Cousin Dorothy clutched me by the arm and murmured: "Kit, dearest, why didn't I think of it before? You're just the very person ... "
I thought of Bazaars and Sales of Work and Committees and Church Charities and the devil and the deep sea. But Cousin Dorothy went straight on. "It's about Verity, darling. We're so worried. I simply must tell you from the very beginning ... "
And this is how Kit Findlay, who worries that she's a bit past it now that she's in her thirties (!!), gets pulled in to take her rather shallow, flirtatious young cousin Verity first halfway across Europe, and then, since Verity finds charming men everywhere she goes (even a tiny village in the Swiss Alps), back to her brother Benjamin's idyllic farm in Hampshire. As Kit puts it:
A good deal has been said and written about the trials and joys of dodging chaperones, but as far as I remember, very little about the arduous amusement of not letting oneself be dodged.
First they go to stay with charming Tante Hélène in Rouen, meeting handsome John Hobart on the train, who has the darnedest knack for popping up in unlikely places. When he pops up once too often, Kit, against the advice of Tante Hélène (who might see more than they give her credit for), rushes Verity off to the Alps, where Herr Albrecht, a climbing aficionado, takes a bit too much of an interest. So before long it's back to the farm with young, handsome brother Benjamin (what could go wrong?), only to find that John Hobart has established a riding club nearby. The comedy continues with riding lessons and tennis tournaments, Verity at the end of a few months is a rather different person, and Kit may find that she is too…
This is all great fun and good for chuckles at various points. In particular, the pair's train journey had me giggling quite a lot, particularly as I realized that I am indeed thoroughly English in my heritage—just as my genealogy would suggest—as I completely relate to Kit's contempt for people who hate fresh air. Here are a few memorable excerpts:
I saw at once that we weren't going to be lucky. One glance at the woman settling herself into the corner by the door made me sure we had one of the Window-Shutters: she hadn't those check clothes and double-chins for nothing.
The elderly body with the hatpins seemed to be asleep, for her head was rolling about as if someone had wrung her neck. But she managed to mumble thanks when Verity said she could put her feet on the opposite seat if she liked, while she was in the corridor. It was a relief to hear her speak after watching that wobbling head in the eerie light from the corridor and wondering whether people ever did die of a night in the train as well as feeling like it.
After a while I began to wonder where Verity was, and whether it would be a good plan to try and wash now before the corridor filled with refined people pretending they had come out to see the fields of France and less refined ones rattling the door of the Toilette at the end.
I read and very much enjoyed Stafford & Oliver's other three early collaborations—see here and here—last year, but when I acquired a copy of Cuckoo in June (at rather a hefty cost—let's not talk about that), I opted to save it on my TBR, reluctant to finish their fun authorial teamwork (both Stafford & Oliver went on to publish many more novels individually, and even went back to collaborating, under the pseudonym Joan Blair, on a number of romance novels, but these clearly have a very different tone from the four early works published under their own names). But having recently grown a bit fatigued with reading photographed books on my Kindle (some of the pics sadly demonstrating all too clearly that my hands have grown shakier as I get older), I plucked it off the shelf and settled in to enjoy. It's a perfectly charming read, and I wish Handheld Press (who reprinted the earlier Business as Usual) or some other publisher would bring the remaining three titles back into print.
This book, too, is remarkable because it "has the distinction of being the first modern novel published with hand-coloured plates; it has eight pictures in colour, and in addition there are numerous line-drawings." Ann Stafford's drawings are as delightful as ever here, and the ones with colour do add a certain dazzle.