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A Week in Winter (Chapter Ten)

'Or, of course, if you prefer, we could have it here in Dublin with all your friends. It's your day. It's your choice, Winnie.'

'Aren't we fine as we are?'

Winnie knew that there might well be no future to consider by the time she and his mother got back from this ill-starred holiday at Stone House.

There were several letters, texts and phone calls with Lillian. It took every ounce of skill and self-control for Winnie not to scream down the phone that it had all been a terrible mistake.

Then Teddy set off for the cheese gathering, and the following morning Winnie drove west from Dublin and Lillian Hennessy drove north-west from Rossmore.

They met at Stone House. They arrived, by chance, at almost the same time and parked their cars. Winnie's was a very old and beaten-up banger that she had bought from one of the porters in a hospital where she worked. Lillian drove a new Mercedes-Benz.

Winnie's luggage was one big canvas bag which she carried. Lillian had two matching suitcases, which she left beside the car.

Mrs Starr was waiting at the front door. She was a small woman, possibly in her mid forties. She had short curly hair, a big smile and a slightly American accent. Her welcome was very warm. She ran out to pick up Lillian's suitcases and led them into a big warm kitchen. On the table were warm scones, butter and jam. A big log fire blazed at one end, a solid-fuel cooker stood at the other. It looked just like the brochure.

They were ushered in and seated immediately.

'You are my very first guests,' Mrs Starr said. 'The others will be here in the next hour or so. Would you like tea or coffee?'

In no time at all, Mrs Starr had discovered more about Lillian and Winnie than either woman had ever known. Lillian talked about her husband being killed when her son was only a small child, and the terrible day when she had been given the news. Winnie explained that her father was married to a perfectly pleasant woman who made jewellery and all her brothers and sisters were overseas.

If Mrs Starr thought that the two women were unlikely friends and companions for a holiday, she didn't give any hint of it.

Winnie had insisted that Lillian be given the bedroom with the sea view. It was a tranquil, warm room with a big bay window. There were several soothing shades of green, no television but a small shower room. This place had been very beautifully refurbished. Winnie's room was similar but smaller, and it looked out on to the car park.

Winnie realised how tired she was. The drive had been long, the weather wet and the roads, as she got near Stoneybridge, had been narrow and hard to negotiate. She would indeed lie down and have a rest. The room contained one large bed and one smaller one. If they had been the friends that Lillian had managed to imply they were, they could have easily shared this room. Even made each other further tea from the tray already set with a little kettle and barrel of biscuits, looked together at the books, maps and brochures about the area that lay on the dressing table.

But Winnie was past caring what anyone thought. Mrs Starr was a hotelier, a landlady and a businesswoman. She had little time to speculate about the odd couple who had arrived as her first guests.

Winnie felt herself drifting off to sleep. She heard the murmur of conversation downstairs as further guests were being welcomed. It was reassuring, somehow. Safe, like home used to be. Years and years ago, when Winnie's mother was alive and the place was full of brothers and sisters coming and going.

Mrs Starr had said she would sound the Sheedy gong twenty minutes before dinner. Apparently, the three Sheedy sisters, who had lived in genteel poverty in this house for many years, always rang the gong every evening. The ladies often had sardines or baked beans on toast for their evening meal but the gong always rang through the house. It was what their mama and papa would have liked.

Winnie woke to the mellow sound of the gong. God! Now she had to put in an evening of Lillian patronising everyone and six more nights in this wild, faraway place. She must have been insane to allow things to go this distance. That was the only explanation.

Before she left the room, a text came in.

Have a lovely evening. I so wish I were there with you both rather than here. I used to enjoy these gatherings, but now I feel lonely and miss you both. Tell me what the place is like. Love you deeply, Teddy.

The other guests were gathering. Mrs Starr had asked them to introduce themselves to each other as she wanted to concentrate on the food. She had a young niece called Orla who helped her serve.

Winnie saw Lillian, dressed to kill as might have been expected, slipping into gear and beginning to charm people. She was explaining to a young Swedish man how she and Winnie were old, old friends, and they hadn't seen each other for a long while and were so looking forward to walking for miles and catching up.

She talked to a retired teacher whose name was Nell. This visit had been a gift from the staff in her school. They had said they thought it would suit her. Nell wasn't at all certain. Lillian lowered her voice and said that she also had her doubts in the beginning, but her old, old friend Winnie had insisted she come. So far Lillian had to admit that it all seemed very pleasant.

Winnie spoke to Henry and Nicola, a doctor and his wife from England. They had found the place online when they were looking for somewhere very peaceful. Winnie thought they might have had a bereavement. They looked pale and a bit shaken, but then she could have been imagining it. Another couple looked vaguely dissatisfied and didn't say much. There were other people further down the table. Winnie would meet them later.

They ate smoked trout with horseradish cream and homemade brown soda bread to start, then a roast lamb expertly carved by Mrs Starr. There were vegetarian dishes as well, and a huge apple pie. Wine was poured from old cut-crystal decanters. The Sheedy sisters used to pour their orange squash and lemonade from these very decanters. They were beautiful antiques and felt like part of the house.

Winnie couldn't help but admire the way that it was all working out. The guests seemed to be talking easily. Mrs Starr had been quite right not to fuss around introducing them to each other. Everything had been cleared seamlessly and young Orla had stacked a big dishwasher and gone home. Mrs Starr joined them for coffee.

She explained that breakfast would be a continuous buffet but if people wanted a cooked meal they must assemble at nine. A packed lunch would be supplied for anyone who needed one, or else they could have a list of pubs in the area that served light lunches. There were bicycles outside if anyone would like to use them, and there were binoculars, umbrellas and even a selection of wellington boots. She told them about the various walking routes they might try and the local points of interest. There were a number of pretty creeks and inlets which were great to explore when the weather was calm. There were cliff-top walks though the paths down to the sea needed great care. There were caves that were worth exploring, but they must check the tides first. Majella's Cave was a good one. That had been a great place for lovers in the summertime, she had explained. It was easily cut off by the tide, so the boy and girl who wandered there had to stay for much longer than they had expected to until the seas had drawn back and let them go free . . .

After dinner, Winnie texted Teddy to tell him the place was charming and very different and that they had been made very welcome. She added that she loved him deeply also. But she wondered was this actually true.

Perhaps she was living in some never-never land. Acting a role, playing a part, cast now and possibly for ever as the old, old friend of her future mother-in-law. She fell into a deep sleep and didn't wake until there was a knock at the door.

Lillian, fully dressed, made-up and ready to roll.

'Thought you wouldn't want to miss the cooked breakfast,' she said. 'At our age we need a good start to the day.'

Winnie felt an overpowering rage. Did Lillian seriously think they were the same age?

'I'll be down in ten minutes,' she said, rubbing her eyes.

'Oh dear, you don't have an ocean view,' Lillian said.

'I have lovely mountains, though, and I just love mountains,' Winnie said through gritted teeth.

'Right. Great thing about you, Winnie, is that you are easily pleased. See you downstairs then.'

Winnie stood in the shower. The week ahead seemed endless, and she had no one to blame but herself . . .

The young Swede had gone off with the small intense woman called Freda. Henry, the English doctor, and his wife were ordering grilled mackerel. Other guests looked at the map Mrs Starr had provided and talked enthusiastically about the places they might go. There was an American man called John who was suffering from jet lag and looked very tired.

The weather was bright  –  no need for the umbrellas or wellington boots. Packed lunches were prepared already and in waxed paper for those who wanted them. Others had the names of pubs listed.

By ten o'clock, all the guests had left Stone House and Mrs Starr's niece Orla had arrived to do the bedrooms. A routine had been established. It was as if this holiday had been up and running for years rather than taking its first faltering steps.

Winnie and Lillian had chosen the cliff walk. Four miles with spectacular views, then you would arrive in West Harbour. There they would go to Brady's Bar. And after lunch, they would catch the bus that left every hour for Stoneybridge.

Winnie looked back longingly at Stone House.

How good it would be to go back and sit with Mrs Starr at the table having further tea and fresh soda bread and talk about the world. Instead, she had hours of competitive banter with Lillian Hennessy. But by the time they got to Brady's Bar, Winnie felt her shoulder muscles had relaxed. The views had been as spectacular as had been promised. Lillian had been mercifully untalkative.

Now, however, she was back to her opinionated self.

'It was a pleasant walk, certainly, but not really challenging,' she pronounced.

'Beautiful scenery. I could look at that big sky for ever,' Winnie said.

'Oh, indeed, but we should go the other way tomorrow, take the route south. There's much more to see, Mrs Starr said. All those little creeks, inlets; we can look in the caves.'

'It looked like a trickier route. Let's see if any of the others have done it first.' Winnie was cautious.

'Oh, they're all sheep. They won't take on anything adventurous. That's what we came for, isn't it, Winnie? One last gesture to fight the elements before we settle into middle age.'

'You aren't settling anywhere,' Winnie said.

'No, but you are showing dangerous signs of becoming very middle-aged. Where's your spirit, Winnie? Tomorrow we'll take a packed lunch and hit the south face of Stoneybridge.'

Winnie smiled as if in agreement. She hadn't a notion of putting herself at risk because Lillian was playing games. But that could all be dealt with tomorrow morning. In the meantime, she would just put in the time being charming and pleasant and unruffled. The prize was Teddy.

Please, dear, kind God, may he be worth it all.

They went back to Stone House on the bus and the guests were coming back from their excursions. The log fire blazed in the hearth. Everyone was drinking tea and eating scones. It was as if they had always lived this life.

At dinner, Winnie sat across from Freda, who said she was an assistant librarian. Winnie explained that she was a nurse.

'Do you have an attachment?' Freda asked.

'No, I work through an agency; a different hospital every day, really.'

'I actually meant a love attachment.'

Lillian was listening. 'We are all a bit past love interests at our age,' she tinkled.

'I don't know . . .' Freda was thoughtful. 'I'm not.'

'Very odd woman, that,' Lillian said later, in a whisper.

'I thought she was good fun, I must say,' Winnie said.

'As I've said before, Winnie, you are totally undemanding. It's amazing how little you ask from life!'

Winnie's lips stretched into a smile. 'That's me,' she simpered. 'As you said, easily pleased.'

All the others were talking about tomorrow's weather. Storms coming in from the south, Mrs Starr said, great care needed. These creeks and inlets filled up very rapidly; even local people had been fooled by the strength of the winds and tides. Winnie sighed with relief. At least Lillian's daft plan of behaving like an explorer would be cancelled.

But when they took their packed lunch next morning, Lillian headed straight in the direction that they had been warned against. Winnie paused for an instant. She could refuse to go. But then Lillian was possibly right. Mrs Starr was being overcautious to cover herself.

Winnie could do it. She was thirty-four years of age, for God's sake. Lillian was fifty-three, at the very least. She had put up with so much already, invested so much time and patience  –  she wouldn't check out now.

And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and realise that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.

Then they found the entrance to Majella's Cave that Mrs Starr had told them about. It was sheltered there and the wind wasn't cutting them in half. They sat on a rocky ledge to open the bread and cheese and flask of soup that had been packed for them. Their eyes were stinging, their cheeks were red and whipped by the wind and sea air. They both felt fit and alive and very hungry.

'I'm glad we battled on and came here,' Winnie said, 'it was well worth it.'

'You didn't want to really,' Lillian was triumphant. 'You thought I was being foolhardy.'

'Well if I did, I was wrong. It's good to push yourself a bit.' As she spoke, Winnie felt a great slosh of water across her face  –  a wave had come deep into the cave. Oddly, it was not withdrawing out to sea again as they thought it would; rather it was followed by several more waves coming in and splashing around their feet. The two women moved backwards speedily. But still they came, the dark, cold waters, hardly giving any time for the previous wave to recede. Wordlessly, they climbed to an even higher ledge. They would be fine here, well above the water level.

The waves kept coming, and in an attempt to scramble even higher, Lillian kicked the two canvas bags that had held their picnic, their mobile phones and the warm dry socks. They watched as the waves carried the bags out to sea.

'How long does it take for the tide to change?' Lillian asked.

'Six hours, I think,' Winnie was crisp.

'They'll come for us then,' Lillian said.

'They don't know where we are,' Winnie said.

They didn't speak any more then. Only the sound of the wind and waves filled Majella's Cave.

'I wonder who Majella was?' Winnie said after a long time.

'There was a Saint Gerard Majella,' Lillian said doubtfully. It was the first time that she had ever spoken without a sense of certainty.

'Very probably,' Winnie agreed. 'Let's hope he had a good record in getting people out of situations, whoever he was.'

'You agreed to come. You said you were happy we had battled on.'

'I was. At the time.'

'Do you pray?' Lillian asked.

'No, not much. Do you?'

'I used to once. Not now.'

There didn't seem to be anything more to say, so they sat in silence listening to the crashing of the waves and the howling of the wind. There was only one higher ledge, which they might have to climb up on if things got worse.

They were cold and wet and frightened.

And they were of no help to each other.

Winnie wondered would they die here. She thought about Teddy, and how Mrs Starr would have to break the news to him. He would never know that her last hours had been filled with a cold hatred of his mother and with a sense of huge regret that she had allowed herself to be sucked into this idiotic game of pretence which could only end badly. But, truly, who could have known how badly?

She couldn't see Lillian's face, but she sensed her shoulders shivering and the chattering of her teeth. She must be frightened too. But it was her bloody fault. Still, however they got there, they were both in it together now.

After an age, she said, 'It doesn't really matter one way or another, but why are we here together? In Stoneybridge, I mean. You hated me on sight. But we both love Teddy, that should be a bond, shouldn't it?' This was the first time that love for Teddy had ever been mentioned. Here in Majella's Cave, as they faced death by drowning or hypothermia. Up to now, Winnie had been treated as some menopausal old fool who was keeping an eye on Teddy for them both.

'I love Teddy,' Winnie said loudly. 'And he loves you, so I tried to get to know you and like you. That's all.'

'It hasn't worked though, has it?' said Lillian grimly. 'We got here by accident. I didn't want to be here with you any more than you wanted to be with me. You found the place, Stone House, you went along with coming here today. And now look at us.'

A silence.

'Say something, ask something,' Lillian begged.

'How old are you, Lillian?'

'Fifty-five.'

'You look a lot less.'

'Thank you.'

'Why do you pretend that you and I are the same age? You were twenty-one when I was born.'

'Because I wanted you to go away, to leave Teddy as he was, with me.'

Another silence.

Eventually Winnie spoke. 'Well, in the end neither of us got him.'

'Do you think we're going to get out of here?' The voice had aged greatly. This was not Lillian of the Certainties.

Some small amount of compassion seeped through to Winnie's subconscious. She tried to beat it back but it was there.

'They say you have to be positive and keep active,' she said, shifting around on the ledge.

'Active? Here? What can we do to be positive here?'

'I know that. We can't move. I suppose we could sing.'

'Sing, Winnie? Have you lost your marbles?'

'You did ask.'

'OK, start then.'

Winnie paused to think. Her mother's favourite song had been 'Carrickfergus'.

        I wish I had you in Carrickfergus,

        Only three miles on from Ballygrand.

        I would swim over the deepest ocean

        Thinking of days there in Ballygrand . . .

She paused. To her astonishment, Lillian joined in.

        But the seas are deep and I can't swim over,

        And neither more have I wings to fly.

        I wish I could find me a handy boatman,

        Would ferry over my love and I.

Then they both stopped to think about the words they had just sung.

'There might have been a more inappropriate song if I could have thought of it,' Winnie apologised.

For the first time, she heard a genuine laugh from Lillian. This was not a tinkle, a put-down or a sneer. She actually found it funny.

'You could have picked "Cool Clear Water", I suppose,' she said eventually.

'Your call,' Winnie said.

Lillian sang 'The Way You Look Tonight'. Teddy's father had sung it to her the night before he was killed on the combine harvester, she said.

Winnie sang 'Only The Lonely'. She had found the record shortly after her father had married the strange, distant stepmother who made jewellery. Then Lillian sang 'True Love', and said that she had always hoped to meet someone again after Teddy's father had died but never did. She had worked long hours and tried too hard to make them people of importance in Rossmore. There had been no time for love.

Winnie sang 'St Louis Blues'. She had once won a talent competition by singing it in a pub and the prize had been a leg of lamb.

'Are we wasting our voices in case we need to call for help?' Lillian wondered. She asked as if she really wanted to hear what Winnie would say.

'I don't think anyone would hear us anyway. Our best hope is to keep positive,' Winnie suggested. 'Do you know any Beatles songs?' So they sang 'Hey Jude'.

Lillian said that she remembered her mother had said the Beatles were depraved because they had long hair. Winnie said that her stepmother had never known who they were and that even her father was vague about them. It was so hard to have a real conversation with them about anything.

'Do they know you're here?' Lillian asked.

'Nobody knows we're here. That's the problem,' Winnie sighed.

'No, I mean in the West of Ireland. Do they know about Teddy?'

'No. They hardly know any of my friends.'

'Maybe you should take him to meet them. He said he hadn't met your folks yet.'

'Well, you know . . .' Winnie shrugged as if to make little of it all.

'He took you to meet me.'

'Yes, didn't he?' The memory of that meeting was still bitter, and Winnie cursed her foolishness trying to take on this mother-in-law from hell, locking horns with her and pretending friendship to win the son. Look where it had ended up. In this cave, waiting for at the worst a slow death by drowning or at the very best rheumatic fever.

'I wasn't entirely overjoyed at first,' Lillian admitted after a pause. 'Neither were you, but it was you who suggested coming on this holiday.'

'I did not suggest you come on the holiday. I told you about Stone House and that I wanted to come here with Teddy, that was all. You invited yourself.'

'He invited me. You went along with it.'

'It doesn't matter now,' Winnie said. There was defeat in her tone.

'Don't get all down about it, please. I'm frightened. I liked it better when you were strong. Can you think of any other songs?'

'No.' Winnie was mulish.

'You must know some more songs.'

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