Toggenburg - Book 4 by Michaela Francis

EXTRACT FOR
Toggenburg - Book 4 
(Michaela Francis)


Chapter One

Sarah was excited, although, if she was honest with herself, few people would have shared her excitement at that moment or even fully comprehended her reasons for being so. Of course, anybody not dead to the pleasures of natural beauty and perfect weather, would have empathised with her delight on this day, for the autumn sun shone in glory over the flat plane of the Rhine Delta, along the banks of Lake Constance, the surrounding peaks of Austria’s Voralpberg to the east and the flanks of the Swiss mountains to the west. It was the first day of October and one of those days on which to savour the gift of life, with the leaves of the trees turning to gold, the Autumn Crocuses blooming in pale lilac amidst the marshy meadows and the sparkling crests of newly fallen snow whitening the tips of the peaks to the south. There was barely a breath of wind to stir the huge reed beds that lined the lake shores and Sarah had discarded her jacket long before as the warmer months granted this last benediction of autumnal benevolence before the onset of winter. Yet these factors were not the reason for Sarah’s sudden excitement. She was, it is true, happy and the lovely day in the huge nature reserve of the Rhine Delta was just one more day of joy in a life that, over the past months, had become one of such fulfilment and content. Sarah was in love.
Yet even her new found love, so precariously won over the troubles of the past summer, did not explain her excitement. That particular source of excitement was flitting among some stubble and short grass a couple of hundred metres away from the little restaurant and camping site set deep within the Rhine Delta. It was a bird and, if truth be told, not a particularly spectacular one from the aesthetic point of view. The uninformed observer would have remarked that it was rather a drab small bird, lacking much in the way of flamboyant colouring. Sarah had once read that American birdwatchers had a term to describe such, not particularly eye-catching, small birds. They called them LBJs, which was not a reference to a past American president but an acronym for “Little Brown Jobs”. The bird that was so exciting Sarah was the consummate LBJ but it was a Little Brown Job that she had never seen before.
Of course if you wanted to see birds then the Rhine Delta was definitely a place to visit. It was a great flat plain of arable land and marshy meadows intersected by numerous small drains, ponds and lagoons between the older winding course of the river Rhine that formed the border between Switzerland and Austria and the newer canalised river bed to the east in Austria where the two joined Lake Constance, at the south eastern tip of that vast body of fresh water. It had an enormous diversity of habitats within it; great reed beds along the lake sides, big open lagoons that filled with water fowl in the winter months, patches of woodland and alder carrs, sand and gravel banks, slow moving river backwaters, fast gravelly river courses, marshes, open fields and meadows, enticing little pools and drains, orchards and gardens, old gravel works and pumping stations and the boundless expanse of the open lake beyond.
Lake Constance itself is no ordinary lake for it is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Western Europe and second only to Lake Geneva in the impressive array of large lakes that lay, at least partially, within Switzerland. From here, on the eastern banks, you could not see the western end of the lake for it was over the horizon some sixty three kilometres away. The lake covers some five hundred and seventy square kilometres; a huge basin carved from the lowlands, abutting the Alps, by the Rhine glacier in the ice ages. This enormous expanse of water is a magnetic attraction for water birds in the winter months and hundreds of thousands of ducks winter on the lake.
Sarah today had already seen evidence of the winter influx today; great flocks of Tufted Ducks and Pochards, the lovely Goldeneyes, flocks of Goosanders, Mallards, Shovellers, Teal, Gadwall and Red Crested Pochards. There’d been a small group of Black Necked Grebes in the little harbour at Altenrhein competing with the Little Grebes and a much rarer Red Necked Grebe on the Old Rhine at Rheineck. She’d seen big rafts of Great Crested Grebes out on the lake and a flock of coots she’d conservatively estimated at five thousand plus. The traditional flock of Wigeon were back in their favourite place at the pumping station and she’d counted forty plus Whooper Swans in a flock out in the fields, loving their evocative honking notes. In a little side lagoon near the New Rhine she’d been thrilled by the sight of a perfect little drake Smew; in her opinion, one of the prettiest of all ducks; handsome in its white and black plumage.
There’d been wading birds too. Flocks of Curlews seemed to be everywhere. Over a thousand of them spent the winter each year in the Rhine Delta. Then there’d been a small flock of Dunlin by the Old Rhine, a couple of Sanderling, a party of Ruff, one or two Redshanks, some Common Sandpipers on the new river and the odd Ringed Plover. She’d flushed two or three Snipe from under her feet and, best of all, there’d been a Little Stint on the sandbanks near the Seerestaurant Glashaus.
There were birds of prey to be seen as well. The Delta was filling up with Buzzards; many of them large pale birds from Scandinavia arriving to winter in the milder climes of the south. There were Kestrels and a couple of late Red Kites drifting lazily away southwards. As winter approached the big Goshawks left their fastnesses in the mountain forests to hunt the influx of waterfowl along the lake edges and Sarah had spotted one making a foray from a belt of woodland. A Peregrine Falcon had been perched on a telegraph pole; another bird that took advantage of the increased prey among the water birds in the winter months. She’d seen the first Hen Harrier of the winter quartering the marshes and reed beds and a little falcon she’d spied at some distance might just have been a Merlin. Sarah loved them all.
It was the smaller birds which really held her interest today though. The Rhine Delta was an important focal point for migrating passerine birds in the autumn; a sort of last stop refuelling point for birds following the easily navigable route of the Rhine southwards over the high alpine passes. On a good day, tens of thousands of birds grounded in their migration in the Rhine Delta. This was a good day! The sheer number of larks, pipits, Wheatears, wagtails, warblers, starlings, shrikes and others were just overwhelming and they were complimented by the already impressive number of resident species within the Delta. Sarah had had thrills in plenty. She’d never recorded so many Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears in a single day before here and there’d been thousands of Pipits. She’d seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the Alder carrs and a small flock of Penduline tits in the reed beds. She’d noted at least six Red Backed Shrikes in her diary, an early Great Grey Shrike had been hunting from a low tree and the reed beds and the low bushes along the river banks had been full of warblers including one she was almost sure was an immature Barred Warbler. The Delta was full of birds.
And there were not only birds either. There were Roe deer out in the fields, late butterflies on the wing, dragonflies for which the Delta was noted and the autumn crocuses growing in the damp meadows. Sarah was fascinated by all of them. She was an unrepentant nature lover. Everything that grew, flew, crawled, swam, walked or otherwise lived in the world about her was grist to her mill. Sarah adored the natural world about her; revelled in it, studied it avidly and never tired of its rich diversity. She was just twenty two years old but she had devoted years of her short life to the study of the natural world. Even at such a young age she was recognised as a local authority on the flora and fauna of her beloved Toggenburg; the beautiful valley nestling in the mountains of Eastern Switzerland which was her home. Even as a small child she had been the same; driving her long suffering mother to distraction by wandering off into the countryside to bring home every little bug or other creature she could catch. Her mother had despaired of her ever displaying interests more suitable to a little girl; had tried in vain to cajole her into wearing nice clothes and not regard her pretty summer dresses as suitable receptacles for carrying live toads in. It had been a losing battle. Sarah had never lost her sense of wonder for the natural world; had stubbornly refused to change and even three years studying history at the university in Bern had not dimmed her joy in the natural world.
Sarah had known and loved the Rhine Delta since she’d been a young child when her father and elder brother had brought her here for the bird watching and she’d been a regular visitor ever since. It was not far from the Toggenburg valley and she’d made a point of getting down to the Delta several times a year to record the movement and frequency of the creatures within it. She especially made it a regular place to visit during those months when snow on the mountains precluded her from her dearest passion of hiking up into the high places and over the years she had accumulated volumes of diaries recording her observations. Nowhere, however, within those volumes or among all her familiar favourites, was the little bird, she was now excitedly observing, to be found.
She had been returning to the restaurant with a mind to have a last drink before departing for home when she sighted it. She’d been at the Delta for most of the day. There was some sadness in that. It had not been merely enthusiasm that had driven her out of the house and the valley today. The person with whom she was in love with was away and had been for several days. It was the longest separation they had been forced to endure ever since Sarah had broken off her engagement to her boyfriend at her parents’ house in southern Switzerland in midsummer and fled home under a cloud of parental disapproval to her Danny, her lover’s, arms. Since then they had been inseparable and they’d pined for each other even if compelled to spend a few hours apart. But Danny had obligations that both of them knew would separate them on occasion, eventually. Sarah had been resigned to that fact from the beginning and had accepted that it was liable to be a not uncommon drawback in the new life they were forging together. Nevertheless, it had been hard for the first time. After a few days the house had just seemed so unbearably empty and lonely that Sarah had decided to try and raise her spirits with this excursion to the Delta.
She was being well rewarded for that decision now. On her way back to the restaurant the little bird stepping jauntily through the grass had caught her eye. She’d turned her binoculars on it and her excitement had grown. Finally she’d erected her telescope and subjected the bird to the most thorough examination she could devise, jotting notes feverishly in her diary as she did so. She noted its pale lores, its prominent malar stripe, its overall size and structure, the pattern of spotting on its breast and upper parts, the heavy almost thrush like bill, the pink legs and white edges to the tail. In the strong sunshine the bird showed up admirably in the telescope and, at last, she was satisfied. She pushed a strand of her long chestnut hair from her face and grinned in pleasure. “And that,” she said aloud to herself, “Is a Richard’s Pipit!” It was no common sighting. Richard’s Pipit’s were very rare autumn vagrants to this part of the world. It was the first that Sarah had ever seen. She could go home tonight and mark a little cross next to its name in her field guide.
Sarah’s satisfied vocalisation must have startled the bird for it flew away with a curiously wagtail like undulating flight and a loud, harsh rasping call. Sarah didn’t mind however. She had seen all she needed to and it was time to be making her way back in any case. She had time for a quiet drink and then she’d have to be getting back to the Toggenburg. She needed to be home in good time this evening for Nicole, her best friend, was coming up to the house for dinner and to keep her company. It promised to be an interesting evening. She had electrifying news for Nicole.
In deep satisfaction, she brushed a little spot of dirt from her telescope and stroked it fondly. It was a new acquisition this telescope. Previously she’d made do with a rather battered old Japanese scope that was showing the years of wear after being lugged around the mountainsides. This instrument was spanking new however. It was a Swarowski HD STM 80 that had cost some three thousand Euros when they had bought it during a magical sojourn on the North Sea island of Helgoland in the summer that Sarah had spent with Danny. It had been a blissful two weeks and the telescope brought the memories flooding back in fondness. It was just one of the many ways her life had become enriched since her fateful decision to throw caution aside and declare her love unconditionally to Danny, to her parents’ unmitigated horror.
It had been the right decision. She could not now imagine how she ever could have thought otherwise or hesitated so long and agonisingly about it. In the last months she had found a joyous happiness she had never thought possible before and not even the unresolved alienation from her father and mother could take that happiness from her although it nevertheless still hurt her that they were so resolutely opposed to her new life and refused to speak to her.
Sarah shouldered her telescope on its tripod and retraced her steps to the little restaurant. It was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres and she was thankful of that for she was quite tired now after walking around the Delta for most of the day and she was thirsty too. It was a Saturday and the restaurant was full with day trippers and people from the camp site next door. The restaurant was popular with trippers to the Rhine Delta nature reserve for it had a pleasant aspect by a large bay of the lake with a little sandy beach in front of it. The bay was shallow and held extensive sandbanks when the lake level was low, which were good places to find roosting wildfowl and waders.
Sarah found a table free outside on the veranda overlooking the lake and set her telescope down. She hesitated for a moment before leaving it to go inside and order a drink. It was a very valuable piece of optical equipment and, with its fond memories for her, she was frightened of having it stolen. Actually it was the sentimental value that was the most concern to her for she had gone to the trouble of insuring it. She hadn’t dared tell Danny that she’d insured the telescope. Danny would have laughed uproariously at that. Danny was so rich that the loss of a three thousand Euro telescope would have been an insignificant pinprick but all Danny’s wealth had failed to ameliorate Sarah’s inbred caution and frugality. She considered it criminal to possess such a valuable instrument and not have the basic sense to insure its value. She’d covertly insured it therefore and omitted to mention the fact. Even now she was reluctant to let it out of her sight without taking the precaution of asking a young couple at a nearby table to keep an eye on it for her while she walked inside to order her drink.
Inside the restaurant, Sarah rummaged through the pockets of her jeans looking for money. This was a complicated business because she was carrying two types of currency on her. Naturally she had plenty of Swiss francs on her but this part of the Rhine Delta was over the border in Austria and the currency here was in Euros. She could still have paid with Swiss francs since they were close enough to the border for the two currencies to be interchangeable but that necessitated tedious consultations of the current exchange rate and the likely possibility of coming out of the exchange unfavourably. She still had Euros left over from the holiday in Helgoland however. She’d not converted them back to Swiss francs since she’d known it was likely that she’d be crossing the border at some future date and that they’d come in handy. The Toggenburg was, after all, only a few kilometres from Austria and not that far from Germany either.
She ordered a half litre of Radler, which was the German name for a shandy although, when they’d been on holiday in Northern Germany, she had discovered it was called an Alsterwasser there, presumably named after the lake, the Alster, in Hamburg. She remembered to speak high German to the serving girl. It wasn’t the dialect in this part of Austria but at least it was more comprehensible to the locals than Swiss German. Sarah spoke perfectly good high German as well as Swiss German, French, some Italian and her native English which was her mother’s tongue. Sarah had been born in England and raised in an English speaking family although she had lived most of her life in Switzerland. Nicole was English too and Danny was part English, part American and part Swiss. Sarah was easy in a multi-lingual culture.
Back at her table, with a foaming tankard of shandy in front of her, Sarah took out her mobile phone and keyed Nicole’s number. Her ebullient former house mate had recognised her number on her mobile instantly for she boomed out. “Hi Foxy.” Foxy was Nicole’s pet name for Sarah, derived from the fact that her family name was Fuchs, the German for Fox.
“Hi Nicky. Finished work then?”
“Yeah I only had lunch to do and I’m free tonight and tomorrow. I can’t think of the last time I got nearly a whole weekend off.” It was normal, thought Sarah. Nicole was a waitress in a hotel restaurant in the Toggenburg and weekends were usually the busiest days of the week. The summer season was coming to a close now though and most establishments were cutting back on staff. Sarah grimaced at the thought. It was likely that Nicole would be facing a few weeks of unemployment shortly.
“Well that’s good. Are you still coming up this evening?”
“Hell yes. Danny still away then?”
“Yes until Monday.”
“Where have you been all day then? I tried calling your house but your housekeeper answered and said you’d buggered off for the day. I tried you on your mobile but that was futile too. I wish I could break your bloody anti-social habit of switching your phone off for protracted periods while you go swanning off on your jack.”
“I went down to the Rhine Delta to do a bit of bird watching. I’m still there.”
“Oh I see. Presumably you thought that the chiming of your phone was going to scare the little dicky birds away.”
“Actually Nicky I didn’t realise my phone was switched off until now. I hope Danny hasn’t been trying to call me.”
“Your arse will be toast if so. So how was it?”
“How was what?”
“Your bloody bird watching you muppet.”
“Oh brilliant. I’ve seen loads of birds and I saw a Richard’s Pipit.”
“Was this Richard put out by you ogling his pipit, Sarah, or was he flattered by the attention?”
“It’s a sort of bird you one-tracked moron. It’s a really rare bird.”
“God! What does Danny see in a geek like you?”
“Never you mind. Listen.... what do you want for dinner tonight?”
“How about your Spaghetti Bolognaise?”
“Oh for God’s sake Nicky. Don’t you ever eat anything else?”
“Not when you’re making it I don’t. Come on Foxy I haven’t tasted your Spaghetti Bolognaise since you moved out of the house and in with Danny. I miss it.”
“All right then, Sodding spaghetti it is.”
“You’re a sweetheart. Shall I bring a few DVDs along?”
“Good God no. We’ve got bloody hundreds of DVDs at home and perfectly good Wi-Fi. I’m sure we won’t go short of something to watch on the telly.”
“Ok. When are you going to get back?”
“I’m just having a quick drink and then I’m setting off home. I’ll have to call in at the shops in Buchs on my way home though. I don’t think we’ve got mince in the house. I’ll pick up a couple of bottles of plonk while I’m at it.”
“Whoa Sarah. Steady on honey. Don’t be getting me too plastered. I was going to drive up to your place. I’m buggered if I’m going to walk all the way over to Oberdorf.”
“What’s the problem? If you’re not working tomorrow you can stay the night.”
Nicole hesitated. “Er are you sure Danny won’t mind.”
“Of course not. Don’t be daft. We can have a girly night in like we used to.”
“Sounds great. I’m looking forward to it. I hardly ever see you these days.”
“Don’t exaggerate Nicky. We spent all of Wednesday together.”
“It’s not the same as it used to be though Sarah. I used to see you every day when we shared the house together. Now you live miles away.”
“Good God Nicky. We’re not that far apart. I only live on the other side of the valley not the other side of the world. There’s nothing to stop you popping up whenever you want, apart from laziness.”
“Well I’m always a bit worried about disturbing your privacy now you’re living with Danny.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Nicky. You’re always welcome. I’ve told you that a hundred times. I’d love you to come around more often; we both would. Anyway Danny’s been away all week and I could have done with the company.”
“I’ve been working Sarah.”
“You weren’t working yesterday and I was at home all day.”
Nicole paused guiltily. “I told you I had... things to do yesterday.”
Sarah grinned evilly to herself. “Oh yes? Did you er manage to get through to Winterthur after all then?”
“Yes I did go through... just to do some business and what have you.” Nicole’s air of studied nonchalance was entirely unconvincing.
Sarah rolled her tongue in her cheek and grinned again. “Oh good. Did you... er happen to bump into Charlie when you were through then?”
Sarah could almost hear Nicole swallowing hastily on the other end of the line. “Oh er... yes just briefly. We had a quick drink together.”
“Oh that must have been nice.” Sarah struggled to keep the mirth out of her voice. Nicole had first met Charlie at Sarah’s graduation party in Bern back in august and she’d been a little reticent about the relationship ever since, insisting that Charlie was just a friend. The developing situation had been the source of much amused speculation between Sarah and Danny ever since.
“Anyway must go now Sarah.” Nicole announced, obviously not wishing any further elaboration on this subject. “I’ll see you tonight. About sevenish ok?”
“Yes fine. I’ll be back long before then. Until tonight then.”
As Sarah put her phone away, she became aware of the young man. He was a tall handsome boy sat a couple of tables away, perhaps in his early twenties with short dark hair and a look of quiet confidence about him. He was also staring at Sarah with frankly open admiration. Few people could have begrudged him that admiration for Sarah was a warm beauty that would have stopped most warm blooded men in their steps. Even dressed in her old jeans and checked shirt she was well worth looking at with her long chestnut hair, her lovely face with the soulful brown eyes and her admirably slim yet well-muscled and proportionate figure.
Sarah had never been a vain girl. Indeed she had always thought herself rather plain and ordinary and it had come as somewhat of a shock to realise that people regarded her as truly beautiful. In fact not until she had met Danny had she come to be aware of her own radiance; as if she had seen herself for the first time through somebody else’s eyes. In the last couple of months she had become acutely conscious of the way other people saw her and it never ceased to surprise her. Before she had met Danny she had almost been notorious for her ability to sit around in public places blissfully ignorant of the admiration she attracted. It had taken Danny’s uninhibited delight in her beauty to awaken her consciousness of her appearance.
The young man smiled at her and, out of politeness she smiled back. It was a mistake she saw. She was pretty sure that she’d seen him earlier on the camp site as she walked past so presumably he was camping here. Perhaps he thought that she was camping too. Whatever his thoughts, he evidently took her courteousness as an invitation to try his luck for he displayed every sign of intention to come over and talk to her. Sarah averted her eyes quickly. “Oh God!” she thought to herself. “I hope he isn’t going to try and hit on me.”
That appeared to be precisely his purpose for he rose to his feet and walked across with a slight swagger, bordering on arrogance. Sarah sighed and took a deep breath. This sort of thing was happening more and more recently. She wondered if there was some sort of twisted reverse psychology in that. Surely she had never had so many men try to pick her up since she had known Danny. What had happened to her in these past months that had made her doubly attractive to men? Fortunately she had a devastating riposte to any clumsy pick up line.
“Hello there.”
Sarah raised her head. “Hello.” She responded warmly. There was no need for incivility even when you were about to dash somebody’s hopes.
“I was just wondering. Are you staying on the camp site as well?”
“Oh no. I’m just down here for the day. It’s a bit late in the season to be sleeping under canvas for me I’m afraid.”
The young man grinned. “Oh yes it does get a bit cold in the night when you’re alone in a tent.” He certainly fancied his chances here Sarah thought. The poor sap couldn’t have called this one more wrong if he’d tried.
“Really?” replied Sarah. “Perhaps you ought to have brought extra blankets or a hot water bottle. Have you tried thermal underwear?”
“I can think of more pleasant ways of keeping warm by night. Can’t you?”
“Yes I stay at home where I’ve got central heating.”
“That’s not very romantic.”
“I’m a very practical sort of person.”
“Really? Well how about you let me buy you another drink and we get to know each other a little more.”
“I’m afraid you’d be wasting your time. I’m afraid I don’t accept drinks from strange gentlemen.”
“Why ever not?”
Sarah raised her face and looked him straight in the eye. “Because I’m gay. I’m afraid young men don’t interest me.”
The young man staggered as if he’d stepped on a rake. “You’re joking!”
“Not at all, I’m quite serious.”
“You can’t be gay.”
“I don’t see why not. A sizeable percentage of the population manages to be.”
“You’re too beautiful.”
“Well thank you for the compliment but I’m sure attractive looks don’t preclude a person from being gay.”
“But it’s a god-damned waste.”
“Really? I’m inclined to think that my girlfriend would disagree with you.” Sarah finished the last of her shandy and rose easily to her feet. “I’m sorry if you’ve wasted your time. I’m sure there must be some nice straight girls on that camp site somewhere. Now if you’ll excuse me I must be going.”

Toggenburg - Book 4 by Michaela Francis

EXTRACT FOR
Toggenburg - Book 4 
(Michaela Francis)


Chapter One

Sarah was excited, although, if she was honest with herself, few people would have shared her excitement at that moment or even fully comprehended her reasons for being so. Of course, anybody not dead to the pleasures of natural beauty and perfect weather, would have empathised with her delight on this day, for the autumn sun shone in glory over the flat plane of the Rhine Delta, along the banks of Lake Constance, the surrounding peaks of Austria’s Voralpberg to the east and the flanks of the Swiss mountains to the west. It was the first day of October and one of those days on which to savour the gift of life, with the leaves of the trees turning to gold, the Autumn Crocuses blooming in pale lilac amidst the marshy meadows and the sparkling crests of newly fallen snow whitening the tips of the peaks to the south. There was barely a breath of wind to stir the huge reed beds that lined the lake shores and Sarah had discarded her jacket long before as the warmer months granted this last benediction of autumnal benevolence before the onset of winter. Yet these factors were not the reason for Sarah’s sudden excitement. She was, it is true, happy and the lovely day in the huge nature reserve of the Rhine Delta was just one more day of joy in a life that, over the past months, had become one of such fulfilment and content. Sarah was in love.
Yet even her new found love, so precariously won over the troubles of the past summer, did not explain her excitement. That particular source of excitement was flitting among some stubble and short grass a couple of hundred metres away from the little restaurant and camping site set deep within the Rhine Delta. It was a bird and, if truth be told, not a particularly spectacular one from the aesthetic point of view. The uninformed observer would have remarked that it was rather a drab small bird, lacking much in the way of flamboyant colouring. Sarah had once read that American birdwatchers had a term to describe such, not particularly eye-catching, small birds. They called them LBJs, which was not a reference to a past American president but an acronym for “Little Brown Jobs”. The bird that was so exciting Sarah was the consummate LBJ but it was a Little Brown Job that she had never seen before.
Of course if you wanted to see birds then the Rhine Delta was definitely a place to visit. It was a great flat plain of arable land and marshy meadows intersected by numerous small drains, ponds and lagoons between the older winding course of the river Rhine that formed the border between Switzerland and Austria and the newer canalised river bed to the east in Austria where the two joined Lake Constance, at the south eastern tip of that vast body of fresh water. It had an enormous diversity of habitats within it; great reed beds along the lake sides, big open lagoons that filled with water fowl in the winter months, patches of woodland and alder carrs, sand and gravel banks, slow moving river backwaters, fast gravelly river courses, marshes, open fields and meadows, enticing little pools and drains, orchards and gardens, old gravel works and pumping stations and the boundless expanse of the open lake beyond.
Lake Constance itself is no ordinary lake for it is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Western Europe and second only to Lake Geneva in the impressive array of large lakes that lay, at least partially, within Switzerland. From here, on the eastern banks, you could not see the western end of the lake for it was over the horizon some sixty three kilometres away. The lake covers some five hundred and seventy square kilometres; a huge basin carved from the lowlands, abutting the Alps, by the Rhine glacier in the ice ages. This enormous expanse of water is a magnetic attraction for water birds in the winter months and hundreds of thousands of ducks winter on the lake.
Sarah today had already seen evidence of the winter influx today; great flocks of Tufted Ducks and Pochards, the lovely Goldeneyes, flocks of Goosanders, Mallards, Shovellers, Teal, Gadwall and Red Crested Pochards. There’d been a small group of Black Necked Grebes in the little harbour at Altenrhein competing with the Little Grebes and a much rarer Red Necked Grebe on the Old Rhine at Rheineck. She’d seen big rafts of Great Crested Grebes out on the lake and a flock of coots she’d conservatively estimated at five thousand plus. The traditional flock of Wigeon were back in their favourite place at the pumping station and she’d counted forty plus Whooper Swans in a flock out in the fields, loving their evocative honking notes. In a little side lagoon near the New Rhine she’d been thrilled by the sight of a perfect little drake Smew; in her opinion, one of the prettiest of all ducks; handsome in its white and black plumage.
There’d been wading birds too. Flocks of Curlews seemed to be everywhere. Over a thousand of them spent the winter each year in the Rhine Delta. Then there’d been a small flock of Dunlin by the Old Rhine, a couple of Sanderling, a party of Ruff, one or two Redshanks, some Common Sandpipers on the new river and the odd Ringed Plover. She’d flushed two or three Snipe from under her feet and, best of all, there’d been a Little Stint on the sandbanks near the Seerestaurant Glashaus.
There were birds of prey to be seen as well. The Delta was filling up with Buzzards; many of them large pale birds from Scandinavia arriving to winter in the milder climes of the south. There were Kestrels and a couple of late Red Kites drifting lazily away southwards. As winter approached the big Goshawks left their fastnesses in the mountain forests to hunt the influx of waterfowl along the lake edges and Sarah had spotted one making a foray from a belt of woodland. A Peregrine Falcon had been perched on a telegraph pole; another bird that took advantage of the increased prey among the water birds in the winter months. She’d seen the first Hen Harrier of the winter quartering the marshes and reed beds and a little falcon she’d spied at some distance might just have been a Merlin. Sarah loved them all.
It was the smaller birds which really held her interest today though. The Rhine Delta was an important focal point for migrating passerine birds in the autumn; a sort of last stop refuelling point for birds following the easily navigable route of the Rhine southwards over the high alpine passes. On a good day, tens of thousands of birds grounded in their migration in the Rhine Delta. This was a good day! The sheer number of larks, pipits, Wheatears, wagtails, warblers, starlings, shrikes and others were just overwhelming and they were complimented by the already impressive number of resident species within the Delta. Sarah had had thrills in plenty. She’d never recorded so many Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears in a single day before here and there’d been thousands of Pipits. She’d seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the Alder carrs and a small flock of Penduline tits in the reed beds. She’d noted at least six Red Backed Shrikes in her diary, an early Great Grey Shrike had been hunting from a low tree and the reed beds and the low bushes along the river banks had been full of warblers including one she was almost sure was an immature Barred Warbler. The Delta was full of birds.
And there were not only birds either. There were Roe deer out in the fields, late butterflies on the wing, dragonflies for which the Delta was noted and the autumn crocuses growing in the damp meadows. Sarah was fascinated by all of them. She was an unrepentant nature lover. Everything that grew, flew, crawled, swam, walked or otherwise lived in the world about her was grist to her mill. Sarah adored the natural world about her; revelled in it, studied it avidly and never tired of its rich diversity. She was just twenty two years old but she had devoted years of her short life to the study of the natural world. Even at such a young age she was recognised as a local authority on the flora and fauna of her beloved Toggenburg; the beautiful valley nestling in the mountains of Eastern Switzerland which was her home. Even as a small child she had been the same; driving her long suffering mother to distraction by wandering off into the countryside to bring home every little bug or other creature she could catch. Her mother had despaired of her ever displaying interests more suitable to a little girl; had tried in vain to cajole her into wearing nice clothes and not regard her pretty summer dresses as suitable receptacles for carrying live toads in. It had been a losing battle. Sarah had never lost her sense of wonder for the natural world; had stubbornly refused to change and even three years studying history at the university in Bern had not dimmed her joy in the natural world.
Sarah had known and loved the Rhine Delta since she’d been a young child when her father and elder brother had brought her here for the bird watching and she’d been a regular visitor ever since. It was not far from the Toggenburg valley and she’d made a point of getting down to the Delta several times a year to record the movement and frequency of the creatures within it. She especially made it a regular place to visit during those months when snow on the mountains precluded her from her dearest passion of hiking up into the high places and over the years she had accumulated volumes of diaries recording her observations. Nowhere, however, within those volumes or among all her familiar favourites, was the little bird, she was now excitedly observing, to be found.
She had been returning to the restaurant with a mind to have a last drink before departing for home when she sighted it. She’d been at the Delta for most of the day. There was some sadness in that. It had not been merely enthusiasm that had driven her out of the house and the valley today. The person with whom she was in love with was away and had been for several days. It was the longest separation they had been forced to endure ever since Sarah had broken off her engagement to her boyfriend at her parents’ house in southern Switzerland in midsummer and fled home under a cloud of parental disapproval to her Danny, her lover’s, arms. Since then they had been inseparable and they’d pined for each other even if compelled to spend a few hours apart. But Danny had obligations that both of them knew would separate them on occasion, eventually. Sarah had been resigned to that fact from the beginning and had accepted that it was liable to be a not uncommon drawback in the new life they were forging together. Nevertheless, it had been hard for the first time. After a few days the house had just seemed so unbearably empty and lonely that Sarah had decided to try and raise her spirits with this excursion to the Delta.
She was being well rewarded for that decision now. On her way back to the restaurant the little bird stepping jauntily through the grass had caught her eye. She’d turned her binoculars on it and her excitement had grown. Finally she’d erected her telescope and subjected the bird to the most thorough examination she could devise, jotting notes feverishly in her diary as she did so. She noted its pale lores, its prominent malar stripe, its overall size and structure, the pattern of spotting on its breast and upper parts, the heavy almost thrush like bill, the pink legs and white edges to the tail. In the strong sunshine the bird showed up admirably in the telescope and, at last, she was satisfied. She pushed a strand of her long chestnut hair from her face and grinned in pleasure. “And that,” she said aloud to herself, “Is a Richard’s Pipit!” It was no common sighting. Richard’s Pipit’s were very rare autumn vagrants to this part of the world. It was the first that Sarah had ever seen. She could go home tonight and mark a little cross next to its name in her field guide.
Sarah’s satisfied vocalisation must have startled the bird for it flew away with a curiously wagtail like undulating flight and a loud, harsh rasping call. Sarah didn’t mind however. She had seen all she needed to and it was time to be making her way back in any case. She had time for a quiet drink and then she’d have to be getting back to the Toggenburg. She needed to be home in good time this evening for Nicole, her best friend, was coming up to the house for dinner and to keep her company. It promised to be an interesting evening. She had electrifying news for Nicole.
In deep satisfaction, she brushed a little spot of dirt from her telescope and stroked it fondly. It was a new acquisition this telescope. Previously she’d made do with a rather battered old Japanese scope that was showing the years of wear after being lugged around the mountainsides. This instrument was spanking new however. It was a Swarowski HD STM 80 that had cost some three thousand Euros when they had bought it during a magical sojourn on the North Sea island of Helgoland in the summer that Sarah had spent with Danny. It had been a blissful two weeks and the telescope brought the memories flooding back in fondness. It was just one of the many ways her life had become enriched since her fateful decision to throw caution aside and declare her love unconditionally to Danny, to her parents’ unmitigated horror.
It had been the right decision. She could not now imagine how she ever could have thought otherwise or hesitated so long and agonisingly about it. In the last months she had found a joyous happiness she had never thought possible before and not even the unresolved alienation from her father and mother could take that happiness from her although it nevertheless still hurt her that they were so resolutely opposed to her new life and refused to speak to her.
Sarah shouldered her telescope on its tripod and retraced her steps to the little restaurant. It was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres and she was thankful of that for she was quite tired now after walking around the Delta for most of the day and she was thirsty too. It was a Saturday and the restaurant was full with day trippers and people from the camp site next door. The restaurant was popular with trippers to the Rhine Delta nature reserve for it had a pleasant aspect by a large bay of the lake with a little sandy beach in front of it. The bay was shallow and held extensive sandbanks when the lake level was low, which were good places to find roosting wildfowl and waders.
Sarah found a table free outside on the veranda overlooking the lake and set her telescope down. She hesitated for a moment before leaving it to go inside and order a drink. It was a very valuable piece of optical equipment and, with its fond memories for her, she was frightened of having it stolen. Actually it was the sentimental value that was the most concern to her for she had gone to the trouble of insuring it. She hadn’t dared tell Danny that she’d insured the telescope. Danny would have laughed uproariously at that. Danny was so rich that the loss of a three thousand Euro telescope would have been an insignificant pinprick but all Danny’s wealth had failed to ameliorate Sarah’s inbred caution and frugality. She considered it criminal to possess such a valuable instrument and not have the basic sense to insure its value. She’d covertly insured it therefore and omitted to mention the fact. Even now she was reluctant to let it out of her sight without taking the precaution of asking a young couple at a nearby table to keep an eye on it for her while she walked inside to order her drink.
Inside the restaurant, Sarah rummaged through the pockets of her jeans looking for money. This was a complicated business because she was carrying two types of currency on her. Naturally she had plenty of Swiss francs on her but this part of the Rhine Delta was over the border in Austria and the currency here was in Euros. She could still have paid with Swiss francs since they were close enough to the border for the two currencies to be interchangeable but that necessitated tedious consultations of the current exchange rate and the likely possibility of coming out of the exchange unfavourably. She still had Euros left over from the holiday in Helgoland however. She’d not converted them back to Swiss francs since she’d known it was likely that she’d be crossing the border at some future date and that they’d come in handy. The Toggenburg was, after all, only a few kilometres from Austria and not that far from Germany either.
She ordered a half litre of Radler, which was the German name for a shandy although, when they’d been on holiday in Northern Germany, she had discovered it was called an Alsterwasser there, presumably named after the lake, the Alster, in Hamburg. She remembered to speak high German to the serving girl. It wasn’t the dialect in this part of Austria but at least it was more comprehensible to the locals than Swiss German. Sarah spoke perfectly good high German as well as Swiss German, French, some Italian and her native English which was her mother’s tongue. Sarah had been born in England and raised in an English speaking family although she had lived most of her life in Switzerland. Nicole was English too and Danny was part English, part American and part Swiss. Sarah was easy in a multi-lingual culture.
Back at her table, with a foaming tankard of shandy in front of her, Sarah took out her mobile phone and keyed Nicole’s number. Her ebullient former house mate had recognised her number on her mobile instantly for she boomed out. “Hi Foxy.” Foxy was Nicole’s pet name for Sarah, derived from the fact that her family name was Fuchs, the German for Fox.
“Hi Nicky. Finished work then?”
“Yeah I only had lunch to do and I’m free tonight and tomorrow. I can’t think of the last time I got nearly a whole weekend off.” It was normal, thought Sarah. Nicole was a waitress in a hotel restaurant in the Toggenburg and weekends were usually the busiest days of the week. The summer season was coming to a close now though and most establishments were cutting back on staff. Sarah grimaced at the thought. It was likely that Nicole would be facing a few weeks of unemployment shortly.
“Well that’s good. Are you still coming up this evening?”
“Hell yes. Danny still away then?”
“Yes until Monday.”
“Where have you been all day then? I tried calling your house but your housekeeper answered and said you’d buggered off for the day. I tried you on your mobile but that was futile too. I wish I could break your bloody anti-social habit of switching your phone off for protracted periods while you go swanning off on your jack.”
“I went down to the Rhine Delta to do a bit of bird watching. I’m still there.”
“Oh I see. Presumably you thought that the chiming of your phone was going to scare the little dicky birds away.”
“Actually Nicky I didn’t realise my phone was switched off until now. I hope Danny hasn’t been trying to call me.”
“Your arse will be toast if so. So how was it?”
“How was what?”
“Your bloody bird watching you muppet.”
“Oh brilliant. I’ve seen loads of birds and I saw a Richard’s Pipit.”
“Was this Richard put out by you ogling his pipit, Sarah, or was he flattered by the attention?”
“It’s a sort of bird you one-tracked moron. It’s a really rare bird.”
“God! What does Danny see in a geek like you?”
“Never you mind. Listen.... what do you want for dinner tonight?”
“How about your Spaghetti Bolognaise?”
“Oh for God’s sake Nicky. Don’t you ever eat anything else?”
“Not when you’re making it I don’t. Come on Foxy I haven’t tasted your Spaghetti Bolognaise since you moved out of the house and in with Danny. I miss it.”
“All right then, Sodding spaghetti it is.”
“You’re a sweetheart. Shall I bring a few DVDs along?”
“Good God no. We’ve got bloody hundreds of DVDs at home and perfectly good Wi-Fi. I’m sure we won’t go short of something to watch on the telly.”
“Ok. When are you going to get back?”
“I’m just having a quick drink and then I’m setting off home. I’ll have to call in at the shops in Buchs on my way home though. I don’t think we’ve got mince in the house. I’ll pick up a couple of bottles of plonk while I’m at it.”
“Whoa Sarah. Steady on honey. Don’t be getting me too plastered. I was going to drive up to your place. I’m buggered if I’m going to walk all the way over to Oberdorf.”
“What’s the problem? If you’re not working tomorrow you can stay the night.”
Nicole hesitated. “Er are you sure Danny won’t mind.”
“Of course not. Don’t be daft. We can have a girly night in like we used to.”
“Sounds great. I’m looking forward to it. I hardly ever see you these days.”
“Don’t exaggerate Nicky. We spent all of Wednesday together.”
“It’s not the same as it used to be though Sarah. I used to see you every day when we shared the house together. Now you live miles away.”
“Good God Nicky. We’re not that far apart. I only live on the other side of the valley not the other side of the world. There’s nothing to stop you popping up whenever you want, apart from laziness.”
“Well I’m always a bit worried about disturbing your privacy now you’re living with Danny.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Nicky. You’re always welcome. I’ve told you that a hundred times. I’d love you to come around more often; we both would. Anyway Danny’s been away all week and I could have done with the company.”
“I’ve been working Sarah.”
“You weren’t working yesterday and I was at home all day.”
Nicole paused guiltily. “I told you I had... things to do yesterday.”
Sarah grinned evilly to herself. “Oh yes? Did you er manage to get through to Winterthur after all then?”
“Yes I did go through... just to do some business and what have you.” Nicole’s air of studied nonchalance was entirely unconvincing.
Sarah rolled her tongue in her cheek and grinned again. “Oh good. Did you... er happen to bump into Charlie when you were through then?”
Sarah could almost hear Nicole swallowing hastily on the other end of the line. “Oh er... yes just briefly. We had a quick drink together.”
“Oh that must have been nice.” Sarah struggled to keep the mirth out of her voice. Nicole had first met Charlie at Sarah’s graduation party in Bern back in august and she’d been a little reticent about the relationship ever since, insisting that Charlie was just a friend. The developing situation had been the source of much amused speculation between Sarah and Danny ever since.
“Anyway must go now Sarah.” Nicole announced, obviously not wishing any further elaboration on this subject. “I’ll see you tonight. About sevenish ok?”
“Yes fine. I’ll be back long before then. Until tonight then.”
As Sarah put her phone away, she became aware of the young man. He was a tall handsome boy sat a couple of tables away, perhaps in his early twenties with short dark hair and a look of quiet confidence about him. He was also staring at Sarah with frankly open admiration. Few people could have begrudged him that admiration for Sarah was a warm beauty that would have stopped most warm blooded men in their steps. Even dressed in her old jeans and checked shirt she was well worth looking at with her long chestnut hair, her lovely face with the soulful brown eyes and her admirably slim yet well-muscled and proportionate figure.
Sarah had never been a vain girl. Indeed she had always thought herself rather plain and ordinary and it had come as somewhat of a shock to realise that people regarded her as truly beautiful. In fact not until she had met Danny had she come to be aware of her own radiance; as if she had seen herself for the first time through somebody else’s eyes. In the last couple of months she had become acutely conscious of the way other people saw her and it never ceased to surprise her. Before she had met Danny she had almost been notorious for her ability to sit around in public places blissfully ignorant of the admiration she attracted. It had taken Danny’s uninhibited delight in her beauty to awaken her consciousness of her appearance.
The young man smiled at her and, out of politeness she smiled back. It was a mistake she saw. She was pretty sure that she’d seen him earlier on the camp site as she walked past so presumably he was camping here. Perhaps he thought that she was camping too. Whatever his thoughts, he evidently took her courteousness as an invitation to try his luck for he displayed every sign of intention to come over and talk to her. Sarah averted her eyes quickly. “Oh God!” she thought to herself. “I hope he isn’t going to try and hit on me.”
That appeared to be precisely his purpose for he rose to his feet and walked across with a slight swagger, bordering on arrogance. Sarah sighed and took a deep breath. This sort of thing was happening more and more recently. She wondered if there was some sort of twisted reverse psychology in that. Surely she had never had so many men try to pick her up since she had known Danny. What had happened to her in these past months that had made her doubly attractive to men? Fortunately she had a devastating riposte to any clumsy pick up line.
“Hello there.”
Sarah raised her head. “Hello.” She responded warmly. There was no need for incivility even when you were about to dash somebody’s hopes.
“I was just wondering. Are you staying on the camp site as well?”
“Oh no. I’m just down here for the day. It’s a bit late in the season to be sleeping under canvas for me I’m afraid.”
The young man grinned. “Oh yes it does get a bit cold in the night when you’re alone in a tent.” He certainly fancied his chances here Sarah thought. The poor sap couldn’t have called this one more wrong if he’d tried.
“Really?” replied Sarah. “Perhaps you ought to have brought extra blankets or a hot water bottle. Have you tried thermal underwear?”
“I can think of more pleasant ways of keeping warm by night. Can’t you?”
“Yes I stay at home where I’ve got central heating.”
“That’s not very romantic.”
“I’m a very practical sort of person.”
“Really? Well how about you let me buy you another drink and we get to know each other a little more.”
“I’m afraid you’d be wasting your time. I’m afraid I don’t accept drinks from strange gentlemen.”
“Why ever not?”
Sarah raised her face and looked him straight in the eye. “Because I’m gay. I’m afraid young men don’t interest me.”
The young man staggered as if he’d stepped on a rake. “You’re joking!”
“Not at all, I’m quite serious.”
“You can’t be gay.”
“I don’t see why not. A sizeable percentage of the population manages to be.”
“You’re too beautiful.”
“Well thank you for the compliment but I’m sure attractive looks don’t preclude a person from being gay.”
“But it’s a god-damned waste.”
“Really? I’m inclined to think that my girlfriend would disagree with you.” Sarah finished the last of her shandy and rose easily to her feet. “I’m sorry if you’ve wasted your time. I’m sure there must be some nice straight girls on that camp site somewhere. Now if you’ll excuse me I must be going.”

EXTRACT FOR
Toggenburg - Book 4 
(Michaela Francis)


Chapter One

Sarah was excited, although, if she was honest with herself, few people would have shared her excitement at that moment or even fully comprehended her reasons for being so. Of course, anybody not dead to the pleasures of natural beauty and perfect weather, would have empathised with her delight on this day, for the autumn sun shone in glory over the flat plane of the Rhine Delta, along the banks of Lake Constance, the surrounding peaks of Austria’s Voralpberg to the east and the flanks of the Swiss mountains to the west. It was the first day of October and one of those days on which to savour the gift of life, with the leaves of the trees turning to gold, the Autumn Crocuses blooming in pale lilac amidst the marshy meadows and the sparkling crests of newly fallen snow whitening the tips of the peaks to the south. There was barely a breath of wind to stir the huge reed beds that lined the lake shores and Sarah had discarded her jacket long before as the warmer months granted this last benediction of autumnal benevolence before the onset of winter. Yet these factors were not the reason for Sarah’s sudden excitement. She was, it is true, happy and the lovely day in the huge nature reserve of the Rhine Delta was just one more day of joy in a life that, over the past months, had become one of such fulfilment and content. Sarah was in love.
Yet even her new found love, so precariously won over the troubles of the past summer, did not explain her excitement. That particular source of excitement was flitting among some stubble and short grass a couple of hundred metres away from the little restaurant and camping site set deep within the Rhine Delta. It was a bird and, if truth be told, not a particularly spectacular one from the aesthetic point of view. The uninformed observer would have remarked that it was rather a drab small bird, lacking much in the way of flamboyant colouring. Sarah had once read that American birdwatchers had a term to describe such, not particularly eye-catching, small birds. They called them LBJs, which was not a reference to a past American president but an acronym for “Little Brown Jobs”. The bird that was so exciting Sarah was the consummate LBJ but it was a Little Brown Job that she had never seen before.
Of course if you wanted to see birds then the Rhine Delta was definitely a place to visit. It was a great flat plain of arable land and marshy meadows intersected by numerous small drains, ponds and lagoons between the older winding course of the river Rhine that formed the border between Switzerland and Austria and the newer canalised river bed to the east in Austria where the two joined Lake Constance, at the south eastern tip of that vast body of fresh water. It had an enormous diversity of habitats within it; great reed beds along the lake sides, big open lagoons that filled with water fowl in the winter months, patches of woodland and alder carrs, sand and gravel banks, slow moving river backwaters, fast gravelly river courses, marshes, open fields and meadows, enticing little pools and drains, orchards and gardens, old gravel works and pumping stations and the boundless expanse of the open lake beyond.
Lake Constance itself is no ordinary lake for it is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Western Europe and second only to Lake Geneva in the impressive array of large lakes that lay, at least partially, within Switzerland. From here, on the eastern banks, you could not see the western end of the lake for it was over the horizon some sixty three kilometres away. The lake covers some five hundred and seventy square kilometres; a huge basin carved from the lowlands, abutting the Alps, by the Rhine glacier in the ice ages. This enormous expanse of water is a magnetic attraction for water birds in the winter months and hundreds of thousands of ducks winter on the lake.
Sarah today had already seen evidence of the winter influx today; great flocks of Tufted Ducks and Pochards, the lovely Goldeneyes, flocks of Goosanders, Mallards, Shovellers, Teal, Gadwall and Red Crested Pochards. There’d been a small group of Black Necked Grebes in the little harbour at Altenrhein competing with the Little Grebes and a much rarer Red Necked Grebe on the Old Rhine at Rheineck. She’d seen big rafts of Great Crested Grebes out on the lake and a flock of coots she’d conservatively estimated at five thousand plus. The traditional flock of Wigeon were back in their favourite place at the pumping station and she’d counted forty plus Whooper Swans in a flock out in the fields, loving their evocative honking notes. In a little side lagoon near the New Rhine she’d been thrilled by the sight of a perfect little drake Smew; in her opinion, one of the prettiest of all ducks; handsome in its white and black plumage.
There’d been wading birds too. Flocks of Curlews seemed to be everywhere. Over a thousand of them spent the winter each year in the Rhine Delta. Then there’d been a small flock of Dunlin by the Old Rhine, a couple of Sanderling, a party of Ruff, one or two Redshanks, some Common Sandpipers on the new river and the odd Ringed Plover. She’d flushed two or three Snipe from under her feet and, best of all, there’d been a Little Stint on the sandbanks near the Seerestaurant Glashaus.
There were birds of prey to be seen as well. The Delta was filling up with Buzzards; many of them large pale birds from Scandinavia arriving to winter in the milder climes of the south. There were Kestrels and a couple of late Red Kites drifting lazily away southwards. As winter approached the big Goshawks left their fastnesses in the mountain forests to hunt the influx of waterfowl along the lake edges and Sarah had spotted one making a foray from a belt of woodland. A Peregrine Falcon had been perched on a telegraph pole; another bird that took advantage of the increased prey among the water birds in the winter months. She’d seen the first Hen Harrier of the winter quartering the marshes and reed beds and a little falcon she’d spied at some distance might just have been a Merlin. Sarah loved them all.
It was the smaller birds which really held her interest today though. The Rhine Delta was an important focal point for migrating passerine birds in the autumn; a sort of last stop refuelling point for birds following the easily navigable route of the Rhine southwards over the high alpine passes. On a good day, tens of thousands of birds grounded in their migration in the Rhine Delta. This was a good day! The sheer number of larks, pipits, Wheatears, wagtails, warblers, starlings, shrikes and others were just overwhelming and they were complimented by the already impressive number of resident species within the Delta. Sarah had had thrills in plenty. She’d never recorded so many Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears in a single day before here and there’d been thousands of Pipits. She’d seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the Alder carrs and a small flock of Penduline tits in the reed beds. She’d noted at least six Red Backed Shrikes in her diary, an early Great Grey Shrike had been hunting from a low tree and the reed beds and the low bushes along the river banks had been full of warblers including one she was almost sure was an immature Barred Warbler. The Delta was full of birds.
And there were not only birds either. There were Roe deer out in the fields, late butterflies on the wing, dragonflies for which the Delta was noted and the autumn crocuses growing in the damp meadows. Sarah was fascinated by all of them. She was an unrepentant nature lover. Everything that grew, flew, crawled, swam, walked or otherwise lived in the world about her was grist to her mill. Sarah adored the natural world about her; revelled in it, studied it avidly and never tired of its rich diversity. She was just twenty two years old but she had devoted years of her short life to the study of the natural world. Even at such a young age she was recognised as a local authority on the flora and fauna of her beloved Toggenburg; the beautiful valley nestling in the mountains of Eastern Switzerland which was her home. Even as a small child she had been the same; driving her long suffering mother to distraction by wandering off into the countryside to bring home every little bug or other creature she could catch. Her mother had despaired of her ever displaying interests more suitable to a little girl; had tried in vain to cajole her into wearing nice clothes and not regard her pretty summer dresses as suitable receptacles for carrying live toads in. It had been a losing battle. Sarah had never lost her sense of wonder for the natural world; had stubbornly refused to change and even three years studying history at the university in Bern had not dimmed her joy in the natural world.
Sarah had known and loved the Rhine Delta since she’d been a young child when her father and elder brother had brought her here for the bird watching and she’d been a regular visitor ever since. It was not far from the Toggenburg valley and she’d made a point of getting down to the Delta several times a year to record the movement and frequency of the creatures within it. She especially made it a regular place to visit during those months when snow on the mountains precluded her from her dearest passion of hiking up into the high places and over the years she had accumulated volumes of diaries recording her observations. Nowhere, however, within those volumes or among all her familiar favourites, was the little bird, she was now excitedly observing, to be found.
She had been returning to the restaurant with a mind to have a last drink before departing for home when she sighted it. She’d been at the Delta for most of the day. There was some sadness in that. It had not been merely enthusiasm that had driven her out of the house and the valley today. The person with whom she was in love with was away and had been for several days. It was the longest separation they had been forced to endure ever since Sarah had broken off her engagement to her boyfriend at her parents’ house in southern Switzerland in midsummer and fled home under a cloud of parental disapproval to her Danny, her lover’s, arms. Since then they had been inseparable and they’d pined for each other even if compelled to spend a few hours apart. But Danny had obligations that both of them knew would separate them on occasion, eventually. Sarah had been resigned to that fact from the beginning and had accepted that it was liable to be a not uncommon drawback in the new life they were forging together. Nevertheless, it had been hard for the first time. After a few days the house had just seemed so unbearably empty and lonely that Sarah had decided to try and raise her spirits with this excursion to the Delta.
She was being well rewarded for that decision now. On her way back to the restaurant the little bird stepping jauntily through the grass had caught her eye. She’d turned her binoculars on it and her excitement had grown. Finally she’d erected her telescope and subjected the bird to the most thorough examination she could devise, jotting notes feverishly in her diary as she did so. She noted its pale lores, its prominent malar stripe, its overall size and structure, the pattern of spotting on its breast and upper parts, the heavy almost thrush like bill, the pink legs and white edges to the tail. In the strong sunshine the bird showed up admirably in the telescope and, at last, she was satisfied. She pushed a strand of her long chestnut hair from her face and grinned in pleasure. “And that,” she said aloud to herself, “Is a Richard’s Pipit!” It was no common sighting. Richard’s Pipit’s were very rare autumn vagrants to this part of the world. It was the first that Sarah had ever seen. She could go home tonight and mark a little cross next to its name in her field guide.
Sarah’s satisfied vocalisation must have startled the bird for it flew away with a curiously wagtail like undulating flight and a loud, harsh rasping call. Sarah didn’t mind however. She had seen all she needed to and it was time to be making her way back in any case. She had time for a quiet drink and then she’d have to be getting back to the Toggenburg. She needed to be home in good time this evening for Nicole, her best friend, was coming up to the house for dinner and to keep her company. It promised to be an interesting evening. She had electrifying news for Nicole.
In deep satisfaction, she brushed a little spot of dirt from her telescope and stroked it fondly. It was a new acquisition this telescope. Previously she’d made do with a rather battered old Japanese scope that was showing the years of wear after being lugged around the mountainsides. This instrument was spanking new however. It was a Swarowski HD STM 80 that had cost some three thousand Euros when they had bought it during a magical sojourn on the North Sea island of Helgoland in the summer that Sarah had spent with Danny. It had been a blissful two weeks and the telescope brought the memories flooding back in fondness. It was just one of the many ways her life had become enriched since her fateful decision to throw caution aside and declare her love unconditionally to Danny, to her parents’ unmitigated horror.
It had been the right decision. She could not now imagine how she ever could have thought otherwise or hesitated so long and agonisingly about it. In the last months she had found a joyous happiness she had never thought possible before and not even the unresolved alienation from her father and mother could take that happiness from her although it nevertheless still hurt her that they were so resolutely opposed to her new life and refused to speak to her.
Sarah shouldered her telescope on its tripod and retraced her steps to the little restaurant. It was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres and she was thankful of that for she was quite tired now after walking around the Delta for most of the day and she was thirsty too. It was a Saturday and the restaurant was full with day trippers and people from the camp site next door. The restaurant was popular with trippers to the Rhine Delta nature reserve for it had a pleasant aspect by a large bay of the lake with a little sandy beach in front of it. The bay was shallow and held extensive sandbanks when the lake level was low, which were good places to find roosting wildfowl and waders.
Sarah found a table free outside on the veranda overlooking the lake and set her telescope down. She hesitated for a moment before leaving it to go inside and order a drink. It was a very valuable piece of optical equipment and, with its fond memories for her, she was frightened of having it stolen. Actually it was the sentimental value that was the most concern to her for she had gone to the trouble of insuring it. She hadn’t dared tell Danny that she’d insured the telescope. Danny would have laughed uproariously at that. Danny was so rich that the loss of a three thousand Euro telescope would have been an insignificant pinprick but all Danny’s wealth had failed to ameliorate Sarah’s inbred caution and frugality. She considered it criminal to possess such a valuable instrument and not have the basic sense to insure its value. She’d covertly insured it therefore and omitted to mention the fact. Even now she was reluctant to let it out of her sight without taking the precaution of asking a young couple at a nearby table to keep an eye on it for her while she walked inside to order her drink.
Inside the restaurant, Sarah rummaged through the pockets of her jeans looking for money. This was a complicated business because she was carrying two types of currency on her. Naturally she had plenty of Swiss francs on her but this part of the Rhine Delta was over the border in Austria and the currency here was in Euros. She could still have paid with Swiss francs since they were close enough to the border for the two currencies to be interchangeable but that necessitated tedious consultations of the current exchange rate and the likely possibility of coming out of the exchange unfavourably. She still had Euros left over from the holiday in Helgoland however. She’d not converted them back to Swiss francs since she’d known it was likely that she’d be crossing the border at some future date and that they’d come in handy. The Toggenburg was, after all, only a few kilometres from Austria and not that far from Germany either.
She ordered a half litre of Radler, which was the German name for a shandy although, when they’d been on holiday in Northern Germany, she had discovered it was called an Alsterwasser there, presumably named after the lake, the Alster, in Hamburg. She remembered to speak high German to the serving girl. It wasn’t the dialect in this part of Austria but at least it was more comprehensible to the locals than Swiss German. Sarah spoke perfectly good high German as well as Swiss German, French, some Italian and her native English which was her mother’s tongue. Sarah had been born in England and raised in an English speaking family although she had lived most of her life in Switzerland. Nicole was English too and Danny was part English, part American and part Swiss. Sarah was easy in a multi-lingual culture.
Back at her table, with a foaming tankard of shandy in front of her, Sarah took out her mobile phone and keyed Nicole’s number. Her ebullient former house mate had recognised her number on her mobile instantly for she boomed out. “Hi Foxy.” Foxy was Nicole’s pet name for Sarah, derived from the fact that her family name was Fuchs, the German for Fox.
“Hi Nicky. Finished work then?”
“Yeah I only had lunch to do and I’m free tonight and tomorrow. I can’t think of the last time I got nearly a whole weekend off.” It was normal, thought Sarah. Nicole was a waitress in a hotel restaurant in the Toggenburg and weekends were usually the busiest days of the week. The summer season was coming to a close now though and most establishments were cutting back on staff. Sarah grimaced at the thought. It was likely that Nicole would be facing a few weeks of unemployment shortly.
“Well that’s good. Are you still coming up this evening?”
“Hell yes. Danny still away then?”
“Yes until Monday.”
“Where have you been all day then? I tried calling your house but your housekeeper answered and said you’d buggered off for the day. I tried you on your mobile but that was futile too. I wish I could break your bloody anti-social habit of switching your phone off for protracted periods while you go swanning off on your jack.”
“I went down to the Rhine Delta to do a bit of bird watching. I’m still there.”
“Oh I see. Presumably you thought that the chiming of your phone was going to scare the little dicky birds away.”
“Actually Nicky I didn’t realise my phone was switched off until now. I hope Danny hasn’t been trying to call me.”
“Your arse will be toast if so. So how was it?”
“How was what?”
“Your bloody bird watching you muppet.”
“Oh brilliant. I’ve seen loads of birds and I saw a Richard’s Pipit.”
“Was this Richard put out by you ogling his pipit, Sarah, or was he flattered by the attention?”
“It’s a sort of bird you one-tracked moron. It’s a really rare bird.”
“God! What does Danny see in a geek like you?”
“Never you mind. Listen.... what do you want for dinner tonight?”
“How about your Spaghetti Bolognaise?”
“Oh for God’s sake Nicky. Don’t you ever eat anything else?”
“Not when you’re making it I don’t. Come on Foxy I haven’t tasted your Spaghetti Bolognaise since you moved out of the house and in with Danny. I miss it.”
“All right then, Sodding spaghetti it is.”
“You’re a sweetheart. Shall I bring a few DVDs along?”
“Good God no. We’ve got bloody hundreds of DVDs at home and perfectly good Wi-Fi. I’m sure we won’t go short of something to watch on the telly.”
“Ok. When are you going to get back?”
“I’m just having a quick drink and then I’m setting off home. I’ll have to call in at the shops in Buchs on my way home though. I don’t think we’ve got mince in the house. I’ll pick up a couple of bottles of plonk while I’m at it.”
“Whoa Sarah. Steady on honey. Don’t be getting me too plastered. I was going to drive up to your place. I’m buggered if I’m going to walk all the way over to Oberdorf.”
“What’s the problem? If you’re not working tomorrow you can stay the night.”
Nicole hesitated. “Er are you sure Danny won’t mind.”
“Of course not. Don’t be daft. We can have a girly night in like we used to.”
“Sounds great. I’m looking forward to it. I hardly ever see you these days.”
“Don’t exaggerate Nicky. We spent all of Wednesday together.”
“It’s not the same as it used to be though Sarah. I used to see you every day when we shared the house together. Now you live miles away.”
“Good God Nicky. We’re not that far apart. I only live on the other side of the valley not the other side of the world. There’s nothing to stop you popping up whenever you want, apart from laziness.”
“Well I’m always a bit worried about disturbing your privacy now you’re living with Danny.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Nicky. You’re always welcome. I’ve told you that a hundred times. I’d love you to come around more often; we both would. Anyway Danny’s been away all week and I could have done with the company.”
“I’ve been working Sarah.”
“You weren’t working yesterday and I was at home all day.”
Nicole paused guiltily. “I told you I had... things to do yesterday.”
Sarah grinned evilly to herself. “Oh yes? Did you er manage to get through to Winterthur after all then?”
“Yes I did go through... just to do some business and what have you.” Nicole’s air of studied nonchalance was entirely unconvincing.
Sarah rolled her tongue in her cheek and grinned again. “Oh good. Did you... er happen to bump into Charlie when you were through then?”
Sarah could almost hear Nicole swallowing hastily on the other end of the line. “Oh er... yes just briefly. We had a quick drink together.”
“Oh that must have been nice.” Sarah struggled to keep the mirth out of her voice. Nicole had first met Charlie at Sarah’s graduation party in Bern back in august and she’d been a little reticent about the relationship ever since, insisting that Charlie was just a friend. The developing situation had been the source of much amused speculation between Sarah and Danny ever since.
“Anyway must go now Sarah.” Nicole announced, obviously not wishing any further elaboration on this subject. “I’ll see you tonight. About sevenish ok?”
“Yes fine. I’ll be back long before then. Until tonight then.”
As Sarah put her phone away, she became aware of the young man. He was a tall handsome boy sat a couple of tables away, perhaps in his early twenties with short dark hair and a look of quiet confidence about him. He was also staring at Sarah with frankly open admiration. Few people could have begrudged him that admiration for Sarah was a warm beauty that would have stopped most warm blooded men in their steps. Even dressed in her old jeans and checked shirt she was well worth looking at with her long chestnut hair, her lovely face with the soulful brown eyes and her admirably slim yet well-muscled and proportionate figure.
Sarah had never been a vain girl. Indeed she had always thought herself rather plain and ordinary and it had come as somewhat of a shock to realise that people regarded her as truly beautiful. In fact not until she had met Danny had she come to be aware of her own radiance; as if she had seen herself for the first time through somebody else’s eyes. In the last couple of months she had become acutely conscious of the way other people saw her and it never ceased to surprise her. Before she had met Danny she had almost been notorious for her ability to sit around in public places blissfully ignorant of the admiration she attracted. It had taken Danny’s uninhibited delight in her beauty to awaken her consciousness of her appearance.
The young man smiled at her and, out of politeness she smiled back. It was a mistake she saw. She was pretty sure that she’d seen him earlier on the camp site as she walked past so presumably he was camping here. Perhaps he thought that she was camping too. Whatever his thoughts, he evidently took her courteousness as an invitation to try his luck for he displayed every sign of intention to come over and talk to her. Sarah averted her eyes quickly. “Oh God!” she thought to herself. “I hope he isn’t going to try and hit on me.”
That appeared to be precisely his purpose for he rose to his feet and walked across with a slight swagger, bordering on arrogance. Sarah sighed and took a deep breath. This sort of thing was happening more and more recently. She wondered if there was some sort of twisted reverse psychology in that. Surely she had never had so many men try to pick her up since she had known Danny. What had happened to her in these past months that had made her doubly attractive to men? Fortunately she had a devastating riposte to any clumsy pick up line.
“Hello there.”
Sarah raised her head. “Hello.” She responded warmly. There was no need for incivility even when you were about to dash somebody’s hopes.
“I was just wondering. Are you staying on the camp site as well?”
“Oh no. I’m just down here for the day. It’s a bit late in the season to be sleeping under canvas for me I’m afraid.”
The young man grinned. “Oh yes it does get a bit cold in the night when you’re alone in a tent.” He certainly fancied his chances here Sarah thought. The poor sap couldn’t have called this one more wrong if he’d tried.
“Really?” replied Sarah. “Perhaps you ought to have brought extra blankets or a hot water bottle. Have you tried thermal underwear?”
“I can think of more pleasant ways of keeping warm by night. Can’t you?”
“Yes I stay at home where I’ve got central heating.”
“That’s not very romantic.”
“I’m a very practical sort of person.”
“Really? Well how about you let me buy you another drink and we get to know each other a little more.”
“I’m afraid you’d be wasting your time. I’m afraid I don’t accept drinks from strange gentlemen.”
“Why ever not?”
Sarah raised her face and looked him straight in the eye. “Because I’m gay. I’m afraid young men don’t interest me.”
The young man staggered as if he’d stepped on a rake. “You’re joking!”
“Not at all, I’m quite serious.”
“You can’t be gay.”
“I don’t see why not. A sizeable percentage of the population manages to be.”
“You’re too beautiful.”
“Well thank you for the compliment but I’m sure attractive looks don’t preclude a person from being gay.”
“But it’s a god-damned waste.”
“Really? I’m inclined to think that my girlfriend would disagree with you.” Sarah finished the last of her shandy and rose easily to her feet. “I’m sorry if you’ve wasted your time. I’m sure there must be some nice straight girls on that camp site somewhere. Now if you’ll excuse me I must be going.”

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