A week in summer a short.., p.1
A Week in Summer: A Short Story, p.1Maeve Binchy
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2005 by Maeve Binchy
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
This story was originally published by Cumann Merriman in 2005.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Cover design by Amy Citron
“A Week in Summer”
About the Author
By Maeve Binchy
America Loves Minding Frankie
“They say that when beginning a story you should always try to catch people at some interesting juncture of their lives, like when they have to make a choice or a decision, or when someone betrayed them, or at the start of love or the end of love. It is better to come across them at some kind of crisis than in the middle of a long, lazy summer where nothing happens.”
—Maeve Binchy, The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club
A Week in Summer
Do you know what I think should be banned? Those advertisements for cruise holidays for mature people. You get this suave man in a dinner jacket, hair lightly streaked with gray, looking into the eyes of a woman with a pashmina stole around her slim, firm shoulders, to protect her against the night breezes as they stand on deck together. There is a hint that they have been at it like rabbits all afternoon and that they can’t wait for the captain’s cocktail party and gala dinner to end, so they can be at it all over again.
Are there people like this or is it just a fantasy dreamed up by an advertising agency, to sell holidays to us middle-aged Americans? Something that will leave the rest of us unsettled and unhappy? In any event, it is not important; it’s not relevant to us. We had never had a real vacation. Not even when the girls, Mel and Margy, were children. Brian used to say, in his farming days: “Find me a cow that doesn’t need to be milked for three weeks, and then we’ll have a vacation.”
And when the bottom fell out of the dairy-cattle market, as it did—for Brian, anyway—he was into growing corn in Illinois and flax in North Dakota, and in those days you couldn’t take a vacation, either, because there was always something to be planted or watered or reaped or saved. And when the bottom had fallen out of flax and corn—for Brian, anyway—he studied mathematics and became a math teacher at a private school.
Other teachers had vacations. In fact, people were always saying they met teachers on vacations. But not Brian, because there were papers to mark, or courses to do, or students to tutor, and he liked going up to the attic and writing little bits of poetry that he never showed to anyone. But anyway, what with all this … hey presto, the vacation was soon over.
Me? Oh, I have worked forever at the same thing. Like my mother before me, I bake things. I used to work as a patisserie chef in a big hotel, but after I met Brian I had to think up something a bit more mobile. Something that could move easily when he did. So now I make cakes and casseroles and pies and deliver them to people’s homes. I had to be ready to get up and go to the next place, so it was good to have a craft or trade or skill, whatever you might call it, to take with us.
People everywhere want to eat, and lots of younger women don’t have time to cook. You’d be surprised how many deep-dish apple pies I make in their own pottery dishes. They even pretend to their husbands that they cooked it themselves. I have to be very careful about how and when I make my deliveries.
Now, I know I could have taken a vacation on my own. There was nothing to stop me from going to Europe or on a cruise or to the Grand Canyon. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t just to be able to say that I had been somewhere. I’m way too old for that. My customers who buy deep-dish apple pie and lamb stew wouldn’t think more of me if I said I had been on a cruise to Alaska or on a train through the capitals of Europe. No, I just wanted to travel with Brian, and he just didn’t want to go anywhere at all.
I wanted it for Brian and me. Something to remember. Something to look back on during the long evenings when we were on our own.
Mel and Margy were away a lot; there was always something for them to do during the summer holidays, when the school term was finished. There was this camp and that camp; the children loved camp. And because Brian had had so many careers and we had moved so much and so often, we thought it best for the girls to go to boarding school. It would give them more stability and enable them to keep their friends. And, heavens, they had so many friends.
A lot of these friends had parents who were much younger than we were. We are conscious of being older parents. I mean, Brian was forty when we married, and I was thirty-eight. We didn’t want to seem too geriatric. All parents live on different planets from their children, they say, and, Lord, I’ve seen enough of it in the houses where I deliver food. But older parents? That’s a solar system even farther away. Anyway, why should the girls hang out around our home, with Brian always so worried about everything, big lines of worry etched into his forehead, and me always up to my elbows in pastry dough? Not much fun with us. And I remembered my own childhood. I didn’t want to hang around my house when I was younger, either.
And, of course, I could have gone away with my girlfriends. (All right, we’re all in our fifties, but we think of ourselves as girls and we always will.) But I didn’t want to spend our hard-earned money on a vacation with them. I wanted to be with Brian. I love Brian. I always have, since the day I met him, with his dreams and poetry and hopes of changing the world. It didn’t matter that he didn’t earn much of a living or that nobody thought very highly of him. He was the man I wanted; always has been. I can just see him in a tuxedo, like the men in the advertisements. I can see us spending long afternoons in a bedroom, a cabin, a sleeping-car compartment. Wherever. I can see us exchanging a knowing glance that says there will be more of that later on. I’m not sure why I can see this so clearly, but somehow I can. And Brian needs a holiday even more than I do these days. You see, he has just been suspended from his school. It’s August now, and he hasn’t any position for September, when the school year starts. A man of fifty-seven without a job. And all because he had to speak his mind. And what’s more, to speak it at the parent-teacher association.
It was the occasion for congratulating the school for doing so well and for concentrating on the positive side of things. But my Brian had to choose the occasion to tell people that he did not think the war in Iraq was a just war. This was in a community that had already lost two young men on tours of duty. They didn’t even wait until the next day to tell him that his services would no longer be needed. The principal came around to our house that night and said he was sorry, but feeling was running too high. “I’ll only teach math in future,” poor Brian had promised. “Too late,” the principal said.
It hit Brian very hard. He didn’t want me to tell the girls. “I don’t mind you knowing that I’m an all-time loser,” he pleaded, “but I don’t want my daughters to know this. Not yet.” But Mel and Margy would have to know come September, when Brian wasn’t returning to school, I told him. “Hey, honey,” he said. “They’re not really all that interested in what I do or don’t do. Just give me time, Kathleen, just give me a little time. I know I don’t deserve it, but I can’t breathe properly. This would give me some breathing space.”
I don’t know why I agreed, but I did. “Right,” I said. “I’ll trade you. We have a vacation together—just one vacation–and then I’l
He smiled a horrible smile, as if there was nothing behind it. As if he was an empty head. All the color and life had gone out of his face.
“And maybe you might go to the doctor for a checkup, too,” I suggested.
“Don’t move the goalposts, Kathleen. A week in summer. You organize it. That’s the deal.”
He looked wretched. He didn’t want a holiday. I loved him to bits. Maybe a kinder person would say forget the holiday. But somehow I thought it would be the making of us.
“A week in summer, that’s the deal,” I said, and we linked little fingers, the way kids do.
He never asked where we were going to go; he made no suggestions. His face was gray; his mind was miles away. Brian was more of a shadow than a man. So I did it all. I found his passport. I checked our savings account to see how much we could spend and then I went to the Snappy Seniors’ Travel Agency to discuss dates and venues with one of their Vacation Buddies.
His name was Chester. He was Chief Vacation Buddy in this branch, and he would have been a happy camper no matter where he had been sent on vacation. There wasn’t really time, we agreed, for a cruise, if all we had was a week in summer. And anyway, I confessed, Brian wasn’t cruise material, as he didn’t own a dinner jacket and might get bored. Bored on board ship? Chester was unbelieving. But he had other suggestions.
Perhaps a cultural tour of four European cities via luxury bus? For all that he liked writing poetry, Brian wasn’t that interested in museums and art galleries. I couldn’t see him standing in line in Paris and Bruges. Culture didn’t loom large in his life.
Then what about a beach holiday, if he was anti-culture? A place where the ladies go around topless? Chester asked. I told my new Vacation Buddy that Brian wasn’t anti-culture, just that four cities full of it in one week and lots of luxury busing along autostradas and autoroutes might not be his thing. He hadn’t been well, and he needed cheering up.
Disneyworld? A theme park? Chester suggested and I refused. He didn’t need that kind of cheering.
One by one, I rejected: learning to snorkel, bridge for beginners, cooking in France and the gardens of Andalucia. Chester was beginning to despair. Never had he met such an unsnappy senior.
“Suppose it were up to you, ma’am. What would you like to do?”
“But it’s not up to me. He’s had a shock, you see. He’s not well. He needs the holiday.”
“But if it were up to you, what would you choose?” Chester hated admitting defeat; it just wasn’t what Snappy Seniors’ Vacation Buddies did. I paused to think. Supposing that Brian would like anything I chose, what would I pick?
“You know, I’d like to go ancestor hunting,” I said eventually. “You know, looking in old graveyards and parish records.”
Chester was immensely cheered. “Where are his people from?”
“No, not his people … mine. Brian’s father came from a village in Russia that no longer exists.”
“Most places are still there in some form,” Chester said reprovingly.
“No, truly, the whole population of the village left for the United States. It’s my roots I’d look for. A long way back, but I’m sure there’s something.”
“So where’s that, then?” Chester was so relieved he might actually sell me a vacation that he was beaming at me.
“Ireland,” I said. “My people were Collinses from Ireland. I don’t know where.”
“Let’s go hunt,” Chester said with the enthusiasm that earned him the position of Chief Vacation Buddy of the branch. He tapped at his computer for a while and looked back at me full of smiles.
“Originally from Limerick,” he said triumphantly. “But they were driven out by the Anglo-Normans and ended up in West Cork. Which area do you want to start in?”
“Where were they in their heyday?” I asked.
“Limerick, I think. They were lords of the Barony of Conello then.”
“Oh, then let’s try Limerick.”
He was good, Chester was. He didn’t want us to spend our whole vacation stuck in a city looking up people who’d been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years. If my husband was ill, if he was difficult to please and in a bit of shock, Chester said this wasn’t the kind of restful holiday we needed. Maybe we should consider the neighboring county, County Clare. There are lovely drives around the Burren, unusual plants to see, castles to look at, porpoises and dolphins in the Atlantic, for the days that we don’t spend looking up my roots. Plus nice comfortable hotels and good food. Build my husband up it would.
At Snappy Seniors’ they wanted us to be happy; it meant repeat business. I felt guilty talking about Brian behind his back. He was such a good man who only wanted the best for everyone, but now he was like an empty shell. No matter how hard Chester and I tried, I feared nothing was going to put a smile on his face or life back into his soul.
The girls came home for two days before heading off to camp.
“You look awfully old, Dad,” said Mel.
“I am awfully old, Mel,” said Brian.
“Not so much old as confused,” corrected Margy.
“Oh, I’m confused too, Margy,” Brian agreed.
Our two daughters seemed pleased that they had correctly identified everything.
Brian didn’t talk much about the vacation because he didn’t talk much about anything, really. He just sat there staring ahead.
When the day came, he packed obediently and came along with me to the airport as if it were yet another visit to the supermarket. No enthusiasm. No hope. Nothing but a deal done, a trade agreed, a promise kept.
I had told my customers that I would be away for a week. “A week in summer,” I said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “Ireland? That’s nice,” they said without conviction. They would really have preferred me to stay where I was, making passionfruit Pavlovas on their family china for summer parties.
Brian was very quiet on the plane. He pretended to read the airline magazine, but he never turned a page. And then we were in Shannon Airport. It was a bright, sunny day; the fields were small and green; the road signs were in two languages; the rented car was small.
Brian wasn’t listening when they asked us who wanted to drive, so I said I would. I learned about the wrong side of the road and to beware leaving gas stations, and roundabouts. And we set off. The other drivers on the road were, well, interesting, I suppose you’d call it. They never used turn signals or anything. They just pulled straight out in front of you. But once you got used to that …
I gave Brian the maps and the brochures, but they sat on his lap. In the middle of this lovely early-morning countryside I felt no joy of being on day one of a vacation. I got no feeling of having come home to my roots. I got no indication that this holiday would be the great breakthrough for us. The long, cramped sleepless night on the plane and these narrow windy roads were beginning to take their toll. “Tell me something about Lisdoonvarna,” I said, with the false cheerfulness that I hate in others. I could hear the tinny insecurity in my voice. I must have listened to a thousand of these nonconversations between husband and wife. The kind that ended up either as “Yes dear, yes dear” or “What do you know about that?”
Brian and I were never going to be anything like that. Surely. We had fought to get married. My family thought he was a slow starter with his head in the clouds. His family thought I was a bit too brittle and hard-nosed for them. They didn’t care that I supported him and put the girls through school. They would have liked a poet or a weaver or some damn thing.
But that had never mattered to Brian or me. We rose above it. We had so much going for us for years. But as we drove through the beautiful County Clare countryside, I thought that all we had going for us might have kept on going—and gone away.
He opened a brochure and read to me obediently, like a child at school, about the Spa Wells and the curative water and the restorative baths. And there was a matchmaking festival in September. “Pity w
“Nobody would blame you for leaving me, Kathy,” he said, “nobody at all.”
I was busy trying to negotiate the Lycra-covered backsides of some cyclists who were hogging the road. It wasn’t the moment to tell him that I had never loved anyone else and never would.
At the hotel in Lisdoonvarna they were very nice and welcoming. Cups of tea, congratulations on our having managed to drive there, our first day in a new land. “You’ll have a great week,” the receptionist said. “The weather looks up and you were so lucky to get the cancellations.”
Chester hadn’t mentioned any cancellations. I was puzzled. Perhaps somebody hadn’t liked something about the hotel. Brian hadn’t heard any of it, so I hid my frown of worry, and the girl chatted on happily.
“The nicest couple in the world they are, they normally come here every year and stay for the whole week, but this year they’ve gone to Australia. They were most apologetic, but the chance came up, you see, and what with them being in their nineties they though they should go now in case it might be more difficult later.”
I felt a pang of sharp envy for these people and an unreasoning sense of jealousy. In their nineties for heaven’s sake and had gone to the other side of the earth. We were in our fifties and a week in Ireland was nearly killing us. We could never fill their shoes.
“But have a great rest now,” the receptionist urged. “And then you’ll be in fine form for the Fáiltiú.”
The Fáiltiú? What, exactly, was that? She said it was the Irish for “welcome.” That sounded familiar, though why people were going to welcome us was beyond me.
But it wasn’t us, it turned out. It was the start of a summer school of some sort. Everyone went to the Fáiltiú, she said reprovingly.
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