A Week in Winter (Chapter Two)
And as usual, Mrs Cassidy was right.
A terrible tragedy, motorway madness, a life snuffed out. They were so upset for her, back in Stoneybridge. They wanted to come to New York for the funeral but she told them it would be very private. That's the way Walter would have wanted it.
Her mother cried down the phone.
'Chicky, we were so harsh about him. May God forgive us.'
'I'm sure He has, long ago.' Chicky was calm.
'We tried to do what was best,' her father said. 'We thought we were good judges of character, and now it's too late to tell him we were wrong.'
'Believe me, he understood.'
'But can we write to his family?'
'I've already sent your sympathies, Dad.'
'Poor people. They must be heartbroken.'
'They are very positive. He had a good life, that's what they say.'
They wanted to know should they put a notice in the paper. But no. She said her way of coping with grief was to close down her life here as she had known it. The kindest thing they could do for her was to remember Walter with affection and to leave her alone until the wounds healed. She would come home next summer as usual.
She would have to move on.
This was very mysterious to those who read her letters home. Perhaps she had been unhinged by grief. After all, they had been so wrong about Walter Starr in life. Maybe they should respect him in death. Her friends now understood her need for solitude. She hoped that her family would do that also.
Orla and Brigid, who had been planning to come and visit the apartment in Seventh Avenue, were distraught.
Not only would there be no welcoming Uncle Walter coming to meet them at the airport, but there would be no holiday at all. Now there was no possibility of Aunty Chicky to take them on this Circle Line Tour round the island of Manhattan. She was moving on, apparently.
And anyway, their chances of being allowed to go to New York had disappeared. Could anything have been more unfortunately timed, they wondered.
They kept in touch and told her all the local news. The O'Haras had gone mad and were buying up property around Stoneybridge to develop holiday homes. Two of the old Miss Sheedys had been carried away by pneumonia in the winter. The old person's friend, it was called; it ended life peacefully for those who couldn't catch their breath.
Miss Queenie Sheedy was still there; strange, of course, and living in her own little world. Stone House was practically falling down around her. It was said that she seemed to have barely the money to pay her bills. Everyone had thought she would have to sell the big house on the cliff.
Chicky read all this as if it were news from another planet. Still, the following summer she booked her flight to Ireland. She brought more sombre clothes this time. Not official mourning, as her family might have liked, but less jaunty yellows and reds in her skirts and tops – more greys and dark blues. And the same sensible walking shoes.
She must have walked twenty kilometres a day along the beaches and the cliffs around Stoneybridge, into the woods and past the building sites where the O'Haras were busy with plans for Hispanic-style housing complete with black wrought iron and open sun terraces much more suitable for a warmer, milder climate than for the wild, windswept Atlantic coast around Stoneybridge.
During one of her walks she met Miss Queenie Sheedy, frail and lonely without her two sisters. They sympathised with each other on their loss.
'Will you come back here, now that your life is ended over there, and your poor dear man has gone to Holy God?' Miss Queenie asked.
'I don't think so, Miss Queenie. I wouldn't fit in here any more. I'm too old to live with my parents.'
'I understand, dear, everything turns out differently, doesn't it? I always hoped that you would come and live in this house. That was my dream.'
And then it began.
The whole insane idea of her buying the big house on the cliff. Stone House, where she had played when she was a child in their wild gardens, and had looked up at from the sea when they went swimming, where her friend Nuala had worked for the lovely Sheedy sisters.
It could happen. Walter always said it was up to us what happened.
Mrs Cassidy had always said why not us just as much as anyone else?
Miss Queenie said it was the best idea since fried bread.
'I wouldn't be able to pay you the money that others might give you for the place,' Chicky said.
'What do I need money for at this stage?' Miss Queenie had asked.
'I have been too long away,' Chicky said.
'But you will come back, you love walking all around here, it gives you strength, and there's so much light and the sky looks different every hour here. And you'll be very lonely back in New York without that man who was so good to you for all those years – you don't want to stay there with everything reminding you of him. Come home now, if you like, and I'll move into the downstairs breakfast room. I'm not too good on the old stairs anyway.'
'Don't be ridiculous, Miss Queenie. It's your house. I can't take any of this in. And what would I do with a big house like this all on my own?'
'You'd turn it into a hotel, wouldn't you?' To Miss Queenie, it was obvious. 'Those O'Haras have been wanting to buy the place from me for years. They'd pull it down. I don't want that. I'll help you turn it into a hotel.'
'A hotel? Really? Run a hotel?'
'You'd make it special, a place for people like you.'
'There's no one like me, no one as odd and complicated.'
'You'd be surprised, Chicky. There are lots of them. And I won't be around here for long, anyway; I'm going to join my sisters in the churchyard soon, I'd say. So you should really have to decide to do it now, and then we can plan what we are going to do to make Stone House lovely again.'
Chicky was wordless.
'You see, it would be very nice for me if you did come here before I go. I'd just love to be part of the planning,' Queenie pleaded. And they sat down at the kitchen table in Stone House and talked about it seriously.
When Chicky got back to New York, Mrs Cassidy listened to the plans, nodding with approval.
'You really think I can do it?'
'I'll miss you, but you know it's going to be the making of you.'
'Will you come to see me? Come to stay in my hotel?'
'Yes, I'll come for a week one winter. I like the Irish countryside in winter, not when it's full of noise and show and people doing leprechaun duty.'
Mrs Cassidy had never taken a holiday. This was ground-breaking.
'I should go now while Queenie is alive, I suppose.'
'You should have it up and running as soon as possible.' Mrs Cassidy hated to let the grass grow beneath her feet.
'How will I explain it all . . . to everybody?'
'You know, people don't have to explain things nearly as much as you think they do. Just say that you bought it with the money Walter left you. It's only the truth, after all.'
'How can it be the truth?'
'It's because of Walter you came here to New York. And because he left you you went and earned that money and saved it. In a way, he did leave it to you. I don't see any lie there.' And Mrs Cassidy put on the face that meant they would never speak of it again.
In the following weeks, Chicky transferred her savings to an Irish bank. There were endless negotiations with banks and lawyers. There were planning applications to be sorted, earth movers to be contacted, hotel regulations to be consulted, tax considerations to be made. She would never have believed how many aspects of it all there were to put in place before the announcement was made. She and Miss Queenie told nobody about their arrangement.
Eventually it all seemed ready.
'I can't put it off much longer,' Chicky said to Mrs Cassidy as they cleared the table after supper.
'It breaks my heart, but you should go tomorrow.'
'Miss Queenie can't wait much longer, and you have to tell your family some time. Do it before it's leaked out to them. It will be better this way.'
'But to get ready to go in one day? I mean, I have to pack and say my goodbyes . . .'
'You could pack in twenty minutes. You have hardly any possessions. The men in this house aren't great on big flowery goodbye speeches, any more than I am myself.'
'I'm half cracked to do this, Mrs Cassidy.'
'No, Chicky, you'd be half cracked if you didn't do it. You were always great at taking an opportunity.'
'Maybe I'd have been better if I hadn't seized the opportunity of following Walter Starr.' Chicky was rueful.
'Oh yes? You'd have been promoted in the knitting factory. Married a mad farmer, have six children that you'd be trying to find jobs for. No, I think you make great judgements. You made a decision, contacted me for a job and that turned out all right for twenty years, didn't it? You did fine by coming here to New York, and now you're going back home to own the biggest house in the neighbourhood. I don't see much wrong with that career path.'
'I love you, Mrs Cassidy,' Chicky said.
'It's just as well you're going back to the Celtic mists and twilight if you're going to start talking like that,' Mrs Cassidy said, but her face was much softer than usual.
The Ryan family sat open-mouthed as she told them her plans.
Chicky coming home for good? Buying the Sheedy place? Setting up a hotel to be open summer and winter? The main reaction was total disbelief.
The only one to show pure delight in the idea was her brother Brian.
'That will soften the O'Haras' cough,' he said with a broad smile. 'They've been sniffing after that place for years. They want to knock it down and build six top-of-the-market homes up there.'
'That was exactly what Miss Queenie didn't want!' Chicky agreed.
'I'd love to be there when they find out,' Brian said. He had never got over the fact that the O'Haras hadn't thought him worthy of their daughter. She had married a man who had managed to lose a great deal of O'Hara money on the horses, Brian often noted with satisfaction.
Her mother couldn't believe that Chicky was going to move in with Miss Queenie the very next day.
'Well, I'll need to be on the premises,' Chicky explained. 'And anyway, it's no harm to have someone there to hand Miss Queenie a cup of tea every now and then.'
'And a bowl of porridge or packet of biscuits wouldn't go amiss either,' Kathleen said. 'Mikey saw her picking blackberries a while ago. She said they were free.'
'Are you sure you own the place, Chicky?' Her father was worried, as always. 'You're not just going in there as a maid, like Nuala was, but with a promise that she will leave it to you?'
Chicky patted them down, assured them it was hers.
Little by little they began to realise that it was actually going to happen. Every objection they brought up she had already thought of. Her years in New York had made her into a businesswoman. They had learned from the past not to underestimate Chicky. They would not make the same mistake a second time.
Her family had arranged for yet another Mass to be said for Walter, as Chicky hadn't been at home for the first one they said. Chicky sat in the little church in Stoneybridge and wondered if there really was a God up there watching and listening.
It didn't seem very likely.
But then everyone here appeared to think it was the case. The whole community joined in prayers for the repose of Walter Starr's soul. Would he have laughed if he could have known this was happening? Would he have been shocked by the superstition of these people in an Irish seaside town where he had once had a holiday romance?
Now she was back here, Chicky knew that she would have to be part of the church again. It would be easier; Mrs Cassidy had gone to Mass every Sunday morning in New York. It was yet one more thing that they had never discussed.
She looked around the church where she was baptised, made her First Communion and her Confirmation, the church where her sisters had been married and where people were praying for the repose of the soul of a man who had never died. It was all very odd.
Still she hoped that the prayers would do someone somewhere some good.
There were a series of minefields that had to be walked very carefully. Chicky must make sure not to annoy those who already ran bed-and-breakfast accommodation around the place, or who rented out summer cottages. She began a ceaseless diplomatic offensive explaining that what she was doing was creating something totally new for the area, not a premises that would take business away from them.
She visited the many public houses dotted around the countryside and told them of her plans. Her guests would want to tour the cliffs and hills around Stoneybridge. She would recommend that they see the real Ireland, take their lunch in all the traditional bars, pubs and inns around. So if they were to serve soup and simple food, she would love to know about it and she would send customers in their direction.
She chose builders from another part of the country, as she wanted to avoid giving preference to the O'Haras or their main rivals in the construction business. It was so much easier than choosing one over the other. It was the same about buying supplies. Offence could easily be taken if she was seen to favour just one place.
Chicky made sure that everyone would get something from the project. She was so good at getting everyone on side.
The main thing was to get the architects in and out and the workmen on site. She would need a manager, but not yet. She would want someone to live in and help her with the cooking but again, that could wait.
Chicky had her eye on her niece Orla for this job. The girl was quick and bright. She loved Stoneybridge and the life it offered. She was energetic and sporty, into windsurfing and rock climbing. She had done a computer course in Dublin and a diploma in marketing. Chicky could teach her to cook. She was lively and good with people. She would be a natural for Stone House. Irritatingly, the girl seemed to want to stay in London with her new job. No explanations, she just went. Things were so much easier for the young these days than in her time, Chicky thought. Orla didn't have to ask permission or family approval. It was assumed that she was an adult and they had no say in her life.
The plans went on and on. There would be eight guest bedrooms and one big kitchen and dining area where all the guests would eat dinner together. She found a huge old-fashioned table that would have to be scrubbed every day but it was authentic. This was no place for fancy mahogany and place mats or thick Irish linen tablecloths. It must be the real thing.
She got one local craftsman to make her fourteen chairs, and another to restore an old dresser to display the china. With Miss Queenie she drove to auctions and sales around the countryside and found the right glasses, plates, bowls.
They met people who would be able to restore some of the old rugs in the Sheedy home, and who could replace frayed leather on little antique tables.
This was the part that Miss Queenie loved most. She would say over and over what a miracle it was to have all these lovely treasures restored. Her sisters would be so pleased when they saw what was happening. Miss Queenie believed that they knew every detail of what was going on in Stone House, and watched it all approvingly. It was touching that she saw them settled in some happy place waiting for the hotel to open and checking the comings and goings in Stoneybridge.
It was rather more unsettling when Miss Queenie also assumed that Walter Starr would be there in heaven with the two Miss Sheedys, cheering on every development that was being made by his brave, courageous widow.
Chicky made sure to tell her family about her plans each week so that they could be well briefed and ahead of the game. It gave them great status to know in advance that the planning applications had been approved, a walled kitchen garden to grow their own vegetables planned and oil-fired central heating for the whole house installed.
She would probably need a professional designer as well. Even though she and Miss Queenie thought they knew what the place should look like, they were pitching for discerning people, they would charge real money and must make the place right. What Chicky thought of as elegant might well be considered tacky.
Even though she had looked at all the hotels and country houses in magazines, she had little practical experience in getting the right look. Mrs Cassidy's Select Accommodation hadn't been a real training ground for style.
There would be a lot of work ahead: she would have to have a website and take bookings online, still a very foreign world to her. This is where young Orla would be her right hand if she were to come back from London. She had telephoned her twice but the girl had been distracted and non-committal. Chicky's sister Kathleen said that Orla was like a bag of cats and that there was no talking to her on any subject.
'She's more headstrong than you ever were,' Kathleen said ruefully, 'and that's really saying something.'
'Look at how well and sane I turned out in the end,' Chicky laughed.
'The place isn't up and running yet.' Kathleen's voice was full of doom. 'We'll see how well and sane you are when you're open for business.'
Only Mrs Cassidy, over in New York, and Miss Queenie believed it would happen and be a big success. Everyone else was humouring her and hoping it would take off but in the same way that they hoped for a long hot summer and for the Irish soccer team to do well in the World Cup.
Sometimes Chicky would go and walk the cliffs at night and look out over the Atlantic Ocean. Always it gave her strength.
People had had enough courage to get into small, shaky boats and set sail over those choppy waters, not knowing what lay ahead. Surely it couldn't be too hard to set up a guest house? Then she would go back indoors where Miss Queenie would run and make them a mug of hot chocolate and say that she hadn't been so happy since she was a girl, since the days when she and her sisters would go to a hunt ball and hope they might find dashing young men to marry. That had never happened, but this time it would work. Stone House was going to happen.
And Chicky would pat her on the hand and say that they would be the talk of the country. And as she said it, she believed it. All her worries would go. Whether it was because of the walk in the wild winds or the comforting hot chocolate or Miss Queenie's hopeful face or a combination of all three, it meant she slept a long, untroubled sleep every night.
She would wake ready for anything, which was just as well because in the months ahead there was quite a lot she had to be ready for.
Rigger never knew his father – he had never been spoken of. His mother Nuala was hard to know properly. She worked so hard for one thing, and she said little of her life in the West of Ireland in a small place called Stoneybridge. Rigger knew she had worked as a maid in a big house for three old ladies called the Miss Sheedys, but she never wanted to talk about it nor her family back home.
He shrugged. It was impossible to understand grown-ups, anyway.
Nuala had never owned anything of her own. She was the youngest of the family so any clothes she got had been well tried out on the others first. There was no money for luxuries, not even a First Communion dress; and when she was fifteen they had found her a job working for the Miss Sheedys in Stone House. Very nice women they were; ladies, all three of them.
It was hard work: stone floors and wooden tables to scrub, old furniture to polish. She had a very small room with a little iron bed. But it was her own, more than she ever had at home. The Miss Sheedys hadn't a penny really between them, so there was a lot of fighting back the damp and the leaks and there was never the money to give the house any proper heating or a good coat of paint – both needed badly. They ate very little but Nuala was used to that. They were like little sparrows at the table.
She looked at them with wonder, as they had to have their table napkins each in its own ring and they sounded a little gong to announce the meal. It was like taking part in a play.
Sometimes Miss Queenie would ask about Nuala's boyfriends, but the other sisters would tut-tut as if this wasn't a suitable topic to discuss with the maid.
Not that there was that much to discuss. There were very few boyfriends around Stoneybridge. Any lads her brothers knew had all gone to England or America to find work. And Nuala wouldn't be considered good enough for the O'Haras or some of the big families in the place. She hoped that she would meet one of the summer visitors who would fall in love with her, just like Chicky, and not care that she was in domestic service.
And she did meet a summer visitor, called Drew. It was short for Andrew. He was a friend of the O'Haras, and they had all been kicking a ball around the beach. Nuala sat watching the girls in their smart swimsuits. How wonderful it must be to be able to go into town and buy things like that, and lovely coloured baskets and coloured towels.
Drew came over and asked her to join the game. After a week she was in love with him. After two weeks they were lovers. It was all so natural and normal, she couldn't understand why she and the other girls had giggled so much about it at school. Drew said he adored her and that he would write to her every day when he went back to Dublin.
He wrote once and said it had been a magical summer and that he would never forget her. He gave no address. Nuala wouldn't ask the O'Haras where to find him. Not even when she realised that her period was late and she was most probably pregnant.
When this became more certain to be true, she was at a complete loss about what to do. It would break her mother's heart. Nuala had never felt so alone in her life.
She decided to tell the Miss Sheedys.
She waited until she had cleared and washed up their minimal supper before she began the story. Nuala looked at the stone floor of the kitchen so that she did not have to meet their eyes as she explained what had happened.
The Sheedy sisters were shocked. They had hardly any words to express their horror that this should have happened while Nuala was under their roof.
'What on earth are you going to do?' Miss Queenie asked with tears in her eyes.
Miss Jessica and Miss Beatrice were less sympathetic but equally unable to think of a solution.
What had Nuala hoped they would do? That they might ask her to bring up the baby there? That they would say a child around the house would make them all feel young again?
No, she hadn't hoped for that much but she wanted some reassurance, some pinprick of hope that the world was not going to end for her as a result of all this.
They said they would make enquiries. They had heard of a place where she might be able to stay until the baby was born and given up for adoption.
'Oh, I'm not going to give the baby away,' Nuala said.
'But you can't keep the baby, Nuala,' Miss Queenie explained.
'I never had anything of my own before, apart from the room you gave me and my bed here.'
The sisters looked at each other. The girl didn't begin to understand what she was taking on. The responsibility, the fuss, the disgrace.
'It's the 1990s,' Nuala said, 'it's not the Dark Ages.'
'Yes, but Father Johnson is still Father Johnson,' Miss Queenie said.
'Would the young man in question perhaps . . .?' began Miss Jessica tentatively.
'And if he's a friend of the O'Haras, he would be an honourable person and do his duty . . .' Miss Beatrice agreed.
'No, he wouldn't. He wrote to say goodbye; it had been a magical summer.'
'And I'm sure it was, my dear,' Miss Queenie clucked kindly, not noticing the disapproval from the others.
'I can't tell my parents,' Nuala said.
'So, we'll get you to Dublin as quickly as possible. They'll know what to do up there.' Miss Jessica wanted it off her doorstep soonest.
'I'll make those enquiries.' Miss Beatrice was the sister with contacts.
Nuala's eldest brother Nasey was already living in Dublin. He was the odd one in the family, very quiet, kept himself to himself, they would always say with a sigh. He had a job in a butcher's shop and seemed settled enough.
He was a bachelor with a home of his own, but he wouldn't be anyone she could rely on. He had been too long left home to know her and care about her. She did have his address for an emergency, of course, but she wouldn't contact him.
The Sheedys had found a place for Nuala to stay. It was a hostel where several of the other girls were pregnant also.