|The mountainside basked in the late November sun, which lit up a sparkling frost, covering everything from the hardiest of the Winter flowers to the large stone bench, surrounded by grass and leaves, and the aforementioned flowers, under the shadow of the pines. On the bench, observed by no-one but the pigeons, sat a young woman, her dark hair caught up in a roll around the nape of her neck, her soft black eyes dreamy and unfocussed.|
It was Joey Bettany's twenty-fourth birthday. She had grown tense with the crowded atmosphere of her little gathering, and with the absence of the person she really wanted to see, and so she had escaped to her little hideaway, to be alone, and contemplate the fact that time was moving much faster than she would like, without interruption.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she did not notice the middle-aged man coming up behind her, nor did she turn round when he said her name once...twice...three times. Only when he placed a tentative hand on her shoulder was she shaken out of her thoughts with a cry and a jump.
"Jack! You scared the living daylights out of me!" She stood up, came round the bench, and greeted her friend with a peck on the cheek, which he returned, not without some qualms.
"Sorry." He shrugged apologetically. "You didn't turn round when I tried to get your attention. Anyhow, what are you doing out here? I thought that you were having a party?"
She smiled sadly. "Too many people. As well as the usual crowd, there's Frieda and Simone and Sophie and Carla and Vanna and Gisela and Bernhilda and Wanda, and Marie's brought Eugen and the baby. At least the others left their husbands and children at home." She shrugged. "It was my own fault for inviting them all. But it just felt like I was being accosted from all sides, trying to have six conversations at once, and it all just got a bit much. So, while everyone was admiring young Wolfram, I came out here to sit and think."
"What were you thinking about?" asked Jack, slipping a consolatory arm round her waist.
She nuzzled into his shoulder. He could tell she was stressed, otherwise she wouldn't have done that, nor would she have allowed him to touch her at all. "I just wish time would slow down. I'm twenty-four now, half my friends are married, and mothers, and everyone was joking about when I'll do the same. But I don't want to get married - and even if I did, I can't think of a soul that I could marry. You're very nice, but you're my older brother, really, and..." Why did that thought even cross my mind? Of course I'm not going to marry Jack. She shuddered and pulled away.
"Maybe we ought to go back." said her friend. "I'm just thanking God that today was only a half-day at the San. - I wouldn't miss your birthday for the world!"
Joey smiled, and found that she was blushing. He is very nice. I do like him ever so very much.
Once she was looking at him again, Jack pulled a square package from his coat pocket and gave it to her. With fingers shaking in the biting air, she took the paper off.
"Oh, Jack! How much did this cost? It's beautiful!"
She was holding a notebook, covered in leather with a swirling, marbled pattern in various shades of green, with the edges of the spirals picked out in silver. At the top of the front cover, in embossed silver letters, it said "Josephine M. Bettany". There was a fountain pen to match.
Jack sidestepped the question about the price - yes, it had been very expensive, not least because the embossing was charged by the letter, but he had seen her gazing at those notebooks and pens when they went down into Innsbruck, and sighing about how she could never afford one, and he had known immediately that she had to have both a notebook and a pen - and told her "We've been friends for so long, I thought that you deserved something special - especially as you were in India this time last year."
Joey smiled at him, letting the cover fall open to the first page. It was the whitest paper she had ever seen, and on it was written a message in the blackest ink in the world, in Jack's flawlessly neat copperplate: "Dear Jo, Happy twenty-fourth birthday, and all the best of luck for the year ahead. Yours, Jack."
"It is so lovely!" she sighed.
"Hadn't we better be getting back up to Die Rosen?" he asked her, and she gave him a peck on the cheek in thanks for his gift, and dashed up the mountain and back to the gathering.
After Joey and Jack were welcomed back, the birthday meal was served. Joey had chosen the food, and Marie had obliged. The joint of pork was succulent, the vegetables pleasantly soft. The apple sauce had a slight sharpness to it, and the meal was punctuated by happy chatter and laughter. There were children as well, as the Die Rosen nursery had been emptied in honour of the occasion. Peggy was sitting on the Robin's knee, looking every inch the angelic young child in her black velveteen party frock, whereas her twin was sitting under the stern and watchful eye of Rosa, who never once let up her vigil, lest Master Rix presume to mess up the party when her back was turned.
Joey smiled to herself as she followed everybody else into the Salon. Wolfram, in his basket, gurgled happily when Joey patted the top of his head. One of his tiny hands clasped around her forefinger. She heard a laugh and turned to see Marie, Frieda, Gisela, Bernhilda and Wanda all watching her.
"You are so good with babies, Jo." smiled Gisela.
"Yes, you can see how happy Wolfram is!" agreed Bernhilda.
Jo frowned suspiciously at them. There seemed to be something unsaid in their words, and she knew what it was. Marie confirmed her suspicions.
"When are you going to get married, Jo?" she asked.
"Marie!" cried Frieda. "What sort of a question is that?!"
Joey tried not to show what a blow it had been. "Oh, I'm not going to get married. Every family needs a charming maiden aunt!" She gave a laugh. She wondered if her friends had noticed how false it sounded.
"Oh, I'm sure you will, one day." said Wanda.
"Gottfried and I are so happy." smiled Gisela.
"I suppose you won't be able to tell what the benefits are of being married until you are married." put in Bernhilda seriously.
"Just you wait, though, Jo, I'm sure it'll happen!" laughed Wanda.
"Surely there must be someone..." said Bernhilda conspiratorially, leaning forwards as though hoping Joey would blush and whisper a name to her.
They were like a rapid-fire machine gun, never stopping. Jo kept her head down, tried not to show how their remarks stung, and tried to hold it in.
Wait for the explosion...
"You could marry Jack!" cried Marie, jumping up. "I'm quite sure he's sweet on you, you know! And...and...you have feelings for him, too, don't you?"
That was the final straw. Jo shrieked and fled, pushing past Bernhilda and Gisela, and out of the Salon. She met Jack in the hallway.
"Jo, are you alright?" he asked, grabbing her arm. When she turned to face him, he tried to put an arm round her waist, but Jo, remembering Marie's remark about Jack being sweet on her, and her own thoughts earlier, broke away.
"I do wish you'd stop grabbing me every time you see me!" she snapped. "It's not proper!" She tugged herself free and ran outside, tears now streaming in large quantities down her face.
Jack tried to ignore the sensation inside him - not dissimilar to having been punched in the stomach - and went into the Salon to try and find out what had happened.
Jo needed a bit of time to cool off before he went to talk to her.
Jack, finding himself unable to get any information out of Jo's friends, gave her a further ten minutes, and went to find her himself.
She was sitting leaning against the back of the house, her knees drawn up to her chest and her head resting on them. She was not wearing a coat, and he felt the admirer and the doctor fuse as he thought to himself that she would catch an awful cold. Nevertheless, he sat down next to her, biting down a gasp as he felt the frozen cold from the ground and the wall penetrate him.
"What's wrong?" he asked, and she lifted her head, so that he could see that it was soaked with tears. She shook her head, sniffed twice, sobbed again, gulped several times, and, at last, got control of herself.
"Doesn't matter." was all she offered. Jack frowned.
"It plainly does if it reduces you to tears like those." he pressed. Then, reaching towards her: "I hate to see you upset." It hurt him, he realised, more than anything else in the world.
She recoiled, shying away from his hand. Jack frowned again. Had that last sentence been too much? But then, she began to cry again and, on impulse, he took her into his arms, and this time, she did not pull away.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Well, what better time to begin our tale?