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A Week in Winter (Chapter Fourteen)

Helen was adept at managing to avoid chatting to other passengers. She was looking stronger and more relaxed every day.

Henry said nothing to Beata about the arrangement but he knew she was aware of it, and that it was appreciated.

There were a few near misses. At the daily cruise conference, the Cruise Director mentioned that someone had reported an elderly man who stumbled on deck. Was Dr Henry aware of him? Was there any problem there?

Henry lied smoothly. Yes, the old chap was a bit frail but his daughter seemed very much in control.

One day when Nicola was looking after the old lady, there was a spot check by the Cabin Supervisor. She arrived at the door unexpectedly with Beata in tow.

Nicola swallowed. She had to keep her nerve. 'I'm just doing a one-to-one computer lesson,' she explained with a big smile. Mercifully Helen's mother did not choose that moment to sing a lullaby to the doll. The Supervisor moved on to the next cabin, saying that a one-to-one computer lesson was what everyone over forty needed.

'Well, come to my office and make an appointment,' Nicola begged. 'I'll fit you in to tie in with your time off.'

Then there was the Captain's cocktail party, where they noticed that there was nobody from Cabin 5347.

'They're having an early supper,' Nicola explained.

'They like to be left on their own,' Henry added.

They got to know Helen over the nine days. She said how she missed teaching; she had loved the classroom, and the joy of making children understand something in the end. She thanked them from the bottom of her heart and said they were good people who deserved all their happiness. Henry and Nicola probed her gently about what things would be like when she returned home.

'Same as before,' she said glumly, 'but at least we will have all this to look back on. It was money well spent.'

'Any more legacies likely?' Henry tried to lighten it a little.

'No, but I still have a thousand pounds. That will buy a few treats.' Again that sad smile.

They docked at Southampton. Nicola and Henry began to breathe more easily.

Helen had hired a car to drive them to London. They would take a taxi from the disembarkation point to bring them to the car-rental place.

They exchanged addresses.

'Send me a postcard from your next cruise,' Helen said, as if they were casual shipboard acquaintances rather than accomplices for nine days and nights.

'Yes, and you tell us how things are going,' Nicola said. Her voice was hollow.

It would be, as Helen had foreseen, the same as before.

The officers and crew stood on deck to bid farewell to the passengers. Nicola and Henry embraced Helen as she left, supporting a parent on each arm. They saw her walk down the gangway, her stocky little figure steady and her head held high.

The cleaners were already at work on the ship when Nicola and Henry began to disembark. They would drive home and spend ten days catching up with their parents and friends until the next cruise, this time to Madeira and the Canary Islands.

They were just saying goodbye to the Cruise Director when they heard the news. There had been a terrible accident just outside Southampton, a car crash, three fatalities  –  all of them passengers just disembarked from this cruise. Henry and Nicola looked at each other, stricken. Before the Cruise Director spoke, they knew.

'It appears to be suicide, can you believe it? She got into her hired car and drove them all into a wall. A total wreck, they were all killed instantly. They found the labels for the cruise ship, so they contacted us. It must have been that woman Helen Morris and her parents from Cabin 5347, apparently . . .'

'It must have been an accident.' Henry could barely speak.

'Don't think so. Witnesses say she stopped the car and reversed a distance and then drove straight at the wall. God, why did she do that?'

'We don't know that she did . . .' Nicola began.

'We do, Nicola. The law is here, they are making enquiries. We have to talk to the police, make statements.'

The Cruise Director was crisp and to the point.

'We are covered, aren't we, Henry? You didn't spot anything, did you?'

It seemed to Henry like an age before he answered but it was probably only four seconds.

'No, she seemed fine. Very positive.' The Cruise Director was relieved but still worried.

'And the old folk? Were they OK?'

'They were frail but she was well able to look after them,' he said, and set in train a series of lies that he and Nicola managed for the next twenty-four hours.

Before they left the ship, Henry sought out Beata. Had she heard the news? Yes, everyone had heard. Beata looked at Henry with a very steady, level glance.

'It is so sad for the poor lady and her family, but how good that they had a happy holiday at the end of their lives.' She was begging him to say nothing. She too would be in trouble for keeping the secret.

He kissed her goodbye on the cheek.

'Perhaps we will meet on another cruise, Dr Henry.'

'I don't think so,' Henry said. He felt his days as a ship's doctor were over. From now on he would do what he had set out to do: heal people, make their quality of life better, not bend rules for sentiment's sake and end up with the deaths of three people on his hands.

'She would have done it anyway,' Nicola pleaded as they drove back to Esher.

He stared ahead without answering.

'She would have done it in Bergen or Tromsø or wherever . . .'

Still silence.

'You know, you just gave her nine extra days of a holiday. That's all you did. All we did.'

'I broke the rules. I played God. There's no escaping that.'

'I love you, Henry.'

'And I love you, but that doesn't change what has happened.'

They told nobody about it. They gave no explanation to anyone about why they were giving up what sounded like the very best job on earth. They offered themselves as volunteers in programmes researching suicide prevention and coping with depression. They withdrew from friends and family. They took short-term locum positions. The dream of a small country practice had slipped away. They didn't feel they would be up to it. They had been tested and were found wanting.

Eventually, Henry's parents decided to speak their minds. It was after yet another silent, depressed Sunday lunch in their home.

'You've changed very much since you came back from that cruise ship,' his father began.

'I thought you didn't approve of it. You suggested that it wasn't real medicine,' Henry said huffily.

'I did say, and I'll always say that you should have specialised. You could be a consultant by now, all the chances you had open to you.'

'We just want you to be happy. That's all, dear,' his mother explained.

'Nobody is happy,' Henry said, and he went out to their garden to throw sticks for the old dog.

So Henry's parents decided to speak their minds to Nicola. They caught her in the kitchen as she was sipping a cup of tea and looking into the middle distance.

'We don't want to interfere, Nicola dear,' Henry's mother began.

'I know, you never do, you're really great,' Nicola said admiringly, wondering whether she could evade the 'but' that was approaching.

'It's just that we worry . . .' Henry's father didn't want to let the discussion end before it had begun.

But Nicola had a bright, empty face. 'Of course you worry,' she agreed, 'that's what parents do.'

'You've been moping around for over two years, settling to nothing. Look, I know it's not really our business but we do care.' Henry's father was begging to be heard.

Nicola turned and faced him.

'What do you want us to do? Just tell me straight out. Perhaps we just might do it.'

There was something in her face that frightened him. He had never seen her so angry. He immediately tried to row back.

'All I was saying . . . what I was going to say was that . . . that . . . you should have a holiday, a break of some sort . . .' His voice trailed away.

'Oh, a holiday!' Nicola sounded hysterically delighted with the idea. A holiday she could just cope with. Just. 'It's funny you should say that because we were talking about having a holiday. I'll talk to Henry, and we'll let you know our plans.' And she fled from their kitchen before they could say any more.

She mentioned the holiday to Henry as they drove home that evening.

'I don't think I have the energy for a holiday,' he said.

'Neither do I, but I had to say something to get them off our backs.'

'I'm sorry. Your folks don't go on nagging at us like that.'

'Yes they do, but not in front of you. They're a little afraid of their son-in-law, you know!'

'Would you like a holiday, Nicola?'

'I would like a week somewhere before the winter settles in but I don't really know where we would go,' she said.

'Well, neither of us wants to go to the Canaries for winter sun, that's for certain,' Henry said.

'And I don't want winter snow, either. I'd hate skiing,' Nicola said.

'And I'm not crazy about a bus tour,' Henry offered.

'Or Paris. It would be too cold and wet.'

'We've become very crotchety and difficult to please, and we're not even forty,' Henry said suddenly. 'Lord knows what we'll be like when we really are old.'

She looked at him affectionately. 'Maybe we've got to get through this elderly phase first, and then eventually we might become normal.' She spoke lightly but there was general wistfulness in her voice.

'I know what we'll do,' Henry said. 'We'll go on a walking holiday.'

'Walking?'

'Yes, somewhere we've never been before; the Scottish Highlands, or the Yorkshire moors.'

'Or Wales, even?'

'Yes; we'll look up a few places when we get back home.'

'We don't have to stay in youth hostels, do we?' Nicola pleaded.

'No! I think we should find a warm hotel with lots of hot water and good food.'

Nicola sat back in the passenger seat and sighed.

For the first time in two years she believed they might really have turned a corner. A week's holiday in winter would not solve all their worries and end all their woes but it might just be the beginning of some journey back.

Later that evening, when they got back to their house in Esher, it was very cold. Henry lit a fire in the small grate, the first time he had done this for two years. He saw the surprise in Nicola's face.

'Well, if we're going to take the huge decision of choosing a holiday, let's break every other tradition as well,' he said in explanation.

Nicola brought them hot chocolate. Another first. Normally when they came back from visiting either set of parents they felt exhausted, but tonight they seemed to have more energy. They brought the laptop to a small table near the fireplace and began to search for a holiday.

There were some extraordinary places on offer. A farmhouse in Wales, miles from anywhere. But too remote. They didn't want to be quite so isolated. Log cabins in the New Forest where wild ponies might come up to your windows? Yes, maybe. But would they tire of wild ponies after a day or two? An old coaching inn near Hadrian's Wall? Certainly a possibility, but they weren't instantly convinced.

Then they saw a picture of a house in the West of Ireland. A big stone place on a cliff looking down over the Atlantic Ocean. It offered walks and wild birds and peace and good cooking. There was something about it that seemed to draw them.

'It could be just a bit overwritten . . . it might not be like that at all, of course.' Nicola was almost afraid to be enthusiastic.

'Yes, but they couldn't fake those pictures  –  the waves and the big empty beaches . . . all those birds.'

'Should we call them? What's her name again . . .? Oh, Mrs Starr.'

The voice that answered had a slight American accent. 'Stone House, can I help you?'

Nicola explained that they were in their thirties, they had been working very hard and needed a holiday and a change. Could she tell them a little more about the place.

And Chicky Starr told them that it was all very simple but in her own opinion, a very restful and healing place. She used to work in New York and came back here every year for a holiday. She walked and walked, and stared out at the ocean and when she got back to America, she always felt able to cope with anything.

She hoped that her guests would feel the same way.

It was beginning to sound too good to be true.

'Will it be all sing-songs and, you know, like an Irish pub?' Henry asked diffidently.

'I very much hope not,' Chicky laughed. 'There will be wine served with dinner, of course, but if people want a more lively nightlife they can go out to the local pubs, which have music.'

'And do we all eat together?'

Chicky seemed to understand the implications of the question.

'There will be about eleven or twelve of us around the table each evening, but it won't be an endurance test. I worked in a boarding house all my life before I set up this place. I'll make sure that no one is forced into being over-jolly. Believe me.'

They believed her, and made the booking straight away.

Henry's parents were pleased.

'Nicola did tell us you had plans,' his mother said. 'I was afraid I had been intrusive but she said it hadn't been firmed up.'

'No, Mother. No question of you being intrusive,' he lied.

Nicola's parents were astonished.

'Ireland?' they gasped. 'What's wrong with Britain? There are thousands of places here you haven't seen.'

'It's Henry's decision,' Nicola lied. That sorted it out. They were indeed slightly in awe of their son-in-law.

They flew to Dublin and took a train to the West. They looked out of the windows at the small fields, the wet cattle and the towns with unfamiliar names written in two languages. It felt quite foreign, even though everyone spoke English.

The bus to Stoneybridge did indeed meet the train as Chicky Starr had promised them that it would. She said she would collect them in her car.

'How will we know you?' Henry had asked anxiously.

'I'll know you,' said Mrs Starr, and so she did.

She was a small woman who waved at them immediately and chatted easily as they drove to Stone House.

The place looked exactly like the photograph on the website. The house stood four-square on a gravelled pathway; the light was already going from the day and the windows glowed with soft light. A black and white cat sat in one of the windows, curled up in an impossibly small ball of fur and paws and ears.

Behind them the creamy, frothy foam on the waves rolled in towards the shore and crashed against the stark cliffs, which were somehow both majestic and containable at the same time.

Chicky gave them tea and scones and showed them to their room, which had a little balcony looking right out to sea.

She was calming, and asked them nothing about their lives or the reasons they had chosen her hotel. She reassured them that the other guests, some of whom had already arrived, all seemed delightful people. They lay down in their big bed and drifted off to sleep. A siesta at five o'clock in the afternoon! For Henry and Nicola it was another first.

Only the sound of the gong woke them, otherwise they might have slept all night. Cautiously they came down to the big kitchen and met the others.

Already gathered was an American man called John, who looked very familiar though they couldn't at first place him. He said he had come here on an impulse because he'd missed a flight at Shannon. Then there was a cheerful nurse called Winnie, who was travelling with her friend, an older woman called Lillian. They were both Irish and seemed an odd couple though each was entertaining company. There was Nell, a silent, watchful, older woman who seemed a bit reserved, and a Swede whose name they didn't catch.

The food was excellent; the advice about touring the area very thorough. Nobody arrived with a fiddle or an accordion and a medley of Irish songs. As Mrs Starr's niece Orla cleared the table, the group all drifted off to bed easily without speeches or explanations. Back in their room, Nicola and Henry hardly dared tell each other that it looked like being a success. Over the past two years they had been through so many false starts.

A kind of superstitious magic made them tread carefully but they slept again deeply, and the sound of the waves crashing below the cliff was comforting rather than alarming.

The next morning, they woke to scudding clouds and blustery winds and felt that this was indeed going to be the place that let the fresh air in. Their acquaintance with the other guests was close enough to be familiar but not so much as to be intrusive. When Winnie and Lillian went missing the following night, Henry offered to join the search party in case medical assistance was needed; Mrs Starr said she would rather he and Nicola stood by at the house in case the two missing women made it back by themselves. The local doctor, Dai Morgan, had been alerted and was waiting in his surgery.

'Dai Morgan? That doesn't sound very Irish,' Henry said.

'No, indeed, he came here from Wales as a locum thirty years ago when old Dr Barry was sick. Then poor Dr Barry died and Dai stayed. Just as simple as that.'

'Why did he stay?' Nicola asked.

'Because everyone loved him. They still do. Dai and Annie settled in very well here. They had a little girl, Bethan, and she loved it all here. She's a doctor too, now. Imagine!'

The next day, Dai Morgan called round to Stone House to check that the two ladies had no ill effects from their time in the cave. Chicky gave him coffee at the big kitchen table and left him there with Henry and Nicola, who were in between walks.

He was a big square man in his mid-sixties with an easy, reassuring manner and a broad smile.

'Chicky tells me the pair of you are in the same trade as myself,' he said.

Immediately they were guarded. They really didn't feel like answering questions about what they had been doing and how their careers had developed. Still, they couldn't be rude to the man.

'That's true,' Nicola said.

'For our sins,' Henry added.

'Well, I suppose there are worse than us out there,' Dai Morgan said.

They smiled politely.

'I'll miss this place,' he said suddenly.

'You're leaving?' This was a surprise. Chicky Starr had mentioned nothing about that.

'Yes. I only decided this week. My wife, Annie, has had a bad diagnosis. She would like to go back to Swansea. All her sisters live there and her mother, fit as a flea, aged eighty.'

'I'm very sorry,' Nicola said.

'Is it as bad as you think?' Henry asked.

'Yes, a matter of months. We've had second and third opinions, I'm afraid.'

'And she has accepted it?'

'Oh, Annie is a diamond. She knows what it's all about. No fuss, no drama, just wants to be with family.'

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