A Week in Winter (Chapter Nine)

'That's very generous of her,' Winnie murmured. 'And I get to see your home, too.' She was very pleased that she had already packed a small gift for Mrs Hennessy. This was all going to be fine.

At the hotel, Peter and Gretta were in a state of high excitement. 'Do you want to see your room now, and change for dinner?' Gretta asked.

'No, not at all. I'm fine going straight in just as I am,' Winnie said. She knew what a stickler for punctuality Mrs Hennessy was and how she hated to be kept waiting.

'Whatever you think,' Gretta said, doubtfully.

Winnie moved purposefully into the bar and dining room of the Rossmore Hotel. She would reassure the old lady and win her over. It was all a matter of letting her know that Winnie was no threat, no rival. They were all in this together.

She could see no elderly figure sitting in the big armchairs. Perhaps Mrs Hennessy's legendary timekeeping had been exaggerated. Then she saw Teddy hailing a most glamorous woman sitting at the bar.

'There you are, Mam! Beaten us to it, as usual! Mam, this is my friend Winnie.'

Winnie stared in disbelief. This was no clinging, frail old woman. This was someone in her early fifties, groomed and made-up and dressed to kill. She wore a gold brocade jacket over a wine-coloured silk dress. She must have come straight from the hairdresser's. Her handbag and shoes were made of soft expensive leather. She wore very classy-looking jewellery.

There had to be some mistake.

Winnie's mouth opened and closed. Never at a loss for something to say, she now found herself totally wordless.

Mrs Hennessy, however, was able to cope with her own sense of surprise with much more dignity.

'Winnie, what a pleasure to meet you! Teddy told me all about you.' Her eyes took Winnie in from head to toe and up again.

Winnie felt very conscious of her big, comfortable shoes. And why had she worn this dreary navy trouser suit? She looked like someone who had come in to move the furniture in the hotel, not to have a dressed-up dinner with this style icon.

Teddy beamed from one to the other, seeing what he had always wanted: a good meeting between his mother and his girl. And he remained delighted all through the meal while his mother patronised Winnie, dismissed her and almost laughed in her face. Teddy Hennessy saw none of this. He only saw the three of them establishing themselves as a family group.

Mrs Hennessy said that of course Winnie must call her Lillian, after all, they were friends now. 'You are so very different to what I expected,' she said admiringly.

'Oh, really?' Poor Winnie wondered had she ever been so gauche and awkward.

'Yes, indeed. When Teddy told me he had met this little nurse in Dublin I suppose I thought of someone much younger, sillier somehow. It's marvellous to meet someone so mature and sensible.'

'Oh, is that what I seem?' She recognised the words for what they were: mature and sensible meant big, dull, ordinary and old. She could hear the sigh of relief that Lillian Hennessy was allowing to hiss out from her perfectly made-up lips. This Winnie was no threat. Her golden son, Teddy, couldn't possibly fancy a woman as unattractive as this.

'And it's so good for Teddy to have proper people to meet when he's in Dublin,' Lillian went on in a voice that was almost but not quite a gush. 'Someone who will keep him out of harm's way and from making unsuitable attachments.'

'Indeed, I'm great at that,' Winnie said.

'You are?' Lillian's eyes were hard.

Teddy looked bewildered for a moment.

'Well, I'm thirty-four and I kept myself out of making any unsuitable attachments so far,' Winnie said.

Lillian screamed with delight. 'Aren't you just wonderful! Well, of course Teddy is only thirty-two, so we have to keep an eye on him,' she tinkled.

Lillian knew everyone in the dining room and nodded or waved at them all. Sometimes she even introduced Winnie as 'an old, old friend of ours from Dublin'. She chose the wine, complained that the Hennessy cheeses were not properly displayed on the cheese plate and eventually called the evening to an end by talking about her invitation to lunch the following day.

'I had been in such a tizz wondering who to invite with you, but now that I've met you I see you'd be perfectly at ease with anyone. So you'll meet a lot of the old buffers around here. All very parochial, I'm afraid, compared to Dublin, but I'm sure you'll find a few likely souls.' Then she was out in the foyer tapping her elegantly shod toe until Teddy walked Winnie to the lift.

'I knew it would be wonderful,' he said. And with a quick kiss on the cheek he was gone to drive his mother home.

In the Rossmore Hotel, Winnie cried until she had no more tears. She saw her stained face in the mirror. An old, flat face; the face that could be introduced to old buffers. Somebody no one would get into a tizz over. Where did the woman get these phrases?

She wept over Teddy. Was he a man at all to leave her at the lift doors and run after his overdressed, power-crazed mother? Or was he a puppet who had no intention of having a proper relationship with her?

She would not go to this awful lunch tomorrow. She would make her excuses and take the train back to Dublin. Let them all work it out as they wanted to. The last few months had been a fool's paradise. Winnie should have known better at her age.

And talking about age, Lillian had said Teddy was thirty-two, making him sound as if he were still a child. He would be thirty-three in two weeks' time. He was only fourteen months younger than Winnie. She and Teddy had already laughed at the age difference. To them it had been immaterial. How had Lillian managed to change it all and make her seem like some kind of cougar stalking the young, defenceless Teddy?

Well, never mind. This was the last she would see of either of them.

She fell into a troubled sleep and woke with a headache.

Gretta was standing beside her bed with a breakfast tray.

'What? I didn't order . . .'

'God, Winnie, you've had dinner with Lillian. You probably need a blood transfusion or shock treatment but I brought you coffee, croissants and a Bloody Mary to get you on your feet.'

'She's not important. I'm going back to Dublin on the next train. I'm not letting her get to me. Believe me, I know when to leave the stage.'

'Drink the Bloody Mary first. Go on, Winnie, drink it. It's full of good things like lemon juice and celery salt and Tabasco.'

'And vodka,' Winnie said.

'Desperate needs, desperate remedies.' Gretta held out the glass and Winnie drank it.

'Why does she hate me?' Winnie was begging to know.

'She doesn't hate you. She's just so afraid of losing Teddy. She grows claws whenever anyone looks as if they might take him away. This side of her comes out when she's in a panic. But she's not getting away with it this time.'

During the coffee, Gretta explained that there was a wedding in the hotel that day and that a hairdresser was on hand. She would come to the room and do a quick job on Winnie and then so would the make-up artist.

'It's too late for all this makeover stuff,' Winnie wailed. 'She saw me the way I was. I deliberately didn't bring any smart clothes because I didn't want to dazzle her. Me dazzle her? I must have been mad.'

'I have a gorgeous top I'm going to lend you. She's never seen it. It's the real deal  –  a Missoni. Truly top drawer. I got it from one of those outlet places. You'll knock her eyes out.'

'I don't want to knock her eyes out. I don't care about her or her son.'

'None of us cares about her, but we all love Teddy. You're the only one who can save him. Go on, Winnie, one lunch. You can do it. Believe it or not, underneath she's a very decent person.'

And somehow Winnie found herself in the shower and then with a hairdresser and having her eyebrows plucked and a blusher applied to her cheekbones. Eyeshadow to match the beautiful lilac and aquamarine colours of the Italian designer blouse.

'Even if you are leaving the stage, then leave it fighting,' Gretta warned as she admired the results.

'Get back and deal with the wedding, Gretta. This is your bread and butter. Your livelihood.'

'I don't care about the wedding. I care about getting Teddy out from under that woman's thumb. Look, Winnie, she is our friend, but Teddy must be allowed to live his own life, and you are the one who will do it. I don't know how but it will come to you.'

'I'm not going to issue any ultimatums. Either Teddy wants to be with me or he doesn't.'

'Oh, Winnie, if only life was as easy. You don't do weddings every week like we do all year long; you don't know the rocky roads to the altar.'

'I'd prefer a road with no rocks, a pleasant, easy road and to walk it alone,' Winnie said.

'You can do this. Go for it, Winnie,' Gretta begged.

Lillian had gathered over a dozen people for lunch. Fresh salmon was served with new potatoes and minted peas. There were very elegant salads with asparagus and avocado, walnuts and blue cheese.

Winnie looked around her. This was a very comfortable, charming house: there were wooden floors with rugs; big chintz-covered sofas and chairs were dotted around, framed family photographs covered the little side table.

A conservatory, where a table of summer drinks was laid out, opened into a well-kept garden. This was Lillian's domain.

Winnie was impressed but she would not fawn and admire and praise. Instead, she concentrated on the other guests. Despite herself, she found she liked Lillian's friends.

She was seated next to the local lawyer, who talked about how Ireland had become very litigious with people looking everywhere for compensation, and told her marvellously funny stories about cases he had heard about. On her other side were Hannah and Chester Kovac who had founded and ran a local health centre, and they talked about the problems in the health service. Opposite, there was a gentleman called Neddy, who ran an old people's home and his wife Clare, who was the headmistress of the local school; their friends, Judy and Sebastian, told her they had started with a small newsagent's shop in the town centre but now had a large store in the main street of Rossmore. There had been a big fuss about the bypass when people thought that it would take trade away from the town, but it turned out there had been great business in selling Dubliners second homes in the Whitethorn Woods area.

These were normal, warm-hearted people, and they seemed perfectly at ease with Lillian Hennessy. The woman must have a lot more going for her than she was showing to Winnie.

She noticed Lillian glancing at her from time to time with an air of some speculation. It was as if she realised that Winnie had changed in more than her appearance since last night. What Winnie did not notice, however, was the way the lawyer kept refilling her glass with what he said was an excellent Chablis. By the time the strawberries were served, Winnie was not thinking as clearly as she would have liked.

She found herself looking over at Teddy's face and thinking how genuinely good-natured and warm he was. She admired his courtesy with his mother's friends, and his eagerness that everyone should have a good time. He looked across at her a lot and always smiled, as if the dream of his life had been realised and that she had come home.

Lillian was a good hostess. Winnie had to give her that much.

She managed to make her guests move around so that they talked to other people. Winnie had watched the little dance, and was determined to get up and go to the bathroom to avoid being closeted with Lillian.

But she hadn't moved in time.

'What a lovely Missoni top,' Lillian said to her admiringly.

'Thank you,' Winnie said.

'Could I ask where you got it?'

'It was a gift.' Winnie closed down the line of enquiry.

'I hope you haven't been bored here. I'm sure you think it's a real country-bumpkin outing.' Lillian in her cream linen dress and jacket looked as if she were dressed for a smart society wedding.

'I've loved it, Lillian. What wonderful friends you have.'

'I'm sure you have a lot of good friends in Dublin, too.'

'Well, yes, I do. Like you, I enjoy people, so I suppose I do have a lot of friends.' Winnie felt her voice sounded tinny and faraway. She might indeed be a little drunk. She must be very careful.

Lillian's eyes seemed to narrow but the piercing look was still there. With a shock Winnie realised that Lillian quite possibly hated her. It was as strong as that. This was territorial. Winnie would not get her hands on the golden son. His mother would fight for him. She was almost too tired to fight back. The night of weeping, the exhaustion of all the morning preparations, the breakfast Bloody Mary and all this unaccustomed lunchtime wine had taken their toll. Why take on a battle she could never win?

Then she saw Teddy smiling at her proudly across the table. He did love her. He didn't think she was old and dull. He was far too good to give up without some struggle.

'Your home is very elegant, Lillian. Teddy was lucky to grow up in such a lovely place.'

'Thank you.' Lillian's eyes were as hard as they had been last night. Now there was no attempt to conceal the hostility.

'I can see why you don't want to go away on holidays. You have everything here.' Winnie hoped the smile was fixed securely to her face.

'Oh, but I do like to travel, of course, and see things, visit places. Don't you, Winnie? I mean, what are your holiday plans this year?'

Teddy had moved over to join them. He was smiling from one to the other. Things were going better than he had even dreamed. Suddenly, Winnie found herself describing Stone House to them both.

Lillian was interested. 'It does sound good, like a retreat almost. And who do you think you would go with? I'm sure you can find someone, if it's as good as you say. It's the sort of place I'd love to go to myself, and I'd have thought it would appeal to a more sophisticated clientele. Do you know anyone who would like it? One of your nursing friends? Or are they all sun-lovers?' She was not letting it go.

'Yes indeed, you're right there, but not everyone wants to escape to the sun when it gets cold here,' Winnie floundered. 'I actually like the wind and rain when the place is beautiful, and there's going to be a nice hot bath and a good dinner at the end of the day. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same.'

'You're bound to find someone.' Lillian was patronising.

'I was thinking that perhaps Teddy would come with me,' she said, emboldened by drink and brave as a lion.

'Teddy!' Lillian seemed as alarmed as if the name of an international war criminal had been suggested.

'What a wonderful idea!' Teddy said, delighted. 'That part of the country is very unspoiled, and winter would be much more attractive than going with the crowds in summer. Will we be able to get a booking, do you think?'

'It won't be any problem,' Winnie said.

Teddy looked as if all his birthdays had come at once.

'Why don't we all go?' he said. 'It sounds so wonderful, and now that you've got to know each other, wouldn't it be great if the three of us went?' He looked from his mother to his girlfriend, enchanted with the way things had fallen out.

How could he have been unaware of the stunned silence that greeted his remark? But it seemed to have passed him by.

'I can't think of anything I would like more,' he said, looking again from one face to the other.

It was Lillian who first found the breath to speak. 'Of course, as you just said it might in fact be difficult to get a booking,' she began tentatively.

It was now up to Winnie. Any intelligent response deserted her. She found herself only able to speak the truth. 'I sort of provisionally booked a week already.' Winnie looked at the ground.

'Well isn't that just great?' Teddy was overjoyed. 'Now it's settled. What date is that?'

Winnie stumbled out the date. This could not be happening. He could not want to bring his mother on their holiday? If they ever did marry, would he invite her on the honeymoon as well? Please God make the date impossible.

She saw Teddy's face had clouded over.

'Oh no! That's the week of the cheesemakers' conference. That's the only week in the year I can't make,' he said.

Winnie thanked God from the bottom of her heart, and said she would pay much more attention to Him in future.

'Oh well, it was silly of me to make a booking without checking but it was only a vague arrangement. I'll call them and tell them . . .' Winnie was apologetic, and hoped that her relief didn't show.

'And it might have been very cold  –  damp, even,' Lillian chimed in quickly.

But Teddy was having none of it. 'The two of you must go together.'

Lillian coughed, but appeared to give the matter some thought. 'No, darling, we'll wait and set it up another time.'

'It would be a bit like Hamlet without the Prince,' Winnie said with a terrible forced smile that she felt must look like a death's head.

'There are other weekends, other places,' Lillian pleaded.

'Let's not even think of going without you.' Winnie practically tore Lillian's good linen table napkin into shreds.

'But what would I like better when I am away than to think of the two of you having a holiday together? Getting to know each other properly. The two people I love.' He was clearly sincere, and both women were trapped.

'Well, of course we will get to know each other, Teddy, it's just that we don't want you to lose out on a holiday,' Lillian began.

'Your mother could come to Dublin, and I would take her on a day out while you are away.' Winnie felt a whimper in her voice.

'This place sounds so right for you both, and it's booked. You must go,' he said.

'It might be the wrong age group for us. There could just be a house full of young people.' Lillian was grasping at straws. 'It's not a holiday that would attract young people, of course,' she said eventually.

'Yes, we might be out of place.' Winnie nodded so fervently she feared her poor, tired, muddled head might fall off.

But these were just the dying gasps of beached fish. They looked at each other. They both knew that to refuse would be to lose him. And neither of them was willing to take that step. They began to backtrack.

Lillian caved in first.

'But if it's what you really want . . . Yes, all in all, it has a lot going for it. Certainly, I'd be very happy to go with you, Winnie.'

'What?' Winnie felt as if she had been shot.

'Teddy is right. We do need to get to know each other. I could easily go with you then. And, do you know, I think I'd enjoy it.'

Winnie felt the room tilt around her.

She must speak this very moment, or else she had agreed to go on a week's holiday with this hateful woman. But her throat was dry and she could not find her voice. She felt herself nodding dumbly. She was like a drowning woman with the waters closing overhead but she could not stop it happening. She realised that if she did not speak, she would end up going to the West with Lillian Hennessy.

Lillian's small, spiteful face was very near hers. She was planning this week in the West as her way to destroy whatever Teddy and Winnie might claim to have.

Winnie straightened herself up.

In her mind she said, All right, bring it on, then let's see who wins, but aloud she said, 'It's a great idea, Lillian. I'm sure we'll have a wonderful time. I'll confirm the booking for the two of us.'

Somehow the meal came to an end and it was time for Teddy to drive her to the station.

'We'll be in touch before we go,' Lillian called from the hall door.

'What did I tell you?' Teddy asked. 'I knew you two would get on together.'

'Yes, she was very kind, very welcoming.'

'And you are both going off on a holiday together  –  isn't that magical?'

'Yes, she said she liked the sound of this place over in Stoneybridge.'

'Mam doesn't go on holidays with anyone, you know. She is very choosy. So she must have taken to you immediately.'

'Yes, isn't it great . . .' Winnie said. She felt flat and defeated and as if her hangover was about to kick in. It was a warning to her to go easy on wine at lunchtime for the rest of her life. A warning that had come way too late.

Winnie stared out the window as the train hurtled through rural Ireland. What kind of people worked moving cattle around these small green fields, or digging those crops into hard earth? They were people who would never have had too much wine at lunchtime, or any time. They would never have agreed to go on a week's holiday with the most hateful woman in Ireland. She tried to sleep but just as the rhythm of the train was beginning to lull her into some kind of rest, she got a text message on her phone.

It was from Teddy.

I miss you so much. You lit up the whole party at lunchtime. They were all mad about you. And so am I. But you'll never know just how wonderful you were to my mother. She has talked of nothing else but her holiday with you. You are brilliant, and I love you.

It didn't cheer her. It made her feel even worse about herself. She was a grown woman. She wasn't a schoolgirl. She had messed everything up. In ten weeks' time she would go to Stone House with Lillian Hennessy. It was like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. It was like one of those terrible dreams that are both silly and frightening at the same time.

Winnie's friends noticed a change in her. She just shrugged when they asked her about her visit to Rossmore. They hardly dared to enquire whether Teddy was still visiting. Winnie refused the idea of going on any holidays with them.

Fiona and Declan had begged her to come and stay in the holiday home they had rented in Wexford. There would be plenty of room and they would love to have her. But Winnie didn't even consider it. Nor the suggestion that she go on a bus tour of Italy with Barbara and David, who were heading that way. And Ania's pictures of the boat they were renting on the Shannon River didn't raise a flicker of interest.

'You have to have some holiday,' Fiona said in desperation.

'Oh, I will. I'm going for a winter week to the West. It will be great.' She managed to make it sound as if it were going to be root-canal work.

'And is Teddy going with you?' Barbara could be brave sometimes.

'Teddy? No, it's the same week as the thing he goes to every year. The cheesemakers' thing.'

'Couldn't you have chosen another week?' Fiona wondered.

Winnie seemed not to have heard.

Teddy did come to visit, and stayed over in Winnie's little flat once or twice a week. He was as cheerful and happy as ever, and seemed to take it for granted that the planned holiday was the natural result of an instant friendship between the two women. Something he had always thought likely but couldn't believe had been so spectacular. He was so endearing, and in every other way he was the perfect friend, lover and life mate. He was already talking about a wedding. Winnie had tried to keep things light.

'Ah, that's way down the road,' she would laugh.

'I've it all worked out. We need an office for the cheese in Dublin anyway, and we could live half in Rossmore and half here.'

'No rush, Teddy.'

'But there is. I'd love us to have a huge wedding in Rossmore and show you off.'

Winnie said nothing.