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A Week in Winter (Chapter Twenty-Two)

'Lucky you,' Martha said.

'Are you sure?' Freda blurted out.

'No, of course I'm not sure. Now I'm sorry I told you. You're just saying that because I dared to say you couldn't get a fellow of your own. It's just spite.'

'Did you and Philip ever talk about getting married?' Freda asked.

'No, but we talked about love. Leave it, Freda. What do you know about anything?'

'But you might have it wrong.'

'Oh, don't be such a sourpuss.'

'Are you going to be talking to him before the party?'

'Yes, I'm meeting him this evening. He's coming round to my flat at seven.'

Freda said nothing. Tonight was when he was going to tell her. It was there in her chest like indigestion all day, as if she had eaten something that she couldn't swallow properly. At nine o'clock she called her sister.

Laura's voice was unrecognisable.

'You knew all the time, didn't you? You knew, and you were laughing at me. Well, are you happy now?'

'I didn't know, honestly,' Freda begged.

'I hate you for knowing. I'll never forgive you!' Laura said.

In the weeks and months that followed, Laura was very cold towards Freda. She cried when Philip's engagement was announced on Christmas Eve: his marriage to a girl called Lucy would take place in January.

Martha said that Laura would never believe to her dying day that Freda had not known about Lucy way in advance. There was no other explanation.

'I got a feeling, that's all,' Freda admitted.

'Some feeling!' Martha sniffed. 'If you ever get a feeling about me and Wayne just let me know, will you?'

'I don't think I'll ever let anyone know about a feeling ever again,' Freda said fervently.

The Friends of Finn Road Library will hold their first meeting on Thursday September 12th on these premises at 6.30 p.m. All are welcome, and we hope to have ideas and suggestions about what you want from your Library.

Freda knew within minutes of printing out the notice in the library that all was not well. It didn't take a psychic to see it: Miss Duffy's face was stern with disapproval, peering over her shoulder. This Library did not need Friends, the look said. It was not a dating agency. It was a place where people came to borrow books and, even more importantly, to return them. This kind of thing had no place in a library. It was, to use the worst criticism possible, quite inappropriate.

Freda fixed a smile very firmly on to her face. In advance, she had tied her long dark curly hair back with a ribbon to make herself look more serious in preparation for this encounter. This was a time to look businesslike. It most definitely was not the time to get into a serious battle. And if she lost, then she would just wait and try again.

She must never let Miss Duffy know how very determined she was to open up the library to the community, to bring in those who had never crossed its threshold. Freda wanted passionately to make those who did come in feel welcome and part of it all. Miss Duffy came from a different era, a time that believed people were lucky to have a library in their area, and should want no more than that.

'Miss Duffy, you remember you telling me when I applied to work here that part of our role was to bring more people in . . .?'

'As library users, yes, but not as Friends.' Miss Duffy managed to use the word as a term of abuse.

Freda wondered had Miss Duffy always been like this, or had there ever been a time when she had hopes and dreams for this fusty old building.

'If they sort of thought of themselves as Friends, they might do a lot more to help,' Freda said hopefully. 'They might help with fundraising, or getting authors to donate books . . . Lots of things.'

'I suppose, as you say, that it can't do any harm. But where will we get seating for them all if they do come?'

'My friend Lane has lots of fold-up chairs in her theatre. She won't need them that night.'

'Oh, the theatre, yes.' Miss Duffy's interest in the small experimental playhouse down the street was minimal.

Freda waited. She couldn't put the notice on the board until she had Miss Duffy's agreement; she was nearly there, but not quite.

'I'd be happy to sort of run the meeting, I mean, I'd sort of introduce you as the Librarian, and then when you had spoken I could throw it open to them . . . the Friends, you know.' Freda held her breath.

Miss Duffy cleared her throat. 'Well, seeing as you're so keen on it, then why not put up that notice and let's see what happens.'

Freda began to breathe properly again. She fixed the paper to the notice board. She forced herself to move slowly and not to show her excitement at having won. When she was quite sure that Miss Duffy was safely installed at her desk, Freda took out her mobile phone and called her friend Lane.

'Lane, it's me, I have to speak very quietly.'

'And so you should. It is a library that you work in,' Lane said sternly.

'I got the Friends idea past Miss Duffy. We're in. It's going to happen!'

Halfway down the street, Lane paused in the middle of writing begging letters for support of her little theatre.

'Fantastic, well done Freda! The killer librarian.'

'No, don't even say that, it could be such a disaster. Nobody might turn up!' Freda was delighted that she had got this far, and yet terrified that it would all collapse on her.

'We'll get them in somehow. I'll get all our team here to go, and we can put up a notice about the meeting and pull in our audience as well. Listen, will we go for lunch to celebrate?' Lane was eager to seize the moment.

'No, Lane, I can't, no time. I have work to do on the budget allocations.' Imagine  –  people thought there was nothing to do in a library except stand around! 'But we're meeting at Aunt Eva's tonight as planned, aren't we?'

Eva O'Donovan was pleased that Freda and Lane were coming to supper. It meant that she had to galvanise herself and get into the day. First she must finish 'Feathers', her weekly birdwatching column in the newspaper. Eva had found that if she was very reliable about getting her copy in early, typing it neatly into her laptop, she could get away with outrageous views.

Then she must find something in the freezer that those girls could eat. They never had a proper lunch and were always hungry. Besides, she didn't want them reeling around after a few Alabama Slammers. She studied the contents of her freezer with interest.

There was a sort of fish and tomato bake. She would put that in the oven when they arrived with some fresh tomato and basil. She defrosted some French bread. Nothing to it; people made such a fuss about cooking when all it took was a bit of forward thinking.

When she had pressed Send on her article about the great flocks of waxwings that had come in from Northern Europe, then she would choose a colourful stole and a hat and would lay out all the drinks ingredients on her little cocktail table. This was the best part of the day.

Chestnut Grove was a house that would have suited nobody except Eva: it was in poor repair with a wild, rambling garden, very shaky plumbing and unreliable electrical works. She really couldn't afford the cost of maintaining it properly, and it might have seemed sensible to sell the place  –  but when had Eva ever done the sensible thing? Besides, the garden was full of birds that nested there regularly and were great material for her column.

The walls of her study were covered with pictures of birds and reports from various conservancy and birdwatching groups around the country. There were shelves full of magazines and publications. Eva's laptop computer was there, half buried in papers. In this room, as in every room in the house, there was a divan bed ready to be used at a moment's notice if someone wanted to stay overnight. And someone often did.

There were clothes hanging in every room; on almost every wall there were hangers holding colourful, inexpensive dresses, often with a matching stole or hat. Eva would pick them up at markets, car-boot sales or closing-down sales. She had never bought a normal dress in what might be called a normal shop. Eva found the price of designer clothes so impossible to understand that she had refused to think about it any more.

What were women doing, allowing themselves to be sucked into a world of labels and trends and the artificial demands of style? Eva couldn't begin to fathom it. She had only two rules of style  –  easy-care and brightly coloured  –  and was perfectly well dressed for every occasion.

Eva took out her highball glasses and lined up the Southern Comfort, amaretto liqueur and sloe gin. She had a very well-stocked bar but drank little herself. For Eva, the serving and making of cocktails was all in the preparation, the theatrics and the faint whiff of decadence.

Freda and Lane let themselves in through the back gate of Chestnut Grove and walked through the large sprawling garden. There were no formal flower beds, no lawns, no cultivated patios or terraces; instead it was a mass of bushes and brambles ready to trip the unwary in the dark. Here and there, some late roses peeped through. But mainly it looked like a site which was going to be cleaned up for a makeover on television.

'It's so different to my parents' garden,' Lane said, avoiding some low-hanging branches filled with vicious thorns. 'Their garden looks as if it's auditioning for some prize all the time.'

'Still, they do have it in great shape. You wouldn't put your life at risk like here,' Freda said.

'Yes, but Dad isn't allowed to have his vegetables anywhere that they can be seen. What would the neighbours say if they saw drills of potatoes and broad beans?'

As they reached the house, Eva ran to meet them. She was wearing a dark orange-coloured kaftan and had tied her hair up in a scarf of the same material. She looked like a very exotic bird that you might see in the aviary at the zoo. She could have been heading out for a Moroccan wedding, a fancy-dress party or the opening of an art gallery.

'Isn't the garden just wonderful right now?' she cried.

Wonderful wasn't the first word Freda and Lane would have chosen to describe the great wilderness they had just ploughed their way across, but it was impossible not to get caught up in Eva's enthusiasm.

'It's got lovely bits of colour in it, certainly,' Lane said.

'Just the way the branches look against the sky, that's what I love.' Eva guided them into the front room and began to mix the cocktail.

'Here's to the library, Freda my dear, and to all the many, many Friends waiting to join in its celebration.'

She was so genuinely delighted that Freda felt choked. Nobody else except Lane and Aunt Eva would understand and care that she had made this great step. How lucky she was to have them. Most people had nobody to share excitements and celebrate with.

The cocktail nearly took the roof off her head. Freda placed it down carefully. Eva didn't expect you to knock the drink back in one go; she liked you to appreciate its different flavours. There must be about five things in this, Freda thought, all of them alcoholic except for the orange juice. She treated it with great respect.

Eva wanted every detail of the new scheme in the library. Was Miss Duffy grudging? Was she hostile? Had she given in with a bad grace? What did Eva want the Friends to do, once she had assembled them?

She was so eager and enthusiastic that Freda and Lane felt dull and slow in comparison. If Eva had been running the library, there might be fairy lights around it, and music blaring from inside. She could have set up a cocktail bar in the foyer. Her life was like her house  –  a colourful fantasy where anything was possible if you wanted it badly enough.

Miss Duffy was dealing with people who wanted to be Friends of the Library, and she was not dealing with them very well. She handed them the leaflet that Freda had prepared and had said there was a welcome for everyone at the Friends' meeting, but she was vague when people asked what it was going to involve.

Some people with anxious faces asked would there be money involved, like an admission fee, or a collection. No, nothing like that, Miss Duffy said. But then she wondered. Had Freda suggested there might be a fundraising aspect?

A man asked would there be advice about what books they should read. Miss Duffy didn't know. Two girls asked would there be an entrance test, or could anyone at all come? Miss Duffy said there was no test, but she knew she had frowned at the expression 'anyone at all'.

A nervous young man arrived, saying he had written a lot of poems which had won prizes when he was at school, and wondered would there be a chance that he could give a reading. He was shy and awkward and kept looking as if Miss Duffy was going to order him off the premises for such a suggestion.

Miss Duffy was starting to feel it was all a bad idea.

'Oh, there you are, Miss O'Donovan,' she cried, even though Freda was over half an hour early.

Freda looked at her watch anxiously.

'It's just there were so many enquiries about this Friends business, it's beginning to upset our routine.'

Freda's face lit up. 'I am sorry, Miss Duffy, but isn't that great news! It means that people are interested.' Freda had hung up her coat and was down to work at once.

Miss Duffy relented. It was hard not to be pleased with this attitude, and even though the silly girl was inviting more enquiries, more trouble and distraction on herself, she seemed perfectly happy to do the work associated with it.

'Did you have a good weekend, Miss O'Donovan?' she asked, to show that her irritation was not serious.

Freda looked up at her, surprised. She smiled and said that it had been very good but she was happy to be back here in Finn Road. It had been the right answer.

Miss Duffy didn't want any details, only a sense of commitment.

Freda went through the list of enquiries: she telephoned the man who wondered would there be advice about what books to read and said yes, there would if people wanted it. She called the girls asking was there an entrance examination, and she said it was going to be a fun evening  –  they should bring all their friends. She invited the young poet, whose name was Lionel, to come in and see her.

She ignored the nagging feeling that something really important was about to happen.

The next meeting of the Friends of Finn Road Library will be on the history of this area, and admission is free. Please bring photos and stories. All are welcome!

They would be talking about the Friends evening for days. It had been such a success on so many levels despite the rain that night. Even Miss Duffy was enthusiastic.

They had all come: the young poet, Lionel, had read some beautiful poems about mute swans. He was elated at the response, even more so when Freda introduced him to her aunt Eva. The author of 'Feathers', no less!

Miss Duffy had been suspicious when around half a dozen young girls had turned up, but they had turned out to be full of suggestions for reading groups.

'I must say, I was surprised that they held us in such esteem,' she said the very next day. Lane and Freda had cleared the place up perfectly and had returned the chairs to the theatre. There was nothing that Miss Duffy could complain about, so instead she decided to be pleased, gratified even.

Freda had long ago decided that she would accept no credit for it all, even though she would have had to take all the blame if it had turned out badly.

'It's only what you deserve,' Freda said, as if it had all been Miss Duffy's idea. 'You have been here for years building this place up; it's only right they should honour you and say how much the library means to them.'

Miss Duffy accepted it all graciously as her due.

That was good: it left Freda time to get on with things. There was so much to organise in an ordinary working day. They would have to check the Issue, the list of items currently out on loan. Then there were the notes to borrowers of books that were overdue. They would go through the Issue looking for requested items and report on their status. Then today there was the Stock Selection meeting, where they all sat down with Miss Duffy to choose what new titles they could order. They would examine books sent to them as approval copies, and look at notes from the book magazines as well. There was little enough time to think about this Friends meeting, never mind organise the next one. It was curious that she felt so deflated. Whatever it was she had been so sure was going to happen just hadn't materialised.

Miss Duffy was surprised to see the great bunch of very expensive flowers that had been delivered. The message was simple. I am already a Friend of the Library . . . Now I want to be a Friend of the Librarian. The evening had been a success, of course, but who would have sent these as a thank you? The only person that ever sent flowers to Miss Duffy was her sister, and she was more of a potted violet sort of person. So who could have sent her this bouquet? She admired the flowers once more. Miss O'Donovan might arrange them for her if they could find a big enough vase.

Freda, of course, found a vase. She went into the store room and brought out a huge glass jar. Those flowers must have cost a fortune. Who on earth would have sent them?

Miss Duffy was vague, and said they were from a friend. She looked at her reflection in the glass doors and patted her hair several times. There was a thoughtful look in her eye.

Freda gave up.

When she was separating the long roses from the green ferns to arrange them better, she found the card that had come with the flowers.

. . . Now I want to be a Friend of the Librarian. They were for her. She realised it with a shock that was almost physical. But who was it? And what did he mean? And why had he not put Freda's name on them, instead of letting Miss Duffy think they were for her? She felt everything slowing down and becoming slightly unreal. There were far too many questions. She wanted to be alone to think about why she felt so uneasy and slightly shaky.

Lane had been on the phone to Eva to ask her what colour were a puffin's legs.

Eva hadn't hesitated. 'Orange,' she said. 'Why?'

'And the beak? We're painting scenery. Tell me about the beak, I know the shape and everything but what colour is it?'

'Blue, yellow and orange. But you have to get the colours in the right order.'

'I don't mean an exotic puffin like in an aviary, I mean just an Irish puffin.'

'That's it, that's a home-grown puffin. Come into the library  –  I'm just on my way there myself. I'll point you to the books.'

'I think I'd better. Birds with a blue, yellow and orange beak! You'd have to be on something very attitude-changing to see that in Ireland.'

They met on the steps.

'We're painting these huge backdrops for the next production,' she explained. 'I need to be sure about the puffins' beak and legs. Are they really all colours of the rainbow, or were you having me on?'

'Beaks have three colours, legs are orange  –  mostly during the breeding season. Much duller in winter,' Eva confirmed.

'Merciful God, in Ireland, birds like that!'

'Well, if you ever came with us over to the Atlantic coast, you'd see them for yourself, whole colonies of them,' Eva said reprovingly. 'There's a place called Stoneybridge. You should come along.'

And as they went in, they saw Freda at the counter talking to someone. She was pointing at a brochure and Freda was laughing and shaking her head. Her eyes were bright and she looked so young, so animated and alive in this old, grey building. Miss Duffy wore her usual navy wool cardigan with a small white lace collar; she was demure and full of gravitas. Freda in contrast wore a red shirt over black trousers. She had her black curly hair tied back with a big red ribbon. She looked like a colourful flower in the middle of it all, Lane thought. No wonder they were all queuing up to talk to her.

Waiting next in line was a man in a cashmere scarf and a very well-cut overcoat. He was looking at Freda intently.

Lane held back suddenly. She didn't know why, but she felt faintly uneasy.

'What is it?' Eva asked.

'That man, waiting to speak to Freda,' Lane whispered.

'I can't see him,' Eva complained.

'Come this way, so. You'll see him then and you won't distract her.'

They both saw the way Freda was looking at the man who had approached her. It was just too far to hear what she was saying but her face had changed completely.

Whoever he was, he was significant.

Lane disliked him on sight.

'Did you like my flowers?'

'The ones for Miss Duffy, the Librarian? They're lovely. Shall I get her for you?'

He paused to smell one of the roses. 'They were for you, Freda.' He was very good-looking, and there was such warmth in his smile.

She couldn't help smiling back, though if Freda had ever known how to flirt she had forgotten the technique.

'You weren't at the Friends evening,' she said. 'I'm sure I'd have remembered you.'

'Oh but I was here. I didn't know about the meeting, I just came in when the rain came on. I stood at the back, over there.' He pointed to a pillar beside the back door.

'You didn't sit down?'

'No, I only wanted to miss the worst of the downpour, and I thought a talk in the library would be boring.'

'And was it?' She felt as if she were probing a sore tooth.

'No, Freda, it was a great evening, there was warmth and enthusiasm and hope all here in this very room. That's why I stayed.'

This was exactly what she had felt. She thought that people had been given some kind of lifeline that night. They were dying for something new, something to get involved in; they were all so anxious to help. She looked at him wordlessly.

'I came to ask you to have dinner with me.' She saw his neck redden slightly. Suddenly he looked uncertain. 'I mean, it doesn't have to be dinner, it could be a walk, a coffee, a movie, anything you like. Oh  –  no, wait  –  my name is Mark. Mark Malone. Will you come out with me?'

'Dinner would be nice . . .' she heard herself say.

'Good. Can I book somewhere tonight?'

Freda didn't trust herself to speak at first. 'Well, yes, tonight is good,' she said eventually.

'Where would you like to go?'

'I don't know . . . anywhere. I like Ennio's down on the quays, I go there with my friends sometimes for a treat.'

'Well, I don't want to muscle in on your special place for you and your friends. What about Quentins, that's good too, isn't it? Is eight OK with you?'

'Eight o'clock it is,' Freda said.

He grinned, and then ostentatiously took her hand and kissed it.

When he had gone, Freda raised her hand to her cheek and held it there. She didn't know it but she was being watched by her aunt Eva, her friend Lane, Miss Duffy, Lionel the poet and a young girl who happened to be looking for a job as a cleaner.

They all saw Freda's face as she moved her hand slowly to her lips. The hand that the man had kissed. Something momentous had just happened in front of their eyes.

The rest of the day passed. Somehow.

Lane said, 'Have you anything to tell me?'

Freda had asked, 'About puffins?'

'No, about men coming in and kissing your hand.'

Tomorrow, Freda had promised.

He was already there when Freda went into Quentins. He wore a dark grey suit and a crisp white shirt. He was very handsome. He grinned and stood up to welcome her as Brenda, the elegant owner and manager, led Freda to the table.

'I thought you might like a glass of champagne, but I didn't order for you,' he began.

'Right on both counts,' Freda said, smiling. 'I would indeed like a glass of champagne, but thank you for not assuming.'

'I wouldn't do that, I hope,' he said. 'I'm so pleased to see you  –  you look terrific,' he said.

'Thank you,' she said simply.

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