A Week in Winter (Chapter Eighteen)

'No, indeed, are you selling?'

'Oh, if only we could. I'd be out of it by this evening.'

'And where would you go, Matty?'

'I'd go into St Joseph's. It's a sort of a home in the town. I'd have people calling in to see me there, and company. I wouldn't be stuck up here on Rocky Ridge with John Paul working all the hours God sends, and for what? For next to nothing.'

'Did you tell him this?'

'I can't. He thinks there's a living in the place. He did nothing for himself in life but he's got a good heart, and he deserves a crack at making the place work. I couldn't go and sell it over his head.'

Anders sat there silently for a while. Matty was a man who was used to silences. Shep snored on. Maybe life was full of these misunderstandings.

John Paul was out there on mountain tops dealing with things he hated, his father was yearning to live in a nice warm, safe place where people could call in to him and his dinner would be served at one o'clock every day. They each thought the other was desperate to keep the farm going.

Could it be the same situation in Sweden?

Did Anders' father wish that he could hand the firm over to others, release his son from a life which he did not enjoy? Was this only wishful thinking? A false parallel?

Problems don't solve themselves neatly like that, due to a set of coincidences. Problems are solved by making decisions. Erika had always said that, and he had thought she was being doctrinaire. But it was true. Deciding not to change anything was a decision in itself. He hadn't fully understood this before.

The light went from the sky and Shep stirred in his dreams. Anders made more tea and found them some biscuits. Matty told him about Chicky marrying this man who was killed in a car crash in New York, and how he had left her money to come home and buy the Sheedy place. Matty said Chicky was a real survivor; she didn't expect anyone to fight her battles for her. Many a man had shown an interest in her, but she was fair and square with all of them. She was her own woman, she told them.

But you never knew what the Lord had planned for you. Maybe some nice American man might come for a holiday and sweep her off her feet again. Was there anyone among the guests that looked suitable?

Anders thought not. There was a pleasant American there, all right, but he hadn't seen any sign of a romance.

'Oh, is that Corry Salinas? I heard he was staying there,' Matty said.

'You did?'

'Yes, he was trying to keep it a secret but everyone here recognised him. Frank Hanratty was only telling some daft story that he came into the golf club to buy Frank a drink because he saw his pink van outside the door. Frank had better take a hold of himself.'

Just then they heard the van arrive and John Paul ran into the house.

'Da, the cattle had got through a fence up in the top field. They were wandering all over the road. Dr Dai was trying to get them back into the field through the gap with one of his golf clubs. He was worse than myself. And by the time we got someone to fix the fence – ' He broke off when he saw Anders. His big face lit up with pleasure.

'Anders Almkvist! You came to see us!' he said, delighted. 'Da, this is my friend . . .'

'Don't I know all about him. We've had a long chat waiting for you to get back, and I know all about why the Swedes are better off with their krone than the euro,' Matty said.

John Paul looked on, open-mouthed.

'And he brought me my dinner as well,' his father pronounced. The final accolade. Anders got another mug and poured out tea for John Paul.

There was no rush. There would be plenty of time to explain everything.

John Paul drove Anders back to Stone House. 'Imagine you coming back here and up to Rocky Ridge to see me!' he said.

'I was hoping to hear you playing in one of the local pubs, but they say you work too hard. You're too tired.'

'I was hoping that you had come to tell me that you'd left that office of yours,' John Paul said.

'No. Not just yet.'

'But you might . . .?' John Paul looked pleased for his friend. 'So miracles do happen.'

'Wait until I tell you about what your father really wants, and then you'll think twice about miracles,' said Anders.

Anders was most apologetic when he slipped in at Chicky's big dining table. 'I'm sorry I'm a bit late,' he said as he sat down next to the doctor and his wife.

'No problem. It's duck tonight. I kept it hot for you. Everything all right with John Paul?'

'Fine, fine. What's St Joseph's like as a place to stay?'

'As good as they come. If they could only persuade Matty to go in there, he'd love it. I have an aunt in there, and she barely has time to talk to you when you visit.'

'No, he wants to go in. It's John Paul who has the doubts.'

'We can sort him out on that. And you tell John Paul he should go away and travel a bit, let some of the other brothers and sisters come back and pull their weight here. Visit Matty from time to time, instead of leaving it all to John Paul.'

'I do have an idea at the back of my mind.'

'If it means giving John Paul a bit of a chance in life, I'm all for it.'

'I was thinking of opening an Irish bar in Sweden. Asking him to come and set up the music side of it for me. I can deal with the business side.'

'So that is what you were doing here. I did wonder.' Chicky seemed pleased to have found out without interrogating.

'No, it wasn't what I intended. It just sort of evolved.'

'Things do evolve around here. I've seen it over and over. There's something in the sea air, I think.'

'I haven't spoken to my father about it yet.'

'And if he is against the idea?' Chicky was gentle.

'I will explain it to him. I will be clear and courteous, as he has always been. I will not pour any scorn on his dreams; just point out that they are not mine.' His voice sounded very much more confident.

Chicky nodded several times. It was as if she could see it happening. 'And when you're hiring, you might ask my niece Orla out there, for a season anyway, to do the food for you. It would be the making of your pub, and prevent her from growing old and mad with me.'

'There are worse places to grow old and mad,' Anders laughed. He hoped he could explain all this to his father, and that he would not be too disappointed. Klara would take over Almkvist's. The company was in her blood just as much as it was in his. She knew and loved the business in a way he never would. Now all he had to do was persuade his father that a woman could head up a prestigious company like Almkvist's. He sighed and settled back in his seat. And who could he get to help him persuade his father? He pulled out a pencil and pad and started to make lists of things that he had to do. Calling Erika was top of the list.

The Walls

They never introduced themselves as Ann and Charlie, they always said, 'We are The Walls'.

They signed their Christmas cards from The Walls also, and when they answered the phone they would say, 'Walls here'.

Possibly it was an act of solidarity. You rarely saw one without the other, and they always stood very close to each other. They apparently never tired of each other's company, which was just as well as they worked together in their Dublin home correcting and marking papers as postal tuition for a correspondence college. They had both been teachers, but this was much more companionable and less stressful. They had a little study in their house where they went in at nine a.m. and came out at two. The Walls said it was very important to have total self-discipline when you worked from home. Otherwise the day ran away from you.

Then, in the afternoons, they would walk or garden or shop, and at five o'clock settle down to what was the high spot of the day  –  entering competitions.

They had won many, many prizes. Anything from choosing a name for a chocolate Easter bunny to writing a limerick in praise of garden sheds. They had won a holiday in the South of France because they wrote a slogan for a new perfume; they got a set of heavy cast-iron cookware for guessing the weight of a turkey. They had won the latest television, a top-of-the-range microwave oven, his-and-hers sports bikes, velvet curtains and a whole range of smaller items like trendy electric kettles and leather-bound photo albums. It was a poor week when they didn't win something. And they so enjoyed the fun of the chase as well as the extra comforts that came from the prizes.

They had two sons who seemed to play very little part in their lives. This had always been the way. When the boys were at school they always went to play in other boys' houses: The Walls weren't into entertaining groups of children. Then one son, Andy, was taken on by a major English football club and became a professional soccer player; the other boy, Rory, had become a long-distance lorry driver and drove for hours on end all over Europe.

Both of these careers bewildered The Walls, who could not fathom why their sons didn't want to go to university, and the boys, on their part, could not begin to understand a mother and father who raked the newspapers and magazines in search of winning something like an electric toaster.

But the years went on peacefully for The Walls. They were very satisfied with the life they lived. They chose their competitions carefully and only entered for something where they felt they had a reasonable chance of winning. They scorned the kind of competitions they saw on television: a multiple-choice question asking if Vienna was the capital of a) Andorra b) Austria or c) Australia. Choose option a, b or c. These were not real competitions, they were only schemes to make money from premium-rate call lines. No self-respecting competition entrant would consider them.

They knew also that you must not make your jingles or rhymes too clever. They had seen that the middle of the road was the way to go. They would examine each other's solutions looking for puns or references that might be beyond the ordinary punter. They must beware of stepping outside the mainstream. And so far, it had all worked very well.

As they sat one summer's evening on the garden seat that had been theirs because they had matched twelve garden flowers with the months in which they bloomed, and drank from Waterford Glass tumblers that had come from the competition to write an ode to crystal, The Walls congratulated themselves on their twenty-five years of happy marriage. They were in a great state of excitement this evening: they planned to win something quite splendid to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in a few months. There was a cruise to Alaska, for one thing. That would be heavily subscribed. Competition entrants from all over the world would be trying for that one, so they should not be too confident of winning. There was a residential cookery course in Italy, which would be nice. There was a week in a Scottish castle. The possibilities were endless. It was not a question of being mean or careful with money; The Walls could well afford a holiday abroad, but the thrill of winning one was much more satisfying, and they filled in forms and made up slogans with great vigour.

Then they found the dream prize. It was a winter break in Paris, a week in a luxury hotel. There would be a chauffeur-driven car at their disposal with an outing planned for each day of the week: Versailles, Chartres, as well as city tours, meals in internationally known restaurants. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It looked a very good bet. They had seen it in a rather elegant magazine with a small circulation; this was helpful. It meant that it would not have caught the eye of millions of readers. The task was to explain in one paragraph why they deserved this holiday.

The Walls knew not to make it jokey. The judges were the editor of the magazine, a travel agent and a couple of hoteliers in Ireland and Britain who were offering second and third prizes. These were people who took their product seriously. No satire or disrespect would win. The question must be addressed with equal seriousness.

And they were pleased with their entry. The Walls explained quite simply that after twenty-five years of contented partnership, they would love to bring back a little romance into their lives. They had never been people with a glittery lifestyle but, like everyone, they would love it if some magic was sprinkled on their lives. They had used words like 'sprinkle' and 'magic' before in captions or slogans, and they had worked well. They would work again.

They were now quite certain that the prize was theirs, and were unprepared for the shock of hearing they had won second prize  –  a holiday in some remote place on the cliffs over the Atlantic at the other side of the country. They looked at each other, dismayed. This was a poor reward for all the effort they had put into composing the burningly sincere essay about the need to have a little stardust shaken over them!

The woman on the telephone expected them to be very excited that they had won a week in this Stone House place, and because The Walls were basically polite people they tried hard to summon up some degree of enthusiasm. But their hearts were heavy as they thought of someone else in what had started to become their chauffeur-driven car in Paris, and their reservation at a five-star restaurant.

Ann Wall had been laying out the wardrobe she would pack. It included a designer handbag and a Hermes silk square that they had won in previous competitions. Charlie had reluctantly put down the guide book he had bought so that they would appear well informed about the Paris buildings and art treasures when they got there.

They both fumed with rage and annoyance that they had been so wrongly confident about winning the first prize. They were desperate to know what the winning essay had been about, and were determined to find out.

The Walls telephoned Chicky Starr, proprietor of Stone House, to make the arrangements for their visit. She was cheerful and practical as she gave details of train times and arranged to have them collected at the station. She was, they had to admit, perfectly pleasant and welcoming. If they had intended to win this holiday, they would have been delighted with her, but Mrs Starr must never know how very poor a consolation this holiday was going to be for The Walls.

She checked if they were vegetarians and advised them about bringing warm and waterproof clothing. No place here for designer scarves and bags, they realised. She said she would post them brochures and reading matter about the area so that they could decide in advance what they would like to do. There would be bicycles to ride, wild birds to see and a group of like-minded people to have dinner with in the evenings.

Like-minded? The Walls thought not.

Nobody else would be going there with such an aura of second best.

Mrs Starr said she would not mention to anyone that they were competition winners: it was up to them to discuss it or not. This puzzled The Walls. Normally they were very pleased to tell people they had won a competition and had got there by their wits rather than by handing out money. Still, it was thoughtful of Mrs Starr.

With heavy hearts they agreed on the train and bus times, and said insincerely that they were looking forward to it all greatly.

Their two sons came back to Ireland to celebrate the silver wedding. They took their parents to Quentins, one of the most talked-about restaurants in Dublin.

The Walls marvelled at how sophisticated the boys had become. Andy, who was used to a high life now as a soccer player in a Premier League team, went through the menu as if he were accustomed to eating like this every night; even Rory, who mainly dined in transport cafes and places where long-haul drivers met to eat quickly and get back on the road, was equally at ease.

They asked with baffled interest about their parents' recent successes in the competition stakes. There had been a set of matching luggage, some colourful garden lights and a carved wooden salad bowl with matching servers.

Andy and Rory murmured their approval and support. They spoke about their lives, and The Walls listened without comprehension as Andy spoke of transfers and relegation in the League, and Rory told them about the new regulations which were strangling the whole haulage business, and the money that they were constantly offered to bring illegal immigrants in as part of their cargo. Both boys had love lives to report. Andy was dating a supermodel, and Rory had moved into an apartment with a Spanish girl called Pilar.

The Walls said that they were going to the West of Ireland in a week's time. They described the place and listed all its good points. They said that Mrs Starr, the proprietor, sounded delightful.

To their surprise, the boys seemed genuinely interested.

'Good on you for doing something different.' Andy was admiring.

'And it's something you chose yourselves, not just something you won,' Rory approved.

The Walls did not enlighten them. It wasn't exactly lying, but they just didn't say it  –  that it had indeed been a competition. Partly because they still felt so raw about the loss of the Paris trip, but mainly because they were flattered by the way their sons unexpectedly seemed so pleased with their decision to go to this godforsaken place.

They wanted to bask for a bit in that enthusiasm rather than diminish it by giving the real reason why they were heading West.

Andy said that his supermodel girlfriend had always wanted to go to the wilds for a healthy walking holiday, so they were to mark his card. Rory said that Pilar had seen the old movie The Quiet Man half a dozen times, and was dying to see that part of the world. Possibly this hotel might be the place to go.

For the first time for a long while The Walls felt on the same wavelength as their children. It was very satisfying.

A week later, as they crossed Ireland on the train, the depressed feeling returned. The rain was unremitting. They looked without pleasure at the wet fields and the grey mountains. At this very moment some other people were arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. They would meet the chauffeur who should have been meeting The Walls. They would have rugs in the car in case it was cold; he would take them to the superb five-star Hotel Martinique where the welcome champagne would be on ice in the suite. It wasn't just a bedroom, it was an actual suite. Tonight those people would eat at the hotel, choosing from a menu that The Walls had already seen on the internet, while they were going to some kind of glorified bed and breakfast. The place would be full of draughts and they would possibly have to keep their coats on indoors. They would eat, every night for a whole week, in Mrs Starr's kitchen.

A kitchen!

They should have been dining under chandeliers in Paris.

The fields seemed to get smaller and wetter as they went West. They didn't need to say all this to each other. The Walls shared everything already; they each knew what the other was thinking. This was going to be one long, disappointing week.

At the railway station they recognised Chicky Starr at once from her picture on the Stone House brochure. She welcomed them warmly and carried their bags to her van, talking easily about the area and its attractions. Chicky explained that while she was in the town, she had a few more things to collect, and The Walls saw their expensive matching suitcases being loaded on to the roof. They looked quite out of place compared to the more basic bags and knapsacks belonging to Chicky Starr.

She seemed to know everyone. She asked the bus driver whether there had been a big crowd at the market, and greeted schoolchildren in uniform with questions about the match they had played that day. She offered a lift to an elderly man but he said that his daughter-in-law would be picking him up, so he'd be fine sitting here watching the world go by until she arrived.

The Walls looked on with interest. It must be extraordinary to know every single person in the place. Sociable certainly, but claustrophobic. There had been no mention of a Mr Starr. Ann Wall decided to nail this one down immediately.

'And does your husband help you in all this enterprise?' she asked brightly.

'Sadly he died some years ago. But he would have been very pleased to see Stone House up and running,' Chicky spoke simply.

The Walls felt chastened. They had been intrusive.

'It's a lovely part of the world you live in,' Charlie said insincerely.

'It's very special,' Chicky Starr agreed. 'I spent a long time in New York City, and I used to come home for a visit every year. It sort of charged my batteries for the rest of the year. I felt it might do the same for other people.'

The Walls doubted it, but made enthusiastic murmurs of agreement.

They were pleasantly surprised by Stone House when they arrived there. It was warm, for one thing, and very comfortable. Their bedroom had great style and a big bow window looking out to sea. On the little table by the window were two crystal glasses, an ice bucket and a half-bottle of champagne.

'Just our way of congratulating you on twenty-five years of happy marriage. You were very lucky to have it and even luckier to realise it,' Chicky said.

The Walls were, for once, wordless.

'Well we have had a very happy marriage,' Ann Wall said, 'but how did you know?'

'I read your entry in the competition. It was very touching, about how you got pleasure out of ordinary things but you wanted a little magic sprinkled on it. I do hope that we can provide some of that magic for you here.'

Of course, she had read their essay.

They had forgotten that she was one of the judges. But even though she had been touched and moved, she hadn't voted for them to have the holiday of their dreams.

'So you read all the entries?' Charlie asked.

'They gave us a shortlist. We read the final thirty,' Chicky admitted.

'And the people who won . . .?

'Well, there were five winners altogether,' Chicky said.

'Yes, but the people who won the first prize. What kind of an essay did they write?' Ann Wall had to know. What kind of words had beaten them to the winning post?

Chicky paused as if wondering whether or not to explain.

'It's odd, really. They wrote a totally different kind of thing. It wasn't at all like your story. It was more a song, like a version of "I Love Paris In The Springtime" but with different words.'

'A song? It didn't say a song. It said an essay.' The Walls were outraged.

'Well, you know, people interpret these things in different ways.'

'But words to someone else's song  –  isn't that a breach of copyright?' Their horror was total.

Chicky shrugged.

'It was clever, catchy. Everyone liked it.'

'The original song may have been catchy and clever but they just wrote a parody of it and they got to go to Paris.' The hurt and bitterness were written all over them.

Chicky looked from one to the other.

'Well, you're here now, so let's hope you enjoy it,' she said hopelessly.

They struggled to get back to their normal selves, but it was too huge an effort.

Chicky thought it wiser to leave them on their own. It was so obvious that for The Walls, this holiday was a very poor second best.

'If it's any consolation to you, everyone, all the judges, thought that even if the Flemmings got the first prize, your story was totally heart-warming. We were all envious of your relationship,' she tried.

It was useless. Not only had they been disappointed but The Walls knew now that they had been cheated too. It would rankle for ever.

They made an effort to recover. A big effort, but it wasn't easy. They tried to talk to their fellow guests and appear interested in what they had to say. They were an unlikely group: an earnest boy from Sweden, a librarian called Freda, an English couple who were both doctors, a disapproving woman with a pursed mouth called Nell, an American who had missed a plane and had come here on the spur of the moment and a pair of unlikely friends called Winnie and Lillian. What were they all doing here?

The food was excellent, served by Orla, the attractive niece of the proprietor. Really, there was nothing to object to. Nothing, that is, apart from the fact that the Flemmings, whoever they were, had stolen their holiday in Paris.

The Walls didn't sleep well that night. They were wakeful at three in the morning and made tea in their room. They sat and listened to the wind and rain outside and the sound of the waves receding and crashing again on the shore. It sounded sad and plaintive, as if in sympathy with them.

Next morning, the other guests all seemed ready and enthusiastic about their planned trips. The Walls chose a direction at random and found themselves on a long, deserted beach.

It was bracing, certainly, and healthy. They would have to admit that. The scenery was spectacular.

But it wasn't Paris.

They went to one of the pubs that Chicky had suggested and had a bowl of soup.

'I don't think I could take six more days of this.' Ann Wall put down her spoon.

'Mine's fine,' Charlie said.

'I don't mean the soup, I mean being here where we don't want to be.'

'I know, I feel that too, in a way,' Charlie agreed.

'And it's not as if they won it fair and square. Even Chicky admits that.' Ann Wall was very aggrieved.

'Wouldn't you love to know how they are getting on?' Charlie said.

'Yes. I'd both hate to know and love to know at the same time.' They laughed companionably over it.

The woman behind the bar looked at them with approval.

'Lord, it's grand to see a couple getting on so well,' she said. 'I was only saying to Paddy last night that they just come in here, stare into their drinks and say nothing at all. Paddy hadn't noticed. They probably have it all said, was what he thought.'

The Walls were pleased to be admired for having a good relationship twice in twenty-four hours. They had never before thought that it might be unusual. But then Chicky had said that the judges had been envious of them. Not envious enough, of course, to give them the main prize . . .

They said they were on a holiday from Dublin and staying at Stone House.

'Didn't Chicky do a great job on that place,' the woman said. 'She was a great example to people round here. When her poor husband, the Lord have mercy on him, was killed in that terrible road accident over there in New York, she just set her mind to coming back here and making a whole new life for herself, and bringing a bit of business to this place in the winter. We all wish her well.'

It was sad about Chicky's husband, The Walls agreed, but in their hearts it didn't make them feel any more settled in this remote part of Ireland when their dreams were elsewhere.

They didn't mention that they had won the holiday in a competition until dinner on the fourth night. Everyone was more relaxed around the table in the evenings; by that time they realised that no one had been quite what they looked. The two women, Lillian and Winnie, weren't old friends at all and they had almost drowned and were rescued; the doctors seemed more relaxed and Nicola chatted happily with the American who was revealed to be a film star; the Swedish boy had a passion for music and Freda the librarian seemed to be uncannily right in her pronouncements about people's lives. Nell was still disapproving  –  at least that hadn't changed. But they did feel like people who knew each other, rather than a group of accidentally gathered strangers.

They were all fascinated by the idea of winning competitions. They had thought that they were all fixed, or that so many people entered you just had no chance.

The Walls listed some of the items they had won and were gratified by the fascination that it seemed to hold for everyone.

'Is there a knack to it?' Orla wanted to know. She'd love to win a motorbike and travel around Europe, she explained.

The Walls were generous with their advice; it wasn't so much a knack, more doggedness and keeping it simple.