Sheila Hancock Miss Carter’s War Preview

Sheila Hancock Miss Carter’s War Preview

Chapter 1

Marguerite looked at her reflection in the mirror and despaired. Even with no make-up she was too flashy. Too French. She moved the cameo brooch higher on the neck of her white blouse to hide any hint of cleavage. The dark grey worsted skirt she had made from a Butterwick pattern looked suitably schoolmistressy, ending as it did just below the knee, its semi-flare gliding flat over her bottom, but her bosom betrayed her. She buttoned up the grey cardigan she had knitted in simple purl-plain from the pattern in Woman’s Own to further lessen the impact of her troublesome bust. Better. It made for a pretty depressing image but one that was suitable for Miss Carter, English teacher in the Home Counties. The grammar school demanded not just academic excellence from its staff but a respectable example to be given to the girls.

The year before the Mistress of Girton had given her a lesson on dressing appropriately for the occasion. The occasion in question had been momentous. On the 21st of October 1948 Marguerite was one of the small posse of women to first receive the grudging recognition of their worthiness to become full members of the venerable University of Cambridge, rather than being excluded from societies, the library, the Union, grants and scholarships. A few dons had hitherto allowed women students to slink into lectures, but pointedly still addressed the assembly as ‘gentlemen’. Now they were to receive proper degrees, alongside the Queen, deemed a more appropriate recipient of an honorary award than any of the women who had fought for years for that belated right

Marguerite had concocted an outfit that would have pleased her French mother, based on the very latest Christian Dior trend. When she turned up in the Girton common room to fit her gown and mortarboard, she felt jubilantly happy in her scarlet skirt 8 inches from the floor, pushed out by a stiff buckram petticoat showing a flash of lace edging. The waspie waist corset that reduced her 21 inches to 20 enhanced the curvaceousness she had inherited from her mother. What with the matching black patent-leather wide belt and tottering high heels, the final effect, she knew, was ravishing

The Mistress of the College was aghast.

‘What on earth are you wearing?’

‘The New Look for a new era. D’you like it?’

‘For a wedding, perhaps. But this is a solemn ceremony in the presence of Her Majesty and all the university and city dignitaries. An historic occasion.’

‘I know. That’s why I made an effort.’

We have had to convince the nervous nags of this establishment that we pose no threat, that we will not upend centuries of tradition and destroy their cosy world. Yet. By guile and subterfuge, we have convinced them we are harmless ladies.

‘Marguerite, we have fought long and hard for this privilege. Hitherto we have been reluctantly tolerated as long as we didn’t frighten the horses. We have had to convince the nervous nags of this establishment that we pose no threat, that we will not upend centuries of tradition and destroy their cosy world. Yet. By guile and subterfuge, we have convinced them we are harmless ladies. And I use that word advisedly. Now you come prancing in to take part in one of their beloved rituals looking like a latter-day Zuleika Dobson.’

‘Who is she?’

‘All the men in Oxford fell in love with her and committed suicide.’

‘Well, this is Cambridge.’

‘Yes, that is where she was heading at the end of the novel. They have been expecting her here ever since.’

‘Well, I’m sorry. But we’ve never done it before. There is no precedent for what we wear.’

‘Come with me.’

The Mistress took her to her rooms and gave her a black dress with a white collar and long sleeves.

‘You can keep the red nail varnish but wear these gloves when you kneel and take your certificate. You look disappointed.’

‘I am a bit. I wanted to say, “See – I got a First, you sad, old misogynist stick-in-the-muds. Look – I’m all woman and very, very clever.”‘

The Mistress laughed then took her hands.

‘You know, Marguerite, the gown is the important thing. Wear it with pride. You deserve it. Your life so far has been exemplary. You had a good war—’

‘I always find that a strange choice of word – good.’ She stands holding the small boy’s hand, watching the man shoot the girl in the flowery dress. Then he shows the boy how to hold the gun and helps him pull the trigger. ‘Good,’ he smiles, and pats the boy’s head. ‘That’s for your mother,’ he says, as he pokes the body with his boot to check that it is properly dead

‘I apologise. It is a ludicrous anachronism especially applied to this last nightmare, but you know what I mean. I know you don’t like it talked about, but a Croix de Guerre implies great courage. You have been an exceptional student. You know, Marguerite, you could have done anything. The Foreign Office is opening up for women now, as long as you don’t get married, and politics would have been a possibility. And obviously writing. Academic appointments will now be available to women here, but you have chosen to teach children. Why?’

‘I want to change the world.’

‘Oh, is that all?’

‘And where best to start than with the children? I hope I don’t sound too highfalutin.’

‘No, my dear’ – she touched her face sadly – ‘just young.’

‘I have no pride in my life so far.’

‘That’s a shame. Well, perhaps you can wear your gown in tribute to all those women who won this for you.’

So she did. The ill-fitting black frock notwithstanding, tipping her mortarboard at a jaunty angle and brushing up the fur trim on her hood, as she stood outside the Senate House after the ceremony, she made a silent vow to emulate their commitment and thereby justify the pain that her desertion had caused Marcel.

So many debts to so many people.

Now, here she was, about to start the noble quest she had dreamt of and worked for and she was worrying about her hair, for heaven’s sake. It was too red, too curly, altogether too unladylike. Her hat, a grey felt beret, would flatten it or she could tuck it inside, but she couldn’t keep her hat on all day. Eventually, she settled for scragging it back into a tight pleat and sticking down any stray wisps with soap. That worked. She was desexed, neutered, unthreatening. The Mistress would approve.

Her legs were a problem. She toyed with the idea of the gossamer nylon stockings nestling in the drawer, wrapped in tissue paper, but worried that their dubious black-market source would be suspect.

Her legs were a problem. She toyed with the idea of the gossamer nylon stockings nestling in the drawer, wrapped in tissue paper, but worried that their dubious black-market source would be suspect. So, instead, she stained the offending slim limbs with gravy browning and drew a pencil seam up the back, made slightly wiggly by her nervous hands. Sensible lace-up black shoes eliminated any risk of allure.

She allowed herself only one dash of chic. From the back of her underwear drawer she took a small Chanel box. Inside, wrapped in a piece of white silk, was a pair of black-leather gloves. The best ones, for special occasions. She caressed their softness as they lay in her hand and then held them against her cheek. Did she imagine a faint echo of Jean Patou Joy? One day, when she was about three years old, she had shuffled about the room, naked apart from her mother’s high-heeled red shoes and these gloves. She flapped her hands in imitation of Maman’s animated elegance. Maman laughed and clapped. ‘Comme tu es belle, ma petite. Viens.’ And she folded her in her arms. Soft, warm, fragrant.

Her hands were bigger now and had done terrible things, but Maman would understand and forgive. The fingers were too tight, so she took from the box the ivory stretchers with the silver A for Adrienne and gently eased them to allow her mother’s gloves to grasp her hands. This was her special occasion. She suspected Maman would have preferred it to be a good marriage but her intellectual English father would surely have been proud of his Cambridge-educated teacher daughter.

When she pulled on her hat and belted her grey gabardine mac, the disguise was as effective as any she had used during the war. The small flat she had found herself was a ride away from the school with a pleasant walk to the bus stop. She made her way anonymously in the slight mist through Wilmington, nodding at the few people around so early in the morning. A road sweeper gathering autumn leaves doffed his cap at her and they exchanged ‘Good morning’s’. She took a short cut to the stop along a path through a copse of tangled trees and brambles where the bosky smell tickled her nose. She sneezed, causing a woman walking her dog to say ‘Bless you’. She wanted to say, ‘Yes, I am blessed. This is the first day of the rest of my life,’ but she was momentarily downcast by the sight of some huts behind a high barbed-wire fence, a former prisoner-of-war camp.What hell had awaited those men when they returned home?

The bus was crowded. A boy sprang to his feet and offered her a seat.

The bus conductor looked at her as he clipped her ticket

‘All right, duck?’

‘Bit nervous. New job.’

‘Where?’

‘The grammar school.’

‘Oh la-di-da. Tuppence to talk to you then.’

The laughter in the bus was good-natured. Several people wished her good luck. Marguerite looked around at her fellow passengers as the bus rattled along. There were men in overalls, worn housewives with stroppy babies and string bags for shopping, two men in smart suits with bowler hats on their laps, a group of children quietly giggling over a comic, making the most of the last day of the holidays, jam jars and nets on sticks ready for tiddler fishing, three nurses, and a couple of men in RAF uniform. It occurred to her that one of the few benefits of war was the enforced breaking down of class barriers. These people had been evacuated, served in factories or the services, and had lived with and worked alongside those they would normally only have encountered superficially. She herself was destined for an upper-class leisured life until the German invasion of France had derailed that course. She could barely remember the rigid convent school, the piano and dance classes, the trips to the Comédie-Française and the Opéra.

Enthused by the good wishes, she alighted at Dartford Heath. The landscape was just recovering from its use for Army manoeuvres. The tank tracks were grassing over and the sand-filled sacks for bayonet practice, hanging from gallow-like structures, were being used as swings. The mist had lifted now to show a blue sky devoid of swollen barrage balloons. Gone too were the big iron cylinders lining the road in readiness for making a smokescreen. On a patch of waste ground were abandoned three small concrete pyramids, fortunately never called upon to test their effectiveness in stopping an invading army in its tracks.

As she walked along past neglected semi-detached pebble-dashed houses she saw that the gaps made by bombs had been tidied up, the remaining rubble providing a good playground. The blasted walls revealed the wallpapers so carefully chosen from sample books, now flapping in the slight breeze. In one house a staircase remained, leading to a void which had been a bedroom where there had been love and respite. Possibly the owners had sheltered from the bombing in the cupboard beneath, in which case they may have survived, while their world was destroyed around them. Shattered lives everywhere, but now the mending process was underway and she was eager to be part of it. There, in front of her, was the arena for her impending challenge.