David Russell hadn’t spent this part of the year in Armishire for longer than he cared to remember; and he was enjoying it. It wasn’t that he had any deep-seated sentimental attachment to the area – he’d lived there for a while as a boy but then he’d lived in a lot of other places as well, as all the Russells had, and it wasn’t as if either the Russell or the Bettany side of his family had any roots in the area – but it was just such a pleasure to be away from the noise and bustle of London. He didn’t miss the capital city or the hospital that he’d worked in there at all, he thought, as he stood by his living room window looking out at the blooming garden at the back of his comfortable house.
It was early July now, almost ten months since he and his cousin Daisy Rosomon had first taken over the nearby medical practice in which the two of them were the only partners - a far cry from how his life would have been had he gone to work in his father’s Sanatorium as most people had expected him to do. He worked full time in the practice; and Daisy worked two full days and three half days a week, with his own former nanny Rosa Pfeifen collecting the Rosomons’ children from school and helping out in their house on the days on which Daisy worked full time, and looking after the children whilst their mother was at work during school holidays.
The arrangement between the Rosomons and Rosa was one that suited everyone, and one which David himself had suggested. At twelve going on thirteen, his two younger brothers were – supposedly, he thought with a smile – too old to need watching all the time; and by this time next year they’d be preparing to go away to Winchester, where David himself and his three male Bettany cousins had all been educated.
He’d known that Rosa had been fretting about what there would be for her to do once the Russells no longer had any children at home, but evidently his parents hadn’t; and he’d also known that his parents would no more have dreamt of turning Rosa out after all her years of loyal service to them than they would of flying to the moon, but evidently Rosa hadn’t. In addition to that, he’d known that Daisy and her husband Laurie had been unhappy about the prospect of leaving their children with a stranger, but would have no qualms about leaving them with Rosa who’d been working for the Russells since she was a young girl. Everyone else had exclaimed about what a wonderful idea it was and how none of them could believe that they hadn’t thought of it themselves … but then none of them were in a position to hear about the feelings of everyone involved in the way that he was.
Sometimes he could hardly believe that the boys would be off to public school next year. Time seemed to pass so quickly these days: had it really been fourteen months since he’d returned from that momentous visit to Austria? He found it equally hard to believe that his youngest sister had left the Chalet School – the finishing branch of it, to be precise – for the last time the previous day, to come home for the long summer holidays before heading off to Bedford to begin her training as a P.T. mistress.
He smiled at the thought: he was so very proud of Ailie. When she’d been the age that Kevin and Kester were now, she’d had much the casual attitude to her schoolwork as both of them still had, not helped by their parents’ habit of repeatedly contrasting her abilities with those of Josette who’d always been the brightest of their daughters academically; but she’d made an enormous effort during her last few years at school and had been rewarded by winning the college place that she’d wanted, and he couldn’t be more pleased for her.
Yes, his youngest sister was all grown up now; and his other two sisters were both not only grown up but also now had children of their own: he turned to look at the photographs of his nephew and niece which were proudly displayed on the mantelpiece. Sybil’s little boy was eighteen months old now, toddling about all over the place and chattering away to himself according to Sybil’s last letter; and Josette’s baby girl was twelve weeks old today. It saddened him that he hadn’t been able to meet either of the two newest members of the family in person yet; but he was looking forward to Christmas, when they’d all be together to celebrate the marriage of his cousin Len Maynard, who’d recently finished her three year degree course at Oxford, to her long-time fiancé Reg Entwistle.
Len and Reg would be living in Daisy and Laurie’s old house, just a short walk from Freudesheim, the Maynard family home; and he wondered wryly how the newly-weds would enjoy being so close to his aunt and uncle. His own house was several miles from his parents’ home, which lay over the Welsh border; and when he’d moved back to Armishire both his mother and his father had assured him that even though his father had now retired they’d have plenty to occupy themselves with and wouldn’t be calling round to see him all the time and trying to involve themselves too closely in his life. Unfortunately, it hadn’t quite worked out like that.
It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy seeing his mother and father; but they did tend to come round just that little bit too often and to stay just that little bit too long. In addition to that, he was expected to present himself at their house not only every Sunday lunchtime – which admittedly was usually very pleasant, with the Rosomons often joining them too – but for at least one evening meal during the week too. Sometimes he would explain politely but firmly that he had other arrangements on the day in question; but on such occasions he’d always be able to hear clearly the disappointment in their voices and so he’d always feel bad about it afterwards.
Then there were the endless committees that his father was always encouraging him to join, so that they could sit on them together and David could get to know some of the important people in the area. Not to mention his mother’s embarrassing habit of finding ways to introduce him to a seemingly endless procession of single daughters, nieces and other young female connections of her friends from the church ladies’ committee and the Women’s Institute.
He knew that they were only trying to be helpful, and he knew that they missed Sybil and Josette and enjoyed having at least one of their grown-up children living nearby, and so he did try not to let his annoyance show … but it did get rather too much sometimes. Most of the time, in point of fact. Still, nothing was ever perfect and he hoped that he was adult enough to be able to accept that. This was the real world and the real world wasn’t meant to be perfect; and in general he was fairly contented with his new life and the way that it was going.
Apart from one aspect of it, and he didn’t know what he was going to do about that even though it was rarely out of his mind for more than a few minutes at a time. He looked at the letter, the latest letter – they came so quickly and were always replied to equally quickly -, which lay on the table along with the rest of the day’s post; and was about to pick it up and read it yet again, in the hope that maybe he might have missed something which might have answered one of the questions which he kept asking himself over and over, when his thoughts were suddenly and loudly interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing.
His initial thought was that it might be someone, whether one of his own patients or not, saying that they needed the doctor to come out immediately to attend to a relative or neighbour. That happened quite often in the evenings, but he accepted such call-outs as being part of the duties of a local G.P. and would never have dreamt of complaining about it. After all, he’d wanted to be part of a local community and wanted to be somewhere where he was needed by the people around him; and even if it wasn’t something urgent he never told people to wait until the surgery opened in the morning.
However, it turned out that the person ringing on the doorbell was actually someone far more welcome, someone whom he hadn’t seen since just after Easter. Ailie.
“Hey, welcome home!” he exclaimed in delight. “Come here and give your big brother a hug! I was going to come round and see you tomorrow evening: I thought you might still be tired today after all that travelling, or busy doing your unpacking. Everything all right? Decent journey? And how does it feel to’ve left school at last – or has it not sunk in yet?”
“It hasn’t sunk in at all,” she laughed, hugging him warmly. “I keep feeling as if come September I’ll be labelling my trunk ready to go back to the Oberland yet again: I can’t get used to the idea that I won’t be! And everything’s fine: the ferry crossing was a bit rough but nothing too bad; and I wasn’t too tired this morning so I got up early and got everything unpacked. My clothes all got pretty creased up in the trunk – Mum said that it served me right for not packing the way Matey always taught me! – but Marie’s ironed them all so they’re all okay now; and there weren’t any other problems.
“Jolly good!” A pang of some sort of emotion, maybe something akin to unease, shot through him at the thought of Marie Monier doing his sister’s ironing, and he reminded himself – as he so often had to these days – that it was silly to feel like that. Doing the Russells’ housework was Marie’s job, just as being a doctor was his. There was nothing about that that should make him or anyone else feel uneasy. It was just that … he shook his head, aware that his sister was still standing on the doorstep. “Come on in then. Have you come on your own?”
Ailie shook her head. “Kevin and Kester insisted on coming along when I said that I was coming to see you.” She grinned at him. “You know they both think you’re wonderful: I have no idea why, but they do! They’re just inspecting the car for damage, because Kevin insisted that I’d scraped the side of the wall backing out of the drive - but I didn’t do anything of the sort: I don’t know why no-one trusts my driving! Dad actually wanted Andreas to bring us and then come back to collect us later – I’m not sure if it was me and the boys he was worried about or his precious car - but I did manage to convince him that it wasn’t necessary.”
“I should think not. It’s hardly very fair expecting Andreas to run round after everyone like that, is it?” Or maybe it was. Andreas was employed by his parents, after all. And the Moniers and the Russells had always had a very good relationship: it was just the type of relationship, in the eyes of both families … he made himself push the thought to the back of his mind before he could get distracted, and walked back into the living room with Ailie following him, leaving the door open for the twins. A minute later they heard a loud clattering as Kester tripped over one of David’s shoes - which was lying about in the porch - and fell on to Kevin who was just in front of him, and both of ended up on the floor.
“Evening, you two!” David called. “What on earth are you doing out there?”
“Hi David. Kester barged into me and we both fell over, but it was your fault for leaving your stupid shoes in the middle of the porch like that,” Kevin said as the two of them picked themselves up and made their way into the living room, where they both took their own shoes off and plonked themselves down unceremoniously on the settee. Things at David’s were always so much more relaxed than they were at home: that was one of the reasons that they enjoyed coming here so much. “There isn’t anything wrong with the car after all, Ailie: you must’ve been lucky and just missed the wall. David, have you got any biscuits or cake or anything? I’m starving.”
“Kevin Russell, you are the world’s biggest pig!” Ailie said exasperatedly. “You’ve only just had your dinner. How can you possibly be hungry again already?”
“We’re growing lads: that’s what Marie and Rosa say,” Kester told her. “Hi David. I’ll have some cake as well if you’ve got any, please.”
“I’ve got some chocolate cake that Mrs Rilk made: you can have some of that,” David said. “Don’t tell Mum or Dad that I gave you cake when you’d only just eaten, though!” He went into the kitchen, cut four slices of cake and put each of them on to a plate. He knew very well that despite what Ailie had just said to Kevin she’d want a piece too, and he thought that he might as well have a piece himself - it was very nice cake, after all!
Mrs Rilk was his cleaner, and she also did some cooking for him. She was a lovely lady with a heart of gold even if she did talk a bit too much; a widow in her fifties with two sons, one about his own age and one a little younger. Both her sons still lived with her and she was devoted to them, even if she did keep saying that it was high time that both they and he found themselves a nice young lady each. As if he didn’t hear enough of that from his own mother!
“When Mrs Rilk comes in tomorrow and sees that half the cake’s gone, she’ll think I’ve scoffed it all myself, and then the next time I see her she’ll tell me off for not sticking to proper nutritious meals,” he said to Ailie, who’d followed him into the kitchen. “She’s absolutely convinced that a man on his own isn’t capable of looking after himself properly!”
“She’s probably right!” Ailie said. She laughed. “You’ve done very well to remain single this long: I bet it’s not for the want of trying that Mum hasn’t found you a wife yet! Or that someone living round here hasn’t found you a wife yet, for that matter. They were probably all really excited when you moved in – like Mrs Bennet and the others at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, when Mr Bingley moved into Netherfield. In fact, I can just hear them all. My dear, have you heard? Not only is he a doctor, with his own practice – well, a half share in a practice, anyway – but he’s the heir to a baronetcy as well. What a fine thing for one of our girls!”
“You don’t half talk the biggest load of nonsense sometimes, Ailie Russell!” David told his sister, who was giggling away at her own joke. “Make yourself useful and go and take two of these plates into the living room, will you?” He started to laugh as well, more at Ailie’s giggles than at anything she’d just said, but then he stopped and shook his head. Marriage! If only it were ever likely to happen to him – but he had no idea even how the only person to whom he could envisage himself ever wanting to be married really felt about him, let alone how she’d feel about the idea of marrying him.
“I’ll just shift the post off the table and shove it on the side, otherwise something important’s bound to end up covered in crumbs,” Ailie said, as she put the first two plates down in front of her younger brothers - who were waiting at the table and fell on the cake with more enthusiasm than good manners - and David came into the living room carrying the two remaining plates. The foreign stamp on the envelope on the top of the pile caught her eye and she looked at ii with interest. “Oh – who’s writing to you from Austria?”
“Don’t be so nosy!” David put the plates down, grabbed the letter, put it in his pocket and hastily moved to change the subject. “Any news from Mum and Dad?”
Ailie looked at him curiously, but decided that it might be better not to enquire any further as to the provenance of the Austrian letter: it was obviously something that he didn’t want to talk about, for whatever reason. “Actually, that reminds me: I’ve got two messages for you from Mum and Dad,” she said instead. “Well, one from each of them, actually. First of all, Dad said to remind you that the Rotary Club quiz starts at half past seven sharp tomorrow evening and to ask you please not to be late.”
“I told him that I didn’t want to go to that,” David said exasperatedly. “If he’s put my name down for his team then I suppose I’ll have to go now, and it is for a good cause after all; but I did tell him.” He sighed. This sort of thing happened all the time, and he was getting thoroughly fed up of it. “What else?”
“Are they driving you mad?” Ailie smiled sympathetically. “The other thing was that Mum said to make sure that you’d not forgotten about dinner on Friday, and to tell you to make sure that you get changed after work and put one of your best suits on, seeing as we’ll be having guests.”
“I’m surprised that she didn’t tell you to remind me to wash behind my ears as well,” he remarked. “Honestly! And she can rest assured that there’s not the slightest chance of me forgetting about dinner on Friday: Daisy’s been going on about it non-stop for the last fortnight and no doubt she’ll be doing so for the rest of the week as well.” He smiled. “She and Gwensi are so excited at the thought of their old trio all being together again, even if it is only going to be briefly. Neither of them can wait until Beth arrives!”
Daisy had settled down very easily to life back in Armishire; and one of the main reasons for that was that it meant her being able to see a lot of her old schoolfriend Gwensi Howell, who was now a successful novelist, married with a young son and daughter, and living not far from the Rosomons’ home in Howells Village. However, the third member of their trio from schooldays, Beth Atherton, née Chester, lived in Guernsey with her husband Noel and their three children; and neither Daisy nor Gwensi got to see her nearly as often as any of them would have liked.
One of Beth’s sisters, Nancy, lived in Birmingham where her husband, like David, was a doctor who’d spent several years working in a hospital but had recently set up in general practice. Noel Atherton had to attend a meeting in Birmingham, and Beth and the children were accompanying him so that they could take the opportunity to visit Nancy and her family, and the Chester girls’ mother Anne was coming with them too. The third of the four Chester sisters, Barbara, who now had a good job in London as a trilingual secretary, was also joining them, having taken a couple of days off work to spend some time with her family whilst they were in England.
Birmingham was only about sixty miles from Howells Village, and Beth had wanted to take a diversion on the way home to see Daisy and Gwensi. When Madge had heard about the proposed visit, she’d suggested that the Chester/Atherton party all come to her house for dinner and then stay overnight as neither Daisy nor Gwensi had room for all of them. The two families were quite close, having lived not far from each other during the War years and with all their daughters knowing each other from school. Anne Chester’s sister Elizabeth was Ailie’s godmother, Ailie’s two closest friends were Beth’s youngest sister Janice and Noel’s niece Judy Willoughby, and Josette had been very friendly with Barbara at one time. Why his mother wanted him to go along for dinner as well David didn’t know; but Beth and the others were all pleasant enough and it would be interesting to catch up on all the news from the Chesters and their relatives, so he was quite looking forward to it.
“I’m not surprised that Beth and Gwensi are so excited: they can’t’ve seen Beth for ages,” Ailie said. “It doesn’t half feel weird knowing that I’m not going to be seeing Jan and Judy all the time any more. I really wish Jan was coming as well, but I suppose she’s only just got home and she’s got things to do. Anyway, someone has to keep an eye on Uncle Peter and the boys! And I’ll have plenty of time with Jan and Judy when I go down to Guernsey in August. I’m so glad we’ve got that fortnight fixed up, because I’m not going to have much chance to see them for long during the Christmas hols, with going to Switzerland for Len’s wedding.”
She pulled a face. “I cannot even begin to tell you how vile the bridesmaids’ dresses that Len’s chosen are! We’re going to look like a bunch of walking meringues – and don’t any of you dare laugh. I won’t repeat what Con said when she saw them! Out of all of us the only ones who actually like them are Felicity and Lucy, and what that says about their taste I’m not entirely sure!”
“Who’s Lucy again?” Kevin asked. “I get confused when you keep going on about all these people in Switzerland. I know you know who they all are, but we don’t!”
“She’s Lucy Peters, Felicity’s best friend,” Ailie explained. “Her mum’s known Reg since he was a little boy: he thinks of Mrs Peters almost as an older sister. It was sweet of Len to think of asking Lucy to be a bridesmaid, really, because there’d’ve been no-one from Reg’s side otherwise.”
“He hasn’t got much family, has he?” David mused, trying to remember what he could about his cousin’s fiancé’s background. He’d met Reg a few times, in the days when the Maynards had lived in Britain and Reg had sometimes visited them during school holidays. Hearing about how Reg had been determined to become a doctor even in the days when he’d expected to have to leave school at fourteen had made him think long and hard about just how much he and his elder cousin Rix, both also with their minds set on careers in medicine even back then, took for granted: there’d never at any stage of their lives been the slightest question of either of them having to leave school before the age of eighteen, or not being able to go to medical school if they worked hard and won a place there.
“If I remember rightly, he’s got an aunt and uncle and some cousins in Canada, on his father’s side; but he’s not in touch with them,” he said, with a vague recollection of hearing Reg mention them once or twice. “And of course there was the great-aunt on his mother’s side, the one who brought him up; but she passed away quite a while ago.”
“Can you imagine what she must’ve been like?” Kester said. “The great-aunt, I mean. I heard Mum and Auntie Joey talking about her last time the Maynards were over here. She made Reg go to the village school when he lived with her. He hated it, Auntie Joey told Mum.”
“I’m not surprised!” Kevin put in. “I bet he never learnt a thing. And I heard Auntie Joey telling Mum that that great-aunt wanted Reg to leave school when he was fourteen – and get a job working for a farmer! It was jolly lucky for him that he met Auntie Joey and Uncle Jack, wasn’t it? Ugh - can you imagine having to clean out pigsties and stuff like that all day? Reg said that there was no way he was doing that, Auntie Joey said. This great-aunt was related to him on his mum’s side, though. His dad’s side wasn’t so bad. His dad was a teacher. And his dad’s dad was a doctor: Auntie Joey and Uncle Jack think that Reg must take after him. But Reg’s mum married above her station.”
At that point David banged his fist on the table, and the other three nearly jumped out of their skins. It was utterly unlike David to do something like that even in the middle of an argument, never mind a casual exchange of family gossip, and if he lost his temper with anyone then it was never with any of his younger siblings. They all looked at him in alarm.
“That is enough!” he said furiously. “I will not have that sort of snobbery in my house, do you two hear me? In fact, I don’t want to hear either of you speaking like that anywhere, ever. You should be ashamed of yourselves, coming out with that sort of nonsense. What exactly do you think’s wrong with the village schools and the people who go to them and the people who teach in them? Or with farm work, or any sort of honest work that people do to earn a living for that matter? And as for that claptrap about “marrying above her station” … well, I don’t know where you’ve heard that sort of ridiculous expression but don’t ever let me hear you using it again. I don’t know where you pick this sort of thing up but you both ought to have a lot more sense - not to mention common decency. I’m ashamed of the pair of you: I really am.”
“David, there’s no need to shout at the boys like that,” Ailie said quietly. She could see from the expressions on the twins’ faces how shocked and upset they were at being reprimanded so harshly by their adored elder brother; and she was quite shocked herself by his outburst. She couldn’t recall ever having heard him speak to Kevin and Kester like that before. “They’re only repeating what they’ve heard other people saying. Everything they’ve just said came from things Mrs Peters said to Auntie Joey about Reg during that first holiday in Garnham just before I was born: I’ve heard Auntie Joey telling Mum about it myself. I’m not saying that it’s the right way to look at things because personally I don’t think it is; but you can’t really blame them for repeating comments they’ve heard in their own home.” She looked at him curiously. “Why are you getting so worked up about it, anyway? Since when have you been so interested in Reg’s relations?”
“It’s got nothing to do with Reg’s relations,” David muttered. “I just don’t like people making out that other people aren’t as good as they are just because of their background, as if what school somebody went to or what their parents do or how much money their family’s got somehow makes them better than or different from anyone else. It’s wrong to think like that: it’s wrong.”
He looked at his brothers apologetically, then he stood up and put one arm round Kevin’s shoulders and the other arm round Kester’s. “I’m really sorry, though, you two: I didn’t mean to shout. But, although I don’t really mean to be critical of Mrs Peters or anyone else, in future try to think a little bit more carefully before you repeat things you’ve heard other people say, will you? And remember that it’s what somebody’s like and what they do – and you’ll often find that people who didn’t start out with a lot of advantages in life work an awful lot harder than those who did - that’s what matters, not where they’ve come from or who their parents are. We’re all just human beings when all’s said and done, after all. It’s the person themself who matters, nothing else.”
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