A Week in Winter (Chapter Seventeen)

'There's no way you can go to Boston now. You have to go in at the deep end, Anders. I need you in there as my eyes and ears. It's your time now.'

It couldn't be his time yet. He was much too young. He hadn't even begun to live properly.

Boston was cancelled. Soon it seemed as if Anders had always been in charge; he welcomed the challenges, yet he knew he would not have been able to cope without Klara's expertise and loyalty. She briefed him before every meeting, gave him background information on every client. He did make time to swim at lunchtime each day rather than go to eat the heavy meals in dark, panelled dining rooms that the previous regime had favoured. Once a week he went to listen to some live music but every other evening he sat with his father as Fru Karlsson cleared away their supper, and he spoke about what had gone on at the firm that day.

Little by little, Mr Almkvist's strength returned. But never to the level it had been. When he came back to work it was for short days and mainly involved meetings in the boardroom, where his presence managed to give weight and importance to the occasion.

The weeks turned into months.

Sometimes Anders felt a bit crushed by it all; other times he felt that out there somewhere was a real world with people doing what they really wanted to do or what mattered, or both. But he realised that he was privileged to have inherited such a prestigious position. In a world of uncertainty and anxiety about employment and the economy, he was amazingly lucky to be where he was, doing a job that presented new challenges every day. Privilege brought duties with it; he had always known this. This was where his duty lay.

It was his father who suggested the holiday to him.

He said that the boy was working too hard and must go to recharge his batteries. Anders was at a loss to know where to go. His friend Johan from the folk club said that Ireland was good. You could just go there and point yourself in some direction and there was always something good to see or to join in with.

He booked a ticket to Dublin and set out with no plans. Unheard-of behaviour from anyone at Almkvist's, who normally researched everything forensically before setting out anywhere. He missed Erika desperately at the airport. They had set out from here to London, to Spain, to Greece. Now he was on his own.

Had he been mad to let her slip away?

But there had been no other decision he could have made. Anders could not have stayed for ever with Erika in Gothenburg, where she had found the perfect career. And she would not have come to live in the shadow of Almkvist's and be a complaisant company wife like his mother had done.

He had hoped that he would forget her, and it was easy to find companions for dinner or dancing. As the heir to Almkvist's he was considered a very eligible catch, but no woman ever held his interest for long. He went to all the social occasions but never cared about anyone enough to seek out their company, and he had been pleased to learn that Erika had not formed any other attachment. Now, at the airport, he wanted so much to speak to her and tell her he was going to Ireland. She answered her phone immediately and was genuinely glad to hear from him. She seemed interested in everything he had to say, but then Erika was always interested in everything and everyone. It didn't make him special.

'Are you going with friends?' she asked.

'I don't want to go with friends,' he said ruefully. 'I want to go with you.'

'No, you don't get the sympathy vote by saying something like that. You have all the friends you need. You have the life you chose.' Her tone was light but she meant it. He had made his choice. 'You'll make lots of new friends in Ireland. I go to an Irish bar here. They have great music. They're easy people to get to know.'

'Well, I'll send you a postcard if I find an Irish bar when I get there.'

'I believe it will be hard not to find one. But do that anyway.'

Did she sound as if she really would like to hear from him, or was she just being Erika  –  easy, relaxed and yet focused at the same time?

He walked glumly to the plane.

Erika would have loved the Dublin hotel, which managed to be both chaotic and charming at the same time. They advised him to take a city bus tour to orientate himself and to go to a traditional Irish evening in a nearby pub that night. Then, at breakfast the next morning, he met a group of Irish Americans who were discussing renting a boat on the River Shannon. It was proving to be more expensive than they had hoped. They really needed another person to share the cost. Would he like to make up the numbers?

Why not, he thought? The brochure looked attractive  –  lovely lakes and a wide river, little ports to visit. Before he realised it he was en route to Athlone in the middle of Ireland, going aboard a motor cruiser for a lesson in navigation. Soon they were cruising past reeds and riverbanks and old castles, and places with small harbours and long names. The sun shone and the world slowed down.

His fellow passengers were five easy-going men and women from an insurance company in Chicago. They were meant to be looking for ancestors and relatives, but this sat lightly on them. They were more interested in finding good Irish music and drinking a lot of Irish beer. Anders joined in enthusiastically.

He bought three postcards at a tiny post office and sent them to his father, his mother and Erika.

He puzzled for a long time before he wrote the few lines to his father. There was literally nothing to say that would interest the old man. Eventually, he decided to say that the economy of the country had taken a serious hit because of the recession. That at least was something his father would understand.

When the river cruise was over, the Irish Americans had gone off on a five-day golfing tour. They invited him to come with them but Anders said no. Bad as he was at manoeuvring a boat on the Shannon, he didn't want to upset real golfers by going out on the course with them.

Instead he found a coach tour of the West of Ireland.

John Paul, the cheerful, red-faced bus driver, claimed that he knew all the best music pubs on the coast, and every night they found another great session. John Paul knew all the musicians by name and told the coach party their history and repertoire before they got to the venue each evening.

'Ask Micky Moore to sing "Mo Ghile Mear" for you, it'll make the hairs rise on the back of your neck,' he would say. Or else he knew when some old piper was going to come in from retirement and do a turn. Anders was interested in it all.

It turned out that John Paul played the pipes himself. Not bagpipes. No, indeed, bagpipes were Scottish. Real pipes were the uilleann pipes. You didn't have to blow into them like the Scots did; instead there was a kind of a bellows under your arm which you pressed with your elbow. Uilleann was actually the Irish word for elbow.

The music was haunting, and Anders was mesmerised by it all.

John Paul said that if ever he got some money together he would open his own place and welcome all kinds of musicians there.

'Here, in the West?' Anders wondered.

'Maybe, but then I don't want to take the bread and butter away from the people who are already here. They are my friends,' he said.

John Paul and Anders talked about God and fate and evil and imagination. He asked John Paul how old he was. The man looked at him, surprised.

'You speak such good English, I forget you're not from round here. I was born in 1980, nine months after Pope John Paul visited Ireland. Nearly every lad who was born that year was called John Paul.'

'And will you go on driving the bus all your life?' Anders wondered.

'No, I'll have to go home to the old man sometime. The others have all gone far and wide, done well for themselves. I'm only John Paul the eejit, and my da is not really able to manage the place on his own. One of these days I'll have to face it and go back to Stoneybridge and take over.'

'That's hard.' Anders was sympathetic.

'Ah, go on out of that! Haven't I bricks and mortar and beasts in the field and a little farm waiting for me? Half of Ireland would give their eye teeth for that. It's just not what I want. I'm no good at going out looking for sheep that have got stuck on their back with their legs in the air and turning them the right way up. I hate having to deal with milk quotas, and what Europe wants you to plant or to ignore. It's lifeblood for some people; it's drudgery for me, but it's a living. A good living, even.'

'But your own place with the musicians?'

'I'll wait until I'm reincarnated, Anders. I'll do it next time round.' His big, round, weather-beaten face was totally resigned to it.

On the last night of the coach tour, the passengers all clubbed together to take John Paul out for a meal. And as a thank you, he played them some airs on the uilleann pipes. He got a group photograph taken and everyone wrote their names and email addresses on the back.

Anders had a cup of coffee with John Paul on the last morning.

'I'll miss your company,' Anders said. 'Nobody to discuss the world and its ways like you.'

'You're making a mock of me! Isn't Sweden full of thinkers and musicians like ourselves?'

Anders felt absurdly flattered to be thought of as a musician and a thinker.

'It probably is. I just don't meet them, that's all.'

'Well they're out there,' John Paul was very definite. 'I've met great Swedes travelling here. They can play the spoons, they can all sing "Bunch Of Thyme". And wasn't Joe Hill himself from Sweden?'

'Maybe you're right. I'll let you know when I find them.'

'You keep in touch, Anders. You're one of the good guys,' John Paul said.

Anders wondered if he really was one of the good guys when he went back to work at Almkvist's. He learned within an hour of his return that his cousin Mats, who had had the problem with alcohol, had apparently revisited that part of his life in spectacular fashion. Moreover, one of Almkvist's most prestigious clients had absconded with a very young woman and a great deal of assets weeks before a major audit.

His father looked more grey-faced and concerned than ever. Only a few hours after he was back, Anders felt the benefits of his holiday in Ireland slipping away from him. He played some of the music he had brought home with him. The lonely laments played on the uilleann pipes, the rousing choruses where everyone had joined in, reminded him of the carefree days and the easy company, but he knew it was only temporary. It was like a child wanting a birthday party to last for ever.

His father showed no interest in any stories of his trip, no matter how he tried to tell them.

'Why don't you let me show you some of the photographs I took?' he suggested. 'Would you like to listen to some of the music with me? We were listening to some marvellous traditional Irish music . . .'

'Yes, yes, very interesting but it was just a holiday, Anders. You're like Fru Karlsson who wants to tell you what she dreamed about last night. It's not relevant to anything.'

He decided at that moment that he would move out of his father's apartment. Get himself a small place of his own, break this never-ending cycle of discussing work from morning to night.

He hoped he would have the energy to make the move. Everyone was going to resist it. Why leave a perfectly comfortable, elegant place which would be his one day anyway? Why disrupt Fru Karlsson and her ways? Why leave his father alone instead of being his companion in these latter years?

Anders thought of John Paul going to look after his father, setting sheep back on their four legs again and abandoning his dream of a musicians' haven in order to do his duty. But even John Paul would have some time off to himself. Maybe he could go and play his pipes of an evening. He didn't have to discuss farming with his father as the moon rose in the sky.

If Anders ever had a son of his own he would tell the boy from the outset that he must follow his heart, that he would not be expected to play his role in Almkvist's. But it didn't seem likely that he would have a son. He could never see himself settling with anyone but Erika. And he had thrown that away.

Nevertheless, he telephoned to tell her about his trip to Ireland.

Erika was interested in everything and knew a lot about Irish music already. She had bought a tin whistle and was teaching herself to play.

'Come and stay for a weekend and I'll take you to The Galway. You'd love it,' she suggested.

A weekend away from Almkvist's; away from dramas about his cousin's rehab, the client who had absconded with funds and girlfriend, his father's anxiety, the general downturn in business . . . it was just what he needed.

As he drove towards Gothenburg, where he had been so happy as a university student, Anders wondered if he would stay at Erika's apartment. Nothing had been said. She might have booked him into a hotel. If he did stay at the flat, then would they share a room? It would be so artificial if she made up a mattress for him on the floor. And after all, Erika didn't have any partner or companion these days  –  nor did he, so there would be no question of cheating on anyone.

But then he couldn't expect things to return to the way they had once been. He sighed, and knew that he would have to wait and see.

Erika looked wonderful, her eyes dancing and her words tumbling over each other as she told him about how successful the conservation project was; they had got serious recognition and an important grant. She cooked supper for him, the Swedish meatballs which had always been their celebration meal. The apartment hadn't changed much  –  new curtains, more bookshelves.

After supper they went to The Galway, the bar where Erika was greeted as a regular. She introduced Anders to people on both sides of the bar, and then they settled in for a music session. Suddenly he was back in the West of Ireland, with the waves beating on the shore and a new set of faces bent over fiddles, pipes and accordions every night. The music swept him away.

Later, he talked to the people who had played. Particularly to a man called Kevin, the piper.

'Do you know the theme from The Brendan Voyage?' he asked.

'Indeed I do, but I don't usually play it because whenever I played it in the London pubs it made people cry.'

'It made me cry too,' Anders said.

Erika looked up, surprised. 'You never cry,' she said.

'I did in Ireland,' he said wistfully.

'We have a habit of upsetting people,' Kevin said ruefully. 'Come in tomorrow night and I'll play it for you, then we can have a bawl over it together, and a pint.'

'That's a date,' Anders agreed readily.

Later, back in Erika's flat, they drank beer and picked at some of the leftover food. She lit candles on the coffee table and they sat opposite, suddenly acutely aware of each other. She gazed at him seriously.

'You've changed,' she said.

'I haven't changed about being very fond of you,' he said.

'Me neither, but you are still sleeping in the spare room,' she laughed.

'It seems a pity.' He smiled.

'Yes, but I'm not going to spend yet more weeks and months regretting what might have been.'

'Did you spend weeks and months regretting it?'

'You know I did, Anders.'

'But you still wouldn't consider coming to live with me and just putting up with Almkvist's.'

'And you wouldn't consider giving up Almkvist's and coming to live with me. Listen, we've been through all this before. It's well-trodden ground.'

'You know I had responsibilities. Still do.'

'You don't like it, Anders my friend. You're not happy. You have told me not one word about your life there in the office. That's my one complaint. If I had thought that it was what you wanted then I might have considered it.'

'You call me your friend . . .!' he said.

'You are. You will always be my friend, when you and I are long married to other people.'

'It won't happen, Erika. I've looked around. There's no one out there.'

'Well, then we will have to look harder. Tell me more about Ireland.'

He told her about the Irish Americans on the Shannon, and about John Paul who had to go back to look after his father. And then he went to bed in the brightly painted guest room. He stayed awake for a long time.

At The Galway next day, Anders and Erika sat and listened while Kevin played the pipes. As he listened, Anders again heard the waves breaking on the wild Atlantic shore and he felt a surge of misery overwhelm him. He suddenly saw his life stretching in front of him in an unending straight line: getting up in the morning, putting on a suit, going to work at the office, coming home to a lonely apartment, going to bed, getting up the following morning . . . Responsibility. Loyalty. Duty. Rules. Expectations. Family tradition. And when the musicians took a break, Anders tried to explain to Erika why he had to stay with his father, but the words weren't there. He found his sentences trailing away.

'It's just that . . .' he began, then faltered. 'It's the family tradition. I mean, if I don't . . . There are these expectations . . . It's who I am. And I can do it. I am doing it. I am the next Almkvist. They're all waiting for me. All my life . . . And in any case, if I'm not that, who am I?'

'Anders, stop, please. Look, it isn't that you are in your father's business that I don't like. It's that you hate it and always will. But you won't do anything else. It's your decision, not theirs. It's your life, not theirs. You can do anything with your life. At least think what else you might do. When you find what the something else is, then you will consider leaving.'

She leaned over and stroked his hand. 'Leave it for now,' she suggested.

'Which means leave it for ever,' he said sadly.

'No, you've gone as far as you can down the road and you always reach the same fork. Maybe something will happen. Something that you will want more than that office. Then when that day comes, you can think about it again.'

He ached to say that he wanted Erika more than he wanted the office, but it was not strictly true. He could not walk away, and they both knew this. They hugged each other before he set out on the long drive home.

His heart was heavy as he played his music in the car. It was only a dream, a holiday memory. It was childish to think it might be another life for him.

The weeks went by, and his father was cold and distant about Anders moving into his own apartment. Fru Karlsson was bristling with resentment. She tried to exact a promise that he would turn up at his father's every night.

Often he ate alone in his flat, putting a ready meal into the microwave and opening a beer. Back in the big apartment, his father would also be dining alone.

Once a week Anders turned up for dinner, already armed to cope with the resentment and the pressures which would be there to greet him. Either his father or Fru Karlsson would remind him that his room was there and ready should he wish to stay the night. There was heavy sighing about the size and emptiness of the family apartment. His father said how hard it was to know what was going on in the office these days since he himself only went in for three hours a day, and Anders was off enjoying himself every evening and not there to discuss the day's events.

He often wondered how John Paul was faring in the months since he had seen him. Had life on the farm turned out better than he had feared, or was it worse? Had the sacrifice been worthwhile? John Paul might have regretted the intimate revelations of his reluctance to go and look after his father. He might not relish having it all brought up again.

One evening Anders looked up Stoneybridge, the place where John Paul was going home to live. On his laptop he saw that it was a small, attractive, seaside town that clearly only came to life for the summer months and would be fairly desolate in these winter days. Yet he read that a new venture had begun there; a large place on a cliff called Stone House, offering a winter week on the Atlantic coast with spectacular scenery, good food, walking and wild birds. There would be music in the pubs if guests cared to seek it out. It was a ludicrous idea and he knew it was, but still he went online and booked a week there.

He told his father little about the trip  –  just a winter week's holiday. His father, of course, asked nothing, only registered vague disapproval of his sudden decision to go.

And Anders did not tell Erika about the trip. Their last meeting had been a kind of watershed. There was no point in telling her he was going to Ireland again; she wouldn't come with him. She would just go on about him wasting his life. She couldn't understand that he simply had no choice in the matter. He didn't want to have that conversation again.

He flew to Dublin and caught a train to the West.

Chicky Starr met him at the station. She seemed to see nothing odd about a young Swedish accountant flying over to spend time in this deserted place. She complimented him on his excellent English. She said that Scandinavians were wonderful at learning languages. When she had lived in New York, she had been astounded at how new arrivals from Denmark, Sweden and Norway adapted so quickly.

He was relaxed and comfortable long before they arrived at the wonderful old house and he met his fellow guests. The American man was the absolute image of Corry Salinas the actor, even spoke like him too. Anders found himself wondering what on earth Corry Salinas would be doing here. He found himself exchanging glances with the English doctor, who had also spotted the actor. But so what? If the man wanted a rest, a change, he'd be no different from all the other people who had gathered there. No one would bother anyone else.

Over dinner, he found himself in conversation with a nice woman called Freda, who seemed surprised to hear of his interest in music. He'd come to the right place, she said; music was in the very air they breathed in this part of Ireland. She'd be keen to hear some good music herself.

'You play an instrument yourself,' she said. It was a statement rather than a question. Anders found he was telling her about the nyckelharpa and about his love of music.

'And what do you do for a living?' she asked.

'I'm just a boring accountant,' he said with a wry smile.

'Accountants are no more boring than anyone else,' she replied, 'but if your heart is elsewhere, would you not want to follow your destiny?' As she spoke, her eyes looked into the distance.

'Ah, no,' he said wistfully, 'I know perfectly well where my destiny lies. I will take over from my father very soon and run the business which was his life's work. And once or twice a week I will go to a tiny club and play music to half a dozen people. And that will be my life.' And then, as if to take the bleakness out of his words, he smiled and added, 'But this is my holiday, and I'm going to find the best sessions in the county. Care to join me?'

It was agreed. The very next day they would meet after breakfast and go off in search of the best music to be found.

It was all totally undemanding and he was glad that he had come. When he went to bed and looked out on the crashing waves in the moonlight, he knew he would sleep properly. He would not wake twice, three times during the night, restless and unsure. That alone made it worth coming to this place.

The following morning, Anders asked Chicky Starr about music venues.

She knew of two pubs, both of them known locally for their sessions. One of them did terrific seafood at lunchtimes, if he was interested in sampling the local food.

As they were talking, Freda joined them, ready and eager for the day. The weather looked set fair and, with high spirits, the two set out in the direction of the town, Anders carrying his small rucksack on his back with his maps and guides inside. They passed whitewashed cottages, farmhouses and out-buildings. For a while, the road followed the coastline, and high as they were on the clifftop, the wind and spray stung their faces. Even the trees were bent double and stunted by the Atlantic gales. Then the road took them inland so that the sea was out of sight. As they got nearer to the town, the fields disappeared, ploughed up and replaced with new housing, row after row looking eerily empty.

The main street in Stoneybridge was lined with two- and three-storey houses, each one painted a different colour. The pubs were easy to identify, but the two explorers made the little cafe their first stop. They talked easily, comparing notes on their first impressions of their fellow guests at Stone House.

Freda, Anders noticed, gave little away about her own reasons for coming to Stone House but she had observed everyone else quite closely. The doctor and his wife, she said, shaking her head a little, were very sad  –  there had been a recent death, she could tell. Quite how she could tell she didn't say. And that nice nurse  –  what was her name? Winnie, was it?  –  was having a dreadful time with her friend Lillian, but it would all be worth it in the end.

They went for lunch into the larger of the pubs: great bowls of steaming, succulent mussels and fresh crusty bread. And then, as if in response to some silent cue, a small, red-faced man sitting in the corner produced a fiddle and started to play. The session had started . . .

At first, musicians outnumbered audience but gradually more people arrived. Most would arrive in the evening, it was explained, but some liked to play in the afternoons and everyone was welcome to join in. The music, at first gentle and haunting, grew faster and faster. At one side of the room, a couple started dancing and Anders himself borrowed a guitar and played a couple of Swedish songs. He taught everyone the words of the songs and they joined in the choruses with great gusto.

He had, he admitted rather shyly, brought a traditional Swedish instrument with him on his holiday and he could bring it in the following day. Only if they'd like him to, of course . . .

Freda looked at him oddly as he returned to their table. 'Once or twice a week, to an audience of six people?' she said, so quietly he could hardly hear her over the cheering. 'No, I don't think so.'

Anders began to feel as if he had lived nowhere else. The American man actually was Corry Salinas, obviously here in hiding and calling himself John. The two women, Winnie and Lillian, were nearly drowned on their second day there and had to be rescued from a cave: Anders had missed all the excitement as he had stayed on in the town for the evening sessions. This time he had taken his nyckelharpa with him and had found himself called upon time and time again to play and sing along. Of John Paul there was no sign, although Anders did move between both pubs.

Eventually, on one of his visits, he asked a craggy-faced man who played the tin whistle did he know a piper from the area called John Paul?

Of course he did. Everyone knew him, very decent lad. Immediately, four other musicians joined in the conversation. They all knew poor John Paul. Stuck up there in Rocky Ridge with his old divil of a father whom no one could please. A discontented man who wished he had taken the emigrant's ship years back and blamed everyone but himself that he hadn't.

'And does John Paul play the uilleann pipes anywhere round here?'

'He hasn't been in here in months now,' one of the men said, shaking his head sadly. 'A group of us went up for him in a van one day but he said he couldn't leave the old fellow.'

The following morning, Anders asked Chicky how to get to Rocky Ridge and she packed a lunch for him.

'I'm sure John Paul would make a meal for you, but just in case he's not there you'd want to be prepared,' she said.

It was a longer walk than he had expected, and he was weary when he arrived at the big, untidy farmyard. There seemed to be nobody around. As Anders approached the door some hens ran out clucking, annoyed to be disturbed.

An old man sat at the table trying to read a newspaper with a magnifying glass. A big sheepdog lay at his feet. It looked more like a rug than a dog.

'I was looking for John Paul . . .' Anders began.

'You and half the country are looking for him. He went out of here God knows how many hours ago and no sign of him. I'm his father Matty, by the way, and I haven't even had my dinner and it's gone three o'clock.'

'Well, I'm Anders and I brought a picnic with me, so we might as well have that,' Anders said, and opened the waxed paper in the little bag that Chicky had packed.

He got two plates and divided the cold chicken, cheese and chutney. He made a pot of tea and they sat and ate it as normally as if it was quite commonplace for John Paul's father to be served a meal by a passing Swedish tourist.

They talked about farming and how it had changed over the years, about the recession and how all the townhouses that the uppity O'Haras had built were standing empty like a ghost estate because people had been greedy and thought that the Celtic Tiger would last for ever. He spoke about his other children, who had done well for themselves abroad. He said that Shep the dog was blind now and useless but would always have a home.

He wanted to know about farming in Sweden, and Anders answered as best he could but said that he wished he could tell him more. He was really a city boy at heart.

'And what brings you to this place, if you are a city boy?' Matty wanted to know.

Anders explained how he had met John Paul on the bus tour.

'He loved that old bus, dead-end job, in and out of shebeens the whole time, happy as a bird on a bush. Even thought of setting up his own shebeen, but he thought better of it and decided to row in here to try to get the last few shillings out of this place,' he said, shaking his head in disapproval.

Anders felt his gorge rising in anger. This was the thanks that the old man was giving for his son's sacrifice. Could life be any more unfair?

In a reasoned way he tried to explain that perhaps John Paul had wanted to help his father.

'You don't want to buy the place here, by any chance?' Matty peered at him through half-closed eyes.