She thinks her staff flat in this private estate will give her a fresh start – but she hasn’t reckoned on a staffroom buzzing with secrets, in which every colleague has a mysterious past to hide.
With surprises around every corner, from an anarchic headmistress to a puzzlingly rugged Head of Games, will Gemma’s new colleagues help her build her new life? Or will they be her downfall?
Packed with gentle humour this entertaining story pays affectionate tribute to the boarding school stories we grew up with, from a twenty-first century perspective.
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What Readers Say
“The perfect read – I loved it! Thank you for writing such an entertaining and intelligent book.“ – Katie Fforde
“Wonderfully witty – huge fun to read.” – Caroline Sanderson
“A gentle, first-in-series mystery with fabulous characters.” – Julie Cordiner
“Oh, what fun! Wonderful characterisation, cosy humour and intrigue, and a natural, carefully paced writing style that makes it easy to keep turning the pages.” – Karen Inglis
“The cosiest of cosy mysteries, sweet, wholesome and quintessentially English like the cream teas in Gemma’s local bookshop. There’s barely a dark moment, but many deliciously comical ones.” – ‘London Lass’
For more reviews please visit the Secrets at St Bride’s Reviews page
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THE OPENING CHAPTERS OF SECRETS AT ST BRIDE’S
What on earth was that circling her neck? And how could something so long have fitted in a trouser pocket?
The distinctive smell provided a clue – the thick, sickly scent of rubber, like car tyres. Her mother had always liked the smell of rubber, associating it with hospitals. Life-saving in that setting, but intended to be life-taking now.
Or was it only meant to give her a fright? Was it some kind of game? Well, she could play games too. If she played dead, her attacker might back off. In any case, she was too tired to put up a fight.
She let her hands fall limp at her sides. If only she had a little more air, she’d be fighting fit. The clear, pure air of a stroll through the school gardens: with more than an acre of garden per girl, St Bride’s never had any shortage of fresh air.
Never mind a stroll, she might just float away instead. What a lightweight she was! Or did she mean low mass? What was the difference between weight and mass again? The Head of Science would know. She ought to ask.
That’s where she’d last smelt rubber, in the science lab. Bunsen burner tubes were made of rubber. Detach one of those from its burner and gas tap, and it would easily fit in a trouser pocket. You could coil it up like a pet snake. A trouser snake. But was this one a harmless grass snake or a lethal boa constrictor?
Was that her pulse she could feel, or the snake’s? Snakes might be cold-blooded, but they’d still have a pulse.
Her eyes were hurting now. Of course they were, she still had her contact lenses in. She must take them out before she fell asleep, or she’d look like she’d been drinking all night. What a bad example that would set for the girls!
Perhaps it was time to stop playing games and yell for help. But if she did, would anyone hear her through these thick old walls of Cotswold stone?
As the pressure at her throat eased for a moment, she took her chance, sucking in a vast, noisy gasp, enough oxygen to fuel at least one scream. Yes, and a well-aimed kick. She’d show just who was boss.
The second scream was not her own, but she didn’t care. Mission accomplished, she passed out cold, contact lenses and all.
Perching on the vast sofa in the school’s great entrance hall, at the appointed time of midday, I realised the room was bigger than our entire flat.
I say our flat. Steven’s flat, actually, since I’d just moved out. Technically it had been his all along, but after the first few months, he’d allowed me to call it ours.
Moving in with Steven had been a mistake. But now at last I had made my bid for freedom, and I was about to move into a place of my own. Well, sort of my own. My teaching post at St Bride’s School for Girls came with accommodation, which would be mine for as long as I could hold down the job. I confess the staff flat had been the main reason I’d applied.
But I wasn’t about to get tied down long-term again. This time I was committed for only a year, and an academic one at that – September till July. There was also a faster escape route if I needed one: until my probationary term was over, my contract might be curtailed at a month’s notice on either side.
Perhaps all live-in relationships should start out on those terms.
Nervous as I was of taking up my new job, it seemed a better option than my only alternative: returning to live with my parents. It wasn’t so much that at the age of thirty I felt too old to go back home. The trouble was we’d fallen out over Steven. Everyone but my parents found him charming. “Ooh, he’s a keeper,” my friends told me, and I was foolish enough to believe them.
I was therefore determined to make this new job work. Admittedly there were complications, such as my never having worked as a teacher before. But I had a degree in English and a post-graduate teaching qualification, and fond memories of my own schooldays that might make returning to the classroom feel like a homecoming.
And St Bride’s School for Girls was stunning – not a bit like the state high school that I’d attended. The former stately home of one of the richest gentlemen in Victorian England, it was nationally recognised for its historical and architectural significance. Wrapped around the mansion was an immense private estate of beautiful gardens and parkland, isolating it from the real world. It felt like an upmarket nunnery.
And like a nunnery, my new home would keep me safe from any more unsuitable romances, for the simple reason that there were no men on site. As the staff list in the prospectus made clear, St Bride’s had an all-female staff.
To be honest, a nunnery was about the only escape route that I hadn’t considered from my dependence on Steven. I’d bluffed my way through various interviews for everything from live-in carer to chambermaid. Thinking of applying for a post as a lighthouse keeper, I had been disappointed to discover the role was now entirely automated. On balance, a residential teaching post was much more appropriate. At least it was something I might actively enjoy, once I’d conquered my nerves.
Now gazing up at the marble columns to the ornately painted domed ceiling, where chubby cherubs circuited the heavens above me, I felt the size of an ant – and about as likely to be crushed underfoot by the next passer-by. After seven years of living with Steven, my confidence was not at its peak. Yet for the first time in seven years, I was calling the shots in my personal life. The responsibility was intoxicating – and not a little terrifying.
A tapping noise interrupted my thoughts. Just starting to descend the sweeping staircase at the far end of the hall was an elegant young woman of about my age with eyes like polished jet. She flashed a taut smile as she stepped lightly and rhythmically down the broad marble stairs, perfectly equidistant from the swirling wrought iron bannisters on either side. For a moment, I thought she was going to break into a Busby Berkeley routine, with men in top hats and tails springing out from the shadows to tap-dance down in her wake. If it had been me walking down that gleaming staircase, I’d have been clinging on for dear life to the handrail, even in my habitual flat shoes. How she managed to stay upright in pencil skirt and black stilettos as shiny as her neat black bob was beyond me.
Having reached the foot of the stairs, she marched purposefully towards me across the antique Persian rug that gave the only touch of warmth to the hall. Even on this sunny early September day, the chill air nipped at my flesh. Now I understood why the school uniform list in the prospectus included thermal underwear.
When she held out a perfectly manicured hand for me to shake, her firm grip startled me.
“Welcome to St Bride’s, Gemma.” Behind glossy ruby lips lurked perfect white teeth. “I’m Oriana Bliss, one of the housemistresses, and you’re affiliated to my house. I’m to show you to your flat. Congratulations on your appointment, by the way. A good English teacher is hard to find these days.”
Which is why they’d ended up with me. I wondered how long it would take Oriana and her colleagues to realise I’d never put my teaching qualification into practice.
“Thank you.” My voice was barely audible in this vast space. “Thank you,” I said again, in case she hadn’t heard. This time, my voice rebounded from somewhere near the cherubs. I coughed. “I was thrilled when Miss Harnett phoned to offer me the job. I thought you would have had much better candidates than me to work at such a beautiful school.” I waved a hand about me, still overwhelmed by the setting. “Candidates with better qualifications.”
Oriana closed her perfectly made-up eyes, showing off symmetrical upticks of black eyeliner. In her close-fitting skirt, if she’d turned sideways and raised her hands, she could have been a model for an ancient Egyptian artist.
She let out a chirrup of caustic laughter.
“Good heavens, we’re not qualifications snobs here.” She stooped to pick up the smallest of the three bags clustered at my feet. “Old Hairnet won’t even have checked your references if she liked the look of you. Nor will she, so long as you behave yourself.”
I have always been very good at behaving myself. It’s the closest thing I have to a superpower.
“Follow me, and I’ll show you to your flat.”
She swivelled on one stiletto then paced briskly back to the marble staircase. I staggered after her, a suitcase in one hand and my backpack in the other, leaving me with no means of gripping the handrail. I had visions of tumbling awkwardly down the stairs, breaking my neck before I’d had a chance to teach my first lesson. What a shame if I died before even setting foot in my new flat.
Oriana cast her free hand about her, issuing directions.
“Down there’s the staff dining room, although from tomorrow we’ll be hosting tables in the Trough.”
“The girls’ dining room. The passage beyond leads to the classroom quad, where the English classroom awaits your personal touch. But that can wait. Let’s get you settled into your flat first.”
My flat. Not our flat. Mine. My bags felt lighter.
“You’ll be in the Poorhouse.”
I’d been expecting to feel like a poor relation amongst the children of the super-rich, but not to be publicly stigmatised.
“That’s what the girls call our house. As you’ll doubtless have read in the prospectus, for ease of management the school is divided into four boarding houses. Each is named after a saint. The girls have added their own moniker, inspired by the house saint’s chief attribute. Ours is St Clare’s, as in the Poor Clares, so we’re the Poorhouse. The others are Lost and Found (for St Anthony, patron saint of lost causes), the Doghouse (for St Francis, obviously) and the Outhouse (for St Vincent, patron saint of plumbers). The staff in St Vincent are thankful that their nickname is not any worse.”
She gave a wry smile.
“I suppose swearing is against school rules,” I said, smiling back.
“You’re right. It doesn’t stop them though. The girls swear in code instead. They think the staff haven’t rumbled it, but there’s a key to the code in the alternative prospectus secretly published by the sixth formers. We’ve had a copy in the staffroom for years.”
She led me around a corner to a long, dark corridor. “Rather cleverly, they’ve devised a system based on quaint expletives culled from school stories of yesteryear. ‘Blinking’, ‘cripes’, ‘flipping’ and so on sound innocuous until you discover they’re all paired with alliterative equivalents in the modern vernacular. When they say ‘blinking’, they’re thinking ‘bloody’. We turn a deaf ear to them calling each other a ‘flipping beast’ or whatever, until they slip up, double-compensating, and say the real swear words by mistake. The other girls are genuinely shocked when that happens, and of course we staff have to pretend to be terribly cross.”
“So the girls are generally well behaved?”
She nodded. “Oh, they’re no trouble most of the time. We’re pretty strict about most things – no smoking, for example – but we also have some stringent rules on minor issues, such as how to tie their school ties. Breaking those rules satisfies their teenage need to rebel without escalating their misdemeanours to more serious crimes.”
“I suppose the staff aren’t allowed to smoke either?”
She stopped sharply, with her back to me. “Are you a smoker, Gemma?”
“No, never. Not even as a teenager.”
“Then they don’t.”
I think if I said yes she would have confessed to being a smoker herself.
She halted by an ancient oak door. A large leather fob had been left in the lock. Pulling the brass doorknob towards her, she turned the key clockwise. “Here you are. You’re in Lavender Flat. The girls call it the Lavatory, but it’s not as bad as that makes it sound.”
I braced myself for the worst that might lie within. Water running down the walls? A foul smell? Graffiti?
Oriana gave the door a firm shove, and it creaked open to reveal my new home. She stood back to allow me to enter first.
To my surprise I found myself in a light, airy space with a bay of huge sash windows. The thick mauve brocade curtains complemented the purple Persian rugs scattered carelessly on the gleaming parquet floor.
“Fifty shades of lavender,” said Oriana, whisking dustsheets from the array of antique furniture. Each piece had clearly been constructed by a master craftsman rather than an amateur with an Allen key, a welcome change from Steven’s IKEA collection. The headboard of the high, wide bed was festooned with carvings of ivy and matched a mirror-fronted wardrobe of Narnian proportions. A high-backed sofa upholstered in imperial purple velvet was paired with a generously proportioned footstool, wide enough for three pairs of feet. A magnificent roll-topped bureau supported enough bookshelves to accommodate many more books than I had brought with me. On the desktop in an antique wooden stationery rack nestled notepaper bearing the school’s crest. Picture postcards of the house and grounds reminded me of my parents’ collection of National Trust jigsaw puzzles.
I certainly wouldn’t be sending a postcard to Steven. I wanted to keep my whereabouts a secret from him, at least until he’d had time to come to terms with the farewell note I’d left for him to find on his return from his business trip abroad. But I could write a postcard to my parents to tell them my new address, something they’d be relieved to have.
In the wall opposite the window, a tall marble fireplace housed a cast-iron fire basket stuffed full of pinecones, presumably gathered from the grounds. They might serve as decoration now but would come in handy for kindling as the autumn progressed. I hoped the chimney still worked.
As I gazed about, speechless, Oriana folded the dustsheets and placed them inside an antique oak chest that served as a window seat.
“Hang on to these dustsheets, Gemma, just in case the Bursar comes calling,” she was saying. “Then use them to cover up the decent furniture, so he doesn’t get any notion of selling it. This bed and wardrobe would fetch a fortune on the antiques market. He’s got a bad habit of selling the family silver when he can’t make ends meet in the school budget.”
“I know, he’s infuriating. If he spent less time prowling about the place looking for things to flog and more time at his desk, he could easily solve the shortfall in fees with a little creative accounting.”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, there are ways he can extract more money from the parents of existing pupils without even putting up the fees.” She waved her hand dismissively as if this were something any fool could do. “He could slip all kinds of extras under the parents’ radar if he tried. He’s done it before, like when he started charging all the girls for an annual eye test. While it’s only a small amount per girl, it adds up when you’re charging it for 100 of them. Of course, they’re all eligible for a free eye test on the NHS while they’re under 18 and in full-time education. Most parents have no idea that they’re being conned. But my conscience is clear on this, because it saves them the bother of taking their daughters to the optician in the school holidays, so I reckon it’s good value for them and they ought to be grateful.”
Perhaps I might see it that way too if I was one of the parents, cash-rich and time-poor. Oriana went on.
“He also needs to get his act together on pupil recruitment.”
“Doesn’t Miss Harnett do that?”
“She persuades parents that this is the right school for their little darlings when they visit, but the Bursar has to lure them here in the first place, and he is spectacularly bad at it. The school can’t survive long with just the hundred girls we have now. Even a dozen more girls would make a significant difference. For example, it might enable us to employ a dedicated Admissions Officer to swell our numbers. And have the full English for breakfast every day instead of egg and beans.”
My stomach rumbled. I could relate to that argument.
“So if the Bursar comes knocking on your door, it’s best not to answer. He’s not meant to, anyway, other than in an emergency. It’s a school rule that staff keep out of each other’s flats, for the sake of privacy. It’s hard to find any personal space here beyond your flat, so we respect it as a boundary. And whatever you do, don’t invite any of the governors into your bed.”
My eyes widened in horror. “That idea had not entered my head.”
Oriana shrugged. “Nonetheless, I always warn newbies against it after what happened to poor Caroline.”
Before she could explain, an old-fashioned dinner gong sounded in the distance, and she held up her hand to cut our conversation short. “Lunchtime. You can’t hang about at mealtimes in this place, or you’ll starve. We’d better leg it.”
Hoping her swivelling stilettos wouldn’t bore a hole in my beautiful old rug, I followed her out of the room, wondering just what had happened to poor Caroline.
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