“Please, Miss, may I go see how Pandora is doing?”
My room-mate had left the dinner table half an hour previously to nurse her cold upstairs. The Deputy Headmistress of the finishing school, Miss Hammond-Grant (aka Miss Ham-and-Eggs), immediately grants me permission to check on her. I race up the grand staircase to the dormitory floor and bound into our room, only to find out, to my bewilderment, that Pandora isn’t anywhere to be found. As the whole school is gathered in the dining room, and outside there’s altogether too much snow to go for a walk, I haven’t the slightest idea where she might be. However, I reason that she’ll come out when she’s ready to face the world again. I return to the dining-room, where the girls of Mrs Darling’s school are entertaining their guests.
I slip into my seat. My naughty friend Tombola Van Hoyden catches my eye across the table. “How is she?”
“Er,” I say, trying not to look at the Deputy Headmistress. “She needs some time.”
The matter is left at that. In a short while it turns out that Pandora had sneaked out of the back door for a smoke, and got locked out. My real-life self feels guilty for not thinking to check outside, but my schoolgirl persona is delighted. I covered for my friend, and got away with it!
The following morning there are five or six of us frantically washing up after the big dinner, getting ready to serve breakfast to the staff and guests. After that, there will be an assembly, where Mrs Darling and Miss Hammond-Grant will deal with the girls for an accumulation of misdeeds – after a rousing rendition of the school song. The latter has been adapted by the Deputy Head from “To Be a Pilgrim”; we’d been taught it the previous morning.
One of the girls freezes amid the washing-up. “Are they going to expect us to know the words today?”
The girls vaguely recall Mrs Darling saying something to that effect, which we had all completely forgotten. Despair enters my heart. We have all been so busy with chores and lessons that there’s barely been time to sit down, never mind do homework. And there certainly won’t be time to do it now, with hungry guests showing up for breakfast in half an hour. It looks like there will be spankings in assembly.
The Head Girl, Catherine Thomas, doesn’t loose her cool. “Let’s learn it now, together. Jemima, read us the words.”
Ah, salvation! Jemima Symington-Gore picks up her regulation notebook, with the copy of the school song tacked on the inside of the cover, and reads it line by line, with the rest of us repeating after her without stopping our frantic activity.
“To Darling’s we are sent,” I mutter along with my friends as I ferry clean glasses to the breakfast room next door. “Our tawdriness repent.”
Ten minutes later, we are word-perfect, and the rest of the girls, who are arriving from other areas in the house are also catching up. There are a few good singers in the group, and the song echoes, sweet and strong, above the chaos of the kitchen: “It is our one intent / To be a lady.”
We have won. There may be spankings in assembly (of course, of course there will be!), but not for this.
Friendship. Camaraderie. Naughtiness and mischief. But mainly, most significantly – friendship is what I take away with me from my weekend at the finishing school.
Thank you to the girls, great friends to jump down the rabbit hole with, and to the staff and guests, who were waiting to catch us.