A Week in Winter (Chapter Seven)

'Come on now, that wasn't remotely what was suggested,' James said.

'It was spelled out in capital letters.' Orla was furious now. 'Take the nice man out, bill and coo at him, get his name on a contract.'

'We are all in this together. We assumed that – '

'Why didn't you bring a pole in here and put it up in the office and I could have taken off my clothes and danced around it? That would have helped too, wouldn't it?'

'It was only dinner,' Simon said.

'Yes, and at the end of an expensive dinner I'd be able to get up and say goodbye and thank you Mr Green? What world do you live in? If I'd gone out to a meal with him and then not gone back to his hotel, I would have been a tease. I would have led him on. He'd have been more annoyed still. This way we all save face. Well, most of us do.'

'Hey, Orla, you're being a bit heavy about this,' Foxy said.

Brigid glared at him but he didn't see.

'I mean, that's what tonight was all about.'

'You never said a truer word, Foxy,' Orla said.

Next day James and Simon were prepared to be generous. They had discussed it, they could have given the wrong impression. The last thing they wanted to do was . . . well, what Orla had suggested they were doing.

Orla listened politely until they had finished. Then she spoke very carefully.

'This isn't just a hissy fit. I've been thinking of leaving for quite a while. My aunt is setting up a hotel in the West of Ireland. I just needed something to focus my mind, and this is it. Please don't take this as a sulk or as part of a campaign to make you grovel. It's far from that. It's just a month's notice, with great gratitude for all I've learned here.'

Nothing they said made any difference. Eventually they had to agree to let her go.

Orla had told Chicky it would only be for a year, just to get the place up and running.

'Maybe it's hardly worth your while teaching me to cook like a dream.'

'It's always worthwhile teaching people to cook.'

'You might run a cookery school for real people,' Orla suggested.

'The main thing we have to offer here is the scenery. They could learn to cook anywhere,' Chicky said. 'Anyway, we should keep the magic to ourselves.'

'How will I manage not to take an axe to my mother when I get back?' Orla wondered.

'Don't live at home,' Chicky advised.

'Can I live with you?'

'No. That would cause bad feeling. We'll find you somewhere to live. Rigger will do it up. Your own little place. Leave it to me. When will you be arriving?'

'Any time now. They don't need me to work my notice out. They're only going to hire someone part-time to replace me, anyway. Am I stone mad to be doing this, Chicky?'

'As you said, it's only a year. You won't notice it slipping by.'

By the time she arrived, Rigger was busy doing up an old cottage beside the walled garden for himself and Carmel Hickey. He said that there was an old gardener's cottage and the roof was sound, so it hadn't ever got damp. It hadn't taken much more than a good clean-out to make it habitable.

Orla's new home was ready for her.

'I hope you're not going to have the morals of Miss Daly and be the talk of the town,' Orla's mother said on her first night home.

'Oh, Mam, I do hope not,' Orla agreed fervently. She could see Chicky hiding a smile.

'Your father and I don't know what you have to go and get yourself an old, damp cottage like that for anyway. You've a perfectly good home here. People will think it's very strange.'

'You know, Mam, they won't. They won't even notice,' Orla spoke automatically.

How very wise Miss Daly and Chicky had been about being independent. Now she hoped her instinct about coming back had been right and not a foolish notion.

There was little time to wonder about it. They were plunged into work straight away. Orla began to look back on the busy days in the office with James and Simon as if it had been one long holiday. She had not believed it possible that there would be so much to organise.

Chicky's financial system left a lot to be desired. It was honest and thorough and the books were kept . . . in a fashion. But it was not computerised. Chicky had never used accounting software and instead worked on a system of ledgers and cardboard files. It was like something from fifty years ago. So the first thing Orla did was to choose a room as an office. Somewhere she and Chicky could store the computer, printer and all the reference books, drawings and filing cabinets they needed.

Chicky suggested one of the several large pantries that opened off the kitchen. Orla managed to get Rigger to leave aside a few hours from doing up his own house to impress Carmel Hickey's family in order to get the office shelved and painted.

'It'll be worth it in the end,' she insisted. 'Then we will be out of everyone's hair instead of spreading everything over the kitchen table and gathering it all up again.' She found them a computer and set up the programs she needed. Then she insisted Chicky come in and learn it from the start.

'No, no, that's your department,' Chicky protested.

'Excuse me. I spent two hours last night learning how to make choux pastry. I didn't say it was your department. Today you're going to learn to deal with the bookkeeping software. It should take forty-five minutes if you concentrate.'

Chicky concentrated.

'That wasn't too bad,' Orla approved. 'So tomorrow we'll set up a bookings system, and then the next day you'll learn how to buy and sell.'

'Are you sure that we need me to . . .' Chicky was fearful at spending too much time in the office instead of out dealing with the daily problems.

'Totally sure. Suppose you wanted to buy a piece of kitchen equipment? This will save you all the time making phone calls and going shopping.'

'I suppose,' Chicky agreed, doubtfully.

But she did agree that it was great to have everything at their fingertips, and when Orla would give her a little test like asking her how would she find someone who had made a reservation for next month and wanted to extend by another week, Chicky was soon able to summon up the bookings system on the screen. And at the same time, Orla learned how to make sauces that complemented meat dishes and ways of cleaning, filleting and serving fish straight from the sea in a way that an experienced fishmonger would envy.

One by one they beat down the obstacles.

There was the pathetic attempt of the O'Hara uncles to oppose planning permission. Chicky managed to sort it without falling out with anyone, a miracle in itself. They coped with the environmentalists' lobby, who worried lest the new hotel would disturb the habitat of birds and other wildlife. Tea and scones were served to the concerned enquirers before they were taken on walks to show how nature was being protected in every way.

They all left satisfied.

The builders were encouraged in their efforts by the thought of a home-cooked meal every day; Chicky put it on the kitchen table at one o'clock and had everyone back to work at one-thirty. Most of the men, used to bringing their own sandwiches, regarded this big lunch as the high spot of the day. They went home and told their wives that the Irish stew or bacon and cabbage was very different over at Mrs Starr's place than it was at home, and it caused a lot of resentment.

The landscaping was beginning to show results, and old Miss Queenie said the house looked like it had when she was a girl  –  before the money had got so short.

And away from Stone House, they could see Stone Cottage taking shape. They all enjoyed furnishing it for Rigger. Orla knew he was very nervous about dealing with the Hickeys when the plan was announced but she learned from Chicky that these things were just not discussed.

It was all so different from living with Brigid, where everything was talked about and analysed down to the bone. That was, of course, the old days. Brigid wasn't the same any more. She was obsessed by this wedding, by guest lists and wedding lists and seating plans, and she expected Orla to be some kind of wedding planner since she was on the spot in Stoneybridge.

Could Orla check the church and see what kind of bouquets they could hang on the end of each pew near the aisle? In vain did Orla say that nobody had ever seen these in Stoneybridge. Brigid was in 'Mad Bride' mode and could not be stopped.

In despair, Orla asked Chicky's advice; Chicky gave it some thought.

'Tell her that her own family want to be involved and that they should be doing all this sort of thing.'

'But she doesn't trust them, she thinks they're country hicks.'

'She's probably quite right, but stress that her family are very hostile to anything to do with Stone House and that it would be awkward if you were involved. That will get you out of it.'

'You're wasted here. You should be in the United Nations,' Orla said, admiringly.

Brigid visited twice before the wedding, stressed and anxious.

'Can I stay in your cottage?' she begged Orla. 'My mother will be the deceased mother of the bride if I stay at home.'

Orla was reluctant to have Brigid in the house. It would indeed cause bad feeling with her family, and also it would mean that Orla would get sucked into the lunatic preparations.

'I can't have you, Brigid. Miss Daly is coming to stay.'

'Miss Daly? Our Miss Daly? From school?'

'Yes, it's all arranged.'

'Lord, you've been behaving very oddly since you got back to Stoneybridge.'

'I know. It's all that sea air.'

'Since when were you such pals with Miss Daly?'

'I always have been.'

'I think that working with Miss Queenie is bad for you, Orla. You've become a total eccentric.'

'But not quite mad enough to wear canary yellow. Have you decided the colour of my bridesmaid's dress yet?'

'Oh, wear what you like. You will anyway.'

'Good. I have the very thing: dark gold with some cream lace. Restrained but smart.'

'Is it long?'

'Yes, of course it is.'

'Well, where is it? Will we go to see it when I'm over there?'

'I have it.'

'You bought it already?' Brigid was outraged.

'I don't have to wear it at the wedding. Just have a look at it.'

'But what will you do with it if it's not suitable? Can you give it back?'

'It will always come in useful.'

'Useful? Washing pots in a guest house? God Almighty, Orla, what's to become of you?'

'God knows,' Orla agreed.

Her main focus was to get Brigid to see the dress without knowing that it had belonged to Miss Queenie. Sixty years ago Miss Queenie had worn it to a hunt ball where she had been a great success. It fitted Orla as if it had been designed especially for her.

Miss Daly looked exactly the same as she had always looked. She had brought two suitcases and her bicycle.

'You're very good to come at such short notice.' Orla was grateful that her teacher had responded to the emergency call.

'It suited me very well. Shane's passing fancy turned out to be more permanent than we had thought.'

'I'm sorry,' Orla said.

'I'm not, really. It had run its course. I needed a short sharp shock.'

'And you got one?'

'Yes, a very pregnant eighteen-year-old, and the whole we-are-delighted-about-the-baby routine. It was just the right time to have a few days out to reconsider.'

'Is that what you're going to do while you're here?'

'Yes, it's a good place to think. Out by that ocean you feel smaller, less important somehow, it puts things into proportion.'

'Wish it would work for Brigid,' Orla sighed.

'You feel you've lost her, don't you?' Miss Daly was sympathetic.

'Yes, to be honest. We've been best pals since we were ten. It's all as if it were some kind of phase. You know, like when she and I were into tap-dancing for a bit and we wore leotards and did shuffle-hop-step, tap-ball-change, over and over. But this is for life. And with Foxy!'

'Maybe she loves him.'

'No. If she loved him she wouldn't be going insane trying to impress his family.'

'Or she could just need security.'

'Brigid? She's so well able to look after herself.'

'And have you ever loved anyone, Orla?'

'No, not loved. Fancied, yes.'

'Well at least you know the difference, which is more than some of us. Let me give you a hand planting some stuff that will survive up in Stone House. Half those things you put in will die in the winter.'

Miss Daly cycled around and had a pint in several of the local pubs to mark her territory. And when Brigid came home, she asked all the questions that Orla didn't dare to. Like what would Brigid do all day after the honeymoon if she wasn't going to work? Did they plan a family immediately? Would she be seeing a lot of the Farrell in-laws?

The answers were deeply unsatisfactory and seemed to centre around going to a lot of race meetings and popping down to Foxy's sister's place in Spain. But there were some small mercies. Brigid just loved Miss Queenie's dress, describing it with approval as vintage. Foxy's sister was going to be wearing a vintage dress also. It would be very suitable.

The wedding was just as awful as Orla had feared. It was totally over the top, with a giant marquee and conspicuous wealth on display everywhere.

The O'Haras had pushed the boat out and even done up a few of the townhouses which they had bought during the property boom but had been standing idle since the recession. They had been given a quick paint job and refurbished for the Farrell family to stay in, which met with much approval.

Foxy's best man, Conor, another clown who had left behind his Irish roots with his Irish accent, made a speech of profound vulgarity where he said that one of the perks of being best man was that you got to shag the bridesmaid, and that this wouldn't be too great an ordeal tonight. Foxy laughed uproariously. Orla stared ahead stonily and tried not to meet Chicky's eye.

Chicky whispered to her brother Brian that he was well out of that lot. But Brian, who still smarted at his rejection by the O'Hara family, had lingering regrets about Sheila O'Hara  –  now separated from her gambling husband  –  who had once been thought to be such a good catch.

After the bride and groom had left for Shannon airport, Conor approached Orla.

'I hear you have your own place,' he said.

'Don't you have a wonderful way about you,' she said admiringly, 'I bet all the girls love you.'

'We're not talking about all the girls, we're talking about you, tonight. How about it?' he said, taking her remarks at face value.

Orla looked at him, astounded. He hadn't realised she was sending him up. If Conor and Foxy were bankers, it was no wonder the Western economy was in the state it was.

'If I were to die wondering what sex was about I wouldn't go within an ass's roar of you, Conor,' she said, smiling at him pleasantly.

'Lesbian,' he spat at her.

'That must be it all right.' Orla was cheerful.

'OK, be a ball-breaker then. I was only asking because it was expected.'

'Of course you were, Conor.' Orla's voice was soothing.

Miss Daly had been on a great trek across the mountains to avoid going to the wedding. She had met two French dentists who were on holiday there. They were heading up to Donegal tomorrow. Miss Daly was going to go with them. They had a car with a roof rack  –  perfect for her bicycle.

Orla sat and gaped at her.

'I know, Orla, the world is divided into people like me and people like Brigid. Aren't you lucky to walk a middle road.'

She had little time to think about it. Rigger's wedding was upcoming. This was going to be a much more normal affair.

Chicky was going to serve roast lamb in Stone Cottage, and they made a magnificent cake for Rigger and Carmel. Compared to the nonsense in the marquee and the posturing of the Farrell and O'Hara factions, this was very relaxed and full of charm.

Chicky, Orla and Miss Queenie sat and congratulated each other when it was over and the Hickeys had gone home happy.

The major building work was almost completed now on Stone House; there only remained the design and decor to be agreed. Chicky still wanted to hire professionals, and Orla insisted that nobody be paid any money until they proved they could do the job. Orla thought Chicky would be well able to do it herself. She had the original source material, after all. Miss Queenie could tell them what the place looked like in the old days.

Chicky understood comfort and style, yet she was hesitant and holding back about her own ideas.

'We are charging serious money for people to come and stay here. We don't want to have them saying that the place is phoney or tatty or anything.'

'I met a lot of these designers in London,' Orla said. 'Some of them were brilliant, I agree, but a lot of them were cowboys. Real emperor's new clothes. You'd want to watch them like a hawk.'

They settled on a couple called Howard and Barbara. They came well recommended by Brigid, who had met them with Foxy Farrell at a party in Dublin.

Orla hated them on sight. They were in their early forties, with affected accents and made lots of use of the words 'darling' and 'so', usually when dismissing something.

'Darling, you mustn't even think about having that grandfather clock in the hall. It will be so disturbing and unsettling for sleep rhythms.'

'There was always a grandfather clock in the hall,' poor Miss Queenie said, mildly.

'Hallo, we are talking about making this place acceptable, aren't we? That's what we're here for, darling.'

They gave Howard and Barbara one of the best bedrooms with the big windows and balcony looking out to sea. They sniffed as they looked around the room. They exchanged glances as they came downstairs. They shuddered slightly at things they didn't like, like the stone floor in the kitchen. It should be ripped out and replaced by a very good solid-wood floor. Orla said that the stone floor was authentic and had been there since the house was built in the 1820s.

'I rest my case,' said Howard. 'It's time for it to go.' But Orla won that battle. The stone floor was not negotiable.

Barbara and Howard didn't want the morning room called the Miss Sheedy Room. They said it was rather twee, and, darling, if there was one thing that could let a place down it was to have an element of tweeness about it. They left their own room in a great mess, with wet towels thrown on the bathroom floor and an amazing amount of dirty coffee cups, glasses and ashtrays despite the no-smoking policy that had been mentioned several times.

They didn't rate the walled garden, saying it was very amateur; the guests would be used to much bigger and more manicured landscaping. They frowned darkly at Gloria and said it was unhygienic to have a cat anywhere near food. In vain did Miss Queenie, Chicky and Orla try to convince them that Gloria was a cat with impeccable manners who would never approach a dining table when a meal was in progress. Admittedly, Gloria did mistake Howard's leg for a scratching post and, when alarmed by his screeching, tried to climb up inside his trouser leg. Barbara shouted and waved her arms at the poor cat who ran behind the sofa and hid, trembling, until rescued by Miss Queenie. By now, Orla was not the only one who hated Howard and Barbara.

Defeated by the pro-Gloria lobby, they turned their hostility towards the fact that Carmel was so obviously pregnant. They hoped that she would be kept well out of the equation when the baby was born. The last thing guests wanted, darling, was the sound of a screeching infant. It would be so full of bad vibes.

They never praised the delicious food that Chicky and Orla served them; instead they suggested that Stone House should have a proper wine cellar, and asked for large brandies after dinner.

Orla became very firm. After breakfast on the second day, she said that she hoped they were ready to give practical advice about the decor, materials and colours that they would suggest, together with recommendations on where they should source everything.

Barbara and Howard were slightly startled by this. They had envisaged several days soaking up the feel of the place, they said. This is what Orla had suspected. She brought a coffee percolator into the office after breakfast and sat down expectantly beside the computer.

'It's a very late Georgian house, of course,' Orla said confidently. 'I've been online to research images of this kind of house at the time, and printed some of them out for discussion. I was wondering what references you were going to offer us so we could compare.'

They looked at her, alarmed. 'Well, of course we all know the classic Georgian great houses . . .' Barbara began. Orla could spot somebody blustering at twenty miles distance.

'Yes, but of course this isn't a great house. It's a small gentleman's residence and almost Victorian, really, rather than what was distinctively Georgian. We wondered what colour schemes you had come up with.'

'It all depends very much on where we are coming from, darling, doesn't it? It's so like saying how long is a piece of string. Just asking for colours,' Howard began sonorously.

'And where do you think we should source fabrics?' Orla was shuffling a heap of further printouts. She saw Howard and Barbara exchanging glances.

Chicky joined in.