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A Week in Winter (Chapter Twenty-Four)

And Joe had understood. He had said that she was very kind to have arranged such a pleasant person to greet him. It wasn't as if she had abandoned him or anything.

Such a fuss over nothing.

Mark had to be in London for a few days, so Freda felt easy about inviting Lane and Eva to have dinner at Ennio's. She hoped that they would understand how she felt. It would be all right.

It was a happy evening as Freda, Lane and Eva sat in Ennio's restaurant eating pasta and catching up.

Eva was organising her next birdwatching trip to the West of Ireland. There was a new hotel opening in a couple of weeks' time, up on the cliffs above Stoneybridge. Perfect for birdwatchers. Eva was already planning her visit.

She paused dramatically and then proposed a toast. 'You two are not to have a fight,' she announced, 'I won't allow it. Especially over something as foolish as a man.'

By this stage, both Freda and Lane were laughing.

'You're such a stirrer, Eva, there's no row,' Freda said.

'I'd never fight with Freda,' Lane promised.

'Great, that's sorted, then.'

Lane and Freda looked at each other helplessly.

'My aunt, the drama queen!' Freda said.

'Whatever made her think that we were going to have a row?' Lane asked.

'My saying I love Mark Malone, you saying he is a shit . . . that might have given her food for thought.'

'I'll never say anything like that about him again. I just thought you would have wanted to be there for Joe and his talk. But as it happens, it has worked out  –  he has asked me out on a date, so I forgive you,' Lane said.

Freda leaned over and patted her on the wrist. And then, right in the middle of the meal, Freda was called to the phone. The waiter led her to a little desk which had the reservations book and handed her the phone.

'Hallo?' Freda had no idea who knew she was here.

'Ciao, bella,' the voice on the phone said.

'Mark!'

'Just wanted you to know I miss you, and it is quite ridiculous that I am at one boring dinner and you are at another when we could be together.'

'Mine's not a boring dinner, I told you  –  it's friends,' she said. 'And anyway, you're back tomorrow, aren't you?'

'No, sadly not. I have to stay on here. More meetings. It won't take much longer; I'll get away as early as I can.'

The smile vanished from her face. 'Oh no, but I've booked to have some time off!'

'Well, I won't make so many arrangements in future. Is that OK? Would you like me to cancel my business meetings?' He sounded angry.

'I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything.' Freda was confused.

There was a pause.

'All right,' he said eventually. 'I'm sorry, I'm under a lot of pressure here. We'll speak tomorrow. I'll know more then.'

'Tomorrow, then,' she agreed, shaken. And then as a thought just struck her, she asked, 'Mark, why didn't you call me on my mobile?'

'I didn't bring mine with me so I don't have the number,' he said smoothly. 'I remember you said Ennio's, so I looked it up in the book.'

'Tomorrow, then,' she said.

Back at the table, Lane asked her, 'Was that him?'

Freda smiled. 'It was, as it happens.'

'Why didn't he ring you on your mobile? Was he checking up to see if you were really where you'd said you'd be?'

Eva looked up sharply.

Lane's tone had been light, but Freda found herself feeling very tense. After all, she had asked Mark the very same question herself. But she would admit none of this to Lane.

'Oh, definitely, that's it, a martyr to jealousy he is,' she said with a very insincere little laugh.

'What's worrying you?' Eva asked.

'Nothing,' Freda said. 'He's just having to stay on in London.'

For the very first time since she had gone to work there, Freda didn't want to go in to the library. There were too many calls on her time. Lane still didn't understand Mark; even Eva had lost patience. They just didn't understand. Miss Duffy was being so demanding about categories. 'A misfiled book is a lost book,' was her great mantra.

There was that bossy woman who had complained that some book was sheer pornography and that she had mistakenly recommended it to her book club up in Chestnut Court. Someone else had thrown a tantrum about the lack of Zane Grey books. She needed to find Joe Duggan, and apologise again for not being at the library for his talks.

And she could deal with it all if she didn't feel so uneasy after their conversation the night before. She had dreamed about the blonde again, and now she was sure Mark was married. But she didn't care. He loved Freda. He told her so many times.

She straightened her shoulders and walked slowly up the steps that normally she took two at a time when she went into work.

A few days later, Eva invited Lane to come for lunch with her.

'There's a report of a great flock of Common Scoters over the other side of Howth, and there might be some rare ones among them.'

'Uncommon Scoters?' Lane suggested.

'Well, Velvet Scoters, they're called actually.'

'Velvet? Sounds good.'

'They're sea ducks, the males are all jet black with yellow bills, the females have white necks and dull grey bills. Winter visitors. Come with me in the car and we'll have a sandwich in a pub out that way,' Eva suggested.

'And what will I wear?'

'Nothing too bright that would alarm them. Don't know what the weather's doing but, you know, lots of waterproof anoraks and scarves and sweaters and maybe a backpack or lots of pockets.'

It was the best offer Lane had had. Freda was like a weasel, with Mark making plans and then cancelling them at the last moment; when he wasn't around, she just sat staring at her phone waiting for him to ring. Lane said she'd love the drive.

As they left the main roads behind and headed towards the sea, Eva pointed out the migrating birds newly arrived: flocks of white-fronted geese as well as the ducks, swans and wading birds that came down from the Arctic. Now they would have plenty of things to see.

Eva concentrated hard on the busy traffic.

'Will we go somewhere there's easy parking?' she suggested, and that was why they chose the dark wine bar near the sea.

Which was where they saw Mark Malone, who was meant to be in England at a conference.

He was sitting at a table over by the window. Opposite him was a blonde woman in jeans and a thick Aran sweater. Between them was a little girl. She looked very young and very happy. They were the perfect happy family, as if there was nobody but the three of them in the place.

Mark and the woman were feeding each other forkfuls of pasta and then laughing after each mouthful. The little girl was laughing at them gleefully. The three of them shared such affection and closeness, there was no doubt that they all belonged together.

Eva and Lane looked at them, stunned.

They were unable to back out of the restaurant before being seen. As Mark looked up and caught sight of them, his face froze into an angry mask.

Eva and Lane looked at each other and at exactly the same moment they both said, 'The bastard!' Then without another word they walked out, got into Eva's car and began to drive back to the city.

As they drove off, Lane asked, 'Do birds do that, you know, cheat all round them?'

'It's complicated.'

'I bet it is.'

'Do we say anything?' Eva wondered aloud.

'Of course we do. The question is, to which of them? To Freda or to Mark?'

'If we hadn't gone in there . . .' Eva began.

'That's no use  –  we did go in. And we saw him. She can't be made a fool of like this.'

'But it would humiliate her if we said – ' Eva was protective.

'Well, it would humiliate her more if we didn't say,' Lane countered angrily.

'We don't actually know . . .'

'Of course we know. That wasn't his office colleague or his sister. That child was his. Let me tell you that if you saw my lover with his wife and daughter, I'd say you were a poor friend not to tell me.'

'You say that now, but you might think differently if it really was the case.'

'Well, I'm glad we cleared that up, anyway, because I would most definitely want to be told. That puts the ball back in my court, gives me the right to make a decision.'

'But we can't tell her, Lane. Come on, think about it.'

'It's important enough for him to lie about it, tell her that he's in London, and be holed up in a wine bar where he's not going to meet anyone.'

'Or so he thought,' Eva said. 'Don't tell her, Lane, it would destroy her.'

'She should be told. Let her take him back if she wants to, but she has the right to know.'

'Leave it, just for a bit, anyway.'

In the end, neither of them had to tell Freda. Mark got there first.

It was the night of the reception at Holly's. She hadn't heard from Mark all day but she knew he was busy. She hoped she would be a credit to him tonight. Eva's black jacket looked very well on her; she would wear a scarlet silk skirt and her good black and red shoes. She knew Mark would have to circulate and that she would have to manage on her own, but later they would be together.

The reception was in full swing when Freda arrived at the hotel. There was a buzz of conversation, and trays of elegant canapes were being passed around.

She slipped in without acknowledging Mark. He was at the centre of a laughing group near the window. Freda moved to the other side of the room and watched him talking. He was animated and able to include everyone around him in whatever it was that they were talking about. His easy smile rested on one person and then the next. And then he moved on seamlessly to another group.

She must not stand here like part of the furniture, looking at him. She was an invited guest.

She recognised a few faces. A man who ran a TV chat show, a woman columnist, a well-known television reporter. He had certainly the kind of people he needed. He would be in good form later on.

She chatted easily to people around her, and drank little from her glass so that it could not be topped up. She met a man who was in charge of IT for a large company. He agreed with Freda that there was an almighty waste with technology being updated every week and systems becoming obsolete in a year or two. Freda wondered what they did with their old equipment, and made a very strong case for him to consider Finn Road Library. She explained about the computer classes, and he seemed very interested. Then she saw Mark looking across at her oddly and hastily changed the subject to the splendours of the hotel. It was such a jewel of a place, and everyone felt that it was their own little secret.

'That's why it would be insanity to change it,' the man said.

'But to make sure it survives, to get a steady flow of visitors . . .?' she was repeating Mark's words now.

'There are dozens of hotels with big conference facilities, spas, entertainment for the busloads. Holly's is different; it should stay different,' he said.

'And what if it gets squeezed out, if it just gets crushed by all the others because it was afraid to expand?'

'You've bought the line,' the man said. 'You're well indoctrinated already, you don't even need to stay for the speeches.'

'I'm not sure I know what you mean.'

'Oh, the spiel, disguised as a nice warm welcome, lovely to see you all in this old-fashioned place, now we plan to change it and ruin it.'

'And will they?' Freda could hardly breathe.

'Don't know yet,' he said. 'A few of us on the board want things to stay as they are, the others all see a great glittering future and a franchising of the Holly brand abroad. They're obviously going to tear it down, and this little circus is to get their friends in the press to help them get planning permission. Anyway, don't get me started. What's your library called, in case we can send a few computers your way?'

They exchanged details. At that moment, Mark appeared at their elbows.

'You're never cruising the room looking for help for your library, Miss O'Donovan?' he said.

'My suggestion entirely, Mark. This young lady is doing something worthwhile with her life, and that's a rare treat these days.'

Mark steered her away firmly.

'Who was he?' Freda whispered.

'Never mind who was he, what the hell is going on?' Mark hissed at her. 'What do you think you're doing, trying to sabotage my event? Who put you up to it? No, don't tell me, you and those bitches . . .'

'Mark?' Freda was bewildered. The look on his face alarmed her. What on earth had happened?

'What did you think you were going to do?' His eyes raked her face. 'Stand up here and make accusations? Wreck my chances?' His voice sounded clipped and furious, though his face wore a forced smile as he continued to steer her towards the door.

'I don't know what you're talking about,' she said with spirit, trying to free her elbow from his grip. 'I don't know what's gone wrong, but why don't I call you tomorrow, and we'll fix that nice relaxed evening we were going to have for tomorrow night instead? Right?' Her voice sounded doomed and hollow inside her own head. 'Or perhaps you could come round to my place later tonight and tell me what this is all about?' She hoped she didn't sound as if she was begging.

'I don't think so,' he said derisively. 'It's too late for all that. Sending your friends to spy on me! Why couldn't you leave things alone? You fool, you stupid fool . . .' He was hardly able to get the words out. 'How could you have been so stupid? You've wrecked everything. And when I think how much I loved you, and the risks I took for you.'

She was frightened now. 'Tell me, what is it? What did I do? Whatever it was, it was a horrible accident. And whatever I did wrong, I'm sorry . . .'

By now, they had reached the front door of the hotel. Freda was distraught, but Mark's face was cold as he half dragged her outside.

'Do not contact me again. Don't call, don't text, don't email. Stay out of my life. And don't you or your friends ever come near my wife and child again . . .'

Freda watched him, mute and hopeless, as he turned and walked away from her, back into the hotel. The door closed.

She passed the line of taxis without seeing them. Her eyes were blurred with tears. Then, out of sight of the hotel, she stopped and leaned on a railing to cry properly. She stood there in Eva's black beaded jacket and wept.

Passers-by looked at her, concerned. Some even stopped to ask could they help, but Freda just cried more. Then she felt an arm on her shoulder and realised that it was the IT man she'd been talking to earlier.

'Have you anyone to go to?' he asked kindly.

She was fine; it was only something personal and silly, she would get over it, she reassured him through her sobs.

Did she want him to call someone for her?

And even though she always thought of herself as someone surrounded by friends, tonight there was literally nobody she could ring.

He put her into a taxi; later, she realised, he had paid the driver. In the back of the cab, she sat staring ahead of her for twenty minutes. In her little flat, everything was perfect: candles arranged carefully on tables and in the grate that would barely take minutes to light; the food and wine in the refrigerator, a big bowl of scented lilies on the windowsill.

A warm and welcoming place. It mocked her for all her hopes and confidence.

Then the walls seemed to be closing in on her, and it was as if she couldn't breathe.

Sometimes when she woke suddenly at night, she wondered had she imagined the whole thing. Maybe it was all a dream, a fantasy, everything about that night at Holly's Hotel. She thought she had known him so well. He was gentle, funny and loving. He could not have been with her all this time unless he did love her as he swore he did.

Eventually, the story had emerged from Eva and from Lane. The day out, the lunch, Mark, the blonde woman, the child. The child. He had a daughter. She turned over in her mind all the visions she had tried to repress: at no stage during these visions had there been any sight of a daughter. But then she had seen his wife, hadn't she? The blonde woman in her vision really was indeed his wife. Freda had seen her and done nothing.

Over the days that followed, Freda lost weight and her face became drawn and lined.

Eva was seriously worried, and turned from sympathy to bewilderment and then to genuine concern. 'I feel so powerless to help you,' she said sadly.

'I have no idea what to do,' Freda wailed. 'I loved him so much. I thought he loved me. How would I know what to do?'

'You are full of guilt,' Eva said. 'You probably don't need to be, but you are. You are trying to make amends, to make things right somehow, but you can't. You have to look to the future now.'

Eva made a decision. Freda needed to get away; she needed a change of scene. She needed to be somewhere where she wasn't reminded of Mark every day, where she could see clearly once again. She made two phone calls: one to a Mrs Starr at Stone House in the West of Ireland to change her reservation, and the other to Miss Duffy. Freda wasn't feeling very well. She was going to need a few days to recover . . .

As she drew near to the house, Freda wondered had she made a great mistake. This place would do her no good at all. She knew nobody here; all she could do was think about the time she had felt so happy and then so devastated. Why was she here? There weren't any ghosts to lay. Just very real memories of her great love.

Mrs Starr was very welcoming. She showed Freda to a pretty room at the side of the house, and said that Eva had said to be sure to mention all the birdwatching opportunities. Freda stared dully out of the window and watched as the wind caught the branches of the tree outside her window. Holm oak, she thought, sadly. Holly oak. The memory of her humiliation came flooding back.

Oddly, the wind seemed to be shaking only one of the branches of the tree. Freda watched transfixed as a small black and white face emerged from the leaves and stared in at her quizzically for a moment, before disappearing into the foliage again. She held her breath as the little cat clambered further and further up the tree, patches of black and white appearing every now and then.

'Don't worry,' said Chicky Starr, following her anxious gaze. 'That's Gloria. She's fine. She's afraid of nothing. Whatever it is she thinks she's chasing will be long gone and she'll make her way down again. I'll introduce you, if you like. Come down to the kitchen and I'll give you the cat treats she loves. Three pieces, mind, no more than that.'

Downstairs in the kitchen, Chicky opened the side door and whistled. Within seconds, Gloria appeared looking hopeful, wound herself around Chicky's legs then sat down abruptly for some urgent leg-washing.

'Three pieces,' reminded Chicky, passing the box of treats to Freda. 'Don't believe her when she tells you she should have more.'

Freda sat down by the fire and immediately Gloria jumped up on to her lap, purring loudly with anticipation. One by one, Freda dispensed the little pieces of dried food; delicately, Gloria accepted them. Then she curled up in a very tight ball and promptly fell asleep.

If only, Freda thought wistfully as she stroked the top of Gloria's head, if only she could stay here by the fire all week with this warm little bundle of fur in her lap. If only she didn't have to move, to meet anyone else, to make small talk. She dreaded meeting her fellow guests.

The feeling intensified when she met the others as they gathered for pre-dinner drinks in Chicky Starr's kitchen. They were all perfectly pleasant: Freda looked from one face to another and felt that each and every one of these fellow travellers had some deep secrets; her heart felt heavy at the thought of having to talk to any of them. Perhaps if she kept herself totally to herself, they would just leave her alone.

Of course, in the end it wasn't like that at all. Chicky Starr's welcome was warm, and they gathered around the roaring log fire; the atmosphere was generous and relaxing and soon the conversation rose to a much higher pitch. Suddenly Freda found no difficulty in talking to these total strangers, and for a while she recovered her old animation.

She talked to a nice young Swedish man who turned out to be interested in Irish music. Before she realised what she'd done, she had agreed to go off to the town with him the next morning and find a music pub. On her other side, she had a spirited debate with a retired schoolteacher about standards of literacy among the young people of today. To her surprise, Freda felt her spirits lift as she told Miss Howe about the Friends of Finn Road Library and the young girls' reading group.

That night as she lay in bed, she thought about the events of the day. On an impulse, she got up and opened her door quietly. A small lamp on the hall table showed her there was no one around. Softly she whistled. At first there was no response, but after a moment she heard a soft thud and then the purposeful padding of small feet.

Freda slept that night with Gloria curled up beside her. In the morning, she set off with Anders and let herself be carried along with his enthusiasm. She found herself laughing out loud at his stories at lunchtime; and then moved to tears by the plaintive sounds of the music they listened to in the afternoon.

Freda was slowly starting to feel better. Dinner that night was even easier than the night before. She said nothing when she dreamed about storms, but pushed aside any notion of trying to warn anyone. She was relieved when Winnie and Lillian were found safe and sound.

It was on the fourth day that Chicky found Freda and Gloria curled up together by the fire in the Miss Sheedy Room. Gloria was dreaming, her pink little paws were twitching and she was making snuffly noises; Freda was stroking her fur and daydreaming.

Chicky was carrying a tray with a teapot and two cups. As she set it down on the small table, Freda looked up at her, startled. Gloria, affronted, jumped down on to the floor where she lay on her back with her feet in the air and surveyed the room gravely.

'I thought you might like some tea,' Chicky began. 'Gloria knows she's not supposed to be in here, but the two of you have definitely bonded.'

It was true: Freda and Gloria had by now become inseparable. The little black and white cat followed Freda throughout the house and escorted her on her walks through the garden. The two of them were seen admiring Carmel's twins and being formally introduced to the two new ducks, Spud and Princess. Gloria had considered them from a safe distance; then she had jumped up on to a fence-post and washed her face thoughtfully.

Chicky told Freda about Miss Queenie and how she had rescued Gloria and carried her into the house in her coat pocket. Rigger had thought her quite mad at the time, but like everyone else, he doted on them both. This room, she said, was named after Miss Queenie.

'I don't know if it's true or not,' she said, 'and I never asked her about it, but apparently some woman from the travellers had told all three sisters years back that she saw three unhappy marriages ahead, so they all refused whatever offers they got . . .'

That was when Freda told Chicky Starr about the second-sight experiences, about the times she had spoken out and had regretted it, and how she had tried to suppress her knowledge ever since. Even if she had a feeling, she had learned to keep it to herself. She couldn't change anything by speaking up; she would only have people shun her or be angry about what she saw. Whether she said anything or not, she couldn't win.

Then she told Chicky about Mark Malone, and how she had pushed aside the notion that he might have been married.

Chicky listened carefully. She passed no judgement; she seemed to understand totally that Freda could have loved Mark and put aside her fears.

'Why are you worried about talking about seeing these things?' she asked.

Freda loved her for accepting totally that she had seen them; there was no attempt to persuade her that they were imagination, dreams, coincidences.

'Because they've brought nothing but grief.'

'Suppose you had one about me now? Would you tell me?'

'I don't think so, no.'

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