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Tender, funny, and full of warmth and simple joys, A Country Affair is the perfect introduction to a delightful place and its witty and lovable inhabitants. Watch for the next two novels in Rebecca Shaw’s Barleybridge series coming soon. You will want to return to Barleybridge again and again.
In the circumstances it would have been ridiculous to have arrived wearing a suit. So Kate had plumped for her smart--well, smarter--pair of black trousers, knee-length black cardigan and the pink shirt Mia had given her, which just managed to stay fastened without too much gaping between the buttons. That was one thing Kate envied about Mia--her ability to stay slim. She squeezed herself out of the car and looked around. It was certainly a beautiful setting. The hills rose almost immediately from the edge of the car park and if she shielded her eyes, she could just make out Beulah Bank Top, one of the highest of the surrounding hills. Dotted all over the slopes were sheep grazing in twos and threes. They looked to her to be Dorset Horns, lovely woolly sheep, grazing on land they'd grazed for hundreds of years, making, Kate thought, an idyllic scene. Turning around, she could see the town, which had now crept up the foothills, making the hospital the last bit of civilization before the hills.
Two Land Rovers, their wheels thick with dried mud, were parked in two of the spaces marked staff, along with several other cars, some large and opulent, others small and scruffy. Her hand trembled as she locked the car door and shook as she walked around to the front entrance. This was worse than starting at a new school. At least in school she'd been one of many new girls; here she was the only new girl and very green at that.
Kate remembered the weight of the imposing double doors from her interview and knew that nothing less than a huge heave would open one. Then the inner glass door and she was in. Oh, God! That smell! She breathed it in, savoring the gloriously satisfying odor of disinfectant, of anesthetic, of . . . well, of everything she had ever dreamed of. At five minutes to eight the clients hadn't yet arrived, so she was alone. In front of her was the reception desk, strikingly new, very twenty-first century, white and clinical. To her right stretched the waiting room, well supplied with spanking-new, springy, bendy chrome chairs; a huge cheese plant reaching the ceiling; every windowsill filled with jaunty pots all bursting with plants still with the full flush of the garden center upon them. Four doors went off from the waiting area, each with the words consulting room in bold, bright-blue, up-to-the-minute lettering.
The first sign of life was the sound of two people arguing somewhere at the back behind the reception desk. She could hear the anger but not the words. Female voices, one belligerent, one patient. They must have moved closer to her, for now she could hear: "I know you've taken her on to replace me; I'm not stupid."
"I've told you twenty times she is not replacing you. Kate is here to work on reception as and when, but mainly to do the accounts."
"So . . . what have I been doing these last three months? The accounts!"
"Only because there was no one else and you volunteered. You're small-animal reception, Stephie, as well you know. You hate the accounts anyway, so I don't know what you're grumbling about. You should be relieved."
"Well, I'm not."
"I've too much on this morning to be bothered with your sulks, so you'll have to get on with it; and make jolly sure you hand everything over in a systematic manner and with good grace, or you'll hear further from me."
Kate heard a derisive snort and then: "You might be in charge here, Joy, but there's no need to take that tone with me."
An answer snapped back at her almost before she'd finished speaking. "Oh, I am in charge. There's no doubt about that and don't you forget it. Now get out on the desk and check today's appointments, there's a good girl."
A young woman about her own age came through from the back. She was a dowdy-looking girl with sallow skin; brown, lifeless hair tied back in a ponytail; dark, sulky eyes and a long, hollow-cheeked face. She managed a tight-lipped question: "Yes?"
Kate, determining to be cheerful in adversity, said, "I'm Kate Howard, the new receptionist." She held out her hand to this Stephie, hoping flesh on flesh might make for peace between them.
Grudgingly Stephie shook hands. "I'm Stephie Budge. You'd better report to Joy; she's in the back." The phone rang and Stephie quickly picked it up, answering it brightly with none of her bad temper evident in her voice: "Good morning! Barleybridge Veterinary Hospital. Stephie speaking. How may I help?" As she listened, she kicked out behind her with her foot and pushed open the door, nodding her head in the direction of the back office.
Kate walked around the reception desk and into the blessed warmth and comfort of Joy's office. Warm and comfortable not because Joy had the heating on, for it was still warm, although the start of September, but because of Joy herself. She must have been fifty, which when you're only nineteen seems ancient, but Joy's fifty was different from other people's fifty. Her smooth, unlined face glowed with an inner light, which enveloped you and made you smile despite yourself. She must have looked like this at twenty and would still at eighty. Her blond hair waved and curled about her face; her blue eyes twinkled at you with scarcely concealed mirth. Her office echoed her personality--soft-yellow walls, flowers, brightly colored files lined neatly on a shelf behind her head, on top of the royal-blue filing cabinet a fish tank with fish flashing around it among lush waving plants; even her state-of-the-art computer echoed the blue of her eyes.
Joy took to her new receptionist immediately. She'd liked her at the interview and had decided straightaway to employ her if she'd come. She liked the forthrightness of her eyes and the open expression on her face. Kate was apparently far too intelligent for the job, but if this was what she wanted, then so be it. Joy had liked the modest confidence behind the pleasant manner. She saw now that Kate was almost pretty; no, that wasn't right--more classically good looking perhaps, with a hint of good breeding. Most especially, Joy had loved her happy outlook on life and what was more, Kate reminded her of someone from the past whom she'd liked but couldn't quite put a name to. Joy stood up to greet her.
"Kate! How lovely! You are about to save my life. A nurse and a receptionist have called in ill this morning, and with Open Afternoon on Saturday that's all we need, so you're about to have a baptism of fire. But we'll cope; we always do! So you're on reception today; the accounts will have to wait. Welcome to Barleybridge!"
Kate drew confidence from her firm grasp and felt empowered. "Thank you, I don't mind turning my hand to anything at all . . ."
"Can't find time to sort out a uniform for you at the moment, but you look very efficient and that's the impression we always try to give: efficiency larded with compassion. Twenty minutes to liftoff. I'll give you a quick tour."
Joy came out from behind her desk and shot out of the door at the speed of light. Kate dashed after her, trying desperately to take in the operating rooms, the pharmacy, the cages in the recovery room, the animals' waiting room with its row of steel hooks for hitching dog leashes to, the staff room, Mr. Price's office, the washing machine, the dryer, the shower room, the staff wash rooms--endless space all so new, so ready for action.
"The consulting rooms are down that side with doors into the clients' waiting room and into the back here, of course. Golden rule: no clients beyond the consulting rooms. We've no secrets to hide but nevertheless . . . This is where you'll be doing accounts when you get a chance. The farm-animal vets are devils where keeping records is concerned and these new laptops they take with them are a real challenge for them. Keeps them on their toes, you see, and they're happier doing the job than keeping records; but as I tell them, if they don't make notes about all they do, we can't invoice the farmers and then there'll be no money to pay their salaries, so it's up to them." Joy grinned at her. "Lovely people, though. Here's one of them now." Joy was looking beyond Kate and giving one of her dazzling smiles.
Kate turned around and saw a lean, well-muscled man of at least six feet propped against the door frame. He wore one of those stiff-brimmed hats one imagines all Australian men wear when going walkabout, a pair of sharply creased khaki shorts, a bush shirt and a grin that almost split his face.
"G'day! You must be this new Kate they're all talking about. I'm Errol Spencer."
"How do you do."
Joy interrupted with: "He's Errol really, but we all call him Scott."
"Have you got Scottish parents, then?"
He burst out laughing. "Guess not. They're always getting Aussies passing through this practice, and the first one was called Scott and it's stuck. Saves a lot of trouble remembering names."
"How do you do, Scott, then." He was still holding her hand and she couldn't release it without making it obvious.
Joy raised an eyebrow. "Put her down, Scott; give her a chance to get in through the door." Kate blushed and Scott winked as Joy said, "Your morning visits await you at reception. Get cracking; you've a lot to get through."
"Slave driver, she is, beneath that charming exterior. Watch out for her; she keeps a whip in her top drawer and isn't afraid to use it." He bunched his fingers, kissed them and departed.
Kate was laughing; she really couldn't help herself. He was such fun; if all the vets were like him, she was in for a good time. Until now she'd thought of the veterinary world as a serious business, where saving lives and relieving pain were paramount; but apparently you could have an uproarious time, too, and that was just what she needed.
Joy looked up at her. "Take him with a pinch of salt, my dear; he's broken more hearts than I can count and he's only been here three months. Farmers' wives, farmers' daughters, farmers' mothers even, you name 'em; there're girls carrying torches all over the county for that young man. Still, he does add spice to life, doesn't he?"
When Kate got back to reception, she couldn't believe the change that had taken place in the ten minutes she'd been on her conducted tour. Stephie was at the desk, apparently answering three phones at once, as well as tapping furiously on the computer. The waiting room was filling up and that early morning clinical aroma was being submerged by animal smells. Animals of all shapes and sizes had arrived--big ones, little ones, furry ones, feathered ones, brown and black, white and gray, some cowering, some bold and barking, some cats peering suspiciously from their carrying cages, other cats spitting at the dog taking too much interest in them and a massive Rottweiler sitting propped against his owner's legs, aloof and slavering.
As soon as Joy saw him she said quietly to Kate, "I'd forgotten it was the first Monday of the month. Go and get the old fire bucket from the laundry room, fill it full of cold water and bring it here."
It seemed the oddest thing to be doing, but she filled it, carried it through--surprised at how heavy an old iron bucket filled to the brim with water proved to be--and asked Stephie where she should put it. Stephie pointed to the floor under the desk. "Down there. Thanks. Can you answer that? It's the farm vets' phone."
"Good morning. Barleybridge Veterinary Hospital. How may I help?"
The lilting Welsh voice, with its strong musical undertones, threw Kate for a moment, but when she had adjusted her mind to the accent, she realized the woman wanted to speak to Rhodri Hughes. "Hold the line a moment, please." Placing her hand over the mouthpiece, she asked Stephie what she should do. "Tell her he's out on a call, take her number and we'll get him to ring her back."
During a brief lull Stephie brought Kate up to speed on the telephone system. "It's all so clever now you wouldn't believe it. Talk about state of the art. All the farm vets have mobiles in their cars, so if they're out on a call and a request for a visit comes in, we ring the vet nearest to the farm wanting the visit and it saves them miles of driving. There're usually at least three vets out on call. Small-animal vets hardly go out on visits at all; most of the animals can come in, you see. This map on the wall here behind us, see, it's got a flag pinned on for every farm client we have, so you look on there, check today's lists and you know where they all are. Let's have a look at that number for Rhodri; see if I can recognize it." She studied Kate's writing for a moment, then said in a fierce whisper, "Welsh, was she?"
Kate nodded. "Very definitely."
"Look, I know her. That's Megan Jones. She fancies him something rotten, keeps ringing him up. He's not interested and he's desperate to avoid her. Next time say day off, or on holiday, or at a conference, or off ill or something--anything to put her off. If he speaks to her by mistake, he'll blow his top and that's not a pretty sight."
"How long has this been going on?"
"Weeks and weeks, every single day. She must be mad."
"Is he a good catch, then?"
Stephie looked skeptically at her. "If you fancy a short, thickset Welshman with a penchant for singing tenor in a male choir and a liking for ferrets and total independence for the principality of Wales, then yes. I don't really understand what she sees in him; he's not my type at all."
"What is your type, then?"
The phone rang again so Kate never got her answer. Then she spoke to an old lady who was so small she could only just see over the top of the reception desk about her nine o'clock appointment and whether that nice Mr. Murgatroyd was running late or had she time to go to the toilet, or should she delay going until after her appointment because she didn't want to be in the toilet when her name was called because her cat was so very ill she really mustn't delay her appointment and was she new she hadn't seen her before and what was her name she was such a pretty girl.
Posted December 9, 2008
Reticent Kate Howard arrives in the rural Yorkshire hills to work as a receptionist at the Barleybridge Veterinary Hospital that has a vast menagerie of clients ranging from pets to farm animals. The workforce and most of the customers are friendly to the newcomer. Especially nice and encouraging is another outsider Australian veterinarian Scott Spencer, who pushes her to become a vet too though her one attempt at the test was disastrous.------------ Kate is attracted to her handsome mentor, but is wise enough to know she is out of his league. While Scott encourages her to try again, Kate¿s boyfriend Adam ridicules her dreams and aspirations saying she proven she can¿t make it. Kate has decisions personal and professional to make turning to her kindhearted boss Joy, who can commiserate as she too furtively love one of the vets.---------- A COUNTRY AFFAIR, the first of the Barleybridge trilogy (COUNTRY WIVES AND COUNTRY LOVERS are to be released in America later), is a terrific amusing inspirational character study. Kate and Joy are the stars as they make decisions on what they want out of life. The support cast is solid and somewhat eccentric whether they are pet owners, other vet employees or the lead duo¿s family. Fans will appreciate this upbeat insightful look at two women making the best of a good life in a small English village.---------- Harriet Klausner
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Posted June 14, 2012
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I’m an addict when it comes to the heartwarming sort of small town story, the kind that involves a large cast of characters living unremarkable lives but you can’t help wanting to know what’s going to happen next. You know the kind of books I mean, Jan Karon’s Mitford, Ann B. Ross’s Miss Julia, Thomas Kinkade’s Cape Light, Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilts. The geographical setting doesn’t matter too much, although I prefer North America or the UK and, if animals are involved, I like it even more. James Herriot is one of my favorite writers and I never tire of his Yorkshire Dales veterinarian stories so, when I came across this book, I settled down for what I was sure would be a comfortable read. It didn’t quite make it but it came close.
Kate Howard has just taken a job as a receptionist in a large veterinary practice in Barleybridge, a picture-postcard English village where life is generally charming. Most of the novel revolves around the doings of the people, not so much about the animals, and I missed that. I didn’t like all the characters but that’s okay as it would be a bit too sappy if everybody was likable. Still, one of the vets commits a fairly cowardly act and Kate herself is a tad too naive. I reminded myself, though, that she’s just nineteen so she’s allowed to be a bit immature.
I didn’t dislike this book but I didn’t wholeheartedly like it either. Rebecca Shaw is a bestselling author in England so I’ll be reading the next in the trilogy to see if Kate and everybody else in the village will grow on me.
Recommended with reservations.