Death was instantaneous but that was scant comfort for Hank. He had lost his wife of thirty-two years and she must have suffered a moment of supreme terror as the six-axled bulk grain carrier rolled onto her car. The driver of the juggernaut had died in hospital two days later. Hank reflected bitterly on his long held belief that Britain's lesser main roads had never been designed for the size and weight of the vehicles they were now required to carry. Lorries of the size that had killed Anne had to squeeze past each other damaging the verges. Their weight caused repeated damage to the road surface.
Brigadier Hank Brierson had been commissioned into the Royal Engineers and had retired two years previously at the age of fifty-five. He had found a position as bursar of Red Hall Preparatory School. It was a co-educational school taking boys and girls from eight to thirteen years old most of whom were boarders. There were eighty-five boys and fifty-seven girls. The headmaster and his wife, Arthur and Betty Winston, both taught. There were a further fourteen full-time teaching staff, two part time music teachers and a part time PT instructor. There were also a matron, who would have been more aptly described as wardrobe mistress, and a nurse. As bursar, Hank shared a secretary with Arthur Winston. He had two groundsmen and an odd job man as staff. As a result he frequently had to roll up his own sleeves as well.
He and Anne had bought a four bedroom house in the same village as the school. It had pleasant views and a garden that they both loved. They were both very happy. Their thirty year-old son, Robin, and his wife, Beth, visited them regularly as did their twenty-four year old daughter, Grace. She had produced various young men for inspection but had still not found one who matched her high standards or for whom she could feel anything approaching love: great affection but not love.
Anne's death hit Hank hard but he did his best to hide it and instead worked even harder than usual to blunt his misery. The Winstons and the rest of the staff were all supportive but realised that Hank did not want sympathy as such. His emotions were too raw. Nevertheless, they continued to invite him to meals and to drinks parties. They also took care not to press him at work; not that they had any need to with the lengths to which he was pushing himself.
School holidays made little difference to Hank apart from sending out bills to parents and then chasing them for payment by the beginning of the next term. Instead he was able to get done the maintenance jobs that could not be done during term time such as painting classrooms and dormitories and preparing the grounds for the next term's games. Christmas and Easter themselves were necessarily a little different as his staff needed a break and contractors took one. All of his family came down that first Christmas only departing on 2nd January. Naturally, Hank missed Anne but had to admit that he had enjoyed himself. The following Easter only Robin and Beth came. Grace was skiing. Gradually he became his former self no longer flogging himself at work although no one could ever question the effort he put in. He still missed Anne though. The evenings without her companionship were the worst part of the day. Crosswords and television hardly compensated.
Miss Anthea Tiarks was the form mistress of Form 1A, the brighter nine year-olds. She taught French and English to them and to Form 2, ten year-olds. She also ran the Brownies. She was in her middle thirties, tall and thin. Her fair hair was pulled back into an old-fashioned bun. Her clothes were drab and shapeless so that it was impossible to ascertain whether she was thin all the way down or possessed some hidden assets. She was very short-sighted and wore large spectacles with thin horn rims. The children, not surprisingly, called her The Owl.
She had liked Hank almost from the moment he had arrived. He always had a smile and a greeting for her and was prepared to stop and talk to her, not just about things she wanted done to her classroom or for the Brownies. Quite often he would greet her in French and that would be followed by a short conversation. He had been very complimentary about her accent or lack of one and had seemed genuinely impressed when she told him that she had taught English in Paris for three years. He and Anne had invited her to dinner three or four times, something few of the other married staff had ever done. None of the unmarried staff, male or female, had ever invited her to join them on a night out, except one and she had realised from the outset that his intention was to take advantage of a shy and lonely woman. She did not grant him his wish.
Now that Hank was free something stirred in her. She would be the first to admit that she was a bit of a lone wolf and had never really encouraged young men. A sexual assault not quite amounting to rape while at university had put her off them. On the other hand, she did not relish the thought of lifelong spinsterhood even though at one stage she had considered becoming a nun. The lack of a strong faith had put her off that. She would never accept being indoctrinated. She felt the resultant faith would be false.
She ordered contact lenses. Then, when they were ready she had her hair cut. Freed from the constraints of the bun it proved to be naturally curly and she wore it so that it framed her face. In the meanwhile, she bought some new clothes: blouses and jumpers that showed that she did indeed have a bosom albeit quite a small one and some shorter skirts and dresses that showed off her neat calves and ankles. She had a private fashion show and was actually pleasantly surprised at how good she looked. Plucking up her courage she returned to school from the Easter holidays in one of her new outfits.
Everyone was very complimentary particularly the bachelor masters. She blushed shyly. The children's compliments she was better able to cope with. She saw nothing of Hank for two days and was very disappointed but on Wednesday she met him between classes in the playground.
"Goodness me, Anthea!" he exclaimed. "I almost didn't recognise you. You look ten years younger. Superb!"
"Thank you," she whispered blushing.
"Got a young man?" he teased.
"Not yet," she replied shaking her head furiously.
"Well, you soon will have," he grinned. "Anyway, keep going. You mustn't be late for class."
He waved cheerily, smiled and walked on.
Anthea's reactions were mixed. She was thrilled at his compliments but was mildly disappointed that he had wondered if she had a boyfriend.
"Why should he think any differently?" she thought. "He thinks of me as a friend but as one twenty something years younger than him and therefore out of range. Take it easy, girl. At least he's noticed the difference and likes it."
The Winstons took good care to know their staff well. They were very fond of Anthea despite her spinsterish appearance. Once one got beyond the façade there was more than a highly intelligent woman and a very good teacher. There was a warm, amusing albeit shy person. Unaware of her experience at university, they could only wish that she would stop being her own worst enemy. They were therefore delighted with the new, pretty young woman who emerged from her chrysalis after Easter. They watched her with interest and also the reactions of the other staff and the children. Over a period of two to three weeks it became apparent that the younger male members of staff were quite attracted but, while friendlier with them than before, she clearly did not reciprocate. It was Betty inevitably who realised what was happening.
"She's after Hank," she said to Arthur one evening.
"What? I don't believe it. He's almost old enough to be her father. In any case, he's not going to respond even if he realises she's set her sights on him. It's much too soon after Anne's death for him even to consider someone else."
"True but she's too naïve to realise it. I've watched her at staff meetings. She never takes her eyes off him and if he speaks to her she goes pink with excitement."
"Oh Lord, she's going to be hurt."
Betty nodded. "She needs to be let down soon but as gently as possible. How do we do it though? Hank, bless his heart, is totally unaware."
"And he likes her. He and Anne had her to dinner a number of times. He'd hate to hurt her. Do you think I ought to have a word with him?"
"I think you've got to unless I have a word with her but I think that would just make her resentful. You know: 'I'm not a child. If he turns me down OK but it's nobody else's business but his and mine'."
Arthur smiled. "You psychological argument is irrefutable. Oh well, I'll take the bull by the horns at the next suitable opportunity."
Betty kissed him fondly. "Not much fun for you, darling, but that's my boy."
The opportunity came two days later. Hank came to see him.
"Problem, Headmaster," he said.
"Shut up, you pompous bursar."
Hank chuckled. "I've got to show my respect once a day," he said.
Arthur snorted. "Go on," he said mock wearily. "What's the problem?"
"It's the Wheelers. They've failed to pay their bill again. We gave them a month's grace last term and now they want the same again."
"What's their excuse?"
"Same as last time. Cash flow. Major dividend delayed but still imminent."
"Do you believe them?"
"No. They went off to the Serengeti with both kids at Easter. That's the cash flow problem. OK he may have a bonus due but he's just waiting for his salary to catch up with his over-expenditure."
"Hmm. Young Tim is a good kid and shows every chance of getting a scholarship to Towchester. I wouldn't like to see him suffer."
"Nor would I. He's also developing into quite a good cricketer from what I've seen."
"Go on then, Hank. What's your solution?"
"Only a suggestion, Headmaster."
Both men laughed.
"Last time I wrote to him and it was an understanding, 'don't worry but we'd like payment by the end of the month' letter. It worked but I think he is now trying to play us a bit so I reckon we ought to get a bit tougher."
Arthur nodded. "Go on."
"I'll draft a letter for your signature rather than mine. It will say that we are prepared to wait a month again but that this is the last time we shall do so. You will hope that he will put the future of a talented son ahead of trivial pleasures or some such."
"He wouldn't like 'trivial pleasures' much," chuckled Arthur.
Hank grinned. "No," he said, "which tempts me to leave it there. No, don't worry. I'll think of some apt euphemism."
Arthur roared with laughter. "You should have taught English."
"No fear! I know too many naughty words as well."
Arthur laughed again and then suddenly looked serious.
"Hank," he said, "the last thing I want to do is interfere in your private life but you must have noticed the change in Anthea Tiarks."
"How could one not? At last that nice girl is showing some potential."
"It's directed at you, Hank, I'm afraid."
"Rubbish. I'm miles too old for her."
"I knew you'd say that but she seems to disagree."
"Why, for Heaven's sake, do you think that?"
"You and Anne were the only people on the staff who bothered about her."
"Yes. It's a shame nobody else realised what a nice girl she is."
"That's where the problem arises. Now that Anne has gone she hopes to take her place."
"I don't believe it."
"I'm sure you don't but she does. Betty's been watching her at staff meetings. She never takes her eyes off you and when you speak to her she goes pink with pleasure."
"Oh Lord, this is awful. I like the girl. We both did and while she's now looking as pretty as she should I'm just not interested in being more than casual friends. I'm much too old for her and while I acknowledge her intelligence we're not the same sort. In any case, it's much too soon after Anne's death to even consider remarrying. Oh Lord, this is awful and very embarrassing."
"Betty and I thought that would be your reaction and we also thought you were totally unaware of her behaviour. We just wanted to warn you. We'll now step back and mind our own business."
"Thanks, Arthur. I appreciate your concern. Oh Hell! I'm going to have to give this a lot of thought. If you're right, and I don't doubt that you are, I'm going to have to hurt her and I'm not going to enjoy that one little bit. Damn! Damn! Damn! Sorry, Arthur, I didn't mean to sound off."
"Of course you didn't. I feel for you, Hank. Rather you than me."
Hank smiled wanly and left the room.