Although it’s nearly a decade since I last worked in an office, I couldn’t help but cheer at recent reports of the demise of the suit as business wear. While some blamed working from home, journalists were making predictions pre-pandemic that lounge suits were on their way out. About time too, considering they first became fashionable in the 1860s.
Why didn’t this sartorial shake-up come sooner?
Starting my career under Thatcher’s government and the era of the power suit for woman, I spent a large part of my working life in an environment in which formal suits were expected, but I never felt comfortable in one, resenting their depersonalising effect.
This may seem surprising, considering how much I liked wearing a school uniform, albeit a more modern version than the one imposed on my sister, six forms ahead of me. Hers was the last class to have to wear berets, for example, on their journey to and from school. For my cohort, the old-fashioned gymslip was replaced by a straight-sided, waistless polyester tunic. In the third form, we switched to an A-line skirt of the same material. Our blue blouses were nylon instead of cotton, presumably chosen for their drip-dry, no-iron properties.
Whoever thought kitting out adolescents entirely in artificial fibres was a good idea had clearly never worked in a classroom in high summer.
Changing schools at 14 to one without a uniform added a new source of stress to my morning routine. I dithered over what to wear to fit in with my peers while remaining true to myself. For the rest of my teens, I lived largely in jeans, a habit that eventually went the same way as my slender teenage waist.
Looking back, my changing attitude makes perfect sense. As teenagers, we were still working out who we were and took comfort in looking like everyone else, but by the time I entered the workplace, I knew who I was, and I certainly wasn’t prepared to be just another suit. When I gave up my last day-job to stay home and write, my wardrobe underwent a revolution.
Except that, fast forward to the present, as I put my summer clothes away and dig out my winter ones, I spot a startling similarity between my current wardrobe staples and my old school uniform, only now my clothes are in natural fibres. There are abundant straight tunics and pinafore dresses, of which my favourite is in my school’s standard navy blue; plain cardigans and jumpers; and sensible Mary-Jane flats.
Addicted to berets, I’m frequently told when bumping into someone who doesn’t know me very well, “Ooh, I didn’t recognise you without your hat!”
A recent newspaper article bemoaning the sudden ubiquity of elastic-waisted trousers strikes me as a positive step to wean ourselves off lockdown pyjamas. While M&S may have stopped stocking suits in half their stores, the shop-floor space will surely come in handy for housing more trousers to accommodate our newly expanded waists. And that suits me very well indeed.
I had fun devising the uniform list for the fictitious pupils in my Staffroom at St Bride’s series of romantic comedy mystery novels, giving the girls at this quirky English boarding school crisp white shirts and purple kilts. When new English teacher Miss Gemma Lamb first meets them in Secrets at St Bride’s, she is impressed:
“You all look very smart,” I began, surveying their neat shirts and ties. “I expect it feels strange to be back in uniform after the summer holidays.”
A red-headed girl with straight plaits gave an enormous sigh. “Oh, it’s a blinking relief, Miss Lamb. No more worries about what to wear or what other people are wearing. I mean, no-one cares what they look like here.”
“Well, I think you all look lovely.”
“So do you, Miss Lamb,” one of them replied. I didn’t mind whether or not she was just being polite. It was first time anyone had told me that for a very long time. I liked these girls already.
Miss Lamb is particularly impressed that the little girl assigned to escort her to her first school meal is sporting a prefect’s badge, even though she’s in the youngest class in the school – as are all the girls on the table of Year 7s that she heads for lunch, as she remarks later to her colleague, maths teacher Miss Oriana Bliss.
“I feel honoured to be put in charge of – or is it in the care of? – so many prefects.”
Oriana raised her immaculate eyebrows. “Oh, Miss Lamb, did you not look around you at all? Did you spot a single girl who wasn’t wearing a prefect’s badge?”
I had to admit I hadn’t.
When she sat down beside me to explain, I took the opportunity to sneak another forkful of egg.
“A father of a particularly undeserving daughter insisted she wouldn’t return to the school for her final year unless she was made a prefect. The Bursar was quick to agree, to make her father sign on the dotted line and stump up the annual fees. When Hairnet found out, she said she’d rather make every girl a prefect than honour that obnoxious man’s child for the wrong reason.”
I laughed. My respect for Miss Harnett was going up by the minute.
“I don’t suppose the girls objected?”
“No, nor their parents. It’ll look good on everybody’s CVs and add perceived value to what they are getting in return for their school fees. Still, it’s not as good as what happened in a similar incident three years ago.”
“What was that?”
“She made them all Head Girl.”
Like to read more about the intrigues and adventures of the staff and girls in this extraordinary school? Both Secrets at St Bride’sand Stranger at St Bride’s are available in ebook and paperback, and the first in the series is also available as an audiobook. I’m also currently writing the third in series, Scandal at St Bride’s, and I’m very much enjoying being back in the lively company of Miss Lamb and friends!
During the early part of lockdown, the Tetbury Advertiser furloughed itself for a couple of issues (May and June). With content that is events-led, reporting on recent events and anticipating imminent ones, it seemed a sensible step. However, it’s good to see it return for its summer issue (a joint July/August edition, for which I wrote this piece about our new kittens, acquired just before we began to self-isolate. As ever, you can read the whole issue online – here’s the link for the July/August edition.
(I also wrote about kittens for the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, and I posted that article on my blog here last month- so apologies if this sounds familiar!)
There’s nothing like the acquisition of kittens to lift the spirits, and ours couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
We arranged in February with the Stroud Cats’ Protection League to adopt a pair of boys as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. This took us to Saturday 21st March, a pleasingly auspicious date on two counts: the first day of spring and my parents’ anniversary (67 years and counting).
Back in February, little did we know that collecting the kittens from the kindly foster-carer would be our last family outing before lockdown. Ever the optimist, I soon realised that enforced confinement at home would give us the best chance of bonding with our new arrivals, especially for our daughter, who would otherwise have been at school all day.
Once home, inspecting the adoption papers revealed another good omen: the kittens had been born on my birthday. This happened also to be the date our senior cat, Dorothy, a former stray, adopted us seven years ago. We called her Dorothy after the character in the Wizard of Oz who finds herself unexpectedly far from home. We named Bertie and Bingo, both boys, after the skittish, privileged and generally irresponsible young men in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.
Bertie and Bingo, after spending the first nine weeks of their lives in a pen (albeit an ample one), were initially content to keep to one room in our house. Since my husband built his room a couple of years ago, we had, with a singular lack of imagination, referred to it simply as “the extension”. Now I think of it as The Drones’ Club, which is where Bertie Wooster and chums take their meals in the Jeeves novels, often leaving chaos in their wake.
Advised to keep the kittens indoors for a couple of weeks, we eventually let them into our enclosed garden. We kept them on tiny harnesses to slow them down until they’d got their bearings. Bertie and Bingo do everything at high speed, unlike our senior cat, Dorothy, who lopes around languidly like the Pink Panther.
Off the Leash
After a few days we allowed them to roam at will, gradually expanding their territory and surprising us with their feats of athleticism. They share a talent for scaling vertical walls with the power and grace of Spiderman. Bingo has proven a dab paw at swingball, which he sees as a scaled-up version of their scratching post, which happens to be topped by a ball on a string. Bertie prefers the trampoline, climbing to the top of the netting surround with ease.
It’s only when one of the kittens tries to squeeze into the cardboard box that used to be big enough for both of them that we realise how much they have grown. I haven’t yet dared step on the bathroom scales to see whether lockdown has had the same effect on me.
(The next issue of the Tetbury Advertiser will be out in September, as they also publish a double issue for July/August.)
Cats and Kittens in my Stories…
As a cat lover, it’s perhaps inevitable that cats and kittens feature in my novels, often serving to move the plot along and adding new dimensions to the characters.
In Springtime for Murder, the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Sophie acquires a kitten, while investigating the strange goings-on at the Manor House, where Bunny Carter, a sparky elderly lady, lives with a houseful of cats and her cat-averse daughter.
(Buying links: buy the ebook online here, buy the paperback online here, or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223344.)
In Stranger at St Bride’s, the first in my St Bride’s School series, McPhee, the headmistress’s cat and constant companion, joins forces with Gemma to try to drive away the unwelcome stranger, with comical results. (Buying links: Buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.)
(I’ve just realised that in both cases the cats are black – I suppose that’s what comes of writing mystery stories!)
I’m delighted to announce that today marks the launch of my latest novel, Stranger at St Bride’s. This is the second in my St Bride’s School series and the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s (shortlisted for the Bookbrunch Selfies Award 2020 for the best independently published fiction in the UK).
To mark its launch, I thought it would be fun today to share the story behind this particular novel, which was inspired by my own experience of working at an English boarding school.
The Premise for Stranger at St Bride’s
As you’ll know if you’ve read the first in the series, Gemma Lamb has recently joined this eccentric boarding school for girls as an English teacher. It’s a residential post and she’s enjoying its beautiful setting. She is also making good friends among her secretive but kindly colleagues.
Then on the first day back after the autumn half-term holiday, an American stranger turns up claiming to be the rightful owner of the school’s magnificent country estate. At once Gemma fears losing not only her job and her home, but also her hopes for a relationship with charismatic PE teacher Joe Spryke.
Her fears are compounded when the headmistress, Hairnet, accepts the stranger’s claim due to his remarkable resemblance to the school’s late founder.
So it’s down to Gemma to fight his claim and save the school, with a little help from her friends:
– the put-upon Bursar, ousted from his cosy estate cottage by the stranger
– the enigmatic Max Security, always up for a bit of espionage
– irrepressible Mavis Brook, geography teacher, itching to fell a tree on top of the stranger’s white Rolls-Royce
– Judith Gosling, history teacher and genealogy expert, who knows more about Lord Bunting than she’s letting on
Fickle maths teacher Oriana Bliss is even prepared to marry the stranger to secure St Bride’s future, especially if it means she gets to drive his fancy car. That’s if inventive pranks by the girls – and the school cat – don’t drive him away first.
The reason the girls’ pranks feature in this story is Debbie Irving’s comment in her review of Secrets at St Bride’s:
My only complaint is that the pupils are far too well-behaved!
That was my cue to dream up some high-jinks that the girls use to try to drive away Earl Bunting, the unpleasant stranger. He’s a baddie that I hope, like St Bride’s staff and pupils, you will love to hate!
The Origins of the Stranger
The idea for this story has been simmering in my subconscious for many years, even before I dreamed up the concept of the St Bride’s series. It arose when I was working at Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, just a few miles from my home in the Cotswold countryside.
Like St Bride’s, and very many other private schools, Westonbirt is set in a former stately home. It was built by Robert Holford, one of the ten richest gentlemen in Victorian England. He also planted what’s now the National Arboretum at Westonbirt. once part of the grounds to the house. His legacy is of such historic importance that it has its own charity to preserve the fabric of his house and grounds: The Holfords of Westonbirt Trust.
When Robert Holford died in 1892, he left the estate to his son, Sir George Holford. When Sir George died without issue in 1926, for a time it was thought that the house would be demolished. Such wilful destruction may seem outrageous to 21st century Britain, when we do so much to protect and preserve the nation’s cultural heritage. But in those days, with the rise in inheritance tax and the increasing difficulty in making estates pay for their own running costs, it was not uncommon to see a beautiful old property torn down and sold off for scrap if the owner could no longer maintain it.
Fortunately, Westonbirt House was reprieved by a charitable trust engaged in founding new schools. The Martyrs’ Memorial Trust decided Westonbirt would be just right for a boarding school for the daughters of the gentry. it opened its doors in 1928, and has been going strong ever since.
I worked at the school for thirteen years, and one of my many roles was to give guided tours to visitors. Occasionally members of the public would turn up in reception without an appointment, hoping to have a chance to see behind the scenes, especially in the school holidays. During one summer vacation, I answered the door to a pleasant American couple who had a particular reason for wanting to look around: the gentleman’s name was Holford.
For a moment I had a horrible suspicion that he was a long-lost heir, come back to declare his ownership of the property, planning to oust the school and take it over as his family seat. Luckily my fears were groundless, and an informal tour and a photo opportunity were enough to satisfy him before he went on his way. Nonetheless, after that I always wondered what might happen if another Holford with a stronger claim turned up.
And that imaginative leap led to the opening chapter of Stranger at St Bride’s, which you can sample below.
“Miss Lamb, Miss Lamb, there’s a ghost outside the front door!”
At St Bride’s School for Girls, I never quite know what to expect when I open the staffroom door to deal with a girl’s enquiry, but Imogen’s announcement before the first lesson of the day was unprecedented.
“Foolish child,” muttered Mavis Brook, the geography teacher, from behind me, closing the exercise book she was marking. “I blame that Halloween nonsense for putting such silly ideas into her head. Most unhealthy.”
The terror on Imogen’s face made me loath to dismiss her claim as a prank, although that seemed more likely than seeing a real ghost. I tried to make light of the situation to calm her down.
“Anyone’s ghost in particular? Are you sure it’s not just one of your friends in a white sheet?”
Imogen shook her head vigorously.
“Oh no, miss, it’s a real ghost all right. You should see it. It’s far too tall to be any of my friends. And it’s a man.”
Imogen, aged 11, came up only as far as my shoulder, but there were some very tall girls in the top class of seventeen- to eighteen-year-olds. Might one of those try such a stunt?
“OK, Imogen, wait a moment and I’ll take a look out of the staffroom window to see whether it’s still there.”
I closed the door – school policy is to keep the staffroom private from the girls – and crossed to the big bay window that gave on to the forecourt. As I peered round to view the front porch, the doorbell rang again, and a tall, thin, dark-haired man with a wide clipped moustache stepped back to look around for signs of life.
Nearby on the window seat, Oriana Bliss, Head of Maths, looked up from a stationery catalogue she had been browsing through and followed my gaze.
“He looks like flesh and blood to me.”
“Well, you’re the expert,” said PE teacher Joe Spryke, unzipping his pink tracksuit top. Joe is a former competitive cyclist on the run from hostile journalists who unfairly blamed him for an international sports scandal. During term-time, Joe disguises himself as a woman to escape detection.
I narrowed my eyes to focus better on the stranger. I had to agree with Oriana.
“He looks familiar, but I don’t think he’s one of the girls’ fathers, is he?”
Oriana laid her catalogue down on the seat beside her.
“Not unless the Bursar’s signed up a new pupil during the half-term holiday. And speaking of the Bursar, where is he? Why isn’t he answering that pesky doorbell?”
In the absence of a budget that would stretch to a receptionist, answering the door falls to the Bursar, the only official man in the school besides Max Security (not his real name, of course – like Joe, he’s incognito). Max is like St Bride’s own Scarlet Pimpernel. You never knew where he might pop up next, and it is often in the place you least expect. The Bursar is far more visible, an overt equivalent to Max’s undercover agent – a kind of bouncer, perhaps. The Bouncing Bursar. I smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all, now I’d got used to him.
The bell rang for the third time. Oriana glanced at the wall clock above the door, then at me. There were just a few minutes left before lessons began for the day. I took her hint.
“I suppose I can let him in myself.”
Imogen, still waiting outside the staffroom door, skipped alongside me as I strode down the corridor to the entrance hall.
“Oh miss, you are brave! Do you want me to get a gang of girls to rescue you in case it’s the dangerous kind of ghost?”
I tried not to hurt her dignity by laughing. She meant well.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, thank you. I don’t think much harm can come to me answering the front door in broad daylight.”
“Ooh, yes, thank goodness it’s daylight. That means he can’t be a vampire. But I’ll hide nearby, just in case. If you need me, shout the code word. What should our code word be?”
After spending half-term with my parents, I hadn’t yet retuned to the girls’ mindset.
“How about ‘help’?”
“I don’t think you’re really trying, miss.”
When we reached the vast entrance hall that had so intimidated me on my arrival at the school back in September, Imogen took cover behind one of the broad marble pillars supporting the ornate painted ceiling. I marched across the tiled floor, heels clicking, and heaved open the front door.
“Good morning,” I said, blinking against the pale November sunshine. “How can I help you, sir?”
The stranger stepped forward, assuming I’d let him in. We did an awkward shuffle as I tried to stall him until I’d established his credentials. We’re very hot on child protection at St Bride’s, even with members of school staff. Max Security lives in Rose Lodge, one of the pair of cottages at the entrance to the main drive, and has security cameras all over the place. In the other cottage, Honeysuckle Lodge, lives the Bursar. Thus, even the two men at the heart of school life are in their leisure time kept at a distance from the main school building.
“Why, good morning to you, ma’am.” The stranger spoke with a leisurely US drawl. With his dark moustache, black suit, brocade waistcoat and string tie, he reminded me of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara would have felt right at home at St Bride’s, with its ostentatious historic house and gardens, although our English weather couldn’t compete with the southern sunshine at Tara, her family plantation estate.
If the stranger was a belated trick or treater, his choice of costume was unusual. I kept my hand on the doorknob. I wasn’t going to let him in without good reason.
“Do you have an appointment, please?”
“Why, thank you, ma’am, I surely do.”
He gave a slight bow. Was he mocking me with his elaborate Southern charm?
“And with whom might your appointment be, sir?”
I’m not the kind of English teacher who is a stickler for “whom” in general conversation, but his formal speech was rubbing off on me.
“With Miss Caroline Harnett, your headmistress, if you please. I believe I am right on time.”
He patted the pocket in his waistcoat, from which hung a silver watch chain, fastened at the other end to a button. Holding the door open to allow him in, I pointed to the signing-in book on the table beside the sofa.
“If you would be so kind as to write your name in our visitors’ book, I’ll give you a security badge and tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”
The stranger bent his head in acknowledgement and produced from his inside jacket pocket an engraved gold fountain pen. He signed his name in copperplate of such a size that it spilled over the edges of the signature box, yet the loops were so tightly closed that I couldn’t make out what he’d written.
“Whom shall I say is here for her? I mean, who?”
He added an ornate swirl of self-importance beneath his signature, then gazed up at me in feigned surprise, as if he were a celebrity recognised wherever he went. He straightened up, capped his pen and returned it to its pocket.
“My name is Bunting. Earl Bunting. Thank you kindly.”
The gasp that issued from behind the pillar echoed my own surprise. Lord Bunting was the school’s Victorian founder. Over a hundred years before, when he’d apparently died without issue, he’d bequeathed his house and grounds to be turned into a boarding school for girls.
I was unsure how to address the stranger. My Lord? Your Excellency? Your Worship? The school library’s copy of Debrett’s Peerage would tell me. We had plenty of titled girls on the roll, but it was school policy not to use those titles in daily life, so I’d never needed to swot up on the etiquette before. For now, I took the easy option.
“Please take a seat, sir, and I’ll tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”
As I marched off to the Headmistress’s study, Imogen came pattering after me.
“Now do you believe me, miss? It’s the ghost of Lord Bunting, isn’t it? Didn’t you recognise him?”
The life-size oil painting of the school’s founder on the wall of the assembly hall had made him a familiar figure to us all.
Imogen skipped to overtake me, then turned back to face the way we’d come.
“I’m going to the hall now to see if the picture’s still there. Lord Bunting might have stepped down from it and turned real. That’s the sort of thing that happens at Halloween. I’ve seen it before.”
“Yes, in a play my grandma took me to see in the summer holidays. There were lots of songs in it and all the paintings came to life.”
“That’ll be Ruddigore,” came a voice behind us – Louisa Humber, the music teacher, was on her way to her classroom. “It’s an operetta, Imogen, not a play, by Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Imogen shrugged. “Anyhoo, my point is, there’s probably now a big empty hole in the painting where Lord Bunting used to be.”
Louisa flashed a conspiratorial smile at me.
“Let me know if your ghost bursts into song.”
She walked on.
“Off you go then, Imogen.” I hoped that when she found the painting intact she would feel reassured. “But be as quick as you can, or you’ll be late for your lesson.”
“Yes, Miss Lamb.”
Not wanting to be late for my lesson either, I hastened down the private corridor to the Headmistress’s secluded study and rapped on her door.
“Come in!” came her cheery greeting.
I went in to find Miss Harnett sitting at her desk, contentedly opening her half-term post. Through the bay window behind her lay a neat rose garden, pruned and orderly for the winter. McPhee, her black cat, lay on his side on the window seat, basking in a beam of autumn sunshine, legs stretched out for maximum exposure to the warmth. He’s a substantial cat. I mean she. Officially, McPhee is female, like all the teaching staff – one of Miss Harnett’s policies for the sake of child protection.
“Good morning, my dear. I trust you have had an enjoyable break?”
“Thank you, yes. I felt like one of the girls, going home to see my parents, but it was lovely.”
Unlike the girls, I hadn’t seen my parents for a few years, due to a disastrous relationship with my controlling ex, Steven, from whom I’d fled to this job and some vestige of security. At last I was starting to make up for lost time. I’d be returning to my parents for the Christmas holidays.
“What can I do for you this morning, my dear?”
The pleasure of being back in the Headmistress’s comforting company had almost made me forget the stranger.
“You have a visitor, Miss Harnett. He’s waiting in the entrance hall. He claims he has an appointment with you.”
She glanced at the large hardback diary that lay open on her desk. Her smile faded.
“Ah, yes, so he does. Please escort him to my study.”
She didn’t ask his name.
Setting her pile of post aside, she pulled her daybook towards her.
When I’d retraced my steps to the entrance hall, where I found the stranger gazing up at the ornate painted ceiling, I saw him with fresh eyes. His resemblance to the original Lord Bunting was inescapable.
I coughed to attract his attention.
“Miss Harnett will see you now.”
I raised a hand to indicate the direction of her study. His reverie interrupted, he stood up and straightened his silk tie.
When we passed the foot of the curving marble staircase that led to the residential part of the school, he patted the finial fondly. As he followed me down the oak-panelled corridor to the Headmistress’s study, he whistled in admiration.
“It’s quite a place we have here,” he said in a low voice, as much to himself as to me.
We? I wondered at his choice of pronoun but made no comment.
I knocked on Miss Harnett’s door, waited for permission to enter, then held it wide for him to go in.
The Headmistress rose from her desk and crossed the crimson Persian carpet to greet him. Instantly alert, McPhee leapt down from the window seat and followed at Miss Harnett’s heels, his tail bushy with hostility.
“Ah, Mr Bunting, I’ve been expecting you.”
Eyes wide, I withdrew and left them to it, just as the bell rang for the first lesson. I would have to wait until morning break to update my colleagues about this mysterious stranger.
Like to know what happens next?
Here’s how to order your copy of Stranger at St Bride’s
To order from your local bookshop, quote ISBN 978-1-911223-597