Georgina cycled to Kirkby Grange to seek an interview with Miss Townsend. It was already seven o’clock, and the headmistress had retired to her flat. After only a moment’s hesitation, Georgina decided to seek her out there. She wanted to resolve the issue of her assignment as soon as possible.
She approached Miss Townsend’s door with considerable trepidation. As always when nervous, she pulled her hair away from her face and wrapped the end of her ponytail around the base to make a hasty bun. Then she tugged the cuffs of her blouse further down her wrists, noting with dismay how frayed they were.
In answer to her knock, the door cracked, then pulled open wide with a surprised exclamation of “Miss Reddings! I thought you had consultations at your college today?”
“I’ve just returned from them, ma’am. The college is preparing the placements for the next Spring and Summer terms, and I’ve come to request re-assignment to Kirkby Grange. The college will allow that, if you accept —”
“This sounds like a longer discussion than one that we should be having here on the doorstep. You'd better come in.” Miss Townsend admitted Georgina and led her into the cosy sitting room. The neo-Gothic room was stuffed like a Christmas goose with old, plush furniture, rugs, books, paintings and porcelain figurines. Georgina caught a glimpse of a woman who was not as austere as the headmistress. She also spotted an oil painting of a younger Miss Townsend in hunting pinks beside a bright-eyed, chestnut hunter.
“Oh, do you hunt, Miss Townsend?”
“I used to,” the older woman answered sharply. Then, noting Georgina’s gaze, something in her softened. “That was my favourite hunter, Champagne. Painted in 1912.” A sad look crossed her hardened face, and Georgina saw a flicker of regret and lost love. Miss Townsend turned to face Georgina with a raised brow, “Do I infer that you hunt yourself?”
“I was passionate about it before the war; a bit horse-mad really. I hope I’ve grown out of that, but I also hope I’ll never stop having horses in my life.”
“Hm. I felt the same, once. We used to have horses here, you know. Until we closed the boys’ school. I was very sad to see them go.” Miss Townsend sounded surprisingly melancholy, provoking in Georgina an unexpected twinge of sympathy for the headmistress.
“Did you never think of bringing them back?” Georgina asked. “I mean, now that we have the evacuees.” The idea started to excite her. “Most have probably never been near a proper horse in their lives. They could learn so much from the noble beasts.”
“We could never find grooms nowadays. Everyone’s doing war service.” Miss Townsend retorted with an irritated gesture.
“But we could look after them ourselves, Miss Townsend. My parents have looked after our three without any hired help ever since the war started. After all, learning to look after horses would be as good, perhaps better, for the children than learning to ride. We could start with just two or three horses and maybe a pony or two.”
“That would only lead to terrible fights over who gets to ride, groom and everything else! To avoid jealousy, a school this size would need at least twenty mounts, and the expense associated with a stable that size is far beyond our capacity. The whole idea is utterly impractical!”
Georgina realised that it was because Miss Townsend would have loved to revive the stables that she was so angry she could not, so she docilely backed down. “I’m sure you know best, Miss Townsend. It was just a thought…”
Miss Townsend considered Georgina with an expression the latter could not read. After a pause she suggested, “Would you like some tea, Miss Reddings?”
Although the offer came as a surprise, Georgina instantly accepted. Given their tense relationship so far, she interpreted the invitation as a gesture of reconciliation — or at least a new start. “That would be very kind, ma’am.”
“Have a seat, then,” Miss Townsend indicated a sofa beside a low coffee table and disappeared calling “Maisy! Tea for two, please.” She returned shortly and settled herself into the comfortable armchair at the head of the table. “Let’s get back to the purpose of your visit.” Miss Townsend faced Georgina squarely as she continued, “You said you want to return here for the remaining two terms. Whatever for?”
“Well, I got off to a very poor start—”
“You certainly did!” Miss Townsend agreed.
“But I had the feeling I was getting better by the end of term.”
“Indeed, but you could hardly do much worse.”
“No, and, you see, I felt that going to an easy school with all girls wouldn’t do anything to make me a better teacher. Sticking it out here and getting to grips with the more difficult pupils, on the other hand, would be the best preparation for a career in the profession.”
“Hm.” Miss Townsend answered ambiguously.
When she said nothing more, Georgina felt compelled to fill the silence. “I really would like a second chance, ma’am, but the college insists that I must not be assigned to exactly the same class.”
“That’s good because I don’t think Miss Evans could stand the sight of you.” Miss Townsend paused and then asked not at all unkindly, “Just how far does your new-born self-confidence extend? Do you think you could take on older boys? Third Form perhaps? Or were you hoping to stay with little children?”
“I’d be delighted to teach Third Form,” Georgina lied. She was not delighted by the prospect of older boys but had foreseen that this might be her only option. She certainly preferred older children at Kirkby Grange to children of any age at a school in Devon, where she and Kit would have no hope of seeing one another at the weekend, much less evenings.
Miss Townsend raised her eyebrows sceptically, but then turned away altogether as an aging maid brought in the tea. She poured for Georgina and invited her to help herself to some tinned shortbread. Only after the ritual was over did she speak again. “I’m not sure what I should say, Miss Reddings. Despite your poor performance in the classroom, I admit I was pleasantly surprised by your diligence. You have worked late and on many weekends. You’ve done a remarkable job with this sewing class you started. When you first got here, I’d expected you to be out drinking and dancing with the swarms of aircrew that infest the local pubs.”
Georgina squirmed inwardly. She rather hoped her abstinent ways were about to change.
“Nevertheless, I’m going to be perfectly honest. I do not have much confidence in your ability to manage older boys. When even First Formers can make you dance to their tune, how are you ever going to cope with the older children?”
“I’ve learnt my lesson, Miss Townsend. I promise to be much firmer from the start.”
“Hmph!” Miss Townsend considered her again. “I must say, I admire your pluck. You did not crumble as I expected you to, and you have indeed shown marked improvement over the last month.” She paused again. “All right. You may go and talk to Mr Willoughby about the possibility of assisting him. I’ll ring and tell him you are on your way. But,” and the headmistress held a warning finger in the air, “it will be entirely his decision whether he wants you or not.”
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