St Faith’s – December 1952
Mamman would spend Christmas in Switzerland. Besotted with her new boyfriend, she was sure I’d prefer to spend the holidays with my father. She wrote this in a brief, dismissive note on monogrammed paper – it was easy to read between the lines. Mamman was worried that, now I was a young woman of 18, I’d cramp her style; prove a constant reminder of her real age.
The girls in my dormitory gossiped excitedly about where they would vacation, who they would see while packing possessions into trunks at term’s end. I felt disconsolate about the yawning three weeks I’d be spending at the chateau. I put on a glad face, however, when quizzed me about our festivities. The picture I painted of a lavish family gathering, eating fancy food, receiving extravagant gifts sounded hollow to my ears, but the girls at St Faith’s lapped it up.
I’d made every effort to stay off Miss Ranson’s radar since the night when I’d been forced to parade in my shoes and stockings like a common street whore, and to a great extent I’d been successful. Sometimes, however, I felt the weight of the headmistress’ gimlet stare, and wondered if I’d be called into her study again. Whilst the idea of insults and punishment caused me anxiety, there had been something about turning my humiliation around. A warmth of satisfaction had flared in me which I was still at a loss to comprehend.
The tiled entrance hall at the front of the school echoed with excited female voices on the last day of term. Girls wearing Sunday uniform hugged each other goodbye as parents arrived to collect them for the winter break. I lugged my suitcase to the door with a heavy heart. A taxi would take me to the local station, I’d catch a train to Victoria, then board the Golden Arrow to Paris, and change once more to reach our chateau.
Nettie Norris waved goodbye, her freckles almost hidden by the woollen scarf she’d wrapped round as protection from the snow flakes which were falling but not settling. Arianrod had left earlier that morning, collected by a chauffeur for the long drive to Bath where her extended family were gathering this Christmas.
Miss Ranson received a steady stream of parents in her study: Hosting discussions, I assumed, regarding payment of fees and future prospects for older pupils. With an insincere smile plastered on her face, she wore her dark graduation robe over a neat tweed suit. A giddy shot of adrenaline swirled in the pit of my stomach at that moment when our eyes met.
“Bin, Bin! I’m so glad I caught you,” Belinda hurtled towards me.
Blindsided by my friend’s arrival, I looked away. Miss Ranson turned on her heel and withdrew, spider like, to the recesses of her wood panelled study.
Belinda’s glossy bob was immaculate, framing cheeks which glowed with excitement.
“I know you’ve got fabulous family celebrations planned,” Belinda gushed, “but if you get bored and want to talk on the telephone, this is my number.”
Looking hopeful, she passed me a card embossed with her mother’s name, followed by an address and phone number.
“My brother’s home on leave,” she smiled, excitement lighting her face. “Have a wonderful Christmas Bin.”
So saying, she leaned in for a hug and a single cheek kiss, which I was learning was the English way.
I tuned the radio to a station which played music then dragged a card table closer to the fire. I scowled at a bowl of soup and a plate of cold meat, which held little appeal. I was so damn bored.
Every day apart from Christmas Day, Papa had retired to his study to work, leaving me with nothing to do and nobody to talk to. Times like this I could wish for a brother or sister for the company of someone my own age. Then I remembered Belinda’s telephone number. Abandoning my magazine and the lacklustre meal, I hurried to her room to retrieve the card from my coat pocket. Lifting the receiver, I asked the operator to connect my call to London.
My heart thudded with nerves, until the delight in Belinda’s voice allayed any fear that I was intruding. Our conversation gushed around how we’d spent the festive season. I needed to embellish over the dull Christmas meal I’d shared with Papa before he left to visit his girlfriend. In contrast Belinda had spent a cosy time at home with additional aunts, uncles, and her grandmother who had presided over a veritable feast. Young cousins had kept her busy with games of hide and seek and hunt the thimble. Even taking our phone call, Belinda seemed in demand, emphasising my loneliness at the chateau.
“My brother arrives tomorrow!” Belinda’s enthusiasm was contagious. “It will be sooo great to see him.”
I mumbled in agreement.
“On New Year’s eve I’m going to my first party! One of my brother’s friends. If only you could come with me Bin, I’m so nervous to attend on my own.”
“But you have your brother!” I reassured, feeling quite envious.
“Oh he’s a complete clot. I imagine he’ll leave me like a wallflower while he talks to his friends.”
“I’m sure he will look after you.”
“Also – I haven’t a clue what to wear,” Belinda wailed. “You always look so stylish, I wish you could be my ally. What are you doing for New Year?”
“Papa has mentioned the ballet …” I fabricated, yearning for some genuine fun on the horizon.
“Could I tempt you to come and visit with us? Can your father spare you? Would you change your travel plans and come to London a few days early?”
“Oh I couldn’t impose …” And yet, I already felt skittish with excitement at the prospect. Would Papa give permission?
“No imposition at all,” Belinda was incandescent with enthusiasm. “My aunts go home tomorrow, so there is plenty of room for you. Should I ask Mummy to ring your father?”
“No,” I demurred, “I will ask him. Once my travel is settled I will advise what time you should expect me.”
Ending the telephone conversation with this happy prospect put an entirely different complexion on my evening. Making plans about which dress we’d wear and how I would style her hair, I nibbled my cold meat supper while flipping the pages of Vogue.
It wasn’t difficult to persuade Papa to let me stay in London with the daughter of a diplomat; making connections had been a primary reason for sending me to St Faith’s. His secretary re-arranged my travel, so the thirty-first of December saw me asserting my independence, boarding trains for the return journey to England.
London was windswept and cold, but I felt alive, beginning to nurture a fondness for my second home. Belinda was waiting at the station so we took a black cab to her smart regency style house.
Much of my hauteur melted within the relaxed, welcoming confines of Belinda’s family home, but dressing for the party I pulled it back around myself – my familiar armour. My hair looked sleek, in a chignon and my midnight blue dress was form fitting but simple. I selected a choker of pearls which enhanced my elegant, slender neck. Belinda wore a dusky pink frock with low kitten heels while her brother Jeremy looked smart in a suit with tapered legs.
Hurrying into the chill night, and for the short taxi ride, I was silent. Jeremy’s worldly wise attitude was intimidating; Belinda’s older brother seemed pleasant and he clearly adored his sister. The house where the party was being held was similar to Belinda’s, but the drawing room was cleared of most of its furniture to leave room for dancing. Chairs were placed round the edges and the gramophone held pride of place. Some of the party guests had brought records with them so the music could play all night, melodic songs of romance and heartbreak.
Jeremy came over bearing two glasses of fruit punch.
“What are you drinking Jerry?” his sister asked.
“It’s shandy, but don’t ask for one, it’s alcohol.”
“Oh you think you’re Billy Big Boots just cos you’re in the army,” she scoffed. “Bin could have some, she is eighteen.”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow at me.
“I’m sorry Delphine, I hadn’t realised. Would you like a proper drink?”
“In France we don’t have this shandy, what is it like?”
“It’s pale ale mixed with ginger beer.”
He offered me his tankard to try. I took a tentative sip, not wanting the foamy head to smudge my lipstick. It was pleasant, so I smiled.
“Thank you, perhaps later I will drink some, if a more lady-like glass can be found.”
We all laughed, a connection finally made. Although Jeremy moved off to catch up with friends, he seemed to watch me intently.
Dancing or chatting, his assessing gaze rested on me, making my skin prick. I basked in his attention, but was equally delighted with the way Belinda introduced me to other girls.
“This is my friend, Delphine De Lotbinieres. You must have heard of her, she is a dressage champion.”
The girls gathered round to ask questions. Eyes glittered, complexions flushed with a heady cocktail of excitement and admiration providing a balm to my ego. I hadn’t realised the extent to which my father’s recent disinterest had bruised and crushed my pride.
I was in my element talking about l’equitation, most of the girls at the party had been brought up around horses and riding, some even hunted. The young male guests also gave me appraising looks, some fixating on my shadowy decolletage or the curve of my calf. Others admired my high cheekbones or my dainty ankles when I danced. Having drunk some small glasses of shandy ferried to me by Jeremy, I’d unravelled a little, become less inhibited. His gaze had been intense and longing all night, I preened at his evident interest.
When it was time to leave, Jeremy was attentive, helping me into my winter coat. Belinda’s ears were rosy from the late hour. Of course the party couldn’t end before midnight, we needed to hear Big Ben strike twelve, to cross arms and sing Auld Langsyne. I did not know the words, but it was easy to nod and smile at the people I’d talked to, my left hand was gripped by Belinda, my right by her brother. He gently stroked the inside of my palm, a intimate gesture which took advantage of the shielded nature of our skin contact.
“May I write to you?” he asked, as the taxi sped through moonlit streets.
“If you wish,” I smiled, remaining enigmatic yet non-committal.
Jeremy did not excite me, but he was attractive. It could prove useful to have a lapdog, to squire me on nights out.
This is installment is submitted for Wicked Wednesday – if you use the hyperlink you will see others who are participating where the prompt is “Independence”.