Many thanks to Peter, who kindly lent me his superb memories of teaching in a boarding school during the 1940s.
Also, my many thanks to the children I teach, who were the inspiration for the younger characters in this story.
Running away is something that can be done in more than one way. There are those who will impulsively pack every one of their possessions into a suitcase and flee dramatically and quickly into a moonlit night. There are those who do not bother with the suitcase. But those who run away successfully do so quietly, and gradually, with some ulterior motive as a disguise. They plan their exit over an extended period and slink off under the cover of their own idealistic ambition, no matter how ridiculous that ambition may appear. That is how I fled.
I first graced the beautiful shores of Jersey in mid September of 1935. I disembarked the ferry without knowing entirely where I was going, or even in fact, what I was doing there in the first place. It had the flavour of England, which was how I expected it to be. The fields of multiple shades lined with hedging; the typical Georgian-era townhouses; Cadbury's chocolate for sale in the confectioners' windows; it all gave it the air of being somewhere like Devon, perhaps. But it was upon hearing the French names for towns, roads and beaches, that I realised I was not, by any means, in England.
The piercing sound of seagulls and foghorns caused me to raise my voice as I approached a man at the dock.
"Excuse me, Sir. Could you tell me how to get to St. Paul, please?"
"The town or the parish?"
"The town...I think. I'm supposed to find...Mont-du-Nain College," I said, reading from a piece of paper I held in my hand.
"Ah, the posh school? Well you won't get there if you go to St. Paul..."
"No. It's at least four miles outside the town. You'll probably have to head to the nearest village."
"What's the nearest village?" I asked, when he did not elaborate.
"Mont-du-Nain," he said in a mildly mocking fashion. "Taxis are over there."
The countryside was glorious, and I couldn't have found surroundings more different from those I had been used to. I had been raised in London; Chelsea, if one wants to be precise; in a dreary, dark townhouse with a pillared doorway, high ceilings and pretentious chandeliers. I felt a sudden wave of excitement as I was driven through quiet country lanes bound by firs, birches and sycamores. I felt excited at the prospect of my new life in a country school, with the comfort of knowing an expanse of sea now separated me from London; and from my awful mother.
"Is it the school you're after, Miss?" asked the driver.
I could see the village of Mont-du-Nain in the distance, but to my surprise we turned right into a small road with a sign saying Mont-du-Nain College; Private Lane. This private lane continued for around two minutes, until an imposing stone building with yet more Georgian windows came into view. Surrounded by acres of mowed sports fields, tennis courts and a smaller building which appeared to be a cricket pavilion; together with an azure glow cast by the sea behind it; Mont-du-Nain seemed immediately idyllic. I was not so naive to think that an all-boys boarding school would be idyllic however, merely judged upon its outward appearance. Most schools of that nature were ruled in an utterly tyrannical manner, with a strict regime and dire consequences for misbehaviour. I expected this school was most likely the same, but I allowed myself to forget the notion as I took in the beauty of the place.
Two groups of schoolboys looked in curiosity as I got out of the car. One group wore black, grey and white, similar to what I had seen Eton students wearing in Windsor. It was clear what this school was attempting to model itself upon. They wore grey pinstriped trousers, black robes, a white shirt and bow tie; and a grey pinstriped waistcoat. I loathed the way modern-day schools chose to attire their pupils in Dickensian, nineteenth-century garments, which I always thought, resembled morning suits without the robes. I half-expected to see top-hats.
The second group of boys appeared older and wore charcoal grey robes instead of black, with red waistcoats. To my pleasant surprise, one dark-haired boy, from this older group came to the car and politely offered to carry my suitcase for me.
"Are you visiting, Miss?" he asked me.
"Not quite, I'm here as your new secretary."
"Oh yes Miss, I know where your quarters are...would you like me to take your suitcase for you?"
"Why yes. Thank you...what's your name?"
"Charles Leverett, Miss. I'm the Head Boy."
"Oh I see. Well, thank you, Mr Leverett. How kind of you."
The Head Boy disappeared around the corner with my suitcase, which I confess, unnerved me somewhat. I had everything I owned in that suitcase. He had instructed me to enter via the main entrance in front of me and seek the Headmaster, a Mr S. Isaac. A heavy, robust, black oak door stood as the prime gateway to Mont-du-Nain College. It was a very English door, I thought, as I pushed it open. It creaked with the reverberations of two hundred years' wear and tear, and swung gently back to its preferred spot; slightly ajar; as if I had awoken it from a slumber and irritated it by opening it fully.
There was no one in sight within the building. It was rather more drab and glum inside, with its dark, wooden panelling and dusty floorboards. It smelled of leather, old wood, and stained paper. I stood at the bottom of a staircase, which extended upwards to several floors above me. I could hear the faint sounds of teachers' voices, loudly and assertively imparting wisdom to their young scholars, as I craned my neck and peered upwards.
"Can I help you?" echoed a voice from some way along the corridor.
The darkness shrouded his face as he strode towards me, his long, black robes flapping the sides of the walls.
"Yes, I'm sorry, I'm here to see Mr Isaac."
The man appeared and smiled at me amiably. I was instantly struck by his face, as I thought it the most handsome face I had ever seen. He had blond hair, chiselled features and such a fine smile. He tilted his head endearingly as he spoke and had one slightly crooked tooth which bore no misfortune upon his appearance whatsoever.
"Mr Isaac? I think he's around somewhere...although has been some time since I've seen him. Perhaps I can help...I'm the Deputy Headmaster and one of the school's Housemasters. Peter DesChamps," he said, holding out his hand to shake mine.
"My name's Lillian Allardyce. I'm..."
"Our new secretary...yes, I heard him mention you yesterday. Shall we go through to his office? After you, Miss Allardyce."
The Headmaster's office was quite small, in fact, for a Headmaster's office. It bore the bleak hallmarks of a man of education; no decoration, no colour; with every space not taken up by dark wood, taken up by books and disorganised papers. I sat on a red leather chair and Mr DesChamps sat opposite me.
"Have you any belongings?"
"Yes...actually your Head Boy kindly offered to take them to my quarters...although I'm not sure where that is precisely," I joked.
Mr DesChamps smiled, before his cheer waned a touch. "Are you sure it was the Head Boy?"
"Did you make sure he was the Head Boy before you handed him your suitcase?"
I suddenly felt rather alarmed. "No..."
"What was he wearing?"
"Grey and red..."
"Hmm...well, at least we're sure he was a Sixth Former. They wear grey, the younger ones wear black."
I raised my eyebrows, which caused him to laugh and elaborate further. "Oh fear not, Miss Allardyce. I'm sure your suitcase has reached its destination safely...we have a problem with pranksters in this school which we are currently trying to eradicate...it's best you come to know that sooner rather than later. Do not believe everything they tell you..."
"Of course. They're boys after all..."
"Indeed...well, may I see your history of employment? Do you have it with you?"
I pulled a folded sheet of paper from my inside jacket pocket and handed it to him. He sat silently for a moment and read, before raising his eyes to mine and studying me with surprise.
"It says here you're Oxford-educated...you gained an English degree in 1930?"
"And you taught for five years in a girls' school?"
"But...but then what on Earth has possessed you to apply for a post as a secretary, Miss Allardyce?"
"Well...you won't allow female teachers in a boys' school."
"I grew tired of the stiff and frosted atmosphere present in a girls' school, Mr DesChamps. Girls are easier to teach, eager to impress...but they have no playful ambition, no sense of jest or humour. Boys' schools have an air of mischief about them, which you unwittingly re-affirmed to me just a moment ago when you asked me about the suitcase. I wanted a new start in a job which gave me more enjoyment; a more varied, more eventful, more demanding day of work, Sir."
"You think becoming a secretary will be more demanding than teaching?"
"No. But I do think living at a boys' school will be more of a challenge in general, Sir."
"Hmm...you could be right there, Miss Allardyce."
He handed me back the paper and arose from his seat.
"Well then, let us show you to your room."
I followed him down an endless maze of creaking corridors as he gestured to his left and right, naming classrooms and adding historical anecdotes as he went along, although I knew I would not remember most of it.
"And here is your room," he said, walking into a small room. "And we have your suitcase safe and sound!"
"Yes," I smiled.
Although it was small, it was appropriately-sized for me. It had a neatly-made bed, a wooden desk and chair, with some writing apparatus sitting welcomingly in wait. It was decorated in a bland manner, but one does not expect any glamour to come with living in an old Victorian boarding school.
He stood with his hands in his pockets and nodded towards the window. "You're on the top floor here, so you have a wonderful view of the kitchen garden, Miss Allardyce. You can awake in the morning to an aroma of carrots, parsnips and cabbages," he joked.
I stepped forward and opened the pokey, little window. He was right, I could see the kitchen garden, but I was more in awe of the wonderful view of the sea I had, beyond the gardens and playing fields. I don't suppose those who live on an island their whole lives can truly consider the sea anything more than I would consider pavements and terraced houses to be; so accustomed to it they become.
"Well, I will leave you to get settled in, Miss Allardyce. I will let Mr Isaac know of your arrival."
He shook my hand once more. "I'm greatly looking forward to having you on the school staff...to working with you."
"And I also, Mr DesChamps," I said, before he left.
I sat on the bed and let the sunshine pouring through the window bathe my face. I felt inordinate anticipation for what my time at the school would bring; as I sensed, even at that moment, that my life was going to change in more ways than I knew. Jersey emanated promise and positivity and I had not felt such enthusiasm in a very long time.