“Gosh, you lot do live, don’t you?” said Rosalie, to whom Ann had been telling Brenda’s tale of woe.
By this time we had reached the steps of the college and we trudged up them.
“Yes,” said Ann, “and then we came here.”
We both gave a hollow laugh. Up until London, I’d wondered what a hollow laugh was, but London had shoehorned one into me, I can tell you.
“At least you get to live on your own,” said Rosalie. “I’m still stuck at home.”
“Oh, are you?” I said. “I thought you lived in the hostel.”
“Nope,” replied Rosalie. “Home’s about five minutes’ walk away, so that’s where I live. It’s beyond deadly. I envy you your attics.”
“Oh,” Ann and I said, as one. Which was all you could say. Ann and I had a bed each, a chest of drawers between us and two bedside tables and that was it. Next door we had a tiny bathroom with an ancient geyser over the bath which was supposed to give you hot water. Ann and I were terrified of it. It moaned, groaned and wheezed when you turned it on, and just when you thought you would expire from the smell of gas, with a whumph it lit. We sorted out our own food in the basement, where there was one of those two ring things you put on the counter to cook on. We weren’t entirely on our own when the college closed, because the other half of the basement had been turned into a flat for Miss Dodds, but we didn’t bother Miss Dodds, and she didn’t bother us.
I checked inside my pigeon hole when we reached the hall, and there was a message from Mummy, asking me to meet her at the Lyons Corner House near South Kensington tube at 6.00. I had no time to think about it, because it was time for secretarial practice, so off we swung, so we could be taught how to set down a letter and when to say yours sincerely and yours faithfully and all that sort of stuff, which Ann and I had both learned when we were infants, and honestly, how dim did the college think we were? After that, it was flower arranging, which I didn’t do, so I went off to my attic.
I lay down on my bed and thought. There had been a big change in my life when Mummy and I had moved from Wales after Daddy died, but after that it had been Pool Cottage and Chatton all the way. Like all kids do, I’d had plans for what I’d do when I grew up (be an MFH and run a jolly orphanage, if you’re wondering). Captain Cholly-Sawcutt, the famous show jumper, had as much as offered me a job when I was old enough, but both he, and Mummy had thought better of that. After Ann and I had done a whole host of little jobs with horses after we left school Captain Cholly-Sawcutt had announced that we should keep the ponies for a hobby and go off and get trained for a proper career, by which he meant being a secretary, and here we were.
When Ann and I had set off for London, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t have Pool Cottage to come back to. If I’d thought about it, which I hadn’t, I would have pictured Mummy, and Pool Cottage and Black Boy and Rapide and me going back for the holidays and everything being as it always had. Although Mummy had gone off to America before on book tours, they were just for a few weeks. I felt quite sick when I thought that after tonight, I wouldn’t see Mummy for a whole year. And what made it worse, of course, was the ponies. I was starting to get a bit gulpy again when the door banged open.
“Come on!” said Ann. “We’ve been left to our own devices in flower arranging so come down and help. You’ll only mope if you sit up here on your own.”
This was more true than Ann knew. I got off the bed and followed Ann back down the stairs and into the flower arranging room. A couple of girls were sticking flowers into those green spongey things flower people get so excited about, but most of the class were lounging around, chatting. I pulled up a stool and leaned on the bench on which Ann was working.
“What on earth are you supposed to be doing?” I asked. Ann had taped some of the green sponge to a bowl and stuck in a couple of sprays of green stuff, and that was as far as she’d got. There were lots of those orangey-red flowers you see all over the place in autumn, cut to different lengths, and a bit more greenery but none of it had got as far as the bowl.
“A centrepiece for a table,” said Ann, moodily. “For a dinner party. I ask you, why would you want to stare at a load of flowers when there’s food? I can’t think why Mummy thought flower arranging was a good idea.”
“No,” I said. I picked up one of the orange flowers and stuck it in the green stuff. “Just as well she seems to have gone off the idea of your being a florist.”
“That’s just it,” said Ann. “I don’t think she has. She was yapping on about it earlier: about how I’d be set up, what with the typing and the shorthand, and the book keeping. Do we do book keeping?”
“Search me,” I said. “Perhaps that’s a joy for the last term. So far I’ve just turned up and gone where I’m told. Book keeping sounds like the kind of torture they might be saving up for us.” I stuck in a few more of the orange flowers, and then whacked in a bit of green.
Ann picked up a piece of green and twirled it round. She studied it for a minute and put it down. I picked it up and put it in the middle of the arrangement. Ann put a flower into the arrangement. I took it out and put it round the back. Ann handed me another flower and I put that in next to the green.
“I know we’ve got to do something when we finish this course,” Ann said. “I just don’t know what. Not floristry.”
“I don’t know why not,” said a voice. We looked up to find Miranda, one of the more glamorous members of the class, staring down at us. I’d noticed her, the way you do some people, because she had the most amazingly chic haircut, just like Audrey Hepburn.
“There’s nothing wrong with that arrangement.”
We looked at it.
“That’s not me, that’s Jill,” said Ann. “I say, Jill, that’s jolly good! Fair isle knitting, and now floristry! There’s no end to your talents. Who’d have thought? Jill the flower arranger. I can’t wait to tell Diana!”
I could just imagine Diana’s face when Ann told her about the flowers, and James’s too. I rather liked the idea of James thinking of me as a calm, capable woman who rode a mean Grade C course, not someone who did flowers.
Miranda stretched out a languid arm, looked at her watch, said “Time to go, I think,” and wafted off to the others.
I followed Ann upstairs, changed into my smart skirt, brushed my hair and put on some lipstick. It was time to meet Mummy.