Nora Gilham is a teacher at the village school. She teaches the lower grades from their start at age five until they finish their third year, when she hands them over to Mrs Henshall. Most of the children are well-behaved, for in our village traditional values are still observed. There is the occasional 'bad boy' - it is nearly always a boy - who requires a firm hand, but by the autumn half-term holiday she has cast-iron control over her classes. Her lot is eased by her having all three classes at the same time and in the one room, for the newcomers have two earlier classes to show them the ropes, and Miss Gilham receives help from these older pupils, who explain to the new ones just how things are done around here.
For a teacher to have more than one class is an anachronism, of course, and needs explanation. But the local council is pragmatic. They have neither sufficient pupils in the village school's catchment area nor sufficient money in the coffers for each year to have its own teacher. So the five, six and seven year olds share Miss Gilham, eights and nines Mrs Henshall and tens and elevens Mr Allsop. So it has always been, and parents are glad that their young children do not need to take the train or bus into the nearby town of Winstable at an ungodly hour of the morning. Everybody turns a blind eye to this anomaly and nobody admits its existence, and all are happy.
To return to Miss Gilham, she herself was a pupil here, had started in the five year old class some thirty years ago and, after taking the 11+ exam, had gone to the secondary school in Winstable. She had been a good pupil, had continued to the big city to take teacher training and had worked a number of years there, always with an eye on vacancies nearer home. Some five years later one had arisen in Winstable, which she had sought and been accepted for, and another seven years had passed before her predecessor, old Mrs Wilshaw, who had taken Miss Gilham through her first three years, had finally retired, and she came full circle, back to the tiny village school which had set her on the path to learning.
One evening in the middle of May Nora Gilham was sitting in the garden of the Stonemason's Arms sipping an after-dinner cognac and occasionally a coffee, and talking to her friend, Evelyn Pelham, whilst Evelyn's fiancé, Peter Norris, was inside playing darts.
"So when is Peter going to make an honest woman of you?" asked Nora.
"The heavy money is on late July or early August," said Evelyn. "It depends when my cousin can come and look after the shop whilst we're off on our honeymoon."
"And where would you like to go for your honeymoon?"
"Oh, I don't know. The older I get the less I want to leave Stoke Fercroft, even for a holiday. But I suppose we'll be off to the Canaries, or France. Maybe Italy - Tuscany."
"You're too young to be talking about being old," smiled Nora. "Look at me?"
"Well, you're not old either," said Evelyn. "What are you? Thirty-six, thirty-seven?"
"I'm thirty-four, thank you very much!"
"And when is someone going to make that honest woman of you?"
Nora sighed, and Evelyn felt a twinge of guilt at bringing such a potentially touchy subject out in the open.
"I don't think that's going to happen," said Nora quietly.
"The thing that surprises me is that you've managed to stay single so long," said Evelyn. "You're intelligent, attractive ..."
"I nearly didn't," said Nora. "I was actually engaged once. When I was working in the city, after qualifying. I met a lovely man." Her eyes took on a faraway look. "Robert was his name. Another teacher, of course. We became friends, then lovers, and then he asked me to marry him."
"And what happened?"
"I got pregnant. Had a miscarriage. While they were tidying up, they discovered that I had a congenital problem with my ovaries. They said it was amazing that I had got pregnant at all, but not surprising that the foetus aborted. There was a danger that my ovaries would become cancerous and the doctors suggested that they were removed."
"And your fiancé?"
"He wanted children. So I let him go."
Nora spoke the last words so softly that Evelyn only just heard them. She reached out and took both Nora's hands in her own, squeezed them.
"And you?" she finally asked.
"I wanted children, too, but..."
She got no further with her explanation, and Evelyn squeezed her hands again in sympathy. Nora took a deep breath, looked up, and smiled, perhaps a little grimly.
"At least I'm in the right profession for someone who loves children," she said. "But it's a bit of a Peter Pan world. The children never grow up. I have them for three years and then they're gone. It would be nice to help some of them through secondary school, university maybe, watch them mature, get a job, a partner, have children of their own..."
Again she fell silent, and Evelyn could think of nothing to say. She was relieved of the necessity by the arrival of Jenny, the barmaid, wanting to know if they required a refill. They each took another cup of coffee and Evelyn could change to another subject without its being too brutal.
After this open-hearted conversation Evelyn kept half an eye on Nora, who was no stickler for rules and regulations. It happened not infrequently that a parent could not pick up their child in time, and Nora made no fuss about keeping them with her, especially if the parent rang to let her know the problem. If the delay was substantial - a cancelled train for example - she took the children home with her where she had a drawer full of toys, and a cupboard full of biscuits, if not some simple meal, be it only sandwiches and a glass of milk.
Nora had, Evelyn knew, no shortage of friends in the village. Many of her school-friends from junior school still lived in the village, a number of them also parents of the children in one of her classes. She was a member of a reading circle, and she was active in the amateur dramatic society, which put on two or three plays a year. She smiled a lot, and laughed occasionally, but Evelyn had long sensed a shadow over her, and thought that she now understood the reason. Nora enjoyed riding, and stabled her horse at the Holy Oak stables, some twenty minutes walk outside the village, and here, too, she had friends, including the owners, Jeremy and Caroline Bellingall.
It happened one day that the doorbell of Evelyn's general store and post office rang, and she looked up to see a woman in her fifties, with greying hair and a sad expression.
"Edna," she cried. "How nice to see you. Have you come back home for a visit?"
The woman nodded.
"Yes," she said. "I'm staying with Jeremy. Helping out a little whilst Caroline is in hospital."
"Oh, dear, I hadn't heard. I hope it's nothing serious."
"I'm afraid so," said Edna. "The family curse is getting ready to claim a new victim."
"The family curse?"
"Breast cancer," said Edna grimly. "It took grandma; it took our mother; it took my sister, Caroline's mother, and now it's chasing Caroline. Somehow I seem to have escaped," she finished sadly.
Evelyn remembered very well the death of Caroline's mother some twenty years ago, although she had been too young to really assimilate the nature of the tragedy for Caroline and her family.
"You must tell me if there's anything I can do: arrange delivery of their groceries; take a turn looking after the children; anything. And I'm sure others will be only too pleased to help, as well.
"Thank you, Evelyn. I'll tell them. I know they'll appreciate it as much as I do."
Edna made her purchases, paid, and left, and Evelyn had the opportunity to mull over what she had heard. When Jeremy called in a few days later she asked whether he thought Caroline could cope with a visit.
"I'm afraid not," he said. "It seems that the cancer is both deep-seated and virulent and it's spread like wildfire. She's undergoing chemotherapy, and they're pumping her so full of chemicals in the hope of stopping the spread, if not eventually reversing it, that she's in no shape for visitors of any kind, although she puts on a brave face when I take the children, or her mother visits."
A little over a month saw the beginning and end of her illness, and then word quickly spread around the village that Caroline had passed away. The little church was full for her funeral service, for her family had lived in the village for many generations, and she had been a popular figure.
Caroline had managed Holy Oak stables with the help of three assistants, one of whom had also helped with riding lessons. Jeremy, who enjoyed riding, but made his income in the nearby city, asked this assistant to take over the management for a significant salary increase, so that the many customers Caroline had enrolled would not feel that they must look elsewhere.
Although Jeremy was not a native of the village, he had established himself so well amongst the villagers that help, particularly during the difficult early days after Caroline's death, came from every direction. He hired one of the local girls, a sensible nineteen year-old called Felicity, to look after the house, see that the children got to school on time and to collect them in the afternoon, and established a small pool of reserves in case Felicity should be ill. She was also given the use of Caroline's car so that she could take herself home when Jeremy had returned from his job in the city and they had all eaten dinner together.
Evelyn did her bit, taking Felicity's orders for groceries and packing them each Thursday, when Felicity did the weekly shopping. Nora, too, had her role to play, for little Rosemary and her younger brother, John, were both devastated by the fact that Mummy had gone away to the hospital and now would never be coming back. She asked Felicity to bring them a little early to school, so that she could get a feel for their mood before school started, and perhaps even have a chat and let them talk out their distress before they were joined by their classmates, Rosemary in class three, and John with the five year-olds. And at the other end of the day, Felicity would come a little later to give them some time with Nora before she fetched them.
Everyone felt that this support from Nora helped the children over the worst time after their mother's death, and her stock rose even higher amongst the villagers. What the villagers did not know what that Nora, like most good teachers was something of an amateur psychologist and had had psychology lessons during her teacher training. This training she now put to good use and was able to tip Jeremy off when she felt that a period of deeper loss was building up in the children, and play her role in defusing it without damaging the normal course of mourning.
Time passed, and first Rosemary and finally also John moved up to Mrs Henshall's class, but still they came to Nora's classroom when school was over. She would give them a glass of milk and a biscuit or two from the store which all teachers have in their desks, let them draw a picture or read a chapter or two of their book, or even do their homework when Mrs Henshall or Mr Allsop gave them some. Then Felicity would arrive to take them home, and Nora received two hugs, just as she had when they had been in her class.
"Nora seems changed these days," commented Evelyn to her husband, Peter, one evening.
"I remember how there was always a shadow over her smile, but now it seems to be gone. She's more serene."
"I don't see that much of her," said Peter. "But now you mention it, she does seem more relaxed."
Evelyn made up her mind to find some way to broach the subject with Nora next time they met, and it was just a couple of days later when Nora came in for her week's shopping.
"So how are you coping?" she asked as they went through Nora's shopping list.
"I'm fine thanks," replied Nora. "Any special reason for asking?"
Evelyn hoped she did not look as guilty as she felt at this question, and wondered whether she was in danger of giving too much away. She decided to charge in.
"It's just that you seem more serene these days. Peter called it relaxed. I wondered if there was anything special behind the change or whether we're imagining it."
Nora laughed, and Evelyn realised that it was a long time since she had heard Nora laugh.
"I think I'm escaping from my Peter Pan world," she said. "Remember once we were talking about children and I told you about that?"
"Well, most of 'my' children are still in the five to seven age range, but now I have two who are older."
"You mean Rosemary and John?"
"They're now eight and ten, and they still come to me for an hour or so after school before Felicity comes to fetch them. She has a part-time job now, in addition to looking after the children before and after school. So they come to me for biscuits and milk - although Rosemary has now graduated to a cup of tea instead of a glass of milk."
"I'm so glad for you," said Evelyn.
"Oh, I know it won't last for ever, but at least I see these two even after they've left my classes."
Some time later the news spread around the village. Jeremy was to be made head of a new branch of the company where he worked, and would be moving to the far east for a number of years. It was Mrs Evans, the village gossip who reported the news to Evelyn when she was in the store one quiet day.
"They'll be leaving at the end of the month," she concluded.
"They? Is he taking Rosemary and John with him?"
"I don't know about that, but I heard that he's getting married. He needs a wife in his new job to help with the entertaining."
"And have you heard the name of the lucky lady?"
"No. It's just a rumour as yet. But I'll bet it's Nora. She's given so much of her time to looking after the children, especially just after their mother died. And they're much of an age, Nora and Jeremy."
"I can believe it. But what will we do without Nora in the school?"
Evelyn could not wait for Nora to make her next visit, but by the perversity of things in general it was a longer wait than she had expected, until one Saturday when Nora showed up. She was, Evelyn would say afterwards, poitively glowing.
"You look happy," said Evelyn.
"I'm over the moon. You'll never guess."
"A little bird is whispering that Jeremy is to be married."
"Yes, it's true."
"And you'll get to see Rosemary and John grow up."
"That's the best part of all. He was talking about sending them to boarding school. So many of these foreign-stationed managers do, you know. But I said no, I can look after them, help them with their schooling and so on. And he agreed."
"Congratulations," exclaimed Evelyn. "I'm sure you'll be very happy together."
"Oh, I know we shall! I'm busy with preparations already, and Jeremy's paying for it all."
"I should think he would."
And she was gone with her shopping. Who should the next customer be than Mrs Evans.
"You were right," said Evelyn. "I've just heard it from Nora. Jeremy is getting married."
"Yes," she said, and Evelyn thought she was a little tight-lipped for someone who had been able to release the news more than a week ago.
"What? Aren't you glad for them? What a happy family they'll be."
"I think it's disgusting," she said, and Evelyn recoiled in surprise.
"What do you mean? Aren't you happy for Nora?"
"Oh, yes, Nora's happy about it all."
"Well what, then?"
"Do you know what Nora's doing?"
"She was just here. She was talking about preparations."
"Yes. She's preparing her house to make room for Rosemary and John. They'll be living with her whilst Jeremy's in China."
"But isn't Nora going with him? To help him entertain business customers?"
"No. His wife will do that. He's marrying that young trollop, Felicity. And they're parking the kids with Nora to save on boarding school fees!"