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A Week in Winter (Chapter Eight)

'We have our own ideas, of course, but we were anxious to have real professionals to guide us. You will have so much more experience and so many more contacts than we do.'

'I didn't realise you were so computer-savvy,' Barbara said to Orla, coldly.

'You're talking about my generation,' Orla smiled. 'I was wondering, by the way, why you don't have a website.'

'Never needed one,' Barbara said smugly.

'So how do people find you, then?' Orla's look was innocent.

'Personal recommendation.'

'Yes, that's how they find your names, but how do they know what you've actually done?'

Again, the face was innocent but the challenge was there.

By the time the meeting was over, it was clear that the parting of the ways had come.

Barbara mentioned a payment for their time and input so far. Chicky and Orla looked at each other, bewildered. Howard suggested they part as friends, no harm had been done. They wished the enterprise success. They spoke in tones of regret and disbelief that Stone House would remain open for longer than a week, if it ever opened at all.

Rigger drove them to the station.

He reported afterwards that they sat in complete silence for the journey. When he asked would they be coming back to supervise the decorating, they had said that it wasn't on the cards.

'Well, I hope you enjoyed your visit,' Rigger had said.

'Enjoy would be so too strong a word, darling,' they had said as he lifted their luggage on to the train.

Chicky, Carmel and Orla chose their colours and fabrics that night and got the show on the road the next day. It had been a lesson to them. There might well have been superb designers out there, but they had not found them. There was no time to try again. They would have to trust themselves.

Little by little the place took shape.

Their website was up and running, with pictures of the views from Stone House as well as full descriptions of what they could offer. They got many enquiries but as yet no definite bookings.

Orla set up a press release which she sent to every newspaper, magazine and radio programme. She offered a Winter Week at Stone House as a prize in several competitions, on the grounds that it would bring them publicity. She bought a big scrapbook and asked Miss Queenie to keep any cuttings that might result. She contacted airports and tourist offices, book clubs, birdwatching groups and sporting clubs; she set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Chicky loved being able to access such a world from their little office in Stone House. They had perfected their menus and posted them online; now they had their daily routine, with the suppliers and deliveries worked out and timed to run smoothly. Gradually the definite bookings came in, and they were within sight of receiving their first visitors when Carmel gave birth to twins.

Miss Queenie told Orla that she had never been happier. There was so much happening in Stone House these days, and she was here at the centre of it all. The morning room was now officially called the Miss Sheedy Room. There were restored photographs from their childhood showing Beatrice and Jessica and Miss Queenie as girls. She knew everybody in Stoneybridge nowadays instead of only a very few. She had delicious meals and a warm house. Who could have guessed that life would get so much better as she grew older?

'I worry about Chicky, though, she works so hard,' Miss Queenie confided in Orla, shaking her head. 'She's still a young woman, well, to me she is, anyway. She gets a lot of admiring glances but she never thinks of looking at anyone as a possible husband.'

'And what about me, Miss Queenie? Don't you worry about me too?'

'No, Orla, not even a little bit. You will work here with Chicky as you promised until your year is up then you'll go off and conquer the world. It's written all over you.'

Instead of being pleased with such a vote of confidence, Orla suddenly felt lonely. She didn't want to go off and conquer the world. She wanted to stay here and see it through.

'I'm in no hurry to go off from here, Miss Queenie,' Orla heard herself say.

'It's dangerous to stay too long in Stoneybridge. We can't marry the seagulls or the gannets, you know,' Miss Queenie said.

'But didn't you say yourself that you were never happier than you are now?'

'I made the best of things, and I was lucky. Very lucky,' Miss Queenie said.

Next morning when Orla brought the old lady her tea, she knew from one glance at the bed that Miss Queenie had died in her sleep. Her hands were folded. Her face was calm. She looked twenty years younger, as if her arthritis and aches had gone away.

Orla had never seen anyone dead before. It wasn't very frightening.

She carried the cup of tea to Chicky's room.

Chicky was already awake. When she saw Orla she knew at once what had happened.

'There can't be a God. He wouldn't let Queenie die before the place opened. It's so unfair,' Chicky wept.

'You know, in a way it might be for the best,' Orla said.

'What can you mean, Orla? She was dying to be part of it.'

'No. She was nervous. She asked me more than once whether she would sit down to dinner with the guests or not.'

'But of course she would have.'

'She was afraid she might be too old and feathery . . . Her words, not mine.'

'How can you be so calm? Poor Queenie. Poor, dear Queenie. She had no life.'

Orla stretched out her hand. 'Come in and see her, Chicky. Just look at her face. You'll know she had a life, and you gave it to her.'

They walked into the room where Miss Queenie had slept for over eighty years. From back in the 1930s when Ireland was only ten years old as a state.

Gloria the cat came in too. She didn't get up on the bed but looked respectfully from the door as if she knew that all was not well. They stood and looked at Miss Queenie's face. Chicky leaned over and touched Miss Queenie's cold hand.

'We'll make you proud, Queenie,' she said, and they closed the door behind them and went to tell Rigger and Carmel and to call Dr Dai.

Stoneybridge said a big goodbye to Miss Queenie Sheedy. A great crowd gathered outside Stone House to walk behind the hearse as it drove her slowly to the church.

Father Johnson said that next Sunday would be the first time there would not be a Sheedy in this church for many decades. He said that Miss Sheedy had called in to him last week and asked if they could sing 'Lord of the Dance' at her funeral, whenever that was to be. Father Johnson had said that we would all have long gone to our heavenly reward by the time Miss Queenie herself was ready to go, but the Lord was mysterious and now she had gone to join her beloved sisters, leaving behind her a memory of a life well lived.

The congregation all sang 'Lord of the Dance'. They blew their noses and wiped away a tear at the thought of Miss Queenie peering good-naturedly at them and their children for years, back as far as they could remember.

Rigger was one of the four who carried the small coffin to the graveyard. His face was grim as he remembered how the old lady had welcomed him to her home and been so excited about everything, from the walled garden to Stone Cottage to the drives around in his van and then the arrival of the twins.

He was sorry that Rosie and Macken would not have such a lovely old granny figure in their lives. They would tell them all about her. One day, when he was being carried to this graveyard they would tell their own children about the great Miss Queenie, a good relic of an often stormy past in Ireland.

There were no Sheedy relatives, and Rigger was asked to put the first spadeful of clay on the grave. He was followed by Chicky and Orla. And the great crowd stood in silence until Dr Dai, who had a powerful Welsh baritone, suddenly sang 'Abide With Me' and they all filed back down the hill.

Tea and sandwiches were served in Stone House.

Gloria had hunted high and low for Miss Queenie and sat confused outside the front door, washing furiously.

As soon as Orla was busy passing the food around she recovered enough to realise how many people had attended. Brigid and Foxy had come over from London. Miss Daly had heard from somebody and she turned up with one of the French dentists who had now become a close friend. All the O'Haras were there, their previous animosity forgotten; all the builders, the suppliers, the local farmers, the staff of the knitting factory and Aidan, a solicitor from a nearby town, who was said to fancy Chicky.

Miss Queenie would have clapped her hands and said, 'Imagine them all turning up for me! How very kind!'

Aidan drew Orla aside to tell her that Miss Queenie had made her will last week. She had left everything she owned to Chicky apart from two tiny legacies, one to Rigger and one to Orla.

He also asked Orla whether she thought Chicky might go out with him to dinner if he asked her nicely.

Orla said that maybe he should wait until Stone House had opened to the public. Chicky was very centred on that at the moment, but she reassured Aidan that there was nobody else on the scene.

'I'd be no trouble,' he told her.

'God, isn't that a great recommendation,' Orla said, fervently looking at some uncles and the woeful Foxy.

'Must say, Barbara and Howard did a great job on this place,' Foxy said approvingly.

'Didn't they just?' Chicky agreed.

Rigger was about to open his mouth and say how unhelpful they had been but Orla frowned. Life was short. Chicky had decided to play it this way. Let it go.

Only a few days to go and the first guests would arrive. They were nearly full. Only one room remained unoccupied. Orla and Chicky sat down every evening going over the list of people. They were coming from Sweden, England and Dublin. Some by car, some by train. Rigger had been alerted to everyone's arrival times.

They went over the menus again and again checking that they had every ingredient. They tried to envisage all these people sitting around their table at night and assembling for breakfast each morning. They had left a selection of magazines and novels in the Miss Sheedy Room; they had maps and bird books and guide books at the ready. Wellington boots, umbrellas and mackintoshes were all available in the boot room.

Gloria had gradually got over her short period of mourning for Miss Queenie and returned to sit by the fire with a purr that would soothe the most troubled heart.

'You have your running-away money now, Orla,' Chicky said on the last evening.

'I always had my running-away money,' Orla said.

'It's just that I won't hold you back. You've delivered everything you promised and more.'

'Why is everyone trying to get rid of me?' Orla asked. 'Queenie was the same. The night before she died she said I couldn't marry the seagulls and the gannets in Stoneybridge.'

'And she was right,' Chicky agreed.

'But what about you? Aidan was asking after you.'

'Oh, give over, Orla!'

'I bet Walter would have liked you to marry again.'

'Yes, indeed.'

'So?'

'So what? Grab Dr Dai from his wife? Take Father Johnson out of the priesthood? Go online offering "rich widow with own business"?' Chicky laughed. 'It's you we are talking about. You've only one life, Orla.'

'So what's wrong with living it here for a while?' Orla asked. 'It would be more than a human could bear to go before we had the first year of running the place over us.'

Chicky sank back in her chair. Gloria stretched approvingly.

The grandfather clock in the hall struck midnight.

This was the day that Stone House would open its doors to the public. They wouldn't sit alone in this kitchen for many a night to come.

They raised their glasses to each other, and outside the waves crashed on the shore and the wind whipped through the trees.

Winnie

Of course Winnie would like to have married. Or to have had a long-term partner. Who wouldn't?

To have someone there out for your good. Someone you could share with and eventually have children with. It was obvious that was what she wanted. But not at any price.

She would never have married the drunk that one friend had  –  a man who got so abusive at the wedding party that the ripples were still felt years later.

She would not have married the control freak, or the miser. But a lot of the men her friends had married were good, warm, happy people who had made their lives very complete.

If only there was someone like that out there.

And if there was, how could Winnie find him? She had tried internet dating, speed dating and going to clubs. None of it had worked.

When she was in her early thirties, Winnie had more or less given up on it all. She had a busy life: a nurse doing agency work, one day here, one night there, in the Dublin hospitals. She went to the theatre, met friends, went to cookery classes and read a lot.

She couldn't say life was sad and lonely. It was far from that, but she would love to have been able to meet someone and know that this was the right one. Just know.

Winnie was an optimist. On the wards they always said she was a great nurse to work with because she always saw something to be pleased about. The patients liked her a lot  –  she always made time to reassure them and tell them how well they were doing and how much modern medicine had improved. She wasted no time moaning in hospital canteens that the men of Ireland were a sorry lot. She just got on with it.

She was still vaguely hopeful that there was love out there somewhere  –  just a little less sure that she might actually find it.

It was on her thirty-fourth birthday that she met Teddy.

She had gone with three girlfriends  –  all of them married, all of them nurses  –  to have dinner at Ennio's restaurant down on the quays by the Liffey. Winnie wore her new silver and black jacket. She had been persuaded by the hairdresser to get a very expensive conditioning treatment for her hair. The girls said she looked great, but then they always told her that. It just hadn't seemed to work in terms of attracting a life partner.

It was a lovely evening, with the staff all coming to the table and singing 'Happy Birthday', a drink of some Italian liqueur, on the house. At the next table two men watched them admiringly. They sang 'Happy Birthday' so lustily that the restaurant included them in the complimentary drink. They were polite and anxious not to impose.

Peter said he was a hotelier from Rossmore and that his friend was Teddy Hennessy who made cheese down in that part of the world. They came to Dublin every week because Peter's wife and Teddy's mother liked to go to a show. The men preferred to try out a new restaurant each time. This was their first visit to Ennio's.

'And does your wife not come to Dublin too?' Fiona asked Teddy, quite pointedly.

Winnie felt herself flush. Fiona was testing the ground, seeing was Teddy available. Teddy didn't seem to notice.

'No, I don't have a wife. Too busy making cheese, everyone says. No, I'm fancy-free.' He was boyish and eager; he had soft fair hair falling into his eyes.

Winnie thought she felt him looking at her.

But she must not become foolish and over-optimistic. Maybe he could see that, of the four women, she was the only one without a wedding ring. Maybe it was pure imagination.

The conversation was easy. Peter told them about his hotel. Fiona had tales of the heart clinic where she worked. Barbara described some of the disasters her husband David had faced setting up his pottery works. Ania, the Polish girl, who had trained late as a nurse, showed them pictures of her toddler.

Teddy and Winnie said little, but they looked at each other appreciatively, learning little about each other except that they were comfortable to be there. Then it was time for the men to go and pick up the ladies from the theatre. The drive to Rossmore would take two hours.

'I hope we meet again,' Teddy said to Winnie.

The three other women busied themselves saying heavy goodbyes to Peter.

'I hope so,' Winnie said. Neither of them made any move to give a phone number or address.

Peter did it for them in the end.

'Can I give you ladies my business card, and if you know of any other good restaurants like this you could pass them on to us?' he said.

'That's great, Peter. Oh, Winnie, do you have a card there?' Fiona said meaningfully.

Winnie wrote her email address and phone number on the back of a card advertising Ennio's Good Value Wine. And then the men were gone.

'Really, Fiona, you might as well have put a neon sign over my head saying Desperate Spinster,' Winnie protested.

Fiona shrugged. 'He was nice. What was I to do, let him escape?'

'Cheesemaking!' Barbara reflected. 'Very restful, I'd say.'

'Mrs Hennessy . . . That has a nice sound to it,' said Ania with a smile.

Winnie sighed. He was nice, certainly, but she was way beyond having her hopes raised by chance encounters.

Teddy rang Winnie the next day. He was going to be in Dublin again at the weekend. Would Winnie like to meet him for a coffee or something?

They talked all afternoon in a big sunny cafe. There was so much to say and to hear. She told him about her family  –  three sisters and two brothers, scattered all over the world. She said it was a series of goodbyes at the airport and tears and promising to come out to visit, but Winnie had never wanted to go to Australia or America. She was a real home bird.

Teddy nodded in agreement. He was exactly the same. He never wanted to go too far from Rossmore.

When Winnie was twelve her mother had died and the light had gone out of the house. Five years later her father had married again; a pleasant, distant woman called Olive who made jewellery and sold it at markets and fairs around the country. It was hard to say whether she liked Olive or not. Olive was remote and seemed to live in another world.

Teddy was an only child and his mother was a widow. His father had been killed in an accident on the farm many years ago. His mother had gone out to work in the local creamery to earn the money to send him to a really good school. He had enjoyed it there but his mother was very disappointed that he had not become a doctor or a lawyer. That would have been a reward for the long, hard hours she had worked.

He loved making cheese. He had won several prizes and it was a good, steady little business. He met a lot of good people and was even able to give employment in Rossmore to workers who might have had to go away and find jobs abroad. His mother, who had turned out to be a superb businesswoman after her years in the creamery, did the accounts for him and was very involved in the business.

Winnie told of her life as a nurse, and explained what it meant to be registered with an agency. You literally didn't know where you were going to work tomorrow. It might be one of the big shiny new private hospitals; it could be a busy inner-city hospital, a maternity wing or a home for the elderly. In many ways it was great because there was huge variety, but in other ways it meant that you didn't get to know your patients very well  –  there wasn't as much continuity or involvement in their care.

They had both been to Turkey on holiday, they liked reading thrillers and they had both been the victims of well-meaning friends trying to fix them up on dates and marry them off. Either it would happen or it wouldn't, they told each other companionably. But they knew they would meet again very soon.

'I have enjoyed today,' he said.

'Maybe I could cook you a meal next time?'

His face lit up.

And after that he was part of her life. Not a huge part, but there maybe twice a week.

For several visits to her flat he left before midnight and drove the long road back to Rossmore. Then one evening he asked if she might agree that, perhaps, he could stay the night. Winnie said that would be very agreeable indeed.

Once or twice, they even went away for a weekend together but it had to be a short weekend. She soon learned that nothing could or would change his mother's plans. Teddy could never be free on a Friday because that was the evening that he took his mother to dinner in Peter's hotel.

Yes, every single Friday, he said regretfully. It was such a small thing, and Mam did love it so much. And when you thought about all she had given up for him over the years . . .

Winnie pondered about this to herself. He didn't seem like a mummy's boy, but she felt that he was nervous of introducing her to his mother. As if she might not pass some test. But this was fanciful. He was a grown man. She wouldn't rush it.

Instead, she concentrated on the idea of their taking a little holiday together.

Winnie had heard about this place that was opening in the West called Stone House. The picture on the brochure had looked very attractive. It showed a big table where all the guests would get together in the evening, a cute little black and white cat sitting beside a roaring fire; it promised excellent, home-cooked food, and comfort, with walks and birdwatching and the chance to explore the spectacular coastline.

Wouldn't that be a great place for her to go with Teddy? If only she could prise him away and break the hold of those precious Friday nights with his mother.

His mother!

She had better get the meeting over and done with before she suggested whisking the dotey boy off to the West of Ireland! But on the other hand, this place looked as if it might be really popular. Teddy would just love the idea when it was presented to him, and if it didn't suit him she could always cancel the reservation . . .

And then it was time to meet her  –  this mother who had sacrificed so much for her boy, the mother whose Friday evenings could never be disturbed. She had asked Teddy to bring his friend Winnie from Dublin to have Friday dinner in the hotel and to join them for a lunch the following day.

Winnie took great care of what to dress in, what she thought Mrs Hennessy would like.

This old lady rarely moved from Rossmore. She would be suspicious of anything flashy.

Winnie's silver and black jacket might be too dressy. She wore a sensible navy trouser suit instead.

'I'm quite nervous of meeting her,' she confided to Teddy.

'Nonsense. You'll get on so well together they'll have to call the fire brigade,' he said.

She would take the train to Rossmore with her overnight bag. Peter and his wife Gretta had invited her to stay in their hotel as their guest. Mrs Hennessy would not be told about their sleeping arrangements, so this seemed the sensible option.

'We'll give you our best room. You'll need every creature comfort after meeting the dragon lady,' Peter had said.

'But I thought you liked her!' Winnie was startled.

'She's a great dame, certainly, and the best of company, but you never saw a mama animal in the wild as protective of its young as Lillian is. She scares them away, one by one,' Peter laughed at it all.

Winnie pretended not to hear him. Battle lines were not going to be drawn over Teddy. He was an adult, a man who could and would make his own decisions.

Teddy was at the railway station to meet her. 'Mam has made up a great guest list for lunch tomorrow as well,' he said with delight. 'She says we must make it worth your while coming all this way.'

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