“Couldn’t you pop down to Karen’s with those clothes for Rose?” Mrs Marlow asked Rowan at lunchtime. Nicola was all-too-conspicuously with the Merricks for lunch and Peter was not home from school yet.
“I’d love to.” Rowan answered drily, discovering to her own surprise that it was indeed so, even if there was a plague of infant Dodds underfoot. She wanted to do anything that didn’t involve lambing. Anything that would make her feel as if she belonged in her own family again. “Unfortunately, while you’d think that nature could arrange it so that ewes could lamb themselves without assistance, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“Oh,” said Mother turning her eyes towards Ann, “well perhaps…”
“I’ll do it.” said Ginty. She didn’t much like the infant Dodds but suddenly anything seemed better than an afternoon spent at home whilst Nicola and Patrick did hawk and horse things together.
Rowan would never been afraid of hard work and she wasn’t about to start now – but oh how much she’d give to have Peter or her sisters or her mother help her sometimes! True enough, Nicola had her moments of being helpful with livestock, and Peter did a certain amount of wood chopping and coal heaving and shoe cleaning and so on. It was, as Ma said, their holidays. And when, Rowan thought, will it ever be my holidays. And what happened to a change being as good as a rest for them? Still, she had set her hand to the plough (almost literally) and here she was with the best part of a score of ewes ready to lamb. Three of the four that had lambed so far had had twins. The dates had been nothing like she’d been told when she bought them. She’d be wary of buying ewes in lamb again.
“Rowan.” Here was Ann in her very oldest clothes. In fact the jersey looked as if it might be Giles’ oldest surviving piece of clothing.
“I know I don’t know much, but if you tell something straight forward that I can do? Something needs scrubbing?”
Rowan handed over bucket and disinfectant readily and pointed to the row of pens she had made up with hurdles.
“It’s not too bad a job.” Rowan said as reassuringly as she could. Ann who often irritated her sisters with her eagerness to do the right thing, had been subdued since the Ginty affair, but Rowan wasn’t about to turn down a willing helper. Ann was very unlikely to drop the job half way through because Patrick Merrick turned up either.
“Clear the straw out of the pens, put it there,” Rowan pointed, “shift the hurdles about if you have to, as long as they go back in approximately the right place, that’ll do. Slosh on a bit of this disinfectant and give it a good scrub – use this broom, not a scrubbing brush.” Rowan added hastily, knowing how Ann, with her determination to Do The Right Thing could so easily have interpreted the instruction. “Swoosh it down towards the drain a bit with the broom, that brick paving isn’t as even as it was on eighteen-o-something and I’d like it to dry as quickly as possible. That bit of roof and the back and end walls do take the wind off, although it doesn’t feel like it on a windy night. Once it’s dried - dried enough anyway, put some fresh straw down.”
Ann set to work while Rowan went to judge which of her charges was likely to be soonest in need of the shelter while she lambed, and then went to the field to check on the new mothers and their offspring. She should regard the twins as double profits, but had been concerned at first that they would end up losing both lambs. The twin lambs had been born smaller and slow to stand and suckle, but seemed to be thriving well enough now.
“Just don’t go forgetting that you’ve got two.” Rowan said firmly to one of the ewes, before returning to the other pens, set up under the other shelter at ninety degrees to the one where Ann was working away steady and efficiently. Ann had dealt with all the straw first and was scrubbing out the third pen. Rowan turned her attention to what Lawrie insisted in calling “patients” in the other pens. One had produced a single lamb with the minimum of fuss. The other was struggling with what Rowan suspected were more twins. Rowan fetched the other bucket, soap and the nail-brush she kept for that particular job.
She didn’t need them. The first and most awkward lamb had made its appearance in the by the time she returned to the pen and the second followed quickly. Another pair who would need a feed and maybe two before they would stand and suckle properly. Rowan filled the Robinson’s squash bottle she used for the purpose with the milk-and-glucose mixture, fastened the rubber teat on it and was about to settle herself on a upturned bucket when she paused. She had not even said please-or-thank-you to Ann, that she could recall.
She glanced up at her sister, just finishing the fourth pen.
“Ann,” she called, “Would you like to feed these lambs? I can finish that.”
Ann straightened up and smiled. “If you’re sure. What do I have to do?”
“It’s pretty much the same as feeding a Marlow twin, but with less regurgitation.” Rowan smiled herself, very briefly at her nearly forgotten memory. Giles had claimed the right to give Nicola her bottle whenever he chose, but had sometimes relinquished the task to Rowan when better ploys offered themselves. Rowan could not remember if Karen had sometimes handed over Lawrie-feeding rights to Ann. Probably, by the way Ann picked up both bottle and lamb and settled herself on the bucket.
“Rowan,” Ann asked tentatively, “do you regret it? Giving up school, I mean? Or had you rather I unasked that?”
“Not. On the whole.” said Rowan, thoughtful wiggling the brush round the wooden support for the front of the low thatched roof, under which farm equipment lived for most of the year and lambing ewes in Spring . “Some of the things seem very much storm in a teacup-ish now, and I think there’s only so much you can care about them.”
She glanced across at Ann, who nodded and arranged the lamb over her shoulder.
“What are you doing with that lamb?” Rowan asked, curiously.
“They don’t seem to need it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No need to be. It won’t harm her.”
“There are things that I mind more than I expected.” Rowan continued thoughtfully, after a pause.
“Such as?” Ann still sounded tentative.
“Oh, not belonging anymore.” Rowan attacked the uneven brick floor with suddenly savage fierceness.
“But you belong here more than anyone, now.” said Ann.
“It doesn’t feel like that in the holidays. They aren’t my holidays. Everyone comes home and does holiday things and there’s a grand killing of the fatted calf and I’m just there and it’s their holidays and I’m just someone to help provide the setting for it, like Mrs Bertie and I’m slightly in the way – oh, I’m just maudlin-self-pitying. Short on sleep. Ignore me.”
“And the more you do for people the more they expect you to do for them, but they mind, because then they’ve got to be grateful to you or feel themselves a bit of a heel if they’re not. And then they blame you for making them feel bad, but it seems a bit late to try to be different.”
“You, could give it a go, I suppose.” Rowan said thoughtfully. Better late than never, Ann. “Anyway, I’m grateful for your help today. Help and company both. Do you think Jon ever felt like this – sort of invisible only not, when we here in the holidays?”
Ann frowned. “I don’t know.” she said, “I wonder what happened to that friend of his?”
“Roger Walker.” said Rowan as casually as she could, as she started spreading fresh straw in the first pen, now more or less dry in the brisk wind. “Pretty rotten for him, turning up and actually seeing Jon die and bringing Peter home and having to explain it all to Ma and Pa and Mrs Bertie and then having everyone make it quietly clear that even if he had been expecting to stay the night they would really rather not. And he probably knew Jon better than any of us. Maybe better than Patrick did. I wonder where he did take himself off to?” she glanced across at Ann, now feeding the second lamb. Ann had walked with Roger Walker to the station, she remembered. At the time Rowan had resented that as a silent reprimand to the rest of them.
“His younger sister. He said she’d known Jon a bit – that they’d written a few times to each other. She was at Agricultural College, I think. She must have finished by now, I suppose.”
Rowan moved on to the next pen and nodded, although she wasn’t sure Ann was looking.
“A friend with Agricultural training would be very handy.” said Rowan. “Lucky Jon – in that at least.”
“I wondered if perhaps she was a bit more than just a friend?” Ann hazarded.
Rowan opened her mouth to voice her surprise at this idea and then decided to do so might be pushing this slightly new version of Ann a little far. Although that might depend exactly what interpretation Ann would put on not the marrying kind. And after all, it was only Rowan’s own impression.
“Rotten for her if that was the case.” Rowan said, “Losing him like that and seeing the place they might have lived together overrun by hordes of Jon’s cousins who don’t even know she exists.”
“But happier for Jon – I don’t mean right at the very end, but before that, with everything to look forward to.” Ann suggested.
The spreading the straw was a quick job and the second lamb was finished.
“Coming to see which patients need the maternity ward next?” Rowan asked. “It’s easier with two people, but I don’t want to flog a willing horse to death, as it were.”
“No, I’ll come and…Ro?”
“Please don’t think I’m doing this because I want you to be grateful or anything like that. I’ve been thinking a bit, and actually feeling a bit of a heel. If you hadn’t taken on Trennels, I suppose Pa would have had to leave the Navy and I’d be at Colebridge Grammar instead of Kingscote and I do realise how lucky I am to be head-girl but you well you could have been, too, or games captain…. Well you were right about some of what you said before. I do take it too much for granted and don’t do enough to help.”
“Don’t worry about that. You came and helped me before I said any of that.” said Rowan, suddenly not sure that gratitude was better than ingratitude. “ And Keith never could abide me really, so I’d never have been head girl. And Ann, you’d have been last on the list to leave Kingscote. It was Nicola who would have ended up at the Grammar if Lawrie hadn’t won the Prosser.” She grinned. “At least then Rose wouldn’t be pestering Kay and Edwin to send her to Kingscote because Nicola is there.”
Roger felt cheerful enough about accompanying his parents to the summer ball, even though the evening would involve less drinking than his usual idea of a really good party. After all, you never knew your luck; the band might yet show they could play something a bit livelier by the time the dancing really got going. It would be foolish of the musicians to waste much energy when everyone was still at the introductions stage and waiting for the dance floor to fill up a little lest they made themselves conspicuous.
Father was introducing him to three other captains. Roger might even have remembered the names of the first two, for the course of the evening, if the third hadn’t been…
“We’ve met before, at Trennels, sir.” Roger said, with an apologetic sideways glance at his father as he held out his hand to the third captain. Geoffrey Marlow, Jon’s cousin, had, unlike Jon, evidently not returned to civilian life for to do his duty by the ancestral acres. “Jon was a good friend.”
Captain Marlow hadn’t recognised Roger, perhaps understandably given the circumstances of the last time they had met, but he reacted quickly enough saying all the right things and introducing his daughter, Ginty. Roger duly asked her to dance. They weren’t the very first couple on the floor.
Ginty danced well and was probably, so far as Roger could tell without staring around rudely at the other dancers, the most beautiful girl in the room. Her long frock was made of some sort of floaty turquoise fabric and somehow looked more sophisticated than his sisters’ first grown-up evening dresses had been. Conversation would be a little easier if Roger could remember which of Jon’s cousins she actually was. Not Rowan, who had proved oddly unforgettable, nor the girl who had walked with him to the station – Ann? Mary? Something like that. Was his dancing partner the one reading Classics at Oxford? Or would she have finished? Was this one of the little schoolgirl ones – but surely three years would not make so much difference? He had the vague idea that there had been another girl, or maybe two, absent from that lunch – it would be awkward if he said he remembered Ginty and she hadn’t. Ginty had asked him all the usual polite questions; he really would have to ask her something about herself in a minute.
“And what about you – what do you enjoy doing?” Roger hoped her answer would give him enough of a hint to carry on the conversation without putting his foot in it too badly.
Ginty needed little encouragement to talk about her horse Catkin, which didn’t give Roger much of a clue until she mentioned school. That ruled out the reading Classics one. She was one of the schoolgirl cousins then – although presumably one who had just left, since she was here at this summer ball. Ginty enthused further about Catkin and hunting. It was quite reasonable of her to assume that Jon’s friend would share the same interests as Jon. Roger nevertheless found the distance between the Jon Marlow he had known and the life at Trennels described by Ginty somewhat disconcerting. The dance ended. He asked Ginty for a second dance. She asked him about his hobbies and he mentioned fishing.
“Oh, Dad likes sea-fishing, but I suppose you don’t get much of a chance.”
“Not as much chance as I’d like – but I mostly fish in rivers and tarns.”
“A small lake, in the Lake District – I don’t know whether they use the word elsewhere - too small to sail on but enough to fish in would be a description.”
“Oh – do you come from the Lake District? I’ve got a friend who lives in Keswick.”
“I’m not from the Lake District, but we went there on holiday a lot when we were kids. I suppose you could say my brother lives there – at least his wife and kids do. He’s on HMS Bravery* somewhere in the Atlantic at the moment, I suppose. Have you visited Keswick much then?”
“A couple of times – Monica - my friend was terribly badly injured in an accident a few years ago and so of course I went there for the Christmas holidays.”
“I’m sorry to hear that – I hope she recovered well?”
“Of yes,” said Ginty, “Pretty well, only she’s not quite as good at diving or swimming as she was – nor at tennis.”
Conversation lapsed into a brief silence that might have been uncomfortable, had they not been dancing.
“I haven’t seen much of Derwent Water – I’ve only been to Keswick once, in fact. Did you like it?”
It had been not long after the end of the war, when Nancy and Peggy and their babies were still living at Beckfoot and Bridget was still working at Low Farm. Mrs Dixon’s father had been taken ill, and Mrs Dixon had been sent for urgently. Roger had had just enough petrol to get them to Keswick and (probably) back on the Norton. It had been half-day closing in Keswick and he had wandered around the town in between wintery showers until it was time to take Mrs Dixon back. He had never known her be so quiet. Roger realised that he had forgotten whatever it was that Ginty had just said. Luckily the number was drawing to a close. Was this ball so formal that he should escort Ginty back to her mother? No, because Mrs Marlow was managing to keep her feet from under those of an awkward lieutenant very creditably, but there, talking to a middle-aged lady, was the Marlow girl who had walked him with him to the station. Roger still wished he could remember her name. He remembered it was something plain.
The middle-aged woman was one of the gushing sort. “Well it so nice to see you again, Ann, I haven’t seen you since you were ten, I think. And here’s Virginia all grown-up too. What a lovely dress, Virginia, is this the one made by the wonderful Doris your mother has been tell me all about? I dare say you don’t remember me, but I remember you very well of course…..”
Roger didn’t hear the rest, because as soon as he murmured “May have the pleasure?” Ann gave him a beaming smile and allowed herself to be danced off. They had quickstepped half way around the dance floor before it occurred to Roger that Ann might not remember him.
“I’m sorry, Ann,” he said, “I suppose I should have reintroduced myself. I would quite understand if you didn’t remember me, considering the circumstance the last time we met.”
“Of course I remember you, Wing Commander Walker.”
“I’m not that much older than you – I’d rather you called me Roger – unless you’d rather I called you Miss Marlow, of course. But then that would be your sister, whose first name I’m sorry to say I do forget.”
They passed Roger’s Mother, suffering under both left feet of another lieutenant with a determined smile.
“Although I do manage to remember she’s reading classics. I supposed she must have graduated this summer?” Roger continued.
“Karen is actually Mrs Dodd now, with three children.” Ann replied.
“Triplets?” Roger couldn’t help sounding surprised.
“Stepchildren.” Ann explained. “Their mother is dead.”
Roger knew he wasn’t the best at picking up nuances – all his sisters told him so regularly. He did get the impression that Ann was being rather determinedly positive.
“And I suppose you must have finished school a year ago? Or just this year? What are you planning to do?”
“Nursing. I’ve got a place at St. Thomas’s, but I don’t start until September.”
“My eldest sister is a nurse. She trained in London too. Have you decided on any particular branch of nursing when you qualify?”
Unlike Ginty, Ann didn’t have that indefinable air of being aware of her own beauty and wondering if you had noticed. Not that Ann herself wasn’t pretty enough in her own way. Roger found dancing with Ann more enjoyable than dancing with Ginty. It was rather like dancing with one of his sisters, or one of the Amazons, except that Roger thought Ann danced rather better.
HMS Bravery is, so far as I know, fictional. I do apologise if she actually exists.
It wasn’t as if she was sulking or being determined not to enjoy herself in a Lawrie-ish manner. Perhaps mother’s insistence that Peter and the twins be left to cope with the farm for the night had been rooted in some kind of guilt, but, unlike Ginty, Rowan seldom worried about what people thought of her. Rowan had come prepared to enjoy herself and prepared to dance. There would be quite enough opportunities for dancing; young men were scarcely in short supply here. Neither were middle aged ones, come to that, and Rowan found herself dancing with a succession of men closer to her father’s age than her own. Most of them asked about the farm. They were intelligent, interested questions. Unfortunately they were mostly the same questions. As a recipe for forgetting the farm for a time, the ball was falling rather flat. Rowan wondered again sourly if she was there for her own sake, or to assuage her parents’ conscience. It was unlikely that anything would happen in 36 hours that that Nicola could not cope with.
The dance floor was getting quite crowded now, and when the quickstep finished Captain Curtledge looked round as if he was about to escort her over to her mother. It seemed rather old fashioned, but then Captain Curtledge seemed older than her father. Ma was dancing. The captain was leading her courteously to the side of the room while the band made some adjustment in their dispositions. He glanced over her shoulder and nodded at someone behind her.
“Ah, here’s young Walker. You’ll have a much better time dancing with him than an old fogey like me. May I introduce you to him?”
“With pleasure.” It couldn’t possibly be him. The older brother just possibly. Assuming his older brother was still in the navy, of course.
But when she turned round, she saw it was him, with the same engaging grin. There was no reason in the world why he should remember her.
“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Miss Marlow before. Shall we dance the next one?”
The band started playing the next one more or less as Rowan spoke. This caused some confusion on the dance floor. It didn’t seem like a tune for a formal dance. Roger Walker grinned again and swept her off in a wild, fast polka. Rowan grinned back and set herself to showing that she could keep up any pace Roger cared to set. She caught a brief glimpse of apologetic yellow taffeta – Ann and her partner seemed to have collided with another couple - and whisked past a glimpse of peacock blue before the band changed smoothly into “Take the “A” train” and the dancers changed, more or less smoothly, to a foxtrot. The more cautious dancers returned to the floor gradually.
“Just checking we were awake.” Roger said, “And which do you prefer to be – Rowan or Miss Marlow?
“And am I to ask you about farming – or very much not ask you about it?”
“Well, everyone else has been asking about it.”
“I thought they might,” Roger conceded. “So what would you like to talk about?”
“Where you’ve been.” Rowan said promptly. “I’m surrounded by people who have been to all sorts of interesting places and they don’t talk about them; they all ask me what I think the future of British Agriculture should be.”
“They don’t want to admit that one bit of sea is very much like another and that they didn’t see much of the world bobbing up and down inside a big tin box.” said Roger with cheerful unfairness. “That’s the whole problem with the navy.”
This last had been clearly overheard by a lieutenant with a pompous expression who looked as if he might say something. Roger flashed an impudent smile at the man and steered them away. Rowan thought the lieutenant’s partner looked as though she was having a pretty poor time of it.
“Now there of course is where the RAF have an advantage. We get to see much more – and it’s not all sea.”
“But from a distance.” Rowan suggested.
“Not always,” Roger protested, and told her about the time he had spent stationed in Germany, and visiting his brother’s family in Malta.
“I suppose you could say that is partly due to the navy,” Roger admitted when Rowan pushed him on the point. “Partly – although if I worked in a bank or somewhere they might say I could take only a week at a time. I don’t know; I don’t work in a bank.”
“There are quite a few photographs of Ma and Pa in Malta – before the war, quite a few of them before Giles was born.” Rowan said thoughtfully and then asked, “What next? For you I mean?”
“Oxfordshire – RAF Benson to be precise.”
“That would be a good place for fishing, wouldn’t it?” Rowan asked him.
“Might be. Should be in fact, since Benson itself is on the Thames. It might be all private fishing rights and permits and so on though. Could still be OK , though, if they’re reasonable about day or season permits. And what about you, have you taken to fishing?”
Rowan shook her head slightly. “No, although anything I can do sitting down sounds like a good hobby now. Hunting occasionally is enough of an indulgence I suppose.”
And that led to horses and to Tessa the Afghan hound, and then to the hounds Roger had seen in Swallowdale and then to the Lake and so to sailing.
“I remember Jon had a boat – Surfrider. Sounded like an accident waiting to happen to me. What happened to her?”
“Gone” said Rowan, and then asked quickly, “and what about your other sister, the one you said lived in Norfolk. Does she sail too?”
“Oh yes.” Roger said. “She’s probably as good in a dinghy as John. The chap they rent their house from used to do a lot of dinghy racing with his daughters, but one of them died during the war, and the other moved away from the area and he couldn’t bear to either sell the boat or leave her entirely unused. Susan and Tom race a little in Flash. Hello, why has the band stopped playing?”
“It would appear,” said Rowan, glancing round, “To be suppertime.”
“So it is.” Roger agreed. “Look, if you meet my family, you won’t mention that I didn’t notice, will you? I’ve got a reputation to keep up.”
“Of being a hearty trencherman? No, I won’t give you away. I’ve something of a reputation for a hearty appetite myself.”
They found a little table with only two chairs, the rest having been commandeered by a larger group at the next table. They worked their way companionably through little vol au vents, slices of savoury sandwich gateau, potato salad, small portions of cold salmon and a couple of stuffed eggs, while Rowan explained why a canter was really not just a slow gallop and Roger explained how they had rigged sails on the sledges, the winter they were off school because of Nancy’s mumps.
Both of them were rather aware that they had danced more than the conventional two dances together. Not that people minded so much about that any more, but Rowan wasn’t surprised when Captain Walker approached, accompanied by the limp-looking former partner of the pompous lieutenant whom he quickly introduced to both Roger and Rowan as Miss Caroline Bowman. Rowan recognised the dress rather than the girl. Roger took the hint and asked Caroline for the next dance.
“Although, Rowan has been kind enough to give me the dance after that.” Roger caught her eye and she nodded readily enough. Ginty appeared with a perspiring sub-lieutenant in tow, introduced him to Rowan, and to Roger as an afterthought, and disappeared quickly, muttering something about the next dance being already promised. Rowan accepted the inevitable invitation from the sub-lieutenant; she felt sorry for the lad. Kid? He might be slightly younger than me, but he’s hardly the twins’ age.
Rowan felt her limited sympathy evaporating rapidly. However smitten the idiot was with Ginty he could at least make a better pretence of responding enthusiastically to her polite efforts at conversation, instead of trying to keep Gin in his sight the entire time. She thought “Hoop de do” a vile tune anyway. The dance came to an end eventually, and her partner scuttled away to see if he could have another dance with Ginty with almost discourteous haste. Rowan looked round to see Roger escorting Caroline to her mother and pausing for a few words with them both before looking round for her.
“It’s the ones that will say how they knew you as a small child and it seems like only yesterday and expecting you to remember the time they patted you on the head,” Roger remarked cheerful. “And of course all I remember is various sets of knees coming round for a tea-party in the drawing room – you know the balancing teacups sort of thing, not proper grub - and Mother letting us go up to the school room and play decently early. Only luckily this one turned out to be remembering John instead. Decent of you to come and rescue me.”
Roger seemed to require no answer to this. Having got at least part of the dancing portion of the party back on their feet, the band seemed to have decided on slower dances after supper now. Like having pass- the-parcel after a birthday tea, in case we’re sick with jumping, Rowan thought. She had always thought it a rather weedy custom followed by other people’s mothers, until Lawrie had been sick at the twins’ own party. And the next year after that the war had started properly, and there hadn’t been the paper to spare or enough food to disagree with Lawrie. And Rowan decided that “my foolish heart” wasn’t, after all, such a foolish song and that Roger Walker was pretty much the perfect height – not so tall he was talking to the top of her head, but tall enough that leaning her head on his shoulder was a possibility, if she ever let herself.
Supposing you get the chance. Rowan told herself firmly. Roger’s given no indication that he wants to see you again. He’s just being polite to Jon’s cousins. She didn’t see why she shouldn’t enjoy this evening though. Why should her sisters have all the wishful thinking?
They were talking less now, either of them saying something when it occurred to them, but content enough with the silences in between. Two slow dances, Rowan thought, and then the band would return to something livelier. She didn’t want them to.
Tennessee Waltz was coming to an endwhen Roger said, “Do you ever give yourself part of the day off? Would it be OK if I came to see you sometime? This week maybe? Or next if you’re frantically busy. I’m on leave, so anytime would suit me.”
“I’d….I’d like that very much,” Rowan said. “I’m going back home tomorrow and it might take me a day or two to sort out whatever mess Nicola and Peter have made between them. But after that, yes, I’d like to see you again. Only it’s quite a long way and…” She stopped abruptly. You want to see him again, don’t you? Why on earth point out the obstacles, idiot.
“Let me worry about the “only” and the “quite a long way” bit.” Roger said. “But do you object to riding pillion on a motorbike? And would you object to seeing Corfe castle again? I suppose it’s a case of again for you.”
“I’d like that very much.” said Rowan.
Chapter 4: The lower deck in discussion
“Dad was looking fairly fed up.” said Ginty. “But I don’t know whether that’s because he was fed up with dancing or because he kissed her.”
“Who kissed who?” Lawrie asked.
“Weren’t you listening?” said Peter, “This Roger Walker was kissing Rowan.”
“Not exactly kissing. But he kissed her.” Ginty said.
“Same difference.” said Lawrie cheerfully.
“Only on the cheek though. Well, would you actually be kissing someone right in front of our parents and hers?”
“Depend on the girl.” Peter grinned. “Lawrie would of course.”
“Not sober I wouldn’t.” Lawrie considered that her indiscretions at the Merrick’s last Twelfth Night party lent her a certain cachet.
“So what else then?” Peter had always relished parties and gossip as much as any of them, except perhaps Lawrie. “Who danced with Ann?”
“I don’t know any names.” Ginty said vaguely. “She seemed to be having a good enough time.”
“What happens then?” Lawrie asked.
“What happens then what?”
“This RAF bloke sweeps Rowan off her feet and goes and marries her. What happens to Trennels?” Lawrie thought she had made herself perfectly clear the first time, but was prepared to humour the rest of the lower deck.
“Maybe she’d stay here and just carry on.” Ginty suggested. “He might be posted abroad somewhere she couldn’t go anyway.”
“Ma went with Pa to Malta.” Lawrie pointed out. “Before Kay.”
“Before Giles, even, I think.” said Ginty.
“You mean Giles and Kay got to live aboard – not fair.” The protest was half-hearted.
“Honestly, Lawrie, they can’t have been old enough to remember much.” said Nicola.
“It isn’t as if Giles hasn’t seen a fair bit of Malta since.” said Peter. “But if I’ve got to have another brother-in-law hanging around the place, I’d rather it was Roger Walker than Edwin Dodd; from what I remember of him he didn’t throw his weight around and he wouldn’t be here much. I can’t see Pa wanting number 2 son-in-law hanging about the place when he’s left the navy.”
“Left the navy?” his sisters echoed in ragged chorus as if he had uttered some heresy.
It was Peter’s turn to offer a patient explanation.
“Because, if he isn’t promoted, which may not be all that likely, he’ll be expected to retire at 55, whether or not he’s got any ancestral acres to till. Which he has, so even less reason not to retire.”
“He isn’t 55 yet.” Nicola said.
“No, but it’s not all that many years off.”
Nicola couldn’t help doing a quick calculation. She and Lawrie would be finished at Kingscote by then. Not that it would make any difference for Lawrie, since she had the Prossor.”
“I don’t suppose Ro will mind waiting a bit.” said Lawrie cheerfully.
“She might you know.” said Nicola.
“Don’t see why. What else would she do anyway? I thought she liked outdoor stuff. She never complains anyway.” Lawrie said.
“Just because someone doesn’t complain all the time about every little thing doesn’t mean they don’t mind.” Nicola retorted with unaccustomed heat. “Why shouldn’t Rowan be happy if she wants?”
And Nicola clattered down the stairs of the old Shippen to who-knew-where.
“Well,” said Ginty, “I thought Nicola would be saying Father or Giles couldn’t possibly leave the navy.”
“Makes no sense for Giles to leave.” Peter said.
“Rather Roger than Edwin.” he added a minute or so later as Ginty still stood, irresolute in the middle of the space Peter considered his own.
“Yes.” said Ginty.
Unless he was going to arrive ridiculously early, Roger realises that he would have to wait for a while. He had filled up with petrol at the little garage between Westbridge and Colebridge and knew he was only a few miles from Trennels now. Once he got beyond the station at Westbridge there was far too much likelihood of running into one of Rowan’s sisters. He didn’t especially want anyone to realise how much trouble he had gone to not to be late. He rather suspected that Rowan, coolly competent, would be ready at exactly the time specified. It was no bad thing to get of the Norton and stretch.
He had been quite right about Rowan being ready already when he rode into the yard at Trennels. She was wearing a navy beret and had a jacket (serviceable waxed ) over her arm. It was somehow rather busy. Rowan was speaking to a grey haired man. Roger thought by her manner she was giving instructions. The younger sister he had danced with (Ginty was it?) and one who seemed younger still were doing equine things next to two loose boxes on the far side of the yard. Mrs Marlow was standing holding the reins of a horse, whose ears made it clear she did not much appreciate the arrival of the Norton. Roger switched off the engine as quickly as possible.
Mrs Marlow soothed the horse for another few second, then handed her reins to the grey haired man and came over to shake Roger’s hand saying the usual things about had he had a good journey and how pleasant to meet him again. She looked as much like Rowan as Mrs Blackett did like Nancy.
Rowan came over and offered her hand too. We that made it quite clear she didn’t expect him to kiss her, anyway.
“Perhaps you would like a cup of coffee before you set off?” Mrs Marlow suggested.
Mrs Marlow was so obviously dressed to go riding that Roger didn’t think he was being discourteous when he asked, “Thank you, but it seem more sensible to make the most of the day while the weather is so fine. That’s if Rowan prefers it?”
“I’m quite ready to go now.” Rowan said, shrugging herself into her jacket. “You mentioned we might go to Corfe Castle on your motorbike, so I thought jodhpurs would be most suitable.”
“Quite right.” Roger said.
“Mrs Herbert was want to know if you’d like some sandwiches if you were going to have a picnic.” Mrs Marlow said.
“I thought Rowan might like to have lunch in Swanage, or somewhere like that, rather than a picnic.” Roger explained.
“I’d like that.” said Rowan.
You’d probably better put these
“I’m not quite sure,” said Roger, “what this horse will think when I start the engine.”
The grey haired man came forward and led the brown mare over to other horses.
Roger said to Rowan, “Look this will probably sound a bit odd, but the closer to me you sit, the better balanced we will be. It’s always a bit harder with someone who doesn’t ride themselves. It’s best not to try to me too helpful and try to anticipate which way I’m going to lean or how much. And we shan’t be able to talk much. Do you still want to go to Corfe Castle first?”
Rowan nodded and settled herself on the bike with the minimum of fuss. Then they were off.
Corfe Castle was every bit as dramatic and picturesque as Roger had surmised from the guide book he had managed to borrow from his parents’ neighbours.
“I was rather expecting it to be a disappointment. “ Rowan admitted. “You know how it is when you see something when you’re small and don’t see it again for ages. I vaguely remember coming here before the war when the twins were babies – well, very small anyway.”
“I had thought – with living so near…. I suppose you’ve not had much time off.”
“Nicola’s come here. She’s the one who is really into history enough to be bothered with all the changes and sitting at Colebridge junction for an hour. Peter used to be keen on the civil war at when he was a kid but not now.”
“It looks properly defensible. Against bows and arrows and so on.”
“Muskets too. Brave Dame Mary held out for quite a bit. Twice I think, but I can’t remember the details.”
“Brave Dame Mary?”
“Her husband was a royalist. Sir John Someone – although they all seem to be Sir John Someone so that doesn’t help you much. Anyway, he was a royalist and was away fighting – I presume – and she defended the castle for weeks and weeks against the Parliamentary army and it only fell because someone in the garrison betrayed them. But I don’t know how. It sounds rather similar to other stories I’ve heard.”
“It doesn’t sound that improbable.” Roger said, rather relieved that he knew which civil war they were talking about now without having had to ask. “Just something a lot of people did because they had to. Maybe not exactly a lot, but a fair few.”
“Anyway, I think it must have done its other job well too.” Rowan said, stopping look at the castle appraisingly once more.
“Other job? Besides being a castle? Sitting around giving artists something to paint?”
Rowan laughed. “That too, I’m quite sure. I meant impressing people. Look how much power we’ve got sort of thing.”
“Probably more effective than square-bashing.” Roger agreed, “Although I suppose in the middle ages it would be square-clanking with all that armour.”
“I expect only the knights would have been able to afford much in the way of plate armour.” Rowan pointed out, grinning. She took off her beret, shook loose her curls, and shoved the beret in the pocket of her jacket, already slung over her arm. The day was getting hotter. They continued up the hill to the ruins.
“Most of it, I can work out.” said Roger as they descended again having seen as much as they wanted of the view and ruins, “See how it might have worked at least. It’s the small ridges in the ground that I don’t understand. They’re much too small to be any use, so I suppose they must be a result of something else that was done when this was built.”
“Ridges?” Rowan queried. He pointed.
“Oh that – that’s perfectly ordinary soil creep. It happens on lots of steep hills with short turf. It’s natural enough, though it does look a bit strange. There’s quite a bit of it in some places at Trennels.
“Where would you like to have lunch? We could see what the pub here does. They probably get enough visitors wanting lunch that the landlady won’t look at you as though you’ve shot her pet cat if we ask for so much as bread and cheese. Although I wanted to treat you to rather more than bread and cheese. Or we could go into Swanage and set what we can find there.”
“Could we go into Swanage and see if there’s a proper fish and chip place?” Rowan asked. “Not if you don’t like fish and chips of course.”
“Yes, I suppose the charms of quaint Dorset village streets complete with inns might pall after a bit. Swanage it is.”
Swannage obliged with a fish-and-chip shop that had a small café attached.
“Not that I would have minded eating them out of a newspaper on a bench.” Rowan remarked. “It isn’t as if I even have a uniform any more.”
“School uniform. Eating in uniform on the street is a hideous crime.” Rowan shrugged slightly.
“Must have been something of shock for them. I mean there you are, lined up to be Games Captain or whatever and then you just don’t come back next term.”
Rowan flushed a little. “Conceited little piece of work wasn’t I? Sorry about that.”
Roger grinned at her. “Call it confident. That’s what I do. Anyway, if you can run a farm, a few hockey teams would be a piece of cake.”
Rowan shrugged slightly. “Perhaps I wouldn’t be at that. Keith, that’s the headmistress, had ideas about character forming. She might just as easily made sure I didn’t get it because everyone thought I was the obvious one for the job.”
“Chucking the best bit of school into to save your brother and father’s careers must be showing enough character for even a storybook, surely.”
Rowan whose eyes had been on her plate for the last few exchanges, glanced up.
“Ann’s been talking.” It was statement, not a question.
“Not much, and only what I asked her, really. You have to talk about something when you’re dancing with a girl, after all. And I knew from Jon that Trennels was entailed and had been ancestral acres for donkey’s ages and so on.”
Rowan nodded, once.
“I’m not so sure what the staff made of it. One or two poisonous minds in the Upper Fifth jumped to the conclusion they wanted to believe, so I made rather a point of collecting the others at half term and giving people as much chance to see my nice, thin waist as possible.”
“Well it is a rather nice waist, but I thought you won’t like me to say…..Oh, I see. Rather rotten for you.”
“More rotten for Ann really. Just as well no-one said anything in front of Nick, so far as I know. Nick’s apt to get fiercely loyal about things.”
“Good for her. She sounds rather like my sister, Titty.”
They took a turn along the front at Swannage, and then rode to Studland and walked along the beach there for half a mile or so, carrying their socks and boots. The tide was on its way out and they found sticks in the driftwood and drew on the sand – aeroplanes (“No, that’s a mosquito, that one there is a spit, the one you just trod on.”) and horses and dinghies in full sail and… “Well, what is it?” Rowan demanded. “A plough?” Roger hazarded. “A harrow.” She said triumphantly.
They paddled a bit and then started to walk back in search of ices.
“Although a cup of tea would do nicely if nowhere sells ices.” Rowan said.
By mutual agreement, they moved up the beach to the dry sand to walk their feet dry, when Rowan, admiring Old Harry Rocks nearly stepped on a glass bottle. Roger grabbed her hand to pull her to one side and was rather please to find Rowan seemed to have no inclination to draw her hand away.
“When may I see you again?” Roger asked Rowan, when they stood once more in the yard at Trennels. “Would Sunday be any good for you?”
“There are still some things I must do. But … yes… I’d like to see you on Sunday. I enjoyed today very much. Thank you.”
She didn’t obviously tilt her cheek for a kiss, but somehow left him in no doubt that a kiss would be acceptable. He kissed her on the cheek and then, soft and briefly on the lips. He thought he had surprised her again but only very briefly.
“I’ll see you on Sunday then.” And she flashed him a smile, kiss him as briefly as he had kissed her and went into the house.
He became aware that he was looking after her with a daft smile on his face, but didn’t care. Rowan didn’t turn round.
Chapter 6: letters
Chapter 6 Letters
Dorothea acknowledged herself spoilt. If she hadn’t already wandered into the kitchen by eleven o’clock, unable to concentrate on her work and looking for a few minutes distraction, Jeanie would bring her a cup of tea on a tray, with her post tucked tidily under the edge of the saucer. Today however, it was Ian who pushed open the door with the tray in his hands, eager himself for a break for the Ministry of Agriculture forms, and they had squeezed another half cup each from the pot before Dorothea even thought of opening her letters.
Roger seldom wrote, so she opened his letter first.
“Oh,” she said, showing Ian the letter. It was addressed to them both. “Roger’s not coming to visit during this leave after all.”
“He thinks he was over-optimist thinking he could fit everything in this leave.” Ian remarked after glance though the first paragraph. “I should say has a point. It is not such a short journey, even from your friends by the Lake. If he is stationed in Oxfordshire though, there will be other occasions. When your civil war book is published, we could stop of for a few days in Oxford, if you like, on our way back from London. It won’y be so easy to do something like that in a year’s time.”
They smiled at each other.
“Yes,” said Dorothea, “I’d like that.”
“Not “not coming at all”.” Titty explained to her husband over breakfast on the second day the cottage next to the Lake was their own.
Little Edward listened anxiously to his parents. Rosie had abandoned the use of her pusher and spoon, but was still determinedly feeding herself scrambled eggs with her hands, having resisted all attempts to help her.
“Just not coming for as long. Up by train one day, staying a day and back to the South the day after that. Look, Edward, Uncle Roger has sent a post card with a picture of a castle. “
Ginty Marlow to Monica Eliot
I think you must be right about being asked for more dances if you’ve been asked already. Luckily, I got asked for very nearly the first, by an old friend of my cousin’s – although I should think he’d be quite a bit younger than Jon - and didn’t sit out once after that. And before you read anything into that, he had 2 dances with me, 2 with Ann and danced pretty much the rest of the night with Rowan. Even mother, who loves dancing, was ready to go ages before she managed to catch Rowan’s eye…..
Nancy Walker to John Walker
….. Roger came on the Tuesday and went back on the Thursday – much to the girls’ indignation. I’m quite sure there’s nothing the matter with your parents. (Quite the opposite, but Titty pointed out to me rather firmly that that’s their news to tell – although Roger told us. Anyway, I’m sure you will have heard from them by the time this letter reaches you.)
Titty and I both suspect that the reason Roger is so keen to get back to the South has a name – but we don’t know what her name is. Anyway, good luck to them – and I hope she knows what she’s letting herself in for.
Julia is already very excited about starting school. Robert is still just pulling himself up, wobbling, tries to take a step and falls over, but he does it much more often. Seeing Rosie toddling has probably helped. He seems quite determined to walk as well as Rosie.
Dick and Titty’s cottage has loads of stuff that needs doing – a proper bathroom and somewhere to at least moor Scarab, most importantly. There were quite a few empty old tea-chests left there, to the delight of the children who are busy building a castle in the garden.
Rowan had suspected that her sisters would repeat their “hanging about the yard performance” from Roger’s previous visit. She needn’t have worried. Nicola and Peter scurried off to get out of “go to church clothes” as soon as possible. Mum firmly sent Lawrie to lay the table. Ginty was sent to pick mint and make the mint sauce.
“At least I can trust you to recognise mint.” Mum had said to Ginty. The last joint of lamb they had had tasted rather peculiar with the sage sauce Lawrie had made. Mrs Bertie’s feelings had been somewhat hurt.
“But didn’t you notice it smelt different?” Mum had said. Lawrie had shaken her head.
So Rowan had the yard more or less to herself, give or take the odd hen, when Roger arrived.
“You look very nice in that frock.” he said, by way of greeting and kissed her. Rowan was pleased that she had worn her Doris-made new summer cotton. She felt suddenly and foolishly breathless and was sure she had turned a less-than-composed shade of pink. If she had, Roger appeared not to notice.
“Mrs Bertie’s killed the fatted calf.” Rowan told Roger cheerfully as he dismounted from his motorcycle. “Not entirely for you, I must confess. Ann’s off to start her nursing course tomorrow.”
“I’d forgotten about them starting at funny times.” Roger said.
Chatting they wandered over to say hello to Prisca and the other horses. Rowan wondered if Roger was feeling the same slight air of unreality that she was feeling.
Rowan interrupted herself to ask “Roger, have you ever ridden?”
“No. Mother was very keen on it before she met Dad, and Bridget was having riding lessons before the war. We all sailed instead. Except I suppose Bridget had both, really.”
“Prisca wouldn’t mind if you wanted to try it – after lunch.”
“At least you know to mount from the left.” Rowan said, when Roger was perched, feeling slightly more uncertain than he would care to admit, especially to Rowan, in Prisca’s saddle.
“Same as for a bike.” he said.
“Motor bikes don’t get confused if the rider doesn’t do what they expect.” Rowan said. “Those stirrups could do with lengthening. No, don’t dismount; you can do it yourself from where you are. The thing is to do it mostly by feel.”
“How do I hold the reins?” Roger asked when he had fumbled around with buckles and straps until his legs were positioned satisfactorily even to Rowan’s critical eyes.
“Like this.” Rowan said showing him. “Or like this. I’ll be leading her though, so you’re only holding them because she’s used to them being held. The thing is to keep your hands down low – yes, that’s about right. If you really must grab hold of something, make it the front of the saddle. You’ve already got your elbows in – that’s right. Heels down a bit though.”
Prisca walked forward.
“Whoa.” said Rowan quietly.
“What did I do to cause that?” Roger asked, “Or did she just get tired of waiting?”
“You moved your legs back slightly. Some horses might get impatient, but Prisca’s very well mannered. Ready?”
“Yes. Sorry about that, Prisca.”
Prisca twitched her ears back slightly at Roger’s voice and then pricked the forwards again.
“Walk on.” Rowan said, and Prisca did.
The whole afternoon, when Rowan thought of it afterwards, seemed curiously like a daydream, but it was all real enough. They wandered through hedge-parsley lined tracks, along the meadowsweet-scented edges of the harvested hay fields, tracked for a hundred yard or so by a curious pied wagtail. The hay-scent hung in the air with the smell of warm leather and hot horse. Rowan’s dreams never had scents, or textures with them
“Not that I can really identify birds properly. But Dick’s so keen on it that some of it has rubbed off. And the way it’s wagging its tail is a bit of a giveaway.” Roger said. “I suppose I’ll have to brush up on birds a bit – I can’t have my nephews outdoing me quite as young as they are!”
Prisca was happy enough to amble along at a walk on this hot afternoon. She was happy enough to graze for a little in the lush vegetation the edge of the shade from one of the oaks embedded in the hedge. It was hot enough for sitting in the shade to seem like a good idea. They chatted a little, their remarks gradually becoming more widely spaced, until they petered out into a silence that was not awkward, but contained too much tension to be peaceful.
“Penny for them.” said Rowan, and could immediately have kicked herself for coming out with such a commonplace question.
It turned out not to be the wrong thing to say after all. Roger looked up from the rye-grass stalk he had been fiddling with and straight into her eyes.
“I was wondering if you would mind if I kissed you.”
“I think,” she felt ridiculously nervous, “I’d think that very much.”
It was only Prisca whickering a greeting to Catkin that alerted them to Ginty’s approach in time to appear dignified and unconcerned when Catkin trotted briskly into the meadow. Rowan felt intensely relieved that Ginty always preferred to ride alone.
Lawrie who greeted them in the yard on their return with the news that Something Awful had happened to the milking machines and that Peter was trying to Sort It Out.
“I’ll see to Prisca.” Lawrie said, very definitely, and led her over to her loose box.
“I’d better go and help Peter, I’m afraid.” said Rowan. “He’s very good with that sort of thing usually, but I still should see what’s up.”
“I’ll give you a hand.” said Roger cheerfully.
The entire herd, 43 dairy shorthorns, were in place, shifting their weight from one leg to another and watching carefully as Ted Colthard went down the two lines. No milking was occurring. Only the lower half of Peter was visible, standing on a rickety old chair, perhaps from the old Shippen.
“Mice” Peter announced, “have nibbled the wire.”
“Could they do that without frying themselves?” Rowan asked.
“One did.” Peter flicked the unfortunate rodent from some unseen ledge onto the dairy floor.
“So it did.” Rowan said. “Can you fix it? Or shall we start milking by hand?”
“We’ll have to do without the extension lead.” Peter said. “But I should have it fixed in another 10 minutes or so. Could someone pass me the smaller pliers?”
Roger passed up the smallest pair he could find in the open toolbox.
“Thanks.” said Peter, followed by “Damn!” as a larger pair fell from some unseen ledge, to be fielded by Roger before they crashed into the toolbox. Peter stooped to catch them, shifted his weight on the chair to do so and seemingly overbalanced, crashing into his sister who barely managed to keep her own feet, and staggered into Roger whilst Peter sat down rather heavily.
There was a moment’s silence. Peter picked up the severed chair leg, light with rot or worm.
“By God, I’ve lost its leg.” he said.
“By God, sir, so you have.” Roger replied.
And Rowan could not have said whether her absurd happiness was due Roger’s arm, still around her waist, or to his ready reply to her brother’s quotation.
This is a bit awkward but here goes.
Would you like to come to Portsmouth to visit my parents? (And in that case, would sometime this week suit you?)
I had, of course, intended to fascinate you more thoroughly with my charming and witty conversation before my family revealed what an idiot I really am, so I’m taking a bit of a risk here. The thing is that Father has been promoted, and that Rear-Admiral Walker has been duly dispatched to foreign parts – in this case the Caribbean. Or rather he will be soon, and Mother is going with him nearly as soon. So, if you don’t meet each other now, it may not happen for a number of years – and I would rather like you to meet them.
I can promise you they are nearly as non-embarrassing as one’s own parents can ever be, if that is any inducement.
I hope you don’t think this is too much of a cheek, and whether you can come to Portsmouth or not, I hope I’ll see you soon. A week is a ridiculously long time.
I’ll telephone on Monday evening, shall I?
He didn’t think she would notice that the gap between the “I” and “l” was rather long, as if they had started as two separate words.
“I’m just going to the post.” Roger stuck his head around door to the sitting room, where his mother was kneeling on the carpet; sorting books into three piles after his father had pulled them from the bookcase and dusted them. “Is there anything you want posting?”
“There’s a letter to Susan on the mantelpiece with John’s card. You did remember to sign the card didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, at least, I think so. Is it still open?”
“Please could I borrow your pen, Father?”
A few minutes later, the front door slammed after Roger.
Mary sat back on her heels and smiled up at her husband who was perilously perched on one of the dining room chairs.
“You know, I think he’s taking this girl rather seriously.”
Ted grinned. “I wonder if she has any idea what she’s letting herself in for.”
“Ted, it’s not that bad! He’s a lot more responsible than he lets on.”
“Some of the time anyway.” Ted got down from the chair.
“Well, I’ve managed to put up with you all these years. I’m sure this Rowan Marlow can manage Roger if she wants.”
Ted put out both hands to help Mary to her feet.
“I’m very glad you’re can come with me.”
He had been saying the same thing, more or less, at least once a day for more than a week. Mary didn’t mind how often she heard it.
How are you?
You mentioned that the time between hay and harvest was less busy. How would you feel about coming to Oxford for the day? It doesn’t look to be too bad a journey by the train, and I thought a day in Oxford might be more of a change for you than surveying fields full of other people’s pigs. Would this coming Saturday be alright for you?
Benson is OK. Quite good fun really. Still flying Mosquitoes and doing a certain amount of instructing, which I find I don’t mind as much as thought I might, although it’s not my favourite part of the job.
I’ll telephone tomorrow to find out you can come to Oxford on Saturday, or if we need to make another plan.
See you soon, I hope,
Roger was waiting to meet her on the platform, wrapping one arm around her waist and kissing her as soon as she had stepped out of the way of the other alighting passengers
“What would you like to do first?” He asked her. “A cup of coffee?”
“Come on then. I passed a place that looked promising on the way here. I should think it will be open by now.”
It was indeed, and they had coffee and fruitcake.
“What would you like to do now?” Roger asked her after he had paid the bill. “Sightseeing? The shops?”
“Wouldn’t that bore you?”
“I’ve been round Cambridge when Dick was there; not Oxford though. And I’m quite well trained in shopping. I do have three sisters. You couldn’t possibly spend longer in a book shop than Titty – or look at more different versions of a thing than Susan before she makes up her mind.”
“Maybe a bit of both.” said Rowan, and they wandered further along the High looking into shop windows that caught their fancy, deciding to give the botanical gardens a miss and ducking into any colleges which looked interesting for a quick look around.
“I can see the attraction of university life.” Roger admitted as they made a dignified but brisk exit from the main quad of Queen’s College, having decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
“We did think it probably wasn’t open.” Rowan said.
“And there’s no point courting trouble we don’t have to.” Roger agreed. “And a hat like that on a day like this is bound to put any chap in an unfortunate mood.”
“Was it that funny?” he asked a few moments later, as Rowan still hadn’t succeeded in stifling her chuckles.
“Just the phrase unfortunate mood.” she said. “Do you regret it? Joining the RAF instead of going to university?”
“Who says I’d have got in?” Roger said, “Actually, the Physics master was rather keen on the idea of me having a bash at a schol. and after I’d visited Dick at Cambridge I thought I might enjoy three years of something like that – not that Dick got half the fun out of it that he could have. I still hadn’t made up my mind about applying when it was made up for me. Anyway, the blighter always was an optimist although he liked to pretend otherwise. The physics master I mean, not Dick. What about you? Would you have thought of it – if you hadn’t had your mind made up for you?”
“I thought I was in two minds about it. I mean I was doing OK at school, and I quite like learning things, and I would have enjoyed the societies and things, and the sports. But I didn’t have any definite plans, so I wondered if it was justified. And then when Karen chucked it in I realised I minded dreadfully, only by then it was far too late to say so, and there were other things I minded too, more at the time.”
“I’m sorry.” said Roger squeezing her hand gently. “Poor choice of a place to meet then?”
“Still a good choice.” said Rowan returning the squeeze as they wandered down to Magdalen Bridge.
“Would you if you could? Do a degree, I mean.”
“I haven’t even done my Highers,” Rowan pointed out,” so there’s a fat chance of that. No, not unless it was a definite step to something else. Just doing a degree for the sake of it now, no. The right time has gone. Would you?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Roger replied cheerfully. “Flying every day. Seeing a beautiful girl every weekend. What more could I want? Except seeing the beautiful girl during the week too. You do blush rather nicely – I didn’t think I could make you blush.”
Despite herself Rowan laughed as they turned and went up the gentle curve of the High again.
They threaded their way north, past the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library until they reached the junction of Broad Street and Holywell Street, then they turned right and left again into a little alleyway called Dogge Street, too narrow for any vehicle but a bicycle.
“One of the chaps at Benson told me there was a good place to eat along here.” Roger explained to Rowan.
There was indeed, and both of them enjoyed the savoury crepes and had ice-cream for pudding in the tiny, higgledy –piggledy connected rooms that made up the café.
Rowan protested when Roger paid the bill again although she did wait until they were outside in the alleyway .
“I ought to pay my share – or I wish you would let me treat you sometimes.”
“Don’t worry about it – I rather like treating you. And I don’t imagine Jon left very much apart from the farm – about the only thing that he wasn’t daft enough to invest in was a haggis farm.”
“Yes.” Rowan replied.
That’s me told. Roger thought.
Aloud he said “Do you want to go to Blackwells, since we are so near?”
They spent a pleasant half hour in Blackwells and emerged with the latest Harriet Vane, neat wrapped and carried by Roger.
“It seems extravagant not to wait for the cheap edition for a whodunit.” Rowan remarked.
“It depends if you reread them. I’ll admit I mostly don’t, but then I read Susan’s copy when I go to stay with her. Anyway, the only time I met her I liked her. She laughed at my jokes.”
“Don’t people usually?”
“It matters more when you’re the best man and the jokes are in the speech.”
“I can see that it might.”
They wandered north a little and then back towards the centre of the city before having milkshakes and doughnuts at an American style café.
“May I see you next week end?” Roger asked.
“We’ll have started the wheat harvest by then,” Rowan said, “so I really can’t take another day off.”
“If I ride down to you?”
“I’ll still be working.”
“Could you use another pair of hands?”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Of course I don’t. It probably seems more tedious for you because you do it all the time. I will work properly and not mess about, honestly.”
“Which ever day suits you then. And yes, I shall be glad of an extra pair of hands.”
Holding hands and grinning at each other across the table didn’t seem such a daft thing to do after all.
Roger Walker thought Captain Geoffrey Marlow, RN’s behaviour very puzzling. Admittedly Roger hadn’t done more than shake hands with the chap, and it wasn’t as if Roger knew anything about being a cousin even, let alone being a husband or a father. Something seemed wrong, though, about the sacrifice that Rowan was making. Roger could not imagine for a minute his father letting on Susan missing the last year or so of school to run a farm so that he could continue with his naval career. Not in peace time. Nor could he imagine John letting Jane make that sort of sacrifice. He couldn’t imagine Nancy letting that happen either – although he could imagine the day-to-day chaos and general excitement of a farm run by Nancy.
And surely Captain Marlow must have realised that there was a fair chance of inheriting Trennels? A chance remark by Mrs Herbert had shown Roger that she at least had realised that Jon was not the marrying sort. But then there had been the correspondence with Bridget …
In the ordinary way of things, Captain Marlow couldn’t have expected to outlive Jon, who was a decade younger. Perhaps Roger was being harsh. Rowan’s older brother couldn’t have expected to inherit Trennels until he was in his fifties himself and presumably retired from the navy. It was still unfair on Rowan.
“I suppose if father had given up the navy, we’d have been taken away from Kingscote and gone to the local school.” Ann had said as they danced. Rowan was sacrificing herself for her younger siblings and, however little she made of it, one at least of them had realised it. Roger unwisely grinned with something very like pride and inhaled a fly or two, even at the Norton’s currently comparatively modest speed. But Ann had mentioned the local Grammar school, where one of Rowan’s step nieces, or whatever they should be called, went. Roger guessed all the Marlows would be bright enough to pass the eleven plus. Rowan so obviously was, and Jon certainly had been. It was amazing really that Jon had been so stupid about putting money into other people’s schemes, certainly after the first time. Stupid enough to let on what had happened too, surely making him a target for every other idiot who thought he had a good idea.
Roger had arrived and dismounted before the realisation hit him, just as he flicked the side stand out. Jon wasn’t stupid, not in the slightest, so anything Jon had done, and done repeatedly was not stupid either. And it did explained – only too well, to anybody – why money would be disappearing, if Jon were being, for example, blackmailed.
Roger’s stomach clenched as a sickening thought struck him. He took a deep breath and examined the thought carefully.
No, Jon’s fatal accident, misadventure – call it what he would- had been just that. There were a thousand and one ways – well, at least three that Roger could think of, off-hand - that Jon could have done that particular deed . Besides, whoever had been doing the blackmailing, if that is really what was happening, had been doing it for years. Whoever it was therefore presumably not the type to kill off the goose that laid golden eggs.
But why hadn’t Jon said something? To Roger himself, if to no-one else. There had been some things that Roger had told himself he should check over on his return. He walked into the office without conscious thought and started searching though a pile of paperwork without really seeing it.
Jon probably hadn’t said anything for the exactly the same reasons that he had never said anything directly to Roger about being “not the marrying kind”. It wasn’t Roger’s business anyway; perhaps Jon thought Roger would judge him harshly and, most probably of all, Jon would judge himself harshly for dragging Roger into his problems. It wasn’t as if Roger had any idea about how exactly you got rid of blackmailers. He was pretty sure Nancy could have come up with a plan or two however. There was simply nothing to be done now.
Damn, he hadn’t switched off the petrol feed on the Norton.
Nicola Marlow to Giles Marlow
…. so Roger did come and help with the harvest one day and worked pretty hard. Mostly stooking. Rowan’s got Mr Brown and the thresher booked for Thursday of next week and says she’s certain to be ready by then…..
Susan Dudgeon to Peggy Blackett
… and we saw Mother off from Southampton. Young Bill was wildly excited at seeing the sea, but Harry cried, I’m afraid. I wonder whether they will remember her when she comes back. Edward and Rosie are growing at a great pace – you will really see a difference in them – or rather you will have seen it by now…
Nancy Walker to John Walker
….So Dick and Titty are back from seeing your Mother off. Jane and Julia are still very indignant that I would let them go with Titty, but I felt Titty would have enough to cope with her own two, especially if one or both of them were going to be ill too. (And a stomach upset is the last thing Mary needs at the moment.) Robert is fine now which, Julia asserts three times an hour, means that we SHOULD HAVE GONE. Dick and the builder are busily drawing plans….
Rowan Marlow to Captain Geoffrey Marlow
… The self-binder still functions perfectly adequately, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest changing it earlier than we have to, or just because others are, but it is entirely possible that at some point Mr Brown will decide to retire, and if enough neighbours switch over to combines – which I am quite sure they will – then we will have to do something about threshing, winnowing etc, and a combine harvester seem the best way to go at that point. I suspect we’ve got a year or two yet, but Mr Brown is 63. (I know because Fob asked him; luckily he’s not the sort to take offence.) He could be drawing his old age pension in two years’ time. A combine would be a sizable investment, of course, which is why I thought I’d better let you know about it as soon as possible. ….
Roger Walker to Rowan Marlow
…..I quite understand about the not being able to get away just now. I’ll ride down on Saturday afternoon if that’s alright with you.
With lots of love, Roger
Rowan Marlow to Roger Walker
…..Mum says would you have to get back on Saturday as well, or would you like to stay until Sunday? Ginty has gone to stay in Keswick with Monica for a week, so you could have her room or Ann’s. I’d love it if you could stay. (No one will try to make you come to church, in case that worries you. Mum likes us to go sometimes in case of hurting the vicar’s feelings, but only Ann is really keen. I suspect that’s the cause of her rather irritating tendency to want to confess everything! I’m not too sure one way or the other, to be honest. I mean about the whole faith thing. Ann’s confessional tendencies are all too obvious.) And if you can stay both days, should you mind coming to the gymkhana to watch Prisca and me making fools of ourselves in the open jumping? We needn’t stay for the whole thing if you don’t want. There are always sausage rolls, and they are particularly good, if that’s any inducement.
Anyway, yes, please do come at the weekend whether it’s one day or (I hope) two.
With love, Rowan
Julia Walker to John Walker
Dear Dady I ma a biggirl and Giong to scool love form JuLia
Titty Callum to Dorothea “McGinty”
…So Edward is quite convinced it is NOT FAIR that he can’t start school yet. Dick explained that if he did start school it would have to be in Leeds not Rio with Jane and Julia, which made Ed pause for a bit. I’m quite sure we haven’t heard the last of it. We’d love you both to come and see the cottage before Dick has to go back to Leeds.
Dorothea to Titty Callum
..yes please, we would love to come and visit. The civil war book is coming out on the 15th, so there will be a party for smiling at reviewers – not just for my book, of course, but my publisher has 3 of us all the same position and genre. If we visited for a couple of days on the way to up London, would that be OK? (Ian says it should definitely be down to London.) We were going to visit Oxford on the way back. I’d like to show Shrewsbury to Ian– I know it’s not a mediaeval gem of college architecture or anything, but I liked it. We’ve arranged to meet Roger for a meal – at least I think it’s arranged. He seemed rather vague about it.
Nancy Walker to Peggy Blackett
…stayed for three days. Dorothea was looking well, but huge considering how long it is until the baby is due. She’s got beyond the throwing up stage – not that she ever had it that badly, she says. It didn’t stop Cook from making tons of extra ginger cake with extra ginger, only a quarter of which got eaten during the visit. The children are completely overwhelmed by the sheer gingery-ness of it. Jane bailed out after a mouthful and Julia took one look at Jane’s face and wouldn’t even try it. Dorothea is tactfulness personified, of course, but I’m sure that at least one of the two cakes Cook gave her to take away will end up as Roger’s. He won’t let a little thing like too much ginger stop him from enjoying them either. Ian and Dorothea took Scarab across to see the Dixons. Dot said Mr Dixon was quite happy to have Ian pick his brains about sheep farming, and she hasn’t seen him talk so much to anyone except Dick.
Nicola Marlow to Rowan Marlow
…actually Monica seems to be making quite a decent fist of head-girling so far, and Ginty doesn’t seem to mind too much about not being a prefect. Not that anyone could expect that to happen all things considered…
Nicola Marlow to Patrick Merrick
…quite a long letter from Ann to all three of us. She seems to be really in her element in nursing. ….
That first time that Roger had stayed overnight at Trennels, Rowan had had mixed feelings when he offered to accompany her on her evening rounds. She knew that he intended to make use of the time away from her mother and Lawrie’s company for kissing and cuddling purposes, an idea that Rowan was pleased to find she wholeheartedly endorsed. Rowan knew herself to be undemonstrative, and had sometimes vaguely wonder if this trait, highly regarded in her family and by all but the Unity Logans of the school world might turn out to be somewhat inconvenient in a romantic context. She had been rather surprised to discover that she wasn’t as undemonstrative as she had thought.
But the evening rounds had taken on various layers of significance for Rowan. At first they had been the time she had learned most from Mr Tranter, who had his own philosophy of how that job should be done and people managed, and had passed it on to Rowan in snippets. With his sudden illness and Karen’s bombshell, Rowan had continued the rounds. The spirit that had kept her going then was a kind of personal very well then, alone; that feeling had been more defiance than hope. She had taken a bitter pride in doing her duty to the absolute limit of her competence.
Things were a little easier now. She had, somehow, more or less forgiven Karen – or perhaps her anger had simply burned itself out. The twins were taking school cert. this year; Ginty was taking Highers. It was, Rowan reminded herself, more like half-way there than nearly there.
Roger had not sought to distract her at all. Oh, there was kissing and cuddling alright, and very nice too, but when she was looking and checking, she was looking and checking, and Roger waited patiently for however long each task needed. It didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest that she was wholly focussed on the task in hand.
This time it was darker outside. Prisca had come to the door of her loose box for a bit of extra fuss and the possibility of a peppermint from Roger. Rowan joined them, stroking Prisca’s nose absentmindedly.
“Anymore to be done?” Roger asked.
“No, we can go in now.”
And they went in and sat at the kitchen table, because Mrs Bertie had gone home, and drank tea and chatted until in a pause, Roger reached out his hands across the table to hold both of hers and said, “You do realise I love you, don’t you? You do know it?”
And telling him that she loved him too was so obviously the right response that Rowan suddenly found she could not say it. How could he then believe her when she said it again? How could he believe her if she said it now? She couldn’t leave him to the prospective 3-in-the-morning misery of wondering if she had meant it, or only said it to reciprocate. She had to say something and it had to be the right thing. Rowan looked up from their entwined hands into Roger’s gaze. She could not have said if she had made the first move or if he had gently pulled her to her feet and around the table. It didn’t matter that Rowan didn’t know what to say, because after all, you could not kiss and talk at the same time.
Rather to Roger’s surprise, Rowan wasn’t in the yard to meet him. Once he had switched off the engine and the petrol feed, Roger wandered over to the horses.
“I don’t suppose you know where Rowan is?” he asked Prisca, who wiffled her muzzle over his face in a friendly fashion. Chocobar wasn’t there, so Roger assumed Mrs Marlow was out riding. Ginty’s horse (Acorn was it? Something like that.) glanced across at him but, satisfied that Pricsa wasn’t unfairly receiving any treats that should by rights be his, Ginty’s horse withdrew his head into his loose box.
Roger went over to the back door into the scullery, hesitated for a minute and knocked. He could hear the radio playing but no voice answered. He opened to door. No-one was in the scullery, but the floor was very recently mopped. The noise from the far side of the kitchen door suggested that the kitchen was receiving the same treatment. Roger called out, received no reply, and decided that he could wait a minute. If he couldn’t make himself heard over the theme tune to Desert Island Discs, he could surely do so over Roy Plomley.
Our guest today is Lady Peter Wimsey, better known to readers of her detective novels as Harriet Vane. Lady Peter, hello…
“Mrs Herbert? Hello, Mrs Herbert?”
“Oh, Wing Commander, I didn’t hear you arrive. Miss Rowan was called to deal with a fence over by Far Acre field.” It’s a fair step but you can go there on your motor bicycle I should think. Dinner is devilled pork chops.
“Thanks.” said Rowan, straightening up for, she hoped, the last time for that particular job.
“I’m well-trained in holding things and passing nails.” Roger grinned at her. “What with having an older brother.”
“Giles was a bit like that.” Rowan said, “Only he rather tended to get Peter or Nick to hold them.”
Except when it came to the case of a whole bloody farm. Roger thought.
Aloud he said “Turnabout is fair play. I’ve ridden Prisca. Do you want to try riding my bike some of the way back? It’s not a public road so that doesn’t matter. Look, sit on it first to get a feel for it and then I’ll show you how to start it.”
As brother to three sisters, Roger thought he was well acquainted with the sheer amount of fuss that could ensue from a house having one bathroom and everyone trying to get ready at the same time. It appeared that he wasn’t. He was extremely grateful for the “nice can of hot water” Mrs Herbert had brought to the spare room, and for the old-fashioned washstand.
“It could be worse,” Peter told him as the waited in the drawing room for the others to come down stairs, “Karen and Ann aren’t here. Although, they aren’t the ones who take the time and hot water as a rule. Silly hound,” he continued in a totally different voice to Tessa the afghan hound with a final rub behind her ears, “Why don’t you shed on Roger’s evening trousers for a change?”
“Because Roger knows all about dogs and their shedding ways.” Roger replied, but more to Tessa than Peter. Nevertheless, Roger patted the rug in front of the chair and Tessa, interpreting the invitation correctly, lay luxuriously on her back to have her tummy tickled.
Mrs Marlow was the first of the female Marlows to be ready.
“Peter, you had better shut Tessa in the kitchen. Have you let her on any of the chairs?”
“Of course not!”
Nevertheless, as Peter clicked to Tessa, who followed him willingly enough to the kitchen, Mrs Marlow sat down on an upright chair with an old leather seat, rather than any of the armchairs or the sofa. Given that she was wearing black velvet, it seemed sensible.
Lawrie was next down, scarlet lipstick and crimson finger nails looking somewhat strange with a yellow dress that was probably the one Ann had worn last summer. She was quickly dispatched upstairs again to remove what Mrs Marlow termed “the worst of it”. As the bathroom door slammed Roger heard an indignant, “Lawrie, no! That was my turn!” It wasn’t Rowan’s voice. Ginty or Nick then.
It must have been Nick, because Ginty floated in seconds later, immaculate in sparkling necklace and earrings and the peacock coloured dress.
“I still think that’s one of the best dresses Doris has ever made.” Mrs Marlow, murmured presumably to herself, since none of the other Marlows replied. Perhaps that was the thing that Mrs Marlow always said.
“I don’t think we’ve got any nail-varnish remover.” Ginty informed her mother.
“Nail polish remover.” Her mother replied absentmindedly. “Lawrie can do something about the lipstick anyway.”
Rowan came in, beautiful and cheerful in dark blue.
“I hope the twins will be quick.” Mrs Marlow said.
“We’re still in more danger of being early than late.” Rowan said soothingly. “And Nick isn’t the sort to hang about.”
Roger had been expecting the Merricks house to be somewhat grander than Trennels, but the outside didn’t prepare him for entering a hall with an array of weapons displayed on the wall – mainly halberds, or possibly pikes.
“I’ve seen people with pikes on the wall before, but those had scales.” Roger murmured to Rowan as they waited to pass through a door under a gallery at one end of the hall, as a stream of small frilly children and accompanying parents passed the other way, clutching a balloon apiece. They were grouped so closely together that no-one could really have been sure who he was addressing.
“Those are halberds; pikes are usually much longer, ten foot or more.” Nicola replied. Roger hadn’t spoken much to Nicola, who had always seemed to be outdoors somewhere in the holidays except for mealtimes, and who seemed more reserved than her twin.
“Pikes must have had their problems then.” Roger remarked.
“I think they did.” Nicola said. “I suppose you couldn’t risk breaking the original stuff that survived, but it would be reasonably interesting to make copy of some old weapons and boats and things and see if they did work the way historians say they did.”
Nicola stopped talking abruptly and went rather pink. Curiously, Peter’s ears also appeared to be bright red.
“I’m ignorant about the mediaeval stuff.” Roger said. “But I know more about fish, and those sort of pikes can be difficult to handle too.”
“I suppose you only find them in lakes and bigger rivers?” Nicola asked, evidently trying to keep the conversation on a safe topic. Roger wondered exactly what the younger Marlows had done. Made their own ballista and fired it on Hampstead Heath? Although, give Nicola’s enthusiasm for things mediaeval, perhaps it would be more likely to be a trebuchet. Not that Roger had much real idea what size either would be.
“I thought they would be in stewponds in monasteries?” Lawrie chipped in.
“I think it was mostly carp in those ponds wasn’t it?” Roger said. “Pike would be rather aggressive, to keep in a small pond.”
“Hello, Karen. Hello Rose.” Nicola said. Roger turned to be introduced to a young woman who looked very like Rowan but with straight hair. Rowan’s got something that Karen hasn’t though. Roger thought as he shook handed and said the usual things. You can tell straight away – and it’s nothing to do with looks.
One glance at Rose would tell anyone that she wasn’t a Marlow. She was looking very nervous in a white frilly dress that made Roger think of the Amazons in the pony trap with their great aunt. Rose seemed almost surprised to be offered a handshake and gave the most tentative of smiles in response to Roger’s friendly grin.
“Edwin’s looking after Chas and Fob.” Karen explained generally as the stream of outgoing parents and children finished. They passed through the door to the slightly more modern white and gilt cherubed splendour of the ball room and greetings of the Merricks.
There was a bit of polite chatting and Mrs Marlow introduced Roger to various other people, whose names Roger struggled to remember even before they all filed in to dinner. Roger had hoped to find himself next to Rowan, but instead was between Rose and a very upright older lady in a tweed skirt and lace bedecked blouse.
It fell to him to talk to Rose first, and his first impression, that she was cripplingly shy, seemed to have been correct. Her voice was almost inaudible over the general babble of county-types catching up with their more distant neighbours. The only thing Rose would admit to enjoying was reading, and she listed a few of her favourite authors with an obvious determination to do her best. Roger found that he had read almost nothing by most of the authors she mentioned, although he recognised a few of the names. He had the vague impression that C.S. Lewis wrote fairly heavy-going science fiction, but Rose mentioned enjoying a new book by him about lions.
Rowan was chatting cheerfully with her neighbour. She might, as she admitted, hanker occasionally for the bustle and variety of city life, but she was completely at home in this setting too. From the snippets Roger overheard, Rowan’s neighbours apparently respected her as much as the people who worked for her evidently did.
“I didn’t know he wrote about wildlife. Do you like animals?” Roger asked Rose, trying to keep the conversation going.
Rose looked extremely startled at this comment, said “Some of them.” in scarcely more than a whisper and promptly retired back into her conversational shell.
By the time they had reached the end of the soup in awkward silence, Roger decided that he had to say something and pitched on the rescue of Sinbad at sea as a suitable anecdote. Rose listened in troubled silence though the fish course, only commenting at the end “I’m glad you all survived.”
Roger wondered what had exactly happened to Surfrider. Talk about sailing was out then. Perhaps channel swimming was unsafe. He had absolutely no intension of asking her opinion on events in Korea. As the silence became uncomfortably long, Roger made some remark about the Stone of Scone, but was glad then the time came to relinquish Rose to the conversation of the boy with a stammer on her other side.
The lady in the tweed skirt turned out to be very capable of holding her own conversationally, and Roger felt much happier with the improved ratio of eating to talking. No, he didn’t hunt, but he did fish. Not that he had done much recently. His eldest sister lived on the Broads. No, he didn’t think she knew that family. She hadn’t mentioned them anyway. His sister and brother-in-law sailed at weekends. His brother-in-law was a doctor. Yes, they both had, mainly in the Mediterranean. It was how they had met in fact. No, Roger didn’t shoot. Well, his sister-in-law had got a duck with her bow once, but apart from that..
“Moderately impressive.” came the response. “Why the bow?”
“No shotgun.” Roger replied. This earned him an approving nod. He tried not to grin.
“The problem with Roger”, Susan had said, “is that his grin looks cheeky even when he’s not actually being cheeky.”
“Although that doesn’t happen often.” John had added.
His conversational partner then talked about aeroplanes, and Roger thought her quite well-informed, until something she said made him realise that she thought the RAF still mainly flew planes with open cockpits.
They had both nearly finished pudding and when she interrupted herself to say, “Miss Marlow’s a good sort. A very good sort. Learns quickly and is quite a decent farmer, I hear. She wouldn’t be the type to play around behind a chap’s back.”
“Er, of course not.” said Roger. He didn’t think Rowan was that type himself, but didn’t really see what business it was of Tweedy Woman’s.
At that point he felt rather relieved when Mrs Merrick stood up.
He had danced with Rowan, Rose, Rowan, Nicola, Rowan, Mrs Merrick, a girl called Wendy, Rowan and Mrs Marlow. Rowan had just agreed that perhaps they might sit out a dance together and they occupied a sofa recently vacated by Nicola, the lad with the stutter, Peter and a girl in peach-coloured frock.
“I’m afraid that I’ll have to leave before lunch tomorrow. I’m likely to be sent aboard for a bit. I’m not sure how long for, until they’ve run out of things for me to do, I suppose. Anyway, it will more than likely be a couple of months, perhaps three or four. I’d be surprised if it turns out to be more than six at the outside. It’s all been rather short notice – I was only told about it yesterday and for once the handy rumour service doesn’t seem to have worked. ”
“I’ll miss you.” Rowan said. “I’ll miss you a lot. But I hope it’s interesting. Maybe not too interesting though.”
Roger grinned. “Well so do I.” and more seriously, “I’ll miss you a great deal too. But it won’t be for too long, I hope, and I should be due for a bit of leave when I get back too. And I’ll write. It’s just that the letters will take rather longer and there won’t be phone calls and weekends.” He paused. “It sounds even worse than it feels when I say it like that.”
“It does rather.” Rowan said quietly.
Roger hadn’t been planning in the least to ask Rowan if she would marry him at a dance. She would certainly dislike the penny-novelettishness of such timing, and after all he by no means sure that the answer would be yes, nor yet a straightforward no. He rather suspected that the question might be the start of a discussion. However happy Roger would be to support Rowan he knew she wouldn’t be happy just being what Nancy called “officers’ wives tea-partyish” and from a few things she had said, she wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of producing and bringing up a selection of small Walkers either. That was fine with him. Roger suspected he wouldn’t admire Rowen quite so much if that had been the total of her ambition, although if at some future point Rowan decided that the world needed more small Walkers in it, he wouldn’t mind that either. But supposing Rowan decided that she simply had to stay at Trennels until her father retired? That would be an intolerably long time to wait to get married. If running the farm meant Rowan had to stay at Trennels, then Roger supposed that might have to mean that he would have to spend his leave at Trennels too, unless Rowan would be able to take time off and they could go and stay somewhere together when Roger had leave. Somehow Roger didn’t think that would happen quite as often as he would like. Roger suspected that fitting in to Trennels would not be quite so easy for him as fitting in at Beckfoot had seemed to be for John.
It would be rotten to start such a discussion with Rowan and then disappear to the other side of the planet before anything was decided. All the difficult decisions were really hers. Having originally resolved to ask Rowan to marry him on the day after the dance, Roger now found himself equally determined to propose to Rowan until he came back to England. He found himself perilously close to asking anyway when they said goodnight on the landing at Trennels.
Susan Dudgeon to Peggy Brading 1st January 1951
And a Happy New Year to your family as well! Thank you very much indeed for your part in the refrigerator. I have a feeling I know who did the organising and choosing! It works splendidly and the weather is mild enough that I really was glad of it, especially over Christmas.
Titty and co. came for a week over Christmas and Roger came late on Christmas Eve and went on Boxing Day. It was my turn to do Christmas dinner this year, so we had 11 people. (Bridget couldn’t come until Boxing Day and Mr Farland went to stay with Bess.) It all went pretty well.
Bill now has some confused ideas about Father Christmas arriving on a motorcycle and not really having a beard. This idea has spread round the infant part of Horning with astonishing rapidity – little Susie Johnson told me that Father Christmas had brought her sister Carolyn a pair of roller skates on a flying motorcycle and Carolyn had fallen off them. (It turned out that Carolyn had fallen off the skates and broken her collarbone, but Susie thought I needed to know about the flying motorcycle first.)
Bridget still hasn’t got anything arranged about going to Australia, but she’s working in Bedfordshire and spent Boxing Day with us.
I hope your Christmas was a happy one. (Bill is rather envious of your snow).
Peggy Brading to Susan Dudgeon -January 5th
I’m glad it’s been helpful. Yes, we had a lovely Christmas and the children and I stayed until the New Year so we did get to enjoy the snow at Beckfoot. Susie is currently greatly taken with piano at Beckfoot – it’s mostly rather random plonking on it, but she does it rather well and was busy experimenting with notes that are nice together. She’s not having piano lessons unless she asks for them though. I won’t have my daughter MADE to play an instrument.
It was actually Nancy who organised the ‘fridge. (I did give her pretty strict instructions on what to look for though.) Anyway, she ordered it when she went to see Aunt Helen in London just before Christmas. Aunt Helen came for Christmas so it seemed an odd time to visit her, but you know what Nancy is like once she’s got a plan in mind. I got a rather nice blouse out of it for Christmas anyway.
Do you think you could possibly be the tester for the Cook’s badge and the First Aid badge when you come to visit in March? It will be jolly nearly the whole company taking one or the other so it’s a rather big ask but I would be very grateful. To my relief Nancy passed the 5 doing Map-reading and the 6 doing the Signallers badge. They said she gave them a terrible grilling though. She managed to keep a straight face examining Barbara for her Rabbit-keepers badge too. Barbara knows it inside out and back to front anyway.
Love to all,
Susan Dudgeon to John Walker 8th January
Thank you very much for your part in the refrigerator. It is a wonderful and really useful present and no, of course I don’t mind people putting Christmas and New Year presents together like that! Not having to shop nearly every day will be wonderful. It’s not the shopping itself that takes the time; it’s the number of people who want to stop and gossip, or try to pump me for gossip.
Roger rang yesterday to say that he is off to Korea after all. Probably not for as long as six months he says. It was a pretty hurried ‘phone call. He’s probably on his way by now.
We did talk on Boxing Day, the four of us about the Australia business, and are all totally convinced that it’s completely unfair. We can’t officially make any decision about it until Bridget is 25 and we all think that someone (Bridget) should go out and look at the place before it’s final. Roger is going to feel especially badly about it, I think, if you don’t let us have our way on this. I say, our way, but maybe it is their way – after all, I was married to a naval officer however briefly.
With love from all of us.
(The enclosed picture by Bill is him sailing the wooden boat from you and Nancy. The red crayon bit is Titty rescuing the boats after both Ed and Bill both let go of the string. Ed let go by accident, but I’m not so sure about Bill.)
Roger Walker to Rowan Marlow 8th January
………Yes, my darling, I am indeed on my way to Korea. It’s certainly the first time that I’ve thought “I hope this isn’t going to be too long – at any rate, so near the beginning. From which you can probably already deduce that I’m missing you rather a lot already …
Edward Callum to Nancy Walker 9th January
Dear Auntie Nancy and Uncle John thank you for my baot with love from Ed
Titty Callum to Nancy Walker 9th January
Thank you very much for the ball for Rosemary and the wooden boat for Ed. They were warmly acclaimed the moment they were opened and the boat has already sailed in the river with one end prudently fastened to a piece of string. (Susan’s idea). Admittedly both Bill and Ed let go of their string, but both boats were rescued safely.
Susan rang yesterday to say that Roger rang to say that he was going to Korea –he will already be on his way there by now.
The ‘fridge was splendid. Thank you for doing all the organising about that. We were rather dreading having to come back to find various bits of pipework frozen in the hall, but have been fortunate in the weather.
No news from Dot yet.
Love to you all at Beckfoot,
Titty Callum to Roger Walker 16th January
Dick’s mother phoned early this morning to say that Dorothea had twins yesterday. They are a little bit earlier than expected, but only by a couple of weeks and twins often are. A girl and a boy, so not identical. Everyone’s OK, but they haven’t chosen names for the babies yet, or if they have they haven’t told us. ….
Nancy Walker to John Walker 20th January
….. both over 6 pounds, which seems jolly good going for twins and everyone fine. Fiona Elizabeth and David Callum McGinty.
Roger Walker to Rowan Marlow 27th January
…..All three letters reached me at the same time. I expect it’s the same for you….
Chapter 15 - Blood for breakfast at Trennels
Half term, February 1951
It was breakfast time, when Ann, with her usual terrible sense of timing, spoke up.
“But she had to say something then,” Lawrie had argued afterwards, with the unexpected pragmatism that sometimes reminded people that she might, after all, be related to Nicola. “She only arrived home yesterday, and Dad’s going back tomorrow. But our Ann, with a girlfriend.”
Lawrie either dreaded or relished a row. This, Nicola noted, was plainly going to be one she would relish.
After Ann had left the room in floods of tears, it was Rowan who looked at their father with that cool, merciless Marlow stare (She might look like her mother, but looks were deceptive.)
“If you had bothered to listen to what she said,” Rowan said, with curious, distantly polite manner, “You would realise that Ann is fully sensible of the embarrassment her feelings and actions cause you.” Rowan’s eyes flickered for a moment from her father to her mother. “I don’t recall hearing that either of you were so very sensitive to parental feelings at that stage in your lives. She isn’t standing up and proclaiming her love for her girlfriend at a hunt ball or even the Merrick’s New Year party. She doesn’t intend to do so at all. And she had the decency to tell you before anyone worked it out. But then Ann is decent.”
“How dare you speak to me like that? I am your father.”
“I wouldn’t be managing this farm for anyone else. It certainly wouldn’t be my first choice of career.”
“If you continue to support Ann her disgusting behaviour you can leave this house.”
“That will suit me very well indeed. I suppose you would prefer me to work out my notice? A month is the usual time, I believe, although I don’t recall there being a specific agreement. And now, if Mother will excuse me, I have to get back to work.
It probably took less than a minute, but it was, in its own way, just as significant as the (simply massive, Lawrie had said) explosion from their father that had preceded it.
“You didn’t half choose a morning to go to the Merrick’s for breakfast.” Lawrie said.
Nicola thought, on balance that she was glad she had been invited that day.
“So what’s going to happen now?” Nicola asked. Lawrie had sought her twin out, intercepting Nicola on the same little bridge where Peter had broken the news of Jon’s death.
“Ann is packing her stuff now. Father said she wasn’t to remain another night here. I suppose she’s going back to the nurses’ home. She only had 2 days leave anyway. No one said that the Dodds aren’t coming for supper tonight; I suppose they still are. Rowan just went back to the lambing as if – well not exactly as if – nothing had happened. Looking grim and heroic without trying in the slightest.”
Nicola knew by Lawrie’s thoughtful expression that Lawrie was trying to memorise exactly how Rowan looked to help in a future role. She wished Lawrie wouldn’t. There was no point in hoping that Lawrie would stop being Lawrie.
“I wish Ann hadn’t said anything.” Nicola said fiercely.
“I suppose she can’t help it.” Lawrie said. “It’s what Ann does. If there’s anything at all to confess Ann does it. Even when it’s not her.”
Nicola nodded, drawing patterns with her wet wellingtons on the drying path. Life was completely and utterly mouldy.
Rowan leaving home
The next month was a mosaic. Rowan did the things all the things she normally did, and plenty of extra things. Small chunks of time became incredibly significant, or lost in so many other similar pieces. She prodded her mother into placing an advertisement. She offered to help her mother interview the applicants, if they applied in time.
“There isn’t any point dragging it out, Mother. I’ve given a month’s notice. I’m going at the end of it.”
Pride forced her to work harder than ever. She would hand over the farm in the best possible condition.
Rowan wondered about writing to Bridget Walker. Roger could give her an up-to-date address for Bridget. Rowan knew she was putting off explaining the matter to him. She was being silly really. Roger had said nothing to indicate that he would take a similar view to her father. But then he had said nothing to indicate that he would take a view similar to Nicola’s. There were so many things they hadn’t talked about. There couldn’t be many trained farm managers who might just possibly be prepared to live as part of the family at Trennels, letting Karen and Edwin continue to occupy the old farmhouse. Bridget might just be a possibility. Rowan realised that how awkward that could become. And suppose the arrangement became permanent. It would be extremely awkward to visit Trennels as, say, the future Mrs Roger Walker when the current Miss Marlow had been given her marching orders.
-Getting a bit presumptious, aren’t you Rowan?
-Well, why not? He’s written three times in the last fortnight.
-Only one of which you’ve answered.
-I don’t know what to say, how to explain this mess. Anyway, he said he didn’t know how long he’ll be away for. He might already be on the way back. It will be easier to explain when I see him. I answered his letters before that.
And if the need for a new manager becomes awkward for Karen and Edwin – why not? I don’t owe them anything.
There was the matter of references. Her father’s parting shot about not giving her a reference was neither here nor there. No-one would accept a reference from someone so closely related to her as a parent.
That could be solved fairly easily. Rowan could simply have written to Miss Keith, or even rung the school secretary – what was the new one called? Instead, she chose to ‘phone for an appointment – “only a brief one” she assured the new secretary breezily. Disappearing suddenly from home could cause rumours. Rowan was too much of a realist to think that what other people said didn’t really matter.
Now, at twenty one, with a boyfriend, and a sister who had married in haste a man much older than herself, Rowan was still less minded to make it easy to draw that particular wrong conclusion. Besides, she had something she particularly wanted to say to Nicola.
“I had thought maybe I should.” Nicola admitted. “After School cert. of course, not now.”
“Well, don’t, Nick” said Rowan. “You’re good at a lot of things. Even if you don’t fancy the vet idea and you give up on the Wrens, live your own life. Just … it would be a mistake. Dad will have retired in a few years’ time, but going back to anything else…. I’m not sure I can go back to anything that’s actually a career now.”
“It’s only been a few years.”
“I can hardly turn up at Colebridge Grammar school and say “please may I take my Highers” even if I had somewhere to live. “Don’t make the mistake I made.” is what I’m saying. There’s much less need for it, for one thing.”
“But doesn’t that make it worse – for you I mean. You gave up school so Father and Giles wouldn’t have to give up the navy.”
“No.” Rowan said, fiercely. “It would make it worse if you left now. At the time I did it because it seemed sensible. It still was, but even now, I’m glad I did it, for you and Ann and Lawrie and Ginty whatever Father said.”
Nicola remembered that walk with her father, the summer Jon died and it had taken her so long to realise that they would be living at Trennels for ever.
“I think,” Nicola said slowly, “that if it ever came to it that I had to choose between you and Father …”
“Don’t say it.” Rowen sounded almost curt. “You don’t have to. I don’t expect you to. I wouldn’t want you to. And it’s a damnable choice, take it from one who has tried it.”
“Are you…. will you…”
“I’ll be alright. I’ve mostly got my head screwed on.”
“If you want me too. At school anyway. I should think it will make things too awkward for you at home.”
They resumed their pacing of the playing field. The lump in Nicola’s throat precluded all speech. She wondered if that was why Rowan, too, remained silent.
Packing made Rowan realise how little she really owned. She first had the problem of finding something to pack her things in. Her school trunk would be more than ample, but it was a trunk that had been bought for her use and, she supposed, belonged to her parents. She was reluctant to spend any more of her meagre savings than she had to.
Ann had written, of course. She had written a cheerful, unexceptional letter to the no-longer- quite-so-infant Dodds and had enclosed a smaller envelope with a note for Rowen, duly delivered by Chas on Saturday morning
“It seems strange, a grown-up running away.”
“I’ve been sent away, which is a different thing. Effectively sent away.” She wasn’t going to prevaricate to save anyone else’s face now.
“We wondered if it was because Roger wanted to marry you.”
Rowan had rather supposed that Rose and Chas, at least, would have some idea of what the row had been about. Peter and Nicola had been discrete, it seemed.
“I don’t know that Roger does want to marry me.”
“Rose thinks so. She says he looks at you as if he wants to marry you. I don’t know what she means by that. We wondered if he was Madly Unsuitable and he had been Forbidden To See You and you were going to have to Elope to Gretna Green.”
“Rose is reading more Georgette Heyer than is good for her.”
“They do go on a bit.” Chas conceded, judiciously. “I just get Rose to point out the more exciting bits – and the really good words, of course. Anyway, when I was in the shop, I heard Nelly telling Mrs Benn that Mrs. Merrick said that you’d done well for yourself with a wing commander and she could see why you might want to chuck in the farming, because he wasn’t likely to want a wife who was all manure and turnips.”
“Chas, you really shouldn’t be repeating what other people say like that.” Rowan found the response came almost automatically and she was sounding like her mother.
“It’s about you, so I don’t see why it should be a secret from you. Anyway, the others from school say their mothers say you’d be daft to work your fingers to the bone until you’re on the shelf and then be chucked out when Giles marries and had kids. So you aren’t going to run away with all your possessions tied up in a hankie on a stick then?” Charles grinned, to show that, at eleven, he wasn’t that naïve.”
“I may be reduced to that yet,” Rowan said ruefully. “A tea towel at least.”
“Haven’t you got suitcases at Trennels then?” Charles was genuinely surprised.
“None that are really mine.”
“I don’t see how that…. This is one of those things that Nick would understand, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Nick probably would.”
Scowling ferociously, Charles slithered down from the gate and ran off across Glebe Pasture towards home.
The first part of the note was Ann at her most irritatingly guilt ridden. Rowan had to admit to herself that she would probably have written much the same if the circumstances were reversed.
“I hope I would have been less wet in how I said it.” Rowan, informed Lancelot the ram after she had read the letter.
The second part to the letter made Rowan smile and say “Good old, Ann” however. Because however good Ann might be at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to her family, Ann was practical.
You might decide to take your trunk of course, but even if you do, you might find my rucksack helpful. It’s in the ottoman on the landing outside the bedroom. Take anything else of mine that you think might be useful, too. I won’t be able to come back and fetch them after all.
The rucksack was a substantial size. Rowan reckoned she could get her pyjamas, wash kit, important papers and some changes of clothes in it.
Karen appeared in the yard as Rowan was making her evening round. Karen was carrying a suitcase – a very light suitcase.
“It’s for you.” Karen said. “Chas said you hadn’t got one. Call it your birthday present.”
“It’s far more than a birthday present. I’d say that’s the next ten years.”
“Not that much. And I hope it won’t be the next ten years.”
“I can’t come back.” Rowan said it slowly, carefully.
“Perhaps he’ll change his mind.”
“Even if he does, I can’t.”
“What about coming to us?”
“I can’t do that either. Not while you’re living there. You must see why.”
Karen nodded. Of course, Rowan thought, Karen generally could see things, unless she was deliberate not seeing.
“I’m sorry.” Karen said. “I’m sorry about …. I know I made it harder for you.”
“Forget about that.” Rowan said, more fiercely than she intended. No good came of explanations and little of apologies. She couldn’t bear just now to lose Karen, (again, a small thought insisted).
Rowan wasn’t going to cry. She was not going to cry. She didn’t, but it was a nearer thing than she would have liked to admit. The interminable wait at Colebridge junction wasn’t really helping. She had originally thought of going back to London. She was familiar with London. Ann was there. That was probably where her parents thought she was going. She had thought of trying to get a job in Oxford. It had the attraction of being close to Benson. She had realised, a few days ago, how impossible, in ways other than practicality, that would be. It assumed far too much and would put both Roger and herself into an intolerable situation.
So at Westbridge Rowan had bought a single ticket to Colebridge junction. At Colebridge she had bought a ticket to Strickland Junction. The only sensible thing you could say about that was that nobody would expect her to go there. Childish or not, Rowan found she didn’t mind if her family did worry about her.
Roger had talked about the Lake (and somehow it was always capitalised when he said it) with such enthusiasm that she did want to see it herself. It was sheep country, which meant that someone might just take her on – for lambing at least. Roger had described the hordes of holidaymakers in the villages, one at the head of the lake and one on the eastern side. It was too early in the season for many holidaymakers, so perhaps she might find a room relatively cheaply for a few weeks while she looked for work. If she couldn’t find work as a farmhand – and she was not entirely sure she wanted to do that - she might perhaps find work as a waitress in a tea shop, or a chambermaid in a hotel or serve in a shop. She could look at advertisements in a newspaper as well in one place as another. Aside from farming she had no skills to offer apart from being relatively quick to learn.
The train coming from Wade Abbas pulled in. It was one of the ones without a corridor. Rowan didn’t much feel like company, but mindful of the warnings give to her as a child she chose a compartment with a female passenger already there, silhouetted against the light from the window on the far side of the carriage with her back to the locomotive. It wasn’t until Rowan had herself and her luggage safely in the compartment that she realised that the face under the hat was familiar. Even then, she couldn’t put a name to her. Rowan settled for a polite smile and a “good morning” which could apply equally to a stranger or someone whose name she ought to know.
“I think we’ve met once, but I’m sure you won’t remember me.” The woman said. “I’m Monica Eliot’s mother – and I know you are one of Ginty’s older sisters, but I’m not quite sure which one you are.”
“I’m Rowan, Mrs Eliot.”
Mrs Eliot smiled at her warmly. “Monica said that Ginty had mentioned that you were having a change from farming.”
Rowan nodded. She didn’t know what Ginty would have said to her friends. Nor for that matter did she know what Lawrie would say to Tim. Thank goodness Tim’s relationship with her aunt seemed less than cordial. Rowan thought that if all the details of the whole affair got back to Miss Keith, she would be quite likely to react to it in an outstandingly irrational and unpredictable manner.
“That sounds fun.” Mrs Eliot continued. “Can I ask what your plans are? Are you going back to Hampstead?”
Rowan shook her head. “No, I’m changing at Salisbury. Are you going to London?”
Mrs Eliot smiled. “No - I came down as far as Leamington to visit my aunt, who doesn’t get about quite as well as she used to, and then thought that since I’d done half the journey I might just as well carry on and visit Monica and a few bits of Dorset that we hadn’t got round to seeing. Assuming Monica gets a place at Leeds I don’t suppose we will have any reason to travel to this area in the foreseeable future. So, not London then?”
“I’ve hardly made any plans.” Rowan said, “I’m afraid I was so busy with lambing and so forth that I didn’t put as much time into getting myself organised as perhaps I should have.”
“Perhaps you need a bit of a holiday anyway.” Mrs Eliot suggested. “I know enough about farming and farmers to suspect that you haven’t really had one since you left school, and that’s the best part of four years now, isn’t it?”
“I think I’ll be having a holiday for a little while, apart from writing job application letters, whether I actually wanted to or not.”
“I hope the letters are successful and not too onerous and you manage to do so in a pleasant place.”
“A friend mentioned how much he enjoyed spending holidays as a child in the Lake District and it’s somewhere I’ve never been, so I thought I might visit there. I hope it’s sufficiently before Easter that I can find somewhere to stay fairly easily.”
“Have you booked anywhere yet?”
“No, I’d really want a room in a house rather than a hotel or guesthouse and those places don’t seem to advertise themselves so much except locally.”
“Or by recommendation.” Mrs Eliot agreed.
It was part of the truth, not the whole of it. Rowan knew she would have to watch every penny she had, but she had also been, she realised now, mentally frozen with shock at her own anger and the enormity of what she was doing.
“Perhaps you would like to stay with us, for tonight at least? It will be so much easier than trying to find somewhere this evening. You would be very welcome to stay with us for two weeks in fact. I’d be glad of your company, but I understand that job hunting will take quite a bit of your time. It’s a short walk to the post office as well, so that would be handy for you.”
Rowan opened her mouth for polite refusal and then paused. It would be awkward to find a room tonight; she had already resigned herself to the probability that she would have to stay in a hotel and be charged accordingly for this one night at least. If there was any harm Mrs Eliot (and thus Monica and thus Ginty) knowing where Rowan was, it was already done. And after all, her father had declared his wish never to see her again. Who would come after her? A younger Nicola might have done, but Rowan thought Nick had learned enough sense not to do so. The same might be said of Peter, but Rowan thought that her younger brother had never had that particular brand of rashness. Rowan was honest enough with herself to admit that if her parents felt a little twinge of guilt she would not be entirely sorry
And Mrs Eliot had carefully specified two weeks. It was a strange way to say it. Most people would say a fortnight. It was as if Mrs Eliot was counting the weeks until – until the end of term, obviously. It was almost as if Mrs Eliot was saying that she needn’t tell Monica – and hence Ginty – that Rowan had been there, if Rowan didn’t want her too.
Rowan smiled. “Thank you very much indeed. I would like that very much.”
Mrs Eliot’s word was good. The next morning Mrs Eliot took Rowan for a walk around Keswick, showing her the post office and the main streets. One of them was actually called Main Street. Rowan bought a copy of the local weekly newspaper and some more stamps and envelopes. She looked carefully at the cards in the newsagent’s window. It would be considerably easier to buy a kitten or give a guinea-pig a loving home than to find a job. There was a notice for “Smart waitress/waiter wanted” starting on the first of April. Rowan carefully noted down the address of the hotel.
After lunch, Mrs Eliot went to do her visiting at the cottage hospital.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be.” she said. “When I get there the sisters of the wards let me know if there is anyone not likely to have a visitor and ask the patient if they mind if I am their visitor for that day. Mostly I have an idea about who is there, but since I’ve been away for a fortnight there could be one person or five.”
And she picked up the little bundles of daffodils from the garden in gloved hands, pinned her hat more firmly against the brisk wind and left Rowan to her letters of application.
Rowan did the letter to the hotel first and then started to look at situations vacant. It was really a pity that she was neither a time-served fitter nor a toolmaker (time-served or apprentice didn’t seem to matter). Even the receptionist/ clerical jobs seemed to want short-hand and typing, or at least typing. She went through the list again, including the ones that “preferred” skills she hadn’t actually got. Eventually she applied for five posts. The barmaid job was only Friday and Saturday evenings and wouldn’t even keep a roof over her head, but even that would eke out the meagre amount in her post office account. Possibly it could be combined with “assistant picture framer and sales person (experience and a good knowledge of art preferred)” or “shop assistant at a bakery (mornings only)”. It would not be compatible with “cleaner required for solicitors’ offices, 5.30 to 7.30pm, excellent references essential, mature lady preferred.” Her final application was for a “smart receptionist, experience and bookkeeping qualifications preferred.”
Should she write to Nicola or perhaps to Ann? She had rather not. She had said that she would write to Nicola when she was settled. A fortnight’s stay wasn’t settled. She wouldn’t write to Nicola until she had a job. Still less was she inclined to write to Ann. She couldn’t cope with the inevitable hand wringing, even from three hundred miles away. Or rather, Rowan admitted to herself, she could cope, but felt disinclined to do so.
She ought to write to Roger. It would be brutally unkind to leave the letters piling up at Trennels, unanswered. Or would someone, her mother perhaps, write “not that this address return to sender.” What would Roger do in that case? Being a damsel in distress to be rescued would be completely unbearable. Not being such a Wimsey fan as Nicola, she couldn’t remember the exact phrase in Strong Poison but Harriet was undoubtedly right. A marriage based on gratitude would be damnable indeed. Rowan would not inflict that on herself, and still less would she inflict it on Roger.
This may miss you, if you are already on the way back to England, but with all the correct numbers on it, it should catch up with you eventually. I’m not at Trennels anymore, so any letters that have arrived their today or yesterday will have missed me, and I know they cannot be forwarded. I am at the moment staying for a fortnight with the mother of one of my sister’s schoolfriends. After that, I am not sure, but it won’t involve a return to Trennels.
I hope you are well, and that things stay on the interesting side of exciting for you, rather than the other side.
With as much love as always,
Well there it was. Rowan hoped she had made it plain that her feelings for Roger had not changed, but not said anything to mislead him into thinking she wanted him to seek her out. It would be helpful if she could arrange things so that the postmark was somewhere other than Keswick. Still, she most probably wouldn’t be in Keswick by the time the letter reached Roger.
Rowan thought she had better make out a list of jobs applied for and was in the midst of doing so when she heard Mrs Eliot returning. Rowan put the cap back on her fountain pen and rose to go downstairs and greet her hostess. She met Mrs Eliot running upstairs, still in hat, coat and gloves.
“Rowan, I think I’ve got you a job.” She announced. “I’m afraid it’s not quite what you want though.”
It was quite understandable for Mrs Eliot to want a cup of tea before she told Rowan about the job. Rowan was in favour of a cup of tea. Nevertheless, she got the impression that Mrs Eliot was picking her words carefully in the time she put the kettle on and measured the tea into the pot.
“Monica mentioned that she thought you wanted a change from farming.” Mrs Eliot began.
It would be typical of Ginty to imply that was the reason for my departure without actually uttering an untruth, Rowan thought.
“And I’m afraid this isn’t a change from farming – but then I don’t expect the job will last for long anyway, but it will keep you busy while you make other plans, and it seems a rather good fit in so many other ways.”
There was a pause to pour the boiling water on the leaves.
“And you would have accommodation and your food provided, washing done and so forth.” Mrs Eliot went on in a brighter voice, speaking at her usual rate. “And it’s with people I know – you don’t need to have any worries about staying with the Dixons.”
“This sounds very encouraging,” Rowan said. “Is it mainly sheep? Help with lambing?”
“Help with everything, I’m afraid.” Mrs Eliot said. “Mr Dixon has broken his leg, fibula I think, slipping on some ice in the farmyard. He did it just before I went away. I had a cold, so I missed my hospital visiting for the two weeks before. Mrs Dixon and Silas have been keeping things ticking over, but Mrs Dixon says they’re due to start lambing. It’s mainly sheep, but they have some dairy cows and pigs - and poultry too, but Mrs Dixon sees to the poultry. It’s not the place for arable farming.”
Mrs Eliot explained where the farm was exactly and what would be expected of Rowan. She seemed to have made quite detailed enquires on Rowan’s behalf. Rowan carefully kept the appreciative, interested look on her face – nothing more.
“So the pay won’t be much, but you’ll be living in the farmhouse as if you were family and you’ll be feed, and well fed too.” Mrs Eliot concluded. “They’re both known for fair dealing and there’s nothing mean about either of them. Mrs Dixon’s is a good cook and excellent baker. Her mother too. Her mother was a friend of my mother, so I had the chance to sample their family pork-pie recipe as a child.”
Rowan smiled. “When would they like me to start? It sounds as though they need the help as soon as possible.”
Mrs Eliot hesitated, just slightly. “I suggested to them that perhaps you might start on Monday. Mr Dixon is going home from the hospital today - he still has his leg in plaster but he’s getting along on crutches.”
Rowan nodded. “Yes, I suppose they won’t want a new person about the place.”
Mrs Eliot smiled. “You don’t have to say yes definitely until you’ve met them – neither of course do they – but I’m sure it will suit very well in the short term. You could do with a few days when you can sleep as much as you want as well.”
“If lambing is about to start – yes.” Rowan said.
It was better, Rowan decided, if the Dixon’s never knew that she was – had been, perhaps – Roger’s girlfriend. The only way to be sure of that was to tell no-one. That should be easy enough. Her thanks to Mrs Eliot were heart felt. In a month, she would surely have a clearer idea of what she should do with the rest of her life. It seemed strange that “the rest of her life” should seem such a long, desolate stretch of future.
Mrs Eliot insisted on driving Rowan to the Dixon’s farm herself. Rowan said all the appropriate things and tried not to feel as if she was still being treated as if she was the twins’ age. She really ought to be grateful. Perhaps the Dixons would have taken her without references – or with only Miss Keith for a referee, but it was still better to have Mrs Eliot, known and trusted by Mrs Dixon to vouch for her. Mr Dixon was indeed a man of few words, just as Roger had told her, but in those few words she had managed to pick-up that he was a better livestock farmer than she would have been had she spent another two decades at Trennels. Rowan doubted that Mr Dixon would have been impressed with the kind of reference her former headmistress would provide – except perhaps for the words “hard worker.” Rowan would be getting her keep and more in the way of wages than she had been at home, when she had received very little more than pocket money. By three she was seeing to the afternoon milking.
Things were later here. Lambing had not yet begun. It had been nearly finished at home when she had left. At Trennels when she had left, Rowan corrected herself mentally.
The Swaledales would be first, Mr Dixon had said, and were already in one of the pastures close to the farmhouse. This had caused a bit of consternation amongst Mrs Dixon’s geese in the next field. The geese and the ewes gave back hard stare for hard stare whenever a goose bothered to perch for a little on the dry stone wall. The Swaledales, Rowan gathered, were something of an experiment in Mr Dixon’s eyes, albeit an experiment that had been in progress since the end of the war.
Most of the Dixon’s sheep were Herdwicks. Tough, characterful little beasts, so far as Rowan had had dealings with them, that first week. It would soon be time to bring them in for lambing, Mr Dixon had told her that very first day. Rowan wondered uneasily whether she would be expected to work with the Dixon’s dogs. She couldn’t see how that would work. At home – at Trennels the dogs had belonged to Shep and worked for him.
It was the evening of the second day when she admitted her fear.
Mr Dixon gave a slow smile.
“Why, bless you, of course not. They’ll work for Silas as well as for me. Mr Jackson will come over with his Ringman and Bess and give you a hand, and you’ll give him a hand in return for a day or two bit later on a bit later on.”
He shifted a little. Rowan got the impression that his leg was still causing him more pain than he was letting on.
“We’ve taken you on. Don’t be feared that we’ll let you go now if you speak owt about what’s on your mind. It’s my leg that’s broken, not my head. You let me do the worrying if there’s any to be done and we’ll get on champion.”
“John that married Nancy Blackett.” Mrs Dixon announced suddenly as she was unpinning her hair at bed time.
“What of him?” Mr Dixon was long used to his wife thinking aloud.
“Rowan. She has the same manner about her.”
“Mebbe. Mebbe. Mrs Eliot said she was from a naval family.”
“Something’s troubling her.”
This was so obvious it merited no more than “aye”.
They had both nearly dozed off when he said “She’s been the one to make the decisions, wherever she were before.”
And it was Mrs Dixon’s turn to say “aye”.
Roger and the Marlows letters
Titty Callum to Dorothea “McGinty”
Thursday 22nd March 1951
....I was expecting to find everything half finished, but Nancy seems to have terrified the builder and plumber into finishing the bathroom on time. The septic tank was already sorted out when I came up at the end of February. So we are spending our holiday properly in our own cottage, and you and
Ian must come as soon as possible to see it. (Although if you can’t travel for a while, I quite understand.) Peggy is staying at Beckfoot for the week, although Jim can only have the Easter weekend up here. She saw Susan last weekend, and said they all seemed very well.
Susan Dudgeon to Peggy Brading.
Thursday 22nd March 1951
It was lovely to see you last weekend, but I’m sorry to say that Bill has started with chickenpox. Harry seems fine at the moment. I suspect they’ve picked it up from “victims”, but they were pretty much bound to catch it eventually, and I suppose it’s just as well now rather than later. Tom says the incubation time is about 2 weeks, but it could be 1 to 3 really. I’ve had it, which is just as well, because I gather it’s worse in adults – I do remember John saying that Nancy was much iller than Julia and Jane when they had it in Malta.
I do hope you haven’t caught it, nor Susie and Jamie, of course, but I’m actually more worried about you. At least Nancy and her kids can’t get it again, even if this letter doesn’t get to you before you go to Beckfoot. And it won’t if I don’t post it now.
With love and apologies,
Peggy Brading to Susan Dudgeon
Sunday 1st April 1951
Most unusually, your letter seems to have been delayed by a day, and was waiting for us when we got back from Beckfoot. Your letters to Nancy and Titty got here on the Easter Saturday. We decided that since the children had breathed on each other thoroughly by the that time and none of them were showing symptoms that they may just as well catch it from each other and have done. No need to worry about me -I’ve had chickenpox – all my dorm did at one point, but we were all duly isolated from the rest of the school, and I suppose that’s how Nancy ended up not getting it then. Mother thinks she’s had it and Titty has no idea whether she has or not. I don’t suppose you would know?
Of course, maybe Susie and Jamie didn’t catch it from Bill, or maybe they aren’t infectious until they get the spots. I think we’ve probably escaped it.
Anyway, they’ve had a lovely time even though we quite definitely and cruelly forbade camping – our definition of “not until you’re older” not quite matching Jane and Susie’s. Only Jane actually made it to the top of Katchenjunga - not all by herself, but with Nancy and Dick. I wondered at one point if sheer pride might have kept Susie going, but it didn’t, quite. Jane has only asked Dick twenty times if he’s quite sure he’ll remember to “send the photo to Daddy”. It’s quite funny watching Nancy trying not to put on side about it too.
So the only difference chickenpox has made to us so far is that we had invited the Dixon’s new farmhand/ assistant farm manager or whatever you want to call her to Beckfoot for part of the day on Easter Sunday. Nancy took her out for the day in Amazon instead, picnic on Wild Cat etc. Cook reckoned Rowan would like anything that involved being off her feet for the day – or the amount of the day that was left between morning and evening milking.
Nancy liked her, but didn’t say much about her other than that she is one of the older ones of a big family – so perhaps all our hordes of offspring wouldn’t be much entertainment for her -and that Mrs Dixon was right and she did need cheering up.
Mr Dixon’s leg is progressing nicely according to the doctor, Mrs Dixon says (Mother met her in Rio last week.) and this Rowan has had such a lot to do with forms and whatnot in her last place that she’s a dab hand sorting out the ones when it’s not clear what the Ministry of Ag are on about – and of course Mr D has plenty of time to deal with the other ones now that he’s home from the cottage hospital. Cook says she doesn’t think they would have let him home so soon, except for Mrs D having been a nurse in the first war. Anyway, the Dixons think they’ve struck lucky with Rowan, mother says, only Mrs Dixon is worried because she is so quiet.
I hope Bill isn’t too uncomfortable with his spots poor kid.
Much love to all,
“Could it be that the poor girl doesn’t get a word in edgeways with Mrs Dixon?” Tom had asked when Susan read him the letter
She’s not that bad.” Susan had replied. “It’s just that Mr Dixon seldom says much at all.”
“They’ll be infectious enough just before the spots come out.” Tom said. “Oh well, too late now. And Peggy’s got a point about getting it over with.”
Peggy Brading to Susan Dudgeon
Monday 2nd April
I spoke, or wrote, too soon. Susie was very bad tempered this morning and the first spot appeared at lunchtime. At least I knew what I was looking out for. Jamie seems OK, but quieter than usual, although that’s odd since he spent more time with your Bill.
I’m ringing round trying to get someone to take Guides for me tomorrow night. Even if Jim would be back in time to look after the children, I suppose I hadn’t better take the risk of handing chickenpox round the entire company, although the doctor said it shouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t hug my two while wearing my uniform.
Glad to hear Bill is doing OK and Harry seems to have escaped.
Nancy Walker to John Walker
….so here is the photograph on the summit, and the picture from Julia of the brown thing that looks like a deformed giraffe is a rabbit. Julia is still asking for a pet rabbit daily. I didn’t mention the tin under the cairn at all – having previously discussed it with Titty. We both think that’s something that should wait until they go up there by themselves.
I don’t know whether Susan wrote to you, but her Bill has chickenpox. We rather suspect that Susie and Jamie will have picked it up.
So it ended up with me taking the Dixon’s new farmhand sailing by myself on Easter Sunday instead of her coming for the day, as mother had first suggested. Mrs Dixon and Mother seem to have put their heads together and decided that she “needed someone nearer her own age to talk to.” I suspect Titty was the real first choice for the job, but no one seems to know whether Titty has had chicken pox and is therefore immune to it or not so she could pass it on, I suppose. Anyway, I failed dismally at getting the kid to tell me what’s bothering her. She carefully “Mrs Walker”ed me to keep me at arm’s length and she’s a bright enough lass that she realised perfectly well that I knew why she was doing it. (When it became absolutely impossible to carry on because I asked her outright to call me Nancy she changed to “skipper” and “aye, aye ma’am”.) Titty might have managed to win her confidence – I certainly didn’t. At least not her confidences. She was happy enough to spend the afternoon in Amazon and to explore Wild Cat Island. (No sign of our prickly friend being about yet, but it might be a bit early.)….
John Walker to Nancy Walker
…I’ve written to Jane and Julia separately of course, and both giraffe/ rabbit and photograph are currently pinned up in pride of place. Well, if this lass won’t confide, she won’t confide. You’ve given her a chance – and suppose Mrs Dixon is wrong and there is nothing to tell? Or perhaps we’re simply too old to understand now…I’ve got a lieutenant who has very much not got his mind on things at the moment, and he’s not saying anything either – except that it’s a family matter ….
“It was quite different when I had mumps.” Nancy Walker told her hopeful daughters. “We all went to boarding school for one thing, and chickenpox is not such a bad disease – you aren’t so ill with it. And anyway, you’ve had it, so you can’t catch it again, or take it to school with you. So you go back at the beginning of term, even if Edward and Rosie are still here.”
“But you were quite ill with it, Mummy, suppose you catch it again.”
“I can’t get it like that twice, any more than you can. And I wouldn’t be so ill with it anyway.”
4th April, Roger Walker to Susan Dudgeon.
….so if things go according to plan, I should be home in 3 weeks or so with a fair bit of leave owing to me. There’s someone I want to see first, but then I’ll come to Horning for a few days, if you’ll put up with me…
Susan Walker to Roger Walker
14th April- Horning
…Of course, we’d be delighted to see you, but Harry has started chickenpox on the very last day of the quarantine for it. Bill of course is back to his usual self now of course. Titty wrote to Mother when we realised that Susie and Jamie might pass it onto Ed and Rosie, and Mother is fairly sure that Titty has had chickenpox when John and I did, and you and Bridget have not, not even being born then. Tom says it’s no joke in an adult and that you’d better go to Titty and Dick first – assuming their quarantine for it is up by the time you’re back or to the Lake first and then come and see us as soon as Harry stops being infectious. (It depends on the spots drying up just when that is)…
“No young lady. Those don’t look in the least like chickenpox spots to me.”
“They itch, Mummy.” Julia said hopefully.
“Well if Auntie Titty’s watercolours make you itch, it serves you right for using them without asking. Go and wash the paint off now. You can apologise to her tomorrow when she comes to take you to school in Swallow.”
“Auntie Titty’s taking us to school?” “Brilliant!”
“And, if the weather is fine, we’ll sail somewhere for a picnic tea after school tomorrow. Granny will look after Rosie and Robert for the afternoon, so it will just be Edward and you two.”
Titty Callum to Nancy Walker
20th April - Leeds
Edward and Rosie both have chickenpox. I did think we’d got away with it, although Susan said she thought the day before the spots was probably nearly as infectious as when they actually came out. I’m OK for the time being at least. If I’d known we were going to have chickenpox and have to stay cooped up in the flat, being no help to Dick whatsoever, I would have stayed by the Lake, now the cottage is so brilliantly sorted out. (Thank you once again for all that chivvying). I do hope Robert hasn’t caught it from Edward and Rosie, just when it looked as if he was going to get away with it.
With love from us all,
Titty Callum to Roger Walker
20th April. Leeds
Of course we’d love to see you, but Edward and Rosie have just started chickenpox today. I’ve asked our doctor about it. And he says the children will probably stop being infectious in about a week or so – it depends on when the spots scab over. So the sensible thing would be for you to go to the Lake first, and spend a few days with them and then come here before going to Susan’s. Or go to Susan first, and then to us, but that would be more travelling..
Molly Blackett to Roger Walker. 21st april
…so since you can’t go to Horning or Leeds, you’d be very welcome to come here first. We were hoping to see you during your leave anyway, and we’ve all, apart from little Robert, had it, so you’ve less risk of catching it here than anywhere and we’d all love to see you….
Roger hadn’t forgotten Rowan. He grimly suspected that he couldn’t forget Rowan. It was a good ten minutes before he admitted to himself that he probably should forget Rowan. There was no letter from her, although he scrabbled through the unusually thick pile three times before he would admit to himself it wasn’t there.
Finally, Roger turned his attention to the letters that were there. Unusually there was one from Mrs Blackett. He opened that first. It seemed there was nothing to worry about with the small walkers and Nancy and he was welcome to go to Beckfoot. But why couldn’t he go to Leeds or Horning? And what might he not catch? He opened the most recent one from Titty. Chickenpox. Well that explained it. Why not Horning? He opened Susan’s most recent letter. Well if Susan and Tom thought he’d better avoid them for the time being – neither were likely to overstate that sort of thing. Good for Mrs Blackett. He’d read the letters properly now. He started with the ones from Mother. It was just as well all his correspondents always dated their letters properly, because a quarter of the postmarks were smudged. Well, nearly all. Roger smiled as he unfolded a picture of a boat floating above a lake carefully entitled Swalllow. Julia had carefully written Thusday in the corner, in letters larger and more wobbly than her sister’s.
The smile faded quickly. Nieces, and for that matter nephews, might be all very well in their way, but there wasn’t a letter from Rowan in the pile –and that outweighed any amount of other cheering or comforting news.
The logical conclusion – logical at least to anyone who did not know Rowan, was that she had found someone else in his absence and simply stopped writing to him. He couldn’t believe it though. Roger knew that the rest of his family – except, of course, Nancy – thought he was over -optimistic. He didn’t want to believe that it had happened like that. Where would she meet that someone, for one thing? Even if she had, he couldn’t bring himself to believe that Rowan would allow herself to shirk the necessary awkward letter.
Rowan had written to him frequently – at least once a week throughout January and the first part of February. Then there had been a fortnight’s gap, then one letter. Then, nothing posted from the end of February onwards. She would be busy with lambing of course. Long cold nights followed by days with much work. He could understand if the letters had become shorter, and less frequent.
Had she been ill? Had she had an accident, broken her right arm? Surely though someone else could write for her?
The RAF wasn’t given to losing people’s letters for them. Perhaps a bunch of letters had been heading east as he had been heading west. He would get an early night and go to Trennels in the morning.
Roger woke up at midnight, sweating and cold, remembering what Bridget had said about how easy it was for a tractor to topple and kill its driver. If that had happened …..
If that had happened, someone – conscientious Ann, sturdy Nicola, someone would have written, would have told him. It was still too early to set out. He persuaded himself back to sleep.
When Roger woke at 4am, he didn’t even try to get back to sleep, but set out for Trennels. Crossing the bridge at Wallingford, he remembered that he hadn’t checked how much petrol was in the tank. Billington wasn’t the sort of fellow to accept the loan of a machine for a couple of months and hand it back running on the vapour, but Roger knew he had no reason to assume a full tank. He was in no mood to peer inside the tank in the dim beginnings of dawn.
By Newbury he checked – walking a mile or two with a petrol can wouldn’t speed up his journey. The contents of the tank would last him well into Dorset at least and perhaps as far as Trennels.
By the time he was approaching Salisbury, Roger decided that he may as well start keeping an eye out for somewhere to buy fuel. He found somewhere for breakfast first – strong tea, eggs and sausages with a couple of thick slices of bread and butter. The eggs were fresh and the sausages weren’t too bad. He should have enjoyed them more than he did.
At least Roger could honestly claim to have eaten breakfast if he was asked. There was a fair chance that breakfast would be comfortably over when he arrived. Switching off the petrol feed, he wondered if he was still a backdoor visitor.
Only one way to find out. There was no one human about in the yard.
Mrs Herbert answered the backdoor pretty promptly, sleeves rolled past her elbows. Washing up after breakfast, Roger guessed.
“Mrs Marlow had best speak to you, I reckon.” was her response, almost before Roger had finished his request to know if Rowan was about. Roger found himself ushered into the drawing room. There was a chill in the air that was not merely physical. If it was that obvious even to him, Roger thought, whatever the problem was must be serious. This was no mere case of muddy-footmarks-on-nice-clean-floors. (And in any case he had been careful not to.)
“Good morning, Roger.” They stood facing each other across the worn but originally good carpet.
“Hello, Mrs Marlow.”
There was a pause.
“I was hoping to speak to Rowan.” He had never thought that Rowan would shirk seeing him – even if all he had to say to him was goodbye. Of course, he hadn’t announced his arrival in advance either. She could well be on some far flung part of Trennels many acres.
“Yes, yes of course you are.”
The silence lengthened again. The mantelpiece was provided with an especially loud clock, which was doing its utmost to add to the awkward atmosphere. Mrs Marlow seemed to be inwardly flustered. Roger wasn’t feeling too calm himself, but he’s be damned if he was going to let it show.
“Yes, of course you are.” Mrs Marlow repeated. “You see, the thing is…I don’t suppose she has written to you, has she?”
“Not since the end of February. It was quite short – but it didn’t say anything to indicate that I would be unwelcome here.”
“Of course you’re not – unwelcome here I mean.” She sounded somewhat flustered now. “Only – well – Rowan isn’t here anymore.”
“Where is she?” Roger kept his voice quiet. He knew he had not managed to hide the tension in it. He wasn’t quite sure why this should feel like a battle - of sorts.
Roger remained silent. Mrs Marlow dropped her gaze again.
“I don’t have an address for her. She …..argued with her father and handed her notice in.”
“So….you don’t know where she is?” There was a slight trace of hope in Mrs Marlow’s voice.
“No. I don’t know where Rowan is. If I did, I wouldn’t be asking you.”
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you. I won’t trouble you any further. Good morning.”
“Good morning.” came the automatic response as Roger was already striding from the room. He had a reason for not wanting Mrs Marlow to see him to the door. His luck was in – it generally was – Mrs Herbert was still in the kitchen.
“Is it true?” he demanded, low voiced. “They really don’t know where Rowan is? I won’t pester her if she doesn’t want to see me. It’s just …”
“Quite true, Mr Roger. And if..”
A footstep on the quarry-tiled floor. Roger found he didn’t give a damn if Mrs Marlow was offered by him checking on her veracity.
London. That would be the next place to try. That Mrs Herbert, usually so careful to address him by rank, should address him in the same manner she had addressed Jon, suggested that something more was amiss than it seemed.
“Stand and deliver.”
Luckily, Roger had not been going very quickly.
“On a motorbike?” he asked, “It would have to be something very small.”
The taller, thinner highway person smiled a polite, humouring-the-grown-ups smile. The smaller, squarer highway person scowled even more deeply. Roger presumed she was still at the age when jokes needed to be laboriously explained.
“Are you Roger?” she demanded.
Roger restrained himself from saying “That’s Wing-commander Walker to you.” He had a suspicion he knew who she was.
“Yes. And you’re Fob.”
She nodded, not finding this strange. “If you know where Rowan is, you have to tell us.”
“I hoped you would tell me that. I won’t make a nuisance of myself if she doesn’t want to see me.”
The small, square highway person lost a little of her certainty and glanced at her brother.
“You were our last chance – well, probably our last chance.” Chas said.
“Nicola went to London to look for her in the Easter Holidays. But she wasn’t there.” Fob said.
“Not that Nicola searched the whole of London, exactly.” Chas explained,” but she went there for days – staying with a friend you know – and visited all the places they used to go to, and where they used to live. And she asked Patrick because they live in the house that they used to live in. Before, I mean, but only when it’s parliament.”
Roger nodded. He hoped Charles would manage a more comprehensible reply to his next question.
“Do you know why Rowan left?”
“You don’t have any idea why?”
“She said” Chas said thoughtful, face screwed up in the effort of accurate recollection, “that she had been sent away – effectively sent away. And a bit before, there was some sort of row and Ann came home for the weekend and then didn’t stay for all of it.”
“Does Ann know where Rowan is?”
Fob shook her head. Charles elaborated.
“No. Nicola went and asked her and she said she didn’t, even though Nicola isn’t meant to visit Ann. Fob hear d her telling Kay. But you mustn’t tell anyone else about that. You really mustn’t. Nicker-Nacker is OK you know.”
Roger gravely agreed that he did know.
“Only we have to go now to school. We’ve thought of an excuse – sort of, but it’s not going to be credible if we’re too late.”
He had intended to go to London, of course, wondering if Rowan and gone to stay with old friends there. There didn’t seem to be much point in that now. He had wondered if he should go to Kingscote and asking to speak to Nicola. Now it seemed likely that that would just get Nicola into trouble. North seemed as good a direction to ride in as any.
He had thought of riding straight to the Lake. He couldn’t take the risk that there was a letter waiting for him at Benson for him from Rowan. There wasn’t. He telephoned to tell the Mrs Blackett he was coming. She asked him if something was wrong. Roger could hear the gong being thumped arrhythmically in the background. Roger supposed, since it was Friday and the girls would be at school, that it must be young Robert. Nothing was wrong, Roger assured Mrs Blackett in a most casual and unconcerned voice, but he might be later than supper, since he was only just leaving Oxfordshire now.
All the small Walkers were ostensibly in bed by the time he arrived. Robert and Julia really were asleep. Jane padded out onto the landing in bare feet, wrapped her arms around him fiercely as high up as she could reach, said “Promise you’ll be here in the morning.” and padded back to bed, reassured.
He awoke from sweat-soaked nightmares at some time before dawn and wandered downstairs, touching items; feeling the texture of the polished wooden banister, the worn stair carpet beneath his feet, the cold metal of the gong in the hallway. The gong sounded slightly when he touched it. Roger didn’t think anyone would have heard. He padded on bare clammy feet into the kitchen. A cup of tea might help. Susan would say he should have a glass of milk, if she was here, but he didn’t feel like milk. The teapot was standing on the well- scrubbed kitchen table. It was still warm. There seemed to be enough left for another cup in the brown pottery depths although it was hard to be sure. The tea cosy wasn’t on the pot, so it couldn’t have been brewed that long ago and still be warm. There was still hot water in the kettle too. He made himself a cup of tea, being sparing with the milk and putting a couple of spoons of sugar in. He tasted it – not too badly stewed. Roger reached for a third spoonful of sugar and then paused. Was sugar still on ration? He supposed so. He used the spoon from the sugar bowl to give the cup a second more vigorous stir and drank it as it was.
(You might notice a passing reference to another mid-20th century children’s series here.)
It had clearly been daylight for some time when Roger awoke. His neck was stiff and his head was pounding, which seemed very unfair considering he had drunk nothing stronger than tea last night. Roger drank what remained of his bedside glass of water and padded across to open the curtains.
Captain Flint’s bedroom looked out over the yard rather than the lawn and the boathouse, but sounds drifting on the light breeze from the south suggested that preparations for a voyage were being made.
Some scraps of paper on the floor behind him stirred. They hadn’t been there last night. They looked as if they might have been slipped under the door.
Dear Uncle Rogger, Please wake up!
Dear Uncle Roger, please wake up. Mum says we can go to Wild Cat Islland.
And in larger, more wobbly letters Unkle RoGer Wake UP and Play wiTh us.
He’d better get washed and dressed then.
The creak of the floorboard on the landing brought an immediate response. Mrs Blackett shot out of the dining room below and tilted her head up to address him through the banister rails.
“I told Nancy you hadn’t slept well and she wouldn’t let Jane and Julia wake you. It’s only two hours until dinner time – but would you like some breakfast? We’ve got plenty of eggs.”
“Anne Bonny laid another one!” came a voice from the kitchen. Roger wasn’t sure which niece it was.
“Barbequed Billygoats, Jane, will you stop waving it round like that and let me boil it.”
“Will it be scrambled in the shell that way? Maybe Uncle Roger would like scrambled eggs better.”
“Boiled will be fine.” Roger said hastily.
Nancy came out from the kitchen. “Look, you may as well have breakfast now and then get washed and dressed. There’s not actually any hot water at the moment. I think I put a dressing gown in your room.”
If it was pink or frilly, Roger thought darkly, he wouldn’t be wearing it. He didn’t altogether trust Nancy’s sense of humour. The dressing gown turned out to be a perfectly respectable dark blue and grey wool, probably belonging to Dick rather than John, judging by the relative shortness of the sleeves and the two pieces of russet and orange striped rock in the pockets.
Breakfast, even with only one person breakfasting, was a lively meal. Only Robert remained silent – or perhaps speechless would be a better description, although Roger had to give Nancy credit for removing the saucepan lid and spoon from her son’s grasp and handing him a beaker of milk very promptly.
“Your uncle’s already got a headache.” she said.
“Actually I have.” Roger said.
Nancy went upstairs, leaving her mother to dispense the two boiled eggs carefully timed by Jane, and make the pot of tea, and returned with the bottle of asprin.
“Do you want toast, or will bread and butter do?” Mrs Blackett asked. “Cook’s gone to Kendal for the day and she’s the only one who ever gets toast right. I forget and Nancy takes it out too soon.”
“Bread and butter is fine.” said Roger, still listening with half an ear to Julia’s recital of everything that happened in the Easter holiday in no particular order.
“We were going to go to Wild Cat Island for dinner and cook it there, but then Mummy, Mum I mean, said we may as well have dinner early-ish and then go.” Jane said when her sister paused for breath. “What would you like to play before dinner?”
“Perhaps Uncle Roger won’t want to rush about playing.” Mrs Blackett suggested.
“I bet he does.” Julia said.
“I probably ought to wash and shave first and get dressed, don’t you think?” Roger liked his nieces, but rather wished they hadn’t inherited their mother’s loud, jolly voice. Nancy took the hint and put the already refilled kettle on to heat some water.
Mummy was being slightly odd again, Jane thought as they sailed towards Wildcat Island. Jane liked it when Mummy was being slightly odd, although she had found it difficult to explain why. Daddy had understood surprisingly well, though, when he had been home on leave last time.
“It’s not because of the odd things. It’s because she’s happier when she’s doing them. She more like my Mummy and not as much like – well you know how people, well you know people at school, well jolly nearly everyone’s mummy does the same things, you know about please-and-thank-you and looking-both-ways-before-you-cross.”
“I think you pretty much have to when you’re a parent.” Daddy had said. “Mostly it’s because we wouldn’t like it if you got squashed.”
“Oh, I know about that. I can see that it’s sensible and Mummy needs to do it. But I liked it in Malta, when sometimes Mummy did things that were like she had a plan a secret plan and no-one else can see all the pieces, so they don’t even know when there is a secret. I think that’s the best sort of secret. Not like Brenda at school.”
“What does Brenda at school do?” Daddy had asked.
“Oh nearly every day she says she has a secret and she’ll only tell if you promise to be her best friend. And then it turns out to be something everyone knows anyway, but she makes people promise not to tell and then does it to someone else and someone else and then cries and says you’re being mean if you tell her you already knew. I say “It’s entirely up to you” if Brenda says do I want to know a secret now. Granny Molly says it’s a politerer thing to say than “push off and stop showing off” which is what I would like to say.”
“I would definitely follow Granny’s advice. “ Daddy had said.
“But I liked it when Mummy had secrets and did odd things, like buying lampuka when we already had some and giving it to Nina’s mother, and saying she was tired and had to sit in a café and talk to the café lady, when I knew she wasn’t tired really, and buying slippers and bowls and things and talking for ages to the people selling them and not liking us to listen. I saw her hand over the money once and it seemed a lot for just a fish we didn’t even get to eat, but Mummy was still happy.”
“Have you mentioned this to anyone else?” Daddy said, and his voice had been careful and he had sat very still.
“No, only you because you understand things and you love Mummy too.”
“Good girl. Let’s keep it that way. Sometimes Mummy does very important things but it’s best and safest if they’re keep secret. They wouldn’t work properly otherwise. Don’t say anything to anyone, not Granny Molly, or Granny Mary or Auntie Peggy or anyone.”
“Not even Julia. Someone like Brenda might start showing off and saying Julia doesn’t know any secrets.”
“And Julia would tell her just because Brenda is really annoying and always has to be best even when she isn’t.”
“Exactly.” Daddy had said.
“Mummy’s very clever isn’t she?”
“Yes, very clever and very special.”
Jane remembered this when Mummy sent Julia and Jane back to the house to fetch Daddy’s compass – the one he had had when he was had first discovered Wild Cat Island and Mummy and Auntie Peggy – for the voyage that afternoon.
And when they had finished showing Uncle Roger Anne Bonny, Ching Shih, Mary Read and Back-from-the-dead-Red, who were wandering about pecking at things, and had given them all a little bit extra food, just to show how it was done and were telling Uncle Roger about the actors who had come and put on an Easter play in the biggest classroom in the school,
“Acting students really, from BAGA” Mummy had said.
“Well, they were quite grown-up anyway.” Jane had said.
“I’m going to be angel.” said Julia, “With glittery dust all golden in my hair.”
“….and we say next to Mrs Dixon and…”
“Jane, why don’t you go and see whether Granny would like a hand with the cabbage?”
Jane didn’t mention that she was still forbidden use the big sharp kitchen knife, but obediently ran back to the kitchen and waited a suitable length of time before she re-joined the others. (Granny had remembered about the cabbage, unfortunately, and predictably didn’t want help.) Jane even changed the conversation herself at dinner when Granny seemed about to mention something about Mr Dixon breaking his leg.
Jane knew that there had been three small bottles of lemonade and two bottles of beer when they had packed the picnic in Swallow that morning, but now there was a kettle and a packet of tea and a milk-can instead. She had been looking forward to the lemonade, but still didn’t say anything. (Mummy said Cook had used to make lemonade for her and Auntie Peggy, and would do again when sugar stopped being rationed and it was loads better than the lemonade you could buy in Rio.)
When Mummy suggested that they take Swallow and Amazon, Jane wasn’t very keen on the idea. It wasn’t going to be much fun for the one in charge of making sure Rob didn’t fall in, life preserver or no life preserver, while Mummy sailed Amazon and Uncle Roger sailed Swallow. Jane knew exactly who that person would be. Jane still said nothing, but felt rather relieved, when Uncle Roger said there was plenty of room in Swallow and they could have a race another day, if Nancy liked, with Robert safely left at home.
Once they were out of the Amazon River and Mummy had explained to Uncle Roger how the spit of shingle had shifted position a bit last year, Uncle Roger took the tiller and steered all the way to Wild Cat Island. Like Daddy, he didn’t seem to want to talk much when he was at the tiller, but he was conversational enough once they got to Wild Cat Island and told them about how Daddy had climbed the lookout pine to put the lantern up there, and how Auntie Titty had captured the Amazon, just when it seemed that the Swallows had lost the war that first summer. They had shown him the leading marks which Mummy had repainted that Easter with them to help her. They had thrown stones in the water (Robert’s current favourite occupation) and Uncle Roger had tried to teach them how to skim stones without much success, although he got 7 bounces three times in a row.
Mummy had laid and lit the fire and was boiling a kettle to make tea. She had already poured some milk for Rob and was just starting pouring for Julia and Jane when….
Jane wasn’t quite sure exactly what had happened. It wasn’t as if any of them were particularly near Mummy or had jostled her. Still there is was, all the milk except the small amount in Rob’s mug, was soaking through the not yet completely-decayed-leaves from last autumn and into the soil.
“Never mind, proverbially no use crying. We can drink it black well enough.” Uncle Roger said.
Rob made haste to start drinking his milk. Jane wasn’t sure if that was because he might be asked to share it or in case his mug too might mysteriously fall over.
“We can – but what about the girls? Julia doesn’t drink tea at all. And Jane only drinks it with loads of milk. And I’m not letting them drink out of the Lake – I don’t exactly look forward to dealing with the consequences for one thing - if it can be avoided. We’ll just have to go to Dixon’s and see if they’ll let us have a little.”
“It’s rather late in the day for that.” Roger said doubtfully.
“Even half a pint would be enough,” said Mummy, “although a pint would be better. We came to sail, after all.”
“By the time we’ve embarked the crew it will be pretty much time to go back to Beckfoot.” Uncle Roger pointed out.
“It isn’t a school day tomorrow, but you’ve got a point about the crew. I’ll stay here with them and you go, unless you’d rather…”
“No, no that will be quite alright, I’ll go.” And Uncle Roger took the can with him and set sail for Dixon’s farm with as little time wasted as if he had been Daddy or Mummy.
“Are we marooned?” Julia asked.
“Yes,” said Mummy, “but possibly not for very long. We’d better make the most of being shipwrecked on a deserted island.”
“Can we build our own shelter?” Julia asked.
“Yes.” Mummy said, “But no using sticks from the woodpile – find your own. And you’d better drink your milk first.”
“But we haven’t got any milk. That’s what Uncle Roger went to get.”
Mummy uncrossed her legs, stood up and brought a cup from its hiding place in the wood pile. There was enough milk in it for Julia and Jane to have a third of a mug each.
Julia set off to look for sticks, Robert trailing after her.
Jane looked solemnly at her mother. Mummy looked back, not quite so solemnly.
Jane didn’t quite know what to say. Instead she pointed to the six mugs in term. The crinkling round Mummy’s eyes was joined by her usual wide grin.
“I’m probably being over –optimistic.” Mummy said. “But you never know until you try.”
“I still don’t understand. I’m mean, I can tell that you’re up to something and Daddy said never to say anything to anyone else if you’re up to something, except for maybe you and him but only privately. Only I’d like to know.”
“If it was my secret I’d tell you, “ Mummy said. That gave Jane a warm feeling somewhere inside in a way she couldn’t quite explain to herself. “but it would be jolly rotten of me to tell someone else’s secret.”
Jane nodded. “It’s Uncle Roger’s secret, isn’t it? And you’re doing something for his own good.”
“I hope I am.” Mummy said. “I can’t completely be sure, but that part is up to other people. And I think perhaps I’d better rinse your mugs out now."
"In the harbour," Jane suggested, " so that Uncle Roger can't look back and see."
Mummy laughed and gave Jane a big hug.
Rowan had not experienced it before herself, but she knew that it wasn’t unusual to think you had seen at a distance someone you thought lost from your life, only to find as the figure came closer that it was someone who bore only a very passing resemblance to the person you were missing. That the man entering the farmyard from the other side with a milk can in his hand looked like Roger was no surprise. Before the man lifted his head from fastening the gate, Rowan would not have been surprised to discover that this was “John that married Nancy Blackett” and was already changing her course across the yard to avoid arriving at the backdoor at the same time as him.
Then he turned away from the gate and lifted his head. It was Roger. Of course no-one else in the entire world could be mistaken for Roger, nor could he be mistaken for anyone else. Roger dropped the can and held out his arms in clear invitation. One response was so right, and all the others so wrong, that there was no decision to be made.
It was a full minute, perhaps two, before anything at all was said.
“I thought I might have lost you forever.” It was only a whisper, and she felt his jaw muscles move against her cheek and thought that he might be biting his lip as he held her a little more tightly.
“I’m sorry.” Rowan realised how crashingly stupid and utterly unfair she had been. “I just didn’t know how to explain…”
“You don’t have to. Not now. Not ever if you really don’t want too.”
Mummy was really very good indeed at being an Amazon pirate. Jane and Julia (and Susie) had been Amazon pirates since they were born, but as Susie had pointed out they couldn’t really remember that long. Mummy had been an Amazon pirate for much, much longer so it wasn’t really surprising that she was easily the best at being marooned properly and didn’t even mind when it went on for quite a long time.
They would have done a bit better at building the shelter, Jane thought, if Julia hadn’t kept telling Mummy that it was their shelter and that Mummy wasn’t to help. Perhaps it was the failure of the shelter that made Julia start to worry that Uncle Roger had forgotten about them and had gone straight back to Beckfoot. Mummy told Jane to take Robert with her and go and sit under the Lookout Pine and then Mummy started to make a shelter without saying anything about it. She just did it. Julia started to help her. The longer they were marooned, the happier Mummy seemed to be. That probably meant Mummy was a proper pirate.
When Jane saw Uncle Roger coming back down the field towards Swallow, there was someone with him. Jane didn’t think much about that until she saw that the person got into Swallow too. Jane wondered who it – and then remembered that a look-out’s duty was to warn the others, not sit about wondering who it was. It was quite difficult to persuade Rob to leave the pine cones and come back to the camp with her.
Mummy grinned when Jane told her there was another person in the boat. Jane thought that meant the plan was working.
The other person was the lady who had sat next to them at the Easter play. Jane knew she worked for the Dixons, but wasn’t really sure why Uncle Roger had brought her back with him. Jane didn’t mind too much, though. Miss Marlow was a sensible sort of person who didn’t say silly things, such as “Oh look, you’ve got a pretty dress on.” which was what Brenda’s mother had said to Julia. It was, after all, unlikely that Julia would fail to notice that she was wearing her best dress.
Miss Marlow didn’t seem quite as cheerful as she had been at the play. Perhaps that was not surprising. The play had been jolly good and quite exciting, even though everyone knew what was going to happen anyway. She had brought a can full of milk with her, though.
Mummy seemed almost in a hurry to get tea over with. This was made a bit easier by the fact that Uncle Roger and Miss Marlow didn’t seem to want to talk very much. Jane would still have rather liked some more to eat when Mummy suggested that Roger and Miss Marlow sail them across to the west side of the Lake and they would walk home while Roger took Miss Marlow for a sail in Swallow. Jane didn’t think this was a very good idea, but it was probably part of Mummy’s plan. In the end they compromised and Uncle Roger sailed them all as far as Auntie Titty’s cottage and they walked back from there. Robert got tired and whiney quite soon and Mummy carried him. Glancing back, Jane thought that Swallow was heading back to the island. Anyone would want to see Wild Cat island, of course. Jane rather wished she had been allowed to stay on Swallow and help show Miss Marlow the best bits.
It was bedtime by the time Uncle Roger came back to Beckfoot. Perhaps he hadn’t been sailing in the dark exactly, but he must have been sailing in the twilight for the last bit of the way. Jane could hear him humming “wraggle-taggle gypsies” and then a murmur of voices in the hall. She couldn’t pick out many words, but she heard the word “devious” and heard Mummy chuckle and say “but you have to admit it worked” and then there was a further conversation with the words “race” and “both of them” and “enough wind”. Tomorrow was Sunday. Monday and school were ages away. There were plenty of hours for adventure. Jane tried to work out exactly how many, but fell asleep before she had finished.
“I think it might be better,” Roger said, “to find somewhere quiet to sit and talk. That’s if you want. Only I would like to be concentrating on you, not Swallow. Would you mind if we went back to Wild Cat Island?”
“That would be fine.” Rowan said, “Only I shouldn’t be too long.”
Roger had heard Mrs Dixon telling Rowan to take all the time off she needed. On the other hand, perhaps Rowan was carefully establishing an excuse.
“I’ll take you back to the Dixons’ just as soon as you say. I can’t be too late anyway. Sailing in the dark here would be a mug’s game anyway. John might forgive me if I damaged Swallow, but I’m not so sure his daughters would.”
The landing place would do well enough. It was Rowan who led the way back to the camp. Whatever her uncertainties were, she was still her confident, competent self underneath it all. He sat down quite close to her on the log bench. She moved just a little closer to him.
Reassured, he thought it was probably safe enough to say, “I went to Trennels.”
She glanced at him swiftly.
“Before I came up here. I started from Benson early. Didn’t arrive at Beckfoot until well after the kids had gone to bed.”
“You seem to have ridden both far and fast.”
If that was a quote, he couldn’t place it. “Yes.”
“Did you speak to anyone? At h… At Trennels.”
“At Trennels? Yes. Your mother. And Mrs Bertie, although she didn’t say much. Your mother told me that you’d had a row with your father and given notice.”
“That’s true – as far as it goes.”
Roger tilted his head and looked at Rowan, waiting to see whether she was going to ask or say anything more.
“Charles mentioned that they thought it had something to do with Ann.” he added, after a pause.
“It did.” Rowan said. “But you said you spoke to mother and Mrs Bertie.”
Roger told her about the highway persons. “So I didn’t go and ask at Kingscote. I thought I might get Nicola into some sort of trouble.”
“Just as well.” Rowan said. “The thought of Keith poking around …. She’s so unpredictable. All psychology and no rational thought. Ginty’s been in shedloads of trouble and she doesn’t like Nicola much. It would be pretty rotten if… look here, Ann’s not done anything illegal or dishonest. Don’t think that. If she’d been less honest … But it’s pointless blaming Ann for being Ann.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” Roger said, rather hastily. “Especially if it’s Ann’s secret.”
“Well it is. It would have saved rather a lot of bother if she had kept it secret, but what’s done is done. And I suppose I could have kept my mouth shut.”
“If I had to choose between John, say, and my parents, I wouldn’t necessarily choose my parents.” Roger said carefully. “Not that they would. Make me chose, I mean.”
“Especially if John was merely being overly scrupulous and your parents were being bigoted fools?”
“Especially. Not that they would. Well John might be overly scrupulous perhaps.You mother was very careful not to say what you had argued about with your father.”
“She would be. I’m rather surprised there aren’t any “shameful bundle” stories going about. Or perhaps there are but no-one’s shared them with Charles and Fob.”
“I’m pretty sure there aren’t, or Mrs Bertie would have gone for me with the mop good and proper before demanding that I do the decent thing by you, instead of calling me Mr Roger.”
“Gosh, she does hold you in high esteem.”
“Reflected glory from you, I suspect. If there are sides to be taken, she’s not taking the one against you. Rather tight-lipped and frosty she was. I was rather afraid that you’d decided you’d had enough of me and she thought I was making a nuisance of myself.” Roger said.
“But didn’t you …look, I’d never say that I’d left Trennels just to get rid of you.” There was a slight note of hurt in Rowan’s voice.
“But you never said you’d… look here, the last letter I’d received was dated the middle of February. Was there another after that?”
“Yes. March. After I’d left. Posted from Keswick.”
“It must have missed me then. I suppose it will catch up. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. I suppose if I’d told you all about it – only I didn’t know how to explain without seeming ….It would be quite a lot easier if it wasn’t family. Sometimes.”
“Look, we’re both here now. That bit doesn’t matter.” Roger squeezed her shoulders gently. By the tension in Rowan’s voice maybe this wasn’t the moment to kiss her.
“Well it does when the letter catches up. I didn’t want to drag you into it, you see. Only now I don’t want you to think…” This time Rowan’s sentence petered out because she was trying so hard not to weep, rather than because she was reluctant to put what she thought into words.
“If the letter contains my marching orders they’re already countermanded?” Roger suggested.
Rowan nodded, pressing her lips together. Roger drew her closer. “Look, I don’t know the half of it – and I’d say you were more than entitled to have your cry out.”
Rowan, face buried in his shirt nodded as well as she could.
Roger hadn’t been in the least surprised when Nancy suggested that the race promised to Jane and Julia should be from the Beckfoot boathouse to the Dixons’. Nancy had grinned when he suggested that the first crew to reach the Dixon’s farmyard would be the winners. Roger didn’t even need to look inside his knapsack to know there would be a picnic for two in it and that both Amazon and Swallow had a kettle safely stowed in them. Roger didn’t for one moment believe that Nancy’s tendency to plotting would extend as far as not doing her best to ensure Amazon beat Swallow. He had no compunction about choosing Jane to be his crew. Even so, Nancy had been clever – as she always was – to start a race with the cargo stowed but the boats moored in the boat house, sail not yet set. It was clever in more ways than one. I was the sort of thing that Father would have done. Roger was impressed by the efficiency with which both nieces set about their tasks with the minimum on instructions, Roger thought it wasn’t the first time that John’s family had organised a race in this way. Daily practice had its effect, and Amazon was sailing passed the Beckfoot promontory while Swallow was still in the Amazon River. Had the wind been from the north, Amazon would have won handily. Had the wind been from the south, the fact that Amazon could have sailed closer to the wind might have helped her beat Swallow. This was one of the rare days when the wind on the Lake was from the west. That gave Swallow a very good chance indeed.
Swallow did indeed get to the little landing place by the reeds first and, as instructed, Jane left it to Roger to make the painter fast and ran up the narrow footpath through the field of cows as fast as she could. Roger had only just started out after her when Amazon and landed and Julia hopped out and scurried after her sister. Roger soon outdistanced Julia – not before hearing the forlorn cry of “wait for me” and “it’s not fair”. Nancy had always been good on hills, and the slope was steep, but he doubted she could beat him up to the farm. Jane stumbled and fell, picking herself up from the soft springy grass before he could reach her and continuing, this time at a hurried walk rather than a run. He caught up with Jane, caught hold of one hand to help her.
“I’m not a baby. I’m nearly an able –seaman.” She snatched her hand back but didn’t pause.
And here was Rowan, running down the hill to meet them. Roger left Jane to go at her own pace and went ahead.
“You were in the one with the brown sail, weren’t you?” Rowan asked as they reached each other.
Roger didn’t even reply before he kissed her. He did managed a mumbled “Of course” and a grin somewhere between kisses.
“Come on, Uncle Roger.” Jane passed them. Roger ignored her.
Half a minute later Jane’s voice came from much further up the field, loud and clear and very like her mother’s.
“Miss Marlow, don’t you understand about winning races and things? Mummy and Julia have nearly caught up. They’ll get there before Uncle Roger if he doesn’t get a move on and then Swallow will lose.”
It was Rowan who broke off the kiss and, before Roger could apologise, called out to Jane, “I’ll show you winning.” and ran up the hill after the nearly-able-seaman. When Rowan caught up with Jane she grabbed one hand and pulled Jane along with her a little faster, but not too fast. Roger had to make more of an effort than he would have liked to admit before he caught up with them and grabbed Jane’s other hand. They reached the farmyard before Nancy and Julia.
“Only by a little bit.” Julia was quick to point out.
“Do you want to steer for a bit?” Roger asked Rowan as Amazon turned north and Swallow turned south.
“Won’t your brother mind? If it’s his boat.”
“Why should he? It isn’t as if you’ve never sailed. And I’m here if you get into trouble, which you won’t.”
“It’s a long time since I have sailed.” Rowan admitted.
She didn’t think that she did badly. It wasn’t quite like riding a bicycle, or swimming or riding. Rowan suspected that there was more that she might forget about sailing – but then she had never known as much about sailing. She certainly wasn’t glad when Roger took the tiller again as they neared the farther shore of the lake.
“”It’s the pike rock.” he explained. “I told you about the shipwreck didn’t I? There it is anyway.”
And there is was, and there was a tiny cove, just as perfect in reality as Roger had described it.
“I’m quite happy just to spend the day here, if you like.” Rowan said, answering his earlier question. She hoped it wasn’t the wrong thing to say. By Roger’s fleeting half grin, she thought it wasn’t.
The stream coming down into the cove made fascinating ripples in the clear water, with the pebbles underneath sparkling in the sun. It was asking to be paddled in, so paddle they did. Then they sat drying their bare feet in the sun and the breeze, and talking of what Roger had been doing and what Rowan had been doing. And if they both picked out the amusing incidents and left out the bleaker moments – and they both did – it didn’t matter really, not then. Then they decide that after all it really wasn’t too early to make a start on the picnic.
“Picnics.” said Roger, surveying the contents of the string bag from Dixon’s farm and his own generously-filled knapsack. Both Cook and Mrs Dixon had provided food for two.
“Mrs Dixon’s normally generous.” Rowan remarked, “but you do seem to be something of a favourite.”
“No, that’s Dick.” Roger said, almost absently as he set the portions of pork pie and the hard boiled eggs out on the enamelled plate. “Or Dot.”
“Dick’s your brother-in-law, isn’t he? The one who’s married to Titty?” Rowan asked. “They have the boat with the red sail? I saw it on the Lake at Easter.”
“Scarab, yes, that’s them. Dot’s his sister – Dorothea. You won’t have seen her at Easter. She lives in the Hebrides. “
“Oh, the one with twins?”
“Do you want to walk up to Swallowdale?” Roger asked, after they had both eaten enough.
“Would you mind very much if we didn’t? Not today anyway.”
“I’m more than happy to hear you say we’ll leave something until another day. At least that way I know there will be another day.”
“I’m sorry. I was stupid.”
“Not stupid. Daft maybe. Lots of otherwise clever people are daft sometimes. And it’s
OK. It really is. We didn’t lose each other – and there isn’t any point worrying about what might have happened.” There was a pause. “Although it was always a bit difficult to convince mother of that. Susan too, sometimes.”
“Mother tries to pretend she doesn’t get in a flap, but she does.”
Roger said nothing. Rowan thought he said it rather expressively. She wondered what her mother had said to Roger. She wondered what Roger has said to her mother.
“Did you have some sort of row? With my mother.” she asked.
“No. “Roger said and then perhaps realising it might have sounded rather curt. “No, I was rather careful not to.”
Rowan thought that perhaps this wasn’t the time to ask why Roger had been “rather careful not to”. She wasn’t at all what the answer would be; she wasn’t quite sure what she hoped the answer would be.
They had both been sitting side by side facing the Lake. Roger half turned his head towards her and smiled – that flashing lightning quick smile he sometimes had that was gone from his mouth almost as soon as it arrived, but lingered around his eyes.
“So would you like to sail again, or stay here for a bit?” he asked.
“Stay here for a bit.” Rowan replied. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
“I was rather hoping you would say that.”
Eventually, Roger had to take Rowan back to the Dixon’s in time for her to help with evening milking and for him to read the Winnie-the-Pooh story promised to Julia, Jane and Robert.
“Only I’m sure I’ll turn out not to do the voices as well as John. It would help a little if the kids could explain exactly how John does the voices of course. Jane has offered to read Piglet’s bits though.”
“I should think the little one – Julie is it? -could do Roo. Roo doesn’t actually say very much, I think. Can’t your sister-in-law explain anyway?”
“Rabbit is Welsh – South Welsh she says although how I’m meant to tell the difference I’ve got no idea.”
“Nancy has no idea. She thinks John doesn’t either really. I’ll just have to do my best. If they like it, well and good, and if they don’t I won’t have to do it again. I do think I should make the effort though. I’ve sort of abandoned them today and they’re back to school tomorrow, except Robert of course. May I see you – or will you be at work for the whole of the day? What about the evening? I’d ride round on the bike – we could go into the village if you liked.”
Rowan paused. “I think I’d like that.”
When they got back to the farm, though, they discover that they didn’t have to wait that long to see each other again. Mrs Dixon was very pressing in her invitation to Roger to come for dinner the next day.
“The little girls will be at school and I daresay that Miss Nancy will be busy with the washing and little Robert. You’ll have a lot to talk about with Rowan I’ll be bound.”
Mrs Dixon was certainly going out of her way to signal her approval of Roger as Rowan’s boyfriend. It wasn’t that Roger cared in the least what Mrs Dixon thought, but it was certainly going to make things easier.
And why was Nancy flying the old plague flag from the flag pole on the promontory?
He soon found out. Pyjama-ed, dressing-gowned and in gumboots, Jane met him half way up the lawn, somewhat conscious of the importance of her errand and making heavy weather of lugging a large basket with her.
“Robert’s gone and got chicken-pox and we’re still not allowed to stay off school and you haven’t had it, Mummy says , so you’d better not come into the house and here’s the key to Auntie Titty’s cottage and your stuff and some things for breakfast and your supper and Mummy says it was only aired out yesterday so everything should be alright and can you come round tomorrow morning so you can talk about things by standing on the lawn and shouting a bit, only you can’t now because she’s only just got Robert off to sleep and he cries when Mummy isn’t there and Granny says he can’t help it because he’s ill and only little and they’re both terribly sorry.”
“Thank you. There really isn’t anything for them to be sorry about. I’ll come after breakfast tomorrow then shall I?”
“Could you come in time to sail us to school in Swallow please?” Jane asked, adding conscientiously, “It’s quite nice sailing with Mummy, but you haven’t ever taken us to school before and we’d like that.”
Roger promised to sail Jane and Julia to school the next day.
Nancy Walker to John Walker
Poor Robert has gone and got chickenpox just when I thought he had probably escaped it. Mother says he was very grumpy indeed when Roger and I sailing yesterday with the girls, but she thought at first that was just because he was feeling left out. By teatime he definitely had a few spots though, and a few more came out today. He’s still feeling rather sorry for himself, poor kid and doesn’t want to do anything but sit on my lap or Mother’s. I rang the doctor first thing this morning, although I was in two minds about whether I needed too. Anyway, she said that she may as well call in, as we’re on her way back from other patients and to expect her sometime after 1 o’clock. I think myself that Robert is going to have it the most lightly of them all, as he still doesn’t have as many spots as either Jane or Julia did.
Poor Roger has been summarily evicted from the spare room on Susan’s advice and has gone to stay in Titty’s cottage. He won’t be staying there long though, as he suddenly decided that the houseboat really needed more airing than Titty’s cottage, probably because of its proximity to Dixon’s farm. The reason for this sudden enthusiasm is called Rowan Marlow – the lass who has been working for the Dixon’s and wouldn’t confide in me at Easter. If her trouble was parental disapproval of Roger as a boyfriend , I could quite see why she felt she couldn’t – although I’d quite enjoy giving them a piece of my mind in that case. It would serve them right if I did drive down to wherever it is – the west country somewhere I think - and tell them what I thought and if Robert gave them chickenpox so much the better. It would be rather hard lines on Robert, who is currently sitting on my lap and isn’t going to budge for anyone. Roger is bringing the girls home from school today, so he won’t have to.
I’ll write tomorrow.
With lots of love from us all,
PS. Doctor has just been – yes, it’s chickenpox, but nothing to worry about, she says and Robert will more than likely be feeling better tomorrow, though he’ll still be spotty and infectious.
Roger would fetch the Norton from Beckfoot tomorrow, or perhaps the next day. Working out the logistics would wait. All his stuff had been packed, but he hadn’t been able to carry much on the Norton. When his parents had moved abroad, Roger had left the few bits and pieces that he hadn’t taken to Benson with him at Susan’s.
When he unpacked his clothes properly and laid them out on one of the settees in the house boat he discovered that a couple of John’s shirts and one of John’s woollen sweaters and four pairs of John’s socks had been added, as well as the dressing gown and pyjamas that were probably Dick’s. Right at the bottom of the basket were a pair of shorts that were undoubted his – they had a name tape in them – but Roger couldn’t remember them. When he tried them on they wouldn’t quite button around the waist. He thought – and then remembered when he had last worn them. August 1939. They would probably fit if he moved the button. There was his knapsack too. Unlike the shorts, it looked as if it had been roughly used in the intervening years. Someone had carried an ink pen in it, which had leaked blue-black ink though the canvas. Perhaps Bridget has used it as a satchel. Roger changed out of his shirt into one of John’s, decide that John’s sweater, too, was more presentable and remembered to take the basket with him in Swallow. He would need to buy some more bread and potatoes, at the very least, in Rio when he collected Julia and Jane from school.
Roger was already in the kitchen, carrying dishes from the stove to the table under Mrs Dixon’s instructions when Rowan had finished washing her hands and came in from the scullery. It seemed that Mrs Dixon and Roger were jointly engaged in making sure they had their own way about the important issue of meals. Since they both want the same thing, matters were going very smoothly and by the time they all settled down to eating the shepherd’s pie and cabbage, it had been settled that Roger was to come to the Dixon’s for his midday dinner every day unless arranged otherwise. Mrs Dixon was stoutly resisting Roger’s attempt to pay something towards his keep, since it was to be a regular arrangement until Mr Dixon intervened.
“The lad’s worked hard enough for his money – let him spend it how he likes. And if he likes not to be beholden for his dinner, well and good.”
Mr Dixon had resumed his habitual silence for the most of the rest of the meal, speaking only twice more; once to ask Roger how he thought things would go in Korea “now and down t’road a bit” and once to suggest that Roger would be quite welcome to keep his motor-bicycle in the barn nearest the road. “Handy-like.”
“I have some spellings to learn.” Jane announced at the school gate. “Julia doesn’t have any homework because she’s too young.”
“I bet I could learn Jane’s spellings.” Julia said.
“I bet you could too.” Roger said.
“Are we going to the post office?” Julia asked hopefully as they walked along.
“Only we don’t have any sweet ration left.” Jane said. “Or any money. So unless Uncle Roger wants to post a letter, maybe we’re not.”
“I do want to post a letter.” Roger said. “Several of them in fact. And I want to buy a rod licence.”
“Are you staying a long time? Mummy says it’s the wrong time of the year for fishing and it’s against the law to do it now, because the fish are busy having their babies so there will be enough of them.”
“I was hoping to stay for quite a time.” Roger said. “But I could still fish now if I fished for trout.”
“Daddy does sometimes, but I don’t think he’s ever caught any. Are you better at fishing than Daddy?”
“I like to think so.” Roger said.
“Do you have any sweet ration left?”
“Julia – that sort of hinting is rude! I’m sorry Uncle Roger. She is only four though, so sometimes she doesn’t understand. You aren’t offended are you?”
“I’m not offended, but I do have other plans for my sweet ration than giving you two tooth decay.”
“We clean our teeth very carefully.” Julia assured him, still hopeful. “Otherwise they might go black and fall out and then we could only eat porridge and soup.”
“Julia!” Jane hadn’t quite got the voice of awful warning right yet. Probably no-one did it quite so well as Susan, but it was, Roger admitted to himself, a sufficiently credible attempt to make keeping a straight face challenging.
It was probably too early in the year. He would go and ask anyway.
The middle-aged woman behind the hotel reception desk smiled benignly at the young Walkers cheerful greeting. “Yes, Wing-Commander Walker, we do have a regular dinner dance on Saturdays. Would you like to reserve a table?”
Julia and Jane were playing some complicated game involving stepping on the black and white tiles in a certain sequence. Their shoes were clean enough and they weren’t getting in anyone’s way.
“Yes, for two, please.”
It wasn’t London, but it was the nearest he was likely to find. Billington was a reliable friend and would have forwarded his evening gear by then. Even by the Lake, Roger could hardly turn up to dance in a pair of old flannel bags and John’s old jumper.
Dick said nothing, but looked at the maltreated book rather expressively.
“It wasn’t Edward.” Titty explained. “He was with me the entire time in the bathroom, being calamine-lotioned, although I don’t think it makes any difference really.”
“I thought Rosie was too young to be able to use scissors. I remember how long it took Edward to learn.”
“I didn’t think she’d be able to use that wooden spoon she loves to reach over the side of the playpen and knock them both down so she could reach them through the bars.”
Titty said. “Although I think she knocked it to the floor outside the playpen and then pulled it in. It’s lucky they were Edward’s scissors, not the big ones, because she was sucking the handles too. Not that I’d have left the big ones out where Edward could reach.”
Dick nodded. He found a pencil stub in his pocket. The edges of the book were so snipped that writing on it wouldn’t make any difference now. He wrote the date neatly in a margin and added: Rosie cut this book with scissors aged 2 years and 2 months.
“Pretty good going really.” He said. “It’s just going to be difficult to teach her the difference between paper you can cut and paper you shouldn’t.”
“I told her she must ask me first and she asked all afternoon. That’s why there’s a shredded newspaper in the wastepaper basket.”
“It isn’t as if we were planning to have fish-and-chips.”
“Not on Monday.” Titty agreed. Her tone changed slightly. “How would you feel about my going to the cottage for a few days? Taking the children, of course. They’re both perfectly well in themselves now. It’s just a question of keeping them away from the students.”
“You could see Roger,” Dick agreed, “but what about them giving Roger chickenpox? I thought you said that he hadn’t had it. Are you just going to fly the quarantine flag and shout to him from Scarab?”
“Well we might. The children would like to see him. At least Edward would and Rosie won’t be left out,” said Titty, “but Nancy telephoned while you were down at supper to say that Robert has started Chickenpox on pretty much the last day he could have done – although I’ve rather lost track of that. So Roger spent Sunday night in the cottage but decided to move to the houseboat. Anyway, Nancy would look after our two with Robert at Beckfoot while I visit Roger, and we can sail around the houseboat in Swallow and wave at him altogether too, of course.”
“Has Captain Flint still got that cannon?”
“I don’t know, so don’t mention it to Edward, will you? He’ll be so upset if it isn’t there anymore.”
“So will Roger. Why has he moved to the houseboat?” Dick asked.
“Her name is Rowan Marlow. She’s the girl who is working for the Dixons.”
“Blonde curly hair? I saw her from a distance when I went across to see Mr Dixon. I didn’t introduce myself – she had her hand part way inside a sheep, it looked like. The one who was meant to come to Beckfoot for the day but couldn’t and Nancy took her sailing instead?” Dick said thoughtfully.
“Yes, and Mrs Dixon and Mrs Blackett were convinced she was quietly nursing a broken heart about something. Only she wouldn’t say.”
“And Roger is rather taken with her? Let’s hope the broken heart isn’t unrequited pining for some other chap then. What happened to the girl he took to see your parents before they sailed for the Caribbean?”
That was one of the good things about Dick. Just because he didn’t necessarily comment at the time, didn’t mean that he wasn’t listening, although it might do, of course. And once he had listened, he remembered.
“This is her.” Titty said
“Didn’t she run the family farm in Dorset? What she’s doing working for the Dixons?”
“Nancy says that there seems to have been a row, only Roger doesn’t know about what and she left – or was told to leave. Pretty much disowned.”
“Poor kid. And totally unreasonable if it was about Roger. Even if they think he’s a bit old for her, that isn’t the way to handle it.”
“He isn’t thirty until September.” Titty said. “And if she was actually running a farm I should think she would have to be twenty-one at least.”
By Tuesday, Robert was feeling very much more like himself.
“He’s much less clingy.” Nancy explained to Roger from a judicious distance across the lawn, “I can take the girls across to school tomorrow while mother looks after him.”
“But can Uncle Roger bring us back? Or you can both bring us back and we can have a race.” Julia paused in her rather unconvincing attempts to do cartwheel in the springy, daisy-strewn lawn.
“I’m quite happy to bring you back.” Roger said, “but would it be OK, Nancy, if I walked into Rio from the Dixon’s and you brought me back here to pick up the Norton?”
“Of course. I’ll have to go to the post office after I’ve taken the girls to school, but that won’t be a problem will it?”
“Hello Dick, yes, no, it isn’t Peggy, it’s me, Nancy. Look, no need to go charging about the whole hall looking for Titty. Yes, Robert’s much better thank you. Roger got Titty’s letter. I’ll come and pick everyone up from the station in the car and run them round to the cottage. It’s a pity you can’t come too, but it can’t be helped. Yes, she put which train in the letter. The Dixons send their best wishes of course, and Mother and Cook. Gimminy, time up already. ‘bye. Don’t forget to tell Titty.”
Good for Roger. He had opened up the cottage and had got the fire lit and the kettle was hot enough to be boiled quickly.
“I know I’ve got to keep my distance from young Edward.” Roger assured his sister from a cautious distance. “I’d better sail over and fetch Jane and Julia from school in a minute – they’re not infectious. But there’s a pork pie for supper and I’ve got you potatoes and carrots from Rio. And Mrs Dixon says will you come over to dinner tomorrow? You can meet Rowan then without these plague carriers infect them.”
Titty Callum wasn’t quite as Rowan had expected her to be. She was a tall, slim woman, but not very tall. That was more or less where the similarity with Roger stopped. Rowan had thought Roger a very good-looking man when she first saw him, quite apart from how she felt about him now. Titty had a pleasant face but Rowan thought her no prettier than average. The middling brown hair was parted at the side and the ends of the chin length bob were slightly curled. Rowan thought that if she could see Titty, Lawrie would say she was far too plainly dressed for an artist. Rowan liked Titty the better for it. Titty’s smile was friendly.
Rowan was just finishing the last of her mashed potato when she noticed Mr Dixon give Mrs Dixon a slight nod.
“Doctor called round today.” Mrs Dixon began. “and as says Dixon’s leg is in a fair way to mending near as good as ever, but we’ve been thinking. We’re not as young as we were. It does a farm no good to have the farmer come as a stranger and have all to learn sudden-like. That’s a hard row to hoe for a body. Dixon’s cousin’s lad as lives in Maghull wrote back that he’d like to try his hand at sheep and he’s Dixon’s cousin on his uncle’s side, which makes it fair and square. T’farm came to us from Dixon’s uncle and it should go back to that side – that’s only fair. Only it’s mostly cabbages and such down there, so he won’t know how to go on at first, and his wife, June, who’s got her head screwed on right enough, says mebbe they’d better see if it suits all round before ‘owt’s promised. So long and short of it is, Ronnie and June and little Judy are to come up and give it all a year’s trial. Ronnie’s boss won’t keep the job open for him and ‘taint reasonable for him to do so, but Ronnie’s a good lad and reliable-like and if it don’t suit, well no hard feelings and June reckons he’ll find another job back down there well enough. Only Ronnie’s boss that he’s with now says it’ll suit him find to let Ronnie go at the end of next week. They’ve been living with June’s mother, so there’s no notice to be given and Ronnie says he’s got the feeling she’d be glad of the room back what with June’s brothers near grown-up now, though she never says ‘owt and she knows well enough they’d find a place of their own if they could, only that’s not so easy. I was thinking I’d have that little trundle bed out and put little Judy in with her parents and you’d be in the bedroom you are now. We can’t being doing without you just yet, not while Doctor says Dixon’s got to take it easy still and Ronnie’s got all to learn about sheep and near all about cows. Only now Titty has a suggestion.”
Even from Mrs Dixon, this was a long speech. Mrs Dixon busied herself serving the syrup sponge while Titty explained.
“This is only a short term idea, of course, but then Mr Dixon’s leg will soon be better. We have the cottage and Nancy chivvied the builders pretty well – it’s quite comfortable. But my husband is warden of a hall of residence and we have to be in Leeds until the end of term – until the beginning of July that is.”
After shearing and haymaking then. Mr Dixon had already told Rowan, after that first week that, however well or badly his leg healed, they would need her until the hay was in and the sheep sheared.
“And since Roger, for some reason,” Titty grinned at her brother, “Seems to prefer the houseboat to our comfortable cottage, you may as well live in it. The cottage I mean. You’ll still be here for your dinner and tea.”
“Breakfast and supper, too, if you’re wanting it so.” Mrs Dixon put in. “And it’s a quick step along the road to Beckfoot if ‘owts amiss.”
“You can borrow Scarab to come across to work. Not that I’ve had time to ask Dick or Dot – Mrs Dixon only told me about this today – but I’m sure they’ll say yes. Roger says you sail pretty well.”
“We’ve sprung this on Rowan sudden-like.” said Mr Dixon. “Let her think on it a bit. There’s no call for you to say yea or nay today. Tomorrow will do champion.”
“Galoots, that we are.” said Nancy after tea, as Titty bundled Rosemary into her coat Rosemary into coats Edward put his coat as slowly as possible to delay the moment of parting with his cousins. “There’s no point at all in Roger living in the houseboat to be nearer Rowan, if Rowan’s living in your cottage. It would make more sense for her to stay in the houseboat and Roger to live in the cottage.”
“Would Captain Flint mind?”
“Not he. Not a scrap. And if her family think she’s a black sheep – well, he’ll have fellow feeling. We’ll write of course, but there’s no telling when he’ll pick up his post and it will take weeks to get there. But we’ll ask Mother what she thinks if that will make you feel better. Barbequed Billygoats, girls, if everyone has got their coats and shoes on by the time I count to 20 we’ll walk as far as Auntie Titty’s cottage with her.”
“Robert too?” Julia asked.
“Robert too. We’ll wrap him up warmly.”
“It’s more itchier to be very warm.” Edward warned his aunt, suddenly becoming able to manage his buttons quite well, apart from the stiff one that he always need help with.
“I’ll bear that in mind. Just warm, but not too warm.” Nancy assured him. “Mother’s in the garden. We’ll ask her once everyone has their coats on.”
“We’ve got our coats on – well nearly.” Jane said, holding out her brother’s coat. “and you forgot to count, Mummy”
“That’s was to get you all to shake a leg – and it worked. I don’t need to count now.”
They went outside to find Mrs Blackett tucking stray rose shoots into the trellis rather gingerly with Edward, Julia and Jane shaking a leg occasionally as they walked, to the uncontrollable hilarity of all the children.
Rowan Marlow….Rowan Marlow….. Last summer – last autumn were such a long time ago. Did he still have that letter from his mother….probably not, John thought. He was sure that his mother had mentioned that Roger’s new girlfriend had a father in the navy who had served with Father. As did Giles Marlow. The name wasn’t that unusual, of course. John was less certain that mother had mentioned that Roger’s girlfriend had a number of sisters and lived on a farm in Dorset. Perhaps he was just mixing up the two Marlows? A runaway sister might certainly give rise to a bit of preoccupation. And for all his confident smile and fundamental confidence, Lt Marlow wasn’t anywhere close to having the concentration on the job in hand that he had shown when HMS Bravery had been in the Mediterranean however cleverly Marlow might think he disguised it. Perhaps a more direct approach would yield better results.
“Do you have a sister called Rowan?”
It was a question that admitted of only two answers – three if you counted “I won’t tell you, sir.” John had chosen the question for that very reason. “No” of course brought him no further forward in finding out what Marlow’s problem actually was. John needn’t have worried. The relief… and something else … that flickered across Marlow’s face told John the first thing he needed to know.
“Yes, sir. Do you know where she is? Has something happened to her?”
“She’s safe and well – and I suspect rather well fed too.”
A brief grin passed over Marlow’s face. “She could do with that.”
There was a pause. “Where is she, sir?”
“I think it would rather unfair of me to tell you that. I’m very sure she would be able to write and tell you that herself if she wanted to.”
“Yes, only …. I can’t write to her …. And she’s so bloody independent … and she might assume that … well, I don’t know.”
“If you wanted,” John said carefully, “I could probably have a letter passed on to her. It would be entirely up to her if she chose to accept or read it. And I don’t think it would be fair of me to do so more than once.”
“Could you sir?” and this time Marlow’s tone was the relief and hope of a school boy who had just been extricated from a seemingly dreadful jam by a kindly and trusted adult.
“I can’t guarantee that she’ll either read it or reply, but yes, I can. And it will be made clear to her that she can pass a letter back to you without you seeing the postmark, too. And I promise to do so whether or not you chose to answer my next question.”
“Thank you sir. Which is? The question I mean.”
“Has this anything to do with the fact that you haven’t really been firing on all cylinders for the past few months? It might be a good idea if you told me something about this business. It’s obviously bothering you.”
Peter Marlow to his friend Selby:
Well, I might have offered to look after the farm if it was all happening now. I mean Jon dying and so on. But not now – I’m not such a clot. Rowan’s been treated fairly shabbily I think. She can be irritatingly good at things and doesn’t bother hiding it, but she’s a decent sort. And at least she had advice and the old farm manager to learn from at the beginning. Whoever takes it on now won’t be able to do that and I’m not idiot enough to let it be me. And God knows what sort of being Giles will take it upon himself to marry – you can’t say Karen has set a good precedent. So number 2 son will be quietly looking out for number one – not frittering his youth away looking after number 1 son’s inheritance only to be booted out on a whim.
Rowan Marlow to Ann Marlow.
..I wasn’t going to write to you until I was settled, but I suppose I’m settled for the time being – at least until after hay making. And lambing has thankfully finished. From that you can probably work out that I’ve got a job. The couple who own the farm are ….Rowan paused. It wasn’t as if she was still at school, and she couldn’t be bothered to think of a better word. …very nice and friendly. He broke his leg earlier in the year and is currently on the mend. So don’t worry about me. I hope things are going OK with you. ….She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Rowan Marlow to her sister Nicola
…I’m OK, although I haven’t managed to escape farming yet. Still I’ve got a job and somewhere to live for the time being. Very comfortable it is too. Good luck with the School Cert. (and to Lawrie too, and to Ginty in her Highers.) I’d rather not tell you where I am, because it makes things easier all round if you can honestly say you haven’t the faintest clue…
Dorothea McGinty to Titty Callum
…. yes, of course Rowan can borrow Scarab – or at least my share of her which means Dick’s share will come too but I'm sure he has already said "yes". If Roger says she sails well enough, then I’m sure she does. What is she like?...
Molly Blackett to Peggy Brading
And what’s more, I still haven’t met this young lady of Roger’s. At least I have, but I didn’t know she was Roger’s young lady at the time. Nancy says on no account to “give the poor girl the feeling she’s been inspected” so I shall have to go and enquire after Mr Dixon’s leg.
The hotel’s determination to overlook the events of the last 15 years was in some way poignant rather than pathetic. Rowan had been wondering whether the dark blue evening dress would be overdressing – people were, after all on holiday. She had not been able to convince herself that the woollen suit, however beautifully altered, would be the right thing at all. Before Mrs Blackett’s visit and her flow of artless chatter, Rowan had decided that the Doris-made cotton would be the least bad of her options. The glow in Roger’s eyes when she met him at the kitchen door in the blue grosgrain, key already tucked away in the beaded evening bag made Rowan glad she had decided against the cotton.
The long frock had not been as difficult as she had imagined on the motorcycle and now here they were crossing the black and white-tiled floor passed some large potted plants to enter a room that was rather too big for the number of guests. The small orchestra at the far end played as if they had been playing together for the last fifteen years, merely getting greyer and more lined. A white-haired violin player caught Roger’s eye, waved cheerfully, transferred her bow back to her right hand and came in again exactly where she should.
“I’ll introduce you to Miss Letty when she’s less busy.” Roger said. “At least, I think she’s Miss Letty and not Miss Hetty. I’ve not seen either of them before the war, but Nancy told me they both played here on Saturdays. They’re sisters.”
“There’s another lady who looks very similar, but she’s playing the viola.”
“That will be her then. The viola’s the one like the violin but bigger isn’t it?”
“Yes, but once they put their instruments down that won’t be any help.” Rowan said.
“It won’t be any help anyway.” Roger said cheerfully. “Because I wasn’t listening when Nancy said which of them played what. I can’t remember the surname properly either, but it won’t matter. Neither of them is in the least bit stuffy. Shall we dance? Someone has to be first.”
Any of her family would have curled up inside at being one of the first couple to step onto an empty dance floor and start dancing, even probably Lawrie. For the first three steps of the dance, Rowan felt as if she should. But then, after all, where had being a Marlow or family duty got her? Here she was in the arms of a man who didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought, but still cared about other people. There were many better things to be than a Marlow and being the woman Roger Walker loved was definite one of them. The sigh and the smile were both involuntary, and she hadn’t really noticed she had done either until Roger asked her what was up.
She smiled again. “Just that I love you. A lot.”
“I’m extremely glad about that. It would be terribly awkward otherwise.”
Nicola would have loved the houseboat. Rowan could not help looking curiously around her borrowed domain herself. The interior of the boat was panelled with stained and dragged wood, but, apart from the cupboards under the seats of the long settees that ran down either side of the cabin, there was very little of the walls to be seen. Partly this was because the windows were large and let in plenty of light despite the curtains, neatly tied back from each one; mostly it was because of the sheer number of things fastened to the walls. There was a clock, of course, and a barometer, and a long bookshelf over the door into the fo’c’sle, and a shorter one just below it both crammed full of books, mostly non-fiction and many rather battered. All of this didn’t say very much, perhaps, about the absent Mr Turner, but the other things fastened to the walls said plenty. There was a boomerang and a digeridoo and a bamboo flute. There were models of various types of sailing ship – a catamaran and a brightly coloured wooden fishing boat like the one Giles had had when they were small children. Rowan assumed that was Maltese. There were ceramic plates and a brass tray and weapons and things Rowan simply had to assume were weapons because she could not imagine what else you could to with them. There was an exquisitely painted and lacquered papier-mâché tray showing a scene that Rowan thought might be from a Russian fairy tale and a very small, beautiful carpet.
“It’s so exactly as you would expect the room of someone’s much travelled uncle to be, that it almost isn’t real.” Rowan said aloud.
“Well Captain Flint is real enough.” Roger said.
“Sorry – I didn’t mean … and it’s very kind of him. Are you sure he really doesn’t mind?” Rowan said.
“Nancy said that Mrs Blackett said that she was sure he wouldn’t. There hasn’t been time to have a reply yet apparently. It’s not a telegraph sort of thing.”
“No.” Rowan agreed. “What country is he in?”
“You know, Mrs Blackett didn’t mention where. Nancy didn’t either. I suppose that means they don’t know, but they seemed quite sure that a letter would get to him eventually. Or he might come home first again, I suppose.”
“That could be awkward. And what do you mean, again?”
“That was the winter the Lake froze over and Nancy got mumps and gave us all an extra holiday. Nancy had talked the doctor into bringing up the key to the houseboat and asked which of us was sleeping there. We hadn’t even thought about it, not really, but Peggy…”
Roger told the story pretty well, Rowan thought, and by the time he had finished, he had shown her how to light the stove and the primus, and they had made themselves a pot of tea, and were sitting at the long narrow table drinking it. Roger returned to the former conversation.
“You know – I never really thought about it. It does seem odd.”
“Captain Flint. I mean when you’re a kid you don’t really question it. Mostly, I suppose because it’s what you’d do yourself, if you could – travel about and have adventures. And the Amazons told us that – oh never mind. I suppose I’m just talking a bit too much because I’m nervous.”
Why on earth would Roger be nervous? And what extreme circumstance would force him to admit it?
“Nervous of what?”
“You might say no.”
“I really like the idea of living in a houseboat. And I don’t walk in my sleep or anything.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask.” And it was an extra stillness about him that made her realise what he was going to say before he actually said it. She nearly said something then, nearly asked him to ask her later, not now, not when it would still feel so much like being rescued. But the possibility that she might be presuming too much and the soul-shrivelling awkwardness that that would cause kept her silent for a moment, so that before she had really made up her mind he had turned to her and said,
“Will you? Marry me I mean?”
And it was so very, very important not to say the wrong thing, not to make the mistake that there would be no going back from.
“I’m definitely not saying no.”
There was a long pause. A very long pause. She tried to get her thoughts in order. She couldn’t look up at him.
There was something different about Roger’s voice; it was both gentle and ragged when he said,
“But you’re not saying yes either, are you?”
That made her look up at him. And there was a lump in her throat and she dared not trust her voice. Rowan looked down again. She nodded her head slightly. She couldn’t quite manage to stop the few shameful tears that would force their way past her eyelids. It seemed a very long time before he drew her head onto his shoulder. She put her arms round him and felt him stiffen slightly.
“Are you going to tell me why?” his voice was tense.
And she did. It came out jumbled, jumping backwards and forwards through time. And she started crying again and stopped.
“So you’re saying.” Roger said slowly, “that you don’t want me as your husband because you think I might be a good husband?”
“It’s not that ….” This was all hopeless. You’d think I’d get used to pulling the wreckage of my life down around me.
“….. and I do want to be married to you, it’s just that, well people….” Rowan trailed off again.
“That what other people say is more important. Thank you. I think I understand now.”
“That’s not what…” but he was already threading his way passed her suitcase and out on to the deck. She sat there for a moment or two, perhaps longer, because when she followed him out he was already in Swallow and hoisting the sail. She knew he knew she was watching him.
She didn’t say it very loudly, but he must have heard because he looked up and gave the smallest of nods before Swallow slipped away from the houseboat.
It was definitely time for a drink, Roger decided as he made Swallow fast at the little jetty. Exploration of the kitchen cupboard revealed exactly one bottle of beer. It looked frankly inadequate, but Roger was in no mood to ride to the foot or the head of the lake to buy more. He took the bottle back to the little jetty. Edward had made a little pile of stones for throwing into the lake. He hadn’t really selected the best ones for skimming, but they would do.
Roger finished the beer. There was still plenty of light left. He didn’t feel like cooking supper and it was too early really. He looked up the cottage and walked along the shore road, forcing himself to walk as quickly as he could. He turned off the road before he reached Swainson’s farm and skirted passed it, far enough away from the farm not to set the dogs barking. At least he had judged that right. He continued up to Swallowdale. It was all pretty much as he remembered it. There was no point looking inside Peter Duck. He gave a wry, twisted smile, remembering the catastrophic, as he had then thought expedition there with Dorothea. Something to be thankful for. Quite a lot to be thankful for really. They would have bored each other stupid. Rowan wasn’t boring. Maddening, perhaps, but not boring.
He climbed up out of Swallowdale to Trout Tarn and the Watchtower still determinedly ignoring the beauty of the landscape. The light was beginning to acquire a golden cast, although there was plenty of time yet until sunset. He set out in the general direction of Beckfoot. It probably wouldn’t help him sleep any better, but the thought of sitting in the cottage and trying to concentrate of any of the modest collection of books on the shelf wasn’t to be borne. He as about half way across the moorland and the long daylight was definitely weakening when he realise that arriving at Beckfoot would be even worse. The children would be in bed, which would leave Nancy free to come out onto the lawn to talk to him. Nancy would be surprised he wasn’t spending the evening with Rowan. Even if she was tactful about it, the last thing Roger wanted to do at the moment was spend the rest of the evening talking to his overly hearty brother’s wife. He turned instead downhill. He would find a way back to the shore of the Lake somewhere well short of Beckfoot.
He poked about in the food cupboard on his return to the cottage. He couldn’t be bothered peeling potatoes. Even the tinned steak and kidney pie didn’t really appeal. In the end he fried a couple of eggs and made a sandwich of them, pointedly ignoring the lettuce sitting on the kitchen table.
His investigations had revealed a bottle of whiskey at the very back of the cupboard. He had never quite understood his sister and brother-in-law’s particular liking for the drink; it seemed in some way out of character. He recognised the name though; this was a single malt and was probably a Christmas present, or perhaps a birthday present from Dorothea. He shouldn’t open it. He looked more carefully. It had already been opened, but very little had been drunk from it. One each, most probably. Perhaps one drink, after all, would not matter. After a little while, Roger decided that perhaps he could see what the fuss was about, but it was not after all, his present. An idea, which had less than half-formed in Swallowdale suddenly developed details and became a whole plan. It might not come to anything, but it was worth a try.
Titty’s tin of writing stuff, when he found it still had Swallow’s ship’s papers in it. Roger’s fountain pen was still in the houseboat. So were his toothbrush, flannel and shaving kit. Titty had taken her fountain pen back to Leeds with her. Roger settled on a pencil. He would be very surprised indeed if Titty did not have a spare toothbrush tucked away in the little bathroom cabinet – visitors for the use of, as Rowan would say.
I was rather hoping that the next time I wrote to you, it would be to tell you that I’m engaged to be married. No such luck. The sticking point is that she’s soon to be out of a job and has been chucked out by her father. (If any man ever deserved the black spot! I’d be inclined to set Nancy on him, but I’d rather have the pleasure of dealing with him myself. That’s not the important thing just at the moment.) Anyway, Rowan (and I feel sure Mrs Dixon has probably written to you about her. )might be rather more inclined to accept my suit if she had a job – and one in Oxfordshire, preferably south Oxfordshire would be even better. So since you’re the only person I know with any particular connection to the area I wondered if you might know anyone who would like to employ a hard-working, honest, well-organised, well-educated and absolutely wonderful young woman?
It was fairly unlikely of course, but at least he had made a push to do something. He probably should enquire after the small McGintys and the not quite so young chieftain too. He finished the letter, finished the drink and went to bed and slept, albeit poorly.
Roger had left some of his things in the houseboat. A towel, toothbrush, flannel, soap, shaving brush and razor. Rowan was sure it was an accident. He had left them to pack at the last minute, and then taken his departure – a more dignified one that Rowan thought she could have managed in his place. Nevertheless, it was somehow reassuring. Rowan suspected that she wouldn’t sleep that night.
She fell asleep almost immediately but awoke later in the darkness. She lay listening to the noises of the tiny wavelets lapping against the houseboat, missing the tawny owl that had hooted occasional near her window at the Dixon’s. There was a brief quack. Was it that close to dawn already? Apparently not, because the quack was not repeated. Did ducks quack in their sleep in the way that dog’s sometimes yelped and twitch their paws while they dreamt? And the sudden vivid picture of Tessa asleep in the warmth of the kitchen brought an unexpected wave of homesickness, so strong that she must have missed the slight bump of a boat coming alongside. She didn’t miss the sound of someone tripping and falling heavily on the deck though, nor the muffled exclamation. It sounded like no curse she knew, either mild or stronger, but an oath was an oath in any language. Rowan flung the blanket of the bed and reached out for her jersey, ducking into it as she continued to listen. There were footsteps, then the sound of metal on metal. It sounded as though someone was trying to pick the lock.
Once, before the war when Great Uncle Lawrence had been alive and she had been quite small, she had seen a terrier take a rat at Trennels. She had been impressed, fascinated and horrified in equal measures: not by the fierceness of the terrier – that was expected- but by the fierceness of the rat. Later – in the same summer she thought – she had seen the same terrier confront Mrs Bertie’s cat, Smudge, when the cat had tried to help himself from the dog’s food. There has been sound and fury on both sides but no actual fighting and after a few seconds, Smudge had suddenly remembered urgent business elsewhere.
“Sensible dog. Much better to let the vanquished foe escape.” Great Uncle Lawrence had remarked.
Rowan wasn’t sure about her ability to achieve any actual vanquishing, but letting her opponent escape before he actually became an opponent suddenly seemed like a very good thing.
“Oy, who’s there?” Her voice came out more highly pitched than she had expected or intended, but at least she hadn’t drop the torch when she grabbed at it and switched it on.
“I beg your pardon. I have the wrong boat. I do apologise.”
Footsteps. A descent into a boat, less stealthy this time. Some rather splashy rowing. Silence – apart from the occasional quack.
Rowan knew enough about early rising after too little sleep to know that she was fine now. but would be fuzzy-minded and flagging by noon. She had locked Scarab’s rudder and oars in the houseboat cabin. Her post-office book, birth certificate and purse were in her pockets. The house-boat was as secure as she could make it and it was time to go and milk the cows. Even in just one night, this borrowed space of her own had become far too precious for her to risk losing it again so quickly. She wasn’t going to mention last night’s adventure to either of the Dixons; she was sure that adult though she was, they would put their foot down about her staying there by herself. And, adult though she was, she would find herself giving in in the face of their genuine concern.
The only person she would tell about it would be Mrs Walker. It was, after all, her uncle’s houseboat. The problem of course would be to speak to Mrs Walker without Mrs Dixon wanting to know why. If there had been a fair breeze, there would have been a good chance of Mrs Walker sailing down the Lake after taking her daughters to school. In this flat calm, it was more than likely that she would row them across and then row straight back. Rowan wondered if Roger would come to the Dixon’s for dinner as usual. Perhaps, if he did, should would tell him about the middle of the night intruder and ask him to speak to his sister-in-law about it.
He did indeed, but before that, Nancy Walker herself came walking along the road from the direction of Holly Howe, carrying young Robert piggyback. Usefully, she seemed as eager to speak to Rowan without other ears as Rowan was to speak to her. Rowan paused in her gate repairs. Robert picked up the hammer and sucked thoughtfully on the metal end.
“Robert isn’t infectious anymore, so I thought Mother and Cook would like a childfree day. Did you sleep well on the houseboat?”
Rowan explained about the intruder. Nancy Walker listened intently and without exclamation.
“Can you remember the word? As well as you can?”
“gov no? something like that?”
“But he called out in English? And you’re sure it was a man’s voice?”
“Yes – at least I think so – I didn’t think about it at all, really – just knew that it was.”
“Well don’t think about it now. You’ll only start second guessing yourself. How did you know it wasn’t my uncle? It definitely wasn’t by the way.”
“I didn’t that for a moment. I couldn’t say why. Not really. Your uncle would certainly know his own houseboat - and know that there wasn’t another one on the Lake.”
“And before that?”
“I don’t know. The strange word, perhaps.” Although now Rowan thought about it, surely strange exclamations and oaths were exactly what you would expect of one of Nancy’s relatives. Robert was hitting a tussock of grass experimentally with the hammer. “And the footsteps and clumsiness. Someone would know where everything was on a boat they’d lived on for years. And the accent wasn’t like yours.”
“I didn’t think I had an accent.” Nancy said. She grinned. “I suppose everyone thinks that about themselves.”
“Well I don’t have one.” Rowan retorted quickly. Nancy laughed. Rowan smiled back. She might not find Nancy completely comfortable company, but she was finding she liked Nancy a lot more with a little less jolliness. “You don’t really, either. I mean someone could tell you were from the north of England if they listened enough and thought about it, but they couldn’t get closer than that. Not unless they were an expert in that sort of thing. This voice was educated too, but almost …. as if they had been brought up by the BBC.”
Nancy nodded. “Look here; don’t worry too much about it. It’s probably someone – some visitor –chancing their arm and being nosy – or even perhaps fancying a week’s free accommodation. It would be common knowledge that the houseboat is frequently empty. It may not even be a coincidence – they might have picked up that Roger had moved to Titty’s cottage but not that you had moved to the houseboat. Not that you actual seem shaken by it.”
“I’m not. No chance to worry about it before it happened.”
“You’ll do.” Nancy grinned, “Although it’s not for me to say so, of course. Robert’s better for all practical purposes and Mother really wouldn’t mind me spending a night in the houseboat, just in case, providing I’m there to take the kids to school in the morning.”
“I’m really not bothered by it at all. I’m sure the man wouldn’t come back.” Rowan said hastily. She was entirely sure she didn’t want Nancy’s company overnight, especially if there was any chance of further discussion with Roger.
Nancy gave her a measuring look then nodded once. “Fair enough. No need to bother Sammy with an official report either. Nothing taken and it’s not even breaking and entering. I take it you haven’t mentioned this to the Dixons?”
“Definitely not. I don’t really want them to insist on me staying here. Who’s Sammy?”
“Policeman. I know him fairly well. Would you mind if I borrowed the key and the rowing boat and had a quick look about the houseboat before I write to my uncle?”
“Of course not.” Rowan pulled the key from her pocket.
“As well now as later.” she said, and Rowan thought she was speaking to herself.
“About your brother Giles…” Nancy began.
Rowan looked up sharply. Perhaps Nancy misinterpreted it.
“Oh he’s perfectly alright. His commanding officer has noticed that something appears to be on his mind though, and has had a word with him.”
“Your husband commands HMS Bravery? You never mentioned the name of the ship.”
That grin again. It made it very hard to be angry with Nancy.
“I try not to put on side.” That grin again. It made it very hard to be angry with Nancy. “Come to that, you didn’t mention that you had a brother in the navy at all, let along which ship he was serving on.”
Rowan held her silence.
“We did put two and two together, the pair of us. Neither of us will tell anyone who doesn’t already know where you are. Don’t worry about that. But John did reassure Giles that you were alive and well. And he did offer to pass a letter on from Giles to you.”
Nancy pulled the letter out of her pocket and handed it over. It was addressed simply “Rowan”.
“I hope you can forgive us the interference.” Nancy’s voice was gentle. Some part of Rowan’s mind that grasped at trivialities thought it somehow incongruous. “It will be the only interference, we promise you that. You can return the letter, destroy it, read or unread, reply or not as it pleases you. If you want to reply without saying where you are, once or more than once, that can be arranged too. John told him that we would pass on no more letters unless you wish it. We won’t let you be pestered.”
“Thank you. I’d… I’d like a bit of time to think about it, if you don’t mind.”
“Take all the time you need. Look, I’ll leave you the rowing boat and walk back to Rio..”
“Sorry. Childhood pretend games. The village. I’ve got a few things to buy anyway and Miss Hetty and Miss Letty have invited Robert and me to lunch. I’ve left our rowing boat by the boat builders. I’ll row round with the girls after school and inspect the houseboat and see you then, but if you need more time to decide, that will be fine too.”
“I’ve got tomorrow off work completely.”
Nancy grinned again. “See you later. And the day after tomorrow too then, most probably. Robert, it was kind of Rowan to let you borrow her hammer, but you have to give it back now. Say thank you.”
Robert looked up rebelliously. “Mine.”
“No it jolly well isn’t.” His mother assured him, removing the hammer from his grasp and wiping it with a clean handkerchief before handing it back to Rowan. “See you later, Rowan. Come on Robert. Are you going to walk or do you want a piggy back?”
Robert waved to Rowan, ignored his mother and started stumping down the lane to Holly Howe in silence.
London. A few days after the events of chapter 36.
Jim Turner picked up his letters on his return to London. Three from Molly. Two from Peggy. Rather unusually, three in Nancy’s untidy scrawl. As usual, he opened the most recent first. “The kids” had had chickenpox but had recovered. He’d have to read the previous letters to find out which of the kids had suffered. He was fairly sure some of them had had it already. Or perhaps that was measles. And who was Rowan?
Nancy’s most recent letter was rather more interesting although she seemed, as usual, to have the matter well in hand. Again, who was Rowan? And why was he (Jim looked again. Nancy’s handwriting wasn’t the best, but that looked as if the word was “she”, rather than “he”, yes, it was definitely an “s”) sleeping in the houseboat? Nancy wrote as if it was something he had already agreed to, but then that was Nancy. The enclosed note, written in pencil by Jane made him smile.
….Mummmy rowed us around the houseboat a bit too and Julia and me looked for clues and I found one and here it is. And Mummmy stayed in the houseboat last night and I think it was to see if she could catch the buggler but he never came back and so she couldn’t. I think he was scared because Mummmy is very brave. …..
The Garrick club wasn’t the sort of place that Jim would usual choose to eat his lunch, but his company today (and two of them wrote a damn good yarn – better, he would cheerfully admit than Mixed Moss) was good and so was the lunch. Eventually, three of them remained at the table. Both the others would be amused by the incident on the houseboat, which didn’t seem related at all to anything he had done since the war. Besides, Jane’s letter, obviously written without assistance, was really pretty good for someone who was only just six. Certainly better than Nancy or Peggy could have managed at that age.
“The lass is quite right.” said one of Jim’s companions, removing his spectacles and holding the scrap of paper close to his eyes for a better look, as short-sighted people after a certain age very often do. Jim wondered for a second whether the paper would get caught in his friend’s walrus moustache. His other companion, a thin, clean-shaven man, probably slightly younger, gave a short laugh at the salutation of the letter.
“ “Dear fat uncle Jim”?” he enquired.
“Peggy – my other niece – is married to a chap called Jim.” Jim explained.
“The child is quite right. A Cyrillic letter. And written, as she observes, in “grown-up ink” and not the washable sort. Someone has been a little careless.”
“And a little unlucky. Mind if I use this, Jim? It could be a useful little sub-plot.”
“Hornblower back to the Baltic again?”
“No, this is an earlier one. Set earlier, of course, I mean. I was thinking French.”
“It would have to be a whole word then. Or at least a smaller fragment.”
“I was thinking a numeral.”
“Seven.” Jim said
The thin man flashed a grin at his companions. “Exactly. Too good to waste. Fog will be the thing. And perhaps not paper.”
Thanks to Jane being so pleased with her own cleverness, Rowan found she could not keep the news of the previous night’s intruder from either Roger or the Dixons. She had to admit that Nancy’s handling of the situation was masterly. It was made quite clear to Mrs Dixon that Rowan would be perfectly alright because…and here it became less clear …Nancy would be spending the night in the houseboat, so that would be alright because Rowan would have company... or possibly Roger, Nancy and Rowan would spend the night in the houseboat… or but then Nancy also seemed to have implied that she and Rowan would spend the night in Titty’s cottage, while Roger guarded the houseboat. All this seemed to make perfect sense to Roger although Rowan was quite sure they had had no time to confer, and the Dixons were happy that Rowan would not be left to face possible burglars by herself, and that the houseboat would not be left unguarded. In fact, the only problem seemed to be that it was now time for afternoon milking and Rowan herself had no clear idea of where she would be sleeping that night. Nancy volunteered to help her with the milking.
“Of course I can. Mary Swainson showed me how when I was about Jane’s age. I’m just not very good at it.”
“Look Nancy, what is going on? You’ve got me completely confused now. I don’t really mind where I sleep tonight, as long as I’m sleeping somewhere, but I would like to know.”
“Well if I’ve confused you, I’ve confused everyone else too, so that worked. Where would you like to sleep tonight? You’ve got the choice of the houseboat – but you’ll have to put up with my company and possibly Roger’s, the cottage either by yourself or with Roger, or at Beckfoot if you’d rather. Mother won’t mind.”
“Why do you want to confuse everyone? Surely you don’t think that the intruder is anything to do with the Dixons?”
Nancy laughed, startling the cow she was milking. It was quite a loud laugh.
“Sorry, cow,” she said, “That’s why I’m no good at this really. Of course not. But Mrs Dixon will be appalled at the idea of you spending a night in the same house as Roger unchaperoned and even more appalled at the idea of you spending a night in the cottage by yourself. I, on the other hand am perfectly well aware of the fact that the cottage has three bedrooms, even if one of them is a bit small. It also has a rather nice bathroom, if that’s any inducement. As I say, it’s up to you.”
“Oh.” Rowan paused, “Really don’t suppose I ought…”
“Do what you want. They’re none of them bad choices. Wouldn’t you tell me that, if the positions were reversed?”
For the second time in less than a minute, Rowan found herself at loss for words. Then she pulled herself together.
“Yes, Yes I would. And I think I would prefer the cottage.”
Nancy nodded. “One of us had better let Roger know then. And,” here Nancy peered at the unimpressive volume of milk in the bucket. “This old girl doesn’t seem to like me very much. Perhaps I’d better leave you to it and rescue Roger from the kids and row home. Luckily I’ll have enough wind to sail Amazon back to the houseboat after we’ve done tea and baths. I’d be inclined to sail Scarab back to the cottage, if I were you. I’d rather she didn’t get involved in any trouble that may happen – although I suspect it will be nothing doing. Just someone trying it on.”
A few minutes later, Roger came into the milking shed. It was the first chance they’d had to speak today free of other ears – or at least only with hairy, tagged ears that flicked back and forth between the important business of eating and a desultory interest in the conversation or the humans.
“Nancy’s up to something.” he said, “She usually is.”
“Mostly she seems keen to ensure that I can spend a night in the cottage with you, if I want, without actually scandalising anyone.”
Roger laughed. “I’d like to say that Nancy never surprises me anymore, but that wouldn’t be true. And I bet she wants her own adventure on the houseboat by herself – although I really don’t think she’ll have one.” He paused, and Rowan could tell he was trying to make his tone of voice casual. He didn’t completely succeed. “What did you decide?”
“I told her that I’d rather spend the night in the cottage.”
“I suspect you wouldn’t have a restful time in the houseboat. There are three bedrooms in the cottage you know.”
“Suppose I said that I might like to sleep in the same bed as you?” There. She had said it. The roof of the milking shed had not fallen in.
He was speechless for a moment, but only a moment.
“Really? You’re sure?” It probably wasn’t possible for a human being to smile more widely. “That’s wonderful.”
There was a rather long silence in the milking shed. At least, a rather long human silence. Then the cows got impatient and all mooed at once.
“Don’t pretend that you lot have never seen anyone kiss their girlfriend before, because I know for a fact you have.” Roger grinned at the disapproving bovine glares. “But I should be going now. I need to ride back via the head of the lake and buy a few things before the shops close. It’s lucky it’s not half-day closing. You’ll row across as soon as you can won’t you?”
“Nancy said to sail Scarab across.”
“She’s got a point. You do know I love you, don’t you, Rowan?”
She smiled and kissed him again. “If I didn’t know it I’d be spending the night with Nancy on the houseboat. Go on before the shops close.”
Fortunately Roger had reached the chemists before it shut, and before he left the village he had remembered Rowan mentioning that she liked whiskey and had bought a bottle of it. A half bottle would have been much easier to carry, but it was Hobson’s-choice-and-lucky-to-get-it. And then there was the matter of cooking a meal for them both. He rather regretted now the number of times he had made sure he was somewhere else when Susan wanted a hand with the cooking, but he had potatoes and bacon, so he bought tomatoes as well and some mushrooms. He couldn’t carry any more on the Norton, or he would have bought eggs too.
There were eggs, sitting in a bowl on the doorstep of the cottage when he got back. There were three of them, each with something pencilled on the shell in rather wobbly letters: AB, MR and BFTDR. Tucked in among the eggs was a note. The writing was far too neat to be Nancy’s.
Eggs laid this morning. Look in string bag on hook by door. MB
And there was a small lettuce and a good chunk of Cook’s rich, sticky ginger cake, wrapped in paper.
Roger detached some snails who were eagerly making their way up the door jamb towards the lettuce and cake, and lobbed them gently into a nearby hydrangea. He unlocked the door. He could cook an impressive enough meal for Rowan with this. There was not after all, much in the way of tidying up to do before she arrived, since he had only spent a night in the cottage so far this time. He hoped Rowan would think to bring his shaving kit from the houseboat.
Everything that needed peeling, slicing and being partly boiled had been peeled, sliced and partly boiled. The table was laid with a white cloth and Titty’s blue and white Cornishware plates. The kettle was hot. Now it was just a question of waiting.
It was a long way to row.
And she’d have to go back to the houseboat for her things first. Surely she wouldn’t have to wait until Nancy got back to the houseboat.
Maybe she did.
And here she was. She had brought Scarab and so of course she had had to tack up the Lake against the light wind that had sprung up that afternoon. She had changed out of her farming clothes too; the blue sweater suited her. She had remembered to bring his shaving kit. He made a fresh pot of tea for her to drink while he shaved. It was a good sized tea pot, and they both got a second mug each out of it while he cooked.
“What do the letters on the shells mean?” Rowan asked as she looked at the eggs.
“I had wondered too. I think it’s which hen laid them. It looks as if Jane put the initials on. Nothing to do but watch them fry for a minute or so. We may as well use the time well.”
Was there just a slight hesitation before she accepted the invitation of his open arms? If there was, it was slight indeed and she held him as closely as he held her. She smelled very slightly of Pear’s soap and her soft, chin-length curls tickled his neck.
“I think supper is very nearly burning,” She murmured sometime later.
Nearly burning isn’t the same as burning, and the supper was heartily appreciated by both of them. For a while, the conversation was sporadic and covered only “indifferent matters”. From discussing what they would do tomorrow they passed to the weather, and Roger asked, “Why did Nancy suddenly turn up at the Dixons, I wonder? She can’t have sailed this morning, it was far too calm, and it’s a longish row from Rio.”
“She walked,” Rowan said, “I think she carried her little boy some of the way, although he didn’t seem too keen on the idea.”
“He’s a good little Walker for his age,” Roger commented.
“That was dreadful,” Rowan informed him calmly.
“I know, but I’ve got to keep in practice to embarrass them all with dreadful jokes when they’re thirteen.”
There was a silence. It had a not altogether relaxed quality.
Rowan continued, “She came to bring me a letter. From Giles. It seems that Nancy and your brother have been interfering.”
“Nancy will interfere with anything or everything if she thinks it’s going to help,” Roger said. Perhaps he was being a bit unfair. That didn’t matter now. “But John generally sticks to the task in hand, which is HMS Bravery at the… oh. Giles serves on Bravery, doesn’t he?”
“I wish he’d kept his mouth shut.”
“Maybe John didn’t give him much choice. Look here, they haven’t actually told him where you are. Just passed on a letter or your brother would have write to you directly.”
Rowan gave a small laugh, totally without humour.
“No, don’t worry. They haven’t and you don’t have to choose sides. In fact, Nancy seems to have gone rather cloak-and-dagger about it.”
“She does that.”
There was a long pause. Roger’s plate was empty. Rowan had given up on the last of her lettuce.
“Was the letter … I mean, was it a good thing, or not?”
“I haven’t read it yet.” She managed to look embarrassed, defiant and utterly gorgeous. He leaned across the corner of the table and kissed her.
“Do you want to read it?”
“I should. Far too Lawrie-ish not to.”
Roger opened his mouth, hesitated and closed it again. It would be pointless to tell Rowan that didn’t matter. He wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by “too Lawrie-ish”, but whatever it was, if Rowan thought being “Lawrie-ish” was unacceptable she wouldn’t thank him for telling her it was OK not to read the letter. Besides, surely the curiosity would be unbearable?
“I’ll wash up. You can read it now if you want to – or not. Ginger cake for pudding. I thought we could sit in front of the fire.”
He had been in two minds about lighting the fire. The day itself had been quite warm enough, but a wood fire seemed a romantic sort of thing. The sky was clouding over and the evening had definitely turned cooler. He brought her a good slice of the ginger cake, and poured her some whisky.
Rowan moved straight away from sitting on the ancient little two seater sofa onto the heath rug. Roger found this quite understandable. The thing was tolerable only as a backrest. Titty said it had been left in the cottage. Roger could understand why, even with furniture so hard to get.
He finished the washing up, and left everything but the cutlery to drain. Drying it seemed a waste of time when there was a perfectly good draining board and gravity was pretty reliable.
Whatever was in the letter was much worse than he imagined it would be. Rowans’ slice of cake lay on its plate untouched. The whisky in her glass was at a higher level than he’d poured it. Her knees were drawn up tightly, with her arms clasped around her bare shins. Her right cheek was resting on her knees, so that he was presented with a head full of soft curls, a deeper gold than usual in the evening light from the little windows and the flames of the fire. And she was sitting still. Very still. There was tenseness about her which spoke of a misery beyond tears, even for Rowan, who so seldom wept.
Roger sat down next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t push him away, but it seemed a very long time indeed before she leaned her weight ever so slightly towards him, and then a little while later she shifted her head to put her chin on her knees. She took another sip of the whisky.
“John and Nancy really messed it up, didn’t they? I’m sorry,” Roger said.
“Not their fault. Giles wrote the letter. They just passed it on. If anyone needs to apologise for their older brother, it’s me.”
“The only thing, that I know of,“ Roger said, feeling his way very carefully, “that Giles has done that I mind is that this letter has obviously hurt you a great deal. And you are the last person who should be apologising for that.”
“It’s not that.”
There was another very long silence. Rowan occasionally took a pensive sip of whisky. A little over half-way down the glass, she said, “I’m such an idiot.”
“If you’ve done anything idiotic, I’ve yet to hear of it.”
“It’s what I couldn’t - didn’t want to- see. And it’s my own fault.”
Roger didn’t think there was anything very much he could say to this. He poured a very circumspect amount of whisky into his own glass. This was not the time to risk saying anything rash. “He’s sided with your parents?”
“Not exactly – well, sort of. And I’m kicking myself, because it’s really Giles being how Giles has always been all along. Only when it didn’t hurt me, I didn’t really take it in. Not properly.”
“A stuffed shirt?”
“No – well, yes really, but in his own way.”
There was another long pause and a certain amount of meditative whisky sipping, mostly by Rowan.
“Giles is – mostly - good fun, competent about things and mostly doesn’t fuss. And he’s mostly not too keen on it when other people cause a fuss.”
“Only this time…?”
“Only this time … he can’t see, doesn’t want to I suppose, that I couldn’t just sit there and agree with father – which is mostly what it amounts to.”
“So, he’s blaming you?”
“Not really. At least that’s not what he says, although he does imply it, I suppose. He’s busy blaming Ann for my reaction and then wants me to apologise and go back to running the farm.”
“I thought you said …”
“Yes, that would be up to father, not me. I suppose Giles doesn’t want to see that.”
“I suppose your father might have changed his mind. If he can’t contact you to ask you to come back…”
“He could. If he wanted to. I wrote to Ann. I wrote to Nick, too. I didn’t give my address the first time and then I thought I was being a bit silly and wrote and sent it. After all, no one is likely to turn up and make a scene.”
There was another long silence, with some more thoughtful sipping, at least on Rowan’s part.
“Even if he asked, I wouldn’t. It would be stupidity of the highest order to beg for something I didn’t really want in the first place. And I won’t beg anyway. It would only be for a month or too anyway, and I’m not going through this again for anything.”
“Would it be this again?” Roger could not help holding Rowan a little closer and smoothing one of her curls. This wasn’t the time to enquire about the implications for them of what she had just said.
“From Giles, certainly. It’s the possibility of him having to give up his career in the navy that bothers him most. Not that he says that in the letter. Not directly. But once you read the whole letter.”
“But look here, your father can’t be that far off retirement, probably. If he goes at the usual age. And it is his farm.”
Another long silence.
“The thing is Ann can be very, very irritating. She takes things seriously, and she doesn’t hide that she takes things seriously. And then she flaps about things. Even before – I don’t think Father really liked her. Only he hides it better that Nicola! And the rest of us…. I don’t quite know how to put it….”
“Strive for a charming nonchalance of manner?”
“Not strive. Because then that wouldn’t be nochelant. I mean nonchalant. And Lawrie doesn’t really. Not all the time. I mean, it depends on who she’s being, with Lawrie.”
“Ann doesn’t seem a bad sort,” Roger ventured. “Just a bit trying, maybe. And there’s a peg for every hole they say. Or a hole for every peg.”
“Just on a different peg board from the rest of the family.” Rowan gave a slight half-giggle. ”But she’s got guts, in her own way, for all that she’s so blinking cautious. Even if it does mean being at outs with the rest of us. And, when push comes to shove, Giles is quite happy to let father push Ann out for ever, I’m sorry, I’m not saying it clearly.”
“It’s just finding someone isn’t the person you thought they were. And Giles being so bloody conventional about this, because it suits Giles. Ann’s harming no-one after all.”
And Rowan started telling him about the Oeschli affair* and the events leading to the destruction of Surfrider, and they shared the piece ginger cake. Gradually the pauses grew longer in the telling and Rowan relaxed into his arms. He stroked her hair. She came to the end of the tale, more or less. Roger was rather relieved that he wasn’t expected to pass comment on it.
It was more or less completely dark outside now, although it seemed warmer, rather than cooler than it had before. Rowan tilted her head a little.
“I’d quite like to be kissed.”
Roger was more than happy to oblige, and there was a pleasant interval of firelight and caresses and hands not necessarily outside clothes and clothes not necessarily fastened. Rowan was gradually getting drowsier though, and the level on the whisky bottle offered enough of an explanation, never mind her crack of dawn start and how hard she worked.
“Come on, Rowan,” he said gently. “Time to get you to bed.”
“Us to bed,” She corrected him, but not very clearly.
“Yes, but different beds, tonight.”
She began to object, but not very coherently. Roger stood up.
“Because you’re drunk, and you’re gorgeous, and you’re Rowan, and you mean more than anything else to me and you deserve better. And we have all tomorrow and tomorrow night.”
Rowan stopped complaining and began to stand up. She paused and evidently decide to let him help her up after all.
There was a rather rickety looking chair in Edward’s room that evidently did duty as a bedside table. Roger placed an enamel mug full of water on it. He kissed Rowan and fetched another enamel mug full of water. (She was more than half asleep now, but her lips still clung to his when he kissed her again.) He locked the front door, but left the key in the lock, although he really didn’t think she’d be up first. He went to bed himself, but it was a while before he settled down to sleep.
Rowan slept long into the next morning. It had rained in the night, and Roger had bailed the rainwater out of Scarab and had nearly finished doing the same to Swallow when she wandered out carrying two mugs of steaming tea. Her hair was tousled and darkened with washing, and just touching the collar of her aertex shirt. Mugs of tea and wet hair aside, she looked very similar to the first time he had met her. Somehow this was the real Rowan; lovely as ever, but with her rightful confidence reclaimed. She had never lacked determination.
“How’s the head?”
“Better than I deserve.” Rowan gave a wry smile.
The little wooden jetty wasn’t completely dry, but it was good enough to sit on companionably with their arms around each other, dabbing feet in the cold clear water.
“There’s one egg left, but we used the bacon last night. There’s plenty of bread though and some potatoes to fry.”
“That sounds good.”
“Let’s finish our tea first.”
“Are you sure? It looks as if you’ve been up ages already. Well, I know you must have been, because a cup of tea appeared. I hope I was awake enough to say thank you. I can’t remember.”
“You were. At least, I’m sure fthannnoooo must mean thankyou in some language somewhere,” Roger said.
“We never actually settled what we were going to do today. I take it that whatever it is, you don’t want masses of walking,” he said.
“Busman’s holiday – sort of. Roger?”
“How are you off for petrol?”
“Oodles of it. Well not actually oodles, but doing pretty well. We can certainly ride out somewhere if you want.”
“It doesn’t have to be all that far,” Rowan said, “but it would be nice to go further from the Lake than I’ve already been. The other thing is, I’d quite like to have a go at fishing. For trout I mean. If you wouldn’t mind showing me.”
Roger gave her an extra squeeze. “Really? You’re not just saying that to be polite because you know I like fishing?”
“Really. I might not like it, of course, but if I don’t try I’ll never find out.”
“Today would be a good day to try,” Roger said. “I think it’s best just after rain, although some people say otherwise. And we don’t have to stick to round the Lake. There’s a pretty steep road going out of the next valley westwards, if you don’t mind being jolted around a bit, and then if you turn off it there’s a small tarn that’s good for trout. At least, Nancy says her uncle said it’s just about the best place for trout, but I didn’t get to try it because there are the ruins of a Roman fort a bit further on and the others were far keener on seeing that. This was before the war, of course, when the Blacketts still had Rattletrap and only Nancy could drive. Then things got busy a few years later and I never got to try it myself. Care to give it a go? If you don’t like it we can carry on to the coast or try the Roman fort.”
“So how do you know which flies to use?” Rowan peered into the small hinged tin, which had once contained throat lozenges.
“I don’t. Not definitely. I mean I’ll try one and see; if nothing bites, I’ll try something different. It rained quite heavily though, last night, so I’m starting off with some of the brighter coloured flies. Trout for supper would be a rather good idea,” Roger explained. “Okay, the next thing is to teach you how to cast. It’s probably better if I show you first. At least there aren’t any trees to worry about.”
Rowan watched carefully, failed in her first cast - “I’ve seen worse tangles,” Roger assured her – and succeeded more or less on her second.
“So how are you enjoying it?”
“Quite a lot really.” Rowan said. “We aren’t going to get much supper, though, like this. I’d probably better hand over to you. Do you mind if I walk a little way further up and have a look at the fort?”
“Of course not. I’d be a bit careful on some of the stones though. I seem to remember they were quite slippery in the dry, and it’s been wet. We can get back on the bike and go further on if you like, though.”
“No, that’s fine. Unless you want to, of course. I won’t spend too long poking at the remains.”
Rowan had thought, and considered, and mulled things over. The usual routine of farm work left all too much time for brooding over things. And brooding, after all, had not made things better.
She would apply for any job going, in south Oxfordshire, or in Oxford itself. Surely there would be something to start with. She’d find out the names of the local papers and see if she could have them posted to her and apply for any job going that she had the faintest chance of getting. She’d write letters to likely employers on the off chance. Her savings had grown, rather than shrunk, during her time with the Dixons. She was employable. She was hard working, well-educated, had her school certificate. She was presentable and quick to learn. She would find something, if she wasn’t too fussy. And, that being the case, was there any point at all in refusing to give Roger a definite answer now?
Rowan set off back down the pass to the tarn. If anyone had asked her anything about the fort, she would have had nothing to say.
You couldn’t see the little tarn from the fort. As Rowan descended from the fort, the tarn came gradually into view, first the lower end and the little path down from the edge of the road where they had left the Norton.
It was for a second – less than a second perhaps – a cold, sick fear clenched her as Roger, lying in the tarn, came into view. Then he moved, rolling over on to his back and then sitting up with a jerk. By now she was running.
When she reached him, he was sitting on a rock at the edge of the tarn. He stopped swearing the moment he saw her.
“Sorry, Rowan. I slipped on a rock, like an idiot.”
“Collar- bone?” she asked sympathetically, beginning to check him over. “Did you hit your head?”
“Wrist I think. The left one. Lucky I’m right handed. Only a slight bump. No blank moments of anything.”
“I’m sure it shouldn’t be that shape. Let’s see the other one.” Rowan said, “No, I’m sure it’s broken. Or dislocated. I should probably put it in an elevation sling.”
“You’re very impressive at this sort of thing. Guide badges? Susan goes and tests Peggy’s lot on their first aid.”
“Sort of. Ann was very, very keen and used to practice on me in the dormitory. I never bothered with the guides.”
“It’s probably best not to put a sling on yet though.”
“I do remember how to do it!”
“It’s quite a long walk even just down to the nearest village.”
“I’m fairly sure you shouldn’t try to ride a motorcycle like that. I could ride down and fetch help, but you may as well be sitting here with a sling as without one.”
Roger grinned. “I can’t ride – or shouldn’t, but there really isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t. I’m not going to sit here and worry about whether you’ve come to grief on the way down though. It’s not the easiest road. You’ll ride, and I’ll ride behind you. It’s only my wrist, after all.”
“I know where the hospital is in Keswick, but it hasn’t got an X-ray machine, I don’t think.” Rowan said. She had retrieved the fishing rod and was unscrewing the sections and putting them back carefully in their tube. “I’m trying to think – there’s bound to be one in Carlisle, but that’s miles away.”
“Pointless going somewhere without one.” He agreed. “There might be one at Whitehaven. We’d carry on across the pass and then along the coast for that – be we don’t know for sure there is one or what the road is like.”
“Barrow? Kendal?” Rowan suggested.
“At least they’d be nearer to where we want to get back to.” Roger said. “Look, the best thing will be to ride back to Beckfoot. It’s on the way to either of those two places, from here and they’ll probably know where there are hospitals and X ray machines. If they’ve got enough petrol for the car they’ll take us. I think I’d rather be driven by Nancy than Mrs Blackett though.”
“Or I can drive.”
Roger grinned. “Once you’ve driven Rattletrap, you’ll wish you hadn’t said that.”
From Nancy Walker to John Walker
…and Roger broke his wrist. He just slipped on wet rock fishing and landed awkwardly. I think he’s a little embarrassed that it was something so simple. Anyway, it’s now all plastered up. The children are most impressed and have been playing plastering arms all evening, naturally. There was a certain amount of form filling at the hospital before they would let Roger go. When the woman asked who would be looking after him, Rowan said she would. The woman looked at Rowan as if she was about 14. (And I have to admit that in what was basically a school PT kit she didn’t look much older. )
“And you are?” she asked, most condescending.
I happened to be looking at Roger’s face as she said it. He looked chuffed to bits – and also a little surprised.
So, I squashed Mother pretty hastily when she tried to insist on Roger staying at Beckfoot tonight, although they stayed for early supper before I drove them both back to the cottage and Roger is coming to spend the day here tomorrow, to the great delight of the girls, tomorrow being Saturday. Roger borrowed a couple of aerogrammes from me, so I imagine you might hear about it from him by the same post as this.
I was absolutely delighted when Roger’s letter reached me. He is evidently still his very lucky self, for which I am profoundly pleased. I’m sure you will make each other very happy – and that is, after all the really important thing.
I am already making arrangements to come back to England for your wedding. Whether or not Ted will be able to be there depends on “the exigencies of the service” as always, but he will do his very best to wrangle it.
I have one very big favour to ask you. Please say “no” if granting it would give you any uneasiness, or make you feel in any way awkward though. May I buy your wedding outfit? Perhaps I should explain that I missed out on having a special outfit of my own, since my father did not at all approve of my marriage to Ted. I should add that this wasn’t because of any objection to Ted himself. My father would have been more than pleased if Ted had resigned his commission and stayed in Australia instead of whisking me off to England, but quite aside from the war I would never have asked Ted to do that. Titty and Susan were both war brides. Titty flatly refused any kind of special outfit (although at least I was there) and Susan was married in her uniform. I’m not intending to interfere with your choice of outfit (although I do remember that you look very nice in a long gown).
Also, in the difficult matter of “how to address parents- in-law”, please do call us Mary and Ted!
We are both so pleased with your news. Do let us know if there is anything we can do in the way of help or advice. (We do try very hard not to interfere unless asked.)
With much love,
The collection of scribbled out phrases told their own story.
“I can’t duck out of telling them. Or I shouldn’t.”
“Write to one of your sisters and let her tell them?”
“That seems a little cowardly.”
“Yes.” Roger said. “You’re right. I wasn’t thinking.”
There was a pause.
“Sometimes,” he said slowly, “when you can’t think of a way to do something, in this case write something, it’s because the thing you’re trying to do isn’t the best way to go about it.”
“Which in this case means …?” Rowan prompted.
“That it isn’t you who should be telling them. It’s me. And in person.”
A front door occasion, Roger decided. Trennels didn’t look much different from the way it had a year ago. Not quite a year really, but near enough. It seemed odd to be arriving on foot.
Mrs Herbert answered the door.
“Mr Roger …you’re injured?”
“Only fishing. My own silly fault.” Roger said quickly.
“Did you find…” Mrs Herbert was evidently not quite sure she should be asking.
“I found Rowan. She’s quite safe and well. She sends her you her best wishes.”
“I supposed you’d like to speak to the Captain.”
“If he’s home.” Roger had expected that only Mrs Marlow would be there, but he had, after all, more than once thought he would like to speak his mind to Captain Geoffrey Marlow. If Mrs Marlow wasn’t in the room, he would get his chance. Otherwise, he should possibly be somewhat more restrained. Rowan would probably expect him to be more restrained anyway.
“He’s in the study. If you’ll follow me…”
“Wing- Commander Walker to see you, Captain Marlow.”
There was a very long pause as Mrs Herbert withdrew. Any longer and it would get silly. Roger decided he would have to speak first.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
Another less-than-helpful pause.
“I hope you’re well. And Mrs Marlow?”
Geoffrey Marlow grudgingly admitted that they were. Roger was fairly sure that Nicola, who had seemed a conscientious girl, would have written and told Rowan if they weren’t. Still, Rowan would expect him to have asked.
“May I take it you know where Rowan is? I had a letter from Giles. It would appear that your brother knows, although why he can’t just give Giles the address, I don’t know.”
“John would never pass on a lady’s address to someone else without her express permission.” I couldn’t care less if that sounded like a reprimand. “Yes, I do know where Rowan is. You would have seen me again a lot sooner if I had still been looking for her.”
“Rowan is well and safe. We’re going to get married, in September. Saturday 23rd at 11.30 to be more exact.”
“And if you’re asking my permission, I don’t see that it’s either here or there.”
“We need no-one’s permission. And Rowan’s opinion is the only one I care about. I’m telling you a courtesy.”
Captain Marlow inclined his head. But then, there was probably nothing you needed to teach a Marlow about the conversational upper hand.
Roger proffered a piece of paper. It had Rowan’s address (care of the Dixons) on one side and the place and time of the wedding on the other.
“Rowan asked me to give you this. Under the circumstances, formal invitations would be rather awkward.”
Marlow glanced at it, tore it neatly in two and dropped the pieces in the waste paper basket next to his desk. Just as well then, that Roger had made a second copy on the train, now readily to hand in his pocket.
Roger would not let his voice rise.
“You are a fool, sir, with poor judgement and an almost incredible lack of loyalty to your family. Good afternoon.”
As Roger left the room, he thought for a moment that he had overestimated Mrs Herbert’s sense of timing, but he had only estimated the speed with which she could walk from the kitchen (he supposed) to the hall. She was there to open the front door for him. He shook her hand.
“Rowan sends her very best wishes,” he said again, “and her love to her mother.”
Pam Marlow had seen the subtle movement of Mrs Bertie’s hand from her apron pocket to the pile of ironed and folded handkerchiefs. Mrs Bertie had plenty of opportunities to hand over the paper in Roger Walker’s handwriting quite openly. Pam wouldn’t refer to it directly if Mrs Bertie didn’t want her too.
Summer holidays at Trennels with a father who had left-the-navy-forever and no Rowan was very different. For one thing, it was very much harder work.
“Some of that is because Peter isn’t here.” Nicola pointed out to Lawrie. “He’s pretty good at fixing things.”
For another thing, every mealtime felt as if one wrong word would trigger some kind of explosion. It had so nearly happened when Lawrie had asked if, since they were working so many more hours than a usual summer holiday, there might be some extra pocket money involved.
“Not since your sister let us down. Not if you want Nicola to have her sixth form at Kingscote.” Their father replied. Lawrie, to whom school without Nicola seemed no more possible than Trennels itself getting up and walking across the landscape to Rum Beacon was effectively quelled.
“All the same,” said Lawrie privately to Nicola later, “you, me and Ginty are all working jolly nearly full time. More last week when it was the wheat harvest. And there’s father instead of Rowan.”
“And no Peter. And no Ann. And we did used to help on the farm sometimes.”
“Ginty hardly ever did. And we didn’t do anything like as much as now. Not if you added us all together. Which I have. We’re doing about thirty five hours each, not counting looking after the quadrupeds or making-beds-and-cleaning- your-bedroom.”
Of course Lawrie would.
“He really wants us to be sure it’s Rowan’s fault though” Lawrie said. Nicola found this an uncomfortable thought.
There was no more Doris (well we aren’t inside enough to make that much work), and Sellars the groom had retired. The heavy horses had been deemed to cost more than they were worth and had been sold. As Father pointed out, Ginty had always been meant to look after Catkin and Lawrie and Peter had always been meant to look after Idiot Boy.
Somehow, with Lawrie looking after Idiot boy, Ginty looking after Catkin and Mother looking after Chocobar, looking after Prisca had fallen to Nicola’s lot, although she was by no means as keen on riding as her sisters. Prisca was still, Nicola supposed, Father’s horse by right of having been Jon’s, but he didn’t ride all that much and Nicola didn’t feel that she was pushing her luck too much when, father having agreed one mid-August Friday that all three girls could have the afternoon off, she asked if she might borrow Prisca and go for a ride with Ginty and Lawrie.
Ginty always preferred to ride alone, and soon after they left Trennels, she and Catkin cantered off. Nicola and Lawrie hacked gently along with Tessa the Afghan hound trotting along behind. Nicola felt that Lawrie seemed the only person now it was safe to talk to.
“It must be worse for Ginty. Not being a twin.” Nicola said.
“If she was a twin, she wouldn’t be Ginty. She’d be someone else. We’d best trot along this bit.” Lawrie said. She was right. The quicker they were out of the narrow bit of the lane, the less chance they had of meeting a vehicle with all the awkward squeezing past that would entail.
“Nick, do you want to go to Rowan’s wedding?” Lawrie asked when they had turned out of the lane onto a track along the edge of a field and Prisca and Idiot Boy were once more sauntering companionably side by side. Rowan had written to all three of them separately. Nicola and Lawrie, comparing, had discovered that it had been exactly the same letter. Being absolutely fair. Nicola had pointed out.
“Of course, don’t you? Only we can’t.”
“Of course I do.” Lawrie said. “But not as frantically as you.”
Nicola opened her mouth to protest at Lawrie’s calm assurance that she knew Nicola’s mind and then admitted that yes, she did mind not going rather frantically, but with the full force of paternal prohibition in place, what was to be done?
“You remember that netball match?” Lawrie said. Even at the distance of four years, it was wholly unnecessary to specify which netball match.
“It didn’t work.” Nicola reminded her.
“This time it will, because you will just have to be you, at Rowan’s wedding. It’ll be me being both of us, and maybe not even that, and I can manage that quite well.”
“People at school will still remember. And they’ll expect to see us both for meals and things.”
“But that’s the beauty of it. The 23rd is this new exeat weekend thing half-way-to-half-term that Keith’s so keen on.” Lawrie had evidently given this some thought. “All we need to do is get ourselves invited to somewhere at the same time. It’s a pity one of us isn’t Ginty really. We could go and stay with Monica and all go out on the bus for the day, only we go to the wedding.”
“It wouldn’t be any good even if we were still at school.” Nicola said. “Ginty wouldn’t want the row.”
“There wouldn’t be one.” Lawrie said. “It would be helpful if we knew someone who lived in Crewe, or Birmingham, or even Bristol, because of the trains. But the best I can think of is Miranda in London. You’ll have to tell her, of course, and get her to invite us both. We all go to Miranda’s house on Friday night, and you get up early and catch the very first train to this Strickland junction place – it seems to be nearest. And then you get on a bus or something, or maybe there’s a branch line - anyway, you’re the one who know about timetables. And Miranda and I pretend you’ve gone out frightfully early to look at something naval somewhere that we aren’t interested in. And that’s why you aren’t at breakfast. And then the plan will be for us to meet you somewhere and go round looking at things in London, and have our lunch and our tea in a corner house, so no-one expects to see us for those meals. And then we could plan to go to the cinema, so we wouldn’t go home until after that. And by that time you’ll have got back to Paddington.”
“It will be Euston.” Nicola said.
“You’ll be sorting out the train stuff.” Lawrie said airily. “Anyway, we meet you there and all come home together.”
“People will want to know why Miranda invited both of us and you didn’t go and visit Tim or something.” Nicola said.
“A play.” Lawrie said. “Instead of the cinema. It will have to be a real one though, because of advertisements in the papers and so on. And it will be better if Miranda and I actually go and see it. Am I not a genius?”
Nicola admitted that her twin was rather a genius. “There are still all sorts of things to go wrong.”
“We’ve got plenty of time to plan.” said Lawrie comfortably. “Only I thought I would tell you know so that you knew not to spend any money before then. You’ll need it for your train ticket. I’ll need mine for the theatre.”
“Roger, I was thinking you might probably want the cottage for the honeymoon.” Titty said her voice changed and somehow tinny over the telephone line.
“We don’t actually, but thank you if you’re offering. We’re spending it in London.”
“But look, if you really aren’t going to be using it yourselves just after the wedding….”
“Only for the Saturday night. Edward will have to be back for school on Monday morning.”
“I’ve asked Pete to be my best man, and Jonnatt’s will let him have a week off.”
“And Vi? And Joe and Mary too? The cottage would be perfect for them to spend a week in and there’s no-one Dick and Dot would rather trust with Scarab.”
“Jonnatt’s won’t let Pete and Joe have time off at the same time, and Mary can’t get the time off at all. Not until November.”
“So it will just be Pete and Vi then? I’ll write to them and offer this evening. Look, there’s the pips. Love from all of us. Bye. Look, take Rowan to see the Wallace collection.”
Titty’s surprise had been perceptible even over the telephone. It was understandable enough, given Rowan’s competence and enthusiasm for outdoor activities. London wouldn’t be Roger’s ideal holiday choice for more than a night or two. But Rowan had after all been brought up in London, and he knew she hankered to see buildings instead of field. There was the festival of Britain stuff to see of course, and bookshops (He smiled remembering the day in Oxford.) and she had rather shyly admitted to missing art galleries. “Not that’s I’m artistic.” She had said hurriedly. “I don’t think you have to be able to draw the stuff to look at it.” He had replied.
WALLIS COLLECTION Roger wrote down on a piece of paper. He must find out what it was a collection of, and where it was. He found a very small quantity of art galleries and museums was quite enough for his own tastes, but if Rowan wanted him to walk round every gallery and museum in London with her, he would.
By the 20th September, Geoffrey Marlow admitted to himself, but to no one else, that he would after all be attending Rowan’s wedding. His business in London was genuine enough, but when he rang Trennels on the Friday morning to tell Pam that he would be away until very late on Saturaday it was in the knowledge that he already had an extra shirt packed for the extra day, and a slightly smarter tie. He had already phrased his excuses carefully in his mind. It was very important to him not to lie to Pam when she had supported his decision about Ann and Rowan so loyally. She might be disappointed in him for giving in perhaps. It was almost a relief when the telephone was answered by Mrs Bertie. He knew Pam would be visiting someone – an old friend from the Malta days, he had the vague impression – and that this would involve an overnight visit. The friend must live further away than he thought for Pam to have had to set off before lunch. Mrs Marlow had already spoken to Ted Colthard who would see that the various livestock were all safe and secure, before he went home and Miss Karen would come up and check all was well before she went to bed. Mrs Herbert assured him, and now that she knew Captain Marlow would not be home that night and she had no dinner to prepare, she would lock the house up and be off home an hour earlier, if that suited. Geoff indicated that that suited very well indeed and set off for his next appointment.
He resisted the temptation to delay arriving at the church until half past eleven, since it would only draw attention to him, the very thing he wished to avoid. The earlier he arrived though, the more chance there was of someone else striking up a conversation which would inevitable start with “So how do you know the bride or groom?”
He didn’t even have to answer the almost inevitable “which side?” either to which he always want to answer “Why, are we going to have a fight?” There were three diminutive ushers, all of whom eagerly proffered a hymn book and were far more eager to explain what it was for than to ask him any questions. He had no idea who the bespectacled young man hovering behind them was, but the chap seemed inclined to do no more than smile in a friendly manner and suggest that the gentleman might find it easier to have just one book to hold.
Geoff slid quietly into a pew fairly near the back, while the ushers enthusiastically greeted someone called Auntie Susan behind him. Whoever she was, she rated hugs and kisses as well as hymn books.
Geoff peered at those on the front pews as discretely as he could. Mary Walker of course, and Ted. Geoff didn’t recognise the young man standing next to Roger. “Auntie Susan” was sitting down just behind them, next to a slim young woman with a precautionary arm around a toddler and just in front of three dark-haired women, somehow alike enough- even from behind, to be recognisable as a family. There were a few other people behind them.
It was harder to see people on his own side of the church, but the grey haired couple sitting at the front were presumably the Mr and Mrs. Dixon whose address was on the scrap of paper in his pocket. A woman sat next to them, listening intently to Mrs Dixon with fair curls just visible below her generously-brimmed hat and something very familiar in her manner, even without any view of her face. Ann surely, and looking very similar to her mother. Then a woman he vaguely recognised from some event at Kingscote sat down just behind them, obscuring his view.
People had stopped arriving. The small ushers scuttled back to sit next to their parents. There was a small rustle at the door and the organist concluded one piece and started the music for Rowan’s entrance.
Rowan did notice him as she walked slowly down the aisle, on Ann’s arm, with Nicola in her best summer dress and a hat which looked like her school boater with another ribbon added walking behind them. Rowan gave no more than the flicker of a smile. Ann hadn’t notice him. He saw Nicola’s mouth silently frame the words Cor lumey. Well, however Nicola had managed it, he could say no more than enquire whether she had made arrangements to get back to her friend’s house in London.
Geoff did some hard thinking during the service, and when happy couple (And they did look so very happy, that it was no mere cliché.) processed back done the church, he wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see his wife walking next to Rear Admiral Walker, while Mary Walker walked next to Mr Dixon followed by Mrs Dixon and Ann. Nicola gave him a worried look as she passed. He should reassure her as soon as possible.
In the press of photographs and congratulations, he was able to speak to Nicola before he had a chance to speak to Rowan.
“Do I take it that Lawrie is busy being you somewhere else?”
“Not exactly,” said Nicola, “but we are both officially in London with Miranda. I need to get back and meet them before we all get home from the theatre this evening.”
“Will you be safe? The train must get in fairly late.”
“Ann will be on the same train.” Nicola said.
“You’ve shown a commendable amount of initiative.”
“It was Lawrie’s idea to start with.”
Geoff gave a wry smile. “I need to break this habit of under-estimating my daughters.”
He edged his way round to Ann, chatting cheerfully to “Auntie Susan”. Ann had really not noticed him before and went pale when she saw him now.
“I’m glad to see you Ann. And – you will come back to Trennels for Christmas, won’t you? If you can get leave.”
He should have known that would start Ann weeping, but she had herself under control in a second or two, and, after all, neither tears nor her sudden, fierce hug were totally out of place at a wedding.
The bespectacled young man wanted everyone in place for a photograph on the steps of the church. Perhaps wisely, apart from having Roger and Rowan in the middle and the children lined up in front, he didn’t attempt any formal arrangement and Geoff found himself next to Pam quite easily.
“I don’t think I’ve felt quite so nervous since the first time I asked if I could see you home.” He said very quietly. “May I?”
Pam was smiling, but he wasn’t quite sure if it was for the camera or for him, and the few seconds of “Look at the camera please and smile. Could someone get Robert’s finger out of his nose please? Thank you, Julia” before Pam could answer seemed interminable.
“I’m glad you’re here.” She said quietly. “I was planning on taking the train from Strickland junction at 2.35. Mrs Blackett has very kindly offered to give me a lift up to the station, but I was thinking of taking the bus.” She glanced sideways at him, and gave a small smile. “We won’t leave without each other. Mrs Dixon has organised a bit of a buffet lunch in the village hall, which is just round the corner.”
The slim young woman, still holding the toddler’s hand, marshalled them into places for the bride and groom and parents photograph, then one with the Dixons. Geoff knew he should say something to Mr Dixon. They found themselves next to each other as they moved away to allow space for the bride, groom, best man and bridesmaids photograph. Geoff held out his hand and suddenly found his mouth dry and himself speechless in that quiet, direct gaze.
Mr Dixon shook his hand. “Ah’m reet pleased to see you, Captain Marlow.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much for everything.”
Mr Dixon smiled slowly. “It’s worked out champion now. You’ll be stopping for a bite to eat in the hall when Dick’s finished with these photographs?”
And finally, when Dick had finished with the photographs, Geoff got the chance to speak to Rowan. Or rather to Rowan and Roger.
Roger first perhaps.
“You’re a very lucky man. And also right in what you said.”
Roger Walker shook his hand and grinned. “It’s not the mistake you make that matters most, it’s what you do next.”
Geoff suddenly grinned. “Your father’s said that to me a time or two, too.”
“I thought he would have.” Roger said
“Rowan, I’m sorry. Very sorry and I hope you’ll come and visit us at Trennels very often. Your mother has missed you.”
There was a slight pause. Rowan was still listening.
“I’ve asked Ann to come back for Christmas if she’s able to. I hope you can both come too.”
“I hope we can as well.” Rowan said.
a/n Thank you very, very much indeed to many people for all the encouragement