First question: how does kindly, bumbling George, Felicity’s long time lover, avoid her clutches when she unexpectedly finds herself a widow and he unexpectedly finds himself in love with Thea?
Second question: how does scatty Polly, wife of a don at Exeter University who is having an affair with one of his students, react when she realizes he is intending to leave her?
Although not a true sequel to Those Who Serve, this book – which sets out to answer those two questions – is set in the same landscape and involves quite a few of the characters met in the earlier book.
Marcia originally conceived the two strands of this book as separate stories and wrote them out as such. However, they wanted to intermingle and a number of the threads crossed from one idea to the other. In the end, they were brought together to become one of Marcia’s most light-hearted stories. It may come as a surprise to learn that these two ‘first drafts’ were written after the manuscript of Those Who Served (or, more accurately, at that time Pay Day) was sent to Headline and before Cate asked for any changes while the final version of Thea’s Parrot was finished before Those Who Serve was published and The Courtyard, Marcia’s third book, followed almost immediately. It was as if a huge store of stories had built up just waiting for someone to open the door so that they could come pouring out. The result was that Headline was able to publish these three books at six monthly intervals.
Because this is countryside that Marcia knows so well, there was no exploration as such required. However, Marcia wanted Thea to live in an unusual house and she cast her mind back to the time when a couple with whom we were friends lived in an old station down in Cornwall which had been converted into a splendid if somewhat eccentric home – and the descriptions of the Old Station House and its garden are pretty faithful to that. Naturally, this meant it had to be on one of the old dis-used railway lines but, apart from the fact that it is fairly close to Tavistock, we never know which one.
Then came Broadhayes, the home of Thea’s great aunt. Marcia did not feel that the exact location of this home was important and so we never actually pinned it down to a specific place. She saw it as old, built of grey granite and as rugged and unforgiving as Dartmoor itself. She wanted The Old Station House to be some distance from Broadhayes – to give Thea and George time together as they drove to and fro – and so the latter ended up being near Moretonhampstead but its exact location was not important.
In Those Who Serve, we saw Dartmoor through the eyes of Kate. There were great sweeps of open moorland, majestic tors set against huge skies, sheets of water where reservoirs had been built and the annual cycle of birth, death and re-birth.
In this book we see the moor through the eyes of two very different characters: Felicity and the Royal Academician, David Porteus, whom she helps to explore the area. What fascinates him is the minutiae. Mosses and lichens on boulders of granite, small streamlets gurgling over rocky beds, plants growing between the stones of ancient walls, reflections under hump backed bridges: these are what fire his imagination and inspire his painting.
Writing this book also changed the way at which Marcia looked at the moor as she tried to see it the same way. She always says that she finds writing descriptive passages extremely difficult although readers find this hard to believe. I can confirm that Marcia will spend hours trying to ensure that she has all the details right and that her writing will evoke what she is describing: her reward is in letters and emails from readers praising this aspect of her work.
Felicity lives in an old stone Devon longhouse. Originally, these were one room deep with a cross passage from front to back. One side, sometimes divided into two or three rooms, accommodated the people: the other the animals. Even when the animals were evicted and all the property was used for living, in a longhouse the rooms usually open out one from another. Many have been converted to overcome this problem. Our own home is such a one but has an extension (luckily on the northern side) which consists of a passage running the length of the house so that each room has its own doorway.
Following her marriage to George, Thea finds herself welcomed by the group of friends we met in Those Who Serve. Harriet (now living with Michael in an old farmhouse called Lower Barton up on the open moor) is looking to buy another Newfoundland puppy as Max nears old age. She introduces Thea to the breeder: Freddie Spenlow who lives in an ‘ugly little bungalow’ and can walk out onto Black Down and up to Gibbet Hill. As you pass out of Mary Tavy heading west, you rumble over yet another cattle grid and out onto the open moor. A track leads up towards Gibbet Hill and then swings right where, surprisingly, there are some properties. There are no bungalows and none could be described as ugly but it is within this group that Freddie lives and in the paddock to the rear of his home that his puppies are exercised. It is from Freddie that Thea buys her Newfoundland bitch, Jessie.
We have lived with Newfoundland dogs over many years and Marcia puts them in a number of her books. ‘My houses are pure fiction, all of my characters are made up,’ she says, ‘but the dogs are real.’ Incidentally, between us we have also had Golden Retrievers, Labradors, a Cairn Terrier, a number of Collie crosses and a Sussex Spaniel cross.
After the jollity of the New Year’s celebrations, Harriet – expecting to give birth at any time – persuades her old friend Polly to come and look after her young son, Hugh, who is Polly’s godson, and the dogs while she is in hospital. Now we see the second change to the moor: snow falls heavily. This may not happen very often but when it does Dartmoor becomes a bleak and inhospitable place where familiar landmarks disappear and even the moorland animals find it difficult to survive. Under these conditions I once came off the road while driving from Tavistock to Okehampton and it was only when the car slid down a slope and into a river that I realized that I had. I was extremely lucky: a farmer was on the moor taking hay to some sheep and saw it happen. Very kindly, he drove over and in minutes there was a rope linking me to his tractor and I was pulled back out of the valley and on my way again – being very careful to follow his directions. The murderer in this book who breaks out from Dartmoor prison is not so lucky – when he drives the car in which he is escaping off the road in the snow storm there is nobody there to save him. For those who know the moor, this happened as he drove up the road passing the quarry at Merrivale.
He abandoned the car and ran up the track behind the two quarrymen’s cottages, a track which leads over the moor to the south of Staple Tor and along the north flank of Cox Tor – and so passing Michael and Harriet’s home before meeting the track to Higher Godsworthy Farm.
Although when Marcia wrote Those Who Serve she had no idea why it was important that Lower Barton was behind Cox Tor, somehow she did and became quite fretful until we found the exact location. This was a pattern that was to repeat in later books – something would happen for no real reason but in a later book . . .
This is a book of journeys but not physical journeys. Felicity learns the true meaning of love; George faces up to his weaknesses; Freddie comes to terms with himself; Polly eventually stands on her own two feet.
And Thea’s parrot, the chatty African Grey called Percy who was bequeathed to her by her great aunt?
Well, without Percy none of it would have happened.
For some notes and photographs describing Thea’s Parrott country the link is TP Country