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A Week in Winter (Chapter Three)

A lot of them had jobs in supermarkets or cleaning houses. Nuala was used to hard work, and found it very easy compared to all the pulling and dragging at Stone House. She got jobs by word of mouth. People said to each other that she was very pleasant and that nothing was too much trouble for her. She saved enough to rent a room for herself and the baby when it was born.

She wrote home to her family telling them about Dublin and the people she worked for, but saying nothing of the visits to the maternity hospital. She wrote to the Sheedy ladies telling them the truth, and eventually giving them the news that Richard Anthony had been born weighing six and a half pounds and was a perfect baby in every way. They sent her a five-pound note to help out, and Miss Queenie sent a christening robe.

Richard Anthony wore it at his baptism, which was in a church down by the River Liffey at a christening of sixteen infants.

'What a pity you don't have any family there with you at this time,' Miss Queenie wrote. 'Perhaps your brother would be pleased to see you and meet his new nephew.'

Nuala doubted it. Nasey had always been withdrawn and distant from what she remembered.

'I'll wait until he's a little person before I introduce them,' she said.

Nuala now had to get jobs which would allow her to take the baby with her. Not easy at first, but when they saw the long hours she put in and how little trouble the child was she found plenty of work.

She saw a great deal of life through the households where she worked. The women who fussed about their homes as if they thought life was a permanent examination where they would be found wanting. There were families where husband and wife were barely civil to each other. There were places where the children were spoiled with every possession possible and still were not content.

But also she met good, kind people who were warm to her and her little son and grateful when she went the extra distance and cooked them potato cakes or made old dull brasses shine like new.

When Richard was three it was getting harder to take him to people's houses. He wanted to explore and run around. One of Nuala's favourite ladies was someone they all called Signora, who taught Italian classes. She was a most unusual woman: completely unworldly, wore extraordinary flowing clothes and had long hair with grey and red and dark brown in it all tied back with a ribbon.

She didn't have a cleaner for herself, but paid Nuala to clean two afternoons a week for her mother. Her mother was a difficult, hard-to-please person who hadn't a good word to say for Signora except that she had always been foolish and headstrong and no good would come of it all.

But Signora, if she knew this, took no notice. She told Nuala about a marvellous little playgroup. It was run by a friend of hers.

'Oh, that would be much too expensive for me,' Nuala said sadly.

'I think they'd be very happy to have him there if you could do a few hours' cleaning in exchange.'

'But the other parents mightn't like that. The cleaner's child in with theirs.'

'They won't think like that, and anyway, they won't know.' Signora was very definite. 'You'd like playschool, wouldn't you, Richard?' Signora had a great habit of talking to children as if they were grown-ups. She never put on a baby voice.

'I'm Rigger,' he said. And that's what he was called from then on.

Rigger loved the playschool, and nobody ever knew that he arrived there two hours before the other children while his mother cleaned and polished and got the place ready for the day.

Through Signora, Nuala got several other jobs nearby. She cleaned in a hairdressing salon where they made her feel very much part of it all and even gave her very expensive highlights for nothing. She did a few hours a week in a restaurant on the quays called Ennio's, where again she was involved in the place and they always asked her to try out a bowl of pasta for her lunch. Then she would pick up Rigger and take him with her while she minded other children and took them for walks on St Stephen's Green to feed the ducks.

Nuala's family were entirely unaware of Rigger's existence. It just seemed easier that way.

As happens in many big families, the children who left became dissociated with their old home. Sometimes, at Christmas, she felt lonely for Stoneybridge and for the days when she would decorate the tree for the Miss Sheedys and they would tell her the stories of each ornament. She thought of her mother and father and the goose they would have for Christmas and the prayers they would say for all emigrants  –  particularly her two sisters in America, her brother in Birmingham and Nasey and Nuala in Dublin. But it was not a lonely life. Who could be lonely with Rigger? They were devoted to each other.

She couldn't think what made her get in touch with her brother Nasey. Possibly it was another letter from Miss Queenie, who always saw things in a very optimistic way. Miss Queenie said that it was probably a lonely life for Nasey in Dublin, and that he might enjoy having company from home.

She could barely remember him. He was the eldest and she the youngest of a big family. He wasn't going to be shocked and appalled that she had a son who was about to go to big school any day.

It was worth a try.

She called to the butcher's shop where Nasey worked, holding Rigger by the hand. She recognised him at once in a white coat and cutting lamb chops expertly with a cleaver.

'I'm Nuala, your sister,' she said simply, 'and this is Rigger.'

Rigger looked up at him fearfully and Nuala looked long and hard at her brother's face. Then she saw a great smile on Nasey's face. He was indeed delighted to see her. What a waste of five years it had been because she was afraid he might not want to recognise her.

'I'm going to be on my break in ten minutes. I can meet you in the cafe across the road. Mr Malone, this is my sister and her little boy Rigger.'

'Go on now, Nasey. You'll have lots to talk about.' Mr Malone was kindly. And it turned out that they did have lots to talk about.

Nasey was easygoing. He asked nothing about Rigger's father, nor why she had taken so long to contact him. He was interested in the places she worked, and he said that the Malones were looking for someone to help in the house and that they were a really decent family. She could do much worse than go there. He was in touch with another nephew, Dingo, a good lad, full of dreams and nonsense. He made deliveries in his own van. He lived alone, but he always said the people he worked for made up for it, and he loved hearing about their lives. He would be pleased to know he had a new cousin.

Nasey asked about home and she was vague with details.

'They don't really know about Rigger,' she said. She need not even have said it. He understood.

'No point in burdening people with too much information,' he said, nodding soundly.

He said that he had never found anyone suitable for himself but was always hoping that he would meet someone one day. He didn't like picking up girls in pubs, and honestly where else was there? He was too old for kids' dances and clubs.

And from that meeting on, he became part of Nuala and Rigger's lives.

He was the dream uncle who knew a keeper at the zoo, who taught the boy to ride a bike, who took him to his first match. And when Rigger was eleven it was Nasey who told Nuala that the lad was mixing with a very tough crowd at school and that they had been chased out of several stores for shoplifting.

She was appalled, but Rigger was shruggy. Everyone did it; the shops knew they did it. It was the system.

Then he was involved in an incident where old people were threatened and forced to hand over their weekly pension. That led to the children's court and a suspended sentence.

And when Rigger was caught in a warehouse stealing television sets, it meant reform school.

Nuala had not known it was possible to cry so much. She was totally shocked. What had happened to her little boy? And when? Nothing had a purpose any more. Her jobs were just that now, jobs.

She barely listened to the chat in Katie's hairdresser's, in Ennio's restaurant or in St Jarlath's Crescent  –  places where she had once been so happy, so involved.

She decided she would write to him every week but she had no idea what he was interested in.

Football, probably, so she looked up the evening paper to see where the team was playing next and also to know was there any film that Rigger might like. Week after week she wrote. Sometimes he replied, sometimes he didn't, but she continued every week.

She told him how her father had got ill and died and how she had gone back to Stoneybridge for the funeral. She said it was so strange how small it seemed now after so many years away from the place. She hardly knew anyone, and her sisters and brothers seemed like strangers. Her mother looked so small and old. So much had changed, it was like going to a different place.

Rigger wrote back to that letter.

I'm sorry your da died. Why did we never see him, or go back to this place? Fellows here are always talking about their grans and their grandas.

Nuala wrote back.

When you come home I'll take you on the train to Stoneybridge and you'll see it all for yourself. It's such a long story but it's going to be easier to tell you all about it than write it down.

By the time he came back from the reform school, Rigger was sixteen and Nuala's mother had died.

Nasey went on his own to the funeral. Nuala didn't go. She hadn't been at all easy when she had gone to see her father buried. She fancied that some of the neighbours looked at her oddly and that the sisters in America were annoyed with her for not coming back more regularly. Her brother from Birmingham had given her a very irritating lecture about it being time she settled down and had a family instead of just running around enjoying herself in Dublin.

Nasey told the family that he did see Nuala from time to time but said no more. He kept to his theory that people should not be burdened with too much information. He brought news from home. Two of the Miss Sheedys had died. Now only Miss Queenie remained.

Then came the news that Chicky Starr had come back from America and was going to buy Stone House. Miss Queenie would live there for her lifetime and they were going to make the place into a hotel.

Nuala remembered Chicky well. They had been at school together. Chicky had married an American called Walter Starr and had gone to live in New York. Nuala had written to her there. Her poor husband had been killed in a terrible car crash.

She would have her work cut out for her if she was to make any kind of a fist of that big sprawling house and turn it into a hotel where people would pay to stay.

Rigger didn't talk much about his time at the reform school when he came back. He had learned a bit of this and a bit of that, he said. But he wasn't qualified at anything. They had done a bit of building up in the school: plastering one week, digging another. Nasey said he would try to get Rigger taken on by Mr Malone in the butcher's shop, but times were hard. People were buying more and more of their meat ready-wrapped in supermarkets.

Signora asked Nuala did she know if Rigger would go back to school. She would give him some lessons to try and help him catch up, but he didn't want that.

He had had enough school, he said.

Nuala had very much hoped that he would have grown away from his old ways, that he could find new friends and a different way of living.

But Rigger was barely home a few weeks when Nuala realised that her son had indeed made contact with those boys he could find from the old days. Some of them were not around any more. Two were in gaol, one on the run  –  possibly in England  –  and the others under the fairly constant and watchful eye of the Guards.

Rigger had been warned from every side about the danger of getting a criminal record if he offended again.

He went out early and came home late with no explanation or description of how he spent his time. One night she heard shouting and running and doors banging and she lay shaking in the dark waiting for the arrival of the Guards with their sirens wailing. But nobody came.

Next morning she was drawn and anxious but Rigger had obviously slept well and seemed unconcerned. She was relieved when he told her that he was going to look for a job.

Nasey was surprised to see Rigger come into the butcher's shop with two of his friends. Surprised and not altogether pleased.

But Rigger had come to ask was there any casual work going, could they clean up the yard, for example?

Nasey was pleased to see some interest in legitimate work, and he ran to Mr Malone asking if they could have a couple of hours' work. And to give them their due, they did the job well. Nasey reported it all to Nuala with pleasure. The lads had done the job, got a few euro and gone away well satisfied.

Nuala began to breathe properly again. Perhaps she had been overanxious about nothing.

Two nights later, Nasey was taking his late-night walk and passed the butcher's shop. He looked up automatically at the burglar alarm and saw to his astonishment that it was not turned on. Never had he left the premises without switching it to 'Active'. Horrified, he let himself in and heard sounds at the back of the shop from the cold room.

As he went in he saw three men lifting carcasses of beef into a van which was parked in the back yard.

He ran towards them and one of the men dropped a great side of meat and came at him with a crowbar.

'What are you doing?' Nasey cried. As the man was about to hit him, from nowhere a voice shouted, 'Leave him, leave him, for Christ's sake.'

The blow was stopped and Nasey recognised his protector was in fact his nephew Rigger.

'I don't believe it, Rigger.' Nasey was nearly in tears. 'You were paid for your work and you came back to steal their meat.'

'Shut up, Nasey, you big eejit. Just get out of here. You were never here, do you hear me? Just go home and say nothing. No harm done.'

'I can't. I can't let Mr Malone's livelihood be taken like this . . .'

'He's well insured, Nasey. Have some sense, man.'

'You can't do this. What are you going to do with the carcasses?'

'Cut them up. Sell them along the Mountainview Estates. Everyone round there wants cheap meat. Nasey, get out of here, will you?'

'I'm not going and I'm not going to forget it.'

'Rigger, either you shut him up or I will,' one of the others said.

Nasey felt himself being pushed out the door, and he could feel Rigger's breath hot on his face.

'Jesus, Nasey, have you an ounce of sense? They'd beat the side of your head in. Get out. Run. RUN!'

Nasey ran all the way to Nuala's house and told her what had happened. White-faced, the two of them sat drinking mugs of tea.

'Even if I don't tell Mr Malone, he'll know anyway. He's not a fool. Who else would have been able to come in and see the lie of the land and suss the place out except those three? And he knows that Rigger is my nephew.'

'I'm so sorry, Nasey,' Nuala wept.

'We have to think what to do with him. He'll go to gaol over this,' Nasey said.

'It's all my fault. I should have been able to control him. I was too busy making money for him. Saving for an education that he'll never have.'

'Stop that. It's not down to you.'

'Well, who else's fault is it but mine?'

'This is no time to be trying to work that out. We have to hide him. The Guards will come looking for him here.'

'Could we send him back to Stoneybridge?' Her face was despairing.

'But who would look after him there? And I thought you didn't want anyone to know about him.'

'I don't want him in gaol either. Who knows about him isn't important any more.'

'None of them would be able to handle him,' Nasey said. 'If there was somewhere he could live in and work . . .'

Nuala strained to think of anywhere.

'Could he work for Chicky at Stone House? Miss Queenie wrote to me not long ago that she was looking for someone to help her.'

'He'd never stick it.' Nasey shook his head.

'He will if he knows it's that or prison.'

'Ring Chicky,' Nasey said.

Nasey didn't hear the phone conversation. He was out on the street waiting for Rigger to come back. He saw the boy running down the street. Rigger was home. His face was white and his hands were shaking. He was willing to blame everyone but himself.

'If I go down, Nasey, it will all be due to you. The other lads just threw me out. They won't let me have any part of what we got. It's so unfair. I set it up. I gave them the way in.'

'Yes, you did,' Nasey said grimly.

'I told the others you wouldn't split on us but they don't believe me. They say you'll have gone to the Guards already. Have you?'

'No,' Nasey said.

'Well thank God for that, anyway. Why couldn't you have just backed away?'

'I did. I ran away as you said.'

'And you're not going to tell?' Rigger looked like a child.

'I don't have to tell, Rigger. Mr Malone will know.'

'Oh my God, it's Mister Malone this, Mister Malone that. Would you hear yourself?' Rigger was full of scorn. 'Aren't you big enough and old enough to be your own master instead of yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, to him?'

'They'll find you even if I were struck dumb and never spoke again,' Nasey said.

'Just shut your mouth, Rigger, and listen carefully,' Nuala spoke suddenly.

He looked at her in shock. Her face was hard and unforgiving. He had never known her raise her voice to him like this before.

'We're going to get you out of Dublin tonight. And you're not coming back.'

'What?'

'There's a truck driver taking his lorry back to Stoneybridge tonight. You'll go with him. He will take you to Stone House.'

'What's Stone House? Is it a school?' Rigger was frightened.

'It's where your mother worked when she was young. It's where she left from to have you, all those years ago. With all the pleasure and pride that was to bring her.' Never had Nasey sounded so bitter.

Rigger tried to speak but his uncle wouldn't let him say a word. 'Get your things together, give me your phone, tell nobody where you're going. You'll be in Stoneybridge by the time they open up Malone's in the morning.'

'But you said that the Guards would find me anyway.'

'Not if you're not here, they can't. Not if no one knows where you are.'

'Mam, is that right?'

'Chicky is doing me this one favour. She suggested the driver. She'll keep you for a week to see how it goes. If you get up to any of your old tricks, she'll call the Guards down there and they'll have you back here and behind bars before you know what's happened.'

'Mam!'

'Don't "Mam" me. I was never a proper mother to you. It was only pretending to be a family, that's all it was, and it stops tonight.'

'Nasey?'

'What?'

'Will you get into any trouble?' Rigger asked. It was the first hint that he might care for anyone other than himself.

'I don't know. That remains to be seen. I'll tell Mr Malone that I'm very sorry about it, about getting him to let you all work in the yard. Which I am  –  very, very sorry indeed.'

'He won't sack you, will he?'

'Who knows? I hope not. Years of work. One mistake.'

'And the other lads . . .'

'As you said, they threw you out, ran off on you. They're not thinking about you. You don't have to think about them.'

'But if they're caught?'

'They will be, but you will be far away, starting a new job.' Nasey was calm and cold.

Things happened quickly then. Rigger's bag was packed in silence. The man with the empty lorry arrived. The wordless driver just indicated the front seat. There would be little conversation on the road across Ireland.

His mother turned away as he tried to say goodbye. Rigger's eyes filled with tears.

'I'm sorry, Mam,' he said.

'Yes,' Nuala said.

And then he was gone. He had no idea a journey could take so long. He also had no idea what lay ahead. He had been given very firm instructions to discuss nothing with his driver. He looked out the window as they passed the small dark fields on either side. How did people live in places like this? Sometimes there were dead rabbits and foxes on the road. He would like to have asked why these animals went out into the traffic but conversation seemed to be forbidden so instead, he listened to endless country and western songs all about losers and drunkards and people who had been betrayed.

By the time they got to Stoneybridge, Rigger felt lower than he had ever felt in his life.

The driver left him at the gate of Stone House. His mother had worked here. Lived here. No wonder she had never come back. He wondered had she relations around the place? Did his father live here? Married to someone else, maybe?

Rigger asked himself why had he never asked or wanted to know? What on earth was he going to do here until things died down in Dublin, if they ever would?

He went and knocked at the door. A woman with short curly hair answered immediately and placed her finger on her lips.

'Come in quietly and don't wake Miss Queenie,' she said in a low voice with a slight American accent.

Who were these people called Chicky and Queenie?

What was he doing in this cold barn of a place? He went into a shabby kitchen with a broken range where a small kitten sat in front, warming itself. It was white with a tiny little triangular black tail and little black ears. Seeing him, it mewed piteously.

Rigger picked it up and stroked its head. 'What's its name?'

'It only arrived today, like yourself. It came in an hour ago.'

'Will it stay?' he asked.

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