Marsh Farm, on the Somerset/Wiltshire border near the village of Summerstoke, is a struggling dairy farm run by the Tucker family, which, in the opinion of Elsie Tucker, a formidable septuagenarian has been neglected for far too long. Charlie Tucker is too busy playing the field to notice the decline; his brother, Stephen, the antithesis of his brother, much preferring the company of his cows, is hopelessly in love with the star of a local am-dram society. Their young sister, Alison is desperate to dispense with her virginity before the end of the summer holidays – but with whom? And their mother, Jenny, a widow, hopelessly unsuited to life on the farm, dreams of escaping to Weston Super Mare in the arms of the local vet.
Fed up with watching her family squander their birthright, Elsie Tucker decides to issue a good old-fashioned ultimatum: either her grandsons find brides by the end of the year, or they lose their slice of the farm.
Unknown to them, avaricious eyes have Marsh Farm firmly in their sights. Unscrupulous and prosperous, Hugh and Veronica Lester of Stokeford House Farm couldn’t be more different from the Tuckers. Their lifestyle is one of tennis, squash, dinner parties, and private schools for their children, Cordelia, 14, and Anthony, 19 who’s at University. The Lesters’ farm has been transformed into a successful agro-business, exploiting every government handout available, as well as operating a highly profitable livery stables. And now they want to open a stud. To do that they need land, and the land they want belongs to Marsh Farm. There is no way the Tuckers would sell Marsh Farm, least of all to the Lesters.
And in the heart of the village, in the Manor, are the three elderly Ms Merfield’s and the equally elderly Nanny. They are key to the success or otherwise of the Tucker’s survival.
As the story progresses, the fortunes of the Tuckers becomes more and more tangled until Gran steps in and all is resolved.
Although it was still an hour to daybreak, the night sky was shifting colour and lightening in the east. It was too early for the full dawn chorus, but one or two birds had already started limbering up with a fragmented twittering; a nightingale, at full throttle, was singing in the small copse of trees by the farm gate, and far off, Alison Tucker could hear the shriek of a screech owl. She glanced at her watch. It was nearly 4.30 am
The track down to the farm was nearly a half a mile long, and confident that no-one would spot her, Alison wove her way home, savouring the sounds and smells of the night, and, at one point, taking off her shoes so that she could walk barefoot on the dew-laden grass verge.
She’d had a great night and it had all started out so unpromisingly. She’d spent the day studying for her A levels and her mother had suggested that come the evening, she should relax with a bit of telly; Alison had thought she’d scream with the tedium of it all…
Then Hannah, her best mate, had phoned. She’d just got back from holiday, somewhere hot; her parents were out for the night and she’d thought she’d have a bit of a party. If Ali was up for it, Nick, Hannah’s boyfriend, would pick Ali up from the end of her drive at 11.15pm, after he’d finished work at the pub. Alison had been definitely up for it.
Knowing there was very little point in asking her mother if she could go out at such an hour, she had said goodnight, had gone up to her room, changed, then slipped out of her bedroom window to meet Nick. Alison lived on a farm, way out of town, which was why Hannah had arranged the pick-up. In this way, Alison had been able to participate in more late-night parties than her mother had ever dreamed of.
It was a warm night and to avoid any incriminating smell of tobacco, a small group of her friends had gathered at the bottom of Hannah’s garden, next to the vegetable patch where the scent of Hannah’s Dad’s prize sweet peas mingled with the fusty, cloying smell of the compost heap. Here they had lolled about on the chintzy cushions taken from the house and scattered on the sun-baked lawn. Hannah had lit a motley collection of candles in saucers and empty wine bottles, raided her parents’ cupboards for crisps and peanuts, and had found some frozen, garlic baguettes, which she’d re-heated in the micro-wave. Nick had bought a large bottle of vodka from duty-free, and six of them had gathered to drink the vodka, share duty-free fags, compare tans and exam grades, and swop photos and stories; stories of assignations with a Pedro or Carlos or Juan; of drinking until legless; of dancing till dawn; and of skinny dipping, in a blue-black sea by the light of a huge strawberry moon...
As she walked down the track, on her left Alison could make out the black stripe of the river and beyond, the occasional, twinkling light from the village of Summerstoke. Narrowing her eyes, she let her imagination drift: the river she saw as the edge of a limitless, dark ocean; Summerstoke became some tiny, exotic, fishing village where, waiting for her in a bar, was a tall, dark, handsome boy, with mocking eyes and…
She tripped over a large stone on the uneven track and ended up flat on her face on the grassy bank. Unhurt, she rolled onto her back, gazed up at the stars and wondered what it would be like to swim naked in the sea, at night. She would never admit to her friends that she was envious, but she was. Her family never had enough money to go on a day-trip to Bournemouth, let alone the sun-kissed shores of the Med.
She stretched her arms out, crossed her ankles, and propping her head on her hands, lay for a moment, on the dew-damp ground, letting her thoughts drift over her situation.
Sometimes, she thought, she would burst with frustration. Marsh Farm, the safe, loving world of her childhood, she now found confining and claustrophobic; it held nothing for her. The world was beckoning and she so wanted to explore it; there was so much she wanted to do, but she couldn’t see how to escape. She didn’t particularly care about the sorts of places her friends went to on holiday – no, it was the fact that they were able to go at all, whilst she was stuck at home, that made her restless.
She sighed deeply. It was made worse this summer because she hadn’t got a holiday job, which meant no money and no independence. The whole family had agreed that she should concentrate on her studies and on getting the best possible grades for the course work that had to be completed next term. She knew that her grandmother, particularly, had set great store in her getting a university place and was as enthusiastic as Alison, if not more so, about Alison’s declared intention of becoming a Vet. But that enthusiasm, plus her mother’s obvious pride at her daughter’s brains, didn’t allow Alison any room for manoeuvre; it didn’t give her the privilege of doubt, or allow her to change her mind, and she felt as trapped by her future plans, as she did by her current situation.
Momentarily, she thought about her father. He’d died when she was seven and her memories of him were hazy impressions of a tall, smiling man, who would scoop her up onto his shoulders, and from those dizzying heights she had looked down on the world. With him, she had believed all things were possible. If only she could feel the same way about her life now. If only she could say no to the people she loved most in the world; if only she could turn her back on the farm and find…oh, she didn’t know what, precisely, but certainly adventure, and certainly a lover…
The screaming bark of a dog-fox startled her, breaking her reverie. She scrambled to her feet. The sky was getting lighter by the minute and she realised she could not afford to linger much longer.
Alison was, she had admitted to Hannah, a bit tipsy, not being used to vodka, but she was not that drunk and when she rounded a bend and the dark silhouettes of the farm buildings loomed out in front of her, she checked her watch again. Nearly 5am. Good. Stephen wouldn’t be up to fetch the herd in for milking, for another half- hour. She would be able to reach her room without being seen.
The gate to the farmyard was ajar and she slipped into the yard and stood, for a moment, in a deep shadow cast by a barn. The farmhouse, its front illuminated silver in the moonlight, looked down over the farm buildings. Her two brothers, Charlie and Stephen, had rooms at the back of the house and Alison was confident they’d be snoring their heads off at this hour. Her mother, however, was a light sleeper and had a room at the front, next to Alison’s own. Alison stared up at it. The curtains were firmly drawn.
The only other person she had to reckon with was Gran, but since her room was right at the top of the house and Alison had absolutely no reason to think she would be staring out across the farmyard at five o’clock in the morning, Alison felt it was safe to step into the moonlight and cross the yard. She headed for a water butt standing next to the porch of the front door, and climbing up onto that, she shinned her way over the canopy of the porch and up in through her open bedroom window.
Elsie Tucker, Alison’s grandmother, had been unable to sleep. It was hot at the top of the house and because she had all the windows open, the sounds of the night disturbed her fitful slumbers. But it wasn’t the heat, or the screech owls, or the shrieking fox, or the screams of a dying rabbit, or the nightjar, or the nightingale, that kept her awake, so much as her thoughts, wrestling with the problem that increasingly troubled her – what, if anything, she should do to rescue the parlous state of the farm’s fortunes. For years she had told them that what they did with the farm was their own affair – she wasn’t interested. But although she might maintain that line in front of her family, she knew it wasn’t true and she cared - cared very much.
Elsie tutted, threw back the wool blanket – she had dismissed the idea of duvets as a modern fad - and climbed out of the old fashioned bed, with its elaborate mahogany headboard and horsehair mattress, slipped on a pair of old carpet slippers and padded across to the window where she leant on the window sill, sighing and feeling her years.
An antique dress mirror that she had brought with her to the farm when she married, stood by her wardrobe and caught her reflection in the moonlight. A trick of the silvery light smoothed out the wrinkles of her face; caused the long, thick plait of grey hair, hanging loosely over one shoulder, to shine with life, and flattered the diminutive body in the high-necked flannelette nightdress. If Thomas, her husband, had still been alive and lying in their matrimonial bed, he would have seen Elsie, his bride, at the window and not the seventy-nine year old widow who leaned on the sill, gazing sadly out on Marsh Farm, which had been her home for sixty years.
The sky was full of stars, but streaked with a faint yellow in the east. Dawn was not far off.
“Oh Thomas,” she whispered, “Look at it…”
The farm sat, in the darkling light, like a marooned hulk, shabby and getting shabbier, on a slight rise in the middle of a picture book valley. But it wasn’t a picture book farm, not any more.
Elsie had kept hens that had clucked and scratched in the yard: Jenny, her daughter in law, couldn’t cope with birds and so they had been eaten and not replaced. The duck pond, that once had been alive with ducks flapping, whistling and quacking, had become a muddy indentation, its banks mashed to a gluppy pulp by the cows that pushed into the yard at milking time, a clump of reeds being all that was left to mark its whereabouts.
In the orchard, where Elsie had grown sufficient apples to provide the farm with its own cider, the trees were gnarled, covered with fluorescent grey lichen, and producing a diminishing crop of small, bitter, canker-ridden apples in the autumn, that were allowed to lie where they fell.
In the garden at the back of the house, where Elsie had grown most of the family’s vegetables, Jenny had beds given over to strawberries, which she loved, but which were always denuded by slugs, against which she fought a losing battle. There was a small, crooked greenhouse in which she grew tomatoes; and a sorry looking vegetable patch where straggling clumps of spinach, slug infested cabbages, or lettuce could be found, according to the time of year. Elsie snorted with contempt at Jenny’s sorry efforts, but made no attempt to help or advise her.
And then there was the house... It was an attractive building, but, apart from Elsie’s own rooms, it was showing the same wear and tear as the rest of the farm. Tiles had slipped, paint was peeling, broken windows were patched, not replaced, and both the house and yard were surrounded by a growing bank of discarded machinery and broken vehicles, the flotsam and jetsam of farm life.
The whole place was a shabby shadow of the farm she and Thomas had been so proud of. And now…
Stephen, her grandson, had not been able to conceal his anxiety when he received the call from the dairy telling him his last batch of milk had been rejected. Unfortunately for him, Elsie had been present when the call came. He had muttered some excuse about a water-heating unit not working properly, but Elsie saw it as being symptomatic of the whole decline she could see about her. She blamed her grandsons for their general attitude and lack of commitment to the farm, and told Stephen as much. He didn’t fight back, he never did. He was just like his mother, Jenny, in that respect, Elsie thought, scornfully. At least Charlie, his brother, had a bit more spunk about him…
She was just about to move back to her bed when a movement, in the yard below her, caught her eye. It was her granddaughter, Alison, fully dressed, moving out of the shadows and across the yard. Elsie, who had been present when Alison had told her mother she was going to bed, watched in amazement as she slipped towards the house and out of sight.
Elsie was shocked. Alison was her favourite, the one most like her, and in Elsie’s opinion, the only one with any brains. She had set her heart on Alison going to University, the first Tucker to do so. When Alison had first confided in her that she dreamed of becoming a Vet one day, she had been absolutely thrilled and had given Alison every encouragement. But Elsie knew that if Alison were to succeed, she would have to work hard; really hard…And now, here she was, jeopardising all that, gallivanting off in the night when everyone thought she was asleep.
Simmering with anger, Elsie climbed back into bed – how often had Alison done this before? When she said she was studying in her room, what proof did they have that she hadn’t gone out? She always played her darned music so loudly and insisted on not being disturbed – a perfect cover for slipping out of the house whenever the fancy took her!
Early sunbeams were playing over the white plastered walls and thick oak beams of her attic room when Elsie finally fell into an uneasy doze, her sleep a jumble of images of herself, her fingers stiff and clumsy, trying hopelessly to attach a set of clusters to a cow’s udder; Thomas, by her side, telling her, in his soft patient voice, that she wasn’t to fret; and a small child, whom she identified as Alison, running away from her, laughing and calling to her, dangerously close to the edge of the river–bank.
It was well after eight o’clock when she woke, much later than she liked. As she splashed her face with cold water, she thought about how best to deal with this fresh problem. Young Miss Alison couldn’t get away with it, that’s for sure, but unlike Stephen, she would fight back and so a direct confrontation wasn’t necessarily the best approach. But Elsie was feeling tired and scratchy after her disturbed night and she was ready for a good fight.
Fortunately for them both, perhaps, there was no sign of Alison in the farmhouse kitchen when Elsie arrived down for breakfast. Both the boys were absent, too. Jenny was at the stove, burning toast under the grill. “Hello, Elsie,” she said brightly, “You’re late down. Did you sleep well?”
When her son, Jim, her only, and much cherished child, had first brought Jenny home, Elsie had conceded that she was indeed, a very pretty girl, without an ounce of malice in her, but she had very quickly decided that, in every other respect, the girl was a fool, and she had not changed her mind, even when Jenny married Jim, bore him three children and grew plump and tired, running the farmhouse without complaint. She knew she was unfair; Jenny had always tried hard to please her, and everyone else loved Jenny; but she blamed Jenny for the weakness of her grandsons, the decline of the farm’s fortunes, and generally everything else that she didn’t like - even, though she rarely acknowledged it, for the premature death of her son - so she took a perverse pleasure in putting her down whenever she could. Unfortunately for them both, Jenny made it easy for her.
“Would you like some toast, Elsie?”
“Toast, yes – not charcoal. I’ll make it myself, thank you. Where’s Alison?”
“Still asleep. I’m going to take her up a cup of tea in a minute. She’s working so hard, poor lamb…”
Elsie snorted and ungraciously took the cup of tea Jenny had poured for her. She sat herself down at the kitchen table and scowled at the sight of the kitchen. It was the living heart of the farm and under Elsie’s rule, it had reflected her personality, her energy and her orderliness, and now… in her opinion, it was a testament to just how bad things had become under Jenny’s incompetent reign as the farmer’s wife.
It was a long room, illuminated only by the sunlight filtering through a rather grubby square sash window, behind the sink, and a light, which was permanently on, hanging over the kitchen table. The ceiling was low, a tracery of broken plaster visible under the paint which had yellowed with age and years of grease. In a fit of energy one year, Jenny had started to wash the ceiling, but had got distracted and never resumed her labours, so one patch was lighter than the rest, but not much.
The kitchen table, a long oak rectangle, was a battleground of things that needed a home, including a large bag of dog biscuits, empty jam jars, a roll of cheap wrapping paper, a couple of jumpers Jenny had bought from the jumble sale intending to unpick and re-knit, and a basket of dusty nuts left over from Christmas.
The wall-paper, its floral pattern so faded it was a distant memory, was peeling with damp and covered with pictures the children had drawn in various stages of their childhoods: Alison’s first picture of a horse when she was two, Stephen’s portraits of his Mum and Dad, done on his first day at school, Charlie’s rocket, drawn when he was seven; Jenny wouldn’t throw them away, even those that had been stained by tomato ketchup the time Charlie had shaken the bottle so violently, the top had flown off and the wall had been liberally spattered.
Next to the stove, Gip, the farm’s dog, had her basket, a large broken wicker affair, lined with an old blanket. The floor was covered with linoleum, peeled and cracked, and so stained with years of muddy footprints, dog hairs and dirt that any washing and sweeping of it made very little difference to its general appearance.
All of this, the whole kitchen, Elsie viewed anew and felt, keenly, as a reproach to herself for not having intervened sooner to stop the decay.
The telephone rang, interrupting her gloomy reverie. Jenny answered. “Marsh Farm… Jenny Tucker…yes…yes she’s right here. Elsie, it’s for you. It’s a Mr Ian Webster. He says he’s an old friend; he needs to have a word with you, urgently…”
With some surprise, it being barely nine o’clock, Elsie took the call.