Main Characters: The Triplets, Grizel Cochrane, Beth Chester, Simone Lecoutier, The Doctor.
Word count: 14,377
part one <--------
Beth was wearing her almost-nicest clothes and waiting for her Aunt Janie to arrive. Aunt Janie was going to take her to get her new school uniform – actually, Aunt Janie was going to be taking her to get her first real school uniform, for her brand new school.
"How come I don't get one?" her younger sister Nancy had demanded. That was the worst thing about being the eldest girl - the others always wanted to have everything that she got.
"Because," Mummy had told her firmly, "Beth is going to be a Middle, and you and the others " - that was Beth's cousins - "won't be. When you're older, we'll see that you get one too." And that had been that.
And it was more than just that, anyway. Aunt Janie was taking her around to Auntie Jo, and Beth was going to get to meet Daisy Venables. Beth had heard all about Daisy Venables from Auntie Jo, but she hadn't got to meet her yet. Her mother had died very recently, and Daisy hadn't been up to meeting new people, but Auntie Jo had promised that when she was, Beth and her would certainly be friends. "I can't promise you'll be bosom buddies," she'd warned Beth, "But Daisy's a friendly girl, and at the very least she'll make sure you feel welcome at the
Aunt Janie pulled into the drive, tooting her horn. Beth was sure she did that just to irritate Mummy, but Mummy only ever just rolled her eyes and said, “Janie would.” Daddy usually laughed, though. Now Beth kissed her goodbye and excitedly skipped outside and waved at the car. Two figures waved back. One was Aunt Janie, of course, in the driver’s seat – the other was Maryah, who was Aunt Janie’s Mother’s Help.
Beth thought that Maryah was more or less the most wonderful person in the world - although she wouldn't admit it to anyone. The last thing she wanted was for her male cousins to find out and start teasing her! But she was so kind, and pretty, too, with her long chestnut hair tied back in a thick plait, that it was perhaps not suprising that Beth admired her; and besides, Maryah talked to her like she was almost an adult herself, and not just a kid like everyone else was.
Beth slid into the back seat of the car. “Are you coming to Auntie Jo’s too, Maryah?”
“No, I’m not. I was interested in this school of yours and Mrs Lucy offered to take me to see it – and
“She’s starting a cold,” Aunt Janie explained. “I would not be popular if I let her spread that around staff before school had even started!”
“I imagine not,” Maryah said soberly. “I can imagine Matey – the Matron from my school, I mean – being awful if anything like that happened. I suppose the Matron at the
“I’ve heard she’s a tartar,” Aunt Janie said. “You’d better stay on the right side of her, Bethy!” She sounded like she was laughing, but Beth nodded. The Matrons in her school-stories were always very strict; probably they were like that in real life, too.
“I’m sure you’ll love it,” Maryah said warmly. “I wish I was going to school with you!” There was real yearning in her voice. After Aunt Janie had dropped her on the ground, promising to pick her up again before lunch, Beth climbed into the front seat and said so to Aunt Janie.
“She probably would still be at school if not for the war,” her aunt replied. “She’s sixteen – or does that sound frightfully grown-up?”
Beth thought about it. “I don’t know. We stay at school until we’re 18, don’t we? But some girls are already working before that. So – sixteen is quite grown-up. But that’s not that much older than I am now, Aunty.”
“Well, Maryah was at a school in
Beth’s eyes were wide. She knew all about the war, of course, and Mummy let her listen to the bulletins on the radio sometimes. But this was the first time she’d really heard of anyone directly affected by it, and suddenly it felt a lot more real. “She’s happy with us, though, isn’t she? She always looks happy.”
“She’s very brave, Bethy. Even though she’s missing her family dreadfully, and even though she has to work rather than go to school like she wants to, she knows that she has to stay strong. She knows that best way to bear her troubles is to stand firm, and keep going, because she can’t live her life always thinking about the people who have left her.”
“It’s not fair. Aunt Janie – why do I get to go to school and be happy, and Maryah doesn’t? Why do – why do
Aunt Janie sighed. “I don’t know the answer to that. But – it seems to me – that when we have difficult times in our lives that we’re being tested, to make sure that we’re growing into the people that we ought to be.”
Beth was silent, thinking this over. “More people are going to die, aren’t they?”
“Yes, I’m afraid they are. But
“And we should be strong too,” Beth found herself saying. “Even if we have problems, we should stand up to them, shouldn’t we?”
Aunt Janie was pulling in to Aunt Joey’s house. “That’s right, Bethy. And that’s a very grown-up thing to say.” She smiled. “But right now you don’t need to be grown-up – you get to meet a new friend, and get your school uniform. I don’t mean that you should forget what I’ve said, but you’ve had your hard times, Bethy. Now you get to have your happy times, starting over at a new school.”
Beth was a little shy, meeting Daisy when she’d heard so much about her, but Daisy didn’t know the meaning of the word, and she instantly seized upon her to demand what form she was likely to be in. “Although maybe we’ll see a lot of each other even if we aren’t in the same form,” she added. “The school’s going to be awfully small compared to what it was like in
“Were you in
Daisy happily recounted her time in the
“You seem rather more chipper,” Auntie Janie told Beth as they left to pick up Maryah.
“Daisy says she’s going to invite me to Mrs Russell’s house next Wednesday before school starts,” the girl explained. “She’s so nice, Auntie! And she says she’ll be my sheepdog at school, if I want. I think – maybe she wants to be friends.”
“That’s wonderful, poppet,” Auntie Janie said quickly. “Mummy will be happy, too.”
They headed back to the school – my school, as Beth was now calling it – but Maryah wasn’t waiting for them yet. Auntie Janie consulted her watch. “We are a little early,” she admitted, “But I don’t want to wait around here any longer than I have to. Could you go and see if you can find her, Bethy? If you can’t find her quickly than just come back here.”
Beth obediently got out of the car and trotted up the driveway towards the house. One of the mistresses – Beth thought her name was Miss Linton – had shown her and Mummy around last week, but she wasn’t sure she’d remember her way just yet. Luckily – or perhaps unluckily – as soon as she opened the big front door she found herself confronted by a grown-up lady in a Matron’s uniform. “I- I’m looking for Maryah,” she explained before the lady had a chance to demand what she was doing there. “She came for a look around the school.”
“And you’ve come to collect her?” The lady favoured Beth with a smile. “Let’s look for her together, shall we? I’m Matron MacDonald.”
“Beth Chester,” Beth replied. Matron gave her a funny look, then, but she didn’t say anything. Maybe she looked like that at all new pupils.
“Where do you think your Maryah will be?” Matron asked. “Is there anything she’s particularly keen on?”
Beth wrinkled her brow in thought. “She likes languages,” she said eventually.
“Well, let’s try the language classrooms…” Matron’s voice trailed off as footsteps sounded on the wooden floor. Maryah appeared, her face dreamy, and she didn’t seem to notice Beth and Matron right away. But Matron saw her alright, and she gasped.
“Len?” Matron looked – well,. Beth’s cousin Bill would call it gobsmacked. Maryah looked confused, and then, staring at Matron, whispered, “Margot? I thought – I thought I was alone.”
Matron gave a shaky laugh. “Oh, Len! So did I – apart from Tante Simone. I started to think I’d never see you again – is Con here? Is-” she glanced at Beth and suddenly fell silent.
“Beth,” Maryah said, coming up to her. “I’m sorry, darling – you must be more confused than I am. This is my s-”
“Cousin, Ruhanna,” Matron interrupted her. “L- Maryah, I thought that you were – lost, in the war.” There was something odd in the way she spoke, as if she was trying to give Maryah a message without using any words. Maryah nodded, a little tearfully.
“If you’re here – you’re really here –oh, my lamb! I’ve needed you so much…”
In the end, it seemed that Matron was the family that Maryah had come to
For a while, Beth remember how they’d both seemed so confused, that day they’d met. It wasn’t one of those joyful long-lost reunions like she’d read about in books. And they’d called each other by the wrong names, or it had seemed like it.
In time, she forgot about that strange first meeting altogether.
For a long time, Simone wasn’t conscious of anything but a ringing sound in her ears. When she opened her eyes all she could see was white. Then, slowly, it came back to her – the trip to the Platz to see Joey, going upstairs to make sure the triplets hadn’t left any windows open in the on-coming storm, the triplets telling her about their secret holiday project – her lips twitched. Joey would certainly appreciate her next birthday present! Then her thoughts had taken her back to the school’s early days, and her cousin, and the storm had suddenly been right over head and then-
She slowly became aware of someone talking. A man, with a pleasant tenor voice and Parisian accent. “…about now? No, that hasn’t worked. Maybe if you had something to eat? No, you wouldn’t even know you were eating something, and if you couldn’t event taste it there wouldn’t be much point. Oh, hello!” The white had started to fade away, and Simone found herself looking at a man who wasn’t much beyond a boy. He looked like he had dressed in a storm himself – his jacket sleeves were too short, and he wore a bow-tie, instead of an ordinary cravat. His hair looked as thought it might have been cut in the dark. And yet – there was something reassuring about him.
“Vision’s back, then,” he said happily. “Feeling?” He reached out a finger and jabbed her with it.
“What did you do that for?”
“And speech, that’s good. Hearing?”
Simone looked at him doubtfully. “There was ringing…”
“Yes, that’s normal. Well, not normal, because most human don’t experience temporal displacement syndrome, but when they do their senses tend to shut down on them. You’re lucky you only have five senses.”
Most of what he said didn’t make very much sense, but Simone did catch the word “syndrome” and latched onto it like a liferaft. “Are you a doctor? Am I ill?”
“No, and no. Or not in the way you’d think of as being ill, anyway. Tell me – what was your name?”
“Simone de Bersac.”
“Tell me, Simone de Bersac, what’s the last thing you remember?” She told him, and his look changed from one of helpful concern to deep-furrowed worry. “Then we’ve got to move fast. If it’s who I think it is-”
“If what’s who you think what is?” Simone asked, feeling more confused than ever. The man gave her a hand so she could stand, and she noticed that she was in an alleyway. And then they were running and he was talking, and –
He called them Vermin, because he said she wasn’t going to be able to pronounce their real name. They fed off not food, but on potential. A young boy who had the potential to become a great concert pianist – they would kill him, and feed off all the lives that were never changed because audiences had never heard him play. But they didn’t just travel the land, doing that. They travelled in time, finding a victim and then burrowing back through the years like rats, finding a critical moment in their life and killing them before they had the chance to live it. Simone must have fallen in to one of their burrows, coming out the other side in another time.
“None of that explains why we are in
“Weren’t you in
“But no! I was in the Oberland, visiting a friend. I – oh, is she the one they’re trying to kill?” Panic took her, and she reached out and gripped his arm. “Not Joey! Please, it can’t be Joey it – it can’t.”
“Was Joey in
“Then it must have been someone else in the house. Who was in
Simone thought furiously. “There was Jack,” she said. “But no – he wasn’t in the house at the time.”
“Hmmm.” The man looked thoughtful. “If it wasn’t anyone who was there… What were you thinking, Simone de Bersac? What were you thinking of when the storm struck?”
“My cousin,” Simone replied. “I was thinking that, even though she was so kind to me and my sister – she helped to put us through school – there was so much about her I never knew. She was even our headmistress, at my boarding school, but she…” Her hand flew to her mouth. “Cousin Elise! She lived in
He was running again. “Do you have any idea where she’d be?”
“She was working at a girls’ school! Oh, but I don’t know which one! It was a day school, and she had a little apartment nearby-”
She’d been to the apartment before, though. Cousin Elise had been an invalid by then, in
Simone’s feet slipped on the street as she turned a corner, instinct as much as memory driving her towards her cousin. Her eyes registered posters and fashions that had not been seen for thirty years – perhaps later she’d have time to marvel at that. For now, she was running – because something in her believed everything this odd man had told her, and she had to hurry, had to get there before the Vermin did.
“Is this it?”
It didn’t look the same as when she had last seen it; the paint was fresher now than it had been then, but it was the right building. She rattled the front door impatiently. “It’s locked!”
“Here-” There was a buzz, and the door was open. Simone clambered up the stairs, ignoring the ache in her legs. She wasn’t as fit as she’d been as a girl; she’d really have to convince André that they should both take up tennis again, as soon as she got back. The door at the top was open, slightly ajar; Simone slammed it wider and – stopped.
The man was only a few paces behind her. He looked distraught. Simone wasn’t. She couldn’t feel anything. No syndrome, no pain. Nothing.
“Simone de Bersac – I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry…”
Simone nodded, but in truth she barely heard him. Her cousin looked so much younger than she remembered her; the pain she’d lived in during her last few years had etched deep lines across her face, but here she looked untouched – almost. There was touch of sadness to her mouth, though. Unhappy with her school placement? Or unhappy for other reasons? Cousin Elise had never mentioned there being anyone in her life, but she’d not been a born teacher the way some were. There was so much she’d never known about her…
“This is real, isn’t it?” Simone asked after a while. “I’m really in
“As real as anything is. Simone- ”
“But she can’t be dead,” Simone said. “I know. She helped raise me. She – how can she be dead?”
The man cleared his throat. His face was still drawn tight. “Time parallax. Um – the past that you remember, this time’s future… It never happened. You told me she was a headmistress. There’s all those girls she would’ve helped, those teacher she employed… that can’t happen now. That’s what the Vermin are eating.”
Simone had spent years at school being teased over her crying. She’d learned not to cry; she’d learned logic in the face of emotion. She wasn’t going to give in to tears now. “There’s more than that,” she said, her voice sounding stony even to her own ears. “Cousin Elise founded the school. It wasn’t her idea, but without her – I don’t think it would ever have happened. It isn’t going to happen. I- I have to do something about this. It’s not just the girls who were there when she taught; it was all of us. Joey – Marie and Frieda, our daughters – Madame. Gay Lambert. Robin-” André. Would she even have met him, if Cousin Elise had not encouraged her to aim for the Sorbonne? “I have to save her,” she said again.
“Simone,” his voice was kind, his eyes soft. “It’s too l…” His voice trailed off. “It’s not too late,” he said. “In fact, we’re probably too early. There is a way to fix this. But –” he looked at her doubtfully. “It’s going to make a long wait, for you. A very long wait. What year did you say you came from?”
His plan seemed ridiculous at first. Impossible. For many years afterwards, Simone wondered if it was only shock that had let her agree to it. But then, what else could she have done? If he was to be believed – and she couldn’t help but believe him – there was no way she could return to her own life. Her own life no longer existed. So she took over her cousin’s life instead.
She moved to
Her first visit to see her parents – Elise’s cousins – was hard. Her parents, although tired, were so young and happy. She wanted to throw herself into her mother’s arms and weep, but instead she held back, choosing instead to just be glad they did not seem to notice that she was not the same they had met so many times before. Her father mentioned that
Her first triumph came when Madge sent her a note asking her around for “tea and a chat”. That was the first hint that the
But once the school had started up it became far more difficult to keep things running as she was sure they should. While there were some events etched in her memory – cutting her hair, Jo and Grizel’s fateful trip up the Tiernjoch, her paper dolls almost causing the Robin to drown – there were other events she had long since forgotten about. What had she done to cause Juliet to confess her parents misdeeds to Madge before her parents had abandoned her? She’d had to intervene then, suggest that they keep Juliet on rather than force the Carricks to take her back. Madge had agreed reluctantly at the time; later, she told Simone she was glad that she had, that she thought the Frenchwoman’s kindness had been Juliet’s salvation. Simone thought differently; but she accepted the praise all the same. What else was she to do?
It was Margot’s arrival that threw the first large spanner in the works. Up until then, she had been doing her best to follow the choices her cousin had made. She’d been told that it was important that the potential that Elise had was not lost. But Margot, even after Simone had consoled her, and explained to her everything that had happened, would not see it.
“But you aren’t Mademoiselle Lepâttre,” she argued. “How can you do everything the same way she did? As long as you’re Headmistress, aren’t you fulfilling her role anyway? How much is it going to matter to matter if things go a little – wonky?”
It wasn’t until Grizel and Deira’s fight that Simone finally accepted that change was inevitable. Her own memories of the event were hazy, but she was sure that Madge had attempted to talk to both of the girls. This time around she didn’t, believing that Simone had dealt with them as well as was possible on her own. Simone had been proud – and a little distraught. Had Madge not trusted her own cousin to deal with disciplinary matters? She’d never thought about it before, but now she was starting to wonder if Elise had ever really been fit for the post. Still – she started trying to make things better, using her own memories and her own skills to guide her, rather than making the decisions that she thought Elise had made. She seemed to have more successes than failures. She thought Elise would be proud of her.
The coming of the war frightened Simone. Not only was she scared at the thought of having to live through all that death, despair and destruction a second time, she knew that the Anschluss had signalled the beginning of the end for Elise. Was her own time drawing to an end? She tried not to think about it, tried to stay focussed on the school and on Simone’s – the younger her, the real her – news that she was soon to be engaged. Not to André, though – and Simone wasn’t sure whether to be happy or triste at that. André was still hers, and hers alone. But – where was he, in this new reality? Was he with someone else? Alive or dead? If she died, now, would she see him again? Or was he lost to her forever?
The war came, but Simone stayed as strong as ever. More than that – she found she was thriving on the work involved in relocating an entire school to a different country, and continuing to keep everyone in good health and cheer as rationing set in. Her parents arrived, refugees from
When the school announced its removal to
“I’m old,” she told Jo over a cup of tea. “No, chérie, don’t argue. I’m not long off 70 – and it’s more than time for someone else to take over the running of the school. Someone who won’t make too many changes, perhaps, but who has the energy to tackle the problems I don’t.”
“Diana Skelton?” Jo queried. “The school did everything they could, Therese-”
Simone shook her head. “But it wasn’t enough. Once upon a time I would have been able to help her properly – you remember Thekla?”
Jo nodded. “Of course! We’re still in touch. In fact she’s invited us to stay during our trip to the Oberland, in fact – but that’s neither here or there. Surely Diana was worse than Thekla! Thekla never destroyed the Head Girl’s office in a fit of – of petty revenge.”
Simone’s mouth twitched. “But did she not have a child’s tantrum when she couldn’t have the book she wanted? They were both products of their upbringing, in their own ways. But I couldn’t see a way to help Diana. No; it is time for me to go.”
Jo obviously saw that her mind was made up, and instead asked whether she had thought about a replacement.
“Of course,” Simone replied demurely.
“You’re not going to make me guess?” Jo laughed. “Well – to my mind there’s only two real options. I know Pam Slater is ambitious enough, and she’s been Head of the Maths department since the school left
“And the other?”
“Hilda Annersley. She did an excellent job when you had that ‘flu. That’s who you were thinking of, isn’t it? Hilda’s marvellous, Therese – but she’s not you.”
“No more should she be,” Simone replied firmly. “Hilda will do wonderfully – I wouldn’t be surprised if she surpassed me, in fact. No, my Joey, I have made up my mind. I will go and stay with my cousin for some time, and then – perhaps you will find me some small residence on the Gornetz Platz. I love our school too much to leave her completely.”
That was the truth, even if it wasn’t the whole truth.
She’d meant to have a real retirement, but she found that on her own, with nothing to keep her busy, her thoughts strayed too often down paths she did not want to walk. She took to helping out with the girls at Hobbies Club who needed extra guidance with their needlework, tutoring some of the children at the San who were well enough to learn but not well enough to attend the school, and looking after a company of Guides. Many of her former pupils stayed in touch with her, particularly those she had mothered – Corney Flower, Biddy O’Ryan, Betty Wynne-Davis – but it was Margot and Len who came to see her almost daily. It was funny – and a little sad. Even though they had both lived fulfilling lives, here, neither of them was truly happy. Was it just missing their sister and their family? Simone wondered. Or had they each lost more than they were prepared to say?
She was out for a walk one afternoon, planning an expedition for her company, when she finally received the sign she’d been waiting for, for all this time.
“Hello, Simone de Bersac!”
It had been more than thirty years since she’d last heard that voice, and yet Simone recognised it instantly. Besides – there was no one around who knew to call her by that name, except the triplets.
“Hello,” she said calmly. “It’s been a long time.” She glanced him over. “Or perhaps it hasn’t, for you.” He didn’t just look well-preserved; he looked entirely unchanged. He was wearing the same jacket and shirt, the same trousers, even the same terrible tie.
“Only a couple of days,” he told her cheerfully. “Would’ve come straight here but I had to drop a honey-mooning couple off at the Suivain Delta. Did you know,” he continued, “that you’ve managed to starve the Vermin to death? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my life, and I have lived for quite a long time.”
“I – killed them?” Simone asked. She hadn’t really considered the possibility that in trying to save history she was committing murder.
“Yes! Well, sort of. Death isn’t really a finality for the Vermin, it’s more of a slightly uncomfortable set-back.”
“Oh,” said Simone faintly.
“The thing is, even though you’ve managed to stop them on this end, they’re still going to arrive very shortly, and do the whole thing again. That’s the problem with circular life-lines, they just sort of go on forever unless you can pip them at the source. A big temporal disturbance ought to throw them off, but I don’t know – yet – how to make one. Usually I’d just whip something up with the TARDIS, but she’s been acting a little off since the last time I had to rebuild reality. What?”
“I just – thought I should tell you,” Simone said. “I’m not the only one who got caught up in – in this. The triplets – my friend’s daughters, who I was visiting – they did, too.”
“Triplets?” he asked, interested, “Really? Are they identical- ooh! That’s it!” He suddenly seized Simone and hugged her tightly. “Perfect! If all of you managed to meet at the same time – the four of you, and the four of your from this timeline – and if you were all together when the Vermin struck – that storm you talked about – it would probably send them away from Earth altogether. All eight of you in the same place? The universe hates it when that happens.”
It took a moment, but Simone thought she understood what he was saying. It would take some careful manoeuvring but – yes, she thought she could do it. The triplets would do it – they would be overjoyed to finally be back with their family, in their own time. And she – well, she’d be young again. And she’d be back with André, and the children.
“How will we know if it’s worked?” she asked.
“Because,” he told her, “If it works, none of this –” he waved a hand around wildly “- will have happened. You won’t remember a thing.”