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Rowan in Winter

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It seemed a pity to end the holidays with a row; but there was nothing for it. After the fact, Rowan found that she could understand and even appreciate Ann’s painful inability to keep silence to their mother regarding the eventful doings of the Christmas holiday. The twins in particular seemed to find this an occasion for much perplexment and indignation, but then again they had the escape route of Kingscote waiting. For once, Rowan felt little confidence in her ability to continue facing her mother one to one across the dinner table as if nothing had happened at all.

Mrs. Marlow, once she had gotten the initial incredulous scolding out of the way, looked around them (Nicola with chin up, Lawrie still obviously not having much idea what all the fuss was about, Peter looking rather as he had after that mysterious lighthouse incident the Easter before Trennels, Giles—one eye still blackened—with his mouth set hard very much as Rowan knew her own must be, and Rowan herself). Her eyes lingered on her second daughter for a moment, and then she said “Giles—I want to speak to you alone.”

“Not me?” said Peter, beating Rowan to the same line.

“If your experiences at sea haven’t taught you your lesson, nothing I could possibly say to you will have any effect,” his mother snapped, and went into the sitting room without waiting to see his reaction. Giles hesitated, looked also at Rowan for a moment, and then followed Mrs. Marlow, closing the door neatly behind himself.

The remaining four stood about uneasily. “Why will talking to Giles make a difference if talking to Binks won’t?” Lawrie wondered. “Giles had just the same experiences at sea as Binks. Worse, even.”

“How worse?” Nicola wanted to know.

“Binks didn’t hit his head, did he?”

“Not that you would know it from his behavior,” Rowan said automatically, putting her own reactions aside until she could be alone. “No, all right, Peter, that was uncalled for. Mostly. Anyway, it’s Giles she’s really upset with.”

“But it ought to be me,” Peter said, a little jerkily.

“No,” Rowan said carefully, “actually it ought to be me. Look, you lot, I wouldn’t say either Mum or Giles is going to be happy to come out of their little tête-a-tête and find us all still standing here spectating, would you? Nick, haven’t you got plans with Patrick and that damn hawk of his?”

Appealed to, Nicola recalled that in fact she had. “Unless Mum’s in a straight-to-bed with no supper mood, do you think?”

“Just go,” Rowan advised her, a little more brutally than she normally would have. “If Mum has something to say about it, I’ll tell her it was me said so. Lal—“

“There’s All’s Well that Ends Well on the box,” Lawrie said hastily. “The Stratford Festival one. From four. You don’t think Mum and Giles will still be rowing by then?”
“No idea. I certainly hope not. What are you going to do until then?”

Lawrie allowed as how she might read over the play to herself, in the big Shakespeare that was actually by right of transfer her twin’s, and went away to do so.

Without the buffer state of the twins, Rowan and Peter found themselves devoid of conversation. Peter put his head down and made for the Shippen, and Rowan followed him.

At the Shippen door, he turned—at bay, she thought in spite of herself—and demanded without preamble, “Why ought it to be you Mum’s upset with? You didn’t go sailing off to France like a bloody idiot.”

“No—well—“ Rowan yanked up the zip on her donkey jacket. “Peter, if you really want to have this discussion, how about letting me invade your sanctum up there for a while? I don’t want to talk about this while standing on one foot.”

Peter bit his lip, but apparently decided it was a mutton and mint sauce situation; he led the way up the stairs.

The large room was cold and dim with no fire burning; Peter poked half-heartedly at the coals. Rowan settled on a windowsill, realizing that the last time she’d set foot in here was when that accidental bullet had come past her shoulder…she still wondered occasionally what the story behind that had been. Not the time.

She heard Peter speak, but he had mumbled, uncharacteristically, and the crunch of coal under his poker masked the words. “What?”

“…You can go ahead and curse me out, you know. Giles did it at sea when he found out we were heading Franceward, and Ma’s had her go. It’s just about your turn.”

“I got past that point,” Rowan said with asperity, “round about the second night you ought to have been back and weren’t. Blood for breakfast didn’t seem to cover the issue at hand.”

Peter, who had not had the benefit of a Kingscote education, blinked. “…You know, I didn’t have a lot of time to spare for thinking about the womenfolk at home. Were you very worried?”

“Well. If I’d ever had thoughts of marrying a sailor, I would have renounced them by now. One has to admire Mum for sticking with it, I suppose.” Rowan traced patterns on the window’s damp coating with one finger, unwilling to revisit those three days in her head.

“I spent some time—at sea—renouncing any thoughts of being a sailor. I wouldn’t go through that again for…I did think of something. Last night actually, when I was lying in bed thinking again how lovely it was to be in a bed that wasn’t floating. When we choose our tracks next year, I’m going in for marine engineering.” Peter was speaking to the fire, but obviously waiting tensely for her reaction.
“If you can build a canoe, I expect you could do well enough by battleship engines with a bit of training,” Rowan offered.

“That’s what I think. And also it means I won’t end up in command of a ship ever.” He turned around to face her, and said in a hasty gabble, “And don’t say that part to Pa. Seriously. Or to Giles. Or anybody except Nick, maybe.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Rowan, who had no inclination to pass on family gossip. “That’s entirely your business, my boy. You feel that one potential and one actual Captain Marlow should be plenty for one family?”

Peter cracked a half smile, his first for hours. “You’ve forgotten Nick. I expect when they start letting the Wrens captain boats she’ll be first off the mark. No, yes, well—look—the thing is, I’m good at what I do.” He paused, seeming to await contradiction, and when Rowan didn’t speak went on. “One way and another, I sailed Jon’s cute little pleasure boat most of the way to France and back—though I suppose most of that was through the intervention of a benevolent Deity, as Pa would say. I do all right at the Ship, too—at least now that—now that it’s not—I mean, that is, Lieutenant Bethune and the other instructors don’t actually go out of their way to ask me if I’m sure I’m old Marlow’s little brother. I can sail a bloody boat,” he finished, a little hysterically, and gulped his voice down an octave. “But the thing is, I can’t be in command. I lose my head—go blank, or worse, make bloody stupid decisions when I am. It’s only the luck God gives fools and madmen that I haven’t killed anybody yet—and how do you think I’d’ve felt, coming home to tell Nick I’d killed Giles?”

“Still better,” said Rowan in as steady a voice as she could manage, “than not coming home at all. And look, Peter, I don’t think this one idiot excursion is enough to judge—“

“It’s not just this time!” Peter burst out “It’s—When F-F—I mean, before—“ He choked for a moment, confusing his sister entirely, and finally said with renewed vehemence, “Anyway, that’s what I’m going to do.”

“I won’t stand in your way.” Rowan saw that his fire had finally began to give off heat, and moved closer to warm her chilled fingertips. “I do advise you not to take too much credit, though. Making bloody stupid decisions isn’t something you have a proprietary license on.”

“Mm? Is that what you meant about it being you Ma ought to be furious with?”

“Among other things.” Rowan hunched closer to the fire. “You and Giles and the whole boiling—Nick and Lawrie and Patrick—you were all quite convinced the whole time that it would work just fine, weren’t you?”

“Lord, no. If you’d been out there with us—“

“I don’t mean then, I mean before you took ship. When we were all here on dry land making elaborate plans about monkey business and pony power and imaginary chums in London.”

“Mm,” said Peter again, more thoughtfully. “I suppose. Seemed the game was worth the candle.”

“Not to me. I can remember seeing what could go wrong at every turn. I even came damn close to…never mind.”

“What? Blowing the gaff a la Ann?”

“Hardly fair, since she didn’t say a word to anyone until Mum was back and the whole thing was past history. No, I had in mind more direct action.” Rowan felt Surfrider’s vulnerable boards under her fingers, and drew them back from the fire to tuck under her elbows. “Which I did not take. Nor did I call Mum or tell Edwin—“

Edwin?”

“—or the Home or Judith Oeschli.” Rowan was horrified to hear her voice quiver suddenly on the last name. Peter glanced her way curiously, without comment. She firmed her jaw and went on. “What a lot of missed opportunities, don’t you think? If you and Giles had been in a watery grave just now?”

Peter, she realized after a moment, was looking at her with something resembling compassion. After a moment, he turned to stir the fire again, cleared his throat, and said “So what agricultural plans have you for the rest of today? Do you think I might contribute my morsel to fencing or feeding the pigs or whatever other excitements you have waiting?” and Rowan allowed that he might, just.

 

“You’re never where you were the last time,” Nicola accused her three mornings later, pink-faced with cold and exertion, hair standing out spikily from under her wool hat. “I thought you’d be much nearer at hand—I had to ask Ted in the end--“

“This is part of our land, too, you know.” Rowan gestured to the undistinguished field of winter wheat spreading out before them, nearly a mile from Trennels proper. “One has to check the fences down this way occasionally…”

“All the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof,” Nicola said meditatively. “Why not ride out here, if you’ve got to come this far? I’d’ve nabbed the Idiot Boy if I’d known.”

“I might. Seems hard on Prisca, though, and walking is good for the soul.” Rowan balanced her tools on a handy fencepost and dug her gloved hands into her pockets. “What brings you after me, anyway? I could swear I haven’t forgotten elevenses or any other important belongings. Has something happened?”

“I hope nothing’s going to happen for the foreseeable future,” a sentiment with which Rowan could concur. “Only, I wanted to show you this, I thought I’d rather do it when there wasn’t everybody about—“ Nicola produced a crumpled envelope.

Rowan used her teeth to tug one glove off by the fingertips, accepted the letter, and considered the return address. “The West child? What have I got to do with her correspondence?”
“It’s what it has to do with you,” Nicola offered. “Or, I thought, well…anyway, read it. Here.” She indicated a paragraph midway down the second page, and Rowan traced her way through the idiosyncratic, rather elegant handwriting.

--Oh, and I had a letter from Jan Scott, with a careful casualness apparent even to the uninformed reader. I wrote her about the Carol Service—not that she ought to be interested, but I thought she might find it a bit funny, Ussher hunting through all those hymnbooks in search of a carol which turned out to be courtesy of T. Keith and M. West. Anyway, she says Durham isn’t bad and she finds reading Law somewhat more interesting than she’d thought Physics would be. Her uncle’s suggested she take courses on the side in urban planning as well, because of the work he does with the local town council—she says he seems to have thought all that Physics background would make the surveying bits easy at least, but it’s much more about demographics (run and find out) and what she calls architecture manqué. She thinks it’s rather funny that part of the job seems to be learning the rules so as to figure out how to get around them, I gather…

“Nice to hear Jan’s doing well,” Rowan mused. “I wouldn’t have pictured her as a solicitor, but I expect she’ll be rather good at it.” That unmoved, discrete calm would probably be highly effective in a legal context. “Was that all you came out here for, Nick? You could have shown it to me after tea and spared yourself the health-giving exercise.”

“Oh, Rowan. No, it’s—look—well, this thing Miranda says Jan’s doing along with Law, this urban planning. Wouldn’t you—well—I mean—wouldn’t it be a thing you might do? Sort of along with the farm?”

Rowan blinked. Leaving aside the obvious main issue—“Urban planning?” she repeated, with an eloquent look around them at the withered fields, the only hint of urbanity the clanking pylon far away on the horizon—you couldn’t even see the train line from here, only the ridge that was the last remains of that defunct spur line Kay’s Chas was so fond of—

“No, honestly,” Nicola said earnestly. “I asked Mr. Merrick. In general, I mean, not—He said it’s not only got to do with towns—cities, I mean—but it’s a thing that’s needed everywhere. Here too. He said it could be something like saving Mr. Lanyon’s train.”

Saving Mr. Lanyon’s train?” Rowan echoed incredulously, momentarily picturing that alarming episode last summer, with the stones on the line—was it?—and Chas Dodd’s misbegotten heroism.

“Oh, Rowan, you know—they keep talking about doing a Beeching on the Westbridge line—“

“Yes, don’t they,” said Rowan, who had heard this issue discussed at length by practically every inhabitant of Westbridge at practically every opportunity. “Mr. Lanyon thinks they’re waiting on a change of government, though. Anyway, what does that have to do with town planning? According to Anthony Merrick, anyway.”

Nicola gave her a reproachful look, but continued undismayed. “That’s what it’s for—things like that, I mean. Figuring out who actually needs the train and what it’s being used for and whether it’s the only way to manage or if you could do the same thing in other ways. Mr. Merrick said, f’rinstance, could you turn part of it into a goods train for the local farmers and save on petrol and lorry maintenance what’s being paid now, for wheat and wool and things. Or make Yetland Cove a sort of seaside resort and raise train fares for all the trippers—which I think would be gruesome,” she added on her own account. “That sort of thing, I mean. In general. For example.”

“All right, I follow you so far. So why me?”

“Well—you sort of know about it already. From the farm, I mean. You said about deciding what to do with the land and that, and—also you were going to be an architect and it’s a bit related, and you could do it part time—“

“Is that also from Jan Scott via Miranda West, or per Anthony Merrick?”

“Both actually. I mean, Miranda didn’t say, but if Jan’s main thing is her Law course—and Mr. Merrick said it’s a thing you can do at a Polytechnic and they mostly have part-time student options too, I think was what he said. Couldn’t you?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea, Nick. I don’t even know what the nearest Polytechnic to here would be—Bristol, I suppose, or Dorchester. I don’t think Colebridge Tech has quite such extensive offerings. And I couldn’t just up and leave the farm like that, even part-time—it’s not as if you can ask the cows to wait for their milking until you’ve finished classes, or for that matter miss an exam because you’ve been up all night in the lambing pen.” She saw Nicola’s look of obvious disappointment and added, “Why does it matter?”

“Oh—well—“ Nicola dug at the fencepost’s mooring with one sturdily shod toe, then picked up Rowan’s pliers and turned them mazily between her palms. “Just if it was something I said that got you lumbered with the farm in the first place, then it ought to be something else I could say that would get you out of it—and this seemed awfully right—“

“You’re not responsible for charting my every course in life,” Rowan said kindly. She tugged the pliers away from her overconscientious young sister. “Give over, do, Nick, what would Miss Keith have to say if we sent you back to school minus a few fingers—“

“Honestly, I’m not Fob—“

“—but I do appreciate the thought. I might even look into it, given some time.” She was surprised to find herself meaning this. “Let me know if you hear anything else about Jan’s doings, then, and be on your way—I need to go all the way around this field and still be back in time for tea—“

“It’s not even elevenses time yet—I say, have you still got bread and bacon? Would you like to--?”

Rowan, having chased Nicola away and had a small private giggle, went back to tracking fence wire. Her thoughts wandered along lines not as straight. A part-time course—she’d had thoughts of it before, of course, and Mum had made similar suggestions a few times, it wasn’t theoretically absolutely impossible, but there’d seemed no point in making everyone’s lives more complicated when there wasn’t even anything she specially wanted to study—

She might just look into Nick’s town planning thing, out of simple curiosity, without committing herself to anything. Perhaps she’d even write to Jan—or ask Leah Farrant who was at Colebridge Tech, p’rhaps—or there was Edwin, she thought, and snorted at herself, and then found the idea unexpectedly plausible. Not that it was his field, but he was as close to the academic world as anyone else she knew, bar a few friends from Kingscote who were following in Karen’s erstwhile footsteps. And she rather thought he’d keep it to himself, without feeling the need to tell Kay and Mum and the rest of the world straight off. Perhaps she would ask.

 

Ann—still looking mournful and rather frightened of herself—and the twins went back to Kingscote. Peter went back to Dartmouth, where his friend Selby would have a great deal to listen to. Giles went to his course at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Rowan had said briefly to Giles—it was almost the only thing of all the things that needed saying that she’d managed actually to get out—that she was sorry he’d copped Mum’s whole packet, she ought to have been in there with him by rights.

Giles gave her a careful, narrow-eyed look and said “Not to worry. Mum seems to feel you were just about forced into the whole thing against your will—dragged along by me and my ill-fated enthusiasm—and when I think back, I have the sense she’s more or less on the money.”

Rowan didn’t know whether to apologize again, at that, or to begin on the rest of her catalogue, or what. Giles seemed to be in rather the same position. He added, with very conscious ease, “Mum would have it that losing Jon once was enough for her, and she didn’t care to cope with any more daredevilry leading to disaster.”

Rowan felt her stomach turn cold. “I…can see how she might see it that way,” was all she could manage.

That rather knocked any other conversation they might have had on the head, and they were still in a state of tongue-tied awkwardness when he set off for the Min of Ag.

 

Where Rowan herself was concerned, Mrs. Marlow seemed intent on allowing matters to return to their former state; for the moment, Rowan took the easy route and did not insist on anything other than the quotidian in her conversations with her mother.

It must, she decided, be the perpetual short-on-sleep muzzy-headedness of lambing season that made going to ask advice of Edwin seem not just possible but inevitable. The challenge of finding a moment when he was the only Dodd in town, as it were, turned out when she thought about it to be laughably easy to solve: simply stay home from church on Sunday and drop in at the farmhouse instead. Edwin was obviously disconcerted to see her (their one-on-one conversations up until now could easily be counted on the fingers of one hand, and had mostly had to do with the farm log) but received her request for information courteously, promising to inquire among some former colleagues and report back.

“Katie is hoping you’ll drop by to see her one of these days,” he mentioned, in a neutral tone of voice, seeing her out. “Do consider yourself welcome.”

“Thank you very much,” Rowan said with equal civility.

 

It was well into the following week before she could bring herself to tell Mrs. Herbert that she wouldn’t need elevenses that day, and, when the time came, to go down the short lane, wipe her boots carefully, and knock once again at the farmhouse door.

Karen’s face brightened alarmingly when she saw Rowan there. “Oh Ro, I’m so glad you came. Also I’m glad you’re not Chas having forgotten his games kit again,” she added, before Rowan had to work out how to reply. “They sent him home to fetch it twice last week. Edwin told him if he forgets it again he can miss games altogether, never mind if it’s cricket or not, but you know Chas—honestly, I’m beginning to think Mum and Daddy had a point sending us all off to be boarders at age nine—I’m sorry! Come in, sit down, I was just going to have some tea and I baked yesterday, believe it or not.” She swept Rowan into the kitchen—crowded, warm, far more untidy than Mrs. Tranter would ever have countenanced—and sat her down at the table.

“You sound quite…” Rowan discarded harassed and fed up, and settled on “…hard-worked.”

Karen laughed, pouring tea. “It pays for itself, as they say. You’re trying to work out how to ask me if I have any regrets, aren’t you, Ro?”

Rowan felt herself color, and kept silent; saying Well, do you? seemed both childish and churlish.

Karen, with an amused look, continued. “As far as marrying Edwin goes, no, not at all. I think—well, it ought to have been a bad decision. If it had been Margaret Jessop from school, or Christina or Thea--“

“Who they, as the twins would say?”

“Oh—friends from Somerville—people I got to know when I went up—anyway, if one of them had announced her intention to do something like that, I probably would have reacted just the way they did to me—the way you and Mum and the others did. It was a stupid thing to do, given the chances of its working out.”

“You made good on a long shot, then?” Rowan’s mind flew to Peter saying the game seemed worth the candle.

“Well. Something along those lines. Yes. Ro, do you know what I really do regret? That I handled it all so badly at first, at Trennels. If I’d known Edwin better then, I wouldn’t ever have put him through that.”

Him through that?” before Rowan could help herself, but to her relief Karen laughed out loud, and she was able to grin back ruefully.

“All of us, then. It was no picnic for me, either, you know—and I had my hands too full to spare any attention for how upset you were about Mr. Tranter and the farm—I mean—I know better now how it feels to be pitchforked into something you’re not ready for, and I chose my own way into it, which was more than you had a chance to do.“

“Oh—“ Rowan tried not to look too obviously as if she were hunting for the nearest exit, but it was hard not to.

“Don’t brush me off, Ro, I know you’re just going to say something sarky. You weren’t being, what was her name? that ever so emotional friend of Ginty’s from the Upper Fourth?”

Rowan snorted. “Unity something. Mitford. No, of course not Mitford. I know who you mean, though.”
“Well, you weren’t doing a Unity of any kind. You had every reason to be upset and you were coping with the whole thing pretty much on your own, with me taken up with Edwin and the children and Mum frazzled over me and the younger ones less than no help—“

“It was a bit of a shock for them too, you know.”

“Oh, I suppose. That’s what I mean—I wish I’d planned things differently so none of us were put in that position. For one thing, I didn’t understand until much later how shy Edwin is.”

Shy? Edwin?”

“Rose comes by it honestly, you know. He learned to cope around people because his upbringing didn’t give him much choice, but he hates it, and he only gets through by sticking fiercely to all the social rules. If you’re around more—“ she stumbled for a second, took up the thread again hurriedly—“ you’ll see he’s quite different with his own family.”

Karen was clearly including herself in “his own family,” Rowan reflected. She said mildly, “It’s a wonder you and he managed to get as far as marriage, then.”

Unexpectedly, Karen giggled like a third-former. “Well, he found me quite safe for a while, because I was a research assistant, so he had rules to deal with me—and I was much too young for him to consider anything else. And since I was safe for him to be with, we ended up spending rather a lot of time together. And then quite suddenly I wasn’t safe at all.”

“Romantic,” Rowan said, dry-voiced.

“It was,” Karen said simply. “It still is, really, except most of the time we’ve other things to think about. I told you I don’t have any regrets over marrying him.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” Rowan said, and in fact she supposed it was.

“What about you, Ro? Have you any thoughts of—“

“Good Lord, who with? Steve Penny? That Merrick cousin with the spiffy uniform? Sammy Barnes? There isn’t a plethora of eligible partis around here, if you hadn’t noticed—no, all right, that’s not even the point, is it. I’m not pining away to be wed, Kay, not now for certain, maybe not ever. I don’t think I’m cut out for it.”

“One never knows,” Karen said, but it obviously wasn’t intended as a nudge in the direction of early betrothal, and Rowan let it pass.

“Edwin aside, how are you doing with the young ones, honestly?” she asked, surprised to find herself wanting to know. “Are they actually easier to handle than the brats at Kingscote? At the panto you seemed awfully—oh—settled into Mumhood.”

“Not Mum,” Karen corrected automatically. “I’m still Kaykaren as far as they’re concerned, and that’s how it ought to be. Yes—well—honestly there’ve been more than a few times when I’ve wanted to do a Nora and walk out on the whole thing, but—I suppose it’s that I don’t really think of them as children so much now. They’re people same like anybody else, with their own quirks, and some of those are in their personalities and some come from not being grown up yet. It’s different when you live with people—in a family, I mean, not a boarding school.”

“I suppose it would be at that.” Rowan contemplated the kitchen. Apart from tea mugs and pot and plates of Karen’s surprisingly successful Welsh raisin bread, the kitchen table also bore Chas’ half-finished Project on something to do with Roman Britain (a number of squiggly hand-drawn maps, lavishly colored in with pastels, and a list of English phrases including “cup of tea” and “day return ticket to London please” with the Latin equivalents added in Karen’s hand), Fob’s box of crayons (an old biscuit box in which the colors were organized by some rule known only to Fob herself, but obviously ruthlessly observed) and forms to be signed for a swimming class, two books (Linnets and Valerians and The Silver Chair) set out so that Rose shouldn’t forget to return them to the library on time, two Araucaria crossword puzzles half-completed in Edwin’s handwriting, and three notebooks of Karen’s bulging with impromptu bookmarks, inserted newspaper clippings, and occasional tea stains. Nothing could have been further from Kingscote.

“Tell me something?” Karen broke their momentary silence.

“The farm is ticking over, and no I’m not regretting having taken it on,” Rowan said, more or less automatically.

Karen blinked. “Not what I had in mind, although I’m glad to hear it. Do you know what Mum was so upset about last week? She seemed horribly rattled whenever we crossed paths, but when I asked her she just said it was nothing to worry about…I wondered if Grandmother wasn’t actually as well as we’d thought, or…”

Rowan stirred the dregs of her tea methodically, casting her mind back. To the best of her knowledge, Ann’s shaken confession to their mother hadn’t touched on the young Dodds’ involvement, possibly because Ann herself had lost track of it in the greater disturbances. It was anyone’s guess whether, had Mrs. Marlow been aware of that particular aspect, she would have passed it on to Karen or not—the probable reaction of Edwin to his children’s involvement beggared imagination, as even Nicola, who insisted on liking him, had had to admit.

“Grandmother’s back to her usual rebarbative self, as far as I know,” she said finally. “As for Mum’s upset…honestly, Kay, they say ignorance is bliss. You needn’t know about it, and it’s all dead and gone anyway.” On the words she remembered Judith Oeschli, and heard her tea mug rattle against the table.

“Is it now?” Karen frowned into her own mug. “You know…Ro…when something’s happened? You do know you’re allowed to show upset every now and then. Or angry or frustrated or whatever. It doesn’t automatically make you into Ginty at her most self-involved, or—or what was her name, your old nemesis at school.”

“Lois Sanger,” Rowan said precisely, relieved all the same to see the topic of the winter holiday’s events pass. “Her and her perpetually twisted ankles…Well, I don’t know, Kay. The last time I recall letting myself go didn’t work out particularly well.”

“How so?”

“I expect you remember the day Mr. Tranter went into hospital.” Which, of all the things that had happened on that eventful day, was still the way she thought of it.

Karen bit her lip, displaying one of her ready blushes. “I expect I do. Still…well…I think the odds were a bit stacked against you, that day. If I hadn’t…if I had timed things a little differently, everyone would have had nothing but Mr. Tranter in mind, and any—any emotional reactions on your part would have been no more than the situation called for. And I don’t expect the whiskey helped.”

Rowan snorted. “Moral of the story, don’t put whiskey on an empty stomach when in emotional duress? All right, Kay. I don’t think I grant the premise exactly, but I’ll keep it in mind as a hypothesis, if that suits.” She drained the last drops of tea and brushed crumbs from her front. “I should be going—the lambs still need seeing to—“

“Oh, before you do—here—“ Karen found on the sideboard a plain envelope, the flap folded in rather than sealed. “Edwin left this for you—he said to let him know if he could be of any further help. Something from the farm log?”

“Very likely,” said Rowan, sliding it into her inner jacket pocket. “Thank him for me, please—and thank you for my elevenses.”
“You’re welcome any day of the week. I can’t promise I’ll have baked, though.”

“I’m easy. See you, then, Kay.”

“See you later, Ro.”

 

Feeding the ponies, later, and liking the way they came to lip at her ungloved palms over the fence, Rowan reflected—untangling her mind in the same spirit as that with which she would take a brush to her hair at the end of a particularly windy day—on why, of all the uncomfortable things in that conversation, Karen’s expression of belated understanding had set her on edge so.

A fair dose of and what good does that do me now was there, certainly, but she could also see a little more clearly now what Kay’s own position had been at the time. Enough on her plate, indeed. More than that, though, she didn’t wish to be poor Rowan isn’t she marvelous she’s taken on so much. This was a considerable part of the motivation for her standard it’s ticking over response, and for the way she’d taken care to point out to Giles that the farm was her job as the Navy was his, neither one of them a source of constant and ceaseless rapture…to which he had risen like a good’un from his Ministry course on fish, and had left it at that, thank God.

She had found that the poor-Rowan reaction came mostly from her own generation, Karen and Giles and her closer contemporaries; this was one reason why she’d been laggard about returning the tentative, friendly overtures from Susan Holden, in her last year at Colebridge Grammar, and Leah Farrant, working in the front office of her father’s small factory while she studied accounting at Colebridge Tech. The older folk—Bob Penny and Fred Studdart, Mrs Bertie, the Vicar and his sisters, even Patrick Merrick’s unnerving mother—seemed to take it for granted that a Marlow would be farming Trennels, and only find it a bit odd that Rowan was a female.

Both reactions making it that much harder to propose something like Nick’s bright idea. To Kay and Susan and their ilk, it would feel like admitting that they were right, she’d been making a martyr of herself over something that she shouldn’t have taken on in the first place—and to the older generation, it would be walking out on her responsibilities. Cope with what comes your way and don’t make a fuss over it, Rowan told herself, not for the first time; shook her head at the crackle of Edwin’s envelope in her jacket, slapped the last hopeful equine lightly on the nose, and began the walk back toward her next task.

 

Which made it seem all the more unlikely—positively delusional—that two weeks later she was standing on the Colebridge platform, shivering a little as the morning air bit through her good Sunday suit, waiting for the train to Bristol Temple Meads.

She had not actually seen fit to mention to anyone where she was headed—taking a day to see to some errands Colebridge way, which was not exactly an untruth. Neither her mother nor any of the farmhands had questioned her.

Edwin’s note, handwritten in tidy, minuscule letters, had listed three or four polytechnics within striking range of Trennels which offered courses in town and urban planning, suggesting that geography and reputation, taken together, pointed to Bristol as the most promising choice. He had not actually been able to verify their part-time student options, but his friend found it likely that such existed; Rowan might be able to obtain more information by visiting the polytechnic offices at the address below. He wished her good luck as a prospective student and was at her service if called upon.

She still didn’t know exactly what had possessed her to go on acting upon this mad lark, other than an uneasy it can’t hurt to see what’s what. Here she was, though, dressed in Sunday tweeds on a Tuesday, even carrying the leather briefcase that had lived in the estate room for ever—it was old and cracked and had been Great-Uncle Lawrence’s, probably in his heyday. Rowan hadn’t put much inside it except a notebook and pens, Edwin’s envelope, and her two-year-old O-Level results, but it was rather a comfort.

Still twenty minutes until the train would come. Reluctantly, able to put it off no longer, Rowan went over to the kiosk further down the platform and bought a copy of that week’s Colebridge and District Mail.

The local newspaper, which she had always found worthy but so very dull it was practically an achievement in itself, had since the Christmas holiday been a source of painful tension every week. Opening to its faithful records of the deaths, births, and other earth-shaking events of the local community, Rowan never knew whether this would be the week she would see OESCHLI, Judith Margaret (Coster), after a sudden illness. Survived by parents Henry and Dorothy (Sallis) Coster and son, Edward Vinzent… Or would they think it more tactful to omit Edward from the obituary together?

In any case, the question had not arisen yet: if Judith Oeschli had died in hospital, Colebridge didn’t know about it, and this week was no different. Rowan tried to resign herself to not knowing either. Alive and chastened or dead and gone, the facts were unchanged, and the weight of the would-be suicide on her own conscience unchanged too. The memory of Judith Oeschli’s face after the Colebridge panto refused to fade. She was just going to have to bear with it, the converse of the guilt and grief she had been spared on Giles and Peter’s safe return.

 

Very much to Rowan’s surprise, a day out in Bristol proved to be enough, not to rid her of these thoughts altogether, but to set them at a safe remove for longer than anything else had done yet. It took her a disconcertingly long time to get her town legs, wandering from one entrance to another of the station feeling like Doris in London, but she eventually managed to figure out which bus would take her to the Polytechnic and to shake off some of her country-mouse panic (honestly, after a paltry two years in the countryside, how could she lose her London instincts so?). In any case, it was a fine distraction, and the Polytechnic offices proved to be even more so. She was able to navigate successfully among the imposing brick buildings, and to open negotiations with a pleasant woman in an orange cardigan and a huge amber brooch, reminding her rather of Miss Ussher at school, who had obviously seen far stranger things than eighteen-year-old female farmers who insisted on working their studies in around lambing and planting.

(Asked if she was also considering full-time study, Rowan surprised herself with the crispness of her own no, certainly not just now response. Yes, the farm drove her mad sometimes—yes, it could be deathly dull, it was a far cry from the city life she still missed, it could feel like immuring herself and watching life pass her by, but—she’d put all she had into it since the summer Jon died, she was learning more than she’d known there was to learn, Trennels was hers as much as anyone’s (with Mr. Tranter gone) and no one was taking that away from her without a fight. Part-time study, yes, with pleasure, but if she were ever ready to walk away from the farm it wouldn’t be for a long time--)

By the time it was all done and dealt with, her briefcase was the heavier for a glossy prospectus and a whole sheaf of application forms—part-time student entrance, parallel A-Level programs, reading lists, part-time students’ hostel use, scholarships for hostel and travel fees, and so on and so forth. The academic world looked to come up with as much bumf as the Min of Ag could manage on its best day, Rowan thought ruefully.

Some of the dazed sensation, she realized, came from being absolutely hollow—a snatched breakfast early and no time for lunch, nor no time now if she was to make the connection to the Westbridge train—she passed a bakery which provided a hot Cornish pasty and a slice of gingerbread with such promptness that she had time to spare at the station after all. Struck by a sudden impulse, Rowan brushed herself down for ginger crumbs and made her way to the station shop.

The postcards all seemed to be of the Suspension Bridge, which might or might not be the best of omens, but it was certainly very pretty. Rowan read with raised eyebrow the Latin inscription glossed as “the road is barely suspended,” contemplated sending one of those cards to Karen and decided it just might be taken the wrong way, and picked up a more autumn-leafy one instead. The station shop also sold stamps, helpfully, and she bought a postcard stamp, licked it on, and hesitated.

I never think that sort of thing does any good, said her own voice to Nicola, with dry, dismissive confidence. How—fatuous of her, to sound as if she actually knew what she was talking about. What had Nick ended up doing about that friend of hers—Daks’ owner, whatever her name was? It wasn’t a thing one could easily ask in a letter. She has feelings same like the rest of you… .

She found a pen and wrote without flourishes, Ann Marlow, Kingscote School, Wade Abbas, and the postcode.

I owe you a cup of tea and maybe a bit more, from that time in the library this winter. Now that you’re in the Sixth you have free run of Wade on a Saturday, yes? Let me know a date when you’re free of prefectly responsibilities (assuming one exists) and I’ll come in and take you out for a cuppa. Always granted the idea appeals, of course. Yrs, Rowan.

 

Ann’s reply arrived a week and two days later, three sheets from the stationery set Mum had sent her last fall for her birthday, speedwells scattered along the margins. The fine-nibbed blue writing probably came from the pen Rowan had contributed at the time.

Most of it was Ann’s usual cheerful, conscientious chatter about school: the outlandish behaviors of the infant young whose bedroom she supervised, Miss Cromwell’s increasingly impenetrable maths classes and Miss Boyd’s exacting requirements for lab reports, a minor explosion which Peggy Levy and Ailwyn Jefferson, two mild-mannered characters, had somehow managed to set off in the science labs (“nearly a nasty accident,” Rowan murmured to herself), a new Chopin étude she was learning. Ann enjoyed school so—

Her usual updates on their younger sisters were, surely, a bit scantier and more formulaic than usual—that Ginty seemed to be settling down to O-level study after last term’s upsets (Rowan turned her mind laboriously back to the Marlows’ first-ever Conduct Marks, which seemed like ancient history), that Nicola was busy practicing with the Prospects, that Lawrie had a head cold but, other than making all her pronouncements in a foghorn basso (or so Rowan discerned from Ann’s unadorned prose) didn’t seem to be too unwell.

Halfway down the third page, Ann thanked Rowan politely for offering to take her out for tea, said she’d be delighted, and offered three possible Saturday dates. It would be lovely to sit with you in the Copper Kettle or some nice place like that, she wrote, just as if we were grown up already. Of course, you are a grownup really—

Was she? Ann’s schoolgirl phrasing made her feel anything but. Sitting in the pub with Giles, though, feeling the dim smoky warmth trickle into her bones after a cold day outside with the sheep, sipping her whiskey-mac and relishing the ginger, and listening to Giles aver solemnly that Guinness was Good For You—Giles was a lieutenant in the Navy, a grownup, an adult by anyone’s standards, and he treated her like an equal.

Which, when you thought of it, was a reaction worthy of Nicola. Not even Nick now, but Nicola when she’d still been a fubsy little thing whose world began and ended with family and Navy. Six months of being the one responsible for six hundred acres, forty head of sheep give or take a few lambs here and there, ten pigs, seven brand new breeding ponies, and eight cows needing to be milked morn and night come rain or come shine (granted she had Ted and Bob and Shep, plus the occasional bit of advice from Marlows dead and gone, but still)—and it took a drink in a pub with Giles to make her feel like, as Ann put it, a grownup.

So it was a pity that Giles hadn’t, apparently, been feeling like a grownup at all. Only boys and fools tempt Providence or the sea—her own voice again. Giles had done his bit to prove Daddy’s old captain right, hadn’t he? One way or t’other.

At least until their ill-fated voyage, Giles had seemed to feel that a rare home leave was a chance for—Rowan didn’t want to think of it this way but there was no other way to put it—family high jinks. Real life, where you took things seriously and assumed adult responsibilities, was lived on board ship by Lieutenant G.A. Marlow, RN, not by Gilly at home. Anything you did in the bosom of the family was—a phrase in Karen’s voice came to her from one of those painful Doddy breakfasts—fleeting the time carelessly.

No wonder she had been so torn for so much of that time. Giles had his ship; Karen, the thought came unexpectedly, had Edwin and her children. Separate spaces, discrete areas to keep childhood and adulthood cleanly divided. Her own real life, in the farm, was so bound up with the life of the family that it was impossible, at Trennels, ever to manage one or the other alone, relaxing into family silliness or taking adult responsibilities untrammeled—

Rowan put the whole thing out of her head for as long as it took to count the jittering lambs in the field, wishing they would stay still for even five minutes at a stretch—worse than Nick and Lawrie, or Rose and Chas—Finally, she reached a number that seemed likely, jogged half a hill over to yell her count to Shep and be told his in return, and set off to the next field.

In her jacket pocket, talismanic, the thick Bristol Polytechnic envelope crackled. If she had a word with Mum tonight and sent in the forms by the end of this week, she might make the deadline for the spring.