A Week in Winter (Chapter Thirteen)

'Do you set out to avoid it, the love thing?'

'No, but I do set out not to be made a fool of and not to compromise. I've seen too much of that. My mother and father have very little to talk about, supposing they ever had . . . My aunt Mary is married to a man who is about a hundred because he owns a big property, but he really doesn't know what day it is. Chicky did marry for love, but then her fellow was wiped off the face of the earth in a car crash. Not much of a recommendation for love, any of this!'

'Maybe you have a suit of armour up before they get a chance to know you,' he suggested.

'Maybe. I don't want to be a ball-breaker or anything. That's just the way it seems to turn out.'

'No, I didn't mean to suggest that . . .'

'And I suppose the real irritation is my parents. They are much too interested in my life. It's getting harder and harder not to show them how annoying it is.'

'Oh, parents always get it wrong, Orla. It goes with the territory.' John sounded rueful.

'You seem to have it sorted though with your daughter.'

'No way. I want so much for her. I want her to have the best but I know I'm not delivering it. I get it so wrong.'

'And what kind of parents did you have?'

'None. I have no idea who my father was, and my mother never came back to find me.'

'Oh, I'm so sorry.' Orla reached out and laid her hand on his. 'I'm such a clown. I didn't know. Forgive me.'

'No, it doesn't matter. I'm just telling you why I'm so hung up and holding on to family,' John said. 'I never knew any one thing about my mother except that she spoke Italian and left me wrapped up at the door of an orphanage nearly sixty years ago. The hours, weeks and years I've wondered about her, and hoped she was all right and tried to work out why she gave me away.' Orla's hand was still on his. She squeezed it from solidarity.

'I bet she was thinking of you all the time, too. I bet she was. And look what you did with your life! She would have been so proud.'

'Would she? OK, I got to be famous but, as you say, I don't get enough joy from it, enough fun. She might have liked me to have a good time and been happier, less restless.'

'Let's do a deal,' Orla suggested. 'I will have more of an open mind about men. I won't assume they are all screaming bores. I'll do that American thing of assuming that strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!'

'I don't think it's just American,' John said defensively.

'Possibly not. Anyway, I won't vomit at the thought of going out with one of Brigid O'Hara's awful brothers or uncles. I'll give them a chance. Does that sound reasonable?'

'Very much so.' He smiled at her intensity.

'You, on the other hand, are going to enjoy being who you are. People love to meet a celebrity, John. It does them good. We live dull lives. It's just great to meet a movie star. Be generous enough to understand that.'

'I promise I will. I didn't think of it like that.'

'Oh, and about your daughter; maybe you should tell her the kind of things you've told me about love. I'd love a father who could speak like that.'

'I never have before,' he said.

'No, but you could start now and maybe tell her that you would love to see her and meet her friends, if it wouldn't embarrass her or them. I bet she'd be pleased.'

'I guess I'm afraid she'll reject me.'

'I'm going to face men who might reject me. This is meant to be a deal, isn't it?'

'Right. And will you cut your parents some slack too? They may be driving you nuts but they do want what's best for you.'

'Yes, I'll try. I will probably be canonised in my own lifetime, but I'll try!' she laughed. They shook hands on the deal and began to drive back to Stone House.

On the way they passed Stoneybridge Golf Club. A few hardy golfer souls were out on the course. Outside the door was parked a violent pink van.

'Oh Lord, Frank's at the hot whiskeys already,' Orla sighed.

John braked suddenly.

'I'd love a hot whiskey myself,' he said.

'You can't, you're not a member of the Club. Anyway, you've only just had your breakfast.'

But John had parked the car and was striding to the main door.

Alarmed now, Orla ran after him.

Alone at the bar, on a high stool, peering at a newspaper with a magnifying glass, sat a tousled old man. He looked up when the door opened with a crash. A total stranger came through, a man in his fifties in an expensive leather jacket.

'Well, if it isn't Frank Hanratty, as I live and breathe,' the stranger said.

'Um . . . Yes?' Frank was rarely approached by people who did know him, and scarcely ever by people who didn't.

'Well, how are you keeping, Frank, my old friend?'

Frank peered at him. 'You're Corry Salinas,' he said eventually in disbelief.

'Of course I am. Who else would I be?'

'But how do you know me?'

'We were only talking about you in the pub yesterday. I know you are a great film buff, and now today I find you in here.'

'But how did you know I was in here?' Poor Frank was bewildered.

'Isn't that your van outside?' John said, as if it was as simple as that.

Frank nodded thoughtfully. It made sense, sure enough. 'And will you have a hot whiskey, er, Corry?' Frank offered.

'I'm no good at morning drinking. I'd love a cup of coffee, however. And do you know my friend Orla?'

They sat and talked about movies, and the boy who served them brought their coffees to a table.

'I can't believe you came in here to see me.' Frank was happier than he had ever been.

John and Orla exchanged glances.

The bargain had been made.

Henry and Nicola

When Henry had qualified as a doctor his parents had hoped that he would go on and specialise, perhaps in surgery. His mother and father, both doctors, regretted that they hadn't studied further. Look at the worlds it could have opened up, they would say wistfully.

But Henry was adamant. He was going to be a GP.

There wasn't any room for him in his parents' practice but he would find a small community where he and Nicola would soon know everyone. They would have children and be part of the place.

Henry had met Nicola during the first week at medical school. Although they were so very young, they both knew in a matter of weeks that this was it. The two sets of parents begged them to wait, let the romance run a bit before getting married. Four years later, they said they would wait no longer.

It was a small, cheerful wedding in Nicola's home town. The guests all said that in a complicated world full of confusion and misunderstandings, Henry and Nicola stood out like two rocks in a stormy sea.

They prepared themselves well for careers in general practice with six-month postings in a maternity hospital, a heart clinic and a children's facility. Soon they felt ready to hang up their names outside a door, and while they were looking for the perfect place to settle, they also decided to try for a child. It was time.

It was hard to find the perfect place to live, but even harder to conceive a child. They couldn't understand it. They were doctors, after all; they knew about timing and fertility chances. A medical examination showed no apparent problem. They were encouraged to keep trying, which they were certainly doing anyway. After a year they tried IVF, and that didn't work either.

They endured the well-meaning and irritating comments of their parents who were hoping to be grandparents, and of friends offering babysitting services.

It would happen or it would not happen. Henry and Nicola could weather anything. They even survived a tragedy which unfolded in front of them during a stint in an A&E department. A crazed young man high on drugs brought in his battered girlfriend and, in full view of everyone, shot her dead and then killed himself.

On the surface, they coped very well: Henry and Nicola were much praised for the way they handled the situation and protected the other patients from trauma. But inside it had been a very serious shock, and there remained a memory of the morning when, at a distance of five feet, they had watched two lives end. They were trained to deal with life and death but this was too raw, too cruel, too insane. It took its toll. They slowed down in their efforts to find the perfect place to live and to practise. Compared to the violence they had seen close up, it didn't seem so important any more.

One day, Nicola saw an advertisement for a ship's doctor with a cruise company that sailed the Mediterranean. They laughed at it together. What a life: deck tennis, cocktails with the Captain and dealing with a little indigestion or sunburn, which would be the most likely problems. What a picnic it would be. And something seemed to click with both of them. They had worked hard always; there was never time for foreign holidays. Maybe this was what they needed.

A little sun, a rest, a change. Anything that might blot out the memory of that day and their pointless sense of regret that they had not been able to second-guess a drug addict and his intentions.

They applied and went to the interview.

The shipping line said it could only employ one doctor but that they could travel together, if the other one would be able to busy herself or himself doing something else on board.

Nicola offered to teach bridge and run the ship's library.

'Or you could be the doctor,' Henry said, 'and I will do something else.'

'They would only want you to dance with the old ladies. I think you're safer in a white coat in a surgery,' Nicola laughed.

And they signed up.

They were a very popular couple on the ship, and they took to the life easily. Cruise passengers were mainly eager and innocent; their health problems were mostly connected with old age. They needed reassurance and encouragement. Henry was very good in both areas.

Nicola went from strength to strength in her little world. She even started classes in technology, teaching passengers how to work their mobile phones, Skype and basic computing skills.

They saw places they would never have visited otherwise. What other way would they have been able to visit the souks and marketplaces in Tangiers, the casinos in Monte Carlo, the ruins of Pompeii and Ephesus? They stood by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and swam in the blue seas around Crete.

It was only intended to be a six-month posting but when the company offered to renew the contract, it was very hard to say no. This was the first time they had ever been totally relaxed; they had time to talk to each other, to share experiences. There was a lightness of spirit they hadn't known before. The terrible events of the shooting in the A&E department were beginning to become less sharp.

And the winter-cruise schedule they were offered would be in the Caribbean. How else would they ever see places this far away? What an opportunity! They signed on again.

As they walked through the old plantations in Jamaica, or sat among the exotic flowers in Barbados, they congratulated themselves on the good fortune they had happened upon. Sometimes they talked about going back to 'real' medicine and the business of having a family by adoption. But this was not a regular conversation. They were just so lucky to have this time out.

And it wasn't as if it was all leisure. They did what they were asked to do. They looked after the people on board. Henry saved a boy's life by spotting a burst appendix and having him airlifted to a hospital. Nicola did a Heimlich manoeuvre and saved an elderly woman from choking. Henry confirmed that a sixteen-year-old girl was pregnant and helped her break the news to her parents. Nicola sat for hour after hour with a depressed woman who had considered coming on this cruise to end her life. The woman wrote to the chairman of the shipping line saying that she had never had such caring attention in her life and that she felt much better now.

So Henry and Nicola were offered a Scandinavian cruise the following spring.

Nicola had a new idea, which she ran past the Cruise Director. Why not get a hairdresser to give the men lessons in how to dry their wives' hair?

He looked at her in puzzlement.

But she persisted. Women would like the involvement and care of a partner who knew the basics. Men would buy the idea because it would save them money.

'What about the beauty-salon business?' the Cruise Director had asked.

'They have to have one cut and style in your salon first. Believe me, they will love it. It will all even out.'

And she had been right: the blow-drying sessions were among the most popular of the ship's activities.

They both loved the coastline of Norway from Bergen up to Tromsø. They stood side by side watching the sights at the ship's railings and pointed out the fjords to each other. The light was spectacular. The passengers were the usual mix of experienced cruise folk and first-timers overawed by the amount of entertainment, food and drink on offer.

It was on the third day out that Beata, one of the stewardesses, came to see Henry. An attractive blonde, Polish girl, she said that this was a very awkward matter, very awkward indeed.

Henry told her to take her time and explain the problem. He hoped she was not going to tell him there was something seriously wrong with her but Beata, twisting her hands and looking away, told him a different tale.

It was about Helen Morris, a woman in Cabin 5347. She was there with her mother and father. Beata paused.

Henry shook his head. 'Well, those are the family state-rooms, aren't they? What is the problem, exactly?'

'The parents,' Beata said. 'Her father is blind and her mother has dementia.'

'No, that can't be possible,' Henry said. 'They have to declare any pre-existing conditions before they come on board. They have to sign a document. It's for the insurance.'

'She locks the mother in the cabin and takes her father for a walk around the deck to get some fresh air, then she locks him in and takes her mother for a walk. They never go ashore for excursions. They have all their meals in the cabin.'

'And why are you telling me this? Should you not tell the Captain, or the Cruise Director?' Henry was puzzled.

'Because she would be put ashore at the next port. They wouldn't risk having those people on board.' Beata shook her head.

'But what can I do?' Henry was genuinely at a loss.

'You know now, that's all. I just couldn't keep it a secret. You and your wife are very kind. You'll find a way out of it.'

'This woman, Helen Morris, how old is she?'

'About forty, I think.'

'And is she a normal person, a balanced person, Beata?'

'Yes, she is a very good person. I go to their cabin and take the meals in for her. She trusts me. She said this was the only way to give them a holiday. You will know what to do.'

Henry and Nicola talked about it that night. They knew what they should do. They should report that a passenger had lied about the health and incapacity of her relatives. They knew that the hefty insurance payments the company paid would not cover this deception.

But what a call to make!

'Why don't you see her, talk to her?' Nicola suggested.

'I don't want to be dragged into colluding with her.'

'No, you will do what you have to do, but don't let her be a name; a statistic. Talk to her, Henry. Please.'

He looked them up on the manifest. There was no mention of impairment or disability in either parent. Helen's address was in west London, where she lived with both of them.

He knocked at the door of Cabin 5347. She was a pale woman with long straight hair and big anxious eyes.

'Oh, Doctor?' she said with some alarm.

Henry held a clipboard. 'Just a routine call. I'm visiting all passengers aged over eighty, just to see that everyone's in good health.' He felt his voice must sound brittle and over-bright.

'They're fine, thank you, Doctor.'

'So perhaps I could meet your parents, just to – '

'My mother is asleep. My father is listening to music,' Helen said.

'Please?' he asked.

'Why are you really here?' Her face was crumpling.

'Because they haven't come to meals, and so I was afraid they might be seasick.'

'Nobody told you anything?' Her voice was fearful.

'No, no.' Henry was very definite. 'Just routine. Part of my job.' He smiled at her and prepared to be invited in.

Helen looked at him for thirty seconds, her eyes raking his face. Eventually she made her decision.

'Come in, Doctor,' she said, and opened the cabin door wide.

Henry saw an old man in an armchair listening on headphones and tapping his foot to whatever he heard. His sightless eyes faced across the cabin. Outside, spectacular scenery of the Norwegian fjords passed by slowly, unseen. His wife sat on the bed holding a doll in her arms. 'Little Helen, little Helen,' she said over and over, and rocked the doll to sleep.

Henry swallowed. He had no idea that it was going to be like this. 'Just routine, as I said.' He cleared his throat.

'Do you have to tell?' Her eyes were red-rimmed and beseeching.

'Yes, I do,' he said simply.

'But why, Doctor? I've managed fine for four days. There are only nine days left.'

'It's not as simple as that. You see, there's a very clear policy.'

'There's no policy that's going to help me to give them a holiday, some fresh air, a change from the flat in Hammersmith with flights of stairs up and down . . . it was my only chance, Doctor.'

'But you didn't tell us the full story.'

'I couldn't tell you the whole story. You wouldn't have let us come.'

He was silent.

'Listen, Doctor. I am sure you've had a happy life with nothing going wrong, and I'm glad for you, but not everyone gets that deal. I am an only child. My parents have nobody else. They were so good to me. They got me educated as a teacher. I can't abandon them now.' She paused as if to collect herself. Then she spoke again. 'I work from home correcting and marking papers from a correspondence course. It's endless and back-breaking but at least I can look after them. And they ask so little . . . So is it really some sort of a crime to take them on a little holiday? And have a rest myself, and see such lovely places?'

Henry felt humbled.

Helen was twisting her hands in her lap. Her father smiled, listening to his music; her mother cradled the baby doll in her arms, cooing and chuckling and calling it Helen.

'I do understand, really I do,' he said, feeling useless.

'But you still must tell, and then they'll put us off the ship?'

'They won't want to take the risk . . .' he began.

'But could you take the risk, Doctor? You, who have had all the good luck in the world, a great education, a lovely wife. I've seen you together. You have a dream job where it's all a holiday. You haven't known anything like this. Your life has been easy. Could you find the kindness somewhere to take a risk for us? I'll be so careful, believe me, I will.'

Henry contemplated telling her that his life had not been easy. They had failed to have the children they both wanted. They had seen at close quarters two violent deaths, which they still felt that, if they had been more quick-witted, they might have prevented. They were vaguely unsettled and slightly guilty about the lifestyle on board ship. But what was this compared to the life of the woman in front of him?

'How were you able to afford . . .?' he began.

'Dad's brother died. He left him ten thousand pounds. It seemed like an opportunity that might never come again, so I ran with it.'

'I see.'

'And up to now it's been great. Just great. Better than I even dreamed.' She was full of hope.

'It won't be easy,' he said.

Her smile was his reward. He wondered if there was anyone at all in her life able to share the burden of care and the sheer determination that kept her going.

'I'll ask Nicola to join us,' Henry said, and the deal was done.

In the end, it was not too arduous. Nicola would sit in the cabin each day while Helen took her father for a walk and even a swim. Then Henry would take his paperwork and sit with the old man while Helen and her mother took the doll for a walk on deck.