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A Week in Winter (Chapter Six)

'I said it was a great wedding,' Rigger reported.

'Will you be talking to her again tonight?' Nuala wondered.

'Oh, you can be sure we will. This is the first night we've ever left them,' Carmel said.

'Could you say to her that she's to keep a sharp eye on them, and to tell them that I'll be coming to see them myself before too long? I've just got a few medical things to sort out but then I'll be there.'

Rigger struggled for the words. He was determined not to break the mood. This was not a time for hugs and tears.

'And won't they be so pleased to hear that, Mam,' he said. 'So very pleased.'

Just then there was a rush to the door. The bride and groom really were leaving.

Carmel looked at Nuala. She wanted to tell her that with those words she had made her son feel complete.

But there was no need. Nuala knew.

Orla

When Orla was ten they got a new teacher in St Anthony's Convent. She was Miss Daly, she had long red hair and she wasn't remotely afraid of the nuns or Father Johnson or the parents, who were demanding that the girls get first-class honours and scholarships to university. She taught them English and history and she made everything interesting. The girls were all mad about her and wanted to be just like her when they grew up.

Miss Daly had a racing bicycle and could be seen flying across cliff roads pedalling madly. They must all take exercise, she told them, otherwise they would end up as little wizened old ladies crawling around. If they were fitter they would have more fun. Suddenly the girls of St Anthony's became fitness freaks. Miss Daly had an early-morning dance exercise class and they all turned up eager for new routines.

Miss Daly told them that they were very foolish to resist the computer skills classes, this was the future, this would be their passport out of a dreary life. And even the noisy, troublesome pupils like Orla and her friend Brigid O'Hara listened and thought it made sense. They became part of the fundraising drive to get more computers for the school.

Their parents had mixed feelings about Miss Daly. They were glad, and indeed astounded, that she had such an effect on the children and was able to control them like no other teacher had even begun to do. On the other hand, Miss Daly wore very short shorts on her racing bike; she was almost too healthy, with wet hair and a just-out-of-the-sea look in all seasons. She drank pints in the local pubs, which women didn't usually do.

It was reported that one elderly bar owner had hesitated before pulling a pint for her, saying that ladies didn't normally get served in this manner. Miss Daly is meant to have said politely that he would pour the pint or deal with a complaint to the Equality Commission, whichever he preferred, and he poured the pint.

Miss Daly was not seen regularly at Sunday Mass but she put in more hours at that school than any other staff member had ever done. She was there half an hour before lessons began with her dance exercise class, and after the bell went at four o'clock she was there in the computer room helping and encouraging. A generation of girls in St Anthony's became confident with Miss Daly as their role model. She told them there was nothing they couldn't do and they believed her utterly.

When Orla was in her last year, Miss Daly announced that she was leaving St Anthony's, leaving Stoneybridge. She told everyone, including the nuns, that she had met a fabulous young man called Shane from Kerry. He was twenty-one and trying to set up a garden centre. He was quite gorgeous, twelve years younger than her and besotted with her. She thought she'd help Shane put his garden centre on the map.

The nuns were very startled by this and sorry to see her go.

The Reverend Mother made the mistake of hinting that marriage to a much younger man might have its pitfalls. Miss Daly reassured her that marriage was the last thing on her mind and that confidentially marriage was really outdated.

Reverend Mother was shocked, but Miss Daly was unrepentant.

'But didn't you realise that yourself, Reverend Mother? I mean, you were ahead of your time deciding to give the whole thing a miss . . .'

The girls organised a goodbye picnic for Miss Daly  –  a bonfire on the beach one night. She showed them pictures of Shane, the young man in Kerry and she begged them all to travel and see the world. She told them to read a poem every day and think about it, and whenever they went to a new place, to find out about its history and what had made it the place it had become.

She said they should learn all sorts of things while they were still young, like how to play bridge, how to change a wheel on a car and how to blow-dry their own hair properly. These things weren't hugely important in themselves but they stopped you wasting time and money later on.

She gave them her email address and said she would expect to hear from them about three or four times a year for ever. She expected them to do great things. They cried and begged her not to go, but she told them to look at the picture of Shane again and ask themselves seriously would any sane person let him slip through their fingers.

Orla did write to Miss Daly, and told her about the course in Dublin she had done, how she had won the medal at the end of the year. She told Miss Daly that she found her mother totally unbearable, full of small-town attitudes, and when Orla came back from Dublin it was usually only three days before she and her mother had a blistering row about something totally unimportant like Orla's clothes or the time she came home at night. Her father just begged her not to cause trouble. Anything for an easy life. Her aunt Chicky, who came home from America, was so different; a real free spirit, and Orla was hoping to go out on a holiday with Brigid to New York to see her. Orla always asked about Shane and the garden centre but got no response to that. Miss Daly was only interested in her pupils' lives, not in telling them tales of her own.

Then Orla wrote and said that the whole trip to New York had been cancelled because Uncle Walter had been killed in a horrific crash on a motorway. Miss Daly reminded her that her life was in her own hands. She must make her own decisions.

Why not get a job away from home and come back for short bursts? It was a big world out there; there were even further horizons than just going to Dublin.

So Orla reported that she and Brigid were going to London.

Brigid got a job in a public relations agency which handled publicity for a rugby club, among other clients. They would meet an amazing amount of fellows. Orla got work with a company that organised exhibitions and trade fairs. It was full of variety; at any moment they might be dealing with health foods or vintage cars. James and Simon, the two men who ran the company, were both workaholics and taught Orla to be tough and to work under pressure. After a month there she found herself able to talk firmly and with great authority to people who would normally have terrified her.

To her surprise, both James and Simon found Orla very attractive and each of them made a move on her. She almost laughed in their faces  –  two more unlikely suitors she could not imagine. Married men who scarcely saw their families and whose main interest was beating their rival companies. All they wanted was some on-the-spot entertainment.

They took the rejection cheerfully. Orla dismissed it all as a childish mistake and went on to learn more and more.

She wrote to her teacher saying that Miss Daly should be proud of her. This job was a whole education in itself, and she was rapidly becoming expert in the world of taxation, websites and networking, as well as setting up exhibitions.

Orla and Brigid shared a flat in Hammersmith. It was all so gloriously free compared to home. And there was so much to do. She and Brigid went to tap-dancing classes in Covent Garden on Tuesday nights. Orla also went to a lunchtime calligraphy class every Monday.

James and Simon protested in the beginning about this. She was not fully committed to the job if she insisted on being free to learn fancy handwriting. Orla took no notice of them whatsoever. If she had to earn her living in their busy, dreary, business-obsessed world, she said it was completely necessary that she have some safety valve of a little artistic input to start the week. They didn't dare say a word against it after that.

And at night they went to the theatre or to receptions that Orla organised or to various functions at the exhibition halls. They were young, lively and unimpressed and people loved them. So far, there was nobody special for either of them but neither Brigid nor Orla were in any hurry to settle down.

Until Foxy Farrell turned up.

Foxy was the kind of man they both hated. Loud, confident, big car, big sheepskin jacket, big job in a merchant bank, big opinion of himself. But he was completely besotted with Brigid. And, oddly, Brigid started to find this less hilarious and embarrassing than it had seemed at the start.

'He's basically decent, Orla,' she said defensively.

'I know he is,' Orla spoke without thinking. 'But could you bear it? I mean, imagine waking up beside him in the morning.'

'I have,' Brigid said, simply.

'You never have! When?'

'Last weekend, when I was in Harrogate. He drove all the way up to see me.'

'So you made it worth his while.' Orla was still reeling from this news.

'He's very nice, really. That old showing-off thing is just the way they go on in his set.'

'I'm sure he is when you get to know him properly . . .' Orla began the backtracking, which she hoped was not too late.

'Yeah, well, I'm going to get to know him improperly next weekend. We're going to Paris,' Brigid said, with a giggle.

'We're going home to Stoneybridge for the long weekend,' Orla protested.

'I know we were meant to. You'll have to cover for me.'

'Couldn't you go to Paris another weekend with Foxy?'

'No, this is special.'

'So I have to cover for you and explain? What do I explain, actually?' Orla was annoyed. They went home together dutifully three or four times a year. This was the price they paid for their freedom. Just a long weekend.

'Oh, as little as possible at the moment.' Brigid was airy and casual about it. 'I don't want to be getting their hopes up.'

'Their hopes up? About Foxy?' Orla had an unflattering amount of disbelief in her voice.

'Sure,' Brigid said. 'He's absolutely loaded. I'd never hear the end of it if I let Foxy slip through my fingers.'

So Orla went back to Stoneybridge on her own with vague reports of Brigid being tied up at work.

Nothing ever changed much in Stoneybridge except that Orla had always forgotten how beautiful it was and would catch her breath as she walked along the cliff paths and looked at the sandy beaches and dark jagged rock face.

Her aunt Chicky was up to her eyes doing up the Stone House, with old Miss Queenie hovering around and chattering and clapping her hands with pleasure at it all. Rigger, who helped Chicky in the place, had become much less surly. He had learned to drive and would even stop to give Orla a lift if he saw her on the road. He asked her if she remembered his mother, but Orla didn't. She had heard of this Nuala but she had gone to Dublin before Orla was born.

'Chicky would know all about her,' Orla suggested.

'I don't ask Chicky about things,' Rigger said. 'She doesn't ask me about things either, it's good that way.'

Orla took this on board. She was on the point of asking Rigger about himself. This had warned her off in good time.

So instead they talked about the renovations at Stone House, the new walled garden, the plans. He seemed to think it was going to be a huge success and was excited to be in at the start.

Orla's mother, however, had been pouring a lot of cold water on the enterprise. Chicky was always the same, getting carried away by lunatic ideas, like the time she ran off to America without a by-your-leave.

'Well that worked out all right, didn't it?' Orla was defensive about the aunt who had always treated her as a grown-up. 'She had a great marriage and he left her enough money to buy Stone House.'

'It's odd he never came back here himself though, isn't it?' Kathleen was never totally at ease with any situation.

'Aw, Mam, will you stop it. Something's always wrong with everything.'

'It mainly is,' Kathleen agreed with her. 'And another thing: there's a lot of talk about Chicky living with just that young lad and the old woman above in the house. It isn't fitting, it's just not the way things should be.'

'Mam!' Orla was pealing with laughter, 'what a fantastic world you live in. Do you think Rigger is pleasuring Aunty Chicky in the walled garden? Maybe they have a threesome going with Miss Queenie as well!'

Her mother's face flushed dark red with annoyance. 'Don't be so crude Orla, please. I'm only saying what's being said all around the place, that's all.'

'Who's saying that all round the place?'

'The O'Haras, for one.'

'That's only because they're furious that Miss Sheedy didn't sell it to them.'

'You're as bad as your uncle Brian  –  always attacking them! Isn't Brigid your own best friend?'

'She is, but that's her uncles being greedy speculators. She knows that too.'

'Where is she, by the way, that she couldn't be bothered to come home to her family?'

'She's working hard for a living, Mam. As am I, which is why you are so much luckier than the O'Haras because I put you first always, don't I?'

And her mother really had no answer to that.

Orla spent as much time as she could with Chicky. Despite all the activity and people coming and going in Stone House, Chicky was very calm. She never asked whether Orla had boyfriends in London, and if she intended to live there permanently. She never said that people would think it odd if Orla wore short skirts or long skirts or torn jeans or whatever she was wearing at the time. Chicky wasn't even remotely aware what people were saying or thinking or wondering. Chicky never told her what she really should be doing with her life.

So it was surprising when this time Chicky asked her was she a good cook.

'Reasonable, I suppose. Brigid and I cook from recipes two or three times a week. She does great things with fish. It's different over there, not full of bones and tasting like cod liver oil like it does here.'

Chicky laughed. 'Not any more, it doesn't. Do you make pastry?'

'No, it's too hard, too much trouble.'

'I could teach you to be a great cook,' Chicky offered.

'Are you a great cook, Chicky?'

'I am, as it happens. It was the last thing I ever expected to be, but I do enjoy it.'

'Did Uncle Walter cook also?'

'No, he mainly left it to me. He was always so busy, you see.'

'I know.' Orla didn't know but she could recognise when Chicky was closing down a conversation. 'Why would you teach me to cook?' she asked.

'In the hope that one day, not now, but one day, you might come back home here and help me run this place.'

'I don't think I could ever come back to Stoneybridge,' Orla said.

'I know.' Chicky seemed to think that was reasonable. 'I never wanted to come back either but here I am.' That day she showed Orla how to make a really easy brown bread and a parsnip and apple soup. It seemed completely effortless and they had it for their lunch. Miss Queenie said that she had never eaten such lovely food in her life until Chicky had come to the place.

'Imagine, Orla, we grew those parsnips here in our own garden and the apples are from the old orchard, and Chicky made them all taste like that!'

'I know, isn't she a genius!' Orla said with a smile.

'She is indeed. Weren't we lucky that she came back to us and didn't stay over there in the United States? And tell me, are you having a wonderful time over in London?'

'Not bad at all, Miss Queenie, busy of course and tiring, but great.'

'I wish I had travelled more,' Miss Queenie said. 'But even if I had, I think I would always have come back here.'

'What do you like particularly about here, Miss Queenie?'

'The sea, the peace, the memories. It all seems so right here, somehow. We went to Paris once, and to Oxford. Very, very beautiful, both places. Jessica and Beatrice and I often talked about it afterwards. It was great but it wasn't real, if you know what I mean. It was as if we were acting a part in a play. Here you don't do that.'

'Oh, I know what you mean, Miss Queenie.' She saw Chicky flash her a grateful look. Orla had no idea what poor Miss Queenie had meant but she was glad she had given the right response.

Back in London, she made brown bread and parsnip soup to welcome Brigid back from Paris.

'God, you've become domesticated,' Brigid said.

'And you've got something to tell me,' Orla said.

'I'm going to marry him,' Brigid said.

'Fantastic! When?'

'In the summer. Only, of course, if you'll be my bridesmaid.'

'Only, of course, if I don't have to wear plum taffeta or lime-green chiffon.'

'Are you pleased for me?'

'Come on, will you look at yourself, you are so happy. I'm thrilled for you.' Orla hoped she was putting enough enthusiasm in her voice.

'You don't think he's just foolish old Foxy?'

'What do you mean? Of course I don't think that. I think he's lucky Foxy. Tell me where and when did he propose?'

'I do love him, you know,' said Brigid.

'I know you do,' Orla lied, looking into the face of her friend Brigid who, for some reason that would never be explained, was going to settle for Foxy Farrell.

Things moved swiftly after that.

Brigid left her job and spent a lot of time with Foxy's family in Berkshire. The wedding would be in Stoneybridge.

'What a pity that Chicky's place won't be up and running in time. It would be great if the Farrells could take it over for the wedding. They'll be appalled by Stoneybridge,' Brigid said.

'I was half thinking of going back there,' Orla said, suddenly.

'You're never serious?' Brigid was shocked. 'Look at how hard it was to get out of there in the first place.'

'I don't know . . . it's only a thought.'

'Well, banish that thought.' Brigid was very definite. 'You'd only be back twenty minutes before you were on all fours trying to get out of it again. And where would you work, for God's sake? The knitting factory?'

'No, I might go in with Chicky.'

'But that place is doomed, I tell you. It won't last for two seasons. Then she'll have to sell it and lose a packet. Everyone knows that.'

'Chicky doesn't know that. I don't know that. It's only your uncles who say that because they wanted to buy it themselves.'

'I'm not going to fight with my bridesmaid,' Brigid said.

'Swear you aren't thinking of mauve taffeta,' Orla begged, and they were fine again. Apart from Orla's disbelief that anyone could want to marry Foxy Farrell.

As she often did at times of change, Orla wrote to Miss Daly for advice.

'Am I going mad, sort of wanting to go back to Stoneybridge? Is it just a knee-jerk reaction to Brigid deciding to marry this eejit? Were you bored rigid when you were there?'

Miss Daly wrote back.

I loved the work. You were great kids in that school. I adored the place. I still look back on it with pleasure. I'm in the mountains here. It's lovely, and I can drive to the sea but it's not the same as Stoneybridge, where the sea was there at your feet. Why don't you try it out for a year? Tell your aunt that you don't want to sign up for life. Thank you for not asking about Shane. He's having a little time out with something marginally more interesting than me, but he'll be back. And I'll take him back. It's a funny old world. Once you realise that, you're halfway there.

In Orla's office, James and Simon were very tight-lipped these days. Business was not good. The economy was sluggish, it didn't matter what politicians said. They knew. People weren't booking stands at exhibitions like they used to. Trade fairs were smaller than last year. The prospects were dire. They were placing all their hopes on Marty Green, who was very big in the conference business. They were having drinks in the office to impress him.

'Ask that sexy redhead friend of yours to come and help us dress the set,' James suggested.

'Brigid's just got engaged. She won't want to be a party-party girl these days.'

'Well, tell her to bring her fiance. Is he presentable and everything?'

'You're worse than my mother and her mother put together. Very presentable, richer than God,' Orla said.

Brigid and Foxy thought it would be a laugh and turned up in high good form. Marty Green was delighted with them all and seemed to be taking the sales pitch on board. He was also very interested in Orla, who had dressed to kill in a scarlet silk dress she had found in a charity shop and really expensive red and black shiny high heels. She passed around the white wine and the tray of canapes.

'These are very good,' Marty Green said appreciatively, 'who's your caterer?'

'Oh, I did these myself,' Orla smiled at him.

'Really? Not just a pretty face, then?' He was definitely impressed, which was what this reception was all about. But Orla felt he was rather too impressed with her and not enough with the company.

'That's very nice of you, Mr Green, but I wasn't hired here to make canapes and smile. We all work very hard, and as James and Simon were saying, this has paid off. We know the market and the situation very well. It's good to get a chance to tell you about it personally.'

'And very pleasant it is to hear about it personally.' His eyes never left her face.

Orla moved away but knew he was watching her all the time. Even when James was giving statistics, when Simon was talking about trends, when Foxy was braying about great new restaurants and Brigid was asking if Mr Green was interested in rugby, as she could get him tickets.

Marty Green wondered if Orla would like to have dinner with him.

She saw James and Simon smiling at each other in relief and suddenly felt hugely resentful. She was being offered to Marty Green. It was as simple as that. She had dressed up, spent her lunchtime making finicky, awkward little savouries, rolling asparagus spears in pastry and serving them with a dipping sauce, arranging little quails' eggs artistically with celery salt on lettuce leaves, and now they wanted to send her out like a sacrificial lamb to be pawed by Marty Green.

'Thank you so much but sadly I have plans of my own tonight, Mr Green,' she said.

He was suave; she would give him that much. 'I'm sure you must indeed have plans. Another time, perhaps?'

And they all smiled different smiles: Orla's was nailed to her face, James and Simon's were like a horror mask. Brigid's smile hid her shock that Orla would pass up on a date with such a wealthy and charming man as Marty Green. Foxy's smile was vague and foolish, as always.

Marty Green left saying that he would be in touch. Orla poured herself a large drink.

'Why did you have to be so very rude to him?' Simon asked.

'I wasn't at all rude. I thanked him and told him that I had my own plans.'

'That's what I mean. You don't have any plans.'

'Oh, yes I do. I plan not to go out with some businessman as if I were an escort or a hooker.'

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