Chapter One - School’s Out Forever
Theodora used to be happy and content.
She attended St Agnes’s Northern Academy for Young Ladies. The place was much better than it sounded. There were even rumours of one of the senior girls being pregnant and that she was treated with love, care, support and only a little judgement.
While the academic and sporting programs were sound, where they particularly excelled was in developing the assumption in the young ladies in their charge that they were going to make something of their lives. Without giving the matter any particular thought, Theodora comfortably went along with this assumption.
It was, incidentally, always young ladies and never girls.
Whilst she had other friends, her closest friend and confidant, from whom she was rarely separated, was her little sister, Jennifer, who, by some strange fluke of early births and timings was in the same academic year as her. People often assumed they were twins.
She never particularly shone academically - she wasn’t a dunce either - just bouncing along in the middle and frustrating her teachers who knew she would make much more progress if only she would apply herself properly.
Where she really shone was on the sports field. She ran for the school - particularly cross country - and was much in demand on the hockey field as a left handed winger. She even trialed for the county on a couple of occasions though nothing came of it.
She was in class - a maths class - when the lights went out. At first there was the expected level of giggling and silliness until Miss Jobbins became quite short with them. “Young ladies, please!” she insisted. “There is absolutely no need for this. You do not need electric lights to complete these questions.”
It was Ellie who happened to notice it first and her hand shot up.
“Excuse me, Miss, but my calculator has stopped working.”
“Me, too!” A dozen similar cries went up around the room.
“This is why I encourage you to practice your mental arithmetic,” Miss Jobbins said, never one to miss a teaching moment. Nevertheless, she took her mobile phone out of her briefcase, which, while technically a breach of the rules for teachers as well as pupils in class, was excusable in the current situation and confirmed that that, too, was also not working.
“This is very unfortunate,” she said. “It appears to be a more serious problem than just a power cut.”
“All the cars on the road have stopped too, Miss,” a voice sounded from the back of the class, near the window. The rush of young ladies to the window to see was too much for the normally patient Miss Jobbins and, unusually, she had to raise her voice to restore order. “Ladies, please! Back to your places at once and all eyes in the classroom! At once, I say!”
Order had been more or less restored when a prefect arrived to announce an unscheduled whole-school assembly.
The arrival in the main hall was somewhat chaotic as the young ladies were not arriving from their familiar form rooms but the edict on silence on the way into assembly more or less held and the last few stray young ladies were rapidly directed to empty seats like errant sheep.
Dr Prendergast, the headmistress, raised herself on the dais to all five foot of her authority. The room fell completely silent.
“Ladies, as you are no doubt aware, most electronic devices have failed. Unless this is merely a local issue, the impact of this will be widespread and catastrophic…”
She allowed a few seconds of muttered conversations before silencing the hall with a click of her fingers.
“However my first concern is to ensure that all members of the school make it home safely as the cars and busses that would normally take you will presumably not be working.”
“I’m sure I don’t have to warn you Seniors,” she raised her eyes to the back of the hall where the senior girls sat, “of the ne’er-do-wells who will attempt to take advantage of this unfortunate situation, but some of you younger ladies may not be fully aware of the potential hazards. In the current situation it is incumbent upon me to be explicit in my warning. There are evil men who will attempt to take advantage of the situation to perpetrate rape...”
There was a collective gasp of astonishment around the hall. Ghastly would occasionally make oblique references to the subject but had never used the word in an assembly like this. This was not an accident. Ghastly did not do accidents. She believed the threat was real.
She allowed a few seconds for the hubbub to subside before continuing. “Sadly, your age will not provide you with the protection one might hope. So this is not an opportunity for frivolity. You will return to your homes as expeditiously as is possible. This is a matter of your personal safety.”
Here she looked around the room, ensuring she met the eyes of a number of the more likely malefactors.
“So, ladies, you need to give some thought as to how you are going to make your way home. Anyone under five miles away will be able to walk but I do not want anyone to be traveling in a group of less than three, preferably in the company of at least one Senior or a teacher.
“So, when I dismiss you, I would like you Seniors to give some thought as to any Juniors who live close to you whom you could take under your wing. Nobody is to leave for an hour to give you the opportunity to organise yourselves into groups and nobody is to leave without informing the teacher of the group in which you intend to travel. Prefects, you will, please, assist the Juniors.
“Before I dismiss you, however, I think I should say something about the future. If this is just a local event, it will be inconvenient, no doubt, but we will all be back here in a couple of weeks to complete the term.”
She left a significant pause.
“But I will not attempt to deceive you. If this problem is more widespread, it may mark the start of some very difficult and unpleasant times for all of us.”
There was the slightest of cracks in her voice and, though completely silent, Theodora and her sister weren’t the only two girls to exchange a glance. Their headmistress - cold, emotionless Dr Ghastly - was on the point of tears. Old Ghastly thought this might be very serious. And Old Ghastly was rarely wrong.
The room had already been silent as the young ladies listened respectfully to their headmistress but the silence seemed to deepen and intensify with these words as they started to realise what this might mean for them all.
“If that is the case, then I do not know when we will be able to reconvene. I can only pray that, for each of you, what you have learnt here with us will help you to overcome the challenges that we will all, undoubtably, face in the coming months and years.”
“So, in case this may be our last time together for a while, I think we should all sing the school song together once more.”
The girls didn’t have copies of the words - they didn’t need them; they had all sung that song often enough times to know it off by heart. But the headmistress’s words had struck a chord and the stirring and optimistic words had never been sung with such fervour and intensity.
“Make her perseverance mine,
And show what makes Agnusians shine.”
What a lie!
Then, in a stunned silence, the young ladies filed back to their classrooms.
The journey home was uneventful. Presumably Dr Ghastly’s feared ne’er-do-wells had not yet stirred themselves into action. Theodora and her sister customarily traveled to school by bus so their group had formed easily - over a dozen girls had set off together though they soon started to lose numbers along the way. The journey was not particularly long and they would occasionally walk it to save the bus fare.
Their mother was already home when they arrived but it was another two hours of stressful waiting until their father appeared from his office.
“Things are already going bad in town,” he announced as soon as he arrived. “I think we need to go out to the cottage until they settle down.”