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A Week in Winter (Chapter Five)

'I'm not able to, Rigger. It wouldn't work. I send you both my good wishes and my hopes for the future. I'm sure I will come one day and visit you another time.'

'But I'll only have one wedding day, Mam.'

'That's one more than I had,' Nuala said.

'But why are you still against me, Mam? I did what you and Nasey said I should do. I made a life here. I worked hard. I gave up all that stupid way of going on. Why won't you come and see us getting married?'

'I failed you, Rigger. I gave you no upbringing. I couldn't look after you or guide you. I let you make a mess of your life. I have no part of what you have become. You did all that without me.'

'Don't talk like that. I'd be nothing if it weren't for you. I was the eejit who wouldn't listen. Please come, Mam.'

'Not this time, Rigger. But maybe one day.'

'And about the baby . . . if it's a girl, we were going to call her Nuala.'

'Don't! Please don't do that. I know you think it would please me but truly I don't want it.'

'Why, Mam? Why do you say that?'

'Because I'm not worth it. When did I ever do anything properly for you, Rigger? Anything that worked? I ask myself that over and over and I can't find an answer.'

She sent a wedding gift of an expensive glass vase with a card saying she was so sorry not to be able to be there in person.

Carmel understood.

'We should let her wait until she's ready. When the baby is born she'll be here like a flash and then we'll show her what a good job she made of you.'

The wedding day itself went better than they might have hoped. Nasey came from Dublin with Rigger's cousin Dingo.

Nasey smoothed things over with the Hickeys. Rigger's mother would definitely have been here if she could, but sadly she had not felt strong enough to travel. She sent everyone her good wishes.

Privately he told Chicky that his sister was retreating further and further.

No need to upset the boy by telling him this, but she seemed to have disengaged with her son entirely.

Miss Queenie was totally resplendent at the wedding in a dark pink brocade dress that she had last worn thirty-five years ago, and with a matching hat with flowers round the brim. Chicky bought herself an elegant navy silk dress and jacket. She got a plain straw hat and put navy and white silk flowers on the brim. The Hickeys were going to get a run for their money at this wedding.

Chicky served a delicious roast lamb for lunch in Stone Cottage, and they had made a wedding cake that was the equal to anything the Hickeys might have seen in a five-star hotel, if they had ever been to one. There was no honeymoon; the young couple were hard at work fixing up the hen runs and the new milking shed. Three cows had already been bought at the cattle market and were grazing in the fields. Stone Cottage would supply its own milk for the guests as well as yogurt and even organic butter. There was a great deal to be done.

Carmel helped Chicky to go through colour schemes for the bedrooms. She had a good eye and discovered where to source materials. She was deeply cynical about the expensive advice and taste of some of the interior designers they met along the way.

'Honestly, Chicky, they don't know any more than we do. Less, in fact, because you remember this house as it used to be. They're just trying to stamp their own image on the place.'

But Chicky said that they were spending so much already, the cost of an interior designer wouldn't make that huge a difference. At least they would know if they were going in the right direction.

Chicky's niece Orla wasn't sure but agreed. Give the designers a crack at it. Orla had come back from London after talking to Chicky again. She had committed to be on Chicky's team a few weeks ago.

'I couldn't come back to Stoneybridge now,' Orla had said, 'not after London, and my mother is driving me mad. Chicky, can I stay here with you in Stone House? There's plenty of room.'

'No, I've done enough to annoy the family in the past. I'm not going to be accused of hijacking you now. Just go home and sleep at your mother's house.'

'I can't do it. She's on my case all the time: why didn't I get engaged to a banker like Brigid O'Hara did? What was I doing in London that I didn't meet some thick-as-a-plank rich boy like Brigid did?'

'I don't want Kathleen on my case, either. Stick it out, Orla. And if you do decide to come and work with me, we'll find you a place of your own. There's a lot of falling-down cottages here. We can do one up.'

'That would mean saying I'm going to stay in Stoneybridge for ever.'

'No it wouldn't. We can always rent it or sell it afterwards. I'd give you great training. You'll cook like a dream when I'm finished with you. But don't stay here in this house. You need to be able to shake a place off at the end of the working day.'

'You're a miracle, that's what you are.'

'No, I'm just very experienced,' Chicky had said and the decision had been made.

Rigger and Carmel, determined to prove themselves in front of everyone, worked all their waking hours to turn their plans into reality. Rigger wanted to do deliveries to faraway farms up near Rocky Ridge, but Carmel warned that her cousins who ran the local grocery shops would resent this and claim that Rigger and Carmel were taking the bread from their mouths. So instead they made marmalades and jams and found attractive little jars for them with Stone Cottage painted on each one.

Like Chicky had done already, they had to look for business without alienating the shopkeepers who made their living around the area. They must try to provide a new service rather than replace existing ones.

Soon the hotels and tourist shops were buying from them and asking for more.

Carmel found some old cookbooks and learned to make chutneys, pickles and a particularly good carrageen moss made from the local red-brown seaweed that washed up on their shores. Chicky remembered that back when she was young people had made it as a dull milky pudding but Carmel's was a different dish altogether. With eggs and lemon and sugar it was as light as a feather, and she served it with a whipped cream laced with Irish whiskey.

Miss Queenie was very interested in the new baby, and she was the first to hear when Carmel and Rigger came back stunned from the hospital where they had learned that it was not going to be one baby but twins.

Dr Dai Morgan, a Welshman who had been taken on as a locum in Stoneybridge nearly thirty years before, was delighted for them.

'Twice the pleasure and half the effort,' he said to the two youngsters, who were still unable to take it on board.

'How wonderful! A ready-made family all in one go, and they'll be great company for each other.' Miss Queenie clapped her hands.

It was exactly what Rigger and Carmel needed to hear after their own reaction: that one baby was going to be hard enough to manage, two would be impossible.

It was difficult to make Carmel take things more easily. But between them they managed to get her to realise that this was a priority.

And slowly the weeks went by. Carmel had her suitcase packed and ready. Rigger jumped a foot in the air if she even took a deep breath.

It happened in the middle of the night. Rigger kept calm. He phoned Dr Morgan, who said to wake Chicky at once and tell her to get things ready. It sounded too late for the hospital. He would be there in ten minutes, and he was in the door of Stone Cottage before they had time to take in what was happening.

Chicky was there too with towels and a sense of control that calmed them down. The baby girl and boy were born and in Carmel's arms well before dawn.

When Miss Queenie came to breakfast, she found Chicky and Dr Dai having a brandy with their coffee.

'I missed it all,' she said, disappointed.

'You can go over and see them in half an hour. The nurse is there at the moment. They're all fine,' the doctor said.

'Thanks be to the good Lord. Now I think I should have a tiny brandy too, to wet the babies' heads.'

All day they went in and out to see the new babies.

Miss Queenie could see family resemblances already, even though they were only a few hours old. The little boy was the image of Rigger; the girl had Carmel's eyes. She was dying to know what they would call them.

Chicky was about to say that the parents probably needed time but no, they had the names ready. The boy would be Macken after Carmel's father, and the girl would be Rosemary. Or maybe Rosie.

'Where did you get that name?' Chicky asked.

'It's Miss Queenie's name. She was baptised Rosemary,' Rigger said.

Chicky smiled at him through her tears. Imagine, Rigger, the sulky, mutinous boy who had arrived on her doorstep, knowing that and having the kindness to think of honouring the old lady. She felt a wave of sadness that Nuala couldn't share this excitement. It was as if she herself had taken over Nuala's role as a second grandmother for the babies. Nuala should be here, wresting the power from Granny Hickey instead of living in some mad guilty fog in Dublin and working herself to death for nothing.

But it was such a pleasure to look at Miss Queenie. Nobody had ever taken to child-minding like she had.

'Well I never thought this would happen!' Miss Queenie would say in wonder. 'You see, our own children didn't materialise and I never had any nieces so there would have been nobody to be called after me, and now there is.'

There was a lot of nose-blowing and clearing of throats and then Miss Queenie asked suddenly, 'Is Nuala just delighted that the babies are here?'

Nuala.

Nobody had actually told her yet.

'If you'd like me to . . .?' Chicky began.

'No, I'll call her myself,' Rigger said. He went away from the group and dialled his mother's number.

'Oh, Rigger?' She sounded tired, but then she probably was tired. Who knew how many cleaning jobs she had taken on these days.

'I thought you'd want to know. The babies are here: a boy and a girl.'

'That's good news. Is Carmel all right?'

'Yes, she's fine. It all happened very quickly and the children are perfect. Perfect. They weighed four and a half pounds each. They're beautiful, Mam.'

'I'm sure they are.' Her voice still flat rather than excited.

'Mam, when I was being born, was it quick or did it take a long time?'

'It took a long time.'

'And were you all on your own in a hospital?'

'Well, there were nurses around and other mothers having babies.'

'But there was nobody of your own with you?'

'No. What does it matter now? It's long ago.'

'It must have been terrible for you.'

There was a silence.

'We are going to call them Rosie and Macken,' he said.

'That will be nice.'

'You did say you didn't want us to call her Nuala.'

'Yes I did, Rigger, and I meant it. Stop apologising. Rosie is fine.'

'She's going to run the world, Mam. Her and her brother.'

'Yes, of course.'

And then she was gone.

What kind of woman could care so little about the birth of grandchildren? It wasn't normal. But then, since that night after the episode in Malone's butcher's shop, Mam had not been normal. Had he in fact driven her mad?

Rigger would not allow it to get him down. This was the best day of his life.

It would not be ruined.

There was no shortage of people to help with the twins, and the babies grew to feel equally at home in their own house and in the big house. They would sleep in their pram while Chicky and Carmel went through catalogues and fabric samples at the kitchen table. Or if everyone was out, Miss Queenie sat there staring into the two little faces. And occasionally picking Gloria up on to her lap in case the cat felt jealous.

Nasey announced that he was going to get married in Dublin to a really wonderful woman called Irene. He hoped that Rigger and Carmel would come to his wedding.

They discussed it. They didn't want to leave home, and yet they wanted to be there to support Nasey as he had them. They were also dying to see this Irene. They had thought Nasey was well beyond romance. It would be the ideal way for them to meet Nuala on neutral ground.

'She'll be bowled over when she sees the children,' Rigger said.

'We can't take Rosie and Macken.'

'We can't leave them.'

'Yes we can. For one night. Chicky and Miss Queenie will look after them. My mother will. There's a dozen people who will.'

'But I want her to meet them.' Rigger sounded like a six-year-old.

'Yes, when she is ready she'll meet them. She's not ready yet. Anyway, it would be making us centre stage at the wedding with our twin babies. It's Nasey and Irene's day.'

He saw it was sensible but his heart was heavy at the mother who couldn't reach out in such a little way. He knew that Carmel was right. Not this time: it was enough that he would see his mother again. Things must be done in stages.

When Rigger saw his mother, he hardly recognised her. She seemed to have aged greatly. There were lines in her face that he never remembered and she walked with a stoop.

Could all this have happened in such a short time?

Nuala was perfectly polite to Carmel but there was a distance about her that was almost frightening. During the party in the pub, Rigger pulled his cousin Dingo aside.

'Tell me what's wrong with my mam? She's not herself.'

'She's been that way for a good bit,' Dingo said.

'What way? Like only half listening?'

'Sort of not there. Nasey says it was all the shock of . . . Well, whatever it was back then.'

Dingo didn't want to rake up bad memories.

'But she must be over that now,' Rigger cried. 'Things are different now.'

'She felt she made a total bags of raising you. That's what Nasey says. He can't persuade her that it's nonsense.'

'What can I do to tell her?'

'It's got to do with the way she feels inside. You know, like those people who think they're fat and starve themselves to death. They have no image of themselves. She probably needs a shrink,' Dingo said.

'God Almighty, isn't that desperate.' Rigger was appalled.

'Here, I don't want you getting all down about it. It's Nasey and Irene's day. Stick a smile on your face, will you.'

So Rigger stuck a smile on his face and even managed to sing 'The Ballad of Joe Hill', which went down very well.

And when Nasey was making his speech he put an arm around Rigger and Dingo's shoulders and said that he had the two finest nephews in the western world.

Rigger looked over at his mother. Her face was empty.

Carmel noticed everything and understood most things without having them explained to her. It didn't take her long to get the picture here. She had talked to her mother-in-law about subjects far removed from Rigger and the family. One by one, however, the topics she raised seemed to run into the ground. No use asking about television programmes  –  Nuala didn't own a television set. She rarely went to the cinema. There wasn't time to read. She admitted that it was harder to get decent jobs because of the recession. Nobody paid you more than the minimum wage. Women didn't give you their clothes like they used to, they sold them online nowadays.

She answered questions as if it was an interview in a Garda station. There was none of the normal to and fro of a conversation. Apart from hoping that all was well back at Stoneybridge, she asked nothing about her grandson and granddaughter.

'Do you take a drink at all, Nuala?' Carmel asked.

'No, no, I never got in the habit of it.'

'Rigger doesn't drink either, which makes him fairly unusual in our part of the world, but I do love the occasional glass of wine. Can I get you one?'

'If you'd like to, yes,' said Nuala.

Carmel brought two glasses of white wine back to their little table.

'Good luck to the bride and groom,' she said.

'Indeed.' Nuala raised her glass mechanically.

'I'm taking a big risk here but I'm just going to tell you something. I love Rigger with all my heart. He is the perfect husband and the perfect father. You won't know this because you haven't seen him in that role. He works all the hours God sends. There is one thing he is not  –  he is not a son. He is nobody's son. As a father himself now he would love to know something about his own father, but he wouldn't ask you any questions about him, not in a million years. But much more important than anything, he wants his mother back. He wants so much to share this good life he has now with you.'

Nuala looked at her, astonished.

'I haven't gone away,' she said.

'Please, let me finish then I promise that I will never mention this again. He's just not complete. You are the one piece of the jigsaw that's missing. He never thinks that you were a bad mother. Every single thing he says about you is high praise. I would die happy if I thought my son Macken would talk so well of me. You don't have to do anything at all, Nuala. You can forget I said any of this. I won't tell him. He wanted to bring the children up to meet you but I asked him not to. I said that one day they would meet their grandmother Nuala, but not until she was ready. You say you feel guilty about letting him run wild. He now feels guilty that he has made you unbalanced and ruined your life.'

'Unbalanced?'

'Well, that's what it is, isn't it? You've got the balance wrong. You need someone to help you to mend the scales. Like as if you had a broken leg. It wouldn't heal without someone to set it.'

'I don't need a doctor.'

'We all need a doctor some time along the way. Why don't you try it? If it's no use then it's no use, but at least you gave it a try.'

Nuala said nothing.

So Carmel decided to finish. 'We will always be ready. And he needs to be a son again. That's all I wanted to say, really.' She hardly dared to look Nuala in the eye. She had gone too far.

The woman was not well. She lived in a world of her own. All Carmel had done was to annoy her and upset her further.

But she thought that the lined, strained face had changed slightly. Nuala still said nothing but she definitely looked less tense, her hands didn't grip the edge of the table so hard.

Was this fanciful, or was it real?

Carmel knew she had already said more than enough. She would not speak any more. She sat very still for what seemed a very long time but was probably only a minute or two. Around them, the wedding party was singing 'Stand By Your Man'.

Rigger came towards them.

'They'll be going in a few minutes, do you want some confetti to throw?' he asked.

Now Carmel realised that Nuala's face had changed. She was definitely looking at the eager, happy face of her son with different eyes. It was as if she could see that this was not someone she had destroyed but a proud, happy man secure in himself and steady as a rock.

'Sit down for a minute, Rigger, knowing Nasey it will be hours before they get going.'

'Sure.' He was surprised and pleased.

'I was just wondering who was looking after Rosie and Macken tonight?' she asked.

'Chicky and Miss Queenie. They have our mobile number. Chicky rang an hour ago to say they were all asleep except herself  –  Miss Queenie, the twins, Gloria . . .'

'Gloria?'

'The cat. She's a heavy sleeper.'

'The cat wouldn't sleep in the pram?' Nuala looked anxious.

'No, Gloria's much too lazy to get up to that height. Anyway, they're watched all the time.'

'Good, good.'

'Chicky wanted to know how it was all going,' Rigger said.

'And what did you tell her?' His mother was actually asking a question, looking for information.

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