Toggenburg - Book 1 by Michaela Francis

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Toggenburg - Book 1 
(Michaela Francis)

Toggenburg Book One

Chapter One


Incredibly, Sarah’s train was late. There’d been some technical problem with the line in Burgdorf and it had delayed the train by about fifteen minutes. It was an extraordinary occurrence. There’d been a murmur of outraged indignation among Sarah’s fellow passengers on the 11.35 St Gallen express and the train’s officials had been apologetic to the point of grovelling abjection. Sarah had been amused by the situation and not at all distressed by the trifling inconvenience. The previous summer, she had spent a holiday in Italy and travelled on the Italian railway system extensively. In Italy, a train turning up on time was an unprecedented event eliciting gasps of astonishment and rounds of applause. She had once been a witness to an early morning train leaving Milan station so punctually that it had stranded over fifty percent of its commuters, who were habituated to its customary tardiness, on the platform. There’d nearly been a riot. But this wasn’t Italy. This was Switzerland and trains were never late in Switzerland.

Sarah gazed out of the window of the dining salon of the train at the glorious early summer radiance of the Swiss countryside and smiled to herself as she let her fantasy roam. Fifteen minutes late! Good God there would be high level boards of enquiry; repercussions among the executive echelons of the Schweizer Bundesbahn; recriminations among the engineering divisions. She giggled to herself. Maybe they’d even form a hollow square for the Burgdorf station master; ceremoniously cut off his epaulettes and badges, break his baton and drum him out of the service in disgrace.

Sarah was half Swiss and half English and the half of her that was English displayed a somewhat less than reverent respect for the sombre institutions of the Helvetic Republic. She lived in Switzerland and had done for most of her life. She loved the country for its beauty, its warm hospitality and civilised courtesy. She adored the land as a haven of sanity and humanity. There was no place else in the world she could ever want to live in yet there was a little rebellious streak in her that refused to take it entirely seriously.

When the train had finally left Burgdorf station and crossed the River Emmen, with the big sandstone bluffs towering over the river, Sarah ordered another glass of wine from the waiter in the dining car. It was disgraceful really. It was far too early in the day to be drinking. But Sarah was in a happy, almost holiday mood. Her three years at the university in Bern were at an end and finally, gloriously, she was going home. Every kilometre that the train headed east took her closer to the place in which her heart truly resided. Even three years at university had not dulled the aching homesickness she felt for her beautiful valley. Every summer’s day that had necessitated her exile, she had yearned for the flowery meadows on the hillsides above Unterwasser and every hint of snow from the distant mountains had beckoned her to the crisp whiteness of the mountain flanks gleaming under the winter sun. But now she was going home and she vowed not to leave her valley again.

Sarah was beautiful. Anybody would have told you that. The young man pretending to read the Zuricher Zeitung at the table of the dining car across the aisle would have readily agreed with that sentiment as he admired her covertly from behind the defensive shield of his newspaper. He saw a warm beauty that was not entirely explained by the soft waves of her long chestnut brown hair, the heart shaped, exquisitely fine boned features of her face, the gentle brown eyes and generous mouth made for smiling. The beauty went further even than the slender yet neatly proportioned body to be discerned beneath the casual open necked blouse and well-fitting blue jeans. It was true that her breasts were high and firm and her stomach admirably flattened to her slim waist. Her legs were long and the seat of her jeans were moulded around a firm perfectly proportioned behind that many a woman would have sold her soul to the devil for. Even her hands were long and slender; seemingly designed for elegance. Yet, even taking all her undoubtedly attractive physical characteristics into account, there was something else that defied description, almost, that set her apart from just being a very pretty girl.

Sarah’s true beauty came from some inner lode within her. On a superficial level she was indeed a very beautiful girl just twenty-one years of age now and emerging slowly into full womanhood. Her age was a constant astonishment to Sarah because she had never really reconciled herself to it. It still amazed her that she was a young woman in her twenties now. Perhaps the three long years as a student had somewhat arrested her maturity in some way for she was, both by appearance and outlook, still a teenager. Indeed she had gone to university a rather gangling long legged eighteen-year-old but somehow, in the intervening years, her youthful awkwardness had transmuted itself into a warm maturing loveliness even as Sarah was the last person to recognise the fact.

Sarah dressed habitually in jeans and rarely donned a dress or even a skirt. She was not a girl to use make-up extensively or even to fashion her hair much although she enjoyed wearing it long, even when she was obliged to tie it back for convenience. In fact, Sarah often seemed indifferent to her appearance and in some way that was one of her greatest charms. Sarah was actually one of those very rare creatures; a beautiful girl almost totally lacking in vanity.

It was Sarah’s apparent oblivion to her own attractiveness that made Sarah so irresistible. There was no sense, whilst talking to Sarah that here was a girl completely obsessed by her own appearance. Some people are interesting but Sarah was always interested. She never seemed to notice that people found her attractive. Indeed she would have been surprised to know of it. She simply didn’t think that she was beautiful. Such a thought was almost alien to her. She could talk to a young man in the university bar about some intriguing point of academic interest and be quite oblivious to the fact that the young gentleman in question was starting to gibber and slobber into his beer glass. Her friends at university had been much amused by this trait of Sarah’s and had occasionally poked gentle fun at it.

This warm-hearted and un-self-centred nature had earned Sarah many friends at university. She was popular and well-liked by all her female colleagues and the object of much heart break among the male students. There was a wholesomeness to her that transcended the normal predatory male instincts. This wasn’t a girl to bed for transient gratification. This was girl to fall in love with.

Despite the extensive fan club of young men who would have gladly thrown themselves at her feet and made terrible vows of unwavering devotion for life to her at university, Sarah’s academic career was very nearly blemishless. In fact, she had never dated a boy throughout her university life, although it certainly wasn’t for lack of suitors. Sarah didn’t think this unusual. For one thing, she already had a boyfriend. His name was Alan and, although she saw him seldom, they had been solidly attached to each other ever since she had been just seventeen.

Alan was the son of one of Sarah’s father’s business partners and there’d been an understanding between the two families that had weathered Sarah’s sojourn at university. To all intents and purposes, Sarah and Alan were betrothed although there had not been, as yet, any formal declaration of that betrothal. It had been accepted that Sarah would first finish her university studies and then the long-standing arrangement would be formalised and a date set for a future wedding. It was a highly agreeable arrangement for the families involved. They were tied ever more closely in alliance through business and Sarah and Alan’s wedding would cement that alliance with familial ties. It would be a perfect union. Alan was a dynamic upcoming junior partner in the business and destined for great things in his future career. He was well on his way to becoming a wealthy young man and his family had all the wealth and connections to ensure the future prosperity of Sarah’s family. Sarah’s future was firmly assured.


Chapter Two


The train was pulling into Zurich and Sarah grimaced in distaste. She disliked Zurich. She realised that she was probably doing the city less than justice. After all, it was by no means an unpleasant city with an agreeable location on the banks of Lake Zurich, with lovely waterfront views and chic pedestrian precincts. Nevertheless she disliked it. Partly this dislike was due to her aversion to big cities. Sarah was a country girl at heart and needed the free country wind in her hair and not the loathsome clatter and noisome fumes of automobiles. It could not be entirely that, however, for she had taken to Bern with its old-world charm perched up on the hills above the River Aare. Zurich was different though. There was a clamour and bustle to the great city and its sprawling suburbs that Sarah found disagreeable. It lacked Bern’s charm to her. It was a thoroughly modern sort of city; chaotic and restless and she never enjoyed any visit there even though Alan’s business took him there often. She had dutifully accompanied or visited him there, on several occasions, but she had always breathed a sigh of relief upon leaving its boundaries behind. Alan was not in Zurich now however. He was away in America and would be for some weeks or months to come.

There was one part of Zurich to which she had no objection however. After the stop at Zurich Hauptbahnhof, the train plunged into a tunnel and, after a couple of minutes, emerged into the underground railway station that served the airport. Airports fascinated Sarah. On the occasions when she had been obliged to visit Zurich she had sometimes come out to the airport just to spend an afternoon drinking in the atmosphere of the place. She’d sit at a café bar in the terminal and just watch the holiday makers and travellers, lugging their baggage through the airport and looking worriedly at the information boards, and wonder where they were headed. Or she’d take a window seat, at one of the upstairs restaurants, and just watch the aeroplanes landing and taking off, still amazed how such enormous machines could take so gracefully to the air. Airports to her were gateways to exotic and strange fairy lands, she only knew from books and television. In all her twenty-one years of life, Sarah had never flown in an aeroplane. She dreamed of it sometimes. Alan had promised that, when she finished university, he would take some time off work and they would fly away for a holiday somewhere.

 Perhaps they would fly to England. Sarah had been five years old when her family had left England. She could barely remember it anymore. Sarah’s mother came from the small town of Beverly in Northern England and had met her father whilst on a skiing holiday in St Moritz. He’d been a young rising businessman then and his business had brought him often to England. The holiday romance he had forged with Sarah’s mother then had bloomed and he had frequently visited her on his business trips. A few years before Sarah was born, her father’s business had offered him the opportunity to take over their offices in England and the besmitten young man had leaped at the opportunity. He’d moved to Beverly and, within six months, he had married Sarah’s mother in the lovely old parish church of St Mary’s.

The marriage had been a happy one. Indeed it still was, Sarah realised with a fond affection not unmarked by anxiety over her own forthcoming nuptials. Sarah’s parents were still hopelessly devoted to each other and still, after twenty-six years of marriage, demonstrably in love with each other. The marriage had been both prosperous and fruitful too, for they’d been comfortably well off and, in those early years, decidedly fertile. Sarah’s elder sister, Jessica, had been born soon enough after the marriage to raise eyebrows and invite a certain degree of amused consultation of the calendar. Her brother, John, had followed within two years and then there’d been a gap of nearly three years before Sarah, the baby of the family, had graced the family with her presence to her doting father’s everlasting delight. Sarah’s connection to Switzerland went further than her father’s nationality for, although she had been born in Beverly, her mother had always insisted that she had been conceived in front of a log fire one night whilst the family had been on holiday in Zermatt.

In spite of that, Sarah had spent the first five years of life in England before her father’s business had wrapped up their English concerns and the whole family had moved to Switzerland. She could barely remember anything about Beverly now other than some vague impressions of an old quaint little market town and the images of the big garden they had had there and the huge minster that had dominated the town. She knew that she had still some relations there but she knew them hardly at all. Her English grandfather had died very young and her grandmother had married again and that to an American who had whisked her away to California, where she still resided. Sarah had only ever met her once since.

 Her English roots fascinated Sarah and she had often looked up Beverly on the internet or in books. Most people in Switzerland had never heard of the place for it was a small town of less than thirty thousand inhabitants set in a rural area of East Yorkshire but Sarah had been astonished to learn that it had once been one of the most important cities in England and had a rich history dating back to the seventh century. Sarah was deeply interested in history, as evidenced by the fact that she had just spent three years at university studying it. It was an ambition of hers to one day visit the town in which she had been born.

Sarah had grown up in Eastern Switzerland but, although she was a thoroughly Swiss girl by now, she still regarded herself as English. She spoke English as fluently as Swiss German; a condition encouraged by her mother who, even after sixteen years in Switzerland, still struggled with the language. Her mother had new language problems now, of course, for, some three years ago, as her children had left the nest, she and her husband had moved to the Ticino; the southern Italian speaking region of Switzerland. She had nagged Sarah ever since to move to Ticino with them but Sarah had resisted claiming that it was too far from university. It was a transparent excuse. Her parents had a lovely home in a beautiful region near to Ascona but Sarah’s heart was firmly wedded to the valley, in which she had spent her childhood, and the thought of living anywhere else filled her with horror.

Her excitement grew as the train emerged from the subterranean world beneath Zurich airport and sped once more out into the countryside. There was a brief stop in the funny little industrial town of Winterthur, for which Sarah had a strange affection, and then the final hop to the small town of Wil where Sarah was obliged to change trains. Her heart was fluttering as the PA system in the train announced the approach to Wil and she started to remove her luggage from the racks. She had two suitcases and a large shoulder bag. Most of her belongings had been transported back by her brother in his van over a week ago. John lived with his girlfriend in Appenzell in the next Canton and Sarah had solicited his assistance to move. It was incredible how much stuff you could acquire in three years in university digs.

The big intercity express slowed to a halt at Wil station and Sarah struggled to the Platform with her heavy luggage, worrying that the delay may have made her miss her connection. It was a needless worry. All Swiss trains connected to each other, late or otherwise, and her connection was waiting patiently on platform five. Sarah grabbed a convenient luggage trolley and, loading her bags aboard, set off in some haste for the ramp leading to the tunnel beneath the line, for the express had deposited her on platform one. It was hard pushing the heavy trolley up the long sloping ramp to platform five and she had a sudden dread that the train would depart before she had negotiated it. Her haste was irrational, she knew. Even if she did miss the train, there would be another within an hour and there was a perfectly congenial buffet at the station to while away the time in. But, now that she was so close, she found herself in a hurry. She wanted to be home.

In the event, the train was still waiting although she was the last person to board and the platform controller was tapping his baton impatiently against his leg as she muscled her bags onto the train. She had barely heaved herself aboard before the automatic doors clattered shut, the whistle blew and the local train gave a lurch and ground its way out of the station. It was to be the most frustrating part of the journey. The local train stopped at every village to cross its path and its progress was painfully slow. Sarah sighed and found a seat, before rummaging in her handbag for her mobile telephone. With a smile, she keyed Nicole’s number.

 Nicole was Sarah’s best friend and housemate. They’d shared the tiny little old farmhouse up at Alpli for nearly four years now although Sarah had been absent for much of the time. Nicole was English too and it was that shared heritage that had brought them together at school where they had become inseparable. Their friendship was the source of much amusement in the valley for Sarah and Nicole were the classic example of the attraction of opposites. Sarah was the quiet, well mannered, serious girl of modesty, restraint, good sense and pleasant manner tinged with a touch of shyness. Nicole was none of the above! She was a flamboyant, muddle-headed, devil take the hindmost little extrovert with a penchant for finding trouble with alacrity and whose escapades and misdemeanours were of legendary status in the valley. She was a mad-cap little lunatic who apparently left chaos in her wake wherever she walked and Sarah adored her.

Nicole answered the phone immediately with a booming shout. “Hiya! That you Sarah?”

“Yes It’s me and there’s no need to shout Nicky dearest. We have modern electronic technology for amplifying and projecting our voices over the telephone.”

“What’s that Sarah? You’ll have to speak up. Your signal’s breaking up.”

Sarah sighed and raised her voice. “I said it’s me and I just got on the train in Wil. Where are you?”

“I’m in the car just driving down to pick you up. I should be there in about ten minutes or I would if this fat Dutch bastard with his caravan in front of me would get a move on or shift out of the way.”

Sarah smiled. Nicole was not noted for her patience behind a steering wheel. “Don’t be in too much of a hurry Nicky. My train got held up in Burgdorf and I’m running late.”

Nicole’s response was a few choice vulgarities in a mix of English and Swiss German which Sarah presumed was directed at Nicole’s fellow motorists rather than at herself. “Sorry honey what was that?” Nicole enquired after venting her spleen.

“I said I’m running late. There’s no need to knock yourself out getting there on time.”

“Ok. I’ll see you then.” Nicole hung up and Sarah reflected that no advice urging caution or lack of urgency was liable to ease Nicole’s foot pressure on the accelerator. Nicole considered herself a good driver; a boast sadly contradicted by her sorry past record of minor accidents and speeding tickets. Nicole steered a car along the roads of Switzerland in much the same way as she steered her own way through life; at high speed and with little regard for the consequences.

Finally the train pulled into the station at Nesslau. The little town was the final stop on the line. From here, the only connection to the upper valley was by post bus or, in Sarah’s case, at the mercy of Nicole’s erratic driving. Sarah had barely hefted her luggage out of the train when a piercing whistle startled her fellow passengers on the platform and started an old lady’s little dog barking. Nicole was dashing along the platform towards her; her scandalously short mini-skirt whipping perilously high about her upper thighs. Above her mini-skirt she wore a T-shirt bearing the debatable slogan that bad girls do it better but it was not this that outraged Sarah’s somewhat conservative sensibilities. She stared in horror at the head of her irrepressible young friend. Crowning Nicole’s impish grinning face was a tousled mane of shocking pink.

With a squeal of delight Nicole launched herself into Sarah’s arms in an effusive hug but Sarah refused to be mollified by the warm welcome. She held her friend at arms’ length and regarded her with icy disapproval. “Nicole Richardson! What the bloody hell have you done to your hair?”

Nicole grinned. “What’s up? Don’t you like it?”

“No I do not! You look like a badly coiffed stick of candy floss.”

“Oh don’t start Sarah. You’re as bad as my mother. Come on let’s grab your bags and get out of here. I’m parked on a double line and if I get another parking ticket my dad will go ape shit with me.”

Sarah groaned and shook her head. “I don’t know why we just don’t use all your traffic violations on the lavatory wall. We’d save on wallpaper.”

“Well unless you want to cover the damp patch over the cistern today let’s go.”

Gladly Nicole’s unauthorised parking location had not yet attracted the disapproval of officialdom and Nicole’s battered old Renault 5 stood proudly, ticket free, outside the station as the two girls squeezed Sarah’s luggage into its not particularly capacious interior. Sarah noticed a new scratch in the car’s already somewhat degraded bodywork. “Er shall I drive?” she volunteered hopefully.

“Nah! Can’t have you driving on your first day back. Let me drive and you just sit back and relax.”

Sarah pulled a face. “I can think of a few emotional states that come to mind whilst being a passenger in any car that you’re in charge of Nicky but relaxation is not one of them.”

“You’re an old mother hen Sarah. What’s wrong with my driving?”

“Nothing I suppose if you happen to have a death wish.”

“Oh stop moaning and get in.”

Nesslau was a bit of a bottleneck on the valley’s road system and it took them a few minutes of erratic manoeuvring and some frenzied swearing from Nicole before they finally clawed their way clear of its traffic. But Nesslau was the gateway to the upper valley and Sarah’s pleasure grew with every kilometre of the road that passed beneath their wheels. This was the Upper Toggenburg; the mountain fringed heartland of Sarah’s domain. To the south lay the teeth like chain of the Churfirsten mountains and as they came into view Sarah rolled their familiar names off her tongue; Selun, Frumsel, Brisi, Zuestoll, Schibenstoll, Hinterugg and Chaserugg. To the north the Toggenburg was bounded by the grandiose vastness of the Santis massif with its peaks of Silberplatten, Altman, Schafberg and, dominating them all, the gleaming peak of Mount Santis itself. There was late snow still clinging to the peaks of the mountains and they glistened like ice encrusted jewels in the pure blue sky of early summer as they welcomed their adopted daughter back to the valley that had taken her for its own.

Sarah never lost the thrill she felt upon re-entering this world of hers. It was, to her, a tiny enclave of sanctuary with its few villages of Alt St Johann, Unterwasser, Lisighaus and up to Wildhaus, and the scattered hamlets and farming communities clinging to the valley sides. It was a piece of paradise, this hidden little valley, in the East of Switzerland. Sarah had seen it in every mood and revelled in its every season. She loved it when the valley lay under the thick carpet of winter snow and the spruce trees of the great forests sparkled with their sugar coating of ice. When night fell in December, the fairy lights on the trees around the farmhouses, hotels and chalets reflected in the snow and turned the valley to a Christmas fantasy land.

But it was the summer months she adored the most, when the pastures turned to riotous colour with flowers and the clanging of cowbells provided a fitting harmony to the valley’s rural loveliness. Every old and elaborately decorated wooden farmhouse was adorned with flowers in its window boxes and there was a neatness and comforting assuredness to the human habitations that clung so tenaciously to the few patches of level ground among the alpine grandeur of the surroundings.

In common with many an alpine valley the Toggenburg had been scarred by the demands of tourism but, in the Toggenburg’s case, the scars were fairly superficial. The winter skiing was not particularly obtrusive and the ski-slopes confined largely to the slopes of the Chaserugg and Gamserugg. The summer tourist scene was mostly low key and mainly targeted at the hikers that came to the valley for the many kilometres of hiking trails among the magnificent peaks and the forests that gripped their feet. The modest tourist industry provided a welcome boost to the valley’s economy but there was still a large pastoral community and sheep and dairy cattle roamed high and wide on the alps and meadows in the summer, around the little alpine huts occupied by the herdsmen in their lofty positions high above the valley floor. There was still a sense of old tradition that never faded in the valley’s embracement of the modern age and Sarah loved it for its continuity and the stubborn resistance of its community. It was her home.

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