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A Week in Winter (Chapter Fifteen)

'But afterwards . . .?' Henry asked.

'I wouldn't have the heart to come back here. Stoneybridge was the two of us. It wouldn't be the same on my own.'

'They love you here. They say you made a difference to people,' Nicola said.

'I loved it here too, but not alone.'

'So when will you go?'

'Before Christmas,' he said simply.

They talked about him later as they sat in a mountain pub where black-faced sheep came and looked in the door. Strange thing for a man and his wife to have come so far away from their roots, stay so long and then go back in the end.

They still spoke of the Welsh doctor when they were walking over a long, empty beach and were the only people there. What could have persuaded him to stay in a small, lonely place like this where he knew nothing of the patients and their backgrounds?

They talked about him at night in their room with the waves crashing beneath the cliffs.

'You know what we are really talking about?' Henry said.

'Yes, we're talking about us, not him. Would we find peace in a place like this, just as he did?'

'It worked for him. It mightn't work for everybody.' Henry was anxious not to get swept away.

'But there might be somewhere, some place where we could be part of things, doing something rather than trying to get round a system.' Her eyes were bright with hope.

Henry leaned over to her and put both his hands around her face. 'I do love you, Nicola. Helen was right. I am a lucky person to have a happy life, and that's because you are the centre of it.'

They found themselves more and more drawn to talk to Dai Morgan. He seemed to like their company. They didn't give him any false comfort about his wife. They were less buttoned up, less watchful than when he had met them first, and slowly they told him of their hopes of finding a place, a community where they could make a difference; something, in fact, like he had done.

'Oh, I've left a lot undone here,' Dai Morgan sighed. 'If I had my time over I'd do some things very differently.'

'Like what?' Henry didn't sound intrusive. He sounded as if he wanted to learn.

'Like a big bully from the new townhouses over there. I was called to the place twice. His wife Deirdre had some kind of vertigo, he said. She had fallen from a ladder once and from the car another time. Broken bones and bruises. It looked to me as if he could have beaten her. I didn't like him but what could I do? The wife swore that she fell. Then the third time I knew. But it was too late. She didn't recover.'

'Oh, God . . .' Nicola said.

'Oh God, indeed. Where was my God, or her God, when that bastard came at her the last time? I didn't speak before because I only had intuition and a gut feeling. Because I didn't trust that feeling, Deirdre died.'

'And did you speak then?' Nicola's eyes were full of tears.

'I tried to but they shut me up. Her own family, brothers and sisters, said that her name mustn't be tarnished in this way. She must be buried as a loved wife and happy mother, otherwise it wouldn't make sense of her life. I couldn't understand it. I still don't understand it. But if I had it all over again I would have spoken the first time.'

'What happened to him? The husband?'

'He lived on here, a few crocodile tears, a few references to My Poor Wife Deirdre. But then he met another woman, a very different kind of person entirely, and the first day he hit her she was straight into the Guards. He was done for assault. He served six months and left in disgrace. Deirdre's family put it all down to his great grief over his wife's death. In a way, I suppose, it was a result.' He looked grim at the recollection of it all.

'And do you think about it a lot?' Nicola asked.

'I used to, all the time. Every day I pass the graveyard where Deirdre is buried. Every time I saw their house, I remembered her face as she swore to me that she fell from a ladder. But then Annie said it was tearing me apart and I would be no use to anyone else in the place unless I got over it. So I suppose I got over it, in a way.'

Dai watched them nod in such genuine sympathy and understanding that he realised they really did understand; perhaps something similar had happened to them too.

He spoke carefully. 'Annie said that in a way I was putting myself centre stage, making it all my problem, my involvement, or lack of it. There were other factors to consider: he was always going to be a cruel bastard, handy with his fists; she was always going to be a victim. Did I think I was some kind of avenging angel sent down to sort out the world? And it made sense.'

'You forgave yourself?' Henry asked.

'Something else happened just then. I was in my surgery when one of the young O'Hara children was brought in. His mother said he'd got some stomach bug and he was vomiting. She said he was very sleepy and had a temperature. Something about it didn't seem right to me, and I gave him a thorough examination. I thought he had meningitis and gave the hospital a call. They said he needed to come in straight away for tests. It would have taken too long to get an ambulance out here, so I just picked him up and ran outside and put him and his mother on the back seat. I drove like a demon to the hospital and they were ready with the tests and the antibiotics, and we saved him. He's a great big lout of a fellow now, could drink for the county. Nice lad, though. He's very good with the youngest boy, Shay. Takes care of him a bit. Every time I pass by he says, "That's the great man who saved my life", and I ask him to tell me one good reason why I should be pleased about this. But I know I did, and that for once I made a difference.'

'I'm sure it wasn't just for once,' Nicola said.

'Maybe not, but it was a kind of redemption and badly needed at the time, I tell you.'

Henry and Nicola talked about it all as they sat in their room at Stone House waiting for the dinner gong.

'Redemption . . . that's what we have been looking for,' Nicola said.

'Maybe the Tooth Fairy might find some for us.' Henry was not dismissive or cynical; he was actually smiling, and held her hand.

They were the first in for dinner.

Chicky and her niece Orla were preparing a tray of drinks for the guests. They were talking seriously about something.

'What can they do, Chicky? Chain his leg to the bed?'

'No, but they can't let him wander out on his own at night.'

'Try stopping him. He's going to go out anyway . . .'

When they saw Nicola and Henry they immediately broke off. Chicky was very professional. Domestic matters were never discussed in front of guests. The place ran smoothly, almost effortlessly, though it was all down to careful preparation. They enquired about what Nicola and Henry had done during the day. They took out the bird books to identify a goose that the couple had seen strutting across the marshy fields near the lake. It had pink legs and a big orange beak.

'That's a greylag goose, I'd say.' Chicky turned the pages of Ireland's Birds. 'Is this it, do you think?'

They thought it was.

'They come from Iceland every year. Imagine!' Chicky paused in wonder at it all.

'It would be lovely to know all about birds, like you do.' Nicola was envious of the way Chicky could lose herself in the thought of a goose flying from Iceland.

'Oh, I'm only a real amateur. We had hoped to have a real birdwatcher for you here. There's a local boy, Shay O'Hara. He knows every feather of every bird that flies the skies. But it didn't work out.'

'It would have been the making of him,' Orla shook her head sadly.

Chicky felt this needed some explanation. 'Shay's not himself these days. He's depressed. Nobody can reach him. We're all hoping it's just a phase.'

'Depression in young men is very serious,' Henry said.

'Oh, I know it is, and Dr Dai is on the case but Shay won't take medication or go for counselling or listen to anyone,' Chicky sighed.

The others had begun to arrive in the kitchen so the matter was dropped.

Nicola sat beside the handsome American who was still calling himself John, and who had found a new friend in a local man called Frank Hanratty. Frank had driven him miles over mountain roads in a pink van to meet an old film director who had retired to this part of the world years back. A very pleasant and contented gentleman who had given them nettle soup.

'Did he recognise you?' Nicola asked, unguardedly.

Up to now they had never acknowledged out loud that John was in fact a film actor, a celebrity.

John took it all casually. 'Yes, he was kind enough to say he knew my work. But he was fascinating. He has hens, you know, and beehives and a goat. He has a house full of books  –  he's as happy as anyone I ever met.'

'Extraordinary,' Nicola was wistful. 'It must be wonderful to be happy.'

John looked at her sharply but said no more.

Before they went to bed, they went outside to breathe in the cold sea air. Orla was just wheeling out her bicycle and on her way home.

'Do you ever get tired of this view?' Henry asked her.

'No, I missed it so much when I lived in London. Some people find it sad. I don't.'

'What about the poor birdwatcher you were telling us about? Does he find it sad?'

'Shay finds everything sad,' Orla said, and cycled home.

It was at three o'clock in the morning that Henry and Nicola were wakened by the sound of birds crying out to each other. It wasn't nearly time for the dawn chorus or the early-morning gathering of the gulls. Possibly it was a bird in distress out on their little balcony.

They got up to investigate.

Silhouetted against the moonlit sea was the thin figure of a teenage boy in a thin jumper, holding his arms around himself, his head back and weeping.

This must be Shay. Shay, who found everything sad.

Without even consulting each other, they put on their coats and shoes and went downstairs. They let themselves out into the cold night air.

The boy's eyes were closed, his face contorted. They couldn't make out the words that he was still crying aloud. He was shaking, and his thin shoulders were hunched in despair. He was dangerously near the edge of the cliff.

They moved towards him steadily, talking to each other so that he would not be startled at their approach.

He opened his eyes and saw them. 'You're not going to change my mind,' he said.

'No, that's true,' Henry said.

'What do you mean?'

'You're right. I'm not going to change your mind. If you don't do it now, you'll do it later tonight or next week. I know that.'

'So why are you trying to stop me?'

'Stop you? We're not trying to stop you, are we, Nicola?'

'No. Lord, no. People do what they want to do.'

'So what are you doing then?' His eyes were huge and filled with terror and his thin body was shaking.

'We wanted to ask you about the greylag goose. We saw one today. I gather it flew in from Iceland.'

'There's nothing odd about seeing a greylag goose. Sure, the place is coming down with them. Now if you'd seen a snow goose, that would be something to talk about,' said Shay.

'A snow goose? Do they come from Iceland too?' Nicola was moving round behind him but almost nonchalantly, and looking vaguely out to sea as if hoping to catch a snow goose in the light of the moon.

'No, they're from Arctic Canada, Greenland. You'd see them over in Wexford on the east coast. They don't come here much.'

'Have you seen them yourself?' Henry wondered.

'Oh yes, often, but as I say, not round here. I saw a bean goose last year. That's fairly rare.'

'A bean goose!' Henry tried to put awe and admiration into his voice.

The boy smiled.

'Could you come in and show us the bean goose in the bird book?' Nicola asked, as if the thought had just come to her.

'Ah, no. I'd only have Chicky going on and on about my going to the doctor. I hate doctors.'

'Oh, I know.' Nicola rolled her eyes to heaven as if sharing his view.

'Anyway, you could look it up yourself. She has all the books in there.'

'It's not the same. You could explain . . .'

'No, I wouldn't feel easy about it.' He was about to back away. Nicola was right behind him.

She put her hand gently on his arm. 'Please come in with us. Henry can't sleep, you see, and it would be such a help to us.'

'All right, so. Just for a bit,' he said, and came with them into the kitchen of Stone House.

They found him a big tartan jacket while his thin sweater was drying on the radiator. Nicola made them tea and they had some bread and cheese. He was still there explaining how you would tell a barnacle goose from a brent goose when the O'Haras arrived, calling out his name.

They had read the note he had left on their table; the note saying he was sorry but this was the only way out. They had been praying as they ran across the cliffs that they would be in time.

Shay's father sat down at Chicky's table and cried like a baby.

They phoned Shay's mother, who had been so deeply in shock that she couldn't come with them in the search. Chicky had come downstairs and was coping with everything as if this was to be expected in a day's work.

'We need a doctor,' Shay's sister said.

Shay looked up, annoyed at the idea.

Chicky was about to explain that there were already two doctors in the kitchen. Henry shook his head.

'I'm sure Dr Dai would come,' he said.

'He'll know what to do,' Nicola agreed.

Chicky understood.

Next morning at breakfast they didn't talk about it. Orla already knew. The whole of Stoneybridge had heard how the two English visitors had talked the boy out of the death he had planned. She looked at them gratefully as she served the food.

Some of the guests had thought they heard shouting in the night. A thing of nothing, Chicky explained, and they moved on to talk about plans for the day.

They called on Dai Morgan later in the morning.

'There's a human being alive today because of you,' he said.

'But for how long?' Henry asked. 'He'll do it again, won't he?'

'Maybe not. He has agreed to go into hospital for observation. He says he will take his medication and he might talk to a counsellor. That's a long way further down the road than before.'

Henry and Nicola looked at each other.

Dai went on talking. 'I'm anxious to get my own move started as soon as possible. I'll start telling people today. I was wondering . . . it's a bit far out, but I was wondering . . .'

They knew what he was going to say.

'I'll need a locum for a couple of months. Would you think of it?'

'They wouldn't trust us. We're outsiders.'

'I was an outsider.'

'But that's different. They don't know anything at all about us.'

'They know you saved Shay O'Hara's life. That's as good a calling card as any,' said Dai Morgan.

And then there was a lot to talk about, as plans were made.

'It doesn't have to be for thirty years, like me,' Dai told them.

He watched them as they stood together in the winter sunshine, relaxed now as they had never been before.

'Or then again, of course, you might even stay longer,' he added.

Anders

When Anders was at school and they asked him what would he be when he grew up, he always said that he would be an accountant like his father and grandfather. He would go to work in the big family firm with its impressive office in Stockholm. Almkvist's was one of the oldest companies in Sweden, he would tell you proudly.

Anders was a very happy child with blond, floppy hair in his eyes. He loved music from an early age and could play the piano creditably at the age of five. He wanted a guitar when he was older, and learned to play without any instruction. You could hear him playing in his room night after night after he'd finished his homework; then their housekeeper, Fru Karlsson, introduced him to the nyckelharpa, the traditional Swedish keyed fiddle. It had belonged to her grandfather, and as she had learned how to play from him so she now showed Anders. She taught him some traditional Swedish songs to play on it, and he fell in love with its ethereal sound.

He lived with his parents, Patrik and Gunilla Almkvist, Fru Karlsson and their dog, Riva, in a beautiful apartment overlooking Djurgårdskanalen. He told people that his was the best school in Sweden, and that Riva was the best dog in the world. To praise Papa's office was only just another part of the contented world he lived in. Two of his cousins, Klara and Mats, had gone to work in the family firm already, gaining office experience as they did their accountancy studies. Mats was a bit self-important but Klara was very down to earth and already knew the business inside out. They knew that Anders, as the heir and successor, would leave his piano and his nyckelharpa behind and go away to university to be groomed for the job that would one day be his. Meanwhile, they would take him out for coffee and tell him stories of the clients they met.

All kinds of well-known personalities from big business, sports and entertainment filed through the big arched doors of the office. There were meetings in the boardroom, there were discreet lunches in the private dining rooms of restaurants. Everyone in the office dressed very well; Mats wore designer suits and immaculate shirts, while Klara always managed to look elegant. Although she wore understated, sober office clothes she always looked as though she was ready to step on to a catwalk. Efficiency, style and discretion were the watchwords at Almkvist's. Mats and Klara looked and sounded the part. Anders wondered whether he would ever feel comfortable in this world.

It was the style aspect Anders found the most challenging. He hardly noticed what other people wore, and always liked to dress comfortably himself. He could not begin to understand the importance of handmade shoes, precision Swiss watches and pure silk ties, and they certainly didn't figure in the world of folk music to which he was most drawn.

His mother laughed at him affectionately.

'Well-cut clothes make you look much more handsome, Anders. The girls will admire you if you dress well.'

'They won't notice clothes. Either they will like me or they won't like me.' He was fifteen, awkward, unsure.

'So wrong, so very wrong. They'll love you but first they have to look at you. It's the first impression that counts. Believe me, I know.' Gunilla Almkvist always looked elegant. She worked for a TV station where they set a high value on style. She never left the house before she was properly prepared for what the day would bring. She walked the two kilometres to work wearing her trainers; her elegant high-heeled shoes were kept in her office on the bottom shelf  –  seven pairs of them.

She made every effort to interest Anders in dressing more smartly, trying to build an enthusiasm where none existed. By the time he was eighteen she had stopped cajoling.

'It's not a joke any more, Anders. If you were in the army you'd have to wear a uniform. If you were going to be in the Diplomatic Service there would be rules about what to wear. You are going to work in Almkvist and Almkvist Accountants. There are rules. There are expectations.'

'I'm going to study accountancy, isn't that what it's about?'

'It's what some of it is about. But it's also about respecting the family traditions, about fitting in.' There was something different, something odd in her tone this time.

He looked up. 'None of that's important, surely? It's not what life is about.'

'If you remember nothing else I've ever told you, just remember this. I agree that in the great scheme of things it is not important, but it is one small thing you can do to make life easier. That's all. Just remember I told you that.'

Why was she sounding so strange?

'You're always going on about clothes and style. I don't have to remember it, you keep telling me.' He smiled at her, willing everything to be normal.

Everything was not normal.

'I won't be here to tell you,' she said, her voice sounding as though her throat was constricted. 'That's why it's important you listen now. I am going away. I am leaving your father. You will be going to university this autumn. This is the time for change.'

'Does he know you are going?' Anders' voice was a whisper.

'Yes. He knew that I would wait until you had finished school. I am going to London. I have a job there, and that's where I will set up home.'

'But won't you be lonely there?'

'No, Anders. I have been very lonely here. Your father and I have grown apart over a long time. He is married to the company. He will hardly miss me.'

'But . . . I will miss you! This can't be true! How did I not see anything or know about all this?'

'Because we were all discreet. There was no need for you to know anything until now.'

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