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A Week in Winter (Chapter Twenty-Three)

'Well you do, you are very beautiful, but that's not just why I asked you to dinner.'

'Why did you ask me?' she genuinely wanted to know.

'Because I can't get you out of my mind. I loved what you said about that man's poetry, the elegant sadness of it. Someone else would have taken twice as many words to say it. And then you got all excited about those schoolgirls and their reading groups; you enthused them all and you have so much energy, so much life radiating from you. Since the first moment I saw you in the library I noticed it; I see it here. I wanted to be part of it. That's all.'

'I don't know what to say. I've been lucky; I'm very happy in my job, and life and everything . . .'

'And are you happy to be here? Now?'

'Very,' Freda said.

They talked easily.

He wanted to know everything about her. Her school, her college, the home she lived in with her parents and sisters. How she had got her job at Finn Road Library. Her little flat at the top of a big Victorian house. Her eccentric aunt who wrote the long-running 'Feathers' column in the newspaper, and took Freda on birdwatching outings.

'Sounds like a lark,' he said solemnly.

'I can't top that,' she snorted. 'It's your tern again.' And they both collapsed laughing.

He seemed interested in every single thing she had ever done in her life. The conversation moved towards holidays, and whether it was worth all the hassle of going away to the sun just for one week, or whether you had to be an athlete to go skiing. Wasn't that amazing  –  he had been to the very same Greek island, wasn't the world a very small place? They liked the same movies, the same songs. He had even read some of Freda's favourite books.

Freda asked him about his life too. After all, it was like a blind date; they knew nothing about each other, yet here they were, sitting having dinner in one of Dublin's best restaurants. He had been brought up in England, in an Irish family. His parents still lived there, and his brother. No, he didn't see much of them, he said sadly. He shrugged it off, but Freda could see that it hurt him.

He had been to university in England, studied marketing and economics but it wasn't nearly as important as all he had learned through his experience in the leisure industry. He had been in car hire, in yachting charter, in mass catering, all the time learning about what made business tick. He had worked in London, New York and now Dublin; even though he had come here as a child on holidays it was still a new city to him. He was now working for a leisure group that was going to invest in Holly's Hotel; they wanted to develop it into a major leisure complex.

'I'm sure it all sounds dull to you but it's really exciting, and it's not all about money,' he said eagerly. 'And I would love to know more about the history of the area. You could be very helpful.'

He hadn't found a proper place for himself yet, so he just had a room in the hotel. It was good to be on the premises, as it meant he could see what kind of business the place was. It was such a personal hideaway, the kind of place people believed they had actually discovered for themselves. The staff remembered your name, they seemed eager for you to enjoy the experience of being there. No wonder they were successful.

On the day of the rainstorm, he'd been in a meeting with the developers which had run late, and he'd been dashing along Finn Road just as the downpour was at its worst. It was only a happy accident, pure chance that he'd seen the library was open and decided to take shelter for a while. That's when he'd spotted her. Suppose he'd just gone on down the street? Suppose the meeting had ended on time and he'd got away before it had started raining?

'You and I might never have met.' He laughed, and gave a mock shiver to think this could have been on the cards.

Freda felt her shoulders relax. She loved Holly's Hotel just as it was; it was a great place for a celebration, and the idea of it being turned into a 'leisure complex' sounded awful. But it didn't matter by what chance she had been introduced to this exciting man, who for some impossible-to-understand reason seemed to fancy her greatly. She gave a sigh of pure pleasure.

He smiled at her and her heart melted.

Freda hoped that he wouldn't want to come home with her. The flat was in a total mess, and there was all the business of it being a first date and being thought a slapper, and if he were going to come to her place she would need a week getting it ready. Suppose he suggested going to Holly's Hotel?

But he wouldn't, would he, he had too much class.

Or maybe he didn't want to all that much?

They were the last people to leave the restaurant. Quentins arranged a taxi for them. Mark said he would see her home. When the cab stopped, he got out and saw her to the door.

'Lovely place, as I would have expected,' he said, and he kissed her on each cheek and got back into the taxi.

Freda climbed the stairs and went into her little flat, which looked as if it had been ransacked by burglars but was actually just the way she'd left it. She sat on the side of her bed, not knowing whether to be relieved or disappointed that he hadn't come in.

When she had been telling him about the library, he had listened to every word as if she was the only person in the room. But what if he was that way with everyone? Did he really like her? Of course not, how could he? She was just a librarian; he was so smart and had travelled everywhere.

She felt suddenly lonely here tonight. She might get a cat to talk to.

Eva had advised her against it; she said that cats were the natural enemy of birds, and anyway, if you became fond of them it stopped you from travelling. Still, if she had a cat it might purr at her, be some kind of presence in this empty place, perched at the top of a big house.

She fell into a troubled sleep and dreamed over and over that she was trying to get on to a ferry but it kept leaving the shore before she could get on board.

'Come on, Freda, we don't do vague,' Lane said over coffee in the little theatre the next morning.

'I'm not being vague, I'm telling you every single detail of the menu down to the chocolate shaped like a Q at the end.' Freda was indignant.

'But what about him? Did you like him? Was he easy to talk to?'

'He was fine, very smooth, very charming. He's in what they call the "leisure industry . . ."'

Lane snorted in derision.

'. . . and he's here to discuss investing in Holly's. They want to do a major expansion.'

'Holly's doesn't need expanding. It's fine as it is. Did you . . .?'

'No.'

'And did he want to . . .?'

'Again, no. So now, does that answer every interrogation on the sexual front?' Freda wondered.

Lane looked hurt. 'We always tell, that's why I asked.'

'Well, I have told. Nothing, nada, zilch.'

'Ah yes, but will you tell when there is something to tell?' Lane speculated.

'We'll never know, will we?' Freda sounded more lighthearted than she felt.

'Suppose I were to warn you off this guy Mark,' Lane looked serious. She couldn't put a finger on what it was, but there was something about him that worried her. 'Suppose I said I didn't trust him. Suppose I said you don't know anything about him, that he's just spinning you a line. If I were to do that, would I lose you as a friend?'

'Nothing to warn me off  –  one bunch of roses which went to Miss Duffy, one dinner . . . hardly an affair.'

'Early days,' Lane said darkly. 'He'll be back. I feel sure of it.'

Joe Duggan, a man Freda had last met in college five years ago, rang to ask her to a party that night. Freda had no intention of going to a group of strangers with a fellow she barely remembered, but polite as always, she asked him what he was doing these days.

'Lecturing in technology, mainly to dummies,' he said. 'You know, people who are afraid of gadgets and who don't want to miss out. I'm not too bad at it, actually; I tell them machines are stupid and that calms them down.'

'Joe, I may have a great job for you. Can you come and see me in the library on Friday,' Freda said. This could be the next Friends meeting settled.

Perfect.

Miss Duffy had a face that would stop a clock.

'When you have quite finished organising your social life, Miss O'Donovan, I wonder can I ask you to help with the Library Fines? And there are several people waiting for your attention at the counter.'

The first in line at the counter was Mark Malone. He said nothing, just looked at her.

'Do you have any work to go to?' she asked him to keep the conversation light and to break his stare.

'I work very hard,' he said. 'Way into the night often, but I made time this morning to come and see you.'

'Thank you so much for dinner,' Freda said. 'I was going to write you a little note, in fact, to say how much I enjoyed it.'

'What would you have said?'

'That it was a very warm and generous evening and to thank you.' She kept an air of finality to the way she spoke, as if she thought it was a one-off and that she was just being grateful without regrets.

'You said you have a day off tomorrow,' he said.

Normally on her day off, Freda would do what she and Lane called the everyday business of living: she would bring her sheets and towels to the launderette, do some shopping at the supermarket, maybe persuade Lane to take a long lunch. Sometimes she went to an art exhibition or did window-shopping in the boutiques. She might tend her window boxes, filling them up with bulbs for the spring, and in the evening she might go to a wine bar with friends.

But not tomorrow. That would be a very different day.

Mark had wondered if Freda would like to go down to County Wicklow with him. He had to go to a meeting with Miss Holly, and maybe they could have lunch there. In the shower, Freda planned the day. They could go for a walk in the afternoon, then they would go home and she could get his supper ready. Maybe they would stay at Holly's. In any case, he would say she looked very beautiful. He would take her in his arms.

'We don't have to wait any longer,' he would say; or maybe, 'I wouldn't have been able to get through tonight without you.' Something. Anything. It didn't really matter.

She wondered what it would be like. She hoped she would be attractive enough for him. Please him properly. She wasn't very experienced, and certainly no one recently.

The last time must have been nearly two years ago when she had had a holiday romance, a lovely guy called Andy from Scotland who had promised to stay in touch and said he would come to Ireland to see her. But he didn't stay in touch and he hadn't come to Ireland. It hadn't been a big deal. Andy already had a life planned for himself: it involved banking, living near his parents and his married brothers, playing a lot of golf.

Freda didn't know why she was even thinking about Andy now, except to worry that she might not have been any good at it, which was possibly why he might not have kept in touch. Perhaps as a lover she had been useless. She had quite enjoyed it all herself, that magical summer holiday, and thought that Andy had too. But then, you never really knew.

It would have been lovely to have had some reassurance about that side of things. Freda smiled to herself wryly at the thought of telephoning Andy at his bank, years after the fling, and asking for reassurance about her performance.

But then Mark wasn't looking for some kind of sexual athlete. Was he? Women must have been throwing themselves at him since he was a teenager. She wished she knew more about him, and what he wanted.

And then, when she least expected it, Freda got one of her feelings. She saw as clearly as if it were an advertisement in an estate agent's catalogue a book-lined apartment with a living room and kitchenette, two big bedrooms and a study with an overflowing desk. There was a view of the sea from the window. At the door was a small woman with short blonde hair, reading glasses around her neck on a chain and a vague, worried smile.

She was saying, 'There you are, darling. Good to have you home!' to whoever was coming in the door. But who was the woman? And who was she talking to? The breath left her body with a great rush, and she felt light-headed and as if her legs had turned to paper. Was it Mark?

It couldn't be. It was wrong, the feeling must be wrong. She hadn't seen a man, she hadn't seen who it was arriving at the door. It couldn't be Mark. It couldn't be.

Shaking, she got dressed and, hands still trembling, applied mascara and lipstick. She put up her hair, found her good boots and she was ready. She felt a shiver. She felt very glad she had told nobody about this date.

The shrill bell of the intercom buzzed. He was on the doorstep.

'I'll come straight down,' she said into the receiver.

He looked at her with great admiration as she came down the steps to the hall. 'You look so beautiful,' he said.

Freda still felt shaken. She wanted to make a jokey remark to take the intensity out of it all. She wasn't used to saying thank you and accepting such praise as almost her right. She said the first positive thing that came into her head.

'And you look very handsome, just terrific, actually.'

He threw his head back and laughed. 'Aren't you so kind to say that! Now, let's stop admiring each other and get into the car, out of the cold.' He held open the door of a dark green Mercedes.

The drive down to Wicklow passed in a blur. Freda could scarcely remember how they got there, what they talked about. All she could see was Mark's face as he concentrated on driving, as he smiled at her from time to time.

While Mark went to have his meeting with Miss Holly and her senior staff, Freda sat in the lounge by the fire in a big chintz-covered chair, a magazine unread on her lap, a cup of coffee untouched on a little table beside her. Instead, she looked into the flames and thought about what had been happening; and as she did so, from nowhere the pictures started forming in Freda's mind. She fought them back, closed her eyes and opened them but still the pictures were there. Mark was in a room with people who were shouting. Miss Holly was sitting in a corner, weeping. Mark was looking calm and dismissive; he was telling her something very unwelcome and frightening. Whatever it was, it was wrong, it was all wrong.

Shakily, she pushed the vision aside. It was nonsense; it didn't mean anything. She'd just dozed off and had a silly dream. She sighed, and again tried to rid herself of the images. But she felt dizzier and more confused.

Soon he was back.

'How did it go?' she asked.

'Don't ask. I'll tell you when we are well out of range. Let's go. You and I are free agents, nobody waiting for us; we don't have to be anywhere except where we want to be.'

'I have to be back. I open the library tomorrow, and I have to be in before eight.'

He smiled back. 'Right. We'll go for a meal, and no talk about work for either of us  –  is that a deal?'

'It's a deal,' Freda said.

In the car they were quiet; Freda studied his face but Mark looked relaxed and happy. Freda began to feel that it had just been a mad dream. As he helped her out of the car, he kissed her, and all through dinner she could think of nothing else.

That night, they made love for the first time.

The following night, they went to the cinema. Freda didn't even remember the film afterwards, just the sensation of sitting with her shoulder touching his. Later they went back to her flat.

On Friday he asked her to go to a concert but she had set up the meeting with Joe Duggan, the computer expert, and she hesitated. Mark's face clouded over and he looked so disappointed, she knew she had to do something.

She called Lane.

'I will do anything for you for the rest of my life. Anything. Scrub floors in your theatre . . .'

'Who do I have to kill?' Lane asked.

'No, it's this guy, Joe Duggan, who's going to give the talk next week. I can't meet him tonight at the library. Could you do it, tell him everything?'

'Freda. No.'

'I'm begging you on my knees.'

'I can't, I run a theatre. You're the librarian.'

'It's only an old talk; you know the kind of thing they want.'

There was a silence.

'Lane?'

'It's not like you, and it's not only an old talk. It's something you set up, and a lot of people are depending on you.'

'Never again, just this once! I'll tell Joe that I'll contact him on Monday morning.'

'And if I don't?'

'I don't know what I'll do.' There was a catch in Freda's voice.

'I think this is the shabbiest thing I have ever heard,' Lane said.

'But you'll do it.'

'Yes.'

'Thank you, Lane, from the bottom of my heart . . .' Freda began.

'Goodbye, Freda.'

Freda called Mark.

'Well?' he asked.

'I'm free this evening,' she said.

'I was so hoping you might be,' Mark said.

The concert was heaven and at dinner afterwards, he told her that there was no one like her. He said how much he admired her work, and even gave her some ideas for a Friends night; he wanted to spend all his time with her, and make up for lost time. She couldn't help herself: he was so sweet and caring, and she melted at his touch.

It was too sudden, too quick, she told herself. But then everyone had to meet somewhere and somehow. Would it have been any different if they had met at a dance, a club, in a crowded bar? But still she was nervous about letting herself go with the tide. But whenever he called, or they were together, she forgot all about her misgivings.

The Friends of the Library welcome all those who don't know a thing about computers but want to learn. Joe Duggan will be here on Friday night to help all ages who want to be part of the tech world.

When Mark suggested they go away for a weekend, she hesitated once again. He couldn't go away with her if he was married, it wouldn't be possible. But the dreams kept coming. The face of the woman with the short blonde hair would not go away. She just knew it was Mark the woman was welcoming, and she could see the wedding ring in the dream.

If he were married, what would he be telling his wife as he headed off to the Dublin mountains with Freda? Freda was very confused. But she wasn't about to give up the chance of such happiness.

When she called Lane to cover for her again with Joe, Lane didn't have much to say. She listened to her friend and then agreed.

'For Joe's sake, not yours,' she added icily.

Freda felt bad for her friend, but then thought about her weekend with Mark. Mark needed Freda on many levels, that was obvious. He wanted her for company, for friendship and for support as well as for sex. He loved her; he told her so. The marriage could only be one of convenience, she was so sure of that.

Eva hoped that this romance would settle down soon so that Freda could concentrate on other things apart from Mark Malone. She did seem besotted with the fellow and in a way, Eva could understand why. He was such a charmer, such an enthusiast. In many ways very suited to Freda. But Eva thought they were also very different. Mark was tougher, and he was going to get there, wherever it was, taking no prisoners. Freda was happy with life the way it was now.

He had got off on the wrong foot with Lane, but that would sort itself out in time. Lane had taken against Mark in a big way; she complained that Freda had lost interest in everything  –  her work, her friends, her whole life. 'It's as if a sort of mist or fog or something settled on her,' she had said. 'He controls her every move.'

They'd met him a number of times now but Lane still didn't trust Mark.

Silly, foolish Agony Aunt, Eva told herself. Useless trying to work these things out logically, rationally. Still, it was a worry, all right. There was a possible storm gathering. Lane didn't like him and didn't trust him. He was the first man who had threatened such a solid friendship. Usually they encouraged each other about boyfriends and gave enthusiastic, supportive advice.

Freda would say that Lane had an army of brooding young men who fancied her. Lane would laugh, and say that these were all out-of-work actors; all they fancied was two weeks' work in her theatre. Lane said that she knew of at least three people who went in to that library just to talk to Freda rather than to open a book. They were always wanting to ask Freda out, but she never seemed to understand this and kept finding books for them instead . . .

This strong reaction both for and against Mark Malone had been so out of character for both girls.

Due to the success of Joe Duggan's 'Don't Fear Technology' lecture last week, the Friends of Finn Road Library have decided that there should be twice-weekly sessions on this topic.

Freda called to Eva to borrow a black beaded jacket. She had been invited to a drinks party at Holly's Hotel in a couple of weeks' time. Mark had gathered some journalists and tour operators for what he called a social drink. It was really part of his long-term plan to get the press on board over the plans for the hotel.

Eva had hoped Freda would stay for lunch.

'You see, Eva,' said Freda, guiltily, 'I don't really have all that much time . . . I have so many things to do just now.'

Eva looked at her directly.

'What, exactly?'

'Oh, you know, all the stuff at the library; this Friends thing has really taken off due to Joe Duggan, and they can't get enough of him.'

'No thanks to you, though.'

'What do you mean?' Freda was startled.

'Well, you weren't there to show him round the library, Lane and I did that. And then you took off for a weekend with Mark the actual night of his talk.'

'Yes.' Freda looked at the ground.

'So he had an elderly twitcher like myself, and the manager of an experimental theatre to help him set up. Lord knows what he would have been able to achieve if he'd had a real librarian on the case.'

'You were great, you and Lane, I thanked you, you did brilliantly.'

'You weren't there.' Eva was stern.

'Look, you know . . . you know the way things are.'

'No, I don't, actually. Why don't you come looking for woodpeckers with me? And why don't you ask Mark along too?'

'Thank you so much, Eva, but when I said I was busy, I really am. I have a few fences to mend, if you know what I mean.'

'I know what you mean.'

Freda knew Aunt Eva was right. As far as Lane was concerned, it was as if a curtain had fallen over their friendship. She would put on her polite face, which was more unsettling to Freda than her angry face. It was so distancing, so chilly.

Lane had not forgiven Freda for disappearing the night of Joe Duggan's talk.

To Freda, it was really most petty and unfair of Lane to take this attitude. Joe had been a huge success; he was going to have his own series. In all her years at the library, Freda had never taken any time off like this before. And this was not even real regular library hours: this was something she had arranged as a volunteer, for heaven's sake.

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