Merryn Williams

THE ABBESS        

 

     

      'Are you sure you can manage, Hilda?'

      Madge Russell looked anxiously at the tall, slender woman, with the few threads of grey in her bright brown hair, who stood in the doorway of the Edel Ritter hotel where the Chalet School had moved last spring.  It had not lasted long, that move, for this was 1938 and the Nazi authorities had made it impossible for the school to continue in Austria.  The remaining girls had left for their respective countries and the building which only a few days ago had echoed to the sound of youthful voices was silent, and about to be closed down.

      'Yes, of course', Miss Annersley said briskly.  'Be off with you, my dear - I know how anxious you are  to get those children out of the country. We'll meet again in England'.

      'It's heartbreaking', Madge said, a little shakily.  'But if the school does start again, Hilda, I promise that you'll be the first person to know'.

      After her friend had got in the car and been driven off, the headmistress took a last walk around the deserted classrooms.  She was feeling desperately sad, for the school had been her only home for the past seven years.  Hilda Annersley was now thirty-eight.  Her childhood had been spent in Switzerland, where her father had been a chaplain at a British embassy, and her only brother Herbert had come out every summer to stay with them.  Sometimes he brought his schoolfriends, Stanley and Ernest, and the young people had formed a happy little quartet.  She saw herself, a bright-faced little girl, showing the three older boys Lake Geneva and making them laugh when she chatted to the shopkeepers in fluent French.  But they had all joined up in 1914 and all been killed; Ernest at the Somme, Stanley a year later and Herbert only one month before the Armistice.  Miss Annersley believed that the grief and strain had caused her father's early death.  For the next ten years she had taught at a girls' school in the West Country until her mother, too, died, and after that there had been nothing to keep her in England.  Her knowledge of languages had then brought her to the Chalet School.

      'Olim meminisse juvabit', the headmistress quoted to herself as she glanced over the empty desks and blackboards.  Every day of her life she thought about those three young men;  Ernest, a gifted violinist;  Stanley, who had been her special friend, and her beloved brother.  When she began to work here she had believed she was dong her bit to prevent another war happening.  And now it seemed that it was going to happen all over again.

      'You are looking very thoughtful, Fraulein!'

      Miss Annersley turned round sharply, but relaxed as she recognised her visitor, Herr Alfred Strauss, the bank manager from Spartz, whom she had come to know fairly well.  She smiled a greeting;  people did tend to smile when they met him.  In his forties, distinctly plump and with receding hair, Herr Strauss had one of those round good-natured faces which made everybody feel that little bit more cheerful.  She stepped out on to the terrace and shook hands.

      'I came', the bank manager explained in German, 'hoping for a chance to say goodbye.  You are travelling very soon?'

      'Yes.  I am catching the midnight train from Innsbruck'.

      'We shall miss you', Herr Strauss said.

      They walked around the swimming pool together, keeping in the shade of the trees, as it was very hot.  Miss Annersley was thinking that, although no one would have guessed, Herr Strauss had suffered more than his share of sorrow.  It was three years since he had called on her to ask whether his two daughters, Ursul and Kattrin, could be received as pupils while their mother was a patient at the Sonnalpe.  She had died in the sanatorium eighteen months later.  Miss Annersley had taken a special interest in the little girls - very quiet, white, flaxen-haired children - who, in those days, had clung to each other constantly.  Over the last year they had slowly been coming out of their shells and making new friends.

      'I wanted to apologise', Herr Strauss said, ' for taking my girls away.  They miss you and their classmates very much.  But, as I explained in my letter, I had no choice'.

     'I quite understand.  The school has lost almost all its German and Austrian girls'.

     The sun was climbing higher and the heat was stifling.  Miss Annersley suggested they sit down at a little table beneath the pine trees and apologised for being unable to offer refreshments.

      'Never mind', Herr Strauss smiled.  'Coffee and cream cakes are not exactly good for my waistline! - So you are leaving?  And not coming back?'

      'The school can never come back to the Tyrol.  I am afraid', Miss Annersley said hesitantly, 'that there is probably going to be another war.  But I shall be taking a course at London University, and if we reopen, as I hope -'

      'But that cannot happen!' Herr Strauss said with emotion.  'I have no liking for Herr Hitler - indeed, I think he is a little mad - but I cannot believe he wants to go to war against the British Empire.  There has already been too much of that; I lost many good friends in the trenches.  Yes, you might not think it to look at me, but I was a slim young soldier twenty years ago'.  There was a little pause.  'And you also have memories of the Great War, Fraulein?'

      'Yes', said Miss Annersley.  'My brother was killed'.

      'I am sorry.  So you feel bitter, perhaps, towards Germany and Austria?'

      'Oh, no.  I have never believed that the ordinary people in any country wish for war.  That is partly why I took this job, to encourage young people from different nations to live together peaceably.  But - ' The headmistress sighed.  'Well, I've had several very good years here, and I shall miss my friends in the Tyrol'.

      'In that case', Herr Strauss said, 'I have something to ask you.  I hesitated because - well, you were obviously very wrapped up in your job, but now there is no job - '

      'Yes?'

     'And I thought perhaps I should give you time, but now there is no time.  Don't catch that train, Fraulein - Hilda.  Stay with me.  The little girls are already devoted to you, and I - well, I do not think I am very difficult to live with'.  His usually jolly face was unwontedly serious.  'It would make me very happy, if you said yes'.

      Miss Annersley sat thunderstruck.  Nothing like this had ever crossed her mind, but she knew him to be a good and kind man, and he was offering her a home of her own and a readymade family, all the things she had assumed were not for her.  For a few moments neither of them spoke.

      'Have you thought', she said slowly, 'that if you married an Englishwoman, it could be very unpleasant for you, in the event of a war?'

      'That is no problem at all', Herr Strauss said.  'As my wife you would become an Austrian citizen, and I could and would protect you'.

      'I see'.

      She looked past him to the mountains, where she had so often taken her girls for long hikes, and saw in her mind's eye the blue gentians and the rushing waterfalls.

      'You need time, perhaps, to think it over?' Herr Strauss asked.

      Miss Annersley sighed.

      'No, I have decided.  Herr Strauss, I am honoured.  If we had been born in another time and place, I might have been happy to do as you ask.  But I think that, after all, I must get on that train.  As your wife I would be the subject of a Nazi state and would not be allowed to speak out against the things which are happening.  I have given the last seven years of my life to this school and it means a lot to me.  I think - I hope that one day the school will start again.  But whether or not, I have a job to do in England and it may be many years before I can come back'.

      'But Hilda', Herr Strauss said earnestly, 'if you like me - and I think you do - you ought not to allow our lives to be ruined by politics'.

      Miss Annersley said a little sadly, 'I wonder if you know the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"?  I sometimes think that I might not be doing this job, if I hadn't been young during the Great War.  You and I are living in a very bad time, and we cannot do what we might wish'.

 

      Readers of these chronicles will be aware that the school did start again, in Armishire on the Welsh border, and it is not necessary to describe exactly how an old Tyrolese friend came to be shown into the headmistress' s study on a grey day in the January after the war.  The two women talked for a long time about the former pupils and teachers, who had been scattered to the four winds since they were last together.

      'It is bad here', said the friend, 'but in Europe it is much, much worse'.

      'I believe you', Miss Annersley said.

      'Well, I think I have told you about all our friends from Spartz.  Oh, yes, you remember Herr Strauss, the bank manager, whom we all liked?'

      'Yes?'

      'He died.  A heart attack, in the first winter of the war'.

      'I am very sorry', the headmistress said after a brief silence.  'And the little girls?'

      'I do not know what happened to the girls'.

      Miss Annersley got up and walked across to the window where she stood with her back to her friend for a moment, not seeing very clearly, if the truth be told, the snow-covered Black Mountains which reminded her so vividly of those magic years in the Tyrol.

 

 

   

      As a child I was fascinated by the Chalet School stories of Elinor Brent-Dyer and and later found myself wondering how their characters would have fitted into the world we all know.  My novel The Chalet Girls Grow Up reflected the enormous changes, especially in women's lives, from the 1960s onwards, and focussed on triplet sisters, born in 1939, each taking a different path through the 1970s and 80s.  It caused a lot of outrage among some fans of the series, but others quite liked it!  Below are two stories  inspired by Chalet School characters.

 

THE TRIPLETS - AN OUTSIDER’S VIEW

 

1

 

      There is a black and white photograph of the Maynard triplets, which I took in the garden of Plas Gwyn in the summer of 1956 when we were all sixteen.  It was my first good one, although it has never been exhibited, and they probably forgot about it as soon as I put down the camera and had no idea of its significance for me.

      The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time, Yeats said.  You can see the huge plum tree in the background, the leaf-shadows, and the three young girls in (I think) blue and white check frocks such as most schoolgirls wore then.  Len with her thick hair, which was dark red at the time, tied back in a ponytail.  Con, who had probably just looked up from her book, with surprised dark eyes.  And Margot smiling naughtily;  she was always the worst-behaved of the triplets.  I would have been amazed to know what she was planning for herself.

      They were being educated in Switzerland, but had come home for a big wedding, and my sister Clem and I were staying next door at Carn Beg, with her friend Mary-Lou.  We’d first come across that young woman in 1947 in Cornwall;  we moved around a great deal in those days.  Both my parents were artists and enjoyed the nomad life.  My father, Adrian Barras, was an R.A. and you can still find examples of his work in a few provincial galleries.  I didn’t see much of him then because he was very busy as an official war artist.  I was actually born on the day war broke out, 3rd September 1939, and my mother took Clem, who was three years older, and me to stay in various places in the west country away from the bombing.  He didn’t come back to live with us until I was six, and by that time the damage was done.

      Mother took her painting seriously and would turn us out of doors, as soon as I could walk, so that she could get on with it. They were mostly flower studies, which I thought very pretty until years later when I saw some of Winifred Nicholson’s work, which blew my mind.  Anyway, we considered her the perfect parent as she allowed us more or less total freedom.  I only escaped being run over by a tractor or falling off a Devon cliff because Clem kept a very sharp eye on me, as she has tried to do ever since.

      This easygoing way of life went on after Dad was demobbed and we stayed in several different places, all of them picturesque.  My parents would set up their easels after breakfast and Clem and I would take ourselves to the village school or roam off in search of adventure. We were sunburned, happy and what respectable people called ‘wild’.  Local ladies were seriously shocked when they called on Mother and found her busy painting, in her studio where the dust stood in layers, in mid-afternoon.

       It ended with a bang.  We had just moved to Inch Carrow, in the Outer Hebrides, where I was overwhelmed by the brilliant fuchsia growing up to the roof, and the cliffs with their colonies of gulls.  I dreamed of stealing a little boat and rowing round all the islands.  But Dad and I had been getting on badly for some time.  I was frightened of him - he was a big man and liable to terrifying rages - yet I couldn’t resist playing jokes on him;  perhaps I was just trying to get his attention.  He started hitting me with a cane or strap, which was considered normal in those days, although my mother did not like it and Clem did her best to protect me.  Anyway, after one particularly stupid prank, I got the worst beating of my life and then my parents decided it was time for a change.  Clem was to go to a girls’ school where she would be taught ladylike habits and I would go to prep school, and be made a man.

      It was all settled very quickly.  I was dumped in Craven House, on the Lancashire moors;  Clem was whisked off to Herefordshire.  There was talk of Mother visiting in the holidays, but it seldom happened;  probably she was reluctant to leave Dad.  I was eight.  I didn’t see Clem again until Christmas, when she and I went to stay with Mary-Lou, whom she’d met up with by coincidence at her new school.  At this time the papers were full of the loss of the Murray-Cameron expedition.  Mary-Lou’s father was among the dead and people were saying ‘you’ll  have to learn about him, Tony, so you know how an Englishman behaves when the going gets tough’.  In fact, after one term away from home, I’d already learned a great deal about keeping a stiff upper lip.  It didn’t help that Clem loved her school, and was having a wonderful time.

      The Trelawneys’ house was in a small village on the Welsh border, within sight of the Black Mountains.  That’s where the triplets came into my life, because the Maynard family home, Plas Gwyn, was just a short walk away.  Dr Maynard was a TB specialist, a very nice chap, and his wife, who is better known as the children’s novelist Josephine Bettany, was great fun.  In a way she reminded me of my own mother, because she was constantly going off by herself to do the work that interested her rather than cooking or darning like a conventional housewife.  There were three little boys, various cousins and hangers-on, and the triplets, who were just my age.

      How do I describe them?  Indeed how can anyone describe the late 1940s to people who find them as alien, now, as the Victorian era?  Green ration books, operator telephones, families clustered around the wireless by gaslight, doses of cod liver oil.  But even more remote than the technology is the mindset.  We were brought up to think that good children were neat, quiet and obedient, that boys were plucky and girls modest, that you got married and lived happily ever after, and that if need be you would unhesitatingly lay down your life for God, King and Country.  Even mildly unconventional people, like my parents, were frowned upon.  And when I tell my own children how we were expected to behave in those days they laugh in my face.

      So - the triplets.  They had caused a sensation at their birth, like the Dionne quins a few years earlier, but when I met them they did not look very alike and had quite distinct personalities.   Len had an exceptionally sweet nature, even at that age, and could often be found running errands for her mother or keeping an eye on the baby.  Con usually had her head in a children’s classic, like The Wind in the Willows (to my shame I preferred Beano and Dandy).  Margot was a strikingly pretty little girl, with fair curls, and she and I were always in some kind of mischief.

      It was a glorious Christmas.  The triplets and I spent most days together while Clem remained with Mary-Lou;  we slid about the floors, ran wild in the winter orchard and one weekend Dr Maynard took us into the hills and showed me how to read an OS map.  Towards the end of the holiday I confided in Mrs Maynard that I didn’t want to go back to school.  I just wanted to live with Clem and my mother, I said, and when I grew up I’d like to be a tramp, and explore the world.

      ‘But you must go to school, Tony’, she said, kindly and briskly, ‘all boys, and girls too, have to learn to fit in with other people.  I know it’s hard at first, but you’ll learn.  And when you grow up you’ll want to do a proper job.  A doctor, perhaps, or a great artist, like your father’.

      Actually, a pale imitation of my father was the last thing I wanted to be.  But I got another piece of good advice from the matron at Craven House, one of those nice women who had never married because of the first war.  She said, ‘First find out what you want to do, and then do it really well’.

      I found out what this was when I was given a camera for my eleventh birthday.  At the time I had no plans to end up as a professional photographer, but I snapped away busily, studied light and shade, and even Dad admitted that I seemed to know how to compose pictures.  I’d seen the triplets a few more times, and exchanged Christmas cards, but soon afterwards Clem’s school moved to Switzerland and I went to a horrifying place in Suffolk, called Wycliffe’s.  Taking photos kept me sane, that and camping trips to the East Anglian coast, which were always over too quickly.  I also spent a summer in the Oberland with Clem and met up again with the Maynards, when my parents were on a painting tour in Africa.  I imagine they must have spent a good deal of money over the years having us looked after by other people.

      My parents were killed in a yachting accident on Lake Victoria on 13th March 1954.  I hadn’t seen them for some months, nor had Clem, but for both of us it triggered off a major depression.  I was angry with them for dying and especially angry with Mother for going everywhere with Dad.  Had she survived, I could have persuaded her to let me live at home and attend day school.  The authorities at Wycliffe’s did not approve of me anyway and the situation got worse and worse.

      I won’t write about the next two years, just say that everything suddenly improved when I met the triplets again, that summer of 1956.  Clem and I were staying with Mary-Lou at Carn Beg.  Her mother had just died, and she had a lot of people in the house.  The Maynards were trying to sell their own house, Plas Gwyn, but had not yet found a buyer.  They’d come to England for the wedding of a middle-aged friend, Grizel Cochrane, at which the triplets were bridesmaids.  The four of us slipped back into the old ways, playing music, picking wild strawberries, climbing in the Black Mountains.  They had all shot up since I’d seen them last, and they were beautiful girls.  On a sunny afternoon towards the end of the holiday,  I took their photograph.

      We talked a bit about what we meant to do with our lives.  I had no idea yet.  The girls had just received their GCE results and were much more definite.

      ‘I’m going to be a language teacher’, said Len.

      ‘I’m going to be a writer’, said Con.  ‘A serious one, but’, she added cautiously, ‘I’ll need to support myself as a journalist, before my books start making money’.

      ‘And you, Margot?’

      ‘Oh’, Margot said, ‘I’ve decided;  I’m definitely going to be a doctor.  Probably specialising in tropical diseases, so I can work abroad’.

      I knew that Margot was interested in the Third World;  she never passed an Oxfam box without putting something in.  They all sounded very sure.                    

       I went back to my repellent school, at the same time they went back to the Oberland, with my head stuck firmly in the clouds.  I had fallen in love.  But the triplets already had very clear plans for their future, which didn’t include me.

 

 

2

     I have described how I became very fond of the Maynard family, especially the triplets, Len, Con and Margot.  That doesn’t mean, though, that I played a big part in their lives.  They were at school in the Bernese Oberland, where my sister, Clem Barras, was three years ahead of them, and I was at an uncongenial school in Suffolk where I made very few friends.  After my parents died I hated it even more and counted the days until I could get out.

      There’s no doubt that the school Clem and the triplets were at was a good one, and all of them were extremely happy there.  But Wycliffe’s, my own school, was typical of what an upper-middle-class British boy could expect.  I escaped the worst bullying because I was reasonably good at sport and because I had long since learned to turn my best side outwards.  But I saw things which haunt me to this day and felt guilty at having done nothing to stop them.  I decided at a very early age that if I ever had children I would 1) not beat them, and 2) keep them out of public school.

      Clem and I were assigned two guardians;  Mary-Lou’s stepfather Commander Carey and a great-uncle, a bachelor who wanted as little as possible to do with us.  Both of them died, in fact, during the next few years.  My father had had a lot of money at one time but spent most of it, and there was just enough to see us through school and university.  Clem had been accepted by the Slade School of Art but I was much less sure what I wanted to do.  I liked taking photographs - these were always in demand - and I liked being out of doors, preferably in wild and lonely places.  The sounding cataract, Haunted me like a passion;  I knew just how Wordsworth felt.  My housemaster said  I was clearly good at English and should try for a degree.

      I applied for Oxford, partly because the triplets had talked about going there.  I missed them.  Their photograph was in my box, locked away where no one was allowed to see it.  In the summer of 1957 Clem returned to the Oberland to stay with friends who let me sleep on their floor.  I was dizzy with excitement, and also quite terrified, because I was in love with Len Maynard.

      It had hit me with the force of a sounding cataract in Wales, around the time I took that photo, and I’d been, I suppose, obsessed with her for the past year.  It’s not the sort of thing you can explain to anyone else, although I knew that everyone liked Len.  She was lovely, gentle, friendly, perhaps a bit of a worrier, always looking after that great tribe of younger children and taking her role as head girl very seriously.  Of course I thought she was beautiful, with a fresh complexion and shining chestnut hair, but no doubt Marilyn Monroe (whom we all saw in Zurich in The Prince and the Showgirl) had more glamour.  It was to do with feeling happy when she was around, knowing I could  talk to her about anything.  Anything, that is, except the way I felt.

      Just before I caught the boat my acne, which had been a problem throughout my teens, flared up violently and I was afraid the triplets would be put off, but they had perfect manners and behaved as if they were unaware of it.  They were all working hard for A levels, but this summer was for having fun.  We went around together with Clem and the three Richardsons.  We climbed, boated, hung out in the lakeside cafe.  Len confided that she hoped to qualify for the Alpine Club one day and it seemed to me that she shared my love of remote places.  If we met up in Oxford, I thought, perhaps I’d dare to ask her out.  It was also on that holiday that I became aware of Reg Entwistle.

      We’d come in, a whole crowd of us, rather late, and were heating cocoa and toasting marshmallows in the Freudesheim kitchen, probably laughing a bit too loudly, when the door was thrown open and a stocky, dark-haired man said in a strong  Yorkshire accent:

      ‘Belt up, you kids!  Don’t you know the doctor’s been working late and needs his sleep, like we all do’.

      The laughter stopped.

      ‘Oh, no!’ Len said, looking conscience-stricken.

      ‘Throw them out, will you, Len’, the man said with a glance at me, and disappeared.

       ‘Well!’  Margot said.  ‘I expect we were a bit riotous, but, honestly, Reg is behaving as if this were his house’.

       And little Felicity piped up, ‘I hope you’re not going to marry him, Len’.

       Len went pink, said with her eyes down, ‘I must settle the children’, and swept the little ones out of the room.  The Richardsons also went off, looking embarrassed.

      ‘It’s true’, Felicity said.  (I hadn’t asked her;  I was struck dumb).  ‘Reg  spoke to Papa, and said he wanted to marry Len’.

      ‘Medieval’, Con said, without lifting her eyes from her book.

      ‘And what did your parents say?’ asked one of the girls.

      ‘Oh, that she was very young, and Mamma said she should get her degree first.  But they’re not against the idea’.

       ‘Mother’s keen for us to go to university’, said Con, ‘because she never did.   Personally, I can’t wait to go, and I’m in no hurry to get married’.

      ‘Let alone to Reg’, said Margot, and everyone giggled.

      That reassured me slightly, but I was terrified of Reg just the same.  I saw him a few more times, when he looked straight through me.  I knew that he had worked his way up from a not very privileged background, that he now had a ‘nice little income’, and that the Maynards had a lot of time for him.  I should have respected him for what he had achieved but in fact I couldn’t stand being around him.  He made me feel totally inadequate, a spotty teenager who didn’t know what real life was about, and I had a horrible feeling that if that sort of forceful man was determined to get Len he might.  I wondered why he couldn’t marry somebody his own age, like one of the mistresses at the Chalet School.  I wondered if, perhaps, Len was over-influenced by her family.

      So I returned to Wycliffe’s in a state of boiling misery, and my last year there was one of the worst.  I walked out of the OTC, which caused a lot of bad feeling, and then failed to get into Oxford, but I was finally accepted at Newcastle University, to read English.  The summer of 1958 Clem was again staying with her artist friends, in a chalet near the lake, and I again scraped an invitation, telling her I’d spend the fortnight climbing and taking photos.

      The first week the Maynards were in the Austrian Tyrol, and we didn’t see them. Then one  morning I came down to find everyone had gone out except Clem, who was deep in  the Times.  ‘Just look at this!’ she said.

      I read:

 

      The engagement is announced between Dr Reginald Entwistle and Helena, eldest daughter of Dr and Mrs J. Maynard of Freudesheim, Gornetz Platz, Switzerland.

 

      Clem was tugging my sleeve, very much the protective elder sister.  ‘Tony!  I never thought - does she know you feel like that?’

      ‘No’, I said miserably.  ‘I haven’t told anyone’.

      ‘Look, the Maynards got back last night;  I’ll walk up to Freudesheim and see what I can find out.  They’re only engaged, for heaven’s sake;  I know that Len’s planning to go to Oxford’.

      ‘I’ll come with you’,  I said.

      We walked up the mountain path together.  The lovely views of the pale blue lake and clouds, which I’d once thought I could never get enough of, made no impression at all.  Clem was saying, ‘She’s not nineteen yet, and nor are you, Tony.  I’m twenty-two, and I’ve never met anyone I wanted to marry.  And of course Reg will have to agree to bring up the children as Catholics.  You wouldn’t want that, would you?’

      ‘I suppose not’.

      ‘And presumably they’ll have about ten’.

      ‘Stop it, Clem’.

      We arrived at Freudesheim.  The younger children were around, but no sign of the triplets, and Mrs Maynard made us welcome with her usual friendliness and asked the maid to bring coffee and cakes.  I believe I sat there looking oafish.  Clem congratulated her on Len’s engagement and she said they weren’t actually getting married for a while but Len was very happy, and he was a fine young man.  ‘So now’, she ended cheerfully, ‘I have two daughters settled’.

      ‘You mean Con -?’

      ‘No, Con is going to Oxford, like Len, and she still plans to be a writer.  It’s Margot’.

      ‘Margot’s getting married ?’

      ‘No, dear, not in that sense.  Margot has decided, after a lot of thought, to be a medical missionary, and she hopes to join the Order of Blue Nuns in a few years’.

      This was about the one thing that could have roused me from my misery.  The thought of laughing impish Margot, Margot the fire-cracker, shutting herself away behind bars was incredible.  Clem also seemed shocked.  She said, ‘But aren’t you worried about it, Mrs Maynard?   Don’t you want any grandchildren?’

      ‘Oh, dear’, Mrs Maynard said, ‘I’m sure I’ll get plenty of grandchildren!  No, Margot is very happy, and we feel that she’s struggled hard, and is on the way to becoming a fine woman’.

      We didn’t know what to say;  it was so alien.  As we walked back,  Clem seemed more interested in Margot than Len, who, she thought, would probably meet some other man at Oxford.  ‘A nun!’ she kept saying, ‘it’s unreal!’  I didn’t talk.  I wondered if Margot had been disappointed in love and was rushing into the convent so that she would never again have to think about that sort of thing.  I thought of living on top of a mountain, taking photographs of the rocks and waterfalls and not having to bother with people.  But most of all I felt that if Reg had been a different sort of man, I would have minded less, but he only wanted a wife to make him comfortable and was too coarse and thick-skinned to understand that Len was a special person.  I was quite sure that no one else had ever been so miserable.

      ‘Actually’, Clem was saying, ‘I don’t think they let anyone be a nun until she’s tried for years, so Margot’s got ample time to change her mind.  I’m worried about Len, though.  If this marriage doesn’t work out, which it wouldn’t if it was Reg and me, she could never get divorced’.

      ‘I know’.

      ‘So let’s hope she knows what she’s  - I say, there is Len!’

      We’d got to the bottom of the path, and Len, in her blue summer dress, was walking towards us carrying two bags of rolls which she’d fetched from the bakery.  She looked lovely.  Clem stopped her, and we went into the cafe to get lemonade and then sat outside under the stripey umbrellas, watching the ripples on the lake.  She went pink again when Clem congratulated her, and said yes, it was true, but they wouldn’t be getting married for three years as she needed to qualify as a teacher.  She hoped she would see us both in England.

      ‘And if you’re passing through Oxford, Tony’, she said, ‘do let us know, and Con and I will show you round’.

      I mumbled, ‘I shan’t be there much’.

      Idiot.  She probably thought I was jealous because she was going to Oxford and I wasn’t.  But of course she took no notice of my bad manners and eventually we parted with some more friendly talk and she walked on up the path towards Freudesheim.  I thought, I’ll probably never see her or any of her family again.   She was walking out of my life, and forgetting her was the only self-respecting thing I could do.

 

3

 

      I came back to England in the autumn of 1958 determined to forget about Len Maynard.  I was not feeling proud of myself.  For the last two years I’d been obsessed with a girl who had not only never given me any encouragement but was actually engaged to another man, Reg Entwistle.  It was ridiculous and humiliating.

      I started at Newcastle University and immediately felt better, now there were no longer any prefects or schoolmasters running my life.  Clem was in London, trying to establish herself in the art world, but we kept in regular touch.  At weekends I’d get on a bus with my camera and travel miles, exploring Hadrian’s Wall or the Northumbrian coast.  I photographed the streets and bridges of Newcastle, melancholy photos, usually taken in the rain or mist, or at dusk.  A friend on the student newspaper liked my work and used some.  I say a friend, but although I was on good terms with several people,  I was still happiest on my own.

      At the time I didn’t think of making a career out of something so personal, but I was building up a portfolio of stark-looking black and white photographs, as different as possible from my father’s luscious colour paintings, and I never let anything go out unless I was sure it was good.  Cartier-Bresson said that when you have a bird in the sights of your gun, you don’t want it to get away.  I hate blood sports, but that is how I feel when I get a cloud or stretch of water in my sights, terrified that it’s going to change before I’ve fixed it for all time.  Photography seemed much more satisfying, in those days, than the quagmire of human relationships.

      But I had not yet succeeded in forgetting Len.  I knew that she was at Oxford while Reg, presumably, was still at the Gornetz Platz, unable to get at her.  One weekend when some people were driving the two hundred-odd miles south I begged a lift and walked up and down for a long time outside her college, St Hilda’s, not daring to do anything.  I saw several girls going in and out, but not her.  Of course she would have greeted me with her usual kindness but - I found a mirror and took a good look at my spots;  there was no way  she was going to see me as a romantic hero.

      Another place I visited was Edinburgh, an easy train ride from Newcastle, and I would have liked to call on Margot, who was there studying medicine.  But for all I knew she was in some sort of nunnery which banned male visitors so, again, I flunked it through shyness.  In fact, she was living in an ordinary women’s hostel and met several men who were keen to take her out.

      Clem got married at the end of my time in Newcastle, to a man called Vincent Hodges who ran a small gallery.  They’d both advised me to concentrate on the thing I did best and become a professional.  They also offered me a room, but I thought this was unfair on them and got digs in North Finchley, with two other graduates who had come to the big city to seek their fortunes.  I covered the shabby walls with my best blow-ups and began to work harder than ever in my life.

      I spent that summer, 1961, on the front at Southend snapping tourists, and heard when I came back that Len had finally married Entwistle.  I’d wondered if she might have met someone else at Oxford but had always suspected that she was the faithful type.  A year later I heard that they had a baby, a boy called John, and it was then, I think, that I finally gave up dreaming.  A lot was going on;  I got a few good assignments and I was prepared to work for hours to achieve the perfect photograph. Clem and Vince, who were very involved in the art scene, kindly gave me one half of an exhibition and I was surprised to hear myself described as ‘promising’.  Apart from two encounters with Con in London, I didn’t see any of the triplets again for nearly twenty years.

 

     1979.

      I was about to go to Clem’s second wedding with my wife, Christine, and our children.  We had been happily married for twelve years.  I had been a brooding, self-obsessed teenager but I became a reasonably normal adult, mainly thanks to Chris.  Nobody but a brute could have quarrelled with her and she was remarkably patient with my need to spend a lot of time working although she herself had a sunny nature and crowds of friends.  Kate was born in 1969, Nick in 1971.  About the time they were starting school, I was asked to be part of a photographers’ co-op in Bristol, and although Clem said I’d never get any of the glittering prizes if I left London we decided to go.  We found a house in Clifton with amazing panoramic views and, just afterwards, I was again reminded of the Maynard family.  It was the summer of the Soweto massacre, and Margot suddenly turned up on the nine o’ clock news having been deported from South Africa.  She was dressed in ordinary clothes, not at all my idea of a nun, and was in an invalid chair, looking very unwell.  Although I would have known her anywhere.  She spoke passionately about apartheid and the wounded schoolchildren who had been brought into her clinic.  Had we still been in London, I would probably have got in touch.

      Clem and Vince had been having major problems and two years later she announced that the marriage was finished.  ‘But’, she added, ‘I am not going to let that man ruin my life’.  One of her school friends, Jean, turned out to be a high-powered solicitor and worked out a very good divorce settlement.  We asked her to come and stay with us while she got over it but she said no, she was going to run the gallery by herself and find a new husband, too.

      It turned out that she was quite serious and not long afterwards she came down for a weekend with Perry, who worked in computers, a background as different as possible from hers and mine.  He had been married before but there were no children on either side. The next thing they were inviting us to London for their wedding.  I remember that day for several reasons, a fine Saturday at the end of April just before the election which brought Mrs Thatcher to power.

      As we started up the M4  I asked Chris if she thought this marriage would last and she said she was sure it would.  That’s one difference between now and my childhood;  in the fifties, and even the sixties, you didn’t ask if a couple were ‘still together’.  And I now look back, now that it’s so far in the past, and see how much damage was done to the social fabric in the years after 1979.  For those of us born during the war, it seemed inevitable that the gap between rich and poor was closing, that our children could look forward to a solid future, that the world was gradually getting better.  Nothing is inevitable, I know now.

      We arrived at Clem’s house in Wimbledon and were plunged into a crowd of her artist friends.  Peter Young, the RA, was there, with his wife Gillian, formerly Miss Linton.  Coffee and champagne were already flowing freely.  Clem was changing for the register office ceremony, but a few minutes later she came downstairs, and just behind her, a tall slim woman with auburn hair, Len Maynard.

      It was over twenty years since I had seen her.  I knew that she was my age, thirty-nine, and that she had five children (I hadn’t consciously thought about her for years, but I knew it was five).  We greeted each other;  she looked thin, but still very pretty.  She was not with Reg, or any other man.

      There was little time to talk;  I was busy taking wedding photographs but I did manage to join her for a few minutes on the lawn, where she was talking to my wife.  She was very quiet, and said nothing about herself, although she mentioned that Margot was still working in the Third World.  The bride and groom drove off, and the party began to break up.  Suddenly my eyes fell on Len standing by herself a little way from the crowd.  She was wearing a blue suit, I remember, and her expression shocked me because of the bruised look around her eyes.  As if someone had died.  I took a step towards her, I have no idea what I might have done, but at that exact moment Gillian and Peter Young closed in on her protectively and said something.  I saw her smile automatically and then leave in their car.

      All the way back to Bristol, as the children squabbled in the back seat, I was miles away.  I was driving so badly, in fact, that Chris insisted on taking over.  What had happened to Len since I had last seen her, talking so happily about her engagement in the summer of 1958?

 

4

 

      When I saw Len Maynard in 1979, after a gap of twenty years, at my sister’s wedding, I felt sure that her life had gone wrong in some way and for several weeks after that, couldn’t get her out of my mind.  Reg was gone, that was obvious, but I told myself that she was unlikely to be left alone for long and that the powerful emotion I felt was, in a sense, disloyal to Christine.  I would have liked to know what had happened, but I didn’t ask Clem, or Gillian Young, or anyone else who might have told me, because I was still embarrassed by that long-ago infatuation and did not want them to think I would even consider walking out on my family.  So I convinced myself that Len was all right.

     It was impossible to brood for long in the crowded life we were leading.  Through the ’eighties, while our friends’ marriages broke up all around us, Christine and I remained solidly a couple, and the children, though typical rowdy teenagers, were not a big problem.  They may have had too much to drink occasionally or the odd cigarette, but no more.  We’d discussed Chris going back to work but she said that, with me being away for weeks at a time, they needed one of us around.  She did a good deal of voluntary work, in a playgroup, and unlike me had many friends;  I was what I had always been, a loner.

      It was June, 1987.  I’d been taking photographs for a book about British stone circles and ended up in the Orkneys, where I worked flat out for fifteen hours snapping the pictures I wanted between squalls of rain.  When I’d got them, I felt drained, but content.    I was never going to be famous, like my father, but I was doing the work I wanted to do and it was respected by the people who mattered.  I had an exhibition coming up at Bristol City Museum.  There seemed no reason why it shouldn’t all go on for another twenty or thirty years.

      Christine had been at home looking after our son Nick, who was doing GCSEs.  When I got back, after an exhausting plane journey, I thought she didn’t look well.  She admitted that there was something, she didn’t think it was worth bothering the doctor, and that was the beginning of the nightmare.

      They did various tests and established that she had ovarian cancer.  The most frightening, because it creeps up with few warning signs.  It is apparently quite rare.  We’d had bad luck.  I heard somewhere that the average woman nowadays can expect to live till the age of seventy-six;  Christine could not expect to see forty-five.

      I gave up travelling.  I convinced myself that we would beat it somehow, although I could see her getting worse before my eyes.  Our daughter Kate was away at university and out of it;  Nick was living at home but he was a typical boy and determined not to show his feelings.  I found it increasingly difficult to talk to him.

      When Christine died, in July 1989, they were giving a great party in Paris to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution and I remember pictures of  fountains running red, white and blue.  I thought how unfair it was, how I’d hoped that she and I could go to interesting places together when the children were older.  And I thought that if one of us had to die, it should have been me;  I was far less use.

      The next six months are an almost total blank.  Kate was working in the north-east and had a boyfriend, so I very seldom saw her.  Nick had started at Bristol University, living at home;  most evenings we made a meal from tins and had some sort of conversation and then he would be out with his friends.  I knew I had to stay around as long as he needed me, but could not believe it would be for much longer.  I went through the motions of working;  professional competence kept me together but none of the photographs I had taken since the Orkneys were much good.

      One evening, clearing out a drawer, I came across the negative of the triplets’ picture, taken when they were sixteen at Plas Gwyn.  As I’ve said, I had never allowed it to be shown because it seemed too private.  I looked at the little, unripe plums on the tree, dead long ago, and wondered what had become of the three young girls whose lives had run alongside mine for a few years, then diverged.  I had no idea what any of them were doing.  The world had not turned out the way any of us wanted;  I thought it possible they had been through the same disappointments, anguish, disillusionments as me.

      It came to a head at the New Year.  Kate had brought her chap home, Nick had asked his friends round and they were giving a forty-eight-hour party to celebrate the new decade.  By the afternoon of New Year’s Day the music had given me a splitting headache and I left them to get on with it.  The streets were almost empty.  I wandered into the Centre and stood near the statue of Neptune, looking down at the rubbish floating on the water and thinking this can’t last, I’m going out of my mind.  That was when I suddenly felt I had to contact the triplets, but I had no idea where to begin.

      I went home.  By that time it was dark.  The kids were sprawling on the floor eating pizzas and watching a revolting film, Nightmare on Elm Street.  I told them I was going out and there was an anguished protest from Nick, ‘But, Dad, we need the car!’  I didn’t answer, just closed the door on them and headed out of Bristol, across the Severn bridge and down the motorway, through Abergavenny skirting the Black Mountains and then took a very minor road for Howells village.  I did not expect to find anyone I knew, but it was a start.

      Driving much too fast, in the narrow twisted lanes, I thought that it would be very easy to crash and would make no difference to anyone.  I thought of how I had never got in a car before I was eight and how the small safe world of childhood had opened up and the landmarks been swept away.  Then I saw the name HOWELLS, and realised that I’d found my way there on automatic pilot.  I stopped, still seeing the endless roads in my mind’s eye.

      Certain things had not changed.  In the headlights I could see the pub, the Green Dragon, with a newly painted sign, and the Norman sandstone church.  I wished I’d come in daylight so that I could have looked for Mary-Lou’s old home, Carn Beg, the orchard where we’d gathered Worcester pearmains and the little pond where the triplets had played.  But I found Plas Gwyn with no trouble, parked on the road, got my torch and walked up the short drive.  I could see the big white house, the outline of the copper beech and a child’s swing.  There were no lights, but I knocked several times anyway.   I’d worked out what I was going to say;  do you know a family called Maynard, who used to live here?  But there was no reply, and after about five minutes I came to my senses.  Anyone who saw me would think I was mad, battering on the door of an empty house in search of the woman I had been obsessed with thirty years ago.  I drove home.

 

     Nick was ill in the early months of 1990, with flu.  Of course I panicked, and did all my work at home until he began to get better. Christine would have dropped everything to look after him and I felt that I was not managing well.  One evening he cried for a long time for his mother and I realised I had been obtuse to think he had got over it.  After all, I had also been  good at hiding my feelings when I was eighteen.

       Once he was back on his feet I took him to France to stay with Clem and her husband.  They had been married ten years now and, although they had quite different interests, it had obviously turned out well.  They live in a stone cottage near the Loire and Clem went to the river bank most mornings to paint, while Perry worked on his computer.  She was worried about me, I knew, but I assured her I was nearly back to normal.  One evening we opened a bottle of apple brandy and had a long talk about the past.

      ‘Do you ever hear from the triplets?’ I asked, after she had been reminiscing about  Switzerland.

      ‘No - it’s sad because I always liked them.  I haven’t seen Len since our wedding.  Or Con and Margot since before that’.

     I glanced through her address book, but found nothing helpful.  When we got home I felt glad that Clem was all right again, after her bad years, and I also felt calmer in myself.  It was obviously my job to look after Nick, who would need me for some time to come, and I would have to start doing serious work again.  But I was still obsessed with finding the triplets, although that seemed very difficult if not impossible.  Women married and got new names, moved abroad.  I looked in the London directory for the name Entwistle, but none of the people whom I rang on the offchance had heard of Len or her former husband.  I supposed one could advertise or hire a private detective, but I didn’t want her to know how seriously I was interested.  I would approach her with some excuse about looking up old friends, or not at all.  She might be married;  we might find that we had nothing in common, after all these years.

       Then one day on the Guardian arts page I saw a mention of the rising young theatre director, Felix Maynard.  Young, it called him, although he was all of forty.  An eight-year-old with fair hair when I last saw him, he’d been the most successful of those boys.  He had done a controversial, all-female production of Twelfth Night and it was touring the provinces with a week in Bristol.  Once I knew that, I easily arranged to take photographs of  the cast.

      It was a bitterly cold March morning.  I looked in, watched the dress rehearsal and instantly recognised Felix when we met for drinks as he was the  image of his father.  Though I don’t know what Dr Maynard would have thought of having a son in the theatre.  A glamorous young woman about half his age was hanging on his arm.

      ‘We’ve met before’, I said when I could get his attention.  ‘Tony Barras.  I used to visit your house when you were very young’.

      ‘Oh, right’, Felix said affably.  ‘I do remember.  There were always a lot of people coming in and out.  How are you?’

      ‘Fine.  What are the triplets doing now?’

      ‘That’s a funny story.  Margot gave up being a nun, after years and years.  I mean, a nun!  Way out.  I think there was some man involved but she’s never told me.  And Con’s fine’.

      ‘And Len?’

      ‘Helena?  Well, that was sad’, Felix said, his face clouding, ‘Reg was a pain.  She brought up all those children by herself, looked after a lot of other people too.  And then there was that poor little kid’.

      ‘Sorry?’

      ‘One of the twins died.  Meningitis, very sudden.  It was in the seventies but I’m not sure that she’s ever got over it’.  With an air of bringing out something which few people knew Felix added,  ‘She’s had bad luck’.

      I stood there feeling dazed, among the crowd of cheerful people in their extraordinary costumes drinking gin and bacardi.  I knew now why she had looked so wretched, the day of Clem’s wedding, and I saw that, while I had been sunk in self-pity for the last two years, Len had had a very much harder life for much longer than that.  Felix had drifted away as everyone was clamouring to speak to him.  When I thought I looked reasonably calm, I went up again and asked, ‘Where does she live now?’

      ‘Plas Gwyn.  I tell her she should move to London, get a social life.  Oh and by the way’, Felix added,  ‘she uses the name Maynard’.

      So the house had not been sold, when I made that crazy journey at the New Year. Nick’s Easter break was about to start, and he seemed quite fit again.  I suggested that we should go to the Black Mountains for a long weekend and try to get some photographs.  He is keen on snapping birds and animals, and there aren’t many there, but he kindly agreed to come with me, though stipulating that he had to be back for a party on Sunday night.  I  booked us in at the Green Dragon, and asked the landlord if he knew Mrs Helena Maynard.  Yes, he said, a very nice lady, but she was on her own now, and would be leaving the village soon.

      So, on a sunny evening at the end of March, I found myself walking up the well-remembered short drive towards Plas Gwyn.  There were minute, wild daffodils sprouting in the garden, and the house had a SOLD sign.  I’d left Nick in front of the TV, telling him I was going out for an hour to look up an old friend.  

      We may have nothing at all to say to each other, I thought.

      The door was opened by Con, looking happy and smart, and about ten years younger than her real age.  She was surprised, but told me that I’d come at a good time, because both her sisters were there.  I was shown into the front room, where I was vaguely aware of Margot - wearing an ordinary jumper and slacks - and, most intensely, of Len.  She smiled at me as if she was genuinely glad.

      ‘Tony, how very nice to see you!’

      She had changed, of course.  I had changed.  I was fifty, she was not much younger, but the emotions you feel when young, I have found, last all through life.  I remembered the song, ‘The Scarlet Sarafan’, which Mrs Maynard used to play on the old piano.   ‘For the days will come when joy and youth must flee / And thy cheeks now firm and red, then worn and pale will be’.  She did look a little worn, but still lovely.  I don’t know what my face showed but the three of them made me feel as if we had parted only the other day.

      We talked for a long time.  It turned out that Margot and Con were only there on a flying visit;  both of them were based elsewhere and had interesting lives.  From what Len said, I gathered that her surviving children were grown up and gone, and the house, which three generations of Maynards had lived in, had had to be let go.  I asked her about her plans and she told me she had applied for several teaching jobs in different parts of the country.

      ‘I always wanted to be a language teacher’, she said, ‘and now it looks as if I’m finally going to do it.  All these years after I left the Chalet School!’

      I said something appropriate but inside I was pleading, do whatever you want, I’ll never interfere, but don’t leave me.  There are teaching jobs in Bristol, we can work something out.  It was getting dark.  The other triplets got up to go;  Con was returning to London, where she lived, and Margot was on her way to an AIDS conference.  We said goodbye, and that I was looking forward to meeting them again.  Helena put the lamp on, and I turned to her, drawing a deep breath.

      I said,  ‘Len, I wonder if you ever knew -’.

      We had missed each other so many times, been unaware of each other’s pain and lost so many years.  I began to talk, the words seemed quite inadequate, but once or twice, as I looked at her expression, I thought that I might be able to persuade her to see things through my eyes.

                                                                                                                                                    Merryn Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Chalet Club