The last day of term at Cackle's Academy for Witches had passed, and the school, perched at the top of a mountain and shrouded by a plume of darkening clouds, was deserted.
Constance Hardbroom took it upon herself at the end of every term to patrol the corridors one last time, ensuring nothing had been left out of place and no stowaways were curled under tables or in cupboards. It had been known in the past that some pupils, becoming so attached to the place during term time, would become "school-sick" (yes, even at Cackles) to the extent that the mere prospect of returning from the comforting drafts of the partially dilapidated castle to the relative unfamiliar luxuries of home filled them with dread.
Armed with her lantern and pursued loyally by Morgana, who wound herself around her mistress's legs whenever she paused to fling open a door, Miss Hardbroom satisfied herself that this term there had been no such occurrence, and decided to retire to the staffroom for a couple of hours peace and quiet before locking the castle for the final time.
As she swept along the chilly corridor past the library, her mind preoccupied by which volume of Advanced Telekinesis to read, her thoughts were broken by a noise from downstairs – a loud, thudding noise. She froze to the spot and glanced up at the clock on the corridor wall. Six forty. After a few silent moments, the noise came again. Three thuds, like someone slapping their palm very hard on the imposing oak front door. Everyone had been allowed to leave at lunchtime, so the likelihood of it being a pupil popping back to pick up some forgotten piece of luggage at this late hour (or maybe even a cat – that too had happened before now) was minimal.
Miss Hardbroom momentarily felt an anxious qualm in her stomach. Mentally reeling off potential spells of defence that might come in useful in case this unexpected visitor was anyone particularly sinister, she took a deep breath and strode in her usual purposeful manner down the steps and across the hallway to the door, her robes flowing behind her. Memories of Miss Cackle's evil sister, Agatha, flickered through her mind. Although Agatha and her usual cronies were not particularly intimidating, handling them alone when they had probably learned from previous experience that three of them were not enough to overthrow an entire school (or even one calamity pupil), might not be an easy task.
Miss Hardbroom hesitated for a moment, her hand hovering above the latch as she listened. Silence. Either it was a well prepared gang or – hopefully – merely an individual.
Pull yourself together, Constance, she thought to herself. You didn't undergo several years at Witch Training College to be afraid of answering the front door! Without further hesitation she unlocked the door and flung it open.
Standing on the front step was a girl Miss Hardbroom was startled to recognise. She was in her mid-twenties, with graduated hair cut to her shoulders, a fur-collared leather jacket and jeans tucked into knee-high brown boots. The girl beamed on seeing Miss Hardbroom, and in her outstretched hand she clutched a bright red envelope, which she instinctively took from her.
'Happy birthday, Miss Hardbroom,' said Mildred Hubble.
'It really is such a surprise to see you, Mildred,' Miss Hardbroom hesitated, pouring steaming hot water into two cups in the staffroom. Mildred was perched at the end of the table, leaning on folded arms. 'Quite unexpected.'
'A nice surprise, I hope,' said Mildred.
Miss Hardbroom flinched slightly.
'Yes,' she faltered, avoiding eye-contact. 'Milk?'
Mildred watched Miss Hardbroom as she stirred the tea and slid the cup over to her, noticing her hands were shaking slightly. She placed the kettle back in its usual home by the window and joined Mildred at the table. She doesn't look any different, Mildred thought. Not a wrinkle - nothing. Perhaps she's invented some sort of anti-ageing potion. She could be a millionaire if she had! But no – tampering with the ageing process would be far too frivolous for Miss Hardbroom. She probably just had good genes.
'So,' Miss Hardbroom's brisk tones hadn't changed, either. 'Tell me what you've been doing with yourself, Mildred.'
'Well, I'm a teacher now, Miss,'
Miss Hardbroom choked slightly on her tea.
'Yes, at the Witches' Training College. You were there, weren't you? I saw your picture in the Hall of History. You were very pretty.'
Miss Hardbroom raised a questioning eyebrow.
Mildred stifled a giggle.
Miss Hardbroom suppressed a smile. 'That I am not. But thank you, Mildred. And how are you enjoying teaching?'
'I love it,' Mildred beamed. 'My students are great, they're really enthusiastic and they're all getting excellent marks, which is a relief for me as we have inspectors coming in next week. And my colleagues, too – Maud is a teacher at the same place! Can you believe it? It's just like the old days, except we're on the other side of the staffroom now of course so we can't mess about. But we do have a laugh!'
Mildred stopped suddenly. Miss Hardbroom was gazing fixedly down at the table, her hands resting either side of her tea cup.
'Miss Hardbroom? Are you all right?'
'I never would have imagined you becoming a teacher, Mildred Hubble.' She said, more to herself than to Mildred.
Mildred twisted her fingers in her lap, her familiar nerves setting in as she anticipated Miss Hardbroom's next words. She was hard to predict when she wasn't in a foul mood. Not that she was in a good mood now – but she was different, somehow. More relaxed. Like the time they'd chatted together in the basement and Miss Hardbroom had almost resigned.
'Well,' Mildred continued, 'I wasn't really planning on it. It just sort of – happened. I got a 2:1 at Weirdsisters, and my tutor told me I had a way with people and said I'd make an excellent teacher. And over time the idea began to sink in, and then I looked into it and decided it was what I wanted to do.'
Miss Hardbroom, after contemplating this for a moment, looked directly at Mildred.
'I would have thought you'd have cultivated a severe disliking for teachers after your time here, Mildred. You and I never really did see eye to eye, did we?'
Mildred bit her lip and wondered if it had been a good idea to come back.
'Well – no,' Mildred said, slowly. 'But I did love it here, Miss Hardbroom. I missed it so much after I left. I must have cried for a month. I missed everyone – Miss Drill, Miss Cackle – how is Miss Cackle by the way?'
Miss Hardbroom seemed to snap out of deep thought. 'Oh you know, same old Miss Cackle,' she said, leaning back slightly in her chair. 'Still giving motherly advice to unruly pupils and keeping order in the staff room.'
'Well, Miss Bat's behaviour is a little – haphazard, shall we say. She is rather eccentric, you know. And Miss Drill has just returned from maternity leave. She had a little girl. Called her Connie. Can't think why. It's not even a proper name!'
'People do that these days, Miss,'
'Use abbreviations as given names. Enid has a boy called Charlie. "Charles" sounds a bit old hat these days, doesn't it?'
'And so does Constance?'
'No, I didn't mean that – I just –' Mildred sighed. 'If you don't mind me saying, Miss Hardbroom, you can be a bit over sensitive sometimes.'
Miss Hardbroom took a long, deep intake of breath and Mildred wondered if she was mentally counting to ten. She also wondered how Miss Hardbroom's complexion had remained so pure when she had been so susceptible to stress for years.
Miss Hardbroom reached into her pocket and took out the unopened envelope Mildred had given her.
'How did you know it was my birthday?' She enquired, turning it over in her hands and hesitating to open it. 'Nobody here knows it's today, not even Miss Cackle.'
'I found out from the College, didn't I?' Mildred grinned, triumphantly. Miss Hardbroom's eyes sparkled with the mere hint of a smile.
'So you know how old I am?'
'I didn't do the maths. I just remember the date.' Miss Hardbroom wasn't convinced, but decided to overlook the matter. Of course, Mildred had stood for a good five minutes in the oak-clad corridor of the Witch Training College counting on both hands how old her former teacher must have been (mental arithmetic was another less-than-strong point of Mildred's) and had been aghast when she realised how old she really was. She remained sceptical now, looking upon the young, perfectly sculpted cheeks, soft lips and raven hair.
Miss Hardbroom placed the card, still enveloped, on the table and pushed it aside. Feeling a little awkward, Mildred broke the silence.
'Oh – have you heard from Ethel at all?'
'Yes – she's a Professor at Weirdsisters. I'm surprised she hasn't been in touch to let you know. She likes to make sure people know about it. She's researching the study of magic in mind power. You know, brainwashing, government control etc.'
Miss Hardbroom raised both eyebrows.
'Taking the bull by both horns as usual, then,' she said, leaning forward again on her elbows and entwining her hands together. 'Mildred –'
'She's even had books published,' Mildred continued, despite Miss Hardbroom's interjection. 'Haven't you seen them? She's a Hallow-Helibore now though. Married one of the Grand Wizard's great nephews. Not that we didn't see that coming or anything…'
'Mildred,' Miss Hardbroom said again. Evening was setting in. Miss Hardbroom put her finger and thumb to the wick of a chunky, molten candle on the staffroom table and, with a brisk flick of her fingers, lit the candle. 'I'd like to give you some advice,'
Mildred swallowed, her fingers fiddling with a loose strand of cotton from the cuff of her top. Miss Hardbroom began slowly, the forced dignity in her voice suppressing something else.
'Don't ever become like me, Mildred. I mean as a teacher. I don't think you really have it in you - you're too gentle for that; but I was taught by someone who made me into something I never truly was. Someone who shook my confidence but hardened my exterior, someone who forbade indulgences and enforced a rigid formula of self criticism and restraint. And you in turn were taught by somebody like that, when you were taught by me. I would hate to think your pupils ever showed you anything less than affection and admiration, Mildred. Make sure they smile when you enter the room. Make sure they look forward to your lessons. I can't change now, but you're still young – how old are you?'
'Twenty six, Miss,'
'Twenty six. You character can still change and bitterness can take over. Don't let it, Mildred.'
Miss Hardbroom stopped, and Mildred held her breath, a lump forming in her throat. Patiently allowing it to subside, she said:
'Miss Hardbroom – I came here to thank you for what you've made me. You made me what I am today.'
'Don't be ridiculous, girl! You're nothing like me at all,'
'No, I'm not. But I'm not you, am I? I'm Mildred, same as I always was. But you gave me confidence because I knew you always had faith in me, even when I messed things up. Perhaps you didn't think I noticed, or perhaps you didn't even feel it yourself – but I felt safe around you. You kept me on my toes because I knew you had a short fuse and expected the best, and I could never quite give you that. But I knew you always had my best interests at heart. And everyone missed you when we left. Maud talks about you all the time in the staff room, telling the others stories and reminiscing about the old days. And why do you think Miss Drill named her baby after you? You're the sort of teacher everyone dreams of having – but only a handful of us are lucky enough to have you, Miss Hardbroom. We just didn't appreciate it at the time.'
Mildred looked down into her tea, which was steadily cooling to an undrinkable temperature. She daren't look at the silent form mistress, who appeared to be frozen to the spot. After a few moments, Mildred rose from her seat and bent to kiss Miss Hardbroom's cheek. She hasn't thawed with age, she thought. She would never be able to understand her. She wondered if anyone ever had – or if she was simply an enigma to everyone she ever met.
'I'm going now, Miss. I'm sorry if I've upset you,' and greeted only by silence, Mildred picked up her bag and let herself out of the staffroom. She walked quickly along the corridor, hot tears streaming down her cheeks as she suppressed any audible sobs.
Miss Hardbroom placed a cold, flat hand on the red envelope and slid it slowly across the desk towards her. It was bulging as though full of several things, like a child's birthday card from a distant aunt - full of money. She slid a nail along the gummed seal and pulled out the contents. Inside was a purple, handmade card with a window shape, reminiscent of the arched windows at Cackles, cut out of it. The window was backed with tissue paper so that it looked like stained glass. On the window sill was the figure of a black cat. As she opened the card another, smaller envelope fell out of it. The looping, bubbly handwriting inside the main card read:
"To Miss Hardbroom
Thank you for everything - and sorry for everything else!
You are always in my thoughts, and I will never forget you
Miss Hardbroom shook slightly as tears began to run down her cheeks, her face, as always, entirely composed and unflinching.
She quickly picked up the other envelope and ripped it open, taking out a small, cream coloured card with gold edging.
"Miss Mildred Hubble and Mr Nicholas Hobbs
request the pleasure of the company of
Miss Constance Hardbroom
At their wedding in the Chapel of Souls, Weirdsister College, Cambridge
On 13 December 2010
and look forward to sharing their happiness with you"
At the door of the castle, Mildred let herself out and took her broom from against the wall where she had left it. A bitter mist had descended over the surrounding forest, encircling the trees in an eerie veil that obscured the moon, now merely an ochre haze behind the clouds. Bats flitted between the castle and the trees, and Mildred wondered briefly if any of them had been hers. Wiping the last of her tears, she looked up towards the window where the staffroom was. There was a faint light coming from within. The candle was still aglow. Miss Hardbroom was still there.
Giving up hope of ever discovering her softer side – indeed questioning whether one really existed – Mildred sniffed and tapped her broom.
'Hover,' she signed.
'Oh God!' Mildred jumped, her bag unintentionally flying from her grasp as the soft voice from nowhere whispered in her ear. Miss Hardbroom's melodic chuckle could be heard as she materialised, observing Mildred with amusement. Mildred was bent over and breathing deeply, one hand steadying her against the wall, the other holding her chest as thought it might calm her startled heart.
'I'm surprised you weren't half expecting that,' Miss Hardbroom said, still smiling.
'It's been a long time,' Mildred puffed. 'I'd completely forgotten…'
'Congratulations, Mildred,' Miss Hardbroom said, opening her arms. Mildred looked bemused for a moment. It was something she'd never seen before – but within seconds she found herself enveloped by them, her own arms around Miss Hardbroom's waist, her former teacher towering above her so that Mildred's head was against her shoulder.
Miss Hardbroom held her tightly, saying quietly into her hair, 'Of course I'd be delighted to come to your wedding, dear. And thank you for everything.'