‘Once a Wintonian, always a Wintonian’.
The College Principal, chin propped on one hand, watches fondly as clusters of middle-aged women drift into her dining hall.
Old friends shuffle place cards so they can sit together. Ever the rebels. Candlelight and wine soften their wrinkles so they recognise each other not as faded blooms, but as their former greener selves.
Sitting back from the rising chatter, a solitary guest lifts her eyes to the portraits hanging proudly on oak-panelled walls.
The Principal knows what she’s thinking; there’s always one.
‘Did I achieve enough? Is it too late?’
Swirled wine hides a swell of emotion, but the Principal’s smile remains constant. Like the blue Echinops standing proud in Winton’s well-tended gardens, she knows her thistles are spiky in nature, but strong.
As the ritual of dinner plays out, the alumnus gradually succumbs to the enchantment of her alma mater. Familiar surroundings and long-forgotten faces cocoon her. Fine food and drink lower her defences. The debris of mid-life slowly clears, and she remembers how it felt to be independent and fearless. Little by little, she comes to understand that the person she once was still exists inside, and if called upon, would willingly step up to any new challenge. Age and experience simply add reassurance.
Coffee is served and groups of tipsy women disperse into the night. The thistle pauses on her way out for a closer look at the paintings that surround High Table.
The central canvas depicts Winton’s legendary first Principal resplendent in Victorian silk, chin resting elegantly on slim fingers.
Her successors line up on either side, faces and costumes frozen in time; links in a chain that stretches across centuries.
Without these illustrious leaders, their efforts and their influence, the thistle knows she could not have blossomed as she did, and will do again.
‘Goodnight Ladies’, she murmurs to the portraits. ‘Thank you for having us.’
As she turns to leave, a whisper seems to reverberate around the hall, as if one Principal has nudged another:
‘See, once a Wintonian, always a Wintonian.’