BOOK EXTRACT: The Dragonfly Pool
Aunt Hester and Aunt May had always done their best to share in Tally’s life. When Tally was six years old and had been cast as a sheep in the nativity play they had read books about agriculture and sheep farming and taken Tally to the zoo to watch the way the clovenfooted mammals moved their feet – and Tally’s performance on the day had been very much admired.
So now they tackled Angela of the Upper Fourth and TheMadcap of the Remove and enjoyed them very much, though they were a little worried about how Tally would get on, having to say ‘spiffing’ and ‘ripping’ all the time, and shouting, ‘Well played, girls!’ on the hockey field.
What they couldn’t do however was get Tally’s school uniform together, because no list came from Delderton.
‘You mustn’t worry, dear,’ said Aunt May. ‘The school will let us know in good time and then we’ll go and fit you up. They’ll pay – it’s a full scholarship.’
‘Yes . . . but there are so many things . . . Eight pairs of shoes; I’ll get muddled. And a liberty bodice . . . I don’t really know what that is,’ said Tally.
She was worried too about the rules: the curtsy to the headmistress and remembering to call her Ma’am. And if the rules were going to be difficult, breaking them in the right way was going to be difficult too. The midnight feasts in the dorm, for example . . . What if she stepped on an open tin of sardines and brought Matron running?
Because Aunt May’s letters in violet ink were apt to be rather emotional and Aunt Hester’s in green ink were
almost impossible to read, Dr Hamilton asked his receptionist, Miss Hoy, to write to the school asking for a list of the things Tally would need.
But before they got a reply Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and after that no one had time to worry about
braided blazers and green knickers with pockets in them, let alone about feasts in the dorm.
The milkman’s son got his call-up papers for the army and Dr Hamilton spent more and more time at the hospital, where they were arranging for the evacuation of patients to the country; posters appeared telling people to grow vegetables and ‘Dig for Victory’, and Aunt Hester said she wanted to go and entertain the troops.
‘I know I’m not young,’ she said, ‘but my voice is still good.’
Then, just a week before the beginning of term, a letter came from the school secretary at Delderton announcing the departure of the school train from Paddington Station at ten o’clock on 13 April. There was still nothing about the school uniform or the rules and regulations.
‘They’ll probably fit you out when you get there, like in the army,’ said the aunts consolingly.
And Tally tried not to panic because she was going to an unknown place without any of the right things and
without at all knowing how to behave. After all, men were joining the army or going to fight in aeroplanes or drown in ships, and here she was fussing about liberty bodices and stepping on sardines.
Two days later there was a phone call from Aunt Virginia.
Margaret was not starting school till the day after Tally, but Roderick’s school, Foxingham, which was also
in the West Country, started the same day and his train left Paddington at almost the same time.
‘So we could take Tally to the station,’ she said.‘There’s plenty of room in the Rolls.’ To her husband she
had said, ‘It would be nice for the girl to arrive in a decent car instead of that old crock her father drives. First
impressions are so important.’
Tally looked in anguish at her father. ‘Oh please, I want you to take me.’
‘Don’t be foolish,’ said Dr Hamilton. ‘You don’t suppose we’d let anyone else see you off?’
Because of course May and Hester were coming too.
Actually, rather a lot of people had wanted to come and see Tally off: Kenny and Maybelle; the receptionist, Miss Hoy; Sister Felicia from the convent . . . but Dr Hamilton had persuaded them that Tally would do best with only her immediate family to say goodbye.
Paddington Station on the morning of 13 April was in a state of bustle and confusion. Parents towed their children to what they hoped was the right barrier; loudspeakers crackled, announcing changes of platform; porters with their trolleys tried to avoid the passengers who asked them things they didn’t know. From time to time a waiting train would hiss fiercely and a group of agitated mothers or worried children would vanish in a cloud of steam.
Tally stood with her father and the aunts beside the bookstall. Her stomach had dropped down into some
place deep inside her and didn’t seem likely to rise up again for a very long time . . .
Into this confusion there marched the boys of Foxingham, in their red and yellow uniforms, looking like a line of soldiers or regimented bees. There was a teacher at the head of the line and another at the tail. The boys had said goodbye to their parents at the barrier – the school did not permit parents to come on to the platform – and of course no one showed signs of emotion or looked as though they might cry. Homesickness was not in the Foxingham tradition.
Tally had tried to say goodbye to Roderick earlier, but he had been far too lordly to speak to her, and now
she did not dare to wave. At the end of the line was a very dark, serious-looking boy and she wondered if he might be the Prince of Transjordania and, if so, how he felt, so far from home.
The Foxingham school train left from Platform 2. It looked as though it might be late leaving, but the well drilled boys stood beside their carriages waiting for the sign that they could board the train.
‘It must be Platform 1 that you’re going from,’ said Aunt May, looking at the departure board. She had been
awake most of the night, but she was determined to be cheerful and brave. ‘Look, what a nice lot of girls!' Platform 1 had no barrier; it was the end one, by the ticket office and the refreshment room, and the girls who
were gathered together there did indeed look very nice.
They were all identically dressed in smart navy-blue blazers and straw hats with navy ribbons, and their white knee socks gleamed with cleanliness. Beside them stood calm and elegant parents tweaking at their daughters’ clothes.
Two teachers in grey coats and skirts with whistles round their necks moved among the girls. Cries of ‘Had a good hol, Daphne?’ or ‘Wait till you hear what I did, Cynthia!’ filled the air. They were exactly like the heroines in the books that Tally had been reading.
Tally bit her lip. How was she to join those beautifully turned-out girls, dressed as she was in her shabby tweed coat?
But at that moment the loudspeaker crackled into life.
‘This is a platform change. The school train for St Fenella’s Academy will now depart from Platform 6.’ And in an instant the beautifully turned-out girls and their parents hurried away.
‘Oh dear,’ said Aunt Hester, who had been much taken by the well-behaved children in their straw boaters. ‘I did hope they were bound for Delderton. They seemed so suitable.’
For a while Platform 1 was empty.
At least it was empty of anyone who might have been going away to school. There was a girl doing a handstand by the ticket office: her skirt swirled round her head; her knickers were white and pocket-less. A boy with wild dark hair appeared, carrying a glass tank containing something bald and white. His shoelaces were undone; water from the tank slopped on to his unravelling jersey. Another boy, wearing a boiler suit, was holding a banner that read: ‘Down with Tyrants!’ Behind him came a very pretty girl with bare feet.
‘Are they from a circus,’ wondered Aunt Hester aloud, ‘or can’t they afford shoes? Her poor feet . . .’
More children arrived. Here and there were grown-ups: a woman dressed like an Aztec peasant with a blanket round her shoulders . . . a man in corduroys with huge patches on the sleeves and a rent in his trousers . . . a small fat man with an enormous beard . . .
The train steamed in.
‘Excuse me . . .’ Dr Hamilton had waylaid a porter. ‘Is this the train for St Agnes? The Delderton train?’
‘Aye,’ said the porter. ‘Better keep out of the way, sir – they’re savages, this lot,’ and he hurried off down the platform.
But now a woman in a loose cloak, with long, red-gold hair tumbling down her back, came hurrying down the platform. She carried a clipboard, and when she came up to a child she spoke to it and ticked off its name and the child wandered off to the train and got into one of the carriages and opened the window and went on shouting to its parents.
Now she came up to Tally and said, ‘Are you by any chance Augusta Carrington?’
‘No, I’m afraid I’m not.’
‘Oh dear. This list . . . I don’t know why they bother with lists, they never seem to be right. In that case who
would you be?’ She peered in a worried way at her clipboard.
‘She’s Talitha Hamilton,’ said Dr Hamilton, frowning.
‘Ah yes, that’s all right, I’ve got you down. You can go to the train – sit anywhere you like. And if you do see
Augusta Carrington send her to me,’ and she moved away towards a boy with a birdcage who had just come out of the refreshment room.
‘Well, at least it doesn’t seem to matter too much what you wear, dear,’ said Aunt Hester, looking very pale.
Tally said nothing and her father put his arm round her shoulder. He was remembering some of the things that Professor Mayfield had said when he told him that he thought he could get Tally a scholarship to Delderton.
It’s an unusual school and very highly regarded. All sorts of eminent people send their children there. The
school believes in freedom and self-development, and not forcing the children.
Perhaps he should have found out more before he’d agreed to send Tally – but the part he had taken notice of
was the description of the beautiful Devon countryside, the healthy food . . . the safety it would provide in times of war. And of course he himself believed in freedom and self-development – who didn’t?
Now quickly he tried to explain to his stricken daughter that Delderton was what was known as a progressive school. But Tally was beyond help. She would rather have gone into a lion’s den than into one of those compartments.
‘I don’t know how to be progressive,’ she said in a small voice. ‘I don’t know how one does it.’ Tears sprang to her eyes. ‘And I don’t know about self-development. I don’t know about any of these things.’
But it was too late. As for Augusta Carrington, it was quite obvious to Tally what had happened to her. She had stayed at home with her head under her pillow and refused to leave the house.
‘We’ll write to you every day,’ promised Aunt May – and Dr Hamilton, blaming himself utterly, took his
daughter’s hand and led her to the train.
People don’t die from getting into school trains and Tally, as she leaned out of the window to wave, stayed incurably alive, but as she saw her father and the aunts standing very upright on the platform she felt a sense of desolation such as she had never known.
Doors slammed; the guard waved his flag and put his whistle to his lips and the train began to move. Her father lifted his arm for the last time and turned to lead his sisters to the exit, and Tally, following himwith her eyes, saw some of the other parents hurrying away blindly, as if these odd people too might be sorry to see their extraordinary children go. For a short time the Foxingham train ran beside hers, and she could see the fierce-striped boys in a blur of red and yellow. Then their train accelerated and they were gone.
She took a deep breath and opened the door to a compartment. There were three people inside. A thin girl with two long sandy plaits sat in one corner, turning the pages of a film magazine. She had grey eyes and a narrow face covered in freckles. People with freckles usually look cheerful, but this girl seemed listless and rather sad, hunched in her seat. Yet the smile she gave Tally was welcoming and friendly.
‘You’d better sit over here,’ she said. ‘Not under the salamander. He slops.’
‘He doesn’t,’ said the wild-haired boy crossly, looking up at the luggage rack. His legs were stretched out so as to leave little room, but he moved them for Tally to get past. ‘I got him a new tank.’
Tally peered up at the strange pale creature, like an overgrown newt, lurking in the waterweeds.
‘Is it an axolotl?’ she asked, remembering her father’s zoology books.
The boy nodded. ‘I got him for my birthday.’
‘Are we allowed to keep animals then?’ asked Tally.
‘Not cats or dogs, but small ones that can stay in cages,’ said the girl, putting down her magazine. ‘There’s a pet hut where they live.’ And then: ‘My name’s Julia.’ She pointed to the boy with the axolotl. ‘He’s Barney. And that’s Tod.’
Tod was the boy who had carried the ‘Down with Tyrants!’ banner, but the banner was now rolled up and
he was reading the Dandy.
‘You’d better come and sit next to me,’ Julia went on. ‘There’s a little fat boy who was sitting where you are.
He’s called Kit and he’s new like you. He’s in the lavatory. They sent him in a shirt and tie and he’s very upset. I think he’s trying to flush his tie down the loo.’
‘But it won’t go down, surely?’ Tally was instantly concerned. ‘He’ll block everything.’
Julia shrugged, but Tally was not good at leaving well alone. ‘I’ll go and see,’ she said.
She made her way along the corridor. The girl with bare feet was hanging on to the window bars. She wore a
green shirt with a rip in it and a gathered skirt with an uneven hem and looked very confident. Obviously the rip was in exactly the right place, and the hem needed to be uneven.
The lavatory door was locked, but after she had banged several times it opened and a woebegone face appeared round it. In one plump hand the little boy held a bedraggled tie.
‘It’s no good – I looked but the hole’s too small. No one’s wearing a tie. No one. And there’s a girl without any shoes and I want to go to a proper school where they have prefects and play cricket,’ he wailed, and a tear fell from his large blue eye.
‘We could throw your tie out of the window,’ suggested Tally. ‘That would be simpler. Or I’ll keep it for you till
you go home.’
The idea that he might one day go home again cheered Kit up enough to stop him crying and he followed her out into the corridor.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Tally. ‘Just let your shirt hang out over your shorts. And take off your socks. I’m going to take mine off too; they’re a bit clean and white.’
Back in the compartment they found the teacher with the clipboard. She seemed to have forgotten about
Augusta Carrington and looked relaxed and cheerful. Her amazing russet hair tumbled down her back and her amber eyes were flecked with gold.
‘Oh, there you are. Good.’ she said, smiling at Tally and Kit. ‘Is everything all right?’
Tally nodded, and Kit, who had been about to repeat that he wanted to go to a proper school where they played cricket, decided not to.
‘Well, if you want anything I’m in the next carriage,’ she said. ‘I’d better go and see how the other new people
are getting on.’
‘It’s not fair to make Clemmy take the school train,’ said Barney when she had gone. ‘She hates all those lists
and things, and somebody always does get lost. They could get someone boring and bossy like Prosser.’
‘Who is she?’ asked Tally.
‘She’s called Clemency Short. She teaches art and she helps out in the kitchens. She’s a marvellous cook.’
‘I thought I’d seen her before, but I can’t have done.’
‘Actually you can,’ said Barney. ‘She’s in the London Gallery as the Goddess of the Foam coming out of some
waves, and on a plinth outside the post office in Frith Street standing on one toe – only that’s a sculpture.’
‘And on the wall of the Regent Theatre as a dancing muse,’ said Julia. ‘She looks a bit cross there because the
man who painted themural was a brute and made the girls stand about in the freezing cold dressed in bits of muslin and Clemmy got bronchitis. That’s what made her decide to stop being an artist’s model and become a teacher.’
It was a long journey. The children brought out their sandwiches; they grew drowsy. Julia had stopped turning the pages of her magazine. Tally thought she might be asleep, but when she glanced at her she saw that she was looking intently at one particular picture: a photograph of a woman with carefully arranged curls drooping on to her forehead, a long neck and slightly parted lips. The caption said: ‘Gloria Grantley: one of the loveliest stars to grace the firmament of film’.
‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ said Julia, and Tally agreed that she was, though she didn’t really care for her. Gloria
looked hungry, as though she needed to eat an admiring gentleman each day for breakfast.
The train stopped briefly at Exeter and Clemmy came past again, checking that everybody was all right.
‘By the way, you’re in Magda’s house,’ she told Tally. ‘And Kit too. Julia will show you; she’s with Magda as
‘Oh dear, that’s bad news,’ said Julia when Clemency had gone.
‘Isn’t she nice? Magda, I mean.’
‘Yes, she’s nice enough. Kind and all that. But she feels bad about things, and her cocoa is absolutely diabolical.’
‘Cocoa can be difficult,’ said Tally. ‘The skin . . . but why does she feel bad?’
‘She teaches German and she used to spend a lot of time in Germany, and every time Hitler does something
awful she feels she’s to blame. She’s really a philosophy student – she’s writing a book about someone called
Schopenhauer – and her room gets all cluttered up with paper and she can’t sew or sort clothes or anything like that.’
‘Perhaps we could help her to make proper cocoa,’ said Tally. ‘She probably needs a whisk.’
But Kit had gone under again. ‘I don’t like cocoa with skin on it,’ he began. ‘I want to go to a proper school where they –’
But just then the train gave an unexpected jolt and a shower of water from Barney’s axolotl descended on his
When they had been travelling for more than three hours Tally looked out, and there was the sea. She had not expected it; the sun, the blue water, the wheeling birds were like getting a sudden present.
They went through a sandstone tunnel, and another one . . . and presently the train turned inland again.
Now they were in a lush green valley with clumps of ancient trees. The air that came in through the open window was soft and gentle; a river sparkled beside the line.
The train slowed down.
‘We’re here,’ said Barney.
‘Really?’ said Tally. ‘This is Delderton?’
Her father had spoken of the peaceful Devon countryside, but she had not expected anything like this.
‘My goodness,’ she said wonderingly. ‘It’s very beautiful!’