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A Week in Winter (Chapter Twelve)

'You are tired?' Trevor's voice had risen again dangerously. 'You have nothing to be tired about. It's the rest of us that have things that are making us tired, like trying to explain what can never be explained.'

'It was the airline . . .' Corry began.

'Don't give me the airline. If you had wanted to be here, you'd have been here.'

'Can they not have the meeting tonight or tomorrow?'

'Of course they can't. Who do you think these people are? They've all flown in specially. They got on planes that didn't sit on their butts on the tarmac,' Trevor raged.

'Then I'm staying here for a week. If it's too late for the meeting, then to hell with it. I'm getting out for a while.'

'Hey, this is no time . . . I've set everything up.'

'And I tried to get there, but the airline let me down. Goodbye, Trevor, talk to you in a week's time.'

'But where are you going? What are you doing? You can't go wandering off like this!'

'I'm a grown man. An old man, as you never tire of hinting. I can have a week's vacation here or a month, if I like. See you back in LA.' Corry closed his phone and turned it on to message.

He went to get himself another coffee. This kind of freedom was new to him. He had escaped the meeting he had been dreading. He could now do what he wanted to without consulting any handler, manager or agent. He was actually free.

The airline had done him a favour.

But where would he go? Perhaps he should buy a tourist guide book or find a travel agent. On the tables around there were various brochures offering suggestions of what to do in the region. There was a medieval banquet in a castle. There was a tour to some spectacular cliff face called Moher, which was meant to be one of the Wonders of the World. There were golf packages. None of them appealed to Corry.

But one little sheet advertised A Week in Winter and promised a warm, welcoming house and miles of sand and cliffs and wild birds. He called the number to know if there was a vacancy.

A pleasant-sounding woman said there was indeed room for him, told him to rent a car and drive north. He should call again when he arrived in Stoneybridge for directions to the house.

'About payment?' Corry began; he didn't want to give his name, and there was a possibility that he might even go unrecognised, which would be a real treat.

'We'll sort all that out when you get here,' Mrs Starr was brisk. 'And your name is . . .?'

'John,' Corry said, without pausing.

'Right, John, take your time, and be very careful of Irish drivers, they are inclined to pull out suddenly without indicating. Assume they are going to do that and you'll be fine.'

His shoulders felt less tense. He was an ordinary tourist going on an ordinary holiday. There was no press reception, no junket of showbiz writers following him.

It was a cold, bright morning. Corry Salinas put his bag into the back of the rented car and drove north obediently.

He must remember he was called John from now on.

The other guests seemed to have settled in. The house looked just as it had done in the brochure. John turned his collar up to shield his face partially.

He was so used to people doing a double take when they met him and shouts of, 'Oh my God, you're Corry Salinas!' But at Stone House, nobody recognised him. Perhaps Tireless Trevor had been right when he said that Corry Salinas was in grave danger of being a forgotten brand.

He told them, when asked, that he was a businessman from Los Angeles taking a well-deserved week off. And then he began to feel that there was no need to turn up his collar any more. If they recognised him, they were not going to say anything. But it was much more likely that they hadn't a clue who he was.

The food was good, the conversation was easy, but he felt very weary. He was used to putting on an act, giving a performance. It wasn't demanded here, which was a relief, but on the other hand he felt somewhat at a loss. What was his role?

He was the first to go to bed. He asked them to forgive him and to believe that he hadn't invented the International Date Line. They laughed and told him to sleep well.

And indeed John did sleep well, immediately, in his comfortable bed, but jet lag meant he did not sleep long. Still on California time, he woke at three a.m., alert and ready to face the day.

He made himself tea and looked out the window at the waves crashing on the shore below. He wanted to call Maria Rosa. It was eight or nine hours earlier back home. Perhaps she would have come back to her apartment after a long day's teaching.

He picked up his mobile phone but before he dialled her number, he paused. Would she really be interested to know that he had booked into this bizarre vacation? She was always polite but distant, as if anything her father did happened in an unreal, childlike maze of ratings and reviews and column inches of publicity. To Maria Rosa it had little to do with the real world.

Then he told himself to stop analysing it.

He dialled the number.

'Maria Rosa? It's Dad.'

'Hey, Dad. How are things?'

'Just fine. I'm stuck in Ireland, of all places. I missed the connection when I was heading for Germany.'

'Ireland's OK, Dad, you could be in worse places.'

'I know. It's fine. Very wild where I am, right on the Atlantic.'

'And cold, I guess?'

'Yes, but it's a warm hotel. I'm going to stay here for a week.'

'That's good, Dad.'

Was she interested? Was she bored? It was so hard to know from six thousand miles away. 'I just thought I'd call to say hi.'

'It's good to hear from you.'

There was a pause. Was she ending the conversation?

'And you.' He was loath to let her go. 'Can you hear the waves crashing outside? They're really big. They're like a sort of drum roll.'

'What time is it there?' she asked.

'Just after three a.m.,' he said.

'Hey, Dad, you need to sleep,' his only daughter said.

Corry said goodnight, and felt more lonely and lost than he had ever felt in his life.

He dozed fitfully after that, and felt sluggish and groggy as he went down to breakfast. Several people were already at the table and they commiserated with him over his jet lag. A young woman called Winnie, who was a nurse, gave him sound, practical advice and although he promised he'd follow it, he allowed himself to be persuaded to try a full Irish breakfast as an alternative remedy. Mrs Starr placed a cafetiere of coffee in front of him and told him to help himself.

After breakfast, he lingered over a last cup as Orla cleared the table and Mrs Starr busied herself with maps and binoculars and packed lunches for the guests setting out on walks. As the last of them left, he saw her shoulders relax and he realised how much anxiety lay under the surface.

She caught his eye as she turned round and saw that he had been watching her.

'This is our first week,' she explained.

'But you're no stranger to the business, I can tell,' he said.

'You're right,' she said, 'but that wasn't my own business. I worked for someone else. Now I'm where the buck stops. So listen, John, what would you like to do today? Would you like another cup of coffee, and I'll tell you what's around?'

They chatted companionably over another pot of coffee; and so, refreshed, John set out in blustery sunshine for his first day's walk.

Following Chicky's advice, he chose to go inland. He walked over a lonely road, saw big sheep with black faces and twisted horns. Or were they wild goats? There had been little time to study nature when he was growing up. There were huge gaps in his understanding of so many things.

He found a small pub and went from the bright, cold sunshine into the dark interior where a turf fire burned in a small grate and half a dozen men looked up from pints, interested to see a stranger come in.

John greeted them all pleasantly. He was an American, he explained unnecessarily, staying at Stone House. Mrs Starr had suggested this pub would be a good place to visit.

'Decent woman, Chicky Starr.' The landlord was pleased with the praise, and he polished the glasses with greater vigour than ever.

'She spent most of her life in America. Did you know her from there?' an old man asked him.

'No, indeed. I just saw an advertisement yesterday in Shannon airport, and here I am!'

Was it only yesterday? He already felt completely disconnected from any other life.

A large man wearing a big cap looked at John keenly. He had a broad red face and small curious eyes.

'You know, you're sort of familiar-looking. Are you sure you were never this way before?'

'Never. This is my first visit. You people sure live in a wonderful part of the world.'

That satisfied them. John had perfected the easy transferring of the attention away from himself, coupled with praise for their having lucked out in where they found themselves living.

'Chicky Starr was married to a Yank, you know. He was killed in a terrible car crash, the poor devil,' the red-faced man said.

'The Lord have mercy on him,' said the others in unison.

'That's terrible,' John said.

'Yes, she was very cut up. But she's got great guts altogether. She came back here to her own people and bought the old Sheedy place. She took ages doing it up. You wouldn't believe all the work that went into that house.'

'It's certainly a very comfortable place to stay,' John said.

'When you get back home, will you tell your friends in America to go there?'

'Sure I will.' John wondered did he know anyone in Los Angeles who would come to an outpost like this.

They left him to his soup and his pint of Guinness. He felt oddly at ease in their company, and listened while they talked about old Frank Hanratty who had painted his old van bright pink so that he could find it without any difficulty. Frank was still driving round the place peering through his glasses, seeing nothing ahead of him or behind. He had never been in any accident. Yet.

Frank had never married, apparently, but had a better social life than any of them; he called here, there and everywhere and was welcome wherever he went. He was mad keen on the cinema and would drive the pink van thirty miles every week and see at least two films in the big town . . .

Their conversation drifted around John. He had an image of this peaceful, undemanding life the man Hanratty lived, happy with the way the cards had been dealt. He wondered if he should buy everyone a drink. That's what would happen in a movie. But life wasn't a movie. These men might be affronted. He gave them his big, enveloping smile and promised he would come back again.

'Great soup that, lumps of chicken in it,' he said.

He couldn't have said anything that pleased the landlord more.

'That chicken was running around the back yard yesterday morning,' he said proudly.

The day's walking did wonders for his jet lag, and he slept soundly that night. He woke at six but found himself happy to lie in bed listening to the sounds of the wind and the sea. It was louder today, he felt sure. The wind seemed to have changed direction and was battering against the windows; when eventually he got up, there was a dark and angry look to the waves.

Sure enough, Mrs Starr was issuing weather warnings to everyone over breakfast. He had thought he might try the walk down to the shoreline with the little rocky inlets, but thought better of it, given her advice. Not sure what alternative route to take, he found himself lingering over a last cup of coffee, the other guests bustling around the doorway; as the last of them left, he smiled at Chicky Starr and, raising an eyebrow, invited her to join him.

'I hear you were in New York for a while,' he said.

He started to look forward to their chats. There was something restful about being able to have a normal conversation with people who had no preconceived notions about him, no idea about his other life and no expectations. The following morning, once again, John stayed back and was the last to leave after breakfast. He watched as Orla cleared away the plates.

'You are lucky to have family to help you here,' John said.

'Yes. Orla had different plans but they didn't work out, so I think she's happy to be here, for a while anyway.' Mrs Starr never usually seemed in a hurry but this particular morning, she seemed slightly preoccupied.

'Am I keeping you from anything, Mrs Starr?'

'I'm so sorry, John, I am indeed a little distracted. My car has died on me and Dinny from the garage will be up to fix it but not until this evening. Rigger, that's our manager, has to go to the doctor with his babies  –  they're having inoculations. We need to go shopping, Orla and I. I'm just working out how we can . . .'

'Why don't I drive you?' he suggested immediately.

'No, that would never do. This is your holiday.'

Orla was at the table, listening in. 'Oh, go on, Chicky, John doesn't mind. And it's only fifteen minutes down the road. I'll go with him and get myself a lift back.'

It was settled.

They drove companionably to the town. Orla was a handsome girl with easy conversation.

'It's unfair to ask you to do this on your holidays but it's Chicky's first week ever. She has enough to think about. I thought you wouldn't mind.'

'No, I'm very pleased to help. And by the way, I'll come with you. I actually like going to the stores,' John offered. He was indeed captivated by Orla's conversations with the butcher, the cheesemaker and all the feeling and prodding of vegetables in the greengrocer's. Soon it was all packed and paid for.

Orla was very grateful. 'Thank you so much. I'll ask one of the O'Haras for a lift back now, so off you go and enjoy your day.'

'I was going to have yet another coffee,' John admitted. 'I see a place over there. Why don't you put the shopping in the car and we'll go to the cafe for ten minutes.'

They chatted easily. Orla told him how she had nearly gone to New York to see Uncle Walter and Chicky, but then of course there had been the accident. Poor Uncle Walter had been killed.

Orla said she had done a course in Dublin and then she and her friend Brigid had gone to London to work. It had been good fun for a while but then her friend had got engaged to and married a madman and anyway, she had been feeling restless and longed for the seas and cliffs of Stoneybridge. There would have been no work for her without Chicky. There was something healing about this place. It helped to take the ache out of her heart.

'I think I see what you mean about this place being healing,' John said. 'I've only been here a short time, and I can feel it getting to me.'

'It must be very different from the life you're used to,' she was sympathetic.

'Very,' he said, without elaborating on the life he was used to.

'I suppose you couldn't sit and have a cup of coffee in a place like this out where you live . . .'

He looked at her sharply. 'What do you mean?' he asked eventually.

'John, of course we know that you are Corry Salinas. We knew the moment we saw you, Chicky and I.'

'But you didn't say.' He was stunned.

'You came here as John. You wanted to be a private person. Why should we say anything?'

'And the others, the guests? Do they know?'

'Yes. The Swedish guy copped you the first night, and the English couple, Henry and Nicola, asked Chicky discreetly if you were here incognito.'

'It's true what I said. I was on my way to a business meeting in Germany, and I did come here on the spur of the moment.'

'Sure. And call yourself whatever you want to, John, it's your life, your holiday.'

'But if everyone knows . . .?' he said doubtfully.

'Honestly, they'll respect your wanting to be an ordinary person. They're mainly concentrating on their own lives anyway.'

'It would make life easier, certainly, if they know already. It's just that I was hoping to leave that world behind, at least for a while, just spend some time without all that baggage.'

'It must be desperate having to explain everything and be asked if you know Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.'

'It's not that so much as they have such high expectations of me. They think I actually am the guys I play in the movies. I always feel I disappoint them.'

'Oh, I doubt that. Everyone here thinks you're full of charm. Me too. I've sort of gone off men myself personally, but you'd put a spark back into the eye.'

'You mock me. I'm an old, old man,' he laughed.

'Oh, I do not mock you, believe me. But I suppose I wish you got more fun out of it: being world famous, successful, everyone loving you. If I had done all you've done, I'd be delighted with myself and go round beaming at everyone.'

'It's only role-playing,' he said. 'That's my day job. I don't want to have to do it in real life as well.'

Orla considered this seriously. 'But you can be yourself with family, can't you?' she asked.

'I don't have any family, apart from one daughter. I called her in California the other night.'

'Did you tell her about Stone House? Will she come and bring her family here one day?'

'She doesn't have a family. She's a teacher.'

'I'm sure she's very proud of you. Do you go to her school and talk to the kids?'

'No. Lord, no. I'd never do that.'

'Wouldn't they love to meet a film star?' Orla said, surprised.

'Oh, Maria Rosa wouldn't want that,' he said.

'I bet she would. Did you ask her?'

'No. I don't want to push myself and my kind of life on her.'

'Lord, aren't you the most marvellous father. Why didn't I get parents like you?'

Corry was back in listening mode, where he was always at ease.

'Are they difficult?' he asked, full of sympathy.

'Well yes, to be honest. They want me to be different, I suppose. They think it's a bit fast to have my own place to live. They think I'm wasting myself washing dishes for Chicky  –  that's how they put it. They want me to marry one of the God-awful O'Haras and have a big vulgar house with pillars in front of it and three bathrooms.'

'Is that what they say?'

'They don't need to say it, it's there in the air like a great mushroom cloud.'

'Maybe they just wish the best for you and don't know how to put it.'

'Oh no, my mother always knows how to put it, usually in four different ways all saying the same thing  –  which is that I am wasting my life.'

'And leaving what you call the God-awful O'Haras aside, do you have anybody you do like?' He was gentle, not intrusive; interested.

'No. As I told you, I've sort of closed down a bit on men.'

'That's a pity. Some of them are very good people.' He had a wonderful smile, slightly ironic, full of conspiratorial fun.

'I don't want to take the risk. I'm sure you know that yourself.'

'I do know. I've been married twice and involved with a lot more women. I don't really understand them but I didn't ever give up on them!'

'It's different for you, John, you have the whole world to choose from.'

'You look to me like a girl who would have a fairly wide choice, Orla.'

'No. I can't get my head around it. At best it's a kind of compromise. At worst it's a nightmare.'

'Were you never in love?'

'Truthfully, no. Were you?'

'With Monica, my first wife, yes, I am sure I was. Maybe it was because we were young and it was all so new and exciting and we had Maria Rosa. But I think it was love . . .'

'Then you had more than I had.'

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