This is the story of four nine-year-old girls and the amazing friendship and bond which they form as roommates while attending a Catholic Boarding School in Essex. Their special friendship will last a lifetime and will bring a tear to your eye.
Four nine-year-old girls arrive at a Catholic preparatory boarding school in Essex. Each is privileged in a distinct way. One has a wealthy, titled background, one is from an army, athletic and mathematics enriched family, one from a caring medical and scientific upbringing and the fourth has been raised in an environment which is steeped in classical scholarship at university level. Each has hopes and yearnings for her future, with a strong view of how their life will unfold for them. None will quite achieve their young ambitions but each will succeed in an alternative way, and be even happier and more fulfilled with that. They become fierce friends, and the story tells of their life at the start of their three years at the school, and the attraction they have for the Tudor Manor of Longwold, on a large farming estate in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. There is an exciting postscript in the final two chapters when as young teenagers, they again spend time at Longwold. The ups and downs of school life, their differing approaches to the problems of academia and the intensity of cramming for a place at one of the top English senior boarding schools unfolds. Throughout it all is the steadying influence of the deeply felt commitment to their faith, family and friends. Their differing skills and abilities benefit all. They become teachers to each other and all gain from the eclectic mix that a random, almost Darwinian bedroom placement has given them. These girls, like all girls, also have a taste for sauciness, but in a refined and gentle way.
Tillie wants to be a reporter but gives that up to become a successful children’s author.
Ruth wishes to study late medieval history but instead finds herself as an expert on Anglo-Saxon England.
Carol wishes to be a children’s medical specialist but is hugely content with being a village doctor.
Alice, through an awful injury, is unable to continue in the British army or a successful athletic career, but receives national recognition for her further work.
Each owes their future success to their families, faith and friends and they glory in the successes of each other.
The over-riding word throughout would be simply … love.
Start of prep. school – Ruth
Doctor Jean Lewis, with her small nine-year-old daughter Ruth, had spent most of the morning in the children’s school uniform shops in Cambridge. Ruth was getting bored and wondered how many more times she was going to be measured for something. School blazers and badges had been ordered, along with a house tie and grey box pleated skirts. White blouses, plimsolls, hockey skirts and boots and many other regulation clothes had been bought and packaged up. Both were carrying large bags of clothes and footwear. Ruth was still laughing at the silly straw hat that she would have to wear, which also had to be ordered. Mother and daughter walked further on through the streets and then turned into the gates of the university college, picking up today’s post at the pigeonholes by the front office, both chatting in the easy way they always did. Often, they would converse in Latin, a natural chatter which meant most were excluded from their conversations.
“Beati estis cum vestri novum uniformis?” [Are you happy with your new uniform?] Doctor Lewis asked her child.
“Etiam, is vultus bonum” [Yes, it looks good]. She quickly added, “nisi paleis petasus, quod est omnino absurdum” [Except the straw hat which is silly].
Her mother smiled, fondly remembering her reaction to the same headgear for the same school many years ago. She was surprised that the straw hat had steadfastly remained part of the Gordon Hall uniform.
The letter she was hoping for was there in her pigeonhole, among many others. They continued through the middle gateway and into the broad quadrangle. Ruth was well acquainted with the place, having spent many hours playing round her mother’s feet in the small study. Doctor Lewis was keen to catch up with the results of her last year’s student Masters’ degrees from the external examiners. After her initial marking, her concern for one student was well founded but the rest were good firm passes. As her mother worked, Ruth chatted in a mix of English and Latin sentences, until with irritation her mother told her to stick to one or the other.
“Which do you like best sweetie?” she asked.
Ruth thought for a moment then declared. “It depends. If I don’t mind others hearing, I suppose English, but if I want just to talk to you then Latin.” Then she continued with, “or if we are near something very old, a castle or an old house, or here in your university, I think I like Latin best.”
“What about your Welsh then?”
Ruth very quickly said that she only used that to please Daddy. Her mother inwardly accepted that Ruth’s Welsh was a little more advanced than hers. She had tried very hard to learn it and become proficient; after all, it was her husband’s first and natural language, and like many of his countrymen, he felt passionate about preserving and expanding its usage. As a skilled linguist herself, she fully accepted his feelings for his heritage. However, he worked and traded in England mostly, but even so, he had very conscientiously chatted to his three growing children in Welsh. Breakfast was always in that language and evening meals in a mix of English and Latin. Ruth was also becoming quite good in the Italian language as the family enjoyed holidaying on the Adriatic coast of Italy.
Doctor Lewis finally decided her young daughter was running out of ideas to amuse herself, so she swept a mound of papers and unopened letters into her briefcase. She picked up some of the uniform carrier bags and Ruth carried two smaller ones. They headed out along the corridor into the stairwell, down to the ground floor and out through the postern gate to the back of the university where her Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346 was parked. She ran her hand lovingly along its grey wheel arch and she opened the car boot. Parcels were dropped in, along with the briefcase and mother and child chatted as they left the town, motoring out on the A14. They passed the furniture store owned and run by Mr. Lewis. He had recently opened their fifth store, this time in the north of England, in Manchester. With Cambridge behind them they left the main road and entered their home village of Lower Staunton. Ruth leapt out and opened the gates to the drive. Mother did not wait for her as she knew Ruth enjoyed checking the bird tables at the side on the drive, and watching out for signs of life in the bird boxes. But they were long fledged by now.
A large metal box was placed just inside the hallway. Ruth’s new trunk had arrived. Idris strolled into view in the lounge, still in his pyjamas. Mother raised an eye at him and glanced at her watch. He coloured.
“Err … been busy Mom, trying to finish my holiday work!”
The usual parental reply to this began as Ruth disappeared away from family discord. Two more weeks in the happy arms of her family, then she knew her life would change forever. Megan, her younger sister was nowhere to be seen so she ran upstairs, branching left at the half landing before alighting in the cosy middle of her bed. She was surrounded by her stuffed toys. She had been told quite firmly that she could only take one. Lining them up by her pillow she closed her eyes and swept her finger-pointing hand back and forward along the line. She stopped and opened her eyes, then smiled. Rupert! He would go to Gordon Hall School with her. She held Rupert tightly and slowly a small tear appeared. ‘Why do things have to change?’
Start of prep. school – Tillie
Countess Belinda Rosslie locked away her old but well-loved Mini and strode out of the Dutch barn onto the large flagged yard in front of the stables. She spotted two wheelbarrows by the wall, steaming with waste from the last two stalls. Murder and Amber were tied up outside, noses together in the familiar snuggling of the two large horses who had shared adjoining loose boxes for the last three years. Eleven-year-old Leo came out of the double door, sweeping old wet and soiled straw in front of him. Behind came Tillie, at just nine years old, pushing a much smaller broom.
Both smiled in loving recognition of their darling mother. Leo leaned on his broom propping his head on his clenched hands whilst Tillie rushed towards her.
“Don’t you dare come near me, you smelly and grubby child!”
Tillie pulled up short and pretended to hunt her beautifully dressed mother, arms out and fingers in the tiger position.
“Arms behind you! Both. Stand very still and lean forward. Don’t you dare move!”
The children did as they were told, smiling. Belinda Rosslie kissed them both on each cheek, and started to giggle.
“You are filthy, dirty, and stinking! There is no way on God’s earth, you two are allowed into the house like that.”
One of the stable lads took over the work as the chatting and happy three family members strode toward the Manor. Mother led, walking round through a side archway, along by the knot garden and in to the back porch of the large late fifteenth century manor house called Longwold. She stopped just inside the entrance, then turned and pointed towards her grimy offspring.
“Leave ALL your clothes here and then into the shower with you. I will check you both out before the poor unsuspecting public see you again!”
The two children blinked at her, looking at her face to see if she was serious.
“Mummy, the shower room is up two stairways and at the far end of the Bowling Alley,” muttered Leo.
“Surprised that you know where the shower is, dirty face,” said a grinning Tillie, peeling off the last layer of her clothes. Soon, naked, she was off, racing up the back stairs in the fond hope of not meeting any internal traffic. Leo was pursuing her and catching-up, his longer legs making shorter work of the stairs.
“Good afternoon Master Leo, Miss Tillie!” an amused male voice echoed down the Bowling Alley. It was Malcolm Trench, the fifty-five-year-old estate manager, well accustomed to the life and happenings in the Rosslie household. He smiled as he swung round into his office. He adored these two youngsters and often allowed them to work at small jobs he knew they could do well. He and Tillie had had a falling out at the beginning of the holidays. She was hoping to take Murder out for a ride but he had stopped her firmly.
“Tillie, Murder is almost seventeen hands high! He’s far too big for you! Susan or Twotone are fourteen hands, just about right.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. She stamped her foot then turned on her heels and started to leave! She would see her father. He was the boss round here. She marched into her startled father’s office where he was penning a letter. He put down his fountain pen and gazed over his spectacles at his damp eyed daughter. He removed his glasses and started cleaning them with a tissue.
“Poppy, Trench, won’t allow me to take Murder out riding, can you tell him please?”
He sighed. The ordeals of parenthood! He replaced his spectacles.
“Firstly, Matilda, he is Mr. Trench to you. He is a very important person, working for our family. He is an adult and you are only a small child! So please be a little more polite. Secondly, Murder is not your horse, he is mine, and thirdly he is too strong and far too big for you. You are becoming a good horsewoman, but not that good.”
He paused as he allowed the message to sink in.
“Let’s pretend for just a moment that Mr. Trench had permitted you to take Murder out and you had had an accident, which is highly possible. Do you know what I would have done?”
Tillie examined the floorboards near her feet, realising that this was not going well for her. “No Daddy.”
“I would have sacked him on the spot. He would have lost his job because of you. Is that what you want?”
“No Sir. I like Mr. Trench. I am sorry.” She started to cry, realising what mistakes she had made. Earl Rosslie put his arms round his daughter and allowed the tears to flow for a while.
“Okay. Let’s put this right. What are you going to do now?”
“Find him and say that I’m very sorry?” she queried, grabbing a tissue and blowing her nose.
Poppy nodded his head. His nickname was only used by Tillie but he loved it. Tillie’s mother was then named Moppy and inevitably Leonard, or Leo her older brother became Soppy. Tillie moved off to find Mr. Trench. He was not where she had last seen him and she stamped her foot again! She found him in the machine shop checking on the repairs being done to the hydraulic lines of a small tractor. He looked up, and half expected more difficulties with this young girl. However, she was standing quietly, body language showing something completely different.
“I’m sorry Mr. Trench; I was rude and should have listened to you.” The mechanic, Alan Lambert, who was working on the tractor, turned away, smiling and pretended to search for a tool in his box. Malcolm Trench beamed at her and she threw her arms around his waist. He pattered her on the large mop of unruly hair.
“As long as we are still friends,” he said to reconcile with this fondly held child. Tillie looked up and had learned another lesson in the path of life.
The summer term had gone well for the children. Leo had long since settled well into his preparatory school in the nearby town of Cheltenham and was nearing the end of his stay there. At the end of this coming academic year, in a few days, he would move up to the senior part of Cheltenham College, his large public school and one of the biggest in the country.
Tillie’s education had been very productive at the local primary school but now she had to move on. She would miss her best friend, the red headed Sally. They played and ran together. The woods and fields in the Cotswold Hills were their early classroom. Tillie helped Sally’s mother decorate the local church altar with flowers grown in their own garden, up at “The Tops”, Sally’s home. They were two very bright young girls who almost read each other’s minds. Sally was very upset at finding her best friend was going away to school. She felt it a personal slight, although Tillie had long prepared her friend for the move that she would have to make.