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A Week in Winter (Chapter Twenty)

Irene felt that you could not be someone's assistant and bad-mouth them to others. She said nothing at all about her upsetting encounter with Miss Howe. She assured Fiona that she felt strong enough now to get her bus home, but at that very moment a man called Dingo arrived at the house delivering topsoil and trays of bedding plants. The Carrolls were going to have a gardening weekend, they told Irene. The boys were going to have a flower bed each.

'Dingo will drop you home, Miss O'Connor,' Fiona insisted, 'it's on his way.'

Dingo was perfectly happy with this suggestion.

'They're a delightful family,' Irene said to him as she settled into his van. 'Are you a family man yourself, Dingo?'

'No, I've always been a believer in travelling solo,' he said. 'Believe me, Miss O'Connor, not every marriage is as good as Fiona and Declan's. Some of the couples you meet are like lightning devils. You never married yourself then?'

'No, Dingo, I didn't. I did have a chance once but he was a gambler and I was afraid, and then my mother needed me, so here I am.' She realised she sounded defeated, which was not her normal response. Miss Howe had done this to her today.

Dingo drove on, unconcerned.

'My uncle Nasey is just the same. He says he fancied someone years back but missed his chance. He's always asking me to look out for someone in their forties for him. Are you in your forties, Miss O'Connor?'

'Just about,' Irene said. 'Don't ask me next year. I'd have to say no.'

'Right, I'll tell him about you now before it gets too late,' Dingo promised.

Irene went home and prepared the supper. She never mentioned the events of the day to her mother or to Kenny. They could have no idea that all Irene's work for Miss Howe had been dismissed in one cold, cruel sentence.

Nor did they know that at the very moment they sat down to supper, efforts to find Irene a husband were under way. Dingo had called to see his uncle Nasey with the news that there was a very pleasant woman of forty-nine on the market. And he was so convincing, so persuasive, that Uncle Nasey was very interested in finding out more about Irene . . .

Over the next few weeks, the teachers at Wood Park School noticed that something about Irene had changed. She became shruggy rather than eager when they tried to discuss what kind of leaving ceremony they could arrange for Miss Howe, and what gift should be chosen.

'I don't think it matters, really,' Irene would say, and change the subject. Possibly she was worried about her position there, they thought. Maybe the next Principal would want to choose her own assistant.

Irene continued to do her work as reliably as always but without any warmth and enthusiasm. If Miss Howe noticed, she gave no sign of having seen anything amiss. Irene stopped serving tea and biscuits at awkward meetings. She retrieved the little kalanchoe, fed it plant food and nursed it back to glowing health in her own office. Gone were the days when Irene would tell cheerful tales of the world she lived in.

But now Irene had a social life of which Miss Howe was totally unaware. Nasey had called, and said that his eejit of a nephew had spoken very highly of her, and perhaps she might accompany him to the cinema on the odd occasion. Then they went bowling and to a singing pub. His real name was Ignatius, he explained, and at least it was better than being called Iggy, which another lad at school had been named. He worked in a butcher's shop for a Mr Malone, who was the most decent man ever to wear shoe leather.

He took to calling at Irene's house and bringing best lamb chops, or a lovely pork steak. Irene's mother Peggy loved him and lost no opportunity to tell him what a wonderful woman Irene was.

'I know that, Mrs O'Connor. You don't have to sell her to me. I'm hooked already,' he said, and Peggy was pink with pleasure about it all.

Nasey came from the West of Ireland and had little family of his own in Dublin. He had two nephews: Dingo Irene had met already; he drove a van and did odd jobs for people. There was his sister, Nuala, and there was his sister's boy, Rigger, who had been unfortunate in his life and spent a lot of time at reform school. He'd been sent away to the West of Ireland, and it looked as though he'd fallen on his feet over there. He had found a nice girl, grew vegetables and kept chickens. He had a job as a sort of manager for a place that was just setting up; a kind of small Big House, if you could understand that. It was perched on a cliff and the view would take the sight out of your eyes. Nasey promised that one day he would drive Irene and her mother to see the whole set-up. They'd love it.

Kenny liked having Nasey around too, and was always on hand to keep an eye on his gran if the two lovebirds, as he called them, wanted to go out on the town.

Then, just before the end of term, after six months of courtship, Nasey proposed to Irene. A small wedding was planned, and when she told him, Kenny offered to give his aunt away. But Irene had something else on her mind. She waited until Peggy had gone to bed.

'I have something to tell you, Kenny,' Irene began.

'I've always known,' he said simply. 'I knew you were my mother when I was nine.'

'Why did you never say?' She was astounded.

'It never mattered. I knew you'd always be there.'

'Do you want to ask me anything?' Her voice was small and she started to cry.

'Were you frightened and lonely at the time?' he asked, sitting down next to her and putting his arms around her.

'A bit, but he wasn't free, you see. Your father was already married. It wouldn't have been fair to break up everything he had. Then Maureen died in England and so we pretended you were hers. For Mam's sake. Mam got her grandchild, I got my son  –  we all did fine.' By now Irene was smiling through her tears.

'Does Nasey know?'

'Yes, I told him early on. He said you had probably guessed, and imagine, he was right.'

'Will Nasey come and live here?'

'If you don't mind,' Irene said. 'He's great with your gran.'

'Don't I know it? I love the way you play three-handed bridge at night like demons. Watching you is better than being in Las Vegas.' He said that he was delighted Nasey would be there, since he had been hoping to travel. There was a chance of a trip to America. Now he felt free to make his plans.

For eighteen years Irene had been dreading the day she must tell Kenny this news, and now it had passed almost without comment. Life was very strange.

Irene wore her engagement ring to work; Miss Howe made no comment and Irene did not bring the subject up. All the teachers noticed it, of course; Irene told them that her mother was going to be her matron of honour, and that Nasey's nephew Rigger was coming over from Stoneybridge and that Dingo was to be his best man, and that they would be having sandwiches and cake in a pub on the last Saturday in August and she would love all the teachers to come to that. They got into a fever of excitement planning a wedding present.

With Irene, it would be easy: she liked everything. It could be a holiday in Spain, a garden shed, a painting of Conne-mara, a weekend in a castle, a set of luggage with wheels, a croquet set, a big, ornate mirror with cherubs on it. Irene would love any one of them and praise the gift to the skies.

They were still no nearer any decision about Miss Howe's retirement gift.

There was a lot of pressure on Irene to make a decision on what it should be; she in turn didn't care one way or the other but she felt that for the teachers and students, she had to come up with some sort of an idea and she didn't want to disappoint them. It was so wonderful to be able to tell Nasey everything when she finished work in the evenings.

Nasey said he'd give the matter some thought. In the meantime, he had news of his own. His nephew Rigger had been on the phone.

'They're in a panic over at Stone House. They don't have any proper bookings for the week that it opens. He and Chicky are afraid it's going to be a flop after all their hard work.'

'Well,' said Irene, 'we should ask Rigger for some brochures, and I can hand them around at school. It's the sort of thing some of the teachers would enjoy.'

'Why don't you send Miss Howe there?' Nasey said triumphantly.

'But if she's so awful, should we inflict her on them?'

'She mightn't be too bad outside the school. I mean, she could go walking; she wouldn't annoy too many people.' Nasey's optimism wouldn't allow him to think too badly of Irene's boss.

'I'll suggest it. It might be the perfect solution,' Irene said.

'Let's keep our fingers crossed that she doesn't close the place down overnight,' Nasey said with a big smile. Then they put their minds to their wedding.

The teachers noted that Her Own Worst Enemy was even more buttoned up than usual these days, more unforgiving about high spirits at the end of the school year than ever before. More concerned about examination results than the children's future, and if possible even more ungiving of herself on any front.

They reported that her car was seen later and later at night in the school yard, and arrived there earlier in the mornings. Miss Howe must only spend seven or eight hours out of Wood Park every day.

It was not natural.

Finally she spoke to Irene about the wedding.

'One of the parents tells me that you are thinking of getting married, Irene,' Miss Howe said with a little laugh. 'Can she be serious?'

'Yes indeed, Miss Howe, at the end of August,' Irene said.

'And you never thought to tell me?' There was disapproval and sorrow in her voice.

'Well, no. As you said, I am not your colleague or your friend. I merely work for you. And as it will all take place during the holidays, I didn't really see any point in telling you.'

Although it was not exactly discourteous, there was something abrupt in Irene's tone that made Miss Howe look up sharply. This was the time for her to say that she was very pleased and wished Irene happiness. This was even the time when she might say that indeed she did consider Irene a friend and a colleague.

But no; years of being her own worst enemy clicked in, and so she laughed again.

'Well, I don't suppose you have any intention of starting a family at this late stage of your life,' she said, amused at the very thought of it.

Irene met her look but without smiling. 'No indeed, Miss Howe. I already have been blessed with a son, who is eighteen now. Nasey and I do not hope to have any more children.'

'Nasey!' Miss Howe could hardly contain herself. 'Is that his name? Goodness!'

'Yes, that's his name, and goodness is a very good way to describe him. He is very good. To me, my son Kenny and my mother. He works as a butcher, in case you find that funny too.'

'Please calm yourself, Irene. You are being hysterical. I have just discovered two extraordinary things about you. You were always showing me photographs of Kenny, and said he was your nephew.'

'I thought it more discreet since I was not a married woman.'

'But this Nasey will make you respectable, is that it?'

Irene wondered how she could have worked for this woman for twenty years, not to mention made excuses for her that it was just her manner. Miss Howe had no heart, no warmth.

'I always considered myself respectable, always. And everyone who knows me thinks I am too. But then you don't know me at all, Miss Howe, and never have.'

'You will presumably want to continue working here after I am gone and after this . . . er . . . marriage?' Miss Howe's eyes were full of anger.

'Certainly I do. I love this school, the staff and the pupils.'

'Then you would want to watch your tone, Irene, if I am to write you a good reference. My successor would not necessarily like the legacy of someone who is secretive and has a bad attitude.'

'Write what you like, Miss Howe. You will anyway.'

'You are being very short-sighted over all this, Irene.'

'Thank you, Miss Howe. I'll get back to my work, while I still have a job.' And Irene walked out without looking back.

She sat at her desk, shaking, and had barely the strength to answer her mobile phone.

It was her mother, with wonderful news. Nasey had been around to the house at lunchtime and had shown her how to go online and look at outfits for Mother of the Bride. She was going to choose a navy and white dress and jacket. Would that suit Irene's plans?

Soon the goodwill and excitement began to seep back. The toxic, cold loneliness of Miss Howe beyond the door in her prison-like office was ebbing away.

The new Principal had already been chosen. She was a Mrs Williams, a widow who had run a large girls' school in England but who now wanted to return to her family in Ireland. Apparently she was bringing her own furniture to the Principal's office, and was happy to keep the present level of administration. Irene would work for July and part of August helping her to get installed. She had been informed that Irene would then be on holiday for three weeks but back in the office for the first day of term.

The school assembled to say goodbye to Miss Howe. She stood on the raised dais of the school hall as she did every morning. Still wearing her black gown, her hair held by the same slide. Her face was still totally impassive.

Various teachers read out their words recognising Miss Howe's achievements; the head girl made her speech and the chairman of the parents' committee expressed gratitude on behalf of all the girls who had succeeded so well at Wood Park, thanks to Miss Howe. There was no mention of a well-deserved rest, or assurance that her real life was just beginning. Finally the envelope was handed over as a token of everyone's appreciation. It was a voucher for a holiday in the opening week of Stone House, a new hotel in the West of Ireland. Miss Howe made no attempt to thank anyone, and her face registered nothing when the gift was announced. But no one really expected any other reaction.

Mrs Williams had been invited to the farewell ceremony for Miss Howe but had refused. She did not want to be a distraction, she said. This was Miss Howe's day.

In fact, people would have been glad of Mrs Williams' presence. She would have helped the torturous ceremony and the endless wine-and-cheese event that followed. People looked at their watches begging for it to be an acceptable time to leave. Had time ever moved so slowly? Was there ever such a joyless speech deploring modern trends in education, stressing the need for discipline in schools and learning by rote, pleas that so-called creativity never take the place of good old-fashioned basics?

The audience of teachers who had done their best to make the curriculum interesting as well as draconian; the parents who were guiltily relieved that their daughters got good points and university places; the pupils who couldn't wait for the school holidays . . . everyone was praying for it to be over.

Irene went back to her office to collect her things. She was dying to get home and tell Nasey about the wedding gift which had been arranged for them by the teaching staff at Wood Park. It was not only one of those fabulous gas-fired barbecues, but also a garden firm were going to lay a little patio for them and build a special wall to enclose the area. All they needed now was a lifetime of good summers to enjoy eating out of doors!

To her surprise, she heard a sound from Miss Howe's office. She knocked on the door. Miss Howe stood there alone behind her desk, which was empty apart from her car keys. Behind her the window, framed with the heavy dark brown curtains, looked out on the empty school yard.

'I just wanted to make sure that it wasn't an intruder.' Irene started to back out again.

'Stay for a moment, Irene. I want to give you a wedding present.'

This was certainly not something she had foreseen.

'That's very kind of you, Miss Howe. Very kind indeed.'

Miss Howe handed her a fancy bag with a lot of glitter on it. Not at all the kind of thing you would have expected from Miss Howe. Irene was at a loss for words.

Her immediate response was guilt. She had paid not one euro towards the going-away voucher for Miss Howe; she had signed no card and given no good wishes. Now she was ashamed.

'Not at all. Just a little something to remind you of me.'

'I won't forget working for you, Miss Howe.'

'And I very much hope that Mrs Williams will see her way to keeping you.'

'Yes, indeed. And thank you again for the gift. Will I open it now?'

'Oh, please, no . . .' Miss Howe withdrew in a sort of fastidious distaste, as if opening the gift would somehow sully this empty office.

The books had all been removed but the cheap hardboard shelves stood empty, ready to be removed in the next few days, although Miss Howe didn't know this. There was no trace of anyone having worked here for so long.

'Well, I will open it tonight, and let me thank you in advance for going to the trouble of choosing something for us. I do so appreciate it.' There was sincerity radiating from all over Irene.

Miss Howe gave a little shudder at the familiarity of it all.

'Well, I hope it will be suitable. One doesn't know what to get, really. Especially when it's a late marriage.'

'Sorry?'

'I mean, you probably have everything already, not like young people excited about setting up a new home.'

Irene would not let the light go out on the good feeling of the gift.

'No, of course not, but to us it's still very new and exciting. Neither of us has ever been married before.'

'Quite.' Miss Howe's lips were pursed in disapproval.

'Anyway, I wish you all the best, Miss Howe. I'm sure you have plenty of things planned for the years ahead.'

Miss Howe could have thanked her for the kind remark. She could have said vaguely that there was indeed a lot to do. But Nell Howe didn't do vague and pleasant. Instead she said, 'What a wonderful fairy-tale world of platitudes you live in, Irene. It must be very restful not to think things through.' Then she took up her car keys and left.

Irene watched from the window as Nell Howe got into her small car and drove out of the only life she had known for years. She stood there for a while after the car had driven through the gates of Wood Park. What would Miss Howe do tonight, and during the many other days and nights to follow? Would there always be a tray laid in that cold room? Was there anyone to share it with her?

There had been not one friend or relative at the gathering held in her honour. Who goes through life with nobody to invite to her retirement party?

Irene was a very generous person. She could not think all bad of the woman who had insulted her, and who even now at the very last was trying to ridicule her. Miss Howe had bought her a wedding present, after all. And even more important, if Irene had not gone to visit Miss Howe that day she would never have met Dingo, who had found his uncle Nasey for her.

She sighed and caught the bus home, clutching the shiny glittery bag with the wedding present.

They opened it at suppertime. It was a lace-trimmed tray cloth. There were little rosebuds on it. Irene looked at it in wonder. She could hardly believe that Miss Howe had gone to a shop and chosen this. Not at all practical, and rather old-fashioned, but such a kind thought.

Then she saw that at the bottom of the bag there was a card in an envelope. Irene opened it and read: To Miss Howe, Thank you for getting our girl to study and turning round her life. It was signed by the parents of a child who had recently won a major scholarship to the university. Miss Howe had passed the gift on unopened. She hadn't even opened the card to read the gratitude it contained.

Irene crumpled up the card quickly.

'What did she say?' Peggy O'Connor loved every detail, every heartbeat.

'Just wishing us well,' Irene said. In her heart she decided that she would never think about Miss Howe again. She would just exclude her from her mind and her life. The woman was a shell. She was not worth another thought.

But a week later, when Mrs Williams was in place, Irene was forced to think about Miss Howe once more. Mrs Williams had changed the Principal's office so much that it did not look remotely like the same place.

A small laptop replaced the huge, bulky computer; the hand-carved desk held attractive raffia trays, brightly coloured files and a photograph of the late Mr Williams. The new bookshelves were filled but with spaces for ornaments and little flower pots. Mrs Williams even kept a tiny watering can at hand to make sure the plants got attention.

The hard chairs had been replaced by less daunting furniture. She had established a routine that seemed more normal and less driven than her predecessor's. She seemed to be delighted with Irene, and constantly thanked her for her efficiency and support. This was a personal first for Irene, who had been used to the grim silence of Miss Howe as the best that could be hoped for.

They were going through the day's agenda when Mrs Williams looked up and said, 'By the way, why didn't you tell me you were getting married?'

'I didn't want to bore you with all my doings. I'm inclined to go on a bit!' Irene said, and smiled apologetically.

'Well, if we can't go on a bit about our wedding day, what can we go on about?' Mrs Williams seemed genuinely interested. 'Tell me all about it.'

Irene told her about Nasey, and how he had served his time in a butcher's shop and was going to sell his flat and come and live with her and her mother. They were going to put an extra bathroom in the house . . . she bubbled on full of enthusiasm, hoping that the day itself would be a great one, and not silly or anything.

Mrs Williams looked at the photograph on her desk and said she remembered her wedding day as if it were yesterday. Everything had gone right.

'Was the sun shining?' Irene wondered.

Mrs Williams couldn't remember the weather it was so unimportant. Everyone had been so happy, that was the main thing.

At that point, the direct telephone line rang. Irene was a bit nonplussed. She had never known calls to come in on that line. It was for the Principal's convenience, in case she wanted to make a quick call out rather than going through the whole system. At a nod from Mrs Williams, Irene took the call.

A man asked to speak to Nell Howe.

'Miss Howe has retired as Principal and no longer works here. Do you want to talk to Mrs Williams, the current Principal, and if so, perhaps you can tell me in what connection?'

'Tell me where she lives,' he said.

'I'm afraid we never disclose staff addresses.'

'You just said that she was ex-staff.'

'I'm sorry, but I'm not able to help you. We are not in touch with Miss Howe, so I am not in a position to pass on any message,' Irene said, and the man hung up.

Irene and Mrs Williams looked at each other, bewildered.

A week before the wedding, Irene saw Nell Howe across a street. Irene couldn't help herself. She ran across to her.

'Miss Howe, how good to see you.'

Nell Howe looked at her distantly and then, as if after a great effort, she said flatly, 'Irene.'

'Yes, Miss Howe. How have you been? I have been meaning to contact you.'

'Have you? Then why didn't you?'

'Could we have a cup of coffee somewhere, do you think?' Irene suggested.

'Why?' Miss Howe was surprised at the overfamiliarity of the request.

'I need to tell you something.'

'Well, there is hardly anywhere suitable around here.' Miss Howe sniffed at the area.

'This little cafe does nice coffee. Please, Miss Howe . . .'

As if giving in to the inevitable, Miss Howe agreed. Over cups of frothy Italian coffee, Irene told her about the wedding plans and the honeymoon they had decided on. She asked Miss Howe if she was looking forward to going away in the winter.

'Why would anyone want to go to such a remote place at any time?' was the only response.

Irene changed the subject. There was the man on the phone and his odd behaviour.

'Have you any idea of who it could be?' she asked. 'He didn't leave any message, and wouldn't give a number.'

'It must have been my brother,' Miss Howe said.

'Your brother?'

'Yes, my brother Martin. I haven't seen him for a long time.'

'But why?' Irene felt her heart racing. It was the casual way Miss Howe spoke that was so disturbing.

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