Con Maynard put down the telephone and stared, unseeing, round her luxurious office. Margot, dead. Margot, gunned down in Equatorial Kundu, her body found by the mission's driver, who had had the sense and the courage to gather it up and take it to the other nuns, awaiting evacuation in the capital, so it could be brought back to Scotland for burial. It wasn't possible. Margot couldn't be dead. Not Margot.
Con shook her head, trying to take it in. She had barely seen Margot for twenty years, not since she had left Oxford after her first term and done a secretarial course to lead her into magazine publishing. Margot had gone to Edinburgh and qualified as a doctor, before entering her Community as a missionary doctor. Their triplet, Len, had married even before finishing her Oxford degree, but she and her doctor husband, Reg, had settled in Birmingham, where Len was head of Modern Languages at a local comprehensive, and Reg headed a thriving General Practice.
Len. She ought to telephone her. They were no longer close – their lives were so very different – but Len would be as devastated, no doubt, as she was. Or perhaps not, since Len, unlike Con, still clung to their childhood faith. But Margot – how dare she be dead? You can't be dead, Margot, she addressed her sister in her head. You wouldn't be such an idiot.
Alison, her current PA, put her head around the door. “Oh, Miss Maynard, they're waiting for you to check the photo-shoot layout.”
“I can't do it today, Alison. I'm sorry. Tell Ed to do it – I'm sure he'll be fine. Get me a taxi, will you – I need to go home.”
Alison withdrew, puzzled. Miss Maynard never went home early. She never left the office much before 7:00, and certainly never allowed anybody else to sign off on a photoshoot. “Are you all right, Miss Maynard?”
“No, I'm not all right. Now just do as I ask, and get me a taxi, please. I will probably have to go away for a few days; I'll let you know.”
In the taxi, Con still held on to herself. There would be tears, she knew that, but not yet. Please not yet. Not Constance Maynard, editor-in-chief of the British edition of “Urban Girl” magazine. She could not afford to be seen weeping in public.
Back in her flat, she picked up the phone to call Len. But the tears came before she could do so, and for some minutes she let them flow. Oh Margot, Margot – what was she going to do without her? Not that she had seen her for six years; Margot had been in London for a year, doing a course in tropical medicine before her posting, and she had seen a bit of her, including a few memorable days when Len had come down and the three of them had been together for the first time since the night before Len's wedding. But, in fact, they had found very little to say to each other.
Con was hardly close to her family; she was all but estranged from her parents, and hadn't seen most of her younger siblings for many years. But she still liked to know that they were there, and alive and well and happy. Just as she was mopping up, the phone rang. It was Len.
“I was going to phone you,” she said. “Oh, isn't it awful? What can we do?”
“I don't think there's anything we can do, alas,” said Len. “I wish there were, though. You'll go to the funeral, of course?”
“Would I even be welcome?”
“As Margot's triplet sister? Don't be daft, of course you would be! Anyway, even if you weren't, I want you to be there, for me. And for you. We are going to have to say 'Goodbye' properly, or we'll never come to terms with it.”
“Right now, I'm not even sure I want to come to terms with it! How dare she be dead! How very dare she?”
“I know. I hate it. I am not sure how to bear it. But the funeral. It's on Friday. Will you fly up, do you think?”
“I think so. I probably ought to be in the office between now and then. What about you? Is it holidays?”
“No, not yet; another fortnight to go. But I can take the day off, even if unpaid I think Reg and I will drive up, leaving after school on Thursday. We ought to get to Edinburgh by about 10:00 pm. We could meet you at the airport, if you like.”
“That would be lovely. I'll get my PA to book the flights. Are you going to stay up for the weekend?”
“No, I think we'll drive back on the Saturday; Mama said she and Papa might stay for the whole weekend, but they aren't sure who else will be able to come. Not Chas, of course –” their brother Charles was an enclosed monk in the Grande Chartreuse in France “– and we're not sure if Mike can get leave, but most of the others will be able to come.”
Con hung up the phone, and thought about things. What she needed was to be tired out, so she could sleep. There was always the drinks cabinet, but she couldn't afford to have a hangover next day, there were meetings she needed to attend, decisions to be made.
She knew a number she could ring, shortly after which a discreet young man would appear on her doorstep. But that involved role-play, and while she was normally more than happy to play the naughty schoolgirl, or the incompetent secretary, she didn't have the heart for it this evening. Besides, the young men expected to be offered their reward in cash, and she had not visited the bank recently.
The phone rang again. This time, it was Ted.
Ted, who had shared a flat with her at the height of the 1960s, who had led a similar life of constantly-changing jobs, constantly-changing boyfriends, dressing in the height of fashion, whether this was geometric haircuts and mini-skirts, or the psychedelic drapes and long hair of the “summer of love”. Ted, who was one of the few people Con felt never judged her, although she was now more-or-less settled and had a family of her own.
Ted didn't waste time offering condolences, or saying how sorry she was. “Rod's coming over in the car to pick you up. You're going to stay with us for the next few days. Don't argue. You need company just now!”
Con, meekly, went. And it was Ted who drove her to the airport two days later, and saw her on to the plane for Edinburgh.
What, thought Con, after the funeral, was the point of that? The head nun, or whoever it was who had given the eulogy, had obviously never known Margot, she could have been talking about anybody. It was bland and saccharine, talking about God's Will – as if, thought Con, scornfully – and martyrs and so on. Nothing about the real Margot, the person they were there to say goodbye to.
“Well,” said a voice, “Wasn't that a load of crap!”
Con looked up, to see an elderly nun twinkling at her. “I'm Mother Mary Ursula,” she introduced herself. “I was Mother-General here until a year ago, but I've retired now. I don't know what you can have thought of the eulogy, but Mother Mary Martin wasn't talking about Sister Mary Margaret – Margot – as I knew and loved her!”
“I didn't think she could have known her well,” said Len, tactfully.
“No, she only joined the Order when Mary Margaret was in Vespugia. I did offer to do the eulogy myself, but she doesn't care for me much, and thanked me for my kind offer, Mother, but she would take care of it thank you. But then, she wasn't talking about the Mary Margaret we knew – the one who.....” and she was off in a stream of reminiscences, of exploits in Margot's past that reflected far more the Margot her family had known.
Gradually all the family gathered round, joining in the anecdotes, remembering a beloved sister, a child who struggled with her temper, a “young monkey”, never far from trouble. Time passed rapidly, and they didn't notice the room emptying, until a bell rang.
“Oh goodness, we've talked all afternoon!” exclaimed Mother Mary Ursula. “It's time for Vespers. Would you care to join us?”
“I've missed my plane!” said Con, almost laughing.
“Never mind,” said Len. “Stay the night and drive down with us tomorrow; you can get a train from Birmingham easily enough. I think I'd love to come to Vespers if I may, please, Mother.”
Most of the family went to Vespers; those who did not, including Con, stayed in the parlour and continued their reminiscences of their sister. After the short service was over, they went to the guest-house where they were served a delicious, if simple, supper, and shown to comfortable bedrooms. Con found herself sharing with her youngest sister, Philippa, who was rather lame after an attack of polio in childhood, and who still lived with her parents at their home in the Austrian Tirol. But she was too tired and emotionally exhausted to mind.
“How nice that Mother Mary Ursula was,” exclaimed Phil, while she was brushing her hair. “It was such a dreary funeral, and then she made it all right again.”
“If any funeral is all right. But I know what you mean. Yes – Margot thought a lot of her, I know; she often spoke of her, and I can quite see why.”
The next morning, the family dispersed. But before they went Jack, Con's father, took her aside.
“Con, it's been lovely to see you, even at such a sad occasion. I wish we saw more of you; I know your mother misses you dreadfully. And I think it would help you and Len to come to terms with things if you could spend a bit of time together. Do you think you could come out to the Tiernsee for a week or so this summer?”
Con hesitated. Previous visits had been rather disastrous, as she and her mother had such different views on life, and on how one should live it, and they tended to clash. But it was at least five years since she'd been, and she knew she needed a proper holiday. And her father was right – spending time with Len might be a good idea.
“Can I let you know?” she asked. “I'd need to check my diary and see when I can be free, and see when Len wants to come out and if we can coincide. I'd like to come, if you think Mamma wouldn't mind.”
“I am sure she'd be more than delighted. I know you don't always see eye to eye, but she does love you very much, you know.”
“I know, but we do tend to rub each other up the wrong way, I'm afraid.”
“Well, if Len is there, it will dilute the effect.”
Len was all for the plan. They could fix nothing immediately, but agreed to telephone each other once Con had been able to check her diary.
“I don't know how we'll get there, though,” said Len. “Normally Reg and I drive out in our motor home, and take a week or ten days on the journey, then we spend a week at Briesau, and then another week or ten days home. I don't think we've ever gone exactly the same way twice!”
“I certainly can't take three weeks off,” said Con. “August is when we start to prepare our Christmas and New Year issue, and there are often planning meetings and so on. It's a good time, when everywhere is quiet, and before the major fashion shows start.”
“I can quite see that,” said Len, “But it would be lovely if you could come out for a week or ten days. I believe one can fly to Innsbruck these days – we could pick you up there.”
“Not a plan!” said Reg, who was driving, and only half-listening to the conversation. “I think I should stay out of it this year. Why don't you two fly out together, while I drive the van out, as normal, and then you and I, Len, can go home together, and Con can fly home when she needs to.”
“Well, that's quite a thought, but I do loathe flying,” said Len. “I tell you what, only it wouldn't be very practical, I should love to go out by train, in stages, the way Mother did when she first went out with Auntie Madge!”
“We could do that,” said Con, liking the idea. “Only, could we compromise and fly as far as Paris, as I can't bear ferries?”
“Or why don't I go by ferry and train, and then we could meet up at the Gare du Nord? That would work. I know Mamma and Auntie Madge stayed a couple of days in Paris, and one year she and Auntie Rob and Auntie Grizel went via Bern, I think, or it might have been Basel.”
“It was Basel,” said Con. “We could get a sleeper from Paris, though, although it might be more fun to break the journey in Switzerland.”
“Hmmm, a night in a Swiss hotel? Not sure the bank will run to that one!”
“Oh, it can all go on the magazine,” said Con, blithely. “I might get an article out of it, and even if I don't, I'll be able to put it on expenses. If we want to go via Paris and Basel, with, say, two nights in each place, I'll get my PA to book everything for us, no problem.”
Len wasn't too sure of the ethics of this, but she knew better than to provoke a fight with Con about her expenses. If Con said it was all right, then it probably was. She was, after all, managing editor of the magazine.
Dates were fixed, and the itineraries were booked, including, to Len's surprise, her train from Birmingham to Paris.
Before they left, though, Con received a very unexpected letter, forwarded from Len. It was from her brother, Charles.
“Not more pious platitudes,” she thought, as she opened it. “Please not....”
But Charles, always her favourite brother, was still very much himself.
“Darling Conasse,” the letter began, using the long-forbidden nickname bestowed upon her when the boys had first discovered the meaning of the French word “con” and its derivatives.
“Why are you hiding from me? I don't have your address, and I'm having to send it to Len – I'm sure she's in touch with you, and will forward it. She'd better be, is all.
“I wanted to write about Margot. It's so unutterably bloody, I can't bear it.
“I'm furious. Furious with the soldiers who shot her. Furious at her Order, for leaving her there so long. Furious at the other nuns for abandoning her – which is illogical, as if they hadn't gone, they'd have been shot, too. And above all, furious at God for letting it happen.
“And I bet you are, too. I do pray for you, you know, although I don't know where you live now, or what you are doing. And I still love you very dearly, my beloved Con-Artist! Try to spend some time with Len during the coming weeks and months, if you can – you will both heal faster if you can grieve together.
“I have two little rooms in my hermitage – the upper one is where I sleep and pray and spend most of my time; the lower one is my workshop. We chop our own wood for our stoves, and believe me, it can be very cold in winter, but I also spend about an hour each weekday making pottery mugs and things. And I have a little garden, where I try to grow roses, not very successfully at this altitude! Great fun! But I must stop now, as Recreation is almost over, and Father Abbot has given me special permission to send this to you. Normally I can only write to Mamma and Papa, four times a year, so this is extra-special. Lots of love, Charles.”
Dear Chas! Being a Charterhouse monk hadn't changed him, really. All the same, how he could bear to spend his days in solitude and silence, Con could not understand. Margot's Order had at least done some good in the world, she though, but what good did Chas and his ilk do? In Con's eyes, it was just an escape from the world.
On the appointed day, Con and Len met up at the Gare du Nord and spent two nights – one full day – in Paris before catching the train on the next leg of their journey, as far as Basel. Although the original journey had been by sleeper, Con and Len had decided to travel by day, and then spend an extra day to sightsee, before heading on. They were also going to spend a few hours in Zurich, where they changed trains, and a night in Innsbruck, at the Europa hotel, where their mother had spent her first night in Austria over sixty years earlier. Then they would hire a car to drive up to Briesau, the little town on the Tiernsee where her parents had owned a villa for many years, and to which they had retired from the Swiss sanatorium her father had managed.
The sisters were slightly awkward together at first, but gradually slipped into their old relationship. They had always been slightly closer to one another than they had been to Margot, who had spent a year in Canada without them, and who had usually been in a different form at school, thanks to her habit of doing only the bare minimum of work. Nevertheless, the three of them had been very much a unit, and although each had had her own friends, throughout their schooldays they had been very close.
“Come in and have a nightcap,” suggested Con, on the first evening. Len had been startled to find that she had her own, adjoining, room in the hotel that was several stars grander than she, Len, would have dreamt of staying in.
“But it's frightfully expensive!” she exclaimed, as Len grabbed a couple of miniature whiskies from the mini-bar. “Wouldn't it be cheaper to go and buy a bottle of nice whisky from the supermarket?”
“Well, yes, but these are here, and I can't be bothered to go out again, can you? Anyway, the magazine will pay.”
“Ought it to, for a personal trip?” Len couldn't prevent herself from asking.
“Oh, I'll write a travelogue about it – Slow Train to the Tirol, something like that. I like writing articles, and it means I can put the whole trip – well, not the part where we stay in Die Blumen, obviously, but the rest of it – on expenses.”
“But don't travelogues have to be lavishly illustrated?” asked Len. “I haven't seen you take a single photograph!”
“You can't put snaps in, they never look right! No, I'm making notes, though, of scenes I would take photos of if I were a professional photographer, and I'll send our travel man out when we get home, with my notes, and probably with the text of the article, so he knows where we went and roughly what we saw. Give him an idea of what to shoot. I'm sure we've plenty of stock shots of Paris, and so on, too.”
“So when would this article come out? I know you work some months in advance.”
“You have to! It's not like we're a daily paper, where everything is last minute. So we're working on our Christmas issue now, and my article will probably come out in January or February, just when people are beginning to think of booking their summer holidays.”
“But most of your readers couldn't begin to afford a hotel like this one. I couldn't, not in a million years!”
“No, I know. But the point is, we're trying to sell them a vision of who they would like to be. They would like to be able to afford to sleep in a hotel like this, and to travel first class on the train, and so on. It's all smoke and mirrors!”
“How you get away with it. And you bully your readers quite dreadfully, telling them what to wear and what to cook and so on. Mind you, I like the recipe section.”
“Do you read it? It's aimed at much younger women!”
“Well of course I read it, what do you think? I wouldn't if you weren't the editor, of course. All of us do, even Mamma!”
Con went rather pink. It had never occurred to her that her family would read the magazine, which was aimed at girls in their twenties, although its actual readership was somewhat younger.
“And, even if you didn't edit it, all the girls at school read it, so it's important I, and the other Heads of Department, keep in touch with what they're reading! Hey, you know best, of course, but would it work to send another reporter on a trip like this, but on a budget, so you could do a comparison between the two – this is what it's like to travel in luxury; this is how you'll probably have to do it, sort of thing?”
“Actually, you know, that might work rather well! I'll think about it!” Con grinned at her sister, and picked up her hairbrush to signify that their evening was at an end.
“So unfair you don't have any grey!” said Len, as she headed to her own room.
“Hairdresser, dear, pure hairdresser! I'd probably be greyer than you if I let it go natural, and we can't afford that in an editor of a girls' magazine, can we?”
Len, who hadn't thought of that, went a bit pink herself. She hadn't realised she knew people who dyed their hair, and then she laughed at herself – if it was as unobtrusive as it was when Con did it, then many of her acquaintance probably did. Maybe she should enquire of her own hairdresser whether something could be done about the once-chestnut curls that were now mostly grey. But on the other hand, she thought, sleepily, those grey hairs did assert authority over her pupils.
Next day, Len firmly bought a small bottle of whisky from the corner shop before the women headed upstairs to change for dinner after a day of sightseeing and shopping in Paris.
“Oof, my feet hurt!” said Con, as she unfolded the dinner menu in the hotel restaurant. “I'm getting too old for this sightseeing lark. Shall we be real trippers and get a tourist bus to see the illuminations?”
“I would, if I had any energy left!” said Len. “But I'm not sure that I do. Anyway, I wouldn't know how to go about booking tickets.”
“The hotel would do it for us, just ask at Reception.”
“Would they really? I didn't know that!”
“Honestly, you are ignorant! Haven't you ever stayed in a hotel before?”
“Not often, and certainly not one as grand as this. And these days, we have the motor home, so we don't need hotels.”
In fact, they found out, the question was moot, as the Illuminations tours had already left by the time they had finished their dinner.
“I'm not too sorry!” said Con. “I'm really quite tired.”
“Me too. So would you like a drink?” asked Len.
“I think I've had enough, thanks; I had quite a lot of wine at dinner. But I tell you what I would like, and that's a cup of tea!”
“Great idea. I'll go and root out my travelling kettle. I've plenty of teabags and a couple of mugs. Haven't any milk, though.”
“I'll order some from room service. Come to that, we could order tea from room service.”
“French tea? A teabag dipped in lukewarm water? Really, Con, there's a reason I brought my little kettle, it's not just meanness! But milk would be nice, if they'll bring us some.”
Con ordered a glass of milk from room service, which arrived even before the kettle had boiled, and the two women sat down with their tea.
“You're pretty abstemious, aren't you?” asked Len, curiously. “You had less wine than I did at dinner, but you say you've had enough booze for now.”
“You have to be, in my line of work. I can't go out boozing every night and still run this magazine the way I need to. I do keep a drinks cabinet at home, but I very seldom touch it. A very occasional whisky if I'm very tired or have had a bad day, and that's my lot. Drinking alone is not a plan.”
“No, indeed. But are you alone much?”
“Most of the time, yes. Once I leave the office, that's about it. There simply isn't time for relationships, or even friendships. Don't look so disbelieving – I'm working most of the hours there are, and I really only get to socialise when I go to fashion shows and so on. I can pay for companionship if I need a walker. Or anything else, for that matter.”
“Sex, you mean?” asked Len.
“I don't think I knew there were male prostitutes. Yes I did, rent boys, but that's for gay people. Didn't know there were straight ones.”
“Rent boys aren't necessarily gay, although lots are. No, there aren't all that many male escorts, as they prefer to be called; you have to know where to go, or rather, where to telephone – they come to you, rather than vice versa. Discovered the agency I use when I was researching something for the magazine a few years ago – we couldn't use it in the magazine, but you have to do more research than you need, of course.”
“Seems horribly impersonal, though.”
“Well, it is, of course, but you can't have everything, and I like my life, you know! Yes, it's lonely on occasion, but I'm usually too busy to notice – and I do love my work!”
“Well, I love mine. But I have loads of other things in my life, and you don't seem to.”
“That's true. But you don't have kids, though – don't you mind that?”
“Nope. Reg and I knew when we married that it was vanishingly improbable that we'd have any, so it's never been an issue.”
“Did you? I don't think I knew that. I wondered at the time, when you married before you'd finished your degree, how you were going to reconcile that with being a good little Catholic!”
“Well, we didn't have to play Vatican roulette, so that was all right.”
“Except I thought you Catholics weren't supposed to even have sex unless you wanted a kid.”
“Oh, you only have to be open to the possibility of conceiving as a result of it, which of course we were – there might have been a miracle, you never know! As it turned out, there wasn't. Fine by me. Not that I'm really a Catholic any more.”
“But I thought you were a believer?” Con looked surprised.
“Sure, but Reg and I go to St Margaret's, the local parish church. Suits us better, and, whatever the priests may say, God doesn't seem to mind. Reg has always been an Anglican, you know.”
“Is he? Don't think I knew or cared much. You know, I do wonder why Margot felt she had to become a nun, just so she could be a doctor in a Third World country. There are loads of secular organisations – Médécins sans Frontières, for one.”
“I often wondered. I thought at first it was all a great big romantic thing – we'd all read 'The Nun's Story', after all, and I think that influenced Margot. But then she stayed on, even after it all went horribly wrong for her that time, so there must have been something real there, don't you think?”
“That or stubbornness.”
“No, I think it was more than that. She was pretty devastated after that incident when the child died, you know. Reverend Mother rang me up and I went straight up to her – I was the nearest family member on her list – and she was in an awful state. I was actually very surprised she stayed on in the Order and took her final vows only eighteen months later.”
“What happened, exactly, do you know?”
“I'm not sure. I know they tried to have them live in an ordinary flat, not the monastery, but it didn't work out. Sort of trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, she got pulled apart and that poor child fell down the middle.”
“Awful for her. So it must have been real for her. But then, what about Chas. What does he think he's doing?”
“Chas. Dom Hubertus, they call him these days. I think I understand, but I'm not sure. I think he, and his like, think they are doing all the praying that people like you and I don't do.”
“Well, I don't. You presumably still pray.”
“Oh yes, but not all day every day the way the contemplative monks do. They even spend hours in the night praying, they get up after about four hours' sleep, and don't go back to bed for another four hours or so.”
“Gosh, sooner them than me. But what does it do?”
“Well, you can't prove a negative, of course, but I sometimes wonder what this world would be like if they didn't do it. After all, the world managed not to have a nuclear holocaust when it seemed to want one, didn't it?”
“Hmmm. I take your point.”
On which note, Con drained her tea and headed for her bed.
Len lay awake, thinking. She supposed she ought to be shocked by Con's revelation that she paid for sex. But when she stopped to think about it, she wasn't, not really. Con's life appeared very bleak to her, nothing but work, but Con herself seemed well and thriving on it. It wasn't any sort of life for Len, but if it was what suited Con.... Len was asleep.
The next day, they moved on to Basel, where they spent another day sightseeing, and the two evenings chatting in one of their rooms, a few hours in Zurich, and a final night in Innsbruck, where they slept in the Europa Hotel, and ate in the restaurant there, just as their mother and her sister had done all those years ago when they first came out to the Tiernsee. And the next morning, they caught the train to Hall, the little tourist train up the side of the mountain to Seespitz, and finally the boat across the lake to Buchau. Their father had offered to meet them at Hall, or even at Maurach, the stop before Seespitz, where the train goes to the west side of the lake and the main road towards Buchau, on the east. But they wanted to do the journey “properly”, although Len wished she had a suitcase with wheels, as Con had. But their parents were at the landing-stage at Buchau to meet them.
They looked older, Con thought. Very drawn and sad, still, about Margot. Well, they all were that, of course. But then Mamma was in her 70s now, and Papa must be well into his 80s, but he had never looked his age.
“Who's around?” asked Len, when the first greetings and hugs were over, and they were walking back to Die Blumen, the big villa that had been part of the family history for so many years. Originally, it had been an English school, across the lake from, and a friendly rival to, the Chalet School. However, in 1935 it had been sold to the Chalet School, and the Russell family had adapted it for use as a holiday home for a couple of years, until the Anschluss forced them to flee. On her first visit back to the Tiernsee after the War, Joey Maynard had found that it was once again up for sale, and had promptly bought it for use as a family holiday home. And then, when retirement loomed, Jack and Joey decided they would rather stay in the Alps than return to England, so sold their home on the Welsh Borders and moved permanently to Buchau.
“Nobody, at the moment,” Joey replied to Len's question. “Felicity and her lot were here a couple of weeks ago, and Cecile says she's bringing all her crowd over this weekend.” Cecile and her family lived just over the border in Germany, and were frequent visitors to Die Blumen.
“And then we're going to do the Grand Tour of the boys later this month. Charles has his Visiting Day on the 27th, and we'll go to him, and then fly to England to see the others.”
“Where's Phil?” asked Con. She didn't know her youngest sister very well, but had enjoyed talking with her after Margot's funeral.
“In England, staying with Geoff and Martha – and,” Joey added with a grin, “baby Lucy Josephine, born three days ago!”
“Oh wow, that is news!” exclaimed Len. “Everybody well?”
“Yes, they're fine,” said Joey. “But Geoff took one look at his daughter and yelled for his twin to come and help! Which, I may say, Phil was delighted to do, only she was sorry to miss you two, and sends all her love and stuff. She'll come back with us when we finish our tour. I'm longing to see my newest granddaughter, of course, but it wouldn't be kind to Martha to come and stay quite so soon, so they'll be our last visit this year.”
“You could always stay with us, and go over every day,” suggested Len. Geoff and his wife Martha – and now, of course, their daughter – lived fairly near Len and Reg in Birmingham.
“I hoped you'd say that!” laughed Joey. “We shall be glad to!”
The rest of the day passed peacefully, but Con, who always felt her parents judged her for her lifestyle and the fact that she had no family of her own, was on edge and ready to take insult, even when none had been intended. She was also tired, as although the trip out from England had been both leisurely and luxurious, they had had to get up fairly early that morning to get to Buchau in time for lunch. And she had not had a proper holiday for three or four years, and, as is so often the case, was ready to collapse now she was finally resting.
The explosion came at supper time, when her father opened a bottle of the local wine that they had all enjoyed during family holidays over the years.
“I thought it would make a nice change for you,” said Joey, meaning nothing more than that, but Con chose to interpret it as meaning that it was not as good as what she ordinarily drank. Which wasn't, in fact, true, as Con only drank wine if she was out.
“Don't be so judgemental!” she exclaimed, crossly. “You have no idea what sort of wine I normally drink!”
“I didn't mean that at all, Con,” said her mother. “I simply meant that you don't get this often, as it's very local, and it's a nice change.”
“Which it is,” said Len, trying to make peace. But Con had been looking for insult, and was determined that she had found it.
“Well, so it might be, but you always sneer at me and my lifestyle, and judge me because it's not the same as yours, and because I'm not married with a long family! I hate it, hate it, hate it!”
Joey looked stunned. “But Con, dearest – I don't judge you or sneer at you. I'm JEALOUS of you!”
“Jealous? Jealous? What are you jealous of? Do you even know what my life is like? I spend all my waking hours at the office. The magazine is my whole life. I don't have time for boyfriends or relationships. I could have married, yes – several times. I chose not to. I chose to be a magazine editor. You can't do both. I certainly don't have a luxurious lifestyle. Okay, if I go somewhere like a Fashion Week, I'm expected to stay in a luxury hotel and look as if I'm rolling in money, and maybe I do get paid a lot, but I can assure you, I earn it! I don't have time for a social life, or friends. The only people I see are those who work for me. And I love it, I love every second of it, and I wouldn't change it for the world!”
Joey was not to be put off. “Yes, but it is your choice. You had that choice. I didn't. When I left school, I was expected to go meekly back home and help look after my nieces and nephews. I had hoped to go to Belsornia as a Lady-in-Waiting to Elizaveta, who was Crown Princess then, but then my sister had another baby and said she would need me at home. I did get a trip to India with Robin to see your Uncle Dick, who was working out there, but that was all the excitement my life offered. I had to get married – no, that's not quite what I mean, don't snort at me like that – I had to get married if I wanted my own life. Which I did. And luckily Jack was around and wanted to marry me, and I haven't ever regretted that, either. Or the eleven of you. And I did have my books, of course. But I would have liked to have had the choice to do something different, to have a proper career.”
“I think being a best-selling author who has given pleasure to thousands is as great a career, and you were able to combine it with having us, and looking after Papa,” said Len.
“Yes, but my books don't sell. Children nowadays aren't interested in school or Guide stories, and that's really all I know.”
“You know what,” said Con, recovering from her shock, “you were saying about the youth club you and Phil have been running out here? Why don't you write an article for me about it, and if I like it, I'll send out a photographer – might use the man I'll send out to cover my travelogue about our journey here – and pay you the proper rate for it. And maybe that would stimulate you to write a novel about some of the kids here and their lives, which might be more relevant. And hey, I'm sorry I said what I did. I misunderstood you. Maybe I've been misunderstanding you for years. And may I have another glass of that lovely wine, please?”
Strange, thought Con, much later, after spending hours chatting with her mother, and getting to know her all over again, that it had taken the death of her sister to bring her home.