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A Week in Winter (Chapter Twenty-One)

'Why? Oh, it all goes back many, many years ago.' Miss Howe's face was non-committal and unmoved. 'And none of your business, anyway. Is that it? Is that all?' And with a chilly nod of her head, Miss Howe left the cafe.

It was a wonderful day for the wedding. Kenny gave the bride away, and Peggy looked as though she might burst with pride. Dingo, all dressed up in a new suit, was the best man and in his speech said that he was very proud of being the match-maker who had brought the happy couple together.

Carmel and Rigger had managed to get time off for the occasion; Rigger's mother, Nasey's sister Nuala, was there. The sun shone from morning until late evening. Mrs Williams joined them in the pub and mingled with the teachers, the butchers from Malone's shop and all the friends and neighbours. In a million years poor Miss Howe would never have been able to mix like this.

There was a honeymoon in Spain and then back to work at Wood Park, where life promised to be much easier and more pleasant than in the previous regime.

Rigger and Carmel kept in touch all the time about Stone House. The voucher they had designed for Miss Howe had given them more ideas, and a week at Stone House was now going to be one of the prizes for a competition in a magazine. The list was filling up nicely; it looked as if Chicky Starr would have a full house for her opening week. There was great excitement all around the place. Rigger said his mother was going to come and visit soon. It would be her first time in Stoneybridge since she was a girl.

She didn't want to stay in the big house but Rigger and Chicky were insisting. It would be such a great return for her.

Irene did try to warn them that Miss Howe might be difficult to please.

'We can handle it,' said Rigger cheerfully. 'It will be great practice for us. We saw off Howard and Barbara; your Miss Howe will be no problem for us, you'll see.'

Miss Howe travelled by a late train, and so Rigger went to meet her. He saw a tall, stern-looking woman with one small case looking around the station impatiently. This must be the one.

He introduced himself and took her suitcase.

'I was told that Mrs Starr would meet me,' the woman said.

'She's at the house, welcoming the other guests. I'm Rigger, her manager. I live in the grounds,' he said.

'Yes, you told me your name already.' From the tone of her voice she seemed highly disapproving of it.

'I hope you will have a wonderful week here, Miss Howe. The house is very comfortable.'

'I would have expected no less,' she said.

Rigger hoped he would have a moment to warn Chicky that it was time to fasten the seatbelts.

Chicky didn't need the warning. The body language alone was enough to alert her that Miss Howe was not going to be a happy camper. She stood stiff and unyielding in the group that had gathered in the big cheerful kitchen. She refused a sherry or glass of wine, asking instead for a glass of plain tonic water with ice and lemon. She nodded wordlessly when introduced to fellow guests.

She said she didn't need to see her room and freshen up; since she was one of the last to arrive, she wouldn't delay the meal by absenting herself. She had a knack of bringing conversations to an end with her pronouncements.

She showed no interest in the itineraries and options that Chicky laid out for them. One by one the guests gave up on her.

The American man asked her what kind of business she was in, and she said that, unlike in the United States, people here didn't judge others on what occupation they had or used to have.

A Swedish boy told her that it was his second visit to Ireland, and he barely managed to reach the end of his first sentence before she made her boredom clear.

A nurse called Winnie wondered if Miss Howe had toured in the West before, and she shrugged, saying not that she could remember. Two polite English doctors told her that they were astounded by the spectacular scenery. Miss Howe said that she had arrived in the dark and hadn't seen anything remarkable so far.

When Orla, who served at the table, asked her if the meal was satisfactory, Miss Howe replied that if it hadn't been she would certainly have mentioned it. It would be doing the establishment no favours not to speak her mind.

As Chicky Starr showed Miss Howe to her room after dinner, she waited for some small expression of pleasure at the beautiful furniture, the fresh new linen on the bed, the tray with the best china tea things . . . everybody else had admired them.

Miss Howe had just nodded briefly.

'I'm sure you're tired after the journey,' Chicky Starr said, biting back her disappointment and trying to forgive the lack of response.

'Hardly. I just sat in a train the whole way from Dublin.' Miss Howe was taking no prisoners.

And for the days that followed, alone among the guests Miss Howe found nothing to praise, no delight in the wild scenery, no appreciation for the food that Orla and Chicky served every night.

Chicky sat beside the strange, uncommunicative woman in order to spare the guests from the ordeal of trying to talk to her. Even for Chicky, with a background of years working in a New York boarding house with a room full of men dulled by work in the construction industry, this was hard going.

Miss Howe never asked a question or made an observation. Whatever had gone wrong in her life had gone very wrong indeed.

On the fourth morning when Miss Howe had yet again shown no interest in exploring the coastline, Chicky begged Rigger to drive her to the market town with him.

'Oh God, Chicky, do I have to? She'll turn the milk sour.'

'Please, Rigger, otherwise she'll just sit staring at me all day and I've a lot of cooking to do.'

Rigger was good-natured about it. Apart from Miss Howe, the week was going so very well. All these people were going to praise the place to the skies. Stone House would take off as they had always believed it would. One day with Miss Howe wouldn't kill him.

Any questions about how she was enjoying the holiday met with a brick wall, so he chatted away cheerfully about his own life. He told Miss Howe about his two children: the twins, Rosie and Macken, and nodded proudly at their photographs stuck up on the dashboard of his van.

'They get their looks from their mother,' he said proudly. 'I hope they get their brains from her too! Not too many brains on their dad's side.'

'And were your parents stupid?' she asked. Her voice was cold, but it was the only time she seemed interested in a conversation.

'My mother wasn't. I never knew my father,' he said.

Most people would have said they were sorry, or that was a pity, but Miss Howe said nothing.

'Were your parents bright, Miss Howe?' Rigger asked.

She paused. It was as if she was deciding whether to answer or not. Eventually she said, 'No, not at all. My mother was a very unfit person to be anywhere near children. She left home when I was eleven and my father couldn't cope. He lost his job and died of drink.'

'Aw God, that was a poor start, Miss Howe. And did you have brothers and sisters to see you through?'

'One younger brother, but he didn't do well, I'm afraid. He made nothing of his life.'

'And there was no one to look out for him?'

Again a pause.

'No, there wasn't, as it happened.'

'Wasn't that very sad. And you were too young to do anything for the lad. I was lucky. I hit a bit of a rough spot but I had my mam always looking out for me, writing to me every week even when I got sent to the reform school. She tried her best for me, even if it took coming here to sort me out properly. I'd fallen behind on the old reading and writing, you see. It took me a while to catch up. I didn't get any exams or anything, but I got my head together and everything.'

'Why didn't she make you do exams?'

'Ah, she knew I was never going to be a professor, Miss Howe. She worked all the time to put food on the table but still, it wasn't easy to see everyone else with money when I didn't have any.'

'Did you get into trouble again?' Miss Howe's lips were pursed as if she had expected him to go to the bad.

'I met all the fellows I used to know. They were all doing well but not legit, if you know what I mean. They said it was dead easy and you couldn't get caught. But my uncle Nasey put the fear of God into me. He thought I should get a fresh start in the country. I didn't want that at all. I was afraid of cows and sheep, and it was very dull compared to Dublin. But my mam had lived here when she was young, and she said she had loved it.'

'Why did she leave then?' Miss Howe hated grey areas.

'She got into trouble, and the man wouldn't marry her.'

'And did she bring you back here?'

'No, she has never been back herself but she is coming. Soon, as it happens.'

The market was busy. Miss Howe watched as Rigger sold eggs and cheese made from goats' milk. He heaved bags of vegetables out of the back of his van and carried large amounts of meat back into it, ready for the freezer. He bought two little ducks, which he said would be pets for the children rather than food for Chicky's table.

He seemed to know everyone he met. People asked about Chicky Starr, about Rigger's children, about Orla. Then Rigger had to call on his wife's family and drop in some eggs and cheese. Miss Howe said she'd stay in the van.

'They'll offer me tea and apple tart,' he said.

'Well then, eat it and drink it, Rigger. Leave me to my thoughts.' She watched people looking out the window of the farmhouse, but she had no intention of going into a small, stuffy kitchen and making small talk with strangers.

As an outing it was hardly a success, but Chicky was grateful to Rigger.

'Did you learn anything about her?' she asked.

'A bit, but it was like the confessional of the van. She probably regrets having told me.'

'Let it rest, so,' said Chicky.

The following day, Miss Howe called on Carmel in Rigger's house at the end of the garden. Carmel, knowing of the situation, welcomed her more warmly than she might have if left to her own devices. She introduced Miss Howe to the babies, who smiled and burbled good-naturedly; together they went to see the rabbits, the tortoise and the new ducks, who were called Princess and Spud.

Miss Howe drank tea from a mug and refused to be drawn into giving any praise for Stone House or for the holiday in general. Carmel struggled on, even when Miss Howe lectured her on the merits of learning poetry by rote.

Suddenly Miss Howe asked to look through what books Carmel and Rigger had in their library.

'We're not really the kind of people who'd have a library,' Carmel began.

'Well then, what a poor example you will be giving your children,' Miss Howe snapped.

'We will do the best we can.'

'Not if you have no dictionary, no atlas, no poetry books. How are they going to see the point of learning if there is no sign of learning in the home?'

'They'll go to school,' Carmel said defensively.

'Yes, that's it, leave everything to the school, and then blame them when things go wrong.'

Miss Howe's tone was hectoring. It was as if she were speaking to a disobedient child in her school rather than a kindly woman who had tried to help her to enjoy her holiday.

'We wouldn't blame the school; we're not like that.'

'But what have you to offer them? What is the point in anything unless the next generation get a good grounding and a proper start? You don't want them ending up uneducated and in a reform school like your husband.'

Carmel could take it no longer.

'I'm sorry, Miss Howe, but I cannot have you insult my husband like this. If he told you about his past, and he must have because Chicky wouldn't have told you, then he did so in confidence, not to have it hurled back at us in accusation.' Carmel was aware that her voice was sounding shrill, but she couldn't help herself. What was wrong with this woman?

'I'm sorry but I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Now. I'm too upset, and I'll say something I might regret. I know nothing about you or your life and why you are so horrible to everyone, but someone should have shouted stop long, long, long ago.'

Without warning, Miss Howe's face crumpled. Suddenly, she put her head down on the table and cried so hard her whole body shook.

Carmel was astonished. For a moment, she didn't know what to do, but then she tried to put a comforting hand round Miss Howe's shoulder.

Stiffly, Miss Howe brushed it aside. There were two spots of red on her long, pale face.

Carmel made a fresh pot of tea and then sat down in front of her unwanted guest and gazed at her in silence.

Slowly, hesitantly at first, Miss Howe started to talk.

'It was 1963. I was eleven; Martin was eight. There were just the two of us. President Kennedy came to Ireland that year, and we all went out to line the route to see him.'

This was all unreal, Miss Howe talking about her private life fifty years ago.

'I remembered that we hadn't locked the downstairs windows at home. That was my job. The house was empty. Dad was at work, and my mother was going to her sister's and they were very strict about locking up. So even though I didn't want to, I had to leave the grand place I had and run home. In the house I heard noises like someone was being hurt, so I ran upstairs and my mother and a man were on the bed, naked. I thought he was killing her and I tried to drag him away . . . and then my mother went down on her knees to me and begged me not to tell my father. She said she'd be good to me for the rest of my life if I would keep this little secret between us, and the man was getting dressed and she kept saying, "Don't go, Larry. Nell understands. She's a big, grown-up girl of eleven. She knows what to do." And I ran out of the house and I telephoned my dad at work and said to come back quick because a man called Larry was hurting my mother and she wanted me to keep it a secret and he came home and . . .'

'You were only a child,' Carmel said soothingly.

'No, I knew. I knew what she was doing was wrong and that she had to be punished. I wasn't going to be part of any secrets. I wanted her to be punished. I didn't know Larry was Dad's great friend. But even if I had known, I'd still have told. It was wrong, you see.'

'And what did your father do?'

'We never knew, but when Martin and I got back from waving at President Kennedy, our mother was gone and never came back again.'

'Where did she go?' Carmel tried to keep the horror out of her voice.

'We never heard, and Dad looked after us but he was no good and then he took to drink. And he kept thanking me for exposing his whore of a wife and he would hit Martin over nothing. And Martin got in with a tough crowd at school and did no study whatsoever. I just put my hands over my ears and studied all the hours God sent. I got scholarships all the way and when my father died of drink, I managed on my own. Martin said I'd ruined his life twice. First I'd sent his mother away and now I'd lost him his father.'

'And he never forgave you?'

'No. He made nothing of himself. I haven't seen him for years. He rang the school not long ago, I don't know why. I don't want to see him again.'

'So he has not been part of your life since then?' Carmel asked sadly. The best she could hope for was to escape from this situation before she heard any more; already she knew that Miss Howe would never forgive herself for the loss of self-control, nor would she forgive Carmel. She must have looked anxious to end the conversation because Miss Howe spotted it.

'All right, so you want me to leave now. I'll leave. I don't care!'

Carmel reached out to shake her hand. 'I will bid you farewell, and wish you well in the future.'

'You will bid me farewell, bid me farewell, no less,' Miss Howe sneered. 'What a great line of cliches you will teach those unfortunate children. I weep for them and for their future.'

'Then go and weep over them. We will love them and look after them always and give them a great life,' Carmel said sadly.

'I suppose you and your husband will spread this all over the country before the night is out,' said Miss Howe bitterly.

'No, Miss Howe, that is not how we behave. Rigger and I are people of dignity and decency, not of gossip and accusations. What you have told me is your business and will go no further.'

As Miss Howe left, Carmel sat at the kitchen table shaking. Rigger would be furious; Chicky would be annoyed. Why couldn't she have held on to her temper? Miss Howe would never forgive her for knowing about her past.

'I don't want that Miss Howe in our house again,' she told Rigger when he came home. 'She said we were ignorant parents, and that she wept for Rosie and Macken.'

'Well, she's the only one who does,' Rigger said. 'Everyone else is delighted with them. And who the hell cares what Miss Howe says?'

Carmel smiled at him. It was quite true. She would comb her hair and they would go for a walk on the beach; they would walk along the damp sand and gather shells as the salt air stung their faces. They would give their son and daughter the best life they could.

Later that day, Rigger whispered to Chicky that it was only fair to warn her that words had been exchanged between Carmel and Miss Howe.

'Don't worry,' Chicky said. 'She was never likely to get us any business. She's just told me she's going back to Dublin tonight. In a while she will be gone and out of our lives. Tell Carmel not to give it a second thought.'

'You're great, Chicky.'

'No, I'm not. I'm lucky. So are you. Miss Howe was not.'

'We made a bit of our own luck.'

'Perhaps, but we listened when people tried to help us. She didn't.'

Before dinner, Chicky carried Miss Howe's small case to the van.

'I hope some of it was to your liking, Miss Howe,' she said. 'Perhaps when the weather is better, you might come back to us again?' Chicky was unfailingly courteous.

'I don't think so,' Miss Howe responded. 'It's not really my kind of holiday. I spent too much of my life talking to people. I find it quite stressful.'

'Well, you'll be glad to get back to the peace and quiet of your own place,' Chicky said.

'Yes, in a way.'

The woman was brutally honest. It was her failing.

'Did you discover anything here? People often say they do.'

'I discovered that life is very unfair and that there's nothing we can do about it. Don't you agree, Mrs Starr?'

'Not entirely, but you do have a point.'

Miss Howe nodded, satisfied. She had spread a little gloom even as she left. She would sit alone on the train back to Dublin and then get the bus back to her lonely house. She looked straight ahead as Rigger drove her to the railway station.

Freda

When Freda O'Donovan was ten, Mrs Scully, one of her mother's friends, read everyone's palms at a tea party. Mrs Scully saw good fortune and many children and long, happy marriages ahead for everyone. She saw foreign travel and small inheritances from unexpected quarters. They were all delighted with her, and it was a very successful party.

'Can you tell my future too?' Freda had asked.

Mrs Scully studied the small hand carefully. She saw a tall, handsome man, marriage and three delightful children. She saw holidays abroad  –  did Freda think she might like skiing? 'And you will live happily ever after,' she said, smiling down at Freda.

There was a pause. After what seemed a long time, Freda sighed. Although her mother seemed pleased about what she was hearing, Freda was confused. She just knew that none of it was true.

'I want to know what's going to happen,' she insisted, and she started to cry.

'Whatever's the matter? It's a good future,' said her mother, pleading with her daughter not to make a fuss about silly fortune-telling.

But Freda wouldn't listen and just cried harder. She was having no part of this prediction. It just wasn't right. She knew. Sometimes, she thought she knew what was going to happen, though she had already learned to keep quiet about it.

She didn't see a husband and three children. And she certainly didn't see herself living happily ever after. She cried all the more.

Freda's mother just didn't understand why Freda was so upset. Never had she regretted anything as much as persuading Mrs Scully to tell a child's fortune, and she would make sure it never happened again.

Mrs Scully wasn't invited to tell fortunes after that. And Freda never told anyone what she saw about the future.

Life at home was quiet and a bit frugal for Freda and her two older sisters. Her father died young, and there was no money for luxuries like central heating or foreign holidays. Mam worked in a dry cleaner's, and Freda had a very undramatic time at school, where she was bright and worked hard and got scholarships. She had her heart set on becoming a librarian; her best friend, Lane, wanted to work in theatre. The two were inseparable.

Freda couldn't remember when she got the first inkling that she might have some unusual insights. It was hard to describe them. The word 'feelings' didn't quite cover them because they were more vivid than that. Nor did she recall when it had been that she realised not everyone had the same insights; but over the years, she had learned not to talk about them to anyone. It always upset people when she mentioned anything, and so she had kept quiet; she didn't even talk to Lane about it.

There was no passionate love life: as a student, Freda went to clubs and bars and met fellows but there was nothing there that made her heart race. Mam was inclined to be overcurious about Freda's private life, and yet at the same time disappointed to hear that there was no love interest at all.

Freda loved books, and felt she had everything she ever wanted when she got her library certificate and was lucky to find a place as an assistant at the local library. Her sisters, though, were dismissive about her lack of love.

'Well, of course you can't find a fellow. What do you have to talk about except books,' Martha said.

'You could have bettered yourself if you had tried,' Laura had sniffed.

Freda looked very defeated, and her sisters felt remorseful.

'It's not as if you're a total failure,' Martha said encouragingly. She had a very stormy relationship with a young man called Wayne, and was not predisposed to believe the best of men.

'You did get taken on as a library assistant, and now you could earn a living anywhere.' Laura was grudging but fair. She was going out with a very pompous banker called Philip, to whom style and reputation meant everything.

Theirs was not neutral advice.

It was during the run-up to Christmas that Freda got another of her 'feelings'. They were having a family lunch to plan the Christmas festivities. Freda was coming for the day for sure, but Laura would be going to Philip's parents' big Christmas Eve do. Martha was very irate because Wayne would make no plans. What kind of person made no plans for Christmas?

Their mother edged the conversation back to the turkey. They would have their Christmas lunch at three p.m. with whoever wanted to join them, and that would be fine.

Laura fidgeted; she had something she wanted to share. She wasn't absolutely certain but she thought that Philip was going to propose to her on Christmas Eve. He had been very vague about his parents' party. Normally he put a lot of store by these events, and would tell her in advance who everyone was. No, there was something much bigger afoot. Laura was pink with excitement.

And totally unexpectedly Freda knew, she didn't just suspect but she knew that Philip was going to break off his relationship with Laura before Christmas; he was going to tell her that he was expecting a child with someone else. It was as clear as if she had seen a newspaper headline announcing it, and Freda felt herself go pale.

'Well, say something!' Laura was annoyed that her huge news and confidence was not meeting with any reaction.

'That would be wonderful,' her mother said.

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