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A Week in Winter (Chapter Nineteen)

They were all fired up and dying to enter a competition. If only they could find one. Chicky and Orla ran to collect some newspapers and magazines, and they raked them to find competitions.

There was one where you had to name an animal in the zoo. The Walls explained that it was in a section aimed at children, and so every school in the country would be sending in entries. The odds were too great against them. They spoke with the authority of poker players who could tell you the chances of filling a straight or a flush. The others looked on in awe.

Then in a local West of Ireland paper they found a competition, 'Invent a Festival'.

The Walls read it out carefully. Contestants were asked to suggest a festival, something that would bring business in winter to a community in the West.

This might be the very thing. What kind of festival could they come up with for Stoneybridge?

The guests looked doubtful. They had been hoping for a slick slogan or a clever limerick. Suggesting a festival was too difficult.

The Walls weren't sure. They said it had possibilities that they must explore. It had to be a winter thing so a beauty pageant made no sense  –  the poor girls would freeze to death. Galway had done the oyster festival, so they couldn't do that. Other parts of the coast had taken over the surfing and kayaking industry.

Rock climbing was too specialist. There was traditional music, of course, but Stoneybridge wasn't known as a centre for it like Doolin or Miltown Malbay in County Clare, and they didn't have any legendary pipers or fiddlers in their past. There already was a walking festival, and Stoneybridge could boast no literary figures that might be used as a basis for a winter school.

There was no history of visual arts in the place. They could produce no Jack Yeats or Paul Henry as a focus.

'What about a storytelling festival?' was the suggestion of Henry and Nicola, the quiet English doctors. Everyone thought that was a good idea, but apparently there was a storytelling event in the next county which was well established.

Anders suggested a Teach Yourself Irish Music seminar but the others said the place was coming down with tourists being taught to play the tin whistle and the spoons, and the Irish drum called the bodhran.

The American, who seemed to be called John or Corry alternately, said that he thought a Find Your Roots festival would do well. You could have genealogists on hand to help people trace their ancestors. The general opinion was that the roots industry in Ireland was well covered already.

Winnie suggested a cookery festival, where local people could teach the visitors how to make the brown bread and potato farls, and particularly how to use the carrageen to make the delicious mousse they had eaten last night. But apparently there were too many cookery schools already, and it would be hard to compete.

They all agreed to sleep on the problem and to bring new ideas to the table the following night. It had been an entertaining evening and The Walls had enjoyed it in spite of themselves.

Once back in their bedroom, their thoughts went again to Paris. Tonight was when they should have been going to the Opera. Their limousine would have been gliding through the lights of Paris; then they would have purred back to the Martinique where they would be welcomed by the staff, who would know them by this stage. The maitre d' would suggest a little drink in the piano bar before they went to bed. Instead, they were trying to explain the rules of competition-winning to a crowd of strangers who hadn't the first idea where to start.

As always, just thinking about it made them discontented.

'I bet they don't even appreciate it,' Charlie said.

'They probably called off the opera house and went to a pub.' Ann was full of scorn.

Then suddenly the thought came to her.

'Let's telephone them and ask them how they are getting on. At least we'll know.'

'We can't ring them in Paris!' Charlie was shocked.

'Why not? Just a short call. We'll say we called to wish them well.'

'But how would we ever find them?' Charlie was dumb-founded.

'We know the name of the hotel; we know their name  –  what's hard to find there?' To Ann it was simple.

The Walls had already written all the details of the Paris holiday in their competition notebook, including the telephone number of the Hotel Martinique. Before he could think of another objection she had picked up her mobile phone, dialled the number and got through.

'Monsieur et Madame Flemming d'Irlande, s'il vous plait,' she said in a clear, bell-like voice.

'Who are you going to say we are?' Charlie asked fearfully.

'Let's play it by ear.' Ann was in control.

Charlie listened in anxiously as she was put through.

'Oh, Mrs Flemming, just a call to ask how the holiday is going. Is it all to your satisfaction?'

'Oh, well, yes . . . I mean, thank you indeed,' the woman sounded hesitant.

'And you are enjoying your week at the Martinique?' Ann persisted.

'Are you from the hotel?' the woman asked nervously.

'No, indeed, just a call from Ireland to hope there are no problems.'

'Well, it's rather awkward. It's very hard to say this because it is a very expensive hotel. We know that, but it's not quite what we had hoped.'

'Oh dear, I'm sorry to hear that. In what way, exactly?'

'Well . . . It isn't a suite, for one thing. It's a very small room near the lift, which is going up and down all night. And then we can't eat in the dining room  –  the vouchers are only for what they call Le Snack Bar.'

'Oh dear, that wasn't in the terms of agreement,' Ann said disapprovingly.

'Yes, but you might as well be talking to a blank wall for all the response you get. They shrug and say these arrangements have nothing to do with them.' Mrs Flemming was beginning to sound very aggrieved.

'And the chauffeur?'

'We've only seen him once. He is attached to the hotel, and apparently he's needed by VIP customers all the time. He's never free. They gave us vouchers for a bus tour to Versailles, which was exhausting, and there were miles of cobblestones to walk over. We didn't go to Chartres at all.'

'That's not what was promised,' Ann clucked with disapproval.

'No indeed, and we hate complaining. I mean, it's a very generous prize. It's just . . . it's just . . .'

'The top restaurants? Have they turned out all right?'

'Yes, up to a point, but you see it only covers the prix fixe, you know, the set menu, and it's often things like tripe or rabbit that we don't eat. They did say we could choose from the fine-dining menus, but when we got there we couldn't.'

'And what are you going to do about it?'

'Well, we didn't know what to do, so that's why it's wonderful you called us. Are you from the magazine?'

'Not directly, but sort of connected,' Ann Wall said.

'We don't like to go whingeing and whining to them; it seems so ungrateful. It's just so much less than we expected.'

'I know, I know.' Ann was genuinely sympathetic.

'And individually the people in the hotel are very nice, really nice and pleasant, it's just that in general they seem to think we won much more of a bargain-basement prize than the one that was advertised. What would you suggest we do?'

The Walls looked at each other blankly. What indeed?

'Perhaps you could get in touch with the public relations firm that set it up,' Ann said eventually.

'Could you do that for us, do you think?' Mrs Flemming was obviously a person who didn't want to make waves.

'It might be more effective coming from you, what with your being on the spot and everything . . .' Ann was feverishly trying to pass the buck back to the Flemmings.

'But you were kind enough to ring us to ask was everything all right. Who are you representing, exactly?'

'Just a concerned member of the public.' And Ann Wall hung up, trembling.

What were they going to do now?

First they allowed the glorious feeling to seep over them and through them. The dream holiday in Paris had turned out to be a nightmare. They were oh so well out of it. They were better by far in this mad place on the Atlantic, which they had thought was so disappointing at first.

Everything that had been promised was being delivered here. Perhaps they had won the first prize after all.

They decided that the following morning they would call the public relations firm and report that all was not as it should be at the Hotel Martinique.

For the first time they slept all through the night. There was no resentful waking at three a.m. to have tea and brood about the unfairness of life in general and competitions in particular.

The Walls took a packed lunch and walked along the cliffs and crags until they found an old ruined church, which Chicky said would be a lovely place to stop and have their picnic. It was sheltered from the gales and looked straight across to America.

They laughed happily as they unpacked their wonderful rich slices of chicken pie and opened their flasks of soup. Imagine  –  the Flemmings would be facing another lunch of tripe and rabbit in Paris.

Ann Wall had left a cryptic message with the PR agency, saying that for everyone's sake they should check on the Flemmings in the Martinique or some very undesirable publicity might result. They felt like bold children who had been given time off at school. They would enjoy the rest of their stay.

That night, everyone at Chicky's kitchen table was ready with their festival suggestions; they could barely wait for the meal to finish to come up with their pitch. Lillian, whose face had softened over the last couple of days, said that the essence of a festival nowadays seemed to be, if everyone would excuse the use of that horrible phrase, a 'feel-good factor'. Sagely they all nodded and said that was exactly what was needed.

Chicky said that a sense of community was becoming more and more important in the world today. Young people fled small closed societies at first, as well they should, but later they wanted to be part of them again.

Orla wondered about organising a family reunion. They liked the notion but said it would be hard to quantify. Did it mean the gathering of a clan, or the bringing together of people who had been estranged? Lillian thought that an Honorary Granny Festival might be good. Everyone wanted to be a grandmother, she said firmly. Winnie looked at her sharply. This had never been brought up before.

Henry and Nicola wondered if Health in the Community might be a good theme. People were very into diets and lifestyle and exercise these days. Stoneybridge could provide it all. And Anders said suddenly that you could have a festival to celebrate friendship. You know, old friends turning up together, maybe going on a trip there with an old pal, that kind of thing. They thought about it politely for a while. The more they thought about it, the better it sounded.

It didn't exclude family, or anything. Your friend could be your sister or your aunt.

Most people must have felt from time to time that they would love to catch up with someone that they hadn't seen as much as they would have liked.

Suppose there was a festival which offered a variety of entertainments, like the ideas everyone had suggested already but done in the name of friendship? They were teeming with ideas. There could indeed be cookery demos, keep-fit classes, walking tours, birdwatching trips, farmhouse teas, sing-songs, local drama, tap-dancing classes.

The Walls watched with mounting excitement as the table planned and took notes and assembled a programme. They had a winner on their hands.

They checked the newspaper again to see what prize was being offered.

It was a 1,250-euro shopping spree in a big Dublin store.

The Walls worked it out. They would share it equally between them, with extra for Anders as they had chosen his idea. Would that do?

Everyone was delighted.

What would they call themselves? The Stone House Syndicate? Yes, that seemed perfect. Orla would type it out and give everyone a copy. They would watch for the results, which would be published the week before Christmas.

When the festival was up and running, they would all come back and celebrate here again. And best of all, they still had the rest of the week in this lovely house with the waves crashing on the shore. A place that had not only lived up to its promise but had delivered even more.

It wasn't exactly romance and stardust sprinkled all over them like magic, but it was something deeper, like a sense of importance and a great feeling of peace.

Miss Nell Howe

The girls at Wood Park School thought that Miss Howe was ninety when she retired. She was actually sixty. Same difference. It was old. They didn't pause to think how she would spend her days, weeks and months afterwards. Old people just continued to boss and grumble and complain. They had no idea how much she had dreaded this day, and how she feared the first September for forty years when she wouldn't set out to begin a new school year full of hope and plans and projects.

Miss Howe had been there as long as anyone could remember. She was tall and thin with hair combed straight back from her forehead and held there with an old-fashioned slide. She wore dark clothes under an academic gown. She had taught the mothers and aunts of these girls in the past but in recent years, as headmistress, she had been rarely in the classroom and mainly in her office.

The girls hated going to Miss Howe's office. For one thing, being there always meant some kind of disapproval, complaint or punishment. But it wasn't just that. It was a place without soul. Miss Howe had a very functional and always empty desk: she was not a person who tolerated chaos or mess.

There was a wall lined with inexpensive shelving holding many books on education. No handcrafted bookcases, as might have seemed suitable for a woman whose life had been involved for decades in teaching. Another wall was covered in timetables and lists of upcoming functions, details of various rosters and plans. Two large steel filing cabinets  –  presumably holding the records of generations of Wood Park girls  –  and a big computer dominated the room. There were dull brown curtains at the window, no pictures on the walls, no hint of any life outside these walls. No photographs, ornaments or signs that Miss Howe, Principal, had an interest in anything except Wood Park School. This is where she interviewed prospective pupils and their parents, possible new teachers, inspectors from the Department of Education and the occasional past pupil who had done well and had returned to fund a library or a games pavilion.

Miss Howe had an assistant called Irene O'Connor who had been there for years. Irene was round and jolly and in the staffroom they always called her the 'acceptable face of the Howe office'. She didn't appear to notice that Miss Howe barked at her rather than spoke to her. Miss Howe rarely thanked her for anything she did, and always seemed slightly surprised and almost annoyed when Irene brought tea and biscuits into what was likely to be an awkward or contentious meeting.

There were no plants or flowers in Miss Howe's office, so Irene had introduced a little kalanchoe in a brass pot. It was a plant that needed practically no care, which was just as well as Miss Howe never watered it or apparently even noticed it. Irene wore brightly coloured t-shirts with a dark jacket and skirt. It was almost as if she was trying to bring a stab of colour into the mournful office without annoying Miss Howe. Irene was quite possibly a saint, and might even be canonised in her own lifetime.

She worked in a little outer office which was full of her personality, as indeed was her conversation. There were trailing geraniums and picture postcards from all of Irene's friends pinned to her bulletin board; there were framed photographs of her on the desk. On her shelves were souvenirs of holiday trips to Spain and pictures of herself wearing a frilly skirt and a big sombrero at a fiesta. Here was a record of a busy, happy life, in contrast to the bleak cell that was Miss Howe's pride and joy.

She went home every day at lunchtime because she had an invalid mother and a nephew, Kenny, who was her late sister's child. Irene and her mother had given Kenny a good home and he was growing up to be a fine boy.

In the staffroom they marvelled at Irene's patience and endless good humour. Sometimes they sympathised with her, but Irene would never hear a word against her employer.

'No, no, it's only her manner,' she would say. 'She has a heart of gold, and this is the dream job for me. Please understand that.'

The teachers said to each other that people like Irene would always be victimised by the Miss Howes of this world. What did Irene mean, 'it was only her manner'? People were their manner. How else were we to know them?

Miss Howe was rightly named Her Own Worst Enemy. They giggled over the cleverness of this, and somehow it tamed her. She was less frightening when they could call her this behind her back, though they made very sure that the children never got wind of their name for her.

In the year before Miss Howe retired there was much speculation about her successor. None of the current staff appeared to have the seniority or authority to replace her. That was the way Miss Howe had run things, with never a hint of delegation. The new appointment would most probably be someone from outside. The staff didn't like that idea either. They were used to Her Own Worst Enemy. They knew how to cope and they had Irene to soften the edges. Who knew what the new person might want to introduce? Better the devil you know than the entirely new and imposed devil that you didn't know at all.

They also wondered about Irene. Would she stay and serve the new Tsar? Would she find excuses for the next principal and her manner? Suppose the new person didn't want Irene?

It was change. They feared change.

Then there was the matter of the presentation to Miss Howe. None of them had the slightest clue as to where her interests lay. Even desultory conversation at the beginning of term had failed to discover anything. Miss Howe had no holiday story to tell, nothing like that was ever mentioned, or any family gathering, or repainting of a house, or digging of a garden. Eventually they had given up asking.

But what could you give to this woman to celebrate all her years at Wood Park? There was no question of a cruise or a week in a spa or a set of Waterford Crystal or some beautifully crafted piece of furniture. Miss Howe's taste had been seen to be completely utilitarian: if it functioned, it was fine.

The teachers begged Irene to come up with an idea.

'You see her every day. You talk to her all the time. You must have some notion of what she would like,' they pleaded.

But Irene said that her mind was a complete blank. Miss Howe was a very private person. She didn't believe in talking about personal things.

The parents' committee was asking Irene the same question. They wanted to mark the occasion and didn't know how. Irene decided that she really must stir herself and find out more about her employer's lifestyle.

She knew Miss Howe's address, so the first thing she did was go and look at her house. It was in a terrace of houses called St Jarlath's Crescent. Small houses once thought of as working-class accommodation, which had later been redefined as townhouses and were now, of course, dropping in value again because of the recession. Most of the small front gardens were well kept, many with window boxes and colourful flower beds.

Miss Howe's garden, however, had no decoration. There were two flowering shrubs and a neatly mowed lawn. The paint on the door, gate and windowsills needed to be refreshed. It didn't look neglected, more ignored. No hints there.

Irene decided she must be brave and get to see the interior. With this in mind, the following morning she slipped Miss Howe's reading glasses into her own handbag and then called round to the house to deliver them, pretending that she had found them on the desk.

Miss Howe met her at the door with no enthusiasm.

'There was no need, Irene,' she said coldly.

'But I was afraid you wouldn't be able to read tonight,' Irene stumbled.

'No, I have plenty of replacements. But thank you all the same. It was kind of you.'

'May I come in for a moment, Miss Howe?' Irene nearly fainted at her own courage in asking this.

There was a pause.

'Of course.' Miss Howe opened the door fully.

The house was clinically bare, like the office back in Wood Park. No pictures on the walls, a rickety bookcase, a small old-fashioned television. A table with a supper tray prepared with a portion of cheese, two tomatoes and two slices of bread. Back in Irene's house they would be having spicy tomato sauce and pasta. Irene had taught Kenny how to cook, and tonight he would make a rhubarb fool. They would all play a game of Scrabble and then Irene and her mother would watch the soaps and Kenny, who was now eighteen, would go out with his friends.

What a happy home compared to this cold, bleak place.

But since Irene had come so far she would not give up now.

'Miss Howe, I have a problem,' she said.

'You have?' Miss Howe's voice was glacial.

'Yes. The teachers and the parents have asked me to tell them what would be a suitable gift for you when you retire this summer. Everyone is anxious to give you something that you would like. And because I work with you all day, they wrongly thought I would know. But I don't know. I am at a loss, Miss Howe. I wonder, could you direct me . . .?'

'I don't want anything, Irene.'

'But Miss Howe, that isn't the issue. They want to give you something, something suitable, appropriate.'

'Why?'

'Because they value you.'

'If they really value me then they will leave me alone and not indulge their wish for sentimental ceremonies.'

'Oh, no, that's not how they see it, Miss Howe.'

'And you, Irene. How do you see it?'

'I suppose they must think I am a poor friend and colleague if I can't tell them after twenty years' working for you what would be a good farewell present.'

Miss Howe looked at her for a long moment.

'But Irene, you are not a friend or colleague,' she said eventually. 'It's a totally different relationship. People have no right to expect you to know such things.'

Irene opened her mouth and closed it several times.

When the teachers in the staffroom had railed against Miss Howe and called her Her Own Worst Enemy, she had stood up for the woman. Now she wondered why. Miss Howe was indeed a person without warmth or soul; without friends or interests. Let them buy her a picnic basket or vacuum cleaner. It didn't matter. Irene didn't care any more.

She picked up her bag and moved to the door.

'Well, I'll be off now, Miss Howe. I won't disturb you and keep you from your supper any longer. I just wanted to return your glasses to you, that's all.'

'I didn't leave my glasses on my desk, Irene. I never leave anything on my desk,' Miss Howe said.

Irene managed to walk steadily to the gate. It was only when she was a little way along the road that her legs began to feel weak.

All those years she had worked for Miss Howe, shielded her from irate parents, discontented teachers, rebellious pupils. Tonight Miss Howe had told her face to face that she must not presume to call herself a friend or a colleague. She was merely someone who worked for the Principal.

How could she have been so blind and so sure of her own position?

She held on to a gate to steady herself. A young woman came out of her house and looked at her with concern.

'Are you feeling all right? You look as white as a sheet.'

'I think so. I just feel a little dizzy.'

'Come in and sit down. I'm a nurse, by the way.'

'I know you,' Irene gasped, 'you work at St Brigid's heart clinic.'

'Yes; you're not a patient there, are you?'

'I come with my mother, Peggy O'Connor.'

'Oh, of course. I'm Fiona Carroll. Peggy's always talking about you and how good you are to her.'

'I'm glad someone thinks I'm good for something,' Irene said.

'Come in, Miss O'Connor, and I'll get you a cup of tea.' Fiona had her by the arm and Irene sank gratefully into a house that was so different to Miss Howe's that it could have been on another planet. Between them, Fiona and her two little boys provided tea, chocolate cake and a lot of encouragement.

Irene began to feel a lot better.

Always discreet and loyal, she resisted the temptation to unburden herself to this kindly Fiona, who must know her difficult neighbour and might even be able to give her words of consolation.

But old habits die hard.

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