“I’m just off now, Mrs Garden,” a cheery voice announced. “Unless there’s anything else that you particularly want doing today?”
Primula Garden, née Venables, looking up from the women’s magazine she’d been flicking through and smiled at her daily woman, who’d popped her head round the door of the lounge. “No: that’s fine, Mrs Ashcott. There’s nothing else that needs doing. You get off, and get home before the rain has chance to start again. See you in the morning.”
Sarah Ashcott nodded, said goodbye, fetched her coat and hat and made her exit; and Primula went back to reading her magazine. She’d meant it when she’d said that there was nothing else that needed doing: Mrs Ashcott was very efficient and made sure that the Gardens’ house never looked anything less than immaculate, which was easier said than done given that there were two young children living in it - even though Margaret, who was five, was now at school full time and Jonathan, a year younger, attended a nursery school five mornings and two afternoons a week.
Primula was fiercely proud of the house, which stood in a select suburb of the Devon market town of Etherleigh, where her husband Nick practised as a solicitor in partnership with his widowed father. After all the years that she’d yearned for a home of her own, now that she had one she cherished it.
She had almost no memory whatsoever of the home in Queensland that she’d once shared with her parents, her sister and the three brothers who’d died so tragically young and whom, hard though she’d tried, she couldn’t remember at all. Then after her father’s death she’d lived with friends and relatives, sometimes being passed from one relative to another according to what was convenient for whom, and she’d never truly been able to think of anywhere as home until her sister Daisy had married Laurie Rosomon and she’d gone to live with them. Even then, much as they’d both done everything they could to encourage her to think of their home as her own, she’d always felt ever so slightly like a spare part - until she’d married Nick and they’d moved into the house that they’d lived in ever since. Her first real home.
The house had belonged to Nick’s father, who’d inherited it from a wealthy bachelor great-uncle and rented it out until making it over to Nick and Primula just after they’d announced their engagement. It had been in need of some considerable redecoration at that time and, with the financial assistance of various friends and relatives keen to provide them with something useful by way of engagement and wedding presents, they’d done it up exactly the way they’d wanted. Every room in the house had had their own stamp on it by the time they’d come to live here: it couldn’t have felt any more like theirs.
Several people had remarked at the time that it was a good size for a family home, and within a few years that was what it become with the arrival of the children. The four of them were very well settled there, and lived a happy, orderly life which couldn’t have been any further removed from the tales that Daisy sometimes told of the Venables family’s days in Australia. It was really a very comfortable life indeed.
The legal practice which Nick and his father ran was prospering, and within reason the Garden family wanted for very little. Nick dealt with all their finances, of course, and Primula had only to worry about the housekeeping money and the additional sums which she sometimes asked for if she or the children needed new clothes or sundry other items; but she knew that Nick was doing well. He was far too sensible even to think about spending money that they didn’t have, and anyway she’d heard people mentioning his professional success at the dinner parties which they regularly held or to which they were invited at other people’s homes.
Yes, the Gardens enjoyed a good life, and Primula knew it. For example, there was the ski-ing trip on which she and Nick would be heading off in a few weeks’ time. Only yesterday she’d been out shopping and had bumped into Mrs Burton - the wife of Nick’s accountant - who’d asked if they were all ready to go and had then remarked with more a slight note of envy in her voice just how much she’d love to be able to go ski-ing. It looked so wonderful, she’d said! There were always pictures in magazines of the rich and famous enjoying themselves enjoying themselves on the piste – was that the correction expression? It looked absolutely thrilling; and she was quite sure that Mr and Mrs Garden would have the most fantastic time.
Primula had smiled and thanked her, and made a mental note that she really must get organised for it all. Hopefully Mrs Burton was right and they would indeed have a wonderful time, she’d thought to herself, mentally crossing her fingers. She had some concerns about leaving the children - it would be the first time that she and Nick had been parted from them - but she knew that her father-in-law and his housekeeper, with whom they’d been staying, would take excellent care of them; and Nick was so keen on the idea of a ski-ing holiday that for his sake in particular she very much wanted everything to go well. He worked hard: he deserved this break.
It would be early in the season when they went, only the beginning of December, but they’d had little choice about that - they had to be at home in January in order to attend the wedding of Nick’s associate Charles Foster to one of the firm’s secretaries, Caroline Carr, and then the firm had a big case coming up in February and there was no telling how long it might go on for - and in any case they’d been told that conditions were generally just as good in December as they were at the busier times of the season. Anyway, it might be better going when there weren’t as many people around, given that Nick was a complete novice when it came to ski-ing and she not much better, they’d joked to each other!
Nick’s original idea had been that they should go to one of the fashionable Swiss resorts, but as soon as the words “ski-ing holiday” had been mentioned Primula had eagerly suggested that they go to the Austrian Tyrol. That way, they’d be able to combine their trip with a visit to her cousin and close friend David Russell, now living at the Tiernsee with his wife and baby. Nick had smiled and apologised for not thinking of that in the first place; and so it was to Tyrol that they were going, to a hotel that David himself had recommended.
Of course, Mrs Burton hadn’t meant anything unpleasant by her comments about their holiday: she was a pleasant enough woman and Primula didn’t doubt for a moment that she sincerely hoped that the Gardens would enjoy themselves. But it was difficult sometimes not to be aware that they did have a rather easy life – or, at least, that she had a rather easy life. Part of it was due to circumstances – they’d been very lucky that Nick’s father had had a house which he’d given to them as a present, whereas she knew that the lifestyles of many other couples their age were dictated by the demands of rent or mortgage payments – and part of it was due to Nick’s constant hard work. She frequently couldn’t help feeling that she herself, with Mrs Ashcott attending to much of the domestic work, really didn’t do very much at all.
There’d always been a lot of talk at school about the importance of young girls like them growing into strong, helpful women, who’d be of use to their families and play a role in their communities … oh, all that sort of stuff. Of course, schoolmistresses were supposed to say things like that, especially at assemblies and prizegiving ceremonies and so on, but it had very much been a part of the ethos of the school and of her upbringing … and now what was she doing with herself? Mrs Ashcott did most of the domestic jobs and even came in to help with the cooking and the washing up when the Gardens were entertaining; and with all the new-fangled gadgets around these days housework wasn’t nearly as difficult as it had been in the ‘30s or ‘40s anyway. And the children were at school for much of the time now, and past the age where they needed watching all the time even when they weren’t.
Primula looked down at her magazine in distaste. It wasn’t even interesting: she was only reading it for something to do. Some of the articles in it were about sewing and knitting, she noticed: maybe that was what she ought to do, take up a hobby. But there was nothing of that sort that she’d ever been very good at, not like Tom Gay with her woodwork or Nella Ozanne with her carving or Clem Barrass and Polly Winterton with their painting.
She wasn’t really particularly brilliant at anything; and she was conscious that she’d always been rather shy and silent to boot. It was no wonder that she usually seemed to be introduced to people only as “Nick Garden’s wife”, she thought. But then it had never really been any different. At school, she’d always felt that people outside her own form thought of her primarily as either Lady Russell’s niece or, more usually, Daisy Venables’s sister.
Daisy and Laurie were now living in Armishire where the Russells, Venableses and Maynards had first moved during the War, and since returning there just over three years ago Daisy had been combining her role as a doctor and her role as a wife and the mother of three children and doing so with great success. She and Primula were close and always had been, especially since their mother’s early death. Primula adored her elder sister, and was also intensely proud of her.
How could anyone not be proud of a sister like Daisy, after all? At school, she’d been the very model of everything that most of the girls admired and in many cases either openly or secretly longed to be. She’d been one of a tightly-knit trio, but at the same time had been popular with everyone else around her too, girls and mistresses alike. She and her friends had led their form from an early stage and, when they’d reached the upper echelons of the school, had led all the rest of the girls as well. She’d become a heroine to all when she’d carried Elfie Woodward, who’d fallen and injured her ankle, through a snowstorm; and she’d both excelled in her academic work and represented the school at several different sports.
Then, she’d gone on to become the first former pupil of the school to qualify as a doctor, at a time when female doctors had still been a rarity; and on top of that had won countless awards for her research work. People who’d never even met her had spoken of her with awe. Carola Johnstone, for example, had related the tale of her unexpected first meeting with Dr Daisy Venables in the same tones that she might have used to describe an encounter with a member of the Royal Family or a leading Hollywood film star.
Primula had never for a moment resented always being in Daisy’s brilliant shadow. But, at the same time, she’d never been able to help feeling slightly inadequate because she herself had never particularly shone at anything.
Admittedly, at any school there were only a very small minority of pupils who could be described as leaders. Or who were brilliant academically, or outstandingly good at sports or art or music, or able to keep everyone entertained with their quick wit, or drew admiration because of their good looks. Or, for that matter, who were the focus of attention because of their bad behaviour or unpleasant ways. The vast majority were like herself - ordinary. But she’d been brought up with a group of girls who’d all distinguished themselves one way or another. Every single one of them, apart from Sybil - and she’d been noted for her artistic abilities and always drawn attention because of her undisputed beauty – had actually ended up as Head Girl, even Peggy who’d never seemed to have that much about her.
The only single one of the entire group who’d never done very much was herself. She’d been reasonably good at her work, but she’d never made any particular mark in any particular area; and she’d got on well with most people but she’d never really had any particularly close friends. And the possibility of her being made a prefect would probably never have arisen even if she hadn’t missed most of her last year at the main branch of the school to be taken to Canada, where her uncle had been attending a series of important conferences. David, the same age, had remained behind in England because neither he nor his parents had wanted to risk damaging his chances of public examination success by taking him away from Winchester at such a crucial stage; but the interruption of her schooling hadn’t seemed to be an issue to anyone.
Well, no-one had ever expected very much of her. Which was a good job really, because she’d never really achieved very much. Certainly not when compared to someone like Daisy. Or to their Auntie Madge, who‘d set up her own school at the age of just twenty-four. Or to Joey Maynard, a successful and famous author.
She thought back, as she so often did, over her time at school. From an early age she’d been considered “delicate” and, like the various other “delicate” girls at the ultra-health-conscious Chalet School, had for that reason never been pushed. Although they were all much of an age she hadn’t even started school at the same time as David and Bride had, when the Chalet School had moved up to the Sonnalpe in 1938. And although she’d achieved an acceptable standard once she had been at school she’d certainly never been encouraged to exert herself.
Or maybe that was just an excuse, she thought guiltily. Robin had also been considered delicate, probably even more so than she’d been; and Robin had gone on to achieve an Oxford degree - even if her health had led to her giving up the settlement work that she’d initially gone into after graduating. Primula had sometimes thought that she’d like to get involved in settlement work or something similar herself, but after what had happened with Robin she’d known that her aunt and uncle would never have countenanced it for a moment had she suggested it.
Anyway, by the time she’d completed her year at finishing school, Daisy and Laurie had been married and ready to welcome her to share their home and regard it as her own; and having a real home had been far more important to her in those days than any sort of plans for her future could ever have been.
With hindsight, maybe she’d have been better going away, to do some sort of work or further education or training somewhere where no-one would have known her. She’d had her languages if nothing else: perhaps she could have found a job something like the one Beth Chester had had with the Maynards for a time, working as a nanny for an English-speaking family living on the Continent. It would probably have done her good. Con Maynard had, like her, spent her schooldays living in the shadow of other members of her family, but Con’s confidence had come on by leaps and bounds once she’d been at Oxford - well away from the Gornetz Platz and everyone who just thought of her as “the middle triplet” or “the dreamy one of Joey’s large brood”.
But it just hadn’t occurred to her at the time to do anything like that; nor had it occurred to anyone else to suggest it. What she had done, feeling that she had to do something whilst she was living with Daisy and Laurie – it would hardly have been fair to expect her brother-in-law to support her, or to ask her uncle for handouts – was to find a job in an office near their Devon home. She’d worked there for about five years and found almost every moment of it dull - apart from the memorable occasion on which Nick, her boss’s solicitor, had come into the place to attend a meeting and left with her promise that she’d meet him for lunch the following day - and hadn’t had one single regret about finishing there on the day she’d left to be married.
Maybe if she’d had a more fulfilling job back then she’d feel some sort of desire to return to work part time now that her children were at school, as Daisy had done and as Bride - a teacher - had also recently done; but as it was she could think of few things that she’d rather do less. But surely, she thought tentatively to herself as she sometimes did, surely even though she had no special skills and no special training, there must be something, of some value, to someone, that she could do with her time. Something considerably more worthwhile than reading a boring magazine as she’d been doing for the past half an hour.
She folded the magazine up, placed it neatly on the table; and sighed. Maybe it was just the cold damp November weather that was getting her down and making her feel that she wasn’t doing as much as she could be with her life. Maybe it’d be better once she and Nick had had a break. Now that was something she could do: make a list of everything that they’d need to take on holiday with them and ensure that there was nothing that they’d forgotten to buy.
Yes, everything would doubtless seem a lot brighter once they’d had their trip away. Roll on Austria!