A Week in Winter (Chapter Four)

'It depends.' Chicky Starr was giving nothing away.

Rigger looked her in the eye for the first time. 'Depends on what?' he asked.

'If it's willing to work hard, catch mice, if it's no trouble and behaves nicely to Miss Queenie. That sort of thing.'

'I see,' Rigger said. And he did. 'What will I do first?' he asked.

'I think you should have some breakfast,' she said.

And so it began. His new life.

It was a mad notion, turning this house into a hotel. What kind of people did they think would come here, to this place? Still, it was the only game in town.

It was Miss Queenie who had brought the kitten into the household. The last of a litter born in one of the farm cottages down the hill, its survival had been in doubt until Miss Queenie had settled the matter by putting the tiny creature into her pocket and bringing it home. She held it in the palm of her hand and talked to it soothingly as the kitten gazed solemnly at her with its enormous grey-green eyes; she had decided, she told Rigger, to call it Gloria. He realised quickly that Miss Queenie was like something from an old black and white movie; she liked to keep to the traditions of the house as it had been, with a little gong rung to signal mealtimes and proper table settings. She never went out without a smart hat and gloves.

She seemed to think Rigger was a friend, and a very helpful person who had turned up at the right time when they needed him. She told him long, confused tales about people called Beatrice and Jessica and others long dead. She was totally harmless, but possibly not playing with the full deck.

Mindful of Chicky's advice, Rigger realised the importance of being nice to Miss Queenie. He made her a mug of tea every morning and served it in what was called the morning room. At the same time, he fed Gloria.

Miss Queenie knew that you shouldn't give cats saucers of milk, just lots of water and a little pouch of kitten food; certainly Gloria seemed to be thriving on it. She slept most of the day, and for sure was not a kitten of great brains: she seemed to have bouts of huge anxiety because she kept thinking that her tail was another animal following her. Miss Queenie said Gloria wasn't to be blamed for this entirely. After all, her tail was a different colour. Miss Queenie had made up a little cat bed in the corner of the kitchen by the range. As Gloria slept, Miss Queenie would watch her happily for hours.

Chicky was less forthcoming. She worked very hard and expected him to do the same. She had little time for small talk.

There was so much to do in the place.

He dug the wild, unkempt gardens of Stone House until his back ached and his face was roughened by the constant sea spray. The soil was hard and stony and the briars and the brambles were enormous. Even though he tried to protect himself he was covered with scratches and cuts. He liked it best when Gloria decided to keep him company, her triangular little black tail held high in the air as she sniffed at the ground where he dug. She pounced on leaves and chewed on twigs and more than once avoided being decapitated only by a whisker as Rigger dug through the brambles. Her curiosity was infinite and insatiable; she explored tirelessly as he worked on. And as he paused, leaning on his spade, she would solemnly roll on to her back and gaze at him upside down.

On the days when the Atlantic storms battered the house and the rain came in horizontally, there were old lofts to be cleared out, furniture to be shifted, woodwork to be painted. The old outhouses were dealt with by a couple of builders who were kept busy hacking out and making good. Rigger worked for them, carrying bricks and stones and wooden planks. He chopped wood for the fires and cleaned the grates out every morning, then poured fresh water and breakfast for Gloria and made tea for Miss Queenie.

She was a nice old thing, away with the fairies, of course, but no harm in her. She was interested in everything and would tell him long stories about the past when her sisters were alive. They would have loved a tennis court, but there was never the money to make one.

'Your mother was wonderful when she was here. We really missed her when she left,' Miss Queenie would say. 'Nobody could make potato cakes like Nuala could.'

This was news to Rigger. He didn't ever remember potato cakes at home.

Rigger had a bedroom behind the kitchen where he slept, exhausted, for seven hours a night. On a Saturday, Chicky gave him his bus fare, the price of a cinema ticket and a burger in the next town.

Nobody ever spoke of why he was there, or the fact that he was in hiding. There was little time to make friends around the place and that was good too, as far as Rigger was concerned. The fewer people who knew about him the better.

And then he heard the news he had been waiting to hear.

Nasey phoned him with the details. Two youths had been arrested for the theft of meat from the butcher's shop. They had been before the court and had been given six-month sentences.

The Guards had watched Nuala's house for several weeks, and when there was no sign of Rigger, and nobody knew where he had gone, the matter was dropped.

'How did they catch them?' Rigger asked in a whisper.

'Someone pointed the Guards in the area of the Mountainview Estates and there they were, as bold as brass, going from door to door selling the meat.'

Rigger knew that the 'someone' must have been Nasey, but he said nothing. 'And your own job, Nasey?'

'Is still there. Mr Malone sometimes sympathises with me on the fact that you ran away. He even told me that you might be better off out of Dublin.'

'I see.'

'And maybe he's right, Rigger.'

'Thank you again, Nasey. And about my mam?'

'She's still in a bit of shock, you know. She had been so looking forward to you getting back from that school, counting the days, in fact. She had such plans for you, and now it's all over.'

'Ah no, it's not all over. Not for ever, it's not. I can come back now that the others are off the streets, can't I?'

'No, Rigger, those fellows have friends. They're in a gang. I wouldn't advise you coming back here for a good while.'

'But I can't stay here for ever,' Rigger wailed.

'You have to stay for a fair bit more,' Nasey warned.

'I miss my mam writing to me like she did up in the school.'

'I wouldn't say she's up to writing to you. Not yet, anyway. You could always write to her yourself, of course,' Nasey said.

'I could, I suppose . . .'

'Good, good.' Nasey was gone.

Maybe Miss Queenie would help him write to his mother.

She was indeed a great help, telling him things that might interest Nuala: how this garage had been sold, the O'Haras' new houses  –  which were going to make them millionaires  –  had now lost all their value and were like white elephants with no buyers. Father Johnson had a new curate who was doing most of the work in the parish.

Rigger didn't know whether his mother found any of this interesting as she never wrote back.

'Why do you think she doesn't write back to me?' he asked Miss Queenie.

The old lady had no idea. Her pale blue eyes were troubled and sad on his behalf as she stroked Gloria on her knee. It was strange, she said, Nuala had been so proud of him and even sent pictures of his christening and his First Communion. Maybe Chicky would know.

Nervously he asked Chicky, who said crisply that he must have an over-sunny view of life if he believed that his mother had got over everything.

'It wasn't easy for her to ring me in the middle of the night. We hadn't seen each other for twenty years, and she had to tell me that I was the only person on earth who could help her. She can't have liked doing that. I would have hated it.'

'Yes, I know, but could you tell her I've changed?' he begged.

'I have told her.'

'And why doesn't she write back to me, then?'

'Because she thinks it's all her fault. She doesn't really want to get involved with you again. I'm sorry to be so hard, but you did ask.'

'Yes, I did.' He was very shaken.

By now Rigger had actually become interested in this whole mad plan to turn the old house into a smart guest house. The rough work and clearing of the ground had all been done; it was time for rebuilding. Real contractors would be brought in on the job. He looked on in amazement as the plans for bathrooms and central heating were laid out on the kitchen table as Gloria batted them from one side to the other. He knew there were meetings with bankers and insurance brokers, that designers were planned in the future.

He was unprepared for Chicky to change his terms of employment.

'You've been here six months and you've been a great help, Rigger,' she said one evening when Miss Queenie had gone to bed. He was very pleased with the compliment. There hadn't been many of those coming his way. Rigger waited to hear what would come next.

'When the builders move in properly in a few weeks, I'll need help to get Miss Queenie to and from Dr Dai's and the health clinic. Can you drive?'

'Yes, I can drive,' Rigger said.

'But do you have a licence? Did you do a driving test or anything?'

'I'm afraid not,' Rigger admitted.

'So that's the first thing you must do  –  get some driving lessons from Dinny in the garage and do the test. Can you grow things?'

'What kind of things?'

'We should have our own produce here: potatoes, vegetables, fruit. We should have hens, too.'

'Are you serious?' Sometimes Rigger thought that Chicky was certifiable.

'Completely serious. We must offer visitors something special; make them feel that this place is providing their food rather than just going into town and buying it all in a supermarket.'

'I see,' said Rigger, who didn't see at all.

'So I was thinking that if I called you my manager and paid you a proper wage you might feel you have more of a stake here. It won't just be a place where you are hiding out. It would be a real job with a real future.'

'Here? In Stoneybridge?' Rigger was astounded that anyone could see his future in these parts.

'Yes, here in Stoneybridge indeed. It's not as if you're likely to be able to go back to Dublin at any time in the near future. I hoped you might want to put down some roots here, make something of yourself.'

'I'm grateful to you and everything but – '

'But what, Rigger? But you see a glittering future for yourself in Dublin stealing great sides of beef and beating up decent butchers who try to protect their business?'

'I didn't beat up anyone,' he said indignantly.

'I know that. Why else do you think I took you on? You saved Nasey's life, he says. He was determined you should have a fresh start. I'm trying to give it to you, but it's difficult.'

'Do you like me, Chicky?'

'Yes, I do, actually. I didn't think I would but I do. You're very good to Queenie, you're kind to the kitten, you have a lot of good points. You're very young. I wanted to get you some skills and see that you have a bit of a life. But you just throw it back at me and say that a life here is worth nothing at all. So I'm a bit confused, really.'

'It's just not what I thought my life would be,' he said.

'It's not what I thought my life would be either, but somewhere along the line we have to pick things up and run with them.'

'At least your bad luck wasn't your own fault,' Rigger said.

'It probably was in some ways.' She looked away.

'But your husband being killed and all  –  you weren't to blame for that.'

'No, that's right.'

'I'd be happy to be your manager if you'll still take me,' he said, after a pause.

'We start to dig the vegetable garden tomorrow morning, and your first driving lesson will be with Dinny tomorrow afternoon. You'll start to learn the rules of the road tomorrow night. Miss Queenie will be in charge of that.'

'I'm up for it,' Rigger said.

'And I'll open a post office account for you and put half your wages in each week and give you half in cash. That way you can buy some nice clothes and take a girl to a dance or whatever.'

'Can I tell my mother and Nasey?'

'Oh yes, of course you can. But I wouldn't hold out any hopes about your mother.'

'It will be the first bit of good news she ever had about me,' he said.

'No, she was delighted with you way back when you were born. She wrote and told Miss Queenie all about it. You were six and a half pounds, apparently. But things are different now. Nasey says she needs to see a doctor; it's kind of a depression but she won't hear of it.'

Chicky thought she saw tears in Rigger's eyes but she wasn't sure.

The driving lessons went well. Dinny said that Rigger was fearless but reckless, quick to react but impatient. The rules of the road were a trial, but Miss Queenie loved testing him each evening.

'What does a sign like a circle crossed out mean on the outskirts of a town?' she would ask.

'That you can drive as fast as you like?' Rigger suggested.

'No, wrong, it means you can drive at the national speed limit,' Miss Queenie cried triumphantly.

'That's what I meant.'

'You meant drive as fast as you like,' Miss Queenie said. 'They would have failed you.'

He passed the test with no problem.

He drove Miss Queenie everywhere: to her appointments with Dr Dai, to the hospital for a check-up, to the vet to have Gloria spayed.

'It seems a pity for her not to have kittens of her own,' Miss Queenie had said as she stroked the little cat on her lap.

'But we'd only have to find homes for them, Miss Queenie. We couldn't have a house full of cats when the visitors come.' He realised that he was beginning to think of himself as part of the whole project.

'Would you like children of your own one day, Rigger?' She always asked strange, direct questions that nobody else did.

'I don't think so, to be honest with you. They seem to be more trouble than they're worth. They'd only end up disappointing you.' He knew he sounded bitter, and tried to laugh and take the harm out of it. Miss Queenie hadn't really noticed.

'We would have loved to have had children, Jessica, Beatrice and myself. We could always see our children playing around Stone House, which was silly really because if we had married we wouldn't have been living here any more. It was all a dream, anyway.'

'And was there ever anyone you particularly would have liked to marry, Miss Queenie?' Rigger amazed himself asking her such a thing.

'There was one young man . . . oh, I would have loved to marry him, but sadly there was TB in his family and so he couldn't marry at all.'

'Why not?'

'Because it was a disease of the lungs and people could catch it and it would pass on to the children. He died in a sanatorium, poor, poor boy. I still have the letters he wrote to me.'

Rigger patted her hand and, embarrassed, he patted Gloria's head as well. They drove on in silence until they arrived at the vet.

'Don't worry, Gloria. You won't feel a thing, pet. And anyway, there's more to life than just sex and kittens,' Miss Queenie said reassuringly as she handed the purring cat over.

The vet and Rigger exchanged glances. This wasn't the normal conversation in the surgery.

While Gloria was being seen to, Rigger and Miss Queenie drove off to do items off Chicky's list. Rigger marvelled at how many people knew him by name in Stoneybridge and the surrounding countryside. Surely his mother would be pleased to know that he was so accepted in this place where she had grown up.

But still there was no word from her.

He had written to Nuala telling her about the day-old chicks they had bought and had to protect from Gloria, who wanted to practise her hunting skills; and how hard it was to dig potato drills. He told her about how the builder was going to charge a fortune to make a walled garden, so Rigger had built it himself, stone upon stone, and raised growing beds. How every time he dug a hole to plant something, Gloria arrived and sat in it, gazing at him seriously. Despite that, now there were shrubs and plants grown up against the wall, which was called espalier. They had runner beans and courgettes and whole rakes of salads and herbs.

He did not tell his mother about the lovely girl called Carmel Hickey, who was studying hard for her Leaving Certificate but could be persuaded to go out to the cinema or for a drive down the coast with Rigger.

Some of the neighbours, and indeed her own family, worried that Rigger lived in Stone House with the two women.

Chicky laughed. People said that it looked odd, that was all. But she dismissed it and life went on easily for the three of them, working long hours and coping with people who didn't turn up on time or at all. She taught Rigger to make the kind of meals that Miss Queenie liked: little scones and omelettes. He mastered it quickly. It was just another thing to learn.

Rigger sometimes asked Chicky's advice about what girls liked. He wanted to give Carmel a treat. What would she suggest.

Chicky thought that Carmel might like to go to the fair-ground that came every year to a nearby town. There would be fireworks and bumper cars, a big wheel and a lot of fun.

And apparently Carmel liked it a lot.

It was touching to see Rigger getting dressed up to take his girl out in the old van. Chicky sighed as she saw them heading off by the cliffs. Rigger didn't drink so she never worried about there being any danger ahead. She could not have foreseen the conversation a few short months later.

Carmel was pregnant.

Carmel Hickey, aged seventeen and about to sit her Leaving Certificate, was going to have the child of Rigger, who was eighteen. They loved each other, so were going to run away to England and get married. Rigger was very sorry to let Chicky down and leave her like this, but he said it was the only thing to do. There was no question of a termination and Carmel's parents would kill them both. There would be no tolerance in the Hickey family.

Chicky was unnaturally calm about it all.

First thing she said was they must tell nobody. Nobody at all.

Carmel was to do her exams as if nothing was wrong. Then, in three weeks' time when the exams were over, they could get married here, in Stoneybridge, and take it from there.

Rigger looked at her as if she was mad.

'Chicky, you have no idea what they'll be like. They'll skin me alive. They have such hopes for her: a career, a life and eventually a great catch as a husband. They don't want her married to a dead end like me. They'd never stand for it, not in a million years. We have to run away.'

'There's been far too much running away,' Chicky said. 'Your mother ran away from here. I ran away. You ran away. It has to stop sometime. Let it stop now.'

'But what can I offer Carmel?'

'You have a job here  –  a good job  –  you have savings already in the post office. I'll let you have that cottage beside the walled garden. You can make a home there. You will be providing all the produce for Stone House and for anyone else you can sell it to. You're a genuine businessman, for God's sake. These days they'd be hard put to find anyone so ready and able to make a home for their daughter.'

'No, Chicky. You don't know what they're like.'

'I do know what they are like. I've known the Hickeys all my life. I'm not saying they'll be pleased, but it beats the hell out of getting the Guards to find you in England or asking the Salvation Army to trace you.'

'Married? Here in Stoneybridge?'

'If that's what you want then yes. I think you're both too young. You could get married much later, but if you want it now then leave Father Johnson to me.'

'It won't work.'

'It will if you say absolutely nothing and just get that house done. You have to have it ready to show to the Hickeys the day you tell them that Carmel is pregnant.'

'Chicky, be reasonable. If it were going to work, we can't do all this in three weeks or a month.'

'If I tell the builders that Stone Cottage is the priority then we can. And you can take some of the furniture we have stored here.'

He looked at her with some hope in his eyes. 'Do you really think . . .?'

'We haven't a minute to waste, and don't tell your mother either. Not yet.'

'Oh God, she's going to go mad too. More bad news.'

'Not when she hears it as a package. Not when she hears that you have a house, a proper job and a bride. Where's the bad news there? Aren't these the things she always hoped for, for you?'

Carmel Hickey proved to be amazingly practical. She swore she would focus entirely on her exams while saying that she wanted to learn bookkeeping and commercial studies as a career. She insisted that Rigger spend every waking hour getting Stone Cottage up and running. She seemed vastly relieved that they were not going to catch the emigrant ship and live on nothing in England.

Carmel had every confidence in Chicky, even to the point of keeping Father Johnson on side.

And Carmel was right to be confident. By the time the Leaving Certificate exams were over, Father Johnson had been convinced that a good Christian marriage to be solemnised between two admittedly very young and very slightly pregnant people was a good thing rather than a bad thing.

And when the Hickeys began to wail and protest, Father Johnson was reproving and reminding them not to stand in God's way.

The Hickeys were somewhat mollified after their first tour of Stone Cottage, and the evidence that Rigger appeared to be his own boss rather than just Chicky's handyman. They had to admit that the place was very comfortable and what they called 'well appointed'.

Gloria had decided to come and dress the set. She sat washing herself by the small range, giving the place an air of domesticity. Old lamps that the Miss Sheedys had once loved had been taken out and polished, rugs had been made by cutting out the better bits of old carpets and everything was brightly painted.

The wedding would be small and quiet. They didn't want any show.

Nuala wrote one short letter and made one brief telephone call to wish them well but to say that she wouldn't be able to come to the wedding.

'Ah Mam, I'd love you to be here to meet Carmel and to see our home.' Rigger hadn't believed that she would refuse to come.