to the arrival of what they covertly yet collectively termed their “various pills and potions”. That way, they supposed, Nurse Crane might let them stay up and “natter” a bit – or at least they did until they remembered she did not, in fact, start her shift for another hour and a half. She and “Sister E”, forever friendly rivals, swapped over at nine-thirty each night. Consequently, once they were suitably dressed, they slipped into their beds without as much as a word. It felt safer to stay silent until after their drugs had been dispensed, because quiet was even more expected in isolation, and they really ought not to be together anyway. Two students sharing a room like this was a privilege without precedent, as Nurse Crane had reminded them last-night-this-morning, and they could not bear to lose the luxury just, for instance, by virtue laughing too loud. Besides, they were here to sleep, so sleep they should – as soon as their bedtime “meds” had been brought. Patsy, in particular, privately hoped these same bedtime “meds” would rob her entirely of the power of speech through inducing sleep. Not because she wished not to talk but because, having gone through the motions of putting on her night things, she no longer had much energy to do so. She was, in fact, exhausted; which was rather unsurprising, really, if she thought rationally.

When Evangelina appeared, however (announcing her arrival with an even smarter rap than Trixie had managed earlier that evening), all of their preconceptions were put aside. The nun was not only smiling but sensitive as she spoke. ‘Evening, girls,’ she said brightly, bustling into the bedroom. It should not have been such a shock, given the news of her generosity to their friends as well as the protective stance they had themselves witnessed when she took Janine to task at the dining table, but it was. Perhaps because of the slightly placatory to her tone, which made the older girl, especially, wonder what was going to transpire – although she kept mum for the moment. ‘Enjoy your pud?’

This kind enquiry seemed genuine, and the Sister’s blue eyes were sparkling as she met each of their gazes, so they gifted her with respective ginger and brunette nods. Then, whilst the medication was exchanged, the redhead covered for her confusion at the absence of a stronger sedative than usual in her collection by making a half-hearted joke. ‘I was worried I’d have to bleach our bedclothes to get the chocolate out.’

Evangelina raised her eyebrows. ‘Is that so? Well, I shan’t snitch to Sister Ursula if you don’t,’ she offered in a low voice, the placatory tone present once more as she paused between their beds to gauge the reaction. Seeing Patsy’s apprehension despite having dutifully taken the drugs, she returned to her bedside with a request for consent. ‘May I sit?’ The girl choked back a giggle as she nodded, trying not to offend the portly nun by shifting her legs surreptitiously beneath the linen so there would be sufficient space. ‘Thank you. Now, Nurse Mount,’ Evangelina continued, winking once their eye-lines were more equal, ‘there’s nothing new tonight, because Dr Turner wants to wait and see how you sleep before making any drastic changes to your regimen. Your dosage is already quite high, and you’re well aware neither opiates nor barbiturates are to be messed with lightly.’

‘I know, but poor Deels –’ Patsy blurted out, sliding a concerned glance over to her friend.

‘I’m fine, Pats,’ Delia replied immediately, before the nun could interject. ‘I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.’

Evangelina wanted to beam at the younger girl’s earnestness, but settled for a soft smile as she spoke again. ‘Exactly. Miss Busby’s willing, and she wouldn’t’ve been allowed to join you in the first place if Sister Julienne didn’t feel she could cope.’

The redhead remained unconvinced. ‘But if it’s truly terrible, Dr Turner will adjust things tomorrow?’ she clarified.

The nun nodded, deliberately letting her wimple wobble. ‘Yes. He’s got you booked in for his first appointment.’

‘All right,’ Patsy agreed at last, already feeling her eyes beginning to droop. Perhaps her usual dosage would be enough, after all.

The nurse in the nun saw this change and adjusted her attitude accordingly. ‘Let’s get you lying down, eh?’ she prompted gently, standing up to assist her charge’s suddenly floppy limbs.

Once Patsy was supine, if not yet quite asleep, the Sister switched to helping Delia, and shared stealthy, silent grins with this new girl she was starting to like a great deal. The brunette took her drugs just as diligently, although not without a begrudging grimace at the Phenobarbital she was still prescribed to stave off seizures. ‘Sorry, Sister,’ she said sheepishly, ‘it just makes me all woozy.’

Evangelina gave her small hand a sympathetic squeeze. ‘I know. I’m no doctor but, once you’ve been here a bit longer, we might like to talk about putting you on Phenytoin. It’s getting prescribed more regularly in place of Phenobarbital and, now you’re less frightened of forgetting things, you don’t need the sedative effect so much.’

‘Unlike me,’ Patsy put in wryly from the other bed, apparently still wide awake, since (despite her initial response) the drug took a while to kick in.

‘Horses for courses, Nurse Mount,’ Evangelina reminded, firmly yet with compassionate comfort, over her shoulder – before standing up to wish them both a proper good night as she left. ‘Sleep well, and be on your best behaviour for Nurse Crane,’ she said, shutting the door as far as was allowed.

The two of them were silent for quite some time after she had gone, and Patsy took this to mean Delia was content to settle down to sleep. Then, just as the elder girl felt herself drifting towards dreams, she heard a whispered Welsh lilt. ‘Pats?’

‘Yes, Deels?’ she asked, keeping her voice as low as her friend’s; and her eyes shut.

‘Why did Sister E call you “Nurse Mount”? I was joking when I did this morning.’

The younger girl’s cautious inquisitiveness made the referenced redhead simultaneously blush and beam. ‘I want to be a nurse when I leave school,’ she said, simply, struggling not to slur her single sentence.

‘Oh,’ the smile in Delia’s voice was evident – even without seeing, Patsy could tell, her dimples were being flashed in full force. ‘I used to want to be a nurse, too,’ she returned, her tone sincere. ‘Then I hit my head and –’

‘That doesn’t mean you can’t,’ the taller girl insisted, opening her eyes for emphasis, delighted to be able to reciprocate her shorter friend’s solidarity even in a sleepy state. ‘It might take a while to get back on track, but the future’s never certain, and there’d always be a place for you on the staff here if you’re well enough. Dr Turner was ill after the war, and lots of students come back to nurse or teach.’

‘Really?’ The brunette could hardly speak for excitement.

The redhead nodded; glad to impart such important knowledge. ‘Really. But tonight’s not the time to talk about it. Tonight we need to catch up on the sleep I stole.’

‘Patience.’

‘Delia.’

Blue eyes dared blue eyes to break the gaze and give ground. Delia, being younger, did so first. ‘It wasn’t your fault. Nos da, Pats, Saesneg.

‘Sleep well, Welshie.’

They shot symmetrical smirks, switched off their lamps in satisfied synchronicity, and slipped slowly into slumber.

~

Delia dreamt she was in Wales. At first she thought it was a dream of the future, and she was home for the “hols”, but then she realised the pictures behind her eyes showed the past. Because, when the dream began, she was riding her bike, and her Mam would likely never let her do that again in reality. And as it went on, she was sitting at the piano, her fingers moving with a fluency she would not dare hope to find now. Listening to herself play, she struggled to recognise the piece. Then she tuned in fully with her slightly younger self, instead of watching from a distance, and heard it was “Heart and Soul”. Of course. Not that she had known the name at that point, she thought with a giggle, splitting into two selves again. Sister Bernadette had told her it just this morning. When she learnt it, in Wales, it was only because her teacher said it was a simple song “suitable for a girl her age”. And it had been simple, then. It did not feel anything close to simple now. But, she decided with the logic of a young dreamer, if it had felt simple once, it could be that way again. That was the whole point of her being sent to this school. And Patsy was so patient. And Sister Julienne, and Evangelina, and Bernadette. And Monica Joan, too, through Patsy’s references to her. And Nurse Crane. They were all so kind and seemed to want her to succeed. She was uncertain why she deserved such generosity, or even if she did, but it helped. And now she had a concert to concentrate on, so she would put in plenty of practice for that, and see how far she got.

Calmed back into rationality by this reasoning, she found her dream-selves were a single self again, and let her mind lose the next several hours in picturing a pair of fluent hands flying over piano keys without even the tiniest nagging at her neurology.

~

Patsy dreamt of nothing at first, or so it seemed. The sedative was somehow strong enough that, despite her concerns, she slept comfortably for several long hours with little consciousness that she was sleeping at all. At about three o’clock the next morning, she did drift into a dream, but it was so different from her usual ones that she did not register it as such for a while. If she had not been so immersed in the experience, she might even have observed she was enjoying it.

She found herself in the Music Room of their black-and-white bungalow in Singapore; feeling very small in its wide expanse. But her anchor in this sea of space was the big, beautiful Steinway baby grand, beside which she currently stood, coupled up with her grinning sister Grace, dancing to the delightful sound of their mother’s singing as she played. She was teaching them a new piece to practise together, but it was much more fun, not to mention a rare treat, to sway along to her accompaniment. Especially as all they could concentrate on was trying not to giggle. Then blushing when they failed miserably. It was just so funny! Mama said they ought not to know about kissing and things, but suggested they learn songs like this. Patsy listened to the lyrics, hissing at Grace to hush, because the younger girl was pulling the most ridiculous faces – smacking her lips to imitate kissing and generally being a silly goose. When the elder of the two tuned in properly, though, she heard how much the song changed in the middle:

Oh! but your lips were thrilling, much too thrilling,
Never before were mine so strangely willing.’

This made her empathise with her sister’s silliness and stop struggling to hold back giggles, likely much to their mother’s quiet dismay, because she was supposed to know better. But she could not help herself so, by the end of the final verse, both girls were sobbing with laughter, crying real tears; and each one that fell with a silent splash on the floor between them only made them roar louder.

‘But now I see, what one embrace can do,
Look at me, it’s got me loving you,
Madly...
That little kiss you stole,
Held all my heart and soul.

When the piano stopped, Patsy looked up, and saw their mother was sobbing too. She smiled, though, showing she shared their tears of joy, so her eldest daughter grabbed Grace’s hand and pulled them both over to the stool for the hugest hug they could manage. All three bubbled over with laughter and blinked bleary blue eyes, burrowing as close into the comforting cuddle as they could get.

~

Delia’s piano playing was punctuated by what sounded like sobbing, so she drew herself out of her dream enough to fumble for the switch of her bedside lamp, in order to read the clock on the far wall. Four thirty. That meant they had slept for roughly eight-and-a-half hours, so she felt fairly awake and refreshed, and not too bothered about being disturbed. She consequently chose to get up and check on Patsy. When she reached the redhead, who had turned onto her back in the night, she discovered her diagnosis of sobs was correct. This was different from any previous signs of distress her friend had shown, not least because she was awake, and the brunette was bemused; so much so that the only speech she could muster was a very informal phrase from her first language. ‘Sut wyt ti?’ she asked, whispering.

‘What?’ Blue eyes stared up at her own in incomprehension, and then the older girl blinked, bringing herself fully back to the present. ‘Sorry, Deels, I didn’t mean to wake you. I just had the loveliest dream about my family and it was so unexpected it made me cry myself awake.’

‘Oh, Pats, don’t worry. We slept quite well,’ the younger girl said, smiling. ‘I’m glad you had a good dream for once. Would you like to talk about it?’ Red hair shook in vehement but gentle refusal, and the brunette nodded, unquestioningly accepting. ‘That’s all right. I think you should get it out somehow, though,’ she added, an idea forming. ‘I know! Have you started your diary?’ Red hair shook a second time, joined by a sheepish grin. ‘Well then,’ the Welsh girl suggested bravely, ‘why don’t you try that now? Sister J says it’s good to give the past space in the present.’

The taller of the two pupils giggled at her petite pal’s precociousness, but now nodded, sitting up to search in the drawer of her bedside table for the required notebook and her favourite fountain pen. As she did so, she giggled again, because she had brought them both to this new bedroom under strict instructions from her fellow inmate in isolation, but had not expected to use them. She really ought to have, she thought with a smirk, because, if she had learnt any lesson from her childhood, it was to expect the unexpected.

Ah well. At least that gave her high hopes for the future. But now she needed to make a note of the past, in the present.

~

Wednesday 26th January 1949

Dear Helen,

Gosh, it feels odd to be writing that name again. For the first time in almost four years. Especially in an actual notebook. I’m sure, when we last had any sort of correspondence, it was on a scrap of paper I could screw up and hide in my shoes. Or what was left of them, at least. I was twelve, then, and I’m nearly sixteen now.

I’m just rereading that first paragraph and realising how ridiculous I’d sound to anyone else who read this. It’s as though I’m writing a real letter to a long lost friend. But I suppose you were, and I don’t suppose anyone else will read this. Not even Deels. She’s my newfound friend at boarding school/hospital in England – goodness knows where I should begin with explaining that! – and she suggested I start writing to you again. I was nervous, but now I have I’m glad I did. Because I’ve been dreaming of the time when I first wrote to you, and there isn’t anyone else around who can or would properly understand. This morning I dreamt a slightly different version of the day Mama taught Gracie and me to play ‘Heart and Soul’, like I told you about all those years ago. It was so sweet it made me sob. The mind is strange, isn’t it? Like time. Sometimes I find them both so confusing I don’t know what to do. Maybe the answer is to write to you.

I hope you don’t mind the responsibility – or this ramble. I should sign off now, because I’m neglecting my roommate, which is very rude after waking her up with my crying. But I’ll be back as soon as I can.

For now,

Your Friend,

Patsy (or, for old times’ sake, P.E.M)

Chapter Text

Following reports to “Sister E” that sleep was indeed more successful (a statement staunchly supported by Delia), Patsy was quietly pleased to have avoided an extra appointment. Part of her was still nervous, because it had not been even close to perfect, but this anxiety was overshadowed by a visit from “Sister J” after breakfast. The Deputy Headmistress brought joyful tidings in the form of a tentative proposal that, although they should stay in isolation for a while overnight, during the days they might like to join classes. The comparatively simpler nature of their symptoms (and especially the absence of any contagion) meant this was perfectly possible. Moreover, Julienne felt the maturity exhibited by the younger of the two girls in helping her friend illustrated that she was ready to experience the wider school environment, but that a gradual introduction would still be beneficial. Having Patsy as a partner pupil would simultaneously help facilitate that, and offer them both a convenient excuse, should they need to escape. So, satisfied that the suggestion was suitably flexible, they filed into the First Form with Barbara between them, relishing the reunion and the return to some semblance of normality.

Normality, of course, included the occasional irritation courtesy of Janine Baxter. The dark-haired girl was fourteen, and therefore strictly a Third Former, she too had been held back; by her body as Patsy had been by her mind. This parallel originally led the (then) blonde girl to think she could provide some support when the slightly younger student first arrived, but it had quickly become clear that they did not possess a similar attitude to their shared situation. Janine was angry and bitter, whereas Patsy was resolved to put her struggles to positive use. Upon reflection, the now redhead was unsure that either of these roads were the right one, but their initial introduction had swiftly morphed into an ideological impasse, and she remained resigned to their rivalry. A rivalry which, it seemed, would be reinstated the moment they met in the aisle between their desks.

‘You’ve come crawling back from quarantine, I see, Patience Elizabeth Allen.’

The ginger girl merely giggled at this poor attempt at a pun. ‘If anyone here deserves the reputation of the “naughtiest girl in the school”, Janine, I’d bet most of the students and at least half the staff would say it’s you, not me,’ she replied evenly, although aware of the brittle edge to her tone – and the potentially harsh wording. ‘You’re lucky St Gids isn’t like Whyteleafe, where the children are in charge. You even look like her, and you’re an only child.’

The girl’s dark curls bounced briefly as she shook with fury at this undeniably justified dressing down, before thinking of a cutting comeback. ‘So are you,’ she started through gritted teeth, but then fell silent at the sight of Patsy’s stony stare.

‘I am not,’ Patsy hissed as she sat down in her chair with a defiant thud, ‘and if you say otherwise a second time, I’ll march you straight to Sister J’s office myself.’

Barbara piped up in from her desk in reinforcement. ‘And I’ll be holding your other arm so you can’t escape on the way.’

Delia merely nodded along with her fellow brunette, unsure whether she should speak up, since yet again she did not fully comprehend the substance of this conversation. Thankfully, she was saved from the stress of saying anything by the entrance of the First Form tutor, Miss Sutton. This woman (who was, Patsy told her whilst walking to class, an example of a staff member who had once been a student just like them) was mousy in both stature and speech, and required total silence in order to be heard at all.

‘Good morning girls,’ she said softly from the front of the room, compensating for the timidity of her voice with the surprising shine of her smile.

‘Good morning Miss Sutton,’ they replied in unison, most reciprocating her grin as well as her greeting.

Then she took the (fairly short) register, to which they each answered ‘Adsum,’ a practice Patsy usually found pretentious but today thought was rather thrilling – because she could waggle her eyebrows in devilment on seeing Delia’s exaggerated annoyance at the additional Latin.

The older girl had no chance to remark on her younger friend’s reaction, however, as their tutor was talking again. ‘The register shows me we have one new student, and another returned to us after a brief absence. Welcome at last, Delia, and welcome back, Patsy.’

‘Thank you, Miss Sutton,’ they chorused, blushing together at being singled out.

That necessary break from tradition over with, for all their sakes’, the teacher retreated behind the relief of routine. ‘As usual for a morning Form class, we begin with penmanship – or penwomanship, which is what we’ve elected to call it since the start of this year. Today’s task is writing a letter to someone significant in your life.’ Ten heads nodded attentively as they got out the relevant equipment to write: paper (either plain or lined, depending on combined confidence and dexterity) and their preferred pens. Meanwhile the tutor walked the length of the aisle, supervising them setting up, and advising on positioning or grip as needed. When she reached the row on which her eldest pupil sat, she whispered a quiet question, framed much more familiarly. ‘Is this all right, Patsy?’ she asked, before adding, ‘I know how difficult night terrors can be and I don’t wish to compound things by forcing you to engage in an uncomfortable exercise.’

The redhead was touched by her teacher’s compassion, but also very embarrassed, so blushed again, right to her roots. ‘Thank you, Jane,’ she responded sincerely, her voice very low, guessing that in this instance first name terms were allowed, ‘but I think it might help today.’

The dark-haired former student smiled in pride at her pupil’s progress, pleased she could claim playing even the smallest part in promoting it. ‘Very well. You may keep the end product private if you wish.’

Red hair shook. ‘No. I’d like an adult to read it, at least, even if it’s not him.’

Upon hearing this particular pronoun, the moment their tutor had moved on, the blue eyes belonging to the brunette sitting beside Patsy lifted from her page and slid furtively over to meet her friend’s gaze. ‘Pats?’

‘Yes, Deels? What is it, Welshie? Are you stuck for someone to write to?’ the older girl whispered, glad the environment and their “invalid” status meant the rules were relaxed enough to permit talking between class partners.

Brown hair shook now. ‘No – but, well, I think we might’ve picked the same person.’

Patsy was too surprised to be overly perturbed, but she nevertheless felt nervous. ‘What? Why?’ she started, and then paused, trying to marshal her emotions as well as her voice, ‘Sorry, I mean, I’m not sure why you’d want to write to my father, if that’s who you’ve chosen.’

The younger girl flashed what was by now recognisable as her guilty grin. ‘Someone needs to tell him off for not visiting on your birthday,’ she said, simply.

Patsy pinched her own palm under her desk to stop the roar of laughter threatening to erupt at this earnestness, and instead nodded sagely, deciding to humour Delia’s desire to help. If she were honest, she was actually intrigued to read what her feisty friend had to say to her father, especially with little to no understanding of their background or relationship. ‘All right,’ she agreed amiably, ‘it’s only in fun, anyway.’

With that settled, the two partner pupils bent studiously over their adjacent desks, and got to work on writing. Their experiences of the exercise were almost exactly opposite. Patsy, having decided on her father as a fictional correspondent, nevertheless felt she had only a vague idea of the intent of the very real words she would put on the very real page before her. Once she started, however, she found she was unable to stop – and her thoughts flowed from her mind as swiftly and smoothly as the ink from her favourite fountain pen. She was writing too fast for her penmanship to be perfect, she knew, which meant she would nominally fail the morning’s task, but she was equally aware that (at least for her) the activity was much more about content than form. In this case, anyway. So she just kept writing, becoming so utterly immersed in the emotions the endeavour inspired that she hardly noticed when her hand slipped and sent her sentences somewhere between the lines instead of on them:      

Dear Papa,

I hope this finds you well.

I gather from Sister Julienne you are not planning to visit for my birthday. I understand. Thankfully Trixie has rallied people around and organised a party for Saturday. As much as I am mortified by the attention, I am glad to have something to do. It is not every day one turns sixteen, after all. I don’t always feel my age (sometimes much older, sometimes much younger, the latter partly due to being four Forms lower than I strictly should be) but sixteen seems different somehow. I finally feel almost able to fend for myself. Not through necessity this time, either, but choice. Because I am an independent young woman on the cusp of adulthood.

I do miss you though. And I do wish you would visit. I’m playing a duet with my newest friend, Delia, in the Easter concert but the piano part of that would probably put you off.

Your daughter, Patsy

Delia, by contrast, who had had a very clear picture of how she wanted her completed page to appear, was having a very tricky time with the actual writing of the words. Not wishing to whinge and disturb her desk-mate, she hunched her shoulders and huffed quietly at each mistake, however minimal, since even the slightest slip meant she had to start over, despite barely beginning. Rather than waste an almost entirely blank piece of paper, though, she decided to barrel on a few lines below her first fumble. Then her second. Then her third and fourth. These latter two were more due to tone than style, but they still required a revision. Barrel was an apt metaphor, as well, because she was about as far from fond of the one allowing her fountain pen to function as it was possible to get. If she had thought there was a chance she might get this messy, she would have opted for the perils of a dip pen in the first place, and resigned herself to dealing with blots as a matter of course – but she had supposed she might escape some of the stress if the ink was at least contained in a cartridge.

Oh, how wrong her brain had been.

Her bloody brain, she thought mutinously, although aware that very brain was what granted her the facility for such rebellious contemplation – so it could not be completely discounted. Then her hand shook, sending a widespread splatter of ink across the remaining space below it (to join the smaller one already sprinkled over the top of her sheet), and any generosity of spirit towards her body and the brain it housed was drowned out as swiftly as she had dredged it up. This time, she voiced her anger aloud, although in a language none of the people nearby would understand. ‘Cachiad,’ she cursed, wishing she could crawl underneath her desk and hide until the lesson had moved on to material which was kinder towards her neurology.

It was now the turn of a certain redhead’s blue eyes to slide over and meet hers. ‘Deels?’ Patsy purred, performing a quick assessment of the brunette’s body language and deciding it was her duty as a partner pupil to intervene. ‘Everything all right?’

‘No,’ her petite pal replied, pouting. ‘Everything’s awful. Look.’

Dearr

Dear Mr

Dear Mr Mount,

My name is Delia Busby and I am a friend of Patsy’s

Dear Mr Mount,

I hope you don’t mind me writing.

My name is Delia Busby and I am a friend of Patsy’s at St Gideon’s. We are in the same class although she is older than I am. I am eleven nearly twelve and she is nearly sixteen, which is why I am writing this letter. She told me you will not be visiting on her birthday. She says she understands, but I do not.

The taller girl scanned the paper her shorter friend had shoved under her nose, and stifled a giggle for the second time that session. ‘Oh dear,’ she said sympathetically, shifting her urge to laugh by flashing a sincere grin. ‘I tell you what, I’m done with mine, so how’s about I help with yours? You seem to know what you want to say –’  

‘I do,’ Delia interrupted to insist, ‘it’s just the writing it down that’s hard.’

‘Well then, I can certainly help with that, but it still ought to be you putting pen to paper…’ Patsy trailed off, pondering, but then nodded to banish any inner doubts. This was purely platonic guidance, after all, and her thoughtful new friend had offered enough of that to deserve ample amounts in return. ‘How would you feel about me holding your hand?’ The Welsh girl looked wary, so the “English” girl borrowed a bit of her earlier eagerness and offered to demonstrate the other way around first. ‘Here,’ she prompted, placing her own hand in prime position to write, and waiting for a smaller one to settle on top in support. ‘See?’

Brown hair nodded at last, as the younger girl beamed in gratitude. ‘Diolch, Saesneg,’ she whispered.

‘You’re welcome, Welshie,’ the redhead answered archly as she switched the order of their grasp.

Then, the touch of Patsy’s larger hand acting as an anchor for her smaller one without being overbearing, Delia felt sufficiently steady to start again. For easy reference, she recited her message as they wrote it, and took time over the twists and turns of each letter, lingering with every extra loop she added in an attempt to be subtly sophisticated. The older girl wanted to laugh, it was so adorable, but she knew better than to distract her younger partner pupil at this crucial point, and stayed silent. At least until the substance had been set out:

Dear Mr Mount,

I hope you don’t mind me writing. My name is Delia Busby and I am a friend of Patsy’s at St Gideon’s. We are in the same class although she is older than I am. I am writing you this letter because she told me you will not be coming for tea on her birthday. She says she understands, and anyway I know you will not receive this until afterwards, so that is not why I am writing. I just want to say my mother is coming for tea on 1st March (for St David’s Day because we are Welsh) and I wonder if you would be happy to join us? That should give you enough time to organise after getting this letter. It is not long before the Easter break, either.

Then, though, she had to say something; because there was one very big flaw in the plan her friend was fashioning. ‘This is all very lovely, Deels,’ she put in when the brunette took a moment to stretch her wrist, ‘but the Easter break won’t mean anything to Papa.’

Delia’s head whipped around to face the redhead as she responded in confusion. ‘What? Why?’

‘I don’t go home. It’s too far. There isn’t time to get there and back by boat.’

‘Oh. And I guess if he doesn’t come for your birthday, he definitely wouldn’t for Easter. Whether to fetch you home or just to visit.’ Delia’s tone was deadpan, but her face belied the fury behind her words. Then her eyes sparkled, and Patsy panicked slightly at the possibility she may be summoning up further schemes. It turned out she was right to be reticent because, after a brief pause, there arrived the addition, ‘In that case, you’re coming with me.’

‘You mean home? To Wales?’ These were real queries on the older girl’s part, whispered for caution when she wished to shout to check for clarity.

‘Mhmm. All that involves is a boringly long train trip, and it’d be much less boring if you were along for the ride. Come on, Pats, say yes. It’d be an adventure.’

Such (comparative) youthful exuberance was hard to resist. ‘Yes,’ Patsy squeaked, ‘if your mother agrees. Oh, thank you, Deels – or diolch.’

A small palm shifted so it was facing upwards and could squeeze the bigger one still resting above it. ‘That doesn’t require a “thank you”, Patience,’ the younger girl said sternly, but with a smile. ‘We need to work on you remembering you’re not a burden and people enjoy spending time with you.’

Her elder friend could not hold back a chuckle at this comment, but did manage to keep it a quiet one. ‘That was quite some pronouncement, Delia,’ she drawled. ‘You sound like Kitty, I mean, Miss Hendricks.’

She was joined in her giggle by the referenced brunette, who did not even blink at the returned usage of her full first name. ‘The school psychotherapist?’

The redhead hummed, relieved by the immediate recognition and absence of awkwardness which were results of shared experience. ‘Yes. Have you seen her yet?’

‘Not since my assessment session when I arrived,’ Delia admitted, constructing her answer carefully in case her friend felt sensitive about this difference in their diagnoses, ‘but she seemed very nice. And if she says things like that, she’s right, so I’m glad to sound like her.’

When she stopped speaking, the Welsh girl stuck out her tongue, but the “English” one was still too overwhelmed by her generosity to reprimand her impertinence, so elected to mirror the gesture. Then they both remembered they were in class and, whilst the rules were relaxed, such conduct probably remained outside the boundaries of expected behaviour. So they pulled themselves together, and sat in silent solidarity until everyone else had finished and Miss Sutton called the Form back to focus.

~

After their first few hours back in the position of proper First Form pupils, the day, and the rest of the school week, flew by for both girls. Delia had initially been frustrated by the realisation that the fortnightly timetable changes meant that each of their assigned double lessons with the fabled Sister Monica Joan fell on Mondays and Tuesdays in Week One, so she had missed the chance to meet her until next Thursday now (which was their first slot in Week Two). But this disappointment was quickly diverted when Patsy reminded her that Friday of Week One was Games day, and promised to let her try out the basics of fencing, if she wanted. She did, she always did and, were it not for the potency of Phenobarbital, it would have been her keeping them awake from excitement. Thankfully, however, they both slept through (since they did not believe an earlier morning than the other students might have really counted as a disturbance). This was particularly positive on Thursday night, because they needed energy to fence on Friday.

All her kind offers notwithstanding, Patsy had been worried about how the activity would actually proceed, because she was unsure if it was wise (as Delia herself quipped before they began) to “let someone with interesting neurology loose with a sword” – even though they were wearing the appropriate protection. But they were using foils, of course, so she was relatively certain there was no real risk of damage – and the co-ordination required to combine footwork with bladework would do Delia no end of good. Physiotherapy by way of fencing, perhaps. Sister Evangelina had given her approval that morning, anyway, so the taller girl got over her overthinking and guided her shorter friend through some of the easier moves, if still reining in the intensity of each lunge to stop any unsteady lurches and ensuring their parries and ripostes stayed on the gentler side. The brunette appeared to be in her element despite everything, though, and the redhead relished watching her enjoy a compulsory activity so much after her worries over their writing task two days ago.

Especially when she got giddy with giggling.

Patsy raised a brow and balanced her blade carefully against the polished floor of the gym. ‘What, Welshie?’

Delia’s giggles spluttered to a stop. ‘Sori, Saesneg,’ she said, trying to look shamefaced, ‘I just feel like a pirate.’

The ginger was helpless to hold back her laughter now. ‘I think you’d make an excellent pirate, actually,’ she answered sincerely once she caught her breath again. ‘From what you’ve told me about your tree climbing escapades.’

‘Shhh, Pats,’ the brunette hissed, ‘Sister U might hear.’ Both girls grimaced, glancing over at the lingering shadow of their Headmistress, who doubled as their Games Mistress; two roles allowing her to exhibit the full gamut of her grouchiness. She was apparently occupied with Barbara, though, which meant they were safe for a while yet. ‘Go on then,’ Delia continued devilishly, ‘if I’m a pirate you ought to fight me properly.’

Patsy paused momentarily, weighing up their comparative abilities, and elected to give a little ground on the caution front. ‘Only if you show me where your treasure is,’ she taunted playfully, as she met each of the other girl’s moves, matching them point for point and keeping their blades connected.

Then Delia feinted, pushing Patsy to parry unexpectedly, which gave her a chance to touch the tip of her blade to her opponent’s now unguarded chest. ‘Yours is right there,’ she said, smirking. ‘You’ve got a heart of gold.’

The taller girl snorted in surprise. ‘I rather think it’s made of ice, I’m afraid,’ she answered, hiding behind humour before deflecting by getting back to the tactics of their match. ‘Touché, Deels, literally.’

Her smaller friend laughed aloud at this reference, at last earning them a look of disapproval from Ursula.

~

When they got back to their room in isolation later that evening, having been granted the opportunity to join their friends in the dining hall for supper, they were so exhausted (albeit through the elation of exercise) that they almost could not be bothered to undress. The thought of what Nurse Crane would say if she found them in bed in full uniform swiftly put an end to that idea, though, so they took turns in the bathroom for a second night before Sister Evangelina brought their drugs. Then they settled down to sleep, and woke only at the sound of a sudden, if soft, thwack against their window early the next morning.

Patsy cracked open a single eye, knowing she was closest (so should really be the one to investigate what on earth was going on), but hoping to call birthday privileges and stay snuggled. Delia simply rolled over and burrowed deeper under her covers, however, so the older girl begrudgingly got up and walked barefoot to the window. When she drew back the curtain, the sight she saw took her breath away briefly, and she felt (happy) tears smarting in her eyes before spilling down her cheeks. Down just below the window, a group of her school friends had gathered, and were apparently trying to attract her attention by chucking bits of gravel from the drive at the glass pane. Squinting through the fog the day seemed to have gifted her, she could see Trixie, and Barbara…and Emily? The recognition of that last person, her figure stiff from sitting out in her wheelchair in such weather but nevertheless making a valiant effort to wave excitedly, made Patsy even more emotional. It must have taken quite some organisation on the part of the students (not to mention the staff) to get them all up, presentable and out so early, especially on a weekend.

Then she heard Delia’s bare feet padding about behind her, and felt a hand reach up to rest on her shoulder. ‘Penblwydd hapus, Pats,’ the brunette said softly, beaming when the redhead turned slightly to meet her gaze. ‘That’s Welsh for “happy birthday”. And yes, I’m a meany for pretending I was still asleep just now, but we wanted you to get first glimpse of everyone.’

The elder girl raised a brow at this evidence of yet more scheming on her younger friend’s part. ‘You mean you were in on this too?’ she asked, wiping her eyes as daintily as she could with the back of her hand, and waving vaguely in the direction of the window.

‘I was, yes,’ Delia answered, her tone almost sarcastic, as though suggesting it was ridiculous to think she might not have been. Then she went on, giggling, ‘You should probably open it a little, though, so you don’t keep them waiting too long.’

Patsy rolled her eyes dramatically, but did as requested, and shoved the window open a small amount – much to the delight of the three girls gathered down below, who, after a quick glance between them, started singing. ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow…

Having held the end note of the third repetition for as long as possible, they looked up, locking eyes with their fourth conspirator, who sneakily finished the short rendition of the song. ‘And so say all of us,’ Delia sang, channelling so much sincerity into her single line that the unexpected clarity and confidence of her voice set Patsy off crying again.

‘Thank you, you lot,’ the sixteen-year-old shouted out the window through her tears. ‘You’re far too kind to me.’

‘Nonsense, sweetie,’ Trixie shot back. ‘It’s the very least you deserve. Now, you and Delia get dressed, and then the three of us will join you for a breakfast of birthday delicacies,’ she trilled with a grin, getting ready to push Emily back indoors.

The redhead stared after her blonde best friend for a few moments, overwhelmed with the level of thought she had put into planning this “party”. Then she turned to face into the bedroom, bursting into yet more grateful tears upon seeing the smile of her brunette friend. Delia simply hugged her close. ‘See, Pats,’ she whispered, ‘we wouldn’t put you through an actual party. Not unless you wanted one. I promise.’

This kindness only served to make Patsy sob harder, and then jump back in embarrassment when she realised what that emotion would mean for her petite pal’s poor pyjamas. ‘Oh gosh,’ she said as they separated, ‘this is ridiculous! I don’t even think I’ve a hanky with me, I left them all in the dorm…’

Delia just smiled wider, not caring a jot about the state of the nightclothes she was about to change out of anyway. ‘Perhaps my present might help, then,’ she offered softly, drawing her left hand (which it was now obvious she had kept hidden) out from behind her back. ‘Here.’

The older girl took the cloth, but paused before patting her eyes dry to take a proper look at the younger’s generous gift. It was a plain white handkerchief, but had been embroidered at each corner with her initials, “P.E.M.” and a surrounding design of several small red flowers. ‘Oh, Deels,’ she breathed at last, ‘are these Busy Lizzie flowers?’

Brown hair nodded. ‘My Tad told me the proper, Latin, name for their flower family is Impatiens, and these are Impatiens Walleriana. Because they’re impatient about spreading their seeds. But he calls them “Patience plants” because he finds it funny, so I thought you might, too. And your hair’s red so I went for red ones. I did it last week in lessons with Sister J.’

Patsy bit the inside of her cheek to stop any further tears. ‘It’s very lovely,’ she said, swallowing, ‘and I do find it funny. Because my Papa called my Mama “Busy Lizzy” sometimes, although her nickname was spelt with a “y”. That’s why my middle name’s Elizabeth. And I dyed my hair red for her. You didn’t know any of that, Deels, but you did, somehow. This gift means so much, thank you.’ Then, having at last wiped her eyes and folded the now precious square of cloth carefully into her pyjama pockey, the taller girl drew the smaller in for another hug, this time to share joy instead of overwhelm.

They stayed like that until there was a knock on their door. ‘Are you decent yet?’ Trixie called through the slight crack where it was propped ajar.

‘Still in our pyjamas,’ they chorused back, chuckling.

‘That’s all right,’ Barbara put in, kindly. ‘You only turn sixteen once, after all. I’d say you get birthday privileges.’

‘Me too?’ Delia asked anxiously.

There was a pause as their friends made a show of conferring. ‘Yes, Em says you too, Delia,’ Trixie pronounced with an exaggerated tut. ‘Now do let us in, won’t you? We come bearing gifts.’

The two girls already in the room giggled, and then walked together to open the door. They realised their friends were carrying bowls – well, actually, Emily was, since they could be balanced on her lap – so then rushed to retrieve them for easier manoeuvring into the room. As Patsy picked three of the five up, she took a quick peek at their contents, and squeaked in surprise. ‘Chocolate rice krispies cakes? Not cornflakes this time?’

‘Balanced diets are important, Patience, especially for a growing girl,’ Trixie said in a supercilious tone. ‘Brand new day, brand new year, brand new you,’ she added, mimicking Sister Ursula’s motto.

For this mockery, Patsy padded patiently over to her bed, put the bowls down on her nightstand, and chucked a pillow at her head. ‘Birthday privileges, Trix, you understand,’ she replied smoothly, smirking, perfectly content to accept the pile-on which would ensue from such provocation.

Chapter Text

Sister Julienne was drawn from her meditation whilst dressing by several sharp raps on her bedroom door and, in an instant, brought her mind back to the present. Slipping behind her professional façade, the only sliver of personality she permitted herself was a brief, ironic prayer of thanks that the visitor had waited until she was wearing her wimple, if not quite her full habit. Then, whilst she padded over to admit them, she glanced at the calendar affixed to her wall to check the date.

Tuesday the fifteenth of February.

Ah yes, she thought, as she reached the door. Of course. She ought, really, to have marked today. She had, mentally, anyway, but a literal pencil mark would have been the most effective form of reminder. That way, she would have woken earlier, and been ready for the knock. Not that that was always a guarantee, because the mind of the student for whom the date was most memorable paid little heed to calendars at this point in the year. The whole month mattered a great deal. Well, at least now she knew who it would be. Nurse Crane. Or rather Phyllis, since her colleague’s first name felt more appropriate in the context of such acts of protection of their pupils as this. When she opened it, however, she found she was mistaken. The petitioner was not, in fact, a colleague at all, but one of the pupils Phyllis had most swiftly taken under her wing, to use a metaphor fitting to her surname.

‘Delia –’ Julienne started, breaking off when she saw and heard the bewildered, breathless state of the brunette standing before her.

The young girl shifted uneasily from foot to foot, clearly equally as awkward about still being in pyjamas, then caught herself and her breath, keeping her speech slow and steady so as to be better understood. ‘Sorry, Sister, it’s just Nurse Crane sent me. She’s sitting with Patsy in our isolation room, on the side of her bed, and didn’t want to leave her because she had several nightmares and has been staring into space ever since. She said you’d know whether a sedative was the right call in the situation, so she’d at least be safe to leave to sleep, or might have something else to suggest.’

The Deputy Headmistress listened intently, and then smiled. ‘No apologies necessary, Delia,’ she responded softly, ‘and actually quite the opposite. I’m very grateful to you for coming here. I’ll be right with you. I just need to finish dressing, quickly, but in the meantime, I wonder if you could fetch Sister Bernadette as well? I do have another idea, prior to resorting to a sedative, but it’s one which requires reinforcements.’

Brown hair nodded, now, and the nurse in the nun could see a glimmer of a grin, which meant her student was glad to be of use. ‘Of course, Sister.’

Watching the small Welsh girl depart to do her duty as fast as was both sensible and possible given her slight remaining limp, Julienne smiled again, albeit with rather tight lips. She was at once thrilled that Patsy had made such a firm friend so fast and sorry that Delia had to deal with another pupil’s issues on top of her own. And yet, she mused, making her way back into her room in order to dress more fully, perhaps that was the paradox of their lives as patient-students in a school like St Gideon’s. Their shared experiences meant they were more exposed to trauma than other children their age, but that made them more compassionate, and, apparently, grateful for their community. It did on the whole, at any rate, and now was not the time to contemplate the very few exceptions to that rule.

Instead, as she slipped on her outer layers of clothing, Julienne slipped back into meditation in hopes of making the minutes move quicker. This strategy seemed to work because, in what at least appeared to her to be a mere moment, she was presentable enough to depart in aid of Patsy. And Phyllis. And dear little Delia, of course – the latter of whom was found once again outside her door when she opened it, now holding tightly to the hand of Sister Bernadette. Catching her colleague’s eye, Julienne gestured that it might be wise for their pupil to be picked up, and the Scottish nun nodded in silent understanding before speaking. ‘Delia, sweetheart, would you like a lift back to your bedroom?’

The brunette blinked briefly at this kind enquiry, but then nodded. ‘Yes please, Sister,’ she replied quietly, ‘I think we need to be quite quick.’

Bernadette smiled gently at the young girl’s implicit understanding of her reason for offering; then scooped her into the safety of her arms. ‘I’m proud of you, Miss Busby,’ she said as they walked.

Julienne hummed in agreement. ‘You’re keeping very calm,’ she said.

Delia just giggled at their assessment of her. She did not feel calm in the slightest. She was worried about Patsy and the only thing stopping her from screaming aloud in panic was watching the swish of the Sisters’ habits across the floor beneath their feet and her gaze. And it was not proving particularly successful. Thankfully it seemed the two nuns understood the urgency of the situation even better than she did, though, and it was not long before they reached the room. Once they had slipped inside with as little noise as possible, she clambered out of Sister Bernadette’s grasp and settled on the side of her own bed, not wishing to be in the way.

Then everyone who had recently arrived registered that Patsy was mumbling. ‘Shhh, Gracie, keep still, or you’ll knock us both overboard.’

The brunette bit her cheek to stop a concerned whimper at her redheaded friend’s behaviour, and cast her blue eyes downwards to avoid connecting with any of the nurses. Julienne noticed this, but elected to leave her be for the moment, prioritising checking in with Phyllis. ‘Nurse Crane?’

‘The talking started just after Delia left to fetch you and there’s mostly been no response when I’ve tried to interact,’ her colleague stated simply, phrasing her comments carefully so as not to use the third person whilst describing a patient, even with Patsy’s compromised comprehension at this point.

The nun nodded. ‘Understood.’ Then she changed tack and tone completely, addressing her pupil directly. ‘Patsy? Can you hear me?’ Receiving no reply beyond the continuation of the teenager’s childlike mumbles, she returned to professional enquiry. ‘Nurse Crane, if we could switch places, please.’ This was an order instead of a query (albeit one gently given), and the veteran nurse got up without a murmur.

She only spoke again once she was standing and could see another person in the room whomight be feeling rather redundant. ‘Shall I keep you company, lass?’ she asked, smiling as Delia nodded in delight and made space for her to sit down.

Julienne mirrored their grins, and their motions, too; at last enlisting Bernadette. ‘Brace position, Sister,’ she said softly – at which words both women sat either side of the ginger girl, prepared to ride out this reliving right along with her.

~

Patsy, meanwhile, was sitting on the edge of a lifeboat. Flanked on either side by her Mama and Papa, she was taking her turn to rest Grace on her lap. The only slightly younger girl was as wriggly and irritable as she herself felt, but of course it was her duty to live up to her namesake virtue and be patient. The trouble was that seemed very difficult to do when they were all hot and sticky and their throats were parched with thirst and their lips stung from the salt after so many days and nights at sea. She could not blame her little sister in the slightest but, out of respect for their fellow passengers, she knew she ought to coax her to stay quiet – or at the very least still, because the boat was rocky enough without her wriggling. So she spoke up, softly. ‘Shhh, Gracie, keep still, or you’ll knock us both overboard.’

Charles Mount nodded in approval. ‘That’s my girl,’ he whispered; his tone apologetic and resigned, but trying to pass the second sentiment off as resolve. ‘I’m sorry we can’t let you swim,’ he added.

Patsy braced herself for the irritation that statement would surely elicit from her mother, watching as the willowy woman tentatively drew her hair off her sunburnt face and drew herself up to her full height. ‘For goodness’ sake, Charlie,’ Elizabeth exclaimed under her breath, ‘our daughters have enough foolish ideas of their own; they certainly don’t require additional encouragement from you. You’re supposed to set a good example, especially in these circumstances.’

She had hoped her youngest would be too distracted by her own distress to hear this exchange, but Grace picked this point to pipe up. ‘But Mama,’ she said stubbornly, ‘Ian told me Mrs Sinclair said he might be allowed to swim if we don’t see land soon. I’m just as strong as he is.’

Patsy observed as Elizabeth shared an even glance with Alice Sinclair, expressing exasperated solidarity at the machinations required to make motherhood a smoother sail, and decided she ought to intervene. ‘I’d rather stay with Mama and Papa, Gracie, wouldn’t you? We’re tired enough as it is.’

The younger girl tried to argue, but yawned, and then giggled sheepishly. ‘I guess you’re right,’ she agreed, and her older sister hugged her close in gratitude before she spoke again. ‘It’s still boring just looking out at the water when we can’t even drink it, never mind swim.’

Patsy pressed her lips gently to the top of Grace’s head, unsure how best to offer comfort otherwise; but here their mother had some wisdom to impart. ‘Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink,’ she recited, to their sudden surprise. ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge, girls. There’s been poetry written about journeys like these. I know that won’t help the horridness right now, but it might put things in perspective one day.’

Grace’s eyes grew round at this new word. ‘What does “perspective” mean, Papa?’ she asked, turning to Charles.

He chuckled and chucked her under the chin. ‘Your sister knows better than I,’ he replied, wanting to boost both girls’ morale at once.

Patsy grinned proudly. ‘It means the way we see things, Gracie,’ she said, hoping her explanation was simple enough, then adding, ‘or the place we see them from. Like we can only see up to the horizon now, but there are other things beyond it.’

Grace was enthralled. ‘Like what’s over the rainbow?’ she asked, awestruck.

Patsy giggled at this very particular point of reference. ‘Yes, I suppose so,’ she paused, looking to her parents for confirmation.

‘Quite right, Gracie,’ Charles said gruffly, and Patsy saw him surreptitiously blink back a tear. ‘And that’s actually a wonderful pastime – what say you, Lizzy?’

Elizabeth was wary until she caught Alice’s eye again and the other woman nodded. ‘A whole boat sing-along?’ she clarified, checking in with each of the other passengers to be certain they were content. ‘I don’t see why not.’ And, with that, she started to sing:       

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

~

Delia watched from the opposite bed in concerned bemusement, wondering why the adults in the room were just letting the other young girl mumble on rather than trying to break the spell and get her to speak sense. Then, though, the redhead’s ramblings shifted from speech to singing, and the brunette understood the reason the three women had waited. They were patient enough to let Patsy guide them, which she was, through the medium of music – and, as her friend sang softly, her gaze still distant, Delia found herself swept up in the relief of recognising the song.

~

At first Patsy preferred merely to listen to her mother than join in. The sound of her singing was one of the most comforting in the world (a connection to the childhood it seemed had vanished literally overnight) and it scared her to be the one to break that fragile thread. Then Grace started, too, followed by Ian and Joan – his absolutely stunning older sister – and both their parents, Alice and Douglas. Douglas’ participation prompted Charles to join in, as well, and Patsy felt the gentle pressure of her father’s hand on her shoulder as a silent signal that she should too. So she did, letting herself be carried by the swell of the song in the same manner their small boat was being carried by the sea, because she very much wished to wake up somewhere (anywhere!) else:

‘Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me

~

Everyone in the isolation room was content instead of concerned now (save for Patsy, who still was not quite there) since they all understood the strategy. The Sisters shared a fleeting smile when their charge wavered over the higher note at the end of the second verse, because that was their cue to come in, as they had on a range of dates for the past four Februaries. The flashbacks were never exactly the same, of course. Her memories were muddled by a mixture of time and medication, and minds liked to play tricks whenever they were given the chance, but the song had thus far featured without fail. They might never be sure of the precise morning on which it would make its annual appearance – but they knew what to do when it did. What they did not expect was to be aided in this endeavour by both Delia and Phyllis. The night nurse usually left the nuns to it once she had fetched them, and had never seen this scenario play out; but it would have been unfair to request that their newest student vacate what was her bedroom as much as Patsy’s. Besides, it was highly unlikely she would have obeyed. So their tiny choir had two extra singers; an asset they did not entirely appreciate until afterwards, except that it gave them more volume.

‘Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh, why can't I?

When they sang the third verse, though, Patsy’s voice became more focussed and deliberate, suggesting she was becoming more present. They all glanced at her, tentatively reassured, and found bittersweet confirmation in the fact that she had tears streaming down her cheeks – but she sang the final refrain regardless, so they did, too:

‘If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh, why can't I?

‘Why oh why can’t I, indeed,’ she said with a sad smile, once they stopped and she had stared into space for a while longer, just to breathe and be sure she was fully “back”. ‘Gracie used to ask that all the time – and now apparently my mind thinks it’s acceptable to go off on flights of fancy whenever it feels like it. I’m sorry, everyone, but thank you for being here. February’s still having fun at my expense, it seems.’

‘That’s quite all right, lass,’ Phyllis put in kindly. ‘We’re pleased to help no matter the month, but especially during fickle ones.’

‘Yes,’ Bernadette said, squeezing the hand which had wound its way to the lap of her habit, ‘and it’s us who ought to thank you for your honesty and bravery in therapy sessions, as well as your willingness to forfeit confidentiality when it comes to certain subjects,’ she added.

Patsy grinned sheepishly now. ‘I’m glad I told Kitty she could tell you, although it was scary doing so, so soon after I arrived.’

Julienne matched the girl’s grin. ‘So are we. I’d like to discuss that with you later, if I may –’

Her pupil interjected quickly. ‘We could discuss it now,’ she offered, ‘I don’t mind Deels hearing; we’ve already talked about Kitty.’

Julienne’s smile grew wider. ‘Very well. In that case, I wonder if you might like to rethink your break and go back for a bit, if this time of year is proving tricky.’

Patsy nodded, sighing. ‘I think you’re right. I’m sorry this happened today; I think it’s because we read Coleridge in our last English class and I thought I could cope so I stayed. Silly mistake.’

The nuns shook their wimpled heads and spoke in almost-unison. ‘Not at all – a brave attempt on your behalf.’

The redhead raised a brow, then giggled, and made a rare request. ‘May I have a hug, please?’

‘Certainly,’ everyone chorused, and gathered around to envelop her in an affectionate embrace.

~

Roughly half an hour later, having at last settled the girls back into what they hoped would be a mutually dreamless sleep, the nuns (and their nursing colleague) deemed it advisable to have a quiet conversation in the main corridor whilst the Sisters made their way to Service and Nurse Crane returned to her duties in the dorm. The problem with this plan was that they had not checked the time when leaving the isolation area, which meant two of the three women found they were actually very late for their devotions. They were likely in a lot of trouble, too; if the stony stare of their superior Sister as she stood at the other end of the passage was as portentous as they feared it might be.

‘Julienne, Bernadette, my office, now,’ Ursula said curtly whilst she walked towards them.

Phyllis watched her cherished colleagues’ cheeks turn pale at this command, and put herself on the line alongside them. ‘If I may, Sister,’ she interrupted softly before either of the nuns could answer, ‘I’d appreciate being allowed to join you.’

Ursula’s eyes narrowed slightly, but this was the sole sign she gave of awkwardness, and she then acquiesced. ‘Follow me, all three of you.’

They did so, keeping a rapid pace but a respectful distance, deciding it was wise to be wary. They were not brave enough to confer over tactics for this talk, and consequently satisfied themselves with the silent sharing of facial expressions until they reached their destination and had to behave. Only once Ursula had ushered them inside did Phyllis dare to speak a second time. ‘Please, Sister, hear me out,’ she requested, waiting anxiously for either refusal or agreement. ‘Thank you,’ she went on after the nun’s brief nod. ‘It’s my fault the Sisters were called away before Service. I sent Miss Busby to fetch Sister Julienne, because Miss Mount was having one of the faraway phases, which are more frequent in February. She brought Sister Bernadette with her, and I stayed so Miss Busby wasn’t left alone whilst they worked with her friend. I had alerted Sister Wilda, who was second-on-call overnight.’

Ursula did not respond to Phyllis, but pursed her lips and turned to Julienne and Bernadette. ‘You were singing, I suppose?’ she asked sardonically.

The younger of the other two nuns blushed bright red at this address, but then collected herself and spoke up in defence of both their methods and their patient. ‘It’s the only thing that works when Patsy’s that far gone, because she associates it so strongly with this time of year.’

Her elder Sister nodded in support, and was about to add her voice to the mix, but Ursula had more to say. ‘Be that as it may, we’ve had words regarding the inefficiency of such bespoke treatments.’

Julienne was now unable to hold back. ‘Our patient-students’ parents pay the Order for precisely that purpose,’ she countered, keeping her tone level if tight. ‘It isn’t as if we profit from them beyond what goes back into upkeep and salaries, and this isn’t the same situation as the Cottage –’

Ursula cut her colleague off without even the barest pretence of congeniality. ‘I’ll thank you not to finish that sentence,’ she said sternly, pressing her palms into a steeple shape before nodding in dismissal. ‘You may go; but consider yourselves cautioned.’

~

Meanwhile, having slept through the duration of that difficult discussion, both of the referenced pupils lay in companionable silence a few hours afterwards, mulling over the odd relief of not needing to get up for class. Isolation was never a reward, and mostly the necessity of it felt irritating, but on days like this they were glad of its existence. Patsy might still be mortified, and Delia knew it, because feelings like that were difficult to shake off regardless of their rationality. But the shorter girl shot her tall friend a sincere smile from across the room as she saw her arms stretching upwards, hoping it would be read as a kind caution against any apology.

By the way the redhead blushed and grinned back, the brunette was fairly sure her message had been received. ‘Bore da, Pats,’ she began gently.

Bore da to you too, Deels,’ Patsy replied, sticking her tongue out as she visibly wrestled with her internal urge to say sorry.

Delia giggled delightedly. ‘Bore da i ti hefyd, you mean,’ she said, sticking her tongue out as well.   

The older girl was caught off guard and suddenly found herself cackling in a manner she would consider most inappropriate from anyone else. It felt good, however, so she did not stop until she was out of breath. Still smirking, she took a second to restore herself, prior to answering properly. ‘I suppose I do, yes,’ she agreed. They then fell into silence again for quite some time, before she decided to convert her younger friend’s apparently unquestioning compassion into courage and divulge even the tiniest of details. ‘Today is seven years since Singapore fell and it was occupied by the Japanese,’ she started timidly, choosing her words with care to cope with the uncertainty about being understood, then pausing as she felt her muscles begin to shake with fear from sharing such a secret part of her life story.

Delia saw the terror in the stormy blue eyes staring towards her own, and raised a brow in a gentle query, as she slipped out from under her covers to pad over to the other bed. This action was answered by a ginger grin on the redhead’s part, at which the brunette beamed. ‘Cwtch?’ she asked quietly.

‘Please,’ Patsy said, pulling back the bedclothes so there would be enough space for her kind Welsh companion to climb in beside her, before she decided to deflect by making a joke around that language herself, as Delia had done earlier. ‘Sori,’ she corrected, ‘I mean, os gwelwch yn dda.’

The shorter girl chuckled as she settled in and shifted the covers to be snug around both their bodies. ‘No, silly,’ she said, shaking her head so hard in mock-frustration that it tickled her friend’s face, ‘You mean os gweli di’n dda – you know about the difference between formal and informal language better than I do, Patience.’    

The taller girl surprised herself by tucking closer into the hug as she replied. ‘Perhaps, Delia, but formality makes things less scary by creating distance, and what I have to tell you involves discussing the month my whole world turned upside down.’

The brunette took their bodily proximity as a sign she could be brave, and stroked the redhead’s pale cheek in a platonic, grounding gesture. ‘You don’t have to tell me everything at once. You don’t even have to tell me anything at all.’

Patsy opened her mouth to protest, feeling obligated after the events of the early morning, but saw her friend was sincere and decided to take her at her word. ‘All right, then, if you’re sure. Diolch, Deels. In that case, what would you say about a visit to the Music Room? Sister Bernadette mentioned there aren’t any classes in there ’til past midday.’

Delia nodded in genuine joy at this suggestion. ‘I’d say os gweli di’n dda,’ she offered cheekily, ‘if you’re happy to head there in our dressing gowns!’

The older girl feigned a scandalised glance, but then giggled, ruining the effect. ‘I’m game if you are. Piggyback, Busby?’

Her younger friend’s shocked face was completely unrehearsed, but it disappeared quickly, and they slipped out of bed in a few seconds to set off.

~

When they got there, however, Patsy was perturbed to discover that her safe space did not seem quite as safe as usual. It was not that anything was different – in fact everything was almost exactly the same as it had been when they last visited to practise – but she felt different. More than that, she could not settle on a piece.

‘Deels,’ she whispered desperately, trying not to pout or whine.

‘Yes, Pats?’ the shorter girl said, smiling across the small gap between them on the stool.

‘I don’t know what to play.’

The Welsh girl grew thoughtful, which made her accent grow thicker. ‘We’ve not chosen something for the concert yet.’

‘No,’ her “English” friend acknowledged primly, ‘but that’s for the future and my mind is too much in the past today.’

‘I understand,’ Delia said softly, and Patsy could tell she did.

They sat in silence yet again, musing, and were set on selecting something suitably separate from either of their situations. Before they could come up with some options, though, the door creaked, and they nearly fell off the stool at the noise. Once they had registered the new arrival’s appearance, Patsy calmed herself enough to speak. ‘Sister Monica Joan, you startled us,’ she said, simply.

The elderly nun shuffled into the room with an air of apology. ‘I have committed a crime,’ she confessed, ‘I read the notes in your file about this morning, and I fear it was my fault February caught up with you. I ought to have been firmer when we came to Coleridge.’

The redhead’s heart melted at this admission. ‘No, Sister,’ she reassured, ‘it was my choice to stay in class, but I appreciate the sentiment – and, since you suggested dyeing my hair might help, you might be able to assist now in picking a piano piece for us to play.’

The nun looked relieved, and pensive. ‘Well, as your childhood is prevalent, perhaps some Schumann,’ she said. ‘I’ll let you hear,’ she added, walking to the record player in the corner and searching for the disc she wanted in the collection beside it. ‘These are his “Kinderszenen”, or “Scenes from Childhood”,’ she declared triumphantly as she found it and made sure to fix it securely on the turntable.

Then she was silent, signalling that they should listen.

Upon hearing the name of the collected pieces, Patsy racked her brain, wondering how it could possibly feel so familiar. Her confusion was only compounded by a total lack of recognition of not just the opening one, but the five which followed it, as beautiful as they might surely be. She enjoyed each of them, certainly, because they were somehow simultaneously contrasting and complementary – she could understand why Schumann had selected them to form a set. Since Sister Monica Joan had given her the sleeve to skim, she also liked that he had given each its own name, albeit in German; one of the languages for which she had little facility, despite the slight similarity to Dutch. Yet, still, from the first six pieces, she found nothing to explain the irritating itch niggling at her neurology, and began tapping her foot quietly in frustration. Knowing they were designated as descriptions of childhood was not sufficient to stop her wanting to scratch at the surface of what she was sure they would signify to her soul. But when the seventh started, just shy of four minutes in, she startled again – because even the briefest brush of its first note was enough to make her eyes smart with sudden tears.

Delia saw the change and held up a hand to let the Sister know the songs should cease. ‘I think we should turn it off,’ she put in kindly.

Her older friend had other – opposing – ideas. ‘No, I know this one,’ she revealed in a rush.

Monica Joan nodded. ‘Likely from the moving picture featuring Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann,’ she said sagely. ‘The title of the piece translates as “Dreaming”.’

Red hair shook in gentle but clear disagreement. ‘No, Sister, I mean from before. In the camps. They performed it with the vocal orchestra.’ At this point Patsy was so overcome by the relief of recognition, however bittersweet, that she could not care less if Delia understood. She had said she did not need to, after all. Consequently, instead of apologising, she asked a simple yet significant question. ‘May we stay and listen to them for a while longer?’

Both of her companions smiled sadly as they nodded together. ‘Of course,’ the Sister agreed, ‘but the medical parts of my mind are telling me I ought to procure some blankets for the pair of you.’

‘That would be sensible,’ Delia said precociously, ‘and in the meantime we can sit near the radiator. We always did that at school back in Wales.’      

Satisfied her charges would be safe until she returned, Monica Joan scuttled out, and the girls grinned at each other whilst the smaller of the two did precisely as she suggested, getting off the stool and flopping onto the floor just by the rattling pipes which fed into the radiator. Her taller friend also stood up, but paused briefly before sitting again to adjust and restart the record. She had a feeling she would become as attached to the rest of it as she already was to the seventh piece, and this made her decide to quiz the eldest of the Nonnatuns about what each of the individual names meant in English. For now, though, the only one she was especially interested in was indeed called “Dreaming”; since it simultaneously reminded her of her mother and seemed appropriate given her mental state this morning. All the others passed by in a blur, both before and afterwards, and she was glad of the slight chill of the floorboards beneath her bottom. It helped her stay present – and hopefully to appear attentive enough that her petite pal would not notice. Delia did, of course, but thought she should respond without speaking. So, instead of saying anything, she simply slid from sitting into a lying position. The redhead regarded the movement of the brunette’s body in bemusement, but then realised her own was practically roaring at her to lie down as well. So she did, facing her friend, and curling into as close to a ball as was physically possible.

Once they were on the same level again, the younger girl giggled quietly, and whispered so as not to interrupt the song. ‘You look like you’re trying to be a hedgehog.’

Patsy pouted, but laughed along. ‘I’m just about as prickly as one, so I’ll let you have that.’

‘Prickly Pats.’

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deels.’

They stuck out their tongues in good-natured unison after this short exchange, and then yawned together, too. The early morning exertion had clearly taken its toll, so they were content to let the music lull them towards slumber. This meant that, when Monica Joan meandered back with a pile of blankets, she found them sound asleep. The nun smiled broadly at the picture which greeted her, because it matched the music currently playing so perfectly that (had she not known better) she might have thought it posed: the title was “Child Falling Asleep”. Consequently, there was no possible course of action other than to bend a little awkwardly in order to drape the coverings over them, and then stand as a silent sentinel until they resurfaced for the remainder of the day.

Chapter Text

‘I’m fine, Pats.’

‘But Deels, I really think you should go back to the dorm. I’m concerned about the effect my mental health might be having on your physical health.’

The smaller girl drew herself up to her full height, smirking at her taller friend’s overprotectiveness. ‘If you think I’m going to be struggling with a few nights of disturbed sleep, Saesneg,’ she said seriously, ‘then you ought to hear the racket my Tad makes when he snores.’

Patsy was caught off guard, and giggled, then pouted. ‘Watch it, Welshie,’ she cautioned. ‘I’m only being sensible. We don’t want to set off your seizures, do we?’

‘They’re far more likely to be set off by me lying awake because I’m worried about you being alone in here. We both sleep better when we can cwtch; and Nurse Crane puts me back in my bed if I ever forget to move before morning.’

The older girl found she was unable to argue with this assessment, and sighed in resignation as she sat at their small table for breakfast, but flashed her friend a grateful grin. ‘I guess you’re right,’ she allowed.

‘I’m always right, draenog,’ Delia deadpanned as she sat down herself.

The redhead blushed at this, thinking the new word was a curse. ‘Draenog?’ she asked, taking a mouthful of cornflakes.

‘Hedgehog,’ the brunette translated, chuckling as she watched her roommate’s blush deepen as she tried desperately to swallow without choking from surprise. ‘Now, eat up, Prickly Pats, and skip off to your session with Kitty. I’ll be here for a cwtch when you get back. Then we can see how we feel about going to class.’

‘Yes, Nurse Busby,’ Patsy purred, pushing the boundaries just a little further before finishing her breakfast as instructed.

~

Roughly twenty minutes later, having been waved on her way with a final squeeze from her smaller friend in solidarity, the taller of the two girls let her lanky limbs flop somewhat ungraciously onto one of the chairs in the corridor outside Kitty’s consulting room whilst she waited for her nine o’clock appointment. It was not that she did not wish to be there – quite the opposite actually. But, before she could follow that line of thinking any further, the door opened and she had no choice save to heave herself up and step inside, following the older brunette’s beaming smile of greeting.

‘Good morning, Patsy,’ Kitty said kindly once the door had shut behind them and her patient could be secure in the privacy of their conversation. ‘Would you like to sit in your chair?’

‘It’s still there!’ the ginger girl observed with a giddy grin, before realising how ridiculous she must sound – of course it was still there, each of the students Kitty saw sat in it for their sessions if they preferred it to the couch – and blushing the same colour as her hair. Then she sat down, settling into a shy silence which a less experienced practitioner might have mistaken for a sulk.

After letting the quiet hang for a long moment, though, Kitty merely smiled. ‘You’re feeling awkward, aren’t you?’ she asked softly. ‘Shall we work together to find out why?’

Patsy shot her a sheepish grin. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I suppose I’m being a hedgehog.’

The therapist was completely confused by this metaphor. ‘Did you say “a hedgehog”?’

The redhead nodded, blushing yet again as she decided how to much to reveal. ‘Yes,’ she began, ‘a hedgehog. It’s what Delia calls me when I’m being prickly.’

The introduction of this new name intrigued the brunette, but she had something else to clarify first. ‘Prickly?’

Another nod. ‘Defensive. Awkward. Trying to hide when I’m hurting.’

Kitty was amused by the accuracy of the association with this animal, but merely continued with her short and simple questions. ‘And who is Delia?’

Patsy was utterly nonplussed. ‘Delia Busby. The newest girl in the school,’ she added awkwardly, not knowing why she was rushing over her words and feeling she had to justify a friendship. ‘She said she saw you for an assessment when she arrived, I thought you’d know who I meant…’

The therapist tutted quietly at this reaction. ‘I have to keep confidentiality,’ she reminded; her tone one of gentle remonstrance. ‘Regardless, I meant who is she to you?’

Her patient flushed, as she realised they had been at cross purposes, and stayed silent whilst she reorganised her thoughts. ‘Oh,’ she mumbled eventually. ‘We’re very good friends. We help each other.’

‘I’m sure you do,’ Kitty interjected after Patsy paused for longer following this explanation than she would have liked. ‘It makes a difference having someone who understands,’ she prompted, thinking, as she spoke, about how much the courses of her and Nancy’s lives might have been altered had they met at such comparatively young ages. Not that it was even vaguely professional to project onto patients – but she did not think she was. She had worked at St Gideon’s for long enough to note that the majority of the girls she saw beyond the mandatory initial assessment would bring worries about potential future boyfriends to a session at least once (being patient-students did not preclude usual teenage angst, after all!). Yet Patsy never had. And something told her Delia never would, should she need to return for guidance at any later stage in her schooling. For now, of course, they were fine as friends; and it was far beyond the bounds of either propriety or protocol for her to presume anything else. Besides, Patsy was answering her previous remark and, if she wanted her student to feel supported, she ought to listen in turn.

‘It does,’ the sixteen-year-old agreed. ‘I mean, I’m not even sure how she understands, because I haven’t told her any of the specifics, but she insisted on joining me in isolation and has been so lovely about my nightmares. And I think she’s angrier with Papa for not visiting on my birthday than I am,’ she finished with a brief laugh, recalling her petite pal’s righteous indignation and that ridiculous yet endearing letter she had insisted on writing.

The therapist took up the thread of her final sentence, offering options as to how they could continue. ‘Would you like to start with him, then, or with sleep?’

The girl mulled this over for a moment. ‘Sleep, I think. Although I’ve not been having much,’ she quipped.

‘And yet you’ve retained your sense of humour,’ the older woman returned drily.

 The redhead blushed even deeper than she thought possible but, instead of apologising, offered an explanation – of a sort. ‘It’s February,’ she said simply, ‘it’s the only way I can function.’

The brunette raised a brow. ‘I’ll accept the first half of that statement,’ she agreed, ‘because even I’m incapable of ignoring the calendar entirely, despite what you may think, given my insistence in our sessions that time is irrelevant. But I won’t allow you the second. It might’ve been the only way you could function, once, but it isn’t any more – is it?’

She followed the ambiguous question – somehow simultaneously rhetorical and expectant in its tone – with a compassionate yet challenging stare. The student at whom it was directed was determined to hold her therapist’s gaze and say nothing, but it seemed her body (specifically her vocal chords) had other plans. ‘No,’ she squeaked, embarrassed. Then, encouraged by the appearance of a slight smile at this answer, she summoned the strength to elaborate. ‘It was when I was on my own.’

Kitty hummed in comprehension. ‘But you aren’t on your own now.’

Patsy shook her head, then paused, pensive, registering the relief of hearing this external confirmation of the support system provided by this school. ‘No. No, I’m not,’ she said decisively.

The therapist was almost bursting with pride at this significant progress on her patient’s part, but simply smiled as she put forward another query. ‘Tell me, Patsy, who do you have around you?’

The girl’s eyes widened. She was used to Kitty telling her off for listing, so the signal that she was allowed to make one came as a somewhat confusing surprise. Perhaps it was because this would be a positive rather than negative list and therefore not nearly as easy to compile, she mused a little irritably, mulling over where to start. ‘I have you,’ she offered, smiling shyly across the room.

The brunette nodded. ‘You do. But that beginning isn’t sufficient to persuade me it should be the end as well.’

The redhead blushed, caught out in her tactical use of compliments, and then gave a half-sigh-half-giggle. ‘Fine,’ she said petulantly, puffing out her cheeks in an exaggerated pout to buy a few more seconds to think. ‘I have the Sisters, and Nurse Crane, and Miss Sutton.’

Kitty raised a brow. ‘I think we both know I want you to venture beyond the staff.’

Patsy pouted again at how hard this was proving, but then thought back to the beginning of their discussion, and realised she had not just one but four more names to mention. ‘I have Delia, Trixie, and Barbara, and Emily. And they made my birthday so lovely, despite Papa not being there.’

The therapist decided to allow this switch in subject. ‘You particularly noticed his absence this year?’

Her patient nodded, eyes flashing with none of her namesake virtue. ‘Yes. It was my sixteenth. He’d promised. And he came up with the most hurtful excuse imaginable, saying my new hair colour would make me look too much like Mama for him to be able to bear seeing me, after he was the one who paid for it.’

The brunette felt herself bristling with anger on the redhead’s behalf, but kept her expression composed and her tone calm. ‘That upset you?’

Patsy nodded again, glumly. ‘Yes, because he thinks he can solve things from a distance by chucking money at the Order as a sort of allowance, but he doesn’t seem to realise I might miss him.’

Kitty found this conditional phrasing curious. ‘And do you?’

‘Very much. I haven’t stopped thinking about him in weeks.’

The therapist hummed, biding time as a way forward began to appear in her mind, and then decided asking a further, equally matter-of-fact question would be simpler than trying to tease things out gradually. ‘Could that be why your mind has been more “muddled”, as you call it, lately?’

Patsy paused before replying, nervous about articulating all she had experienced – or re-experienced – over the last fortnight, but then took a deep breath for bravery. ‘I guess so,’ she said timidly. ‘He’s been in all my dreams that I remember, and probably in my absences too. Not that they’ve really been absences –’ she added, before breaking off awkwardly.

Kitty met her patient patient halfway, not wanting to waste such a potentially crucial point. ‘No,’ she agreed, smiling in gentle approval of this recognition that a different word was needed. ‘Perhaps they’re absences from your present moment, but –’

The girl got so excited by this prompt that she cut her therapist off; albeit to continue the sentence. ‘But I’m very present in the past. Everything feels so vivid. It’s horrid,’ she finished with a heavy sigh. Then she started twirling her hair around her finger in a vague attempt at grounding herself, worried that, this morning, such talk of her mind’s tricks was going to make her float away. Like the lifeboat they had all sat on as the ship burned, she thought, before blinking in a more desperate strategy to stay where she was…

No. No. Not here. Not in a session. Please… she begged her brain.

Kitty watched as Patsy blinked. Then she saw the girl’s gaze growing distant, and knew she ought to intervene before her patient’s attention became irretrievable. ‘Take a deep breath, Patsy,’ she coaxed, speaking a little more loudly than she usually would when issuing such an instruction, to ensure she was heard. The redhead complied, but gasped, so the brunette counselled caution. ‘Slowly,’ she said; her voice soft again.

Patsy tried once more, drawing air slowly but surely through her nostrils, feeling as though she were willing her lungs to expand to make all this effort worth it. Then she breathed out just as deliberately, focusing with every fibre of her being, and finding it successful in settling her sense of place and self. ‘Thank you,’ she offered in a near whisper, when she could speak again.

‘Well done,’ the therapist replied. ‘You see, you have got better at keeping yourself here.’

The student could not stop her derisive snort at this assessment. ‘I’m not sure about that,’ she drawled, covering bashfulness with bravado now she was back in the room. ‘The Sisters had to sing yesterday. But I bet you knew that already,’ she added archly, ‘Sister J probably told you.’

Kitty was surprised by this sudden, if slight, flash of anger. ‘I read your notes this morning,’ she said evenly.

Patsy pouted, knowing she was being awful, but also aware the older woman would know that the emotion was being displaced from its true target. So she apologised, remorse rising as quickly as her earlier rage. ‘Sorry. I just crave privacy. I’ve not had it properly…’ she paused, pensive again, ‘…well, ever, I suppose. Even before we – left Singapore – Grace and I shared a room. And, before she was born, I was too little to appreciate time on my own –’ She broke off, surprising herself with the realisation of how far back these feelings stretched. ‘Gosh, I –’

The brunette merely smiled in sympathy. ‘It’s funny how the strangest things surface when we think we know what we’re dealing with. But that’s what I’m here for, all right?’

The redhead nodded, but was still wary. ‘I don’t think I’m ready to delve any deeper into those thoughts this week.’

Kitty’s eyes flashed with humour and pride at her young patient’s self-awareness. ‘That’s fine. Our goal in this session is to make your sleep a bit smoother, so I don’t think we should find additional things for you to lie awake and be anxious about.’

The girl giggled. ‘You know me too well.’

The therapist shook her head. ‘You know yourself best.’

Patsy was shocked into honesty by the sincerity of this statement. ‘I wish I knew how to get over all this,’ she said softly. ‘I’m sixteen, for goodness’ sake –’

Kitty cut her off. ‘Time doesn’t work like that. Neither does trauma.’

Her patient laughed hollowly. ‘I believe you’ve used a version of that phrase in every single session we’ve had.’

The older woman held back a laugh, permitting herself a small smile at the younger’s temerity. ‘I trust your memory. It’s impressive.’

Blue eyes brimmed over at this comment, kindly meant, but too raw today to be taken as such. ‘I wish it wasn’t,’ the teenager admitted, whimpering as her lips wobbled. ‘I’m so tired.’

Kitty was simultaneously relieved and reticent that the conversation had returned to the subject of sleep. ‘We’ve not long left, but do you want to talk about your dreams?’

Red hair shook. ‘Is it all right if I say “no”?

Brown hair nodded. ‘Of course. You’re here again tomorrow; there’s no rush.’

Patsy grimaced at the reminder, and felt guilty, so explained. ‘I feel pathetic. Almost two months with nothing and now my doses are higher and I’m here every day.’

Kitty rushed into reassurance. ‘Patsy,’ she said, softly but sternly, ‘you are as far from pathetic as is possible to get. You needed help, and you asked for it. An almost Herculean effort in and of itself. Besides, this time of year is always tricky, and there’s no shame in acknowledging that your usual strategies aren’t as effective as you think they ought to be. In fact,’ she added in an attempt to ground her point in therapeutic practice, ‘I’d say it seems like progress.’

The girl giggled, adopting a similarly ancient analogy in her reply. ‘I feel more like Sisyphus than Hercules. Although I suppose I’m not right back where I started. And they’re both men, anyway,’ she went on, wrinkling her nose reflexively. ‘I’d rather be a woman. Like Cassandra, perhaps, except not her because everyone believes me.’

The therapist was quick to agree with this assessment. ‘We do, yes.’

Patsy grinned but continued pondering. ‘Who can I be? I’ll have to ask Sister Monica Joan,’ she mused aloud, letting her thoughts meander as though she were alone. ‘Oh no, I know, I can be – or at least try to be – Hippolyta. She was tall, and strong, and went through some terrible trials. Besides, Papa used to tease Mama by calling her that when she was being haughty and cross. Not that I have time to talk about him any more today,’ she finished, stealing a glance at the clock.

‘Patsy,’ Kitty cautioned, ‘it’s my job to keep us on track.’

The redhead grinned again, caught out, but held her ground. ‘It’s twelve minutes to ten.’

The brunette remained equally belligerent. ‘Which means you still have two minutes in this session. And you can cover a lot in one hundred and twenty seconds.’

Patsy let out a peal of laughter in surprise. ‘Well, when you put it that way,’ she allowed, ‘I miss him. I want him to visit. It’s sending my mind all over the place even more than usual. And it’s not fair,’ she finished, tapping her foot against the chair leg briefly, but unable to bring herself to stamp. ‘Happy?’

The therapist tutted at this question. ‘I might ask you the same thing.’

Her student took a deep breath. ‘I feel a bit better for saying it so specifically, yes.’

The older woman was satisfied by this response. ‘Good. Same time tomorrow, then?’

‘If you can bear it,’ the younger girl said cheekily, as she got up and scurried to the door, before turning to add, ‘Thank you, Kitty. You’re a brick,’ with which last bit of bravery she bolted.

~

Once her patient had left, the therapist turned her treatment chair to face her desk, and began on her notes. Patsy needs her father, and misses him, she wrote – before thinking better of such forward phrasing and electing to start from scratch. In the time it took to smooth out a fresh piece of paper, however, her attention was diverted by a knock on the door. Not her next appointment, since the requirements of the records for this hospital-school meant that they each had half an hour between them. So it must be one of the staff. The only question was who. ‘Come in,’ she called, turning her chair yet again.

This invitation was answered by the door opening and a nun scuttling speedily inside. ‘Sorry, Kitty,’ Sister Julienne said, ‘this is quite beyond the bounds of propriety, but I had a moment before meeting with Sister Ursula and wanted to get your private perspective on Patsy Mount’s current state. Unmediated by the notes you’re undoubtedly preparing for when you present her case at the staff conference later this week.’

Kitty got up, out of combined habit and respect. ‘Of course, Sister,’ she agreed with a soft smile, ‘and I’m actually glad you’ve come. Patsy is coping admirably as always, but I fear the additional significance of her sixteenth birthday is making this year harder than most, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be wise to waive the usual deference to parents –’ she paused at this delicate point, deciding how best to proceed, then stopped, stuck.

Julienne took up the thought, eyes gleaming at their shared protection of their students. ‘And to telephone Charles Mount? Yes, I supposed you might say something like that. Consider the concern noted, Miss Hendricks, and this conversation confidential.’

The colleagues threw each other a conspiratorial smile. ‘Thank you, Sister,’ Kitty said sincerely, as she stepped to open the door again, knowing the nun would not wish to delay doing her duty.

~

Meanwhile, utterly oblivious, the subject of their speculation had paced purposefully back to her bedroom – and her buddy. ‘Gosh, that was hard work, Deels,’ she breathed to the waiting Welsh girl.

Delia pulled her pal into a hug before the taller girl could protest. ‘But you did it, Pats, and I’m so proud of you,’ she mumbled into her tie.

Patsy leant into the contact, too tired to resist, and really rather grateful. ‘I did, didn’t I?’ she whispered back. ‘The trouble is I don’t think I’ve got the energy to do anything else after it. I feel all jumbled, old and young all at once.’

‘That’s all right,’ her shorter friend said sincerely. ‘Sister E came to see me whilst you were with Kitty, and told me to tell you we’re excused from lessons again today, on account of sleep.’

‘Or rather the lack thereof,’ Patsy answered archly, feeling awkward.

‘Don’t you get prickly with me, draenog,’ Delia quipped back. ‘It’s a lovely day today, and I shan’t let you spoil the sunshine by sulking. As we’re not in school, we can go for a trudge around the grounds. That should get you out of your head. You can’t think too much if you’re focusing on your feet.’

The ginger girl grinned, almost glowing with gratitude for the brunette’s brilliance. ‘You’re ever so wise, young’un,’ she said softly. Then, louder, she acquiesced. ‘All right – let’s venture into that big bad world together. I won’t countenance any tree climbing, though, I’m afraid. Your mother would have my guts for garters!’

She received a forceful sock on the shoulder for that, but the two students smiled in sympathetic solidarity as they skipped out to grab their coats and bask in the sun.

Chapter Text

Sunday 20th February 1949

Dear Helen,

I’ve not been very good at this diary lark, have I? It’s been almost a month. I’m sorry. In my feeble defence, I started writing to you again to try and settle some of my mind’s muddles, but since my last entry it’s been too muddled to manage even the simplest of sentences about my current state. Mostly as it’s the time of year that first changed both our lives so much. But partly, I guess, because somehow I’ve been having fun in spite of all that. I’m still sleeping terribly, and I’m still dozy half the time on account of that combined with medication. We’ve even been isolation, Deels and I, which I feel dreadful about. But she’s been an absolute brick, even with my beastly brain. And refused to let me deal with any of its antics alone. That, combined with the milder weather, has made the load feel so much lighter. Especially with Papa not visiting on my birthday yet again.

I should go back a bit. I live in England now. In London. In a place called Poplar. Papa sent me here after the War ended and we left the camps. He said it was for my health, but I think he couldn’t cope. I’ve lived here since late 1945, and tried to make some sense of life without Mama and Gracie. Gosh, I’m being mopey and morbid. That wasn’t what this entry was supposed to be. Because yes, it’s been hard, but it’s got (and getting) easier with Deels around. I’m not sure what I did to deserve a friend like her. Her brain’s a bit strange, too, but differently from mine. She had an accident on her bicycle and forgets things now. So I help her remember, and she helps me cope, if not quite forget. Lately by dragging me around the grounds because the weather’s better. Which reminds me, I should probably sign off, because Deels will likely want to go now if we’re to be back before Evensong. I promise to write more regularly, though.

Your ridiculously rambly friend,

P.E.M.

~

Sure enough, as soon as Patsy shut her notebook and rested her precious fountain pen back into its box on her bedside table, Delia jumped up from her own quiet task of reading. ‘Jane Eyre can wait,’ she said, smiling as she crossed the gap between their beds, ‘because there’s absolutely a possibility of going for a walk today.’

The older of the two girls giggled at the younger’s precocity. ‘You think you’re fabulously funny, eh, Busby?’

Blue eyes stared seriously into blue eyes, although both pairs were sparkling. ‘Why, Mount, don’t you?’

Ginger hair nodded from above. ‘Yes, I do, somehow.’ Patsy paused, growing pensive. ‘Sorry I kept you waiting whilst I wrote, young’un.’

Brown hair shook sincerely. ‘Dim problem, oldie. I love watching you write. I’m in awe of how you manage not to spill or blot.’

A large hand reached up to grasp a smaller one, stroking the soft skin of its palm. ‘We’ll get you there, Deels. Your grip just needs to be a little steadier. But for now it’s perfectly steady to pull me up, if you don’t mind, because I seem to have sunk into this mattress.’

Delia did as asked, laughingly exaggerating the effort required. ‘All right, Pats,’ she agreed, puffing, ‘but I think this means you owe me a piggyback. Unless of course you fancy fetching Em so she can join us?’

Patsy grinned at this suggestion as she at last got to her feet. ‘That’s a jolly good idea. I don’t think she likes to ask to go out, because she knows how busy the staff can get.’

This incentive inspired them not to dally, so they slipped their shoes back on and skipped to find their friend. They first looked at the nurses’ station, since that was closest to their room, and they knew that on Sundays some of the patient-students with more “complex” care needs were often stuck next to it for “easier” supervision. She was not there, though, which made them glad. So they searched in the second likely spot – the common room. And there, they found not just Emily, but Barbara and Trixie, too; apparently in the middle of Charades.

The three girls squealed gleefully at the sight of them. ‘Perfect timing, you two,’ Trixie called, ‘Em needs some assistance with her arms, and we didn’t think about that before Babs and I took our turns. Patsy, sweetie, you’re tall – be a darling, won’t you?’

The redhead nodded happily, walking over to stand behind the waiting young Welshwoman’s wheelchair. ‘Of course, old thing,’ she offered, brushing her hand briefly over a seated shoulder in comfort, before bending slightly. ‘I suppose you ought to whisper in my ear, eh? That seems easiest.’

The blonde girl grinned in gratitude. ‘Yes,’ she said softly, ‘I think so. Thank you.’

Croeso,’ Patsy replied cheekily, causing Emily’s grin to grow.

‘You’ve been learning Welsh?’ she asked, her speech slower for this longer sentence, and slightly slurred.

The answer she got was almost as awkward in its execution. ‘Alla i ddim siarad Cymraeg yn dda. Is that right, Deels?’

The brunette smiled encouragingly. ‘Da iawn, Pats.’

The older girl giggled, blushing. ‘That’s a relief. But we aren’t doing very well at your turn, are we, Em? Tell me how you want me to move your arms.’

Emily thought seriously for a few seconds, then smirked, and leant a little to get closer to Patsy’s eager ear. ‘Patience,’ she whispered, and tried to wink.

Her tall friend blushed deeper as she stood upright. ‘Yes, well, that is rather apt for you,’ she conceded. Then, carefully, she coaxed Emily’s right arm upwards, and wrangled her wrist so the index finger could extend.

‘One word,’ their schoolmates chorused dutifully.

At the signal from Emily, Patsy adjusted her grip to allow the extension of a second finger.

‘Two syllables,’ everyone said, getting excited now that this was working.

Emily nodded emphatically, and looked to Patsy for further assistance, before whispering furiously. The redhead listened intently, giggling at the brilliance in this blonde head, and gently bent the girl’s elbows so both arms could be folded primly in her lap. Then Emily adopted a meek expression, and gazed serenely straight ahead.   

The other girls conferred, confused. ‘Praying?’ Trixie piped up after a minute.

Patsy and Emily shared a glance, and giggled, as the seated blonde girl shook her head.

Barbara decided to be clever, asking, ‘Verb?’

Another blonde headshake.

‘Noun, then?’ Delia joined in.

Emily was unsure, and looked to Patsy, who whispered, ‘Sort of. Abstract noun, really.’

Blonde hair nodded this time, before reinstating the serene expression.

‘Wait?’ Barbara suggested, screwing up her nose in concentration.

Emily waggled her head from side to side, and said, ‘Not quite.’

‘Nearly, though?’ Trixie trilled hopefully. ‘Gosh, Em, you’re terribly patient. I get frustrated when you don’t all guess immediately.’

The team providing the charade was caught out by this unexpected utterance, and their surprise set them off giggling hysterically. Such loud noises were frowned upon on a Sunday, but the only supervising staff member was Sister Monica Joan, so they let themselves laugh. They both needed the release, and felt brave enough to take it. Their friends, meanwhile, were flabbergasted.

‘What!? What did I say?’ Trixie demanded, whining.

Patsy eventually paused for breath, and checked in with Emily, who nodded. ‘Patient,’ the redhead wheezed. ‘You said “patient”.’

The standing blonde girl was still bemused. ‘And was that the word?’

Her fellow blonde, sitting, shook her head. ‘Almost.’

‘Patience, perhaps?’ Delia offered.

Emily nodded, grinning.

Trixie pouted at this revelation. ‘But that’s silly,’ she said a little sullenly, ‘you could just have looked at Patsy.’

Emily giggled again. ‘And how long would that have taken you to guess?’ she asked, slowly and softly but sincerely.

‘Fairy snuff,’ Trixie said, sniffing exaggeratedly even as she smiled. ‘I think we should stop playing, though.’

Patsy took this moment to intervene and pacify. ‘That’s all right, Deels and I were actually coming to find you all and suggest a walk before Evensong.’ She sighed with relief when everyone else was thrilled by this invitation, although she saw Emily drop her gaze and stare awkwardly at her lap. ‘You too, Tommo,’ she promised, squeezing her friend’s shoulder with slightly more strength than she had as a greeting. ‘I’ll push you, and we can go as fast as you like. It’s warmer, but still quite chilly, so we’ll probably have to keep moving, anyway.’ The blonde girl beamed up at the redhead, who then bent down to take off her brakes. ‘Ready?’

This question was answered by a gaggle of nods from all the girls, after which they trooped out into the passage to find their coats (a cape and a blanket, in Emily’s case), scarves, and outdoor shoes. Barbara especially needed these for better balance. Once dressed, they gathered in the front lobby, whilst Trixie sprinted to the nurses’ station to explain their expedition and sign the whole group out for an hour or so. Then, when she returned, she walked backwards in front of Emily’s chair, guiding it as smoothly as possible down the rickety ramp, Patsy keeping the pace slow yet steady by holding the handlebars whilst pushing from behind. Delia walked beside the wheelchair, navigating the adjacent steps with the aid of a grip on Emily’s armrest, meaning both girls were grateful for the connection. Barbara, whose fingers did not allow for such assistance, was content to clamber downwards on her own, giving silent thanks that she could still move independently at all. Even if she sometimes ended up with grazed knees from the gravel.

When they were all on a level again, they huddled together for warmth whilst deciding where, and how far, to walk. Each had their reasons for a curious paradox in which they craved time out in fresh air but did not desire it to last too long. Still, there was strength in numbers, and they knew they could sustain more stamina together than would be possible apart. So, following whispered consultation, there was a consensus that they would just start…and end whenever they felt they ought.

With that settled, they began moving, the ambulant girls checked in with their seated companion to be sure she was all right with the bumps between each of the paving stones that formed the path.

Patsy was most worried, because she could feel the impact through the handlebars, but she was equally aware of the perils beyond the pathway. ‘I think we might get grounded if I take you on the grass,’ she said softly.

‘Don’t be silly, Sister U’s office looks out over the back lawn, not the front,’ Trixie put in knowledgeably, overhearing despite Patsy’s deliberate discretion.

The redhead raised a brow. ‘I don’t mean by the staff,’ she replied as evenly as she could, ‘I mean literally stuck.’

Emily giggled, nodding. ‘It’s nice now, but it looks a bit soggy still,’ she agreed.

Delia offered some positivity. ‘We’re right next to you, so we can make the bumps a bit less bad, and your wheels make a nice sound on the paving. Sort of like a train, or marching, maybe.’

Patsy paled at both similes, and was glad of the shield of her scarf. She refused to let her mind ruin the afternoon. Instead of engaging with the analogy, therefore, she offered an alternative activity. ‘I know,’ she suggested brightly, ‘let’s trudge around the back and find Fred. He might want a hand weeding the raised beds, and we can all help with that.’

Barbara beamed at the older girl’s cleverness. ‘You have the most wonderful ideas,’ she said, so sincerely that Patsy caught her smile.

But she simply responded with a gentle rhetorical question. ‘Shall we?’

Two brunette and two blonde heads nodded, and they set off, picking up pace as they got brave and Emily could persuade them she was safe enough to cope with speed.

This initially led to distraction from finding Fred, because they were having too much fun going fast, and being around the back would mean being in sight of Sister Ursula. Now that they had been out for a while, too, Patsy had discovered she could drown out the associations with the wheels’ noise by focusing on the movement of her feet behind the chair. Not the sound they made, because that was too much like marching, but how it felt to raise and lower her legs and keep herself steady as she stepped. Barbara noticed this strategy, since it was similar to one of hers, and fell in beside Patsy and Emily.

‘All right?’ she murmured in her older friend’s ear, not wishing to draw attention.

The redhead nodded resolutely. ‘Mhmm.’

At this tiny noise, Delia turned from where she was walking next to Trixie, apparently telepathically aware of the slightest sign of anguish. ‘Pats?’ she queried anxiously.

‘’M fine, Deels,’ was the immediately reassuring reply, offered along with a small smile.

Emily glanced up at this, equally worried now that the whole group was engaging. ‘Sure?’ she asked, slurring slightly because she was a little scared. ‘Trixie can push me, if you want.’

Her fellow blonde smiled brightly. ‘Of course, Patsy, if it’s easier for you.’

Patsy shook her head, now, blue eyes icily determined. ‘I’m fine, honestly,’ she said aloud, adding, it helps me focus, anyway, silently, before continuing the conversation, hoping to convince her friends. ‘Let’s go find Fred; otherwise we’ll be called back for Evensong.’

~

This was apparently said with enough authority for everyone to feel reassured, so they trooped towards the raised beds with more purpose, and presented themselves to the burly but beloved Mr Buckle. He was, as Patsy had supposed, delighted to have help, and set them to work weeding in a pair (Barbara and Delia) and a three (Patsy, Trixie and Emily). Such a split was arrived at through knowledge of how best their abilities would match up, along with Emily’s explanation of Patsy’s assistance during Charades. The beds were high enough that she could reach them relatively independently, but the blonde girl was grateful to have the redhead on hand in case she got stuck mid-spasm. Patsy glowed with almost equal gratitude at the thought of being useful, and then at the realisation that this arrangement also allowed her to spend some time with her best friend Beatrix. She had missed their midnight whispers in the dorm over the past almost-month. Besides, as much as Delia was a darling for joining her in isolation, there was a part of her which felt protective over the younger girl. It must be taking a toll on her, too, however loud her protests might be. So she deserved a break with her fellow brunette – and from Babs’ beaming smile, they were having a brilliant time on the other side of the flower beds.

‘Penny for them, Patience?’ Trixie trilled, piercing the quiet ponderings of her mind as she moved through the motions of sifting soil.

Patsy grinned at this. ‘Nothing much, old thing, I’ve just missed you.’

‘Gosh, me too. It’s frightfully dull in the dorm without you. Can’t you have a word with your brain and tell it to buck up?’

The ginger girl giggled quietly. ‘I jolly well wish I could.’

Their seated blonde friend joined in. ‘So do I,’ she said sincerely, ‘but mine won’t listen, either.’

‘Oh, Em,’ Patsy purred, offering empathy without condescension. ‘Neurology is a right pain, eh?’

Emily nodded; frustration evident in the extra tension of the movement. ‘Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a brain at all. Then I wouldn’t notice how different life is for me from most other people my age.’

Trixie flushed with righteous indignation. ‘But then we wouldn’t have you, and that would be terrible. It’s not any of us who ought to change. What’s it you say about “invalid”, Delia?’ she called to the youngest of their group.

‘I’m perfectly valid, thank you,’ was the immediate and insistent reply.

‘Exactly.’ Trixie was triumphant as she turned back to her fellow blonde. ‘And we won’t ever let you forget it, Tommo.’

Emily was touched by how they all seemed to have taken up her nickname. ‘Thanks, Trix.’ Then, feeling brighter again, she asked for a more practical form of assistance. ‘Please could you help me hold the trowel, Patsy? I can’t pull this one up with my hand.’

The redhead nodded, picking up the required tool in one hand and aiding her friend’s grip with the other as she guided her to grasp onto it. Then they tackled the particularly tricky weed together, sharing in both struggle and success… and the slight mess caused by a spray of soil.

‘Whoops,’ Emily squealed, giggling.

‘Whoops indeed,’ Patsy agreed. ‘Sorry, poor show on my part. Shall I brush you off?’

Blonde hair nodded briefly, then stopped, and shook. ‘No,’ she whispered, ‘I should go back in. I think it’s got underneath my skirt.’

‘Oh,’ Patsy whispered back, ‘well, that’s all right. Trix and I are strong enough to help you stand and sort you out. Fred won’t snitch. We’ll just tell him we need some extra tools from the shed.’

Emily was awestruck. ‘Really?’

‘Really. Isn’t that right, Trix?’

‘What, that you’re both mucky pups?’ came the deadpan response, at which Patsy shot daggers, insisting on seriousness. ‘Of course, Em,’ Trixie clarified hastily, ‘we’ll just hide ourselves away for a bit. Come on.’

Calling to Fred to let him know their whereabouts, the trio trundled off towards the shed for some privacy. They were so focused on their plan that they barely registered the short trip, or the slight step they had to heave over to get the wheelchair inside. Nor did they notice their surroundings as they worked together to stand, to smooth skirts, and to sit, swatting errant soil off the cushion before it could further mess up any clothing. Only when Emily was secure again, and Trixie was adjusting her blanket and cape, did Patsy allow herself a glance around the ramshackle room. It was really more an old cottage than a shed, she realised, which she supposed it had to be in order to facilitate something approximating fully accessible outdoor activities such as those on offer at St Gids. It was cluttered, but in an organised kind of way, as though the placement of each pile was deliberate. The environment certainly suggested regular use – which, again, made sense, because groups of girls tended to the gardens each day – but this was nevertheless a little at odds with the time of year and particularly the recent weather. Not least because parts of the shed seemed like they had not been touched for years. Indeed, half the roof appeared to be about to fall down at any moment.

Oh God, Patsy thought, trembling, it looked like…

And then she heard a voice she could only vaguely identify as her own begin to speak. ‘But Mama, why does Papa have to go?’

~

At this curious question, Trixie’s attention snapped instantly from her seated friend to her standing one. ‘Patsy?’ she prompted gently but loudly. ‘Patsy?’ On receiving no response to either of these two calls, she shouted for reinforcements. ‘Delia, Babs,’ she started, but then broke off to curse under her breath because neither of them would get there especially quickly.

Her other companion felt useless, and responsible. ‘I’m sorry,’ Emily said, slurring, ‘we should never have come in here.’

Blonde hair shook, refuting this statement and refusing to let anyone shoulder the blame individually. ‘It’s been brewing all day,’ Trixie returned wisely, speaking more softly as she explained. ‘It’s not just being in here, and actually I think it’s good that this is happening in private. Patsy’s mortified any time she goes absent in public.’ This last sentence was accompanied by a slight squeeze of each of her friends’ hands, and a brief adjustment of her own position to better facilitate comfort for them both. She crouched, since Emily was sitting, and Patsy was now crouching, too. And crying. Tears streaming down her cheeks as her teenage body conveyed the distraught confusion of her much younger self’s mind.

‘But why?’ she wailed. ‘It’s not fair, they can’t make him leave. No, Mama. Please, Papa. I don’t want you to go.’

The distress growing in her tone was making Trixie distressed, too, so she was glad that the other girls arrived at this point. For Emily’s sake as much as anything else.

‘Trix?’ Delia’s enquiry was breathless from the effort of running. ‘What’s going on?’

‘It’s Patsy, she’s gone absent, so I need Babs and Fred to stay here with her and Em whilst you and I run to fetch Sister J. All right? I’ll give you a piggyback.’

Both brunettes nodded briefly, not in the slightest bit bewildered, because calm kicked in for all of them during a crisis. ‘Fred?’ Barbara called, signalling acceptance of her role. Then, turning to the others, she said, ‘Go. We’ll be all right, won’t we, Tommo?’

Emily nodded emphatically, as she had done in Charades, although this was not a game now. ‘Absolutely,’ she promised, leaning to take one of Patsy’s trembling hands. The roles might be reversed from earlier, but reciprocity was the value she held most dear.

With that assurance, Trixie was content, and motioned to Delia to clamber onto her back. ‘We’ll have Sister J here in a jiffy,’ she said, even as they started sprinting towards the school.

When they reached the corridor lined with the nuns’ cells, the Welsh girl returned to walking, in order to bang on the relevant door. However, as it was almost Evensong, Sister Julienne opened hers before she could knock.

‘Ah, Delia, Trixie – I gather from your expressions that all is not well?’ she asked, delicate yet direct as always.

‘Patsy’s having an absence in the shed in the garden,’ Delia blurted out. ‘She’s talking about her tad. I think she needs him. Could you come with us and then get in contact with him, please?’

Trixie half wanted to hit her friend for the impertinence, and half to hug her for such an innocent question. So, instead, she stayed silent, and waited for the Sister to speak.

Julienne smiled softly. ‘Of course I shall come with you,’ she said, ‘and then of course I shall contact Mr Mount. It will be much easier than usual, since unbeknownst to us he’s been in Britain for the last month.’

Both girls gasped. ‘But then he could’ve visited for her birthday after all,’ Trixie spat, frustrated into speech at last.

Delia’s reply was a little more distanced. ‘Well,’ she offered thoughtfully, ‘at least he can join my Mam when she visits for tea on St David’s Day.’

Julienne smiled widely now. ‘That is a delightful idea,’ she agreed. ‘But perhaps not for further discussion today. Today we have more pressing concerns. Shall I carry you back to the garden, Miss Busby? Are you all right to walk alongside us, Miss Franklin?’ The girls nodded, giggling surreptitiously behind their hands, knowing that this use of their surnames was a deliberate ploy to soften the scowl of Sister Ursula as she walked towards them on her way to Chapel. Indeed, as she got closer, their Deputy Headmistress’ voice got louder. ‘Don’t worry about Evensong, girls,’ she said, gathering the youngest into her arms. ‘The Lord comprehends that medical emergencies have no regards for timing, and so must we.’

With which pronouncement, she whisked them away and outside, her habit rustling first over floorboards and then over gravel… and grass!

~

‘But why? It’s not fair, they can’t make him leave. No, Mama. Please, Papa. I don’t want you to go.’

Patsy knew she was being petulant (it was neither of her parents’ fault, after all) but she could not contain her plaintive whine. The only thing that had made this perfectly horrid predicament bearable so far was that they were all together. Mama, Papa, she and Gracie. And now these mean soldiers were saying the men had to go. It was jolly unfair, not to mention unreasonable. Well, she thought, she could be unreasonable back.

Charles was trying in vain to pacify his elder daughter. ‘Come now, old thing,’ he said, chucking her softly under her chin. ‘I know you’ll bear up better than this. I need you to take good care of Gracie. How’s about you write me weekly reports on what happens over here, so I don’t miss anything?’

Blonde hair shook belligerently. ‘You won’t miss anything if you stay.’

‘That’s true, my love,’ her mother conceded, kneeling beside her husband before continuing in a whisper, ‘but he can’t stay, so you’ll be doing him a great favour if you write things down to tell him when we’re together again.’

Patsy was almost placated. Then, though, she remembered that she had no diary. ‘But I’ve lost Helen! She got left on the ship! And if Papa isn’t allowed to stay, then they won’t let us have any new books… I can’t write things down. And anyway, I don’t want to. I want you to stay here, Papa.’

She let herself be gathered into a hug by both parents as her father spoke. ‘I know you do, darling, but I can’t. There are new rules now. But, if you can live up to your namesake virtue, when we’re all back together I won’t leave you again. I promise.’

Of course, his now redheaded daughter thought ruefully later that evening when she eventually resurfaced to reality, he had not kept that promise. But then, she rationalised, surrounded now by the supportive faces of her friends, they had never “all been back together”. And they never would. Because it was just the two of them. The conditions had changed, and it was those changed conditions which meant he was incapable of keeping the promise. So it was not a lie. Not strictly, at any rate. Yet it still felt like one. And that feeling made her feel out of control. Out of time. Out of alignment. Young and old all at once.

In all this confusion, there was one sliver of certainty. That both her younger and older selves needed him here. Not in the shed, but at school. She would ask Sister Julienne to inform him tomorrow.

Because it all came down to him.