“Oh you wretched girl, why do you insist on doing everything I tell you not to?”
Jo Bettany stared for a moment at her page and finally put down her pen with a sigh of frustration. Turning in her chair slightly, she leant back and gazed out of the window at the snowy garden as if for inspiration.
“Writer’s block, Joey?” The aspiring author turned as she heard herself addressed and grinned at her brother-in-law who stood in the doorway.
“It’s no use Jem, I’ve tried and tried and I can’t make this girl say what I want her to say. Every time I try to include her in a scene, she ends up doing something truly awful that would practically warrant expulsion!” She yawned and stretched, looking at the little clock on her desk. “Ouf, it feels later than that! I was just about to come down for Frühstück, is it ready?”
Jem smiled at her, noting with practiced eyes the slightly weary air with which she talked and moved. “Yes, Madge sent me up to get you. Now listen Jo, I don’t like this new regime of yours. I know you want to get started when the inspiration hits you but I really think you should wait until a civilised hour before getting up and covering yourself in ink.”
Jo paused in the act of smoothing her hair to pull a face at him in the mirror. “I don’t get up so dreadfully early you know, it’s just this girl, Angelique. I’m trying so hard to make her believable and she keeps on rebelling!”
Jem looked at his young sister-in-law and was startled by how grown-up she seemed all of a sudden. He remembered the gangly little person he had first met in the train crash all those years ago, the horror with which she has accepted the idea of growing her hair, the reluctance with which she had become Head Girl. Reluctant she had been, but she had taken life on at every stage and had made a success of each one. Like it or not, Jo was growing up and she was beginning to do it gracefully too.
What will be next for you, Jo? he asked himself silently before remembering the mission he had been sent on by his wife, “Come back to it after Frühstück old thing, I’m sure you will see a way round it.” Jem left the room but seconds later, his voice floated up to reach his indignant sister-in-law, “Although with a name like Angelique, what do you expect?”
Arriving in the Speisesaal a few minutes later, Jo found the offending brother-in-law safely ensconced behind a newspaper, and her sister pouring her first cup of coffee. Madge smiled as she entered and reached for another cup.
“Coffee, Joey? How are you faring with the terrible Angelique?”
Jo grimaced. “Dreadful. Her latest has been to turn a harmless prank involving hairbrushes in beds into another expellable offence. I know it sounds strange,” she said, reaching for a roll and liberally spreading it with butter, “but sometimes I just find that characters write themselves. It’s most annoying because I actually quite like her. She reminded me of Elizaveta at her most Middleish.”
Madge put down her coffee cup and looked thoughtfully at her sister, realising, as her husband had only minutes previously how far Jo was from being the wicked Middle she had once vowed to remain.
“Maybe you need to think about Angelique as a Head Girl, and not as a writer. When you were Head Girl and you came across a girl who was difficult, you didn’t just dismiss her as awkward, did you? You would try to discover what made her want to behave in that way and then try and help her. Maybe it is no different with your characters, maybe that’s what Angelique needs. Of course,” she added, trying to keep a straight face, “change her name to something half normal and you might find she changes into a girl who can set a good example to Robin and Daisy!”
Jo laughed at her sister’s final suggestion, but a shadow crossed her face at the mention of Robin and she turned to her other breakfast companion, who had emerged from behind his newspaper, and was now sorting through the post that had arrived that morning.
“Jem, how is my Robin?”
Jem smiled reassuringly at the worried face across the table, “She is doing very well, Jo. Quarantine will be over on Wednesday and she has shown no signs of a head cold, let alone mumps. I haven’t spoken to Juliet yet, but I should think that the school will open again in a few weeks so Rob will be home for a little while after quarantine ends, and you can fuss over her all you like.”
Jo, relieved that her beloved little adopted sister had avoided infection from the mumps outbreak that had recently afflicted The Annexe, finished her meal and left the Speisesaal to try and write some sense into the stubbornly naughty Angelique. Madge was finishing her coffee when her attention was drawn by the first few flakes of another snow shower.
“Bother, it has started to snow again and I had told Gisela I’d lend her those tablecloths.”
Jem looked up from the letter he was reading. “I’m going to do rounds with Jack in fifteen minutes, I can drop the tablecloths in at Das Pferd on my way. Besides, you’re only just getting over that cold, I’d like you to have another day in the warm.”
Madge smiled at her husband. “Thanks, I’d feel better knowing that Gisela has got them, I’ve been meaning to send them over for days.” She got up from the table, “Anything interesting in the post today?”
Jem nodded. “I’ve had a letter from a friend I haven’t seen in years. I met him in Vienna when his wife was very ill but unfortunately, the illness was too far advanced and we didn’t have the knowledge then that we have now. She died and I have never seen a man take it worse.” He paused for a second, and Madge saw a flicker of sadness in his eyes. She always forgot how hard he took it when he lost a patient. Turning back to the letter he held in his hand, he continued, “However, he writes that he very recently re-married and would love to come and visit the Tiernsee in a few weeks as he hasn’t been here since he was a child. Do you think we could put them up, Madge? It would be splendid to see him again, and I can’t really think of any hotels or guesthouses that will be open at this time of year.”
“Of course we can,” Madge tucked her hand through her husband’s arm as they left the Speisesaal, “Rob will be out of quarantine and hopefully, Joey will have got Angelique to toe the line by then!”
“Angelique…” Jem looked thoughtful. He looked down at his wife. “If we have more additions in the future Madge, remind me that Angelique is definitely on the vetoed list!”
With a hiss and a squeak of ancient brakes, the mountain train pulled into Spärtz in the early evening sunshine. In the summer, the little station bustled with tourists but at this time of year, the tourists did not throng to the area in the same numbers and the train often ran up the mountainside with only a handful of passengers. A few locals, returning from shopping trips or dental appointments in Innsbruck stepped from the train, and the porters began to unload deliveries for the various shops in the villages around the Tiernsee. In the middle of this quiet, everyday activity, two people did, however, draw some attention. A tall, dark man alighted the platform, looked about him for a second and then turned to give a hand to another person descending from the train. As the locals remaining on the platform noted to each other, this couple were not from these parts, they did not seem familiar with their surroundings and had entirely too much luggage to be returning from a day’s shopping.
The man made sure all their bags were off the train before, with a quick word to his companion, going to check the steamer timetable posted on a board just outside the station. His companion, a slender woman in her late twenties, pulled her coat tighter around her and smiled amusedly at the curious onlookers who, having been caught staring, dispersed rather sheepishly. In a few moments, the man returned. “The next steamer is due any time now darling, I’ll just go and see if there’s a porter who could give us a hand getting everything to the landing stage.”
She smiled. “All right, I’ll keep guard here. Oh…” she broke off suddenly, “Is your friend not meeting us here? I thought he said in his letter that he would meet us at the station.”
“That was what we had agreed but I telegraphed him from Innsbruck and told him not to bother coming all the way to Spärtz, it’s no trouble for us to take the steamer and meet him at the landing at Briesau instead. Besides,” he smiled cryptically, “there’s something I want to show you, something I remember from my childhood holidays here.”
Five minutes later, they were boarding the steamer which, like the train from Innsbruck, was practically empty. They would have had no trouble finding seats inside but once they had stacked their luggage and tipped the young porter from the station, the man took his companion by the hand and lead her to the deck. It was a perfect winter afternoon. The sky was cloudless, save for a few pinkish wisps, and although the Spärtz landing stage was now in shadow, stripes of sunshine still fell on pastures and rock faces on the other side of the valley.
The woman leant on the rail and breathed deeply. “The air is incredible here. I know it must be something to do with the altitude but there’s something else about it that feels almost medicinal.” She laughed, “That sounds so silly!”
He shook his head, “Not at all, that is exactly the reason why Russell has his Sanatorium out here. I sometimes wonder…” he broke off suddenly and stared at the sparkling water rolling against the bow of the steamer. Confused, she turned to look at him and understood as soon as she saw his face.
“You wonder if Agathe might still be alive if you had brought her here.” He nodded without tearing gaze from the water. For a moment, neither of them said anything but just as he opened his mouth to ask her something, she slid her hand under his on the rail, answering his question.
At this moment, the steamer reached the centre of the lake and the mountains to the West fell away to bathe them in a flaming red and gold sunset. The chilly breeze did not lessen but somehow, standing with their faces upturned to the fading light, a warmth spread through them both. The woman turned to her husband. “How old were you when you saw a sunset out on this lake?”
He smiled. “Nine, and I’ve never forgotten it. That’s why when I realised that we would be arriving here at sunset, I telegraphed Russell so we could cross the Tiernsee. I wanted to show you.”
He took her hands, pulled her close and kissed her. For a few moments, they stood and watched as the sky went from red and gold to pink and purple, when she pulled back a little and looked up at him, her eyes full of tears.
“Oh my love,” he took her face in his hands, “what’s wrong?”
She focussed on the buttons of his coat, trying to find the words.
“A year ago, I had my future all mapped out. I thought I knew where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do with my life. Even thought I sometimes felt like I didn’t belong, I liked the fact that I had everything planned, it was comfortable. And then…” she paused, straightening the pin on his lapel, “there was you. And everything changed. And for a while, my life certainly was not comfortable, but,” she finally met his eyes, “this feels right. This is where I belong.”
“Oh Maria,” he looked down at his wife, smiling up at him through her tears, “I’m glad this is where you are supposed to be.”
Jem’s car skidded slightly through the last bend, flew into the forecourt at the Briesau landing stage and came to a shuddering halt. Jo climbed out of the car rather unsteadily and, leaning against the door, checked her wristwatch.
“Great snakes Jem! I think you broke your own record! There’s a bright future for you in driving racing cars, my friend.”
Jem gave her a brief, somewhat sardonic smile and prodded her in the back, “Come on, funny girl, the steamer must be about to come in.”
The sun had gone behind the mountains and, although it was still relatively early in the evening, the lamps were being lit as Jo and Jem waited at the moorings while the steamer docked and the passengers disembarked. The chilly breeze from the water had grown stronger and Jem, with a sharp glance at his companion, began to regret bringing her to meet their house guests. Over the years, she had grown out of the extreme delicacy of her childhood, but every now and then, Jo succumbed to a cold that most people would have thrown off. Jem had never forgotten those terrible days when, after she had fallen through the ice on the Tiernsee, they had come so close to losing her.
Now, there was no doubt that she was very much his sister-in-law, but she had been so young when he married Madge, the stark difference in their ages had often led him to feel more like a step-father. No matter how he thought of her as an adult, there would always be a part of him that thought of her as one of his children, and he realised with a kind of sadness that there would come a time when she would no longer need him to worry about her. Standing in the lamp light, her cheeks a little flushed with the cold, and her eyes sparkling with the excitement of making new friends, Jo looked almost beautiful. There was something very compelling about the young Miss Bettany, something about her fierce independence, her reluctance to change into someone she was not. In that respect, he thought, she was very much like her sister. One day, someone would look past the inky fingers and school girl slang and see the woman that they wanted to spend the rest of their life with. In that moment, Jem admitted to himself that he was very interested to know who that person might be.
A second glance at her, however, allayed his fears. Clad in a thick scarf and the beret that Robin had knitted her for Christmas, and with her coat buttoned up as high as it would go, there was no chance of Jo catching a chill in the few minutes that they would be standing on the landing stage. A moment later, she was shaking him out of his reverie, pulling at the sleeve of his coat.
“Jem! Is that your friend over there? The tall man with the red scarf? I’m fairly certain he just looked over here and waved.”
Jem turned to look in the direction in which she was pointing, and a minute later was making his way to the spot where his house guests were standing, surrounded by trunks and bags.
“Russell! It is so good to see you again!”
“Likewise old chap, it’s been far too long.” Jem shook his friend warmly by the hand and turned to smile welcomingly at the woman who stood by her husband’s side. She returned the smile with interest, stepping forward to shake first his hand and then Jo’s.
“It’s lovely to finally meet you Dr Russell, I’ve heard so much about you and this wonderful place.”
Jo, who had been uncharacteristically quiet while these first exchanges took place then chimed in. “It is pretty gorgeous isn’t it? We’ll get a lovely view of the valley as we drive up to the Sonnalpe. Should just make it before the light completely goes I should think. I’m Jo by the way” she added, almost as an afterthought, “Jem’s sister-in-law.”
“And while we’re on the subject of names, let’s start as we mean to go on,” said Jem. “I know your name is Maria, please call me Jem or this fortnight is going to feel terribly official! Now,” he clapped his hands together briskly, “let’s get the formalities over and done with and get out of this cold. This is my wife’s sister Josephine. Joey,” he said, with a smile for the scowl that Jo’s full name had produced, “these are Georg and Maria von Trapp.”