‘Autumn Term’, Part Six

Chapter Twelve: Tim Loses Her Temper

Poor Nicola is feeling a bit left out as Tim and Lawrie plan their play, so she throws herself into her Tidiness Monitress duties with excessive zeal. Meanwhile, Tim is feeling under pressure, especially as Pomona – the star of her mother’s theatrical extravaganzas at home – keeps criticising Tim’s decisions and wants to know what she’s going to be:

‘That,’ said Tim, ‘is one of the mysteries of the future.’
‘I mean in the play,’ said Pomona.
‘So do I,’ said Tim.

Tim is often unkind, but most of the class find her funny. She does one of her nasty Pomona drawings on the blackboard and is furious when Nicola insists on rubbing it off before a tidiness inspection. Tim accuses Nicola of being after the Tidiness Award because Nicola has failed at everything else:

‘It’s a mistake,’ continued Tim, who, on the infrequent occasions when she lost her temper, surprised herself unpleasantly by the things she found to say, ‘it’s a mistake to try to be distinguished when you haven’t done anything to be distinguished with. It makes you look foolish. People laugh.’

They have the sort of fight that can only happen between best friends who know each others’ weak spots, made worse for Nicola when Lawrie takes Tim’s side. When I was at school, girls had these sorts of bitter verbal conflicts, whereas boys just punched one another, but it was only the boys who got in trouble with the teachers. I wonder if the girls’ fights were more painful and damaging in the long run.

Also, Tim and Lawrie make their quarrel obvious by sitting apart from Nicola at breakfast, which makes her think that:

People ought to keep these things to themselves, very secret and private, so that outside people shouldn’t be able to lean across and say: ‘What’s up with you and Lawrie?’ in the silly, nudging kind of voices people used when something mattered a great deal to one person and was only something to be gossiped over by the others.

It is all too much for Nicola so she decides to run away to sea.

Chapter Thirteen: Operation Nelson

Okay, Nicola can’t really run away to sea to join a ship, but she can visit Giles, who’s currently with his new ship at Port Wade, about ninety minutes away by train. After all, he’d told her to be bad. The punishment for being out of bounds will be severe, but that wouldn’t matter:

“… she imagined the meeting with Giles, the enormous tea at some small dark-windowed inn which had once been a meeting place for smugglers … and just, just possibly seeing over his ship … at the very thought of so much glory her eyes clenched tightly shut for a moment.”

Things go surprisingly well at first. True, she doesn’t have enough money for a return train ticket and she’s too honourable and proud to borrow or steal it from Lawrie, but she can afford a single ticket and some sweets and she enjoys her trip and then has a fascinating wander along the docks. It’s only when she reaches the end of the docks that she comes back down to earth with a thud. Giles’s ship is far out to sea, she hasn’t bumped into him on the docks and worse – she suddenly realises she is stranded in Port Wade without the train fare home!

Chapter Fourteen: A Part for Pomona

Nicola, in a wild panic, considers which of her possessions she can pawn (although she doesn’t consider pawning her knife, or for that matter, getting on the train without a ticket). She has a moment of “ecstatic relief” when she spots Giles in the street, but he is furious at her. Just a reminder, it was Giles himself who encouraged Nicola to break bounds at school and be as bad as possible. He does buy her a sandwich and a train ticket and sees her onto the train, I suppose, but only after a cold, curt dressing-down. Nicola humbly takes his side:

“It had been idiotic of her to forget that Giles would loathe having his family around unless he had invited them specially; particularly loathe to have them turn up when he was engaged on official business.”

Actually, I think he was just on his way to the pub with his mate. Although maybe it sounds worse than it was because it’s being narrated by Nicola when she’s filled with self-loathing. Anyway, she has a miserable trip back and has to take a terrifying short-cut through the dark fields to get back to school. But her luck holds and it turns out Lawrie has covered up for her absence. Even luckier, Nicola missed out on a flaming row when Miss Cartwright finally realised the whole class (except for Marie) had been bullying Pomona all term:

‘And it isn’t even true,’ said Lawrie, bouncing on the bed, wrathful and indignant. ‘Bullying’s twisting people’s arms and roasting them and things, isn’t it? And we’ve never laid a finger on the little beast, have we?’

I’m glad this has been addressed. We only see Pomona’s treatment from the point of view of the bullies, so it would be easy for readers to think that it’s just a joke or that Pomona deserves it because she’s so annoying – we don’t get to see her crying in her dorm, for instance. Third Remove are punished by having a day’s silence and Tim has to give Pomona a proper part in the play. Tim says Pomona can be Henry VIII because “she lies on a sofa and looks fat and she dies practically when we start”. I don’t think Tim has quite got the anti-bullying message, but at least she, Lawrie and Nicola are all friends again, their fight “swallowed up in the greater stressors of the moment”.

By the way, I’ve been trying to figure out where Kingscote is and realised the town names are all made up – there isn’t a Port Wade in England, for one thing. But the town’s cathedral has a tomb with a knight holding his lady’s hand so I wondered if it’s a fictional version of the Arundel Tomb in Chichester Cathedral (although Philip Larkin didn’t write his poem about it until about 1956).

Next, Chapter Fifteen: A Form Meeting

2 thoughts on “‘Autumn Term’, Part Six”

  1. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that things are never quite the same between Tim and Nicola after this. In fact there is a wonderful quote in a later book where Nicola thinks something like, “it was strange to be friends with someone who disliked you so much; at least, she supposed they were friends, and she supposed it was dislike, though neither of those words seemed quite right…’ It’s something like that, anyway — but the sentiment is perfect, isn’t it? Frenemies, before it was invented.

    Bloody Giles! What a rotter. But I like that Lawrie has covered for Nicola and guessed where she was, and they slide effortlessly back into their twinnish relationship.

    1. Tim and Nicola seem to have made it up and Nicola is closer to Tim’s intellectual equal than Lawrie, so I want Tim and Nicola to be best friends! Nicola might be too honourable to be able to cope with Tim’s dodgy moral manoeuvres in the long term, though.

      Ugh, Giles! It’s interesting how nearly all of the authority figures are flawed in this book, even the parents and the headmistress. They don’t know what’s really going on most of the time, they make unfair decisions based on incomplete information, yet they expect unquestioning respect. I suppose Miss Cartwright’s all right – and I like Miss Jennings!

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