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“Sure, I don't think your great-great-uncle had thrown out a thing since Queen Victoria was on the throne,” Mollie Bettany sighed as she climbed gingerly down the steep steps linking one of The Quadrant's vast, chilly attics to the room below. Just about managing to lower the large box of photographs in her hands to the floor before dropping it, she sat down heavily on a chair next to her eldest daughter, suppressing a chuckle at the sight of the dust and grime liberally bespattering Peggy’s normally immaculate face and hair.

It was almost unheard of for Peggy to be seen looking anything less than spick and span, and even in the old, faded clothes which she was wearing for this mammoth clearout which they were euphemistically referring to as “spring-cleaning” she’d somehow, before they’d started bringing boxes down from the attic, managed to look relatively well turned-out, which Mollie knew very well that neither Bride nor Maeve would have done, any more than she did herself in the pre-war skirt and jumper she'd pulled out from the back of a wardrobe. Peggy must have inherited her gift from neatness from the Bettany side of the family, because she certainly hadn’t got it from the Averys. Then again, whilst Madge Russell was rarely seen looking anything other than neat and tidy, Joey Maynard was often to be found with inkstains on her fingers and her hair looking as if it had never seen a brush in its life. And Mollie's own sister Bridgie would be horrified if she could see the state of her sister and niece at this precise moment.

It was funny how different siblings could be, Mollie mused, thinking about her own four daughters. It was too early to be able to tell much about Daphne yet, but Peggy, Bride and Maeve, devoted as they were to each other, were so unalike in their characters that no-one would ever take them for sisters. Bride was the clever one, set for a career in teaching ... although Mollie privately doubted how long that would last, given the frequency with which the name of a certain aspiring young barrister came up in her second daughter's letters these days. Maeve was the energetic one, her heart set on becoming a “lady courier” and travelling the length and breadth of Europe. And Peggy ... Peggy was the stay-at-home one, the one who’d become her mother’s closest friend and confidante despite the fact that they'd been separated by thousands of miles for so many years and that Madge was the one who'd been a mother to Peggy all through the girl’s formative years.

Shaking her head to bring herself back to the task in hand, Mollie reached for the box and opened it. It was full of old photographs. She didn’t recognise any of the people on them, but maybe they’d mean something to Dick or Madge. She’d have to put them to one side for now. Another job that couldn’t be finished! Heaven only knew how long it’d take them to get everything done, but she was determined to persevere. This job had been put off for long enough.

“Better get on with it, I suppose,” she said, standing up and stretching her arms above her head. "It's ashamed I am that we’ve been here this long without going through all the old boxes in the attic ... but first there was all the paperwork to do with the house and the estate to deal with, and then there was all our own stuff to sort out when it arrived here from India. Then I got ill. Then Daphne came.” She smiled at the petite blonde girl sitting beside her. “You know, Peg, when your father and I first arrived home, we thought we were going to be settling down to a quiet life in the countryside, just the two of us and our six children, together at last. If anyone had told me then that I’d be so poorly, and then after it all be blessed with another baby after such a long gap ... we never know what's round the corner, do we? And what I'd have done without you I don't know! I didn't know what it’d be like, trying to be a mother to the four of you after so many years apart, and I couldn't have dared hope that we’d ever be as close as we are. You’re a good girl, Peggy.”

“Giles Winterton's asked me to marry him.”

Mollie sat back down. “I see,” she said carefully. It wasn't really a surprise. She and Dick could hardly have failed to spot the growing relationship between their eldest daughter and the son of their friends and near neighbours. And Giles was the sort to choose the girl next door. Well, not quite next door, but not far off. But then Peggy was the sort to choose the boy next door. And if Giles wouldn't have been her choice then that was irrelevant: what mattered was if he was Peggy's.

“And you said?”

“I told him that I'd have to think about it.” Peggy's voice was steady, but Mollie could sense the turmoil seething underneath the calmness. “I do love him, and I think – I know - that we could be happy together. But he's about to be posted to the West Indies, and it'd mean my going with him. Well, he said that he'd understand if I wanted to stay here, but ... I can't see the point of being married and not even being on the same continent. And it's so far away, and I wouldn't know anyone there ... and it'd mean leaving you, and Dad, and Rix, and Bride, and everyone else ... and we've spent so much of our lives apart as it is. Giles says that he understands that, because his own dad worked abroad for so long, but I don’t think he does really. Their family isn’t like ours: he doesn't even get on that well with Mrs Winterton, or with Polly and Lalla, and ... oh Mum, I'm not sure what to do. Why couldn't Giles just have had a job here, like Daisy's Laurie or Primula's Nick or Elma's Henry? Why does everything have to be so complicated?”

“Because that's the way it is.” Mollie squeezed her eldest daughter's hand. “Do you think that your cousin Pat didn't feel like this before she went out to Kenya? Or that both your grandmothers didn't feel like this before they went out to India? And how do you imagine I felt when I went back to India and left four babies behind in Austria? Life is complicated, Peggy. That's the way it is. And I know that you'll make the right decision about Giles, and that's why I’m not going to influence you either way ... but you know that I'm here for you any time that you want to talk, don’t you?”

Peggy nodded, and Mollie stood up again. “Right. And now – how about getting on with this spring-cleaning?”

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