Trouble in St. Hilda's is totally not an imaginary book. Really.
I had a warped childhood. I blame Enid Blyton.
* * *
Extract from Trouble in St. Hilda's, pub. 1933
* * *
As soon as Harriet and Lizzy were gone, grinning and waving from the back seat of Harriet's people's car, Tony crept to the dormitory. Luckily, it was as empty as she had hoped; the girls had all flocked outdoors, the fortunate to greet their parents, the others to help prepare for the day's performances.
Sighing with relief, she dropped to her knees beside her bed and started packing, half an eye fixed on the door. Considering her experience, Tony ought to have found packing in a hurry an easy task, but as she stuffed clothes and provisions haphazardly into her bag, her hands shook.
'Don't be a chump,' she told herself. 'This is the third time you've staged an escape, you ought to be used to it by now.'
But in her heart of hearts she knew that was not the source of her nervousness. She shook herself, and made herself face it.
She was an old hand at running away, but Azalea wasn't. Tony wasn't worried about having to manage with more than one person in the outside world, even on the scarce money she had. She could do for Azalea, and so could Azalea herself, if it came to that; for all her meekness and dithering, a sharp wit and curious sturdiness lay behind those wide, innocent brown eyes.
The question was, would Azalea let herself into the outside world in the first place? She had promised to leave with Tony, but that had been a pact made on her side in fresh terror and misery, instead of the long-boiling anger that drove Tony. Perhaps a night's measured consideration had changed Azalea's mind. She would remember the enormous row the school would kick up if they found out, and unlike Tony, she had nowhere else to go. She had grown up in St. Hilda's. It had been here that she had received the news about her parents' death . . .
Tony remembered the flash of anger in Azalea's eyes when she had told Tony about how she had learnt about her parents, and felt somewhat comforted. After all, Azalea did have somewhere to go now. Tony would look after her. She didn't care what Mother or Daddy said; she was determined that Azalea would not go back to her beastly great-uncle's at least this hols.
In her preoccupation, Tony's attention had drifted from her surroundings. A clatter at the door alerted her just in time. She shoved her toothbrush into her bag, swung it over her shoulder and jumped up just in time to face Star Ferrars.
The Head Girl looked Tony over mockingly.
"Tony Crowley," she said. Her deep, thrilling voice, once so sweet when she spoke to Tony, was now laden with malice. Tony thought of a large predatory cat, stretching lazily in the sun. "What are you doing in dorm on half-term? Aren't your people visiting you?"
Tony flushed with anger at the jab, and at the lazy, cruel glint in the blue eyes. It steadied her voice, though her heart was hammering against her ribs.
"No, Mother and Daddy are too busy this term," she said. "Michaela Hawkins has invited me to lunch with her and her people. We're having a picnic."
It was less than likely that the adored games captain of the school should invite a third former, however gifted at swimming, to spend half-term with her, and it would be easy enough for Michaela to disprove Tony's assertion when she returned to school in the evening. It would probably cause the school to notice Tony's disappearance sooner than it would have otherwise, but knowing how much Star hated Michaela, Tony couldn't resist the lie. When she saw Star's face darken with anger, she felt fully justified.
"The great games captain!" drawled Star. "Very gracious of her to have invited the black lamb of the school along, to be sure. You must be honoured. But I suppose noblesse oblige demands it -- and of course, it's lonely at the top. I expect Michaela is finding it's harder to keep girls her age believing in her charade of the perfect schoolgirl than to dazzle a junior."
"You'd know all about that, of course," said Tony cheerfully. "Though as a matter of fact, Gabrielle Manby's coming as well. They're special friends, you know."
Star went beet-red. The effect was to decrease her beauty considerably, Tony noted with pleasure.
"You aren't going with Michaela Hawkins," said Star furiously. "As if you'd sneak around like that if you were! Do you think I'm such a duffer as to believe that? I know what you're up to."
Tony's heart leapt up her throat, but she tried to keep her face blank.
"Oh, do tell," she said politely, ready to deny everything.
"You're going with that little friend of yours, Azalea Fell. 'Special friends', indeed," scoffed Star. "Did you think I wouldn't notice? She's been tagging along after you everywhere you go, lately. I have to say, I don't wonder you've tried to hide it. I'd be ashamed of having such a scatterbrained little dumpling for a friend as well."
Fury blazed up in Tony. She turned on Star, her fear forgotten.
"That's precisely what I should have expected of you, Lucinda Ferrars," said Tony. "You've got it all wrong, as usual. I'm not ashamed of having Azalea for a friend -- she's worth two of you, and of every girl in your beastly little gang, and the way you've all treated her only shows it all the more. Being kicked out of your club was the second best thing that ever happened to me, but the first was Azalea's somehow deciding I was worth talking to, even after everything."
While Star was still gaping, Tony stalked past her to the door, and out into the corridor. She kept her back haughtily straight for as long as she thought Star might be looking, but when she reached the stairs she abandoned dignity for discretion, and made a dash for it.
When she reached the stables she saw a short, plump figure waiting outside, and felt her heart lift. Azalea turned when she shouted her name. Her worried face brightened when she saw Tony.
"Thank goodness it's you," she said. "I thought it was a mistress calling me for one awful second, and that I should have to go back and be a flower in their rotten pageant. I've been waiting simply ages, my nerves are all to shreds. I've no idea how I shall manage this running away business. Everyone who walks past looks to me like a policeman come to stop us."
"Sorry I'm late," said Tony. "I ran into Lucinda Ferrars on the way, and I had to fob her off with some excuse or other."
"Lucinda -- you mean Star?" gasped Azalea. "Oh goodness! What did she say?"
"Her usual nasty bilge," said Tony. "Asked me if my people were coming, when she knew perfectly well they weren't, and told me you were a dumpling."
Tony could have bitten her tongue off, but it was too late. Azalea went a blotchy red, and looked down. Tony stared at her, at a loss for words.
'Oh gosh, if she should cry -- ' she thought, in a frenzy of embarrassment, but Azalea showed no signs of tears. After a silence that seemed to Tony to span ages, she spoke.
"I do hate being ugly," she said quietly. "Anybody can say anything about one, and one simply can't fight back."
Tony felt her jaw drop. Her speechlessness deserted her in a rush: she grasped Azalea's shoulders, ignoring the other girl's start of surprise, and said passionately,
"You are not ugly -- you're beautiful -- you're the loveliest, cleverest, funniest, duckiest, best dumpling in the world -- and Lucinda Ferrars is a mean, posturing beast who hasn't even the sense to see it. You're worth ten of her."
Azalea began to smile, the familiar, unexpectedly shrewd amusement lighting the round brown eyes. Tony's throat ached with a sudden wave of tenderness.
"And I suppose you told her that," said Azalea.
"No," Tony admitted honestly. "I told her you're worth two of her, but I ought to have said ten."
Azalea's eyes widened with astonishment. Then she laughed.
"You have got a nerve!" she gurgled. "Why, Tony, that was frightfully brave of you -- brave, and sweet."
"Well, you needn't tell the whole world," said Tony gruffly, feeling the blood climb up her cheeks. Her embarrassment made her next words curt. "It wasn't to do you a favour anyhow, standing up to Lucinda Ferrars. Somebody had to do it to the beast sooner or later."
"Lucinda," mused Azalea. "D'you know, I don't think I've ever heard anybody except the Head call her that. Even the mistresses call her Star."
"Silly sort of name," said Tony. "Does she think she's an American film actress? If she's stuck with a name like Lucinda, she jolly well ought to face up to it like a man."
"Like the way you face up to being named Antonia," Azalea suggested, wide-eyed.
"And everyone told me you were such a nice, quiet girl," Tony said mournfully. "Have you got everything? Come along, then, we'd better be gone before anybody notices."