But in the early morning light, seen from the top of Barrow Down, the huddle of grey and pink and cream houses looked merely charming. Up here, man had long ago been obliterated by the green armies of fern, the invading foxgloves, the cony and the magpie. Bumps under the honeycombed turf marked the site of old shelters for man and beast where cattle had lowed and the smoke of little fires had written “Morning” and “Hunger” in the sky. Wealding children sometimes found old flints buried under the rabbit droppings; picnic parties munched their hard-boiled eggs among ghosts. In spring, dog-violets spilled small blue lakes in the bleached grass, followed later by the pink and white restharrow, clean as sprigged chintz, and the great golden candlesticks of mulleins. Up here, on the empty hilltop, something said I am England. I will remain. (p. 9)
Morning dawns in the village of Wealding, and so begins One Fine Day. It’s 1946, the war is finally over, and residents of Wealding and the town of Bridbury are gradually returning to some kind of “normal” life. And yet things changed dramatically during the war. There was, of course, the tragic loss of life, the young men who never returned. But there were also fundamental changes in England’s social fabric, which this short novel portrays in exquisite and sometimes painful detail. Laura & Stephen Marshall are an upper middle class couple, and before the war they benefited from daily household help in the form of a cook, a maid, and a nurse to care for their daughter Victoria. Dinner magically appeared on the table every night, the house was always clean and ready for guests, and Victoria was presented to her parents before bedtime, freshly scrubbed and wearing clean pajamas. The Marshalls were shocked into a completely different lifestyle during the war, when their household help found better work at better wages … and never returned to a life of service.
One Fine Day follows Laura Marshall through a typical day of errands and household tasks, after Stephen leaves for work and Victoria gets off to school. Laura ventures into the town to buy food. She queues at the bakery and the fishmonger, dealing with competitive customers, grumpy shopkeepers, and a shortage of their better merchandise. But this book is not about what Laura does, it’s about what she thinks, and what that tells us about her changing world. Occasionally she reminisces about her youth, and the man she almost married, and we gain insight into the society in which she was raised. Through a conversation between Laura and her mother we learn that Laura’s parents, who live further away from London, were able to keep their servants. Their home still reflects the golden age of British Empire. “It was like going back to another world, seen through the nostalgic lens of world catastrophe.” But then Laura’s errands take her to the home of some local gentry, who are no longer able to keep up their estate. They have sold it to the “National Trussed,” and are in progress of moving into a flat located near the manor house. She surveys the packing and dismantlement with dismay, noting the marked contrast with poorer families who have bettered their circumstances and “bred and bred like rabbits in their dreadful cottage.”
A sense of loss pervades this book. The loss of material goods and comforts serves as a symbol for the loss of Empire that was just beginning to unfold. You can see those “English ladies and gentlemen who would forever inherit the earth,” who took pride in turning the world map pink, begin to falter. And yet there is also an air of hope, of accepting one’s new circumstances and seeing the possibility of happiness ahead. Much of this is conveyed through Laura’s sensory perceptions, as she picks fruit in her garden or rides down a lane on her bicycle. As the day draws to a close, Mollie Panter-Downes shifts the point of view to Victoria, and then Stephen, and somehow manages leaves the reader with the feeling that while their lives are irrevocably changed, everything will work out for them in the long run.