Promises, Promises Chapter One
Glenree, North County Dublin
I wonder what she’ll be like, Miriam Munroe thought as she strolled along the leafy back road that led to her mother-in-law Sheila’s house. She was going to meet Emma Connolly, her sister-in-law-to-be, for the first time. She’d heard a lot about Emma from Sheila Munroe.
‘She’s a judge’s daughter, you know,’ was Sheila’s constant refrain. ‘She mixes with the best of high society.’ All Glenree knew that Vincent Munroe was dating a judge’s daughter. Vincent was an estate agent. He was young, ambitious and hard-working. Vincent was going places. He’d sold a property to Judge Connolly and met Emma when she’d accompanied the judge to the viewing. It was love at first sight, Sheila declared proudly. When they announced their engagement, she was ecstatic. She had made a triumphant entrance into the Women’s Guild meeting that night and accepted the congratulations of the ladies of the town with regal composure.
Poor Sheila was a terrible snob. Miriam knew she was a bit of a disappointment to her mother-in-law. She was just a farmer’s daughter. And he’d been a relatively small farmer at that. The old, familiar hurt welled up as she thought of her late father. Even after four years of happy marriage to Ben, the memory of her father’s rejection of her still had the power to wound. ‘Don’t think about it,’ she muttered fiercely.
She stopped walking and leaned her elbows on top of the old wooden gate that led into Blackbird’s Field. Miriam liked this shady little hollow. The rich emerald sward rippled in the breeze. Beyond that, Ned Doyle’s combine plundered a field of golden corn. A blackbird sang in a blackberry bush that was laden with ripe juicy berries. The scent of autumn perfumed the air. Miriam felt a measure of ease. The past was the past. She should let it go.
It was just the unfairness of it all. When her father’s will had been read out it was as if he’d risen up from his grave and slapped her in the face. Even now Miriam could vividly recall the moment when she knew what she’d always suspected . . . that she meant little or nothing to her father. Tears pricked her eyes. She’d slogged her heart out at home until she was twenty-five, but her loyalty and effort had gone unacknowledged. For three years, she’d kept house for her elderly parents. She’d given up a good secretarial job in Limerick to go home to the farm on the banks of Lough Derg where she’d nursed her mother until she died of cancer.
It hadn’t been easy. As well as nursing her mother, and running the house, Miriam had helped her father on the farm. Each morning she rose at six, prepared breakfast and then went to help him feed the stock, hail, rain or shine. She could still remember the cold dark wild winter mornings when howling gales lashed torrents of icy sleet against her face and the land, edged by the meandering Shannon river, was sodden underfoot.
Her father, Martin, was a taciturn self-contained man who worked hard for his family out of a sense of duty rather than love. He had never shown her or her brothers any affection. He simply didn’t know how. He’d never been given affection as a child and he had none to show his own children.
Once, he’d been in hospital for a minor operation and she’d gone to visit him. He was standing by a window gazing out. Miriam knew he hated being trapped inside a strange building. She suspected he was worrying about the farm. He looked smaller, less authoritative, in his new pyjamas and dressing gown bought specially for his hospital stay. It was as if he was diminished by his unfamiliar surroundings. Miriam felt a surge of unexpected concern for him and, when she reached him, she’d put her arms out and hugged him. Her father stood in the circle of her embrace as stiff as a board. He gave a grunt and muttered, ‘Howya . . . there’s no need for all that.’
Rebuffed, Miriam drew back as embarrassed as he was. She’d never hugged her father again.
When the doctor told him that Maeve’s illness was terminal he said gravely, ‘’Tis God’s will. Do your best for her.’ He never referred to the matter again. As his wife’s condition grew progressively worse, Martin spent more of his time working the land. It was as though he was preparing for the time when she’d no longer be there.
Maeve McGrath passively accepted her fate with the quiet resignation that she’d shown in life. She bore her pain stoically and tried to be as little a burden as possible. She never complained, or showed any anger about the cancer that was ravaging her thin angular body.
Only once had she made an oblique reference to death. ‘Look after your father and, when the time comes, you’ll find the sick call set for the priest in the middle drawer of the dressing table. Ask Lizzie Conway to help you out. She’ll know what to do.’ Lizzie was the village midwife and she always helped to lay out the dead.
Miriam didn’t know what to say to her mother. Seeing her distress, Maeve squeezed her hand and said comfortingly:
‘You’re a good daughter, Miriam, and I’m lucky to have you. But when I’m gone, go and make a life for yourself in Dublin or Cork, or you’ll be stuck here like I was all my life. I never did anything. There’s an old saying. She spent a life of going to do . . . and died with nothing done! You don’t be like that. Go and do all the things you want to do. Make plenty of friends. Go places. Promise me now,’ her mother said earnestly.
‘I promise.’ Miriam leaned down and kissed her mother. Soon after that, Maeve slipped into a coma from which she never recovered.
As she watched her mother’s coffin being lowered into the grave, Miriam remembered the promise she’d made to her. No matter what, she was going to leave home and get a job. She’d stay at home for a few more weeks to get her father settled into a routine. She’d organize for a woman to come in from the village to do a bit of cleaning and cooking. But then she was going to go to Dublin to try her luck.
The day the postman arrived with a letter to tell her that she’d been successful in her application for the position of secretary in a clothing firm in Dublin, Martin had a stroke. Miriam’s plans were shattered.
She nursed him and employed a man from the village to help her keep the farm going.
Her brothers Sean and Johnny were too busy with their own lives to help out. Sean and his wife, Della, lived in Athlone. Sean was a lock-keeper on the Shannon. Johnny, her youngest brother, was a dining-car attendant on the Dublin to Limerick train. Neither of them had any desire to live at home and take over the responsibilities of the farm and be subject to the dictates of their father.
And so it had been left to Miriam to shoulder the burden again. She’d argued fiercely about the unfairness of it. Sean and Della reluctantly agreed that they would take Martin into their home in the future if Miriam would stay at home and look after him for the next year. Since the doctor had told her that her father wouldn’t last the year, this meant nothing. Miriam felt thoroughly taken for granted and manipulated by her family.
Her father lived for eighteen months after his stroke. Della got pregnant and told Miriam she couldn’t take care of her sick father-in-law and a baby. Johnny, who had a flat in Limerick, rarely came home and couldn’t have cared less about his father.
It was a relief when Martin died. Miriam felt terribly guilty and could hardly admit it to herself but, as his coffin was lowered into the grave beside her mother, she felt a huge burden lift from her shoulders. She watched Della, weeping into her handkerchief for the neighbours’ benefit, and felt utter contempt for her hypocrisy.
‘I suppose we better get the will read as soon as possible,’ Sean suggested. They’d gone back to the house, as was the custom, to provide refreshments for the neighbours after the funeral. Her brother stuffed a thick skelp of buttered brack into his mouth and ate it with relish.
‘For God’s sake! The man’s not cold in his coffin and you’re talking about the will. Sean, will you at least wait until we’ve taken care of the neighbours.’
‘I just can’t be hanging around and I don’t want to have to come back down from Athlone, if we can get it sorted out now. Couldn’t you ring the solicitor and see if he can meet us.’
‘Right, right. I’ll speak to Mr Finnerty about it. Maybe he could see us all tomorrow.’ Miriam was at her wit’s end. She hadn’t given the will a thought. But it was something that had to be attended to. Now that Sean had brought it up, the sooner the reading was over, the better. She slipped out into the hall and phoned the solicitor’s office. He agreed to read the will the following day. Miriam didn’t give it another thought as she poured endless cups of tea and washed numerous dishes for neighbours and acquaintances who came from far and wide to pay their condolences.
It was only as the family settled themselves in Mr Finnerty’s office the next day that it dawned on Miriam that the reading of the will could radically affect her future. As she sat and listened to the elderly lawyer reading the terms of her father’s will, Miriam was shocked beyond belief.
Her father had chosen to ignore her sacrifice. She’d done her duty, he expected nothing less. It was not something to be rewarded. Tradition dictated that the eldest son inherit the estate, so Sean inherited the house and farm that she had slaved over. Johnny inherited fifty acres and she was left three hundred pounds.
Three hundred pounds after years of exhausting slogging. No roof over her head. No land. Just three hundred pounds to see her through the rest of her days. Tears smarted her eyes. Pressure like a vice grip encircled her chest so that she could hardly breathe. She felt bitterness, rage, despair . . . but most of all an aching feeling of rejection. Had her father put so little value on what she had done for him and her mother? So it seemed.
‘Della and I will have to talk about what we’re going to do. When we know ourselves, we’ll have a chat with you to see what your plans are.’ Sean was gruff, embarrassed.
Miriam, suddenly anxious about her future, noted the emphasis on her ‘plans’.
‘Fine,’ she snapped, hurt that he hadn’t hastened to assure her that there was no need for her to leave her home. He and Della needn’t think for a moment that she’d be under a compliment to them. She could stand on her own two feet. And she would. She wouldn’t hang around waiting to be evicted.
It was just as well she’d decided that. Two weeks later Sean and Della arrived at the farm. They informed Miriam that they’d decided to move back and live in the house and farm the land themselves. Della made it abundantly clear that there was no place for Miriam in what would soon be her house. ‘I know how keen you were to go to Dublin after your mother died, now you’ll be able to go and get on with your life and you won’t have anyone to worry about but yourself.’ Della was as sweet as could be.
Hypocritical wagon! Miriam raged silently. But as usual she couldn’t speak of her anger or disgust and kept all her resentment bubbling deep inside. She was twenty-five, without a job or a home and, as they said in the village, ‘with no prospects’.
It was a very bitter young woman who travelled on the train to Dublin with everything she possessed packed into two shabby suitcases. She took a room in a small guesthouse near Amiens Street and set off on the task of finding work.
Her first job had been as a typist in a solicitor’s office. Mr Bartholomew Cunningham BL was crotchety and dictatorial and Miriam started looking for another job almost immediately. Second time around she was lucky. She got a job in an insurance company, a much nicer place to work. The other girls were friendly and, some months after joining the firm, she moved into a flat with two of them.
Then she met Ben Munroe. At the time, meeting a fella was not of great importance. After her treatment at the hands of her father and brothers, Miriam was off men.
Ben was a clerk in Aer Lingus. Miriam met him at a dance in the Olympic Ballroom and they hit it off immediately. She felt as though she’d known him all her life. He asked her to lunch the following day and to her surprise she found herself saying yes. Although she was nervous as she waited for him at the corner of Henry Street, she looked forward to seeing him again. He walked towards her with his long loping stride and smiled. Miriam smiled back, happy to see him. He was tall and gangly and somewhat bashful which Miriam found unthreatening and attractive. Ben was a great listener. He drew her out of herself. They chatted away and she couldn’t even remember what she’d had for lunch when she went back to work.
He’d asked her to the pictures the following Sunday, and as she waited for him to call, she fussed anxiously over her hair. She’d been trying to curl it into a flick but it just kinked up and wouldn’t do what she wanted it to do. It was typical. The very time she wanted to look sophisticated and with-it, and her hair just wouldn’t behave. The ding-dong of the doorbell sent her into a tizzy but when she opened it and saw him standing there, smiling, she didn’t care about her hair.
‘Howya,’ he said.
‘Hi Ben.’ She felt shy. Knowing he felt the same helped and, impulsively, she hugged him as he stepped into the hall. The warmth of his hug in return made her feel delightfully cherished. A new and totally unfamiliar feeling for her. She liked it very much. Never having received much attention before then, Ben’s hug was a turning point in her life.
Some months later when she’d got to know and really trust him she found herself telling him about the will and how hurt she felt. He was horrified. His face darkened in anger and she was utterly touched that he felt so moved for her. He became extremely protective of her and Miriam realized that her feelings towards him had changed from friendship to love. She wanted to be with him always. She loved the way he made her feel precious and wanted. When he told her that he loved her she knew that she was the luckiest girl in the world.
Ben brought her to Glenree to meet his family. It was a small rural town about ten miles north of Dublin, near the airport. The Munroes lived in a rambling farmhouse just outside the town. Mr Munroe was the town butcher. He didn’t farm his land himself, he had it set to a neighbour. Mr Munroe was a nice man, very different to her father. Miriam liked him, but Mrs Munroe was a bit stand-offish. Miriam knew Ben’s mother felt that Miriam wasn’t good enough for her son.
Even to this day, after four years of marriage, Sheila Munroe never lost an opportunity to let her know that Miriam was very fortunate to have married into the Munroe clan. Sheila Munroe was certainly a cross she had to bear.
Miriam sighed as she came back to reality. Looking back always depressed her and brought back the familiar feelings of hurt and rejection. She ate a plump juicy blackberry, and enjoyed its tangy taste. Yes, she was lucky to have met a man like Ben, certainly. But he was lucky to have met her. She was a very good wife. Ben’s sister, Ellen, was always saying she spoilt Ben rotten.
Miriam liked Ellen. She was in her late twenties, as mad as a hatter and always in the throes of a great romance that was going wrong. Ellen thrived on trauma.
Miriam grinned. Ellen had already met Emma Connolly and was not impressed. ‘She’s a right little consequence if you ask me. A right Lady Lala. Vincent must be mad. She’ll never settle down out here in the sticks,’ Ellen scoffed after the first encounter.
But it seemed as though Emma was indeed going to settle in Glenree because Vincent was already drawing up plans for a magnificent house to be built on the site that was his parents’ wedding gift to the couple.
Miriam glanced at her watch, she’d want to get a move on. Sheila had asked her to come early to help with the preparations for ‘The Tea’. Ben was minding their two children, he’d bring them over later. She could see the farmhouse nestled between two great oak trees that had just the faintest touch of autumn gold and russets. Smoke curled from the chimney. The fire was lit in the parlour. Sheila meant business. Tea was only held in the parlour on rare occasions such as a visit by the priest or after a funeral. She’d had to make do with tea in the kitchen, Miriam thought with a wry smile as she headed towards the farmhouse.
• • •
Sheila Munroe tutted in disgust as the stem of a pink gladioli snapped. ‘Typical!’ she muttered. Just when you needed things to go right. She’d arranged gladioli hundreds of times. Arranged them for the altar, arranged them for the Women’s Guild. Arranged them for her own sideboard on occasions too numerous to count, but today, when she needed everything to be perfect, she was all fingers and thumbs. It was a particularly nice shade of pink too, she thought crossly, as she laid it aside.
She glanced out of the kitchen window. Where was that Miriam one? She’d promised to come and help. Ellen was useless, she had made a batch of scones that Sheila couldn’t possibly put on the table, they were so big and untidy. Sheila gave a martyred sniff. She should have made them herself. The only way to get things right was to do them yourself and not be depending on that other pair.
She wanted everything just so. Emma might be a judge’s daughter but she’d not eat a better meal anywhere than at Sheila’s table. She cooked the choicest meat every day, thanks to Mick and his butcher’s shop. Sheila’s cooking couldn’t be topped. She was the best cook in the guild. She had certificates and awards to prove it. Her sponges, tarts and scones had won many an award. There was no better fed family in the country, Sheila assured herself as she tidied up leaves and stalks and stood back to admire her handiwork. She fiddled a bit more before she was finally satisfied with the flower arrangement. She carried it in to the table in the parlour and placed it on top of the pristine Irish linen tablecloth. She picked up one of the silver knives and rubbed it with her apron until it gleamed.
She had been in a bit of a dither as to whether she should serve wine. It would have been a fine excuse to show off her Waterford Crystal wineglasses. But Emma had been invited to tea. Not lunch, not dinner. Sheila wasn’t quite sure, but she didn’t think it was quite the done thing to serve wine at tea. Maybe sophisticated people like the Connollys didn’t have tea. Maybe she should have invited her to lunch.
‘Oh dear,’ Sheila muttered, beginning to get into a right tizzy. It was hard to know what to do with young ladies from high society. It was all very well boasting to the ladies of the guild that Vincent was engaged to a judge’s daughter, but right this minute she wished he hadn’t been quite so highbrow in his choice of wife-to-be.
• • •
Emma Connolly drew deep on her filter-tipped cigarette and exhaled a thin plume of smoke through her nostrils. She wished this tea thing was over. She’d visited Vincent’s family twice before. Just fleeting visits on Sunday afternoons before she and Vincent headed off to go for a walk on the pier in Howth. Mrs Munroe had fussed over her. Ellen hadn’t been over-friendly. Only Mr Munroe seemed anyway normal. Now she was going to have to endure at least three solid hours of being fussed over when she’d much rather be having a drink and some fun with her set. Still, needs must. After all they were Vincent’s family and they hadn’t even seen her engagement ring. But Vincent needn’t think that Sunday tea with the Munroes was going to become a habit. Once she was married and in her own house Emma would do her own Sunday entertaining. And Mr and Mrs Munroe and sourpuss Ellen would definitely not be on the guest list.
Emma stifled a yawn. She and Vincent had been at a party the night before and it was all hours when he brought her home. Friends of theirs, Gillian and Frank, had thrown a house-warming party and, Emma had to admit, she was impressed. They’d had an interior decorator redo the Victorian house from top to bottom. They’d had a pine kitchen fitted. Pine was very ‘in’ these days. And they had an antique four-poster bed with lots of frilly broderie anglaise pillows. Emma was pea-green with envy when she saw it. They even had a nursery, which Emma thought was tempting fate a bit. They’d just got married. What was the big rush? She didn’t intend ruining her perfect size ten figure for years.
Still, Gillian and Frank had set a very high standard in the house stakes. Emma had no intention of lagging behind. That was why she had agreed to come to live in this godforsaken back of beyond in North County Dublin. She sighed deeply. Mr and Mrs Munroe were giving Vincent a site as a wedding present. Vincent said they could build their own house from scratch and it would be much less expensive than buying a Victorian pile in Sandycove or the like. When this suggestion was first mooted, she put her foot down and said a very emphatic no!
There was no way she was going to live in the country. Even if it was only ten minutes from the airport and twenty-five into the city. She wanted to live near her friends on the southside. She wanted to be able to pop into Grafton Street to shop, without making a grand safari. Glenree was miles away from all her favourite haunts. And miles away from Mummy and Daddy. In vain did Vincent point out that, if they built their own house, they could design it whatever way they wanted. In vain did he point out that she could zip in and out of town in the little red Mini her parents had given her for her twenty-first birthday. She wanted to live in the civilized suburbs, not the backwoods.
And then when she was having lunch with Gillian one day, in the Russell, she told her friend what Vincent was proposing. She’d said it with her eyes thrown up to heaven in a ‘isn’t he absolutely crazy’ tone. Gillian gave a little squeal and exclaimed, ‘Oh how wonderful!’ Emma was flabbergasted.
‘It’s our dream to live in the country. Frank wants to be a Lord of the Manor. How lovely for you. And you’ll be able to build your house whatever way you want. You can have ensuite bedrooms, a utility room, a huge dining-room, not like our little cubby-hole,’ she said enviously. Privately Emma thought Gillian and Frank’s little ‘cubby-hole’ was most impressive with its oval mahogany dining-suite and the heavy flock wallpaper and red velvet curtains.
‘Are you going to have stables? If you’re living in the country you’ll be able to keep horses,’ Gillian asked breathlessly. ‘Oh trust you, Connolly, to land a catch like Vincent. A gorgeous hunk with land as well. My dad says land out there is going to sell for zillions because of the building boom.’
‘Mmm,’ Emma murmured non-committally. This was news to her. She couldn’t believe her friend’s reaction. It really would be one up on all her friends if she had horses and stables. They all loved riding and had to pay a fortune on stabling fees. Maybe living in the sticks might have its advantages after all. And Vincent was right. She had the Mini, it wouldn’t take that long to get into Dublin.
‘If I agree to live in Glenree can I have a horse and stables?’ Emma asked Vincent that evening, when he came to take her out to dinner. Her fiancé’s eyes lit up.
‘You certainly can. In fact I’ll buy you a horse for a wedding present. How would you like that?’
‘Oh Vincent, you are good to me,’ she murmured, nestling close against him. ‘And can we have ensuite bedrooms and a utility room and a huge dining-room?’
‘We can have whatever you like.’ Vincent kissed the tip of her nose.
The set were deeply impressed when they heard these plans. Overnight Gillian and Frank were relegated to the second division in the keeping-up-with stakes. Vincent and Emma’s magnificent new pad was the talk of every dinner party in town.
Emma lit another cigarette as they drove into the town of Glenree. Well the inhabitants called it a town. She’d call it a village, Emma sniffed as she gazed around her. It didn’t have one decent boutique. And the small hotel was a hoot. She’d had a glass of white wine there once and it was actually warm. It was a very clean town, she had to admit. And the main street was quite wide, not like some of those awful narrow windy streets of some of the towns they drove through on the way to Cork.
They got stuck behind a car with a horsebox moving at a snail’s pace so Emma sat back and viewed Glenree with renewed interest. Now that she was going to be living here she might as well see what it had to offer. The first building was a garage, Noel Doyle Motors. There were a few ancient Morris Minors and several Minis and a Ford Cortina on the forecourt and a pair of gleaming petrol pumps. Next to the garage there was a betting shop. She wouldn’t be frequenting the bookies, she thought dryly. Then came Egan’s Foodstore, and beside it a bakery. And then her father-in-law-to-be’s butcher shop. Emma had to admit Munroe’s Meats and Poultry looked very impressive from the outside. Mr Munroe had recently had new windows installed. Big plate windows that made the shop look very modern indeed. He had nice tile work on the front of the building and a big red and white striped canopy which was unfurled during working days. It was immaculately clean and he even had two baskets with gorgeous flowering geraniums on each side of the door. It was the most impressive-looking shop on the street, Emma decided. She wouldn’t fancy working in it though. Ellen, his daughter, was the cashier. It sounded quite boring. Emma did secretarial work for her father. It wasn’t very taxing and she had a lot of free time, unlike Ellen, who had to work from eight-thirty to six.
Next to Mr Munroe’s was a small coffee shop which had faded blue and white gingham curtains to match the tablecloths. It looked a bit twee. The church stood in its own neatly kept grounds. Big beds of flowering shrubs lined the grey stone walls that enclosed the grounds and a gravel walkway led to the entrance. It wasn’t a very big church, from the outside. Emma had never been in it, but she knew Mrs Munroe was on the committee that kept it clean and did flower arranging and so on.
Emma frowned as they drove slowly past St Joseph’s. She didn’t bother going to Mass that often now. Her parents always went to the Hibernian for Sunday lunch with friends and they left the house before twelve. They assumed that Emma went to twelve-thirty Mass in the parish church. She’d got into the habit of turning over and having a lie-in, especially if she’d been out on the town the night before, as was usually the case. When she came to Glenree, she’d probably have to put in an appearance on Sunday mornings. It wouldn’t go down too well with her in-laws that their son was married to a heathen.
It was such a nuisance. It wasn’t as if they were living in the fifties any more. They were in a new decade. It was nineteen sixty-one. Times were changing. She’d had a taste of it only this summer. She’d gone to London to stay with her newly married sister, Jane. She’d had a ball away from the restrictions of home. London was paradise. The clothes, the markets, the shops and restaurants, were unbelievable. Emma loved to go to the theatre or cinema and then go on to one of the coffee bars with Jane and her friends. The coffee bars were so hip with their with-it cane furniture, rubber plants and jukeboxes. The steaming Gaggia machines made the frothiest coffee. There was nothing at home to compare with such cool sophistication.
It was exciting to listen to people discussing the films of Truffaut and Fellini. She’d listened to animated debates about the superiority of Pinter’s plays to John Osborne’s. And someone called Eugene Ionesco caused fierce argument. He was someone you either loved or hated . . . seemingly. Not that Emma had a clue. Most of the names were unknown to her, but she nodded and murmured ‘Mmm’ at what she judged were the right moments and nobody seemed to notice that she was completely at sea. They were too busy impressing the hell out of each other with their witty incisive observations and repartee.
She’d gone to a jazz night and heard the great George Melly play and then gone on to a party where people were smoking pot and drinking gallons of wine. It was very ‘way out’ as Jane would say. But the most exciting moment of her holiday was when she’d joined the hundreds of thousands of cheering people who’d lined President Kennedy and Jackie’s route from London airport. Getting a glimpse of the golden couple had been the biggest thrill.
Jackie was Emma’s heroine. Her style, her poise, her sophistication was everything she aspired to. When she was in London Emma changed her long flowing hairstyle to the ultra-chic bouffant style that Jackie sported with such élan.
Gillian and the gang were deeply impressed and lost no time in following suit. Vincent said the hairdo was nice, but he missed her long hair and hoped she’d grow it again. But as long as Jackie and her bouffant ruled supreme, Emma would be a faithful disciple.
She’d gone to immense trouble this morning to get her hair just right for the occasion. She wanted to look her best when she met the rest of Vincent’s family. Today she was wearing an elegant sleeveless A-line pastel pink dress, slightly above the knee, à la Jackie. She wore a single strand of pearls around her slender neck. A pair of patent pumps and a black patent shoulder bag completed the ensemble. Emma was very pleased with the stylish result. Although it would probably be wasted on the Mary Hicks of Glenree. She sighed. They were passing the Glenree Arms just at the end of town, another few minutes and they’d be at the Munroes’.
‘Are you hungry?’ Vincent turned and smiled at her. He had a lovely smile. Even though she was fed up at the thought of going to tea with his family, she would give an Oscar-winning performance because it was important to her fiancé.
‘I’m ravenous,’ she assured him.
‘Great. Mam’s been cooking all morning. She wants to make a good impression.’ Vincent glanced at her.
‘There’s no need, really.’
‘You know what mothers are like,’ Vincent laughed.
‘Yeah, I know,’ Emma agreed. When her mother wanted to impress people she took them out to dinner. Pamela Connolly wouldn’t be caught dead slaving over a cooker. Privately Emma thought Mrs Munroe was crazy to be doing all this cooking for her. Had the woman no cop-on at all? How did she think Emma kept her size ten figure? It certainly wasn’t by guzzling sponges and tarts and cream cakes and the like. Well, even if it hurt Sheila’s feelings, Emma was not going to stuff herself with fattening food. Some things were more important than making an impression. Not for anyone would Emma jeopardize her envied figure.
• • •
‘For crying out loud, you’d think it was the Queen of bloody Sheba that was coming to tea,’ Ellen muttered out of the side of her mouth as she savagely cut the crusts off the ham sandwiches and cut them into neat triangles. Miriam giggled. Ellen was not in a good humour. She was nursing a broken heart (her ex had ditched her for an eighteen-year-old nubile). She had a raging hangover acquired in the effort to erase all memories of He-Whose-Name-Would-Never-Pass-Her-Lips-Again. Bed was where she wanted to be. The last thing she wanted was to have to entertain Her Highness Connolly. To add insult to injury, she’d been informed by her mother that her scones did not pass muster.
‘Maybe once we get to know her she’ll be quite nice,’ Miriam ventured.
‘Are you kidding?’ Ellen snorted. ‘She looks down her cute little button nose at the likes of us and I for one don’t like being patronized. Miriam, the day I like her, snowballs will roast in hell! And if Vincent can’t see what a superficial little snob she is, he’s an idiot. But then what do you expect? He’s so busy social climbing these days.’ She viciously sliced a tomato in quarters. Miriam prudently kept quiet.
One thing about Ellen, if she took a dislike to you, she took a dislike to you. Fortunately they got on extremely well. Miriam was dying to meet Emma. She couldn’t help feeling a little hurt when she saw all the trouble Sheila was going to for her guest. Tea set out in the parlour. The best china and silverware. Fancy sandwiches and all sorts of cakes and tarts. When Ben had brought her to visit her in-laws for the first time, tea had been served at the big square table in the kitchen. She hadn’t merited the linen tablecloth or posh napkins. It had been ordinary everyday red check gingham for her. And the crusts certainly hadn’t been cut off the sandwiches.
Miriam felt a surge of resentment. Who was to say Emma Connolly was any better than she was, just because she was a judge’s daughter? Mrs Munroe was always quick to come to Miriam for help when she was entertaining the guild ladies or having the priest say The Stations of the Cross in her house. Would she be as quick to ask Emma to lend a hand when she became her daughter-in-law?
It was the same old thing she’d been used to at home. Good old obliging Miriam who could always be relied upon. Well a bit of thanks now and again wouldn’t go amiss. She’d never got thanked at home. She was a fool to expect it here, she thought sourly. A cloud of bad humour enveloped her. She wished this damn tea was over so that she could go home to her own house. There at least she was queen. She was loved and cherished by her husband and her little girl, Connie, and Daniel, her baby son. They were the important ones. To hell with the rest of them!
‘Cheer up.’ Ellen grinned. ‘Wait until it’s time to entertain the judge and his wife. Then we’ll be in real trouble.’ Miriam had to laugh. Thank God for Ellen. She was a good pal.
‘Here, have a sanger,’ Ellen offered. The two of them were munching on the tiny triangles when Sheila arrived looking flustered.
‘Now what did I do with my handbag?’ She caught sight of the girls chomping on the sandwiches.
‘For goodness’ sake, would you pair leave the food alone or there’ll be nothing left for tea. You’re worse than children,’ she scolded.
‘Oh Ma, would you stop getting into a flap. There’s plenty of food, for God’s sake!’ Ellen said irritably.
‘Oh heavens! They’re here.’ Sheila heard the crunch of gravel as Vincent’s car drove up. ‘Quick, bring those sandwiches in to the table.’ She whipped her apron off and hurried out to the hall to greet her guests.
‘Mick. They’re here! Come out to the door with me,’ she ordered her husband. Ellen raised her eyes to heaven.
‘Can I move in and live with you, Miriam, if this is going to happen every time she comes to visit? My nerves will be shot to hell!’ She grabbed the plate of sandwiches and held them aloft. ‘Come on, let’s go charm the pants off dear Ems before Mother has hysterics altogether.’
‘Aah, Miriam dear,’ Sheila said sweetly as Miriam preceded Ellen into the parlour. Her mother-in-law was using her posh voice, Miriam noted with amusement.
‘Miriam, let me introduce you to Emma Connolly. Emma, this is Miriam, Ben’s wife. Ben will be here shortly with the children.’
‘How do you do?’ Miriam murmured politely. She shook hands with the petite dark-haired girl standing in front of her. She saw an extremely pretty girl with wide dark almond eyes under sharply defined eyebrows. Her cheekbones were high, classical. Her mouth a Bardot-like pout. Emma was dressed in the height of fashion, and beside her, Miriam felt gauche and dowdy in her white blouse, pale blue cardigan and full skirt.
‘Nice to meet you,’ Emma murmured. She gave a limp handshake and Miriam noticed the other girl’s perfectly manicured nails with their coating of smooth pink nail varnish. Some people were just naturally elegant. Emma was one of them.
‘Hi Emma,’ Ellen said breezily. ‘Let’s have a look at the sparkler.’ Emma extended her left hand. A diamond solitaire gleamed on her third finger. Ellen whistled. ‘Liz Taylor eat your heart out! Very nice, Emma. Congratulations.’
‘Oh. Thank you.’ Emma’s cool tones took on a note of warmth.
‘When do you plan to get married?’ Miriam asked as Sheila urged them all to sit down.
‘Valentine’s Day, next spring,’ Emma said coyly.
‘How romantic!’ Ellen declared. ‘Vincent, I never knew you had it in you.’
‘Well now you know.’ Vincent grinned. ‘We didn’t want to get married too soon after Christmas, but we didn’t want to hang around either.’
‘That’s the way to do it.’ Mick beamed. He was dying to get his hands on the sausage rolls with the golden flaky pastry, fresh out of the oven, the way he liked them.
‘Have you any idea where you’re going to have the wedding breakfast, dear?’ Sheila asked delicately. Miriam knew her mother-in-law was extremely anxious to know where the reception was to be held. It would set the tone of the whole wedding. She’d know then if it was going to be posh, ultra-posh, or the wedding of the season, even.
Emma turned her limpid gaze on Sheila. ‘Oh Daddy wants to hold it in the Shelbourne,’ she said airily and Miriam knew by her mother-in-law’s reaction that she was somewhat relieved. It would be posh, but not too intimidatingly so. ‘But Mummy and I want to hold it in the International,’ Emma chirruped gaily. ‘It’s modern and sophisticated. Much more me. We’re working on Daddy. I think he’s wavering.’
‘I see,’ Sheila said faintly. Miriam could tell she was horrified. The International was very very posh indeed. Sheila would be way out of her depth. As she would be herself, Miriam thought glumly. At least she’d have Ellen to have a bit of a laugh with. If the wedding was in February, she had almost six months to lose a stone. I’ll start tomorrow, Miriam decided. There was no point starting now. Not with all those goodies Sheila had baked. She’d love to be able to wear her hair in that bouffant style, but it was curly so that was out. Maybe she might get it cut very short, or even straightened for the day. But she was definitely going to look elegant. It would probably be her first and last time in the International Hotel. She was going to look her best.
Sheila was dispensing sherry. Although she was putting on a good front, she was rattled. She was going to have to have a serious talk to Vincent about this wedding nonsense. The International Hotel was much too grand. Even if the judge and his wife were paying for the wedding. She glanced at her husband. He didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned. But that was Mick for you. He took people as he found them and expected the same in return. It wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to him if the reception was held in the International, the Glenree Arms, or here in the parlour.
‘We’re going to start the house next week, we have the plans drawn up and the planning permission’s come through,’ Vincent declared as he took Emma’s hand in his.
‘Are you going to build a bungalow?’ Miriam asked.
‘Oh no,’ Emma’s tone was dismissive. ‘Bungalows are so boring!’
Miriam stiffened in her chair. The cheek of her looking down her pert little stuck-up nose at bungalows. Just because she lived in a mansion in Foxrock.
‘It’s kind of split-level. It’s an American design,’ Vincent explained hastily.
‘It’s fabulous,’ Emma enthused. ‘It’s semi-open-plan. We’re going to have a lot of wood panelling. Plenty of glass to let in natural light and make the most of the view of the valley. I hate poky little windows.’
Sheila flushed and Ellen flashed Miriam a glance. The windows in the farmhouse, while not exactly poky, were not very large. Emma’s remark was in rather poor taste. She didn’t notice her faux pas and rattled on artlessly about her ensuite bedrooms and huge dining-room. Vincent looked a little uncomfortable.
‘It’s just a good opportunity to do something a little different, seeing as we can start from scratch,’ he said placatingly.
‘I see,’ Sheila said stiffly. ‘It all sounds very interesting, I’m sure.’ Fortunately Ben and the children arrived just then. Miriam smiled at her husband. Many would judge Vincent the more handsome of the two brothers but in Miriam’s view Ben’s craggy face had much more character. Her husband had dark chestnut hair, hazel eyes ringed by silky black lashes, a straight nose and a wide well-shaped mouth that smiled easily. He was tall and lean, and his temperament was very calm and easygoing. Vincent was much more go-ahead and ambitious.
‘Hi.’ Ben leaned down and kissed Miriam on the cheek and smiled at her. He gave her the tiniest wink and she smiled back, warmed by his empathy. He had already met Emma. Vincent and she had called in to see him in the reservations office in O’Connell Street and they’d all gone to the Gresham for lunch. So he’d seen Emma in action, he knew what to expect.
Daniel squirmed in his father’s arms. At fifteen months he was a handful. Connie stood shyly behind Ben. The parlour was new territory to her. Miriam drew her towards her and put her arm around her. ‘Did you help Daddy mind Daniel?’
‘Yes. An’ Mammy he had a filthy poohy nappy an’ it was all over his bottom. An’ I wiped it for Daddy with the blue sponge,’ she said breathlessly.
Sheila shot them a daggers look. ‘Such things to be talking about and we ready to sit down to our tea.’
‘I’ll mind the kids if you’d like to have tea in peace,’ Ellen offered.
‘Not at all, Ellen.’ Miriam knew precisely what her sister-in-law was up to. She needn’t think she was getting off that lightly.
‘I need you to make the tea, Ellen,’ Sheila ordered. ‘And Miriam, would you bring in the strawberries and cream from the larder.’
‘Would it be very awkward if I asked for coffee instead of tea?’ Emma asked demurely.
‘Not at all, dear. Miriam will make it for you.’
‘Just black, please, Miriam. Thank you very much.’
‘Certainly,’ said Miriam, feeling more like Wee Slavey every minute.
‘This is the last time I’m getting involved in this carry-on,’ Ellen grumbled as she boiled the water for the tea. ‘I’m not wasting every Sunday entertaining Vincent and Ems. Who does she think she is? Did you hear her about bungalows and poky windows? Patronizing snob.’ Ellen’s voice rose indignantly. ‘And did you ever see anything like the hair? A swallow’s nest has nothing on it. I had my escape route all planned. I was going to take Daniel and Connie out picking blackberries. You could have encouraged it.’
Miriam laughed. ‘Yeah, thanks. You didn’t mind a bit, me being stuck with her. I don’t know what to say to the girl. I’ve nothing in common with her.’
‘Has anyone? She’s from another planet,’ Ellen said tartly. ‘Ma nearly fainted when she heard about the International. Vincent will get a right earbashing tonight. He needn’t think he’s going to act the lord with his handmaidens waiting on him. He can bloody well do the washing-up,’ Ellen decreed as she heated the teapot. ‘Do you want some water to make Madame’s coffee?’
‘What’s keeping you?’ Sheila appeared. ‘Miriam, could you give Daniel a bottle or something, he’s very boisterous? He nearly pulled the tablecloth off the table.’
‘I’ll bring him home if you like?’ Miriam said hopefully. Ellen glowered at her.
‘I need you here. Put him in his pram and give him a bottle,’ Sheila ordered. ‘But bring in that coffee to Emma first. Hurry along with that tea, Ellen.’ She bustled out of the kitchen.
‘Heil Hitler,’ snorted Ellen, goose-stepping around the kitchen with the kettle. Miriam could hear Ben giving out to Daniel in the other room. Her heart sank. It was always the same when you wanted them to be on their best behaviour.
‘I better get Daniel out of there. Come on, stop messing around and bring the tea in.’ She brightened. ‘At least I’ve an excuse to go home early with the children. They come in very handy sometimes.’
‘Some friend you are,’ Ellen said grumpily.
‘You get free flights?’ Emma was saying to Ben as Miriam handed her the cup of coffee. ‘Lucky you.’ She smiled at Miriam. ‘Did you go abroad this year? Is that where you got your tan from?’
‘We just went to Paris for a weekend. I got my tan here in Glenree.’ Miriam laughed.
‘Oh. Paris must have been nice. I’m trying to persuade Vincent to bring me there.’
‘By the time we get the house of your dreams built, plus the horse, plus the stable, we’ll be lucky to afford a weekend in Bray,’ Vincent joked as he tucked into the plate of sandwiches.
Emma nibbled on one of hers. ‘Don’t be silly, Vincent,’ she rebuked.
‘Any jobs going in Aer Lingus, Ben?’ Vincent winked at his brother.
Emma was not amused. You’d think Vincent hadn’t a penny. Going on about the cost of the house and horse and everything. Implying that all his money was being spent on her. Wait until she got him on his own. She took another sip of coffee. Miriam hadn’t a clue how to make coffee. It was terribly bitter. She seemed a nice enough girl. Much nicer than that dreadful Ellen. The state of her in her slacks and stilettos. She hadn’t bothered to dress up at all. Which was rather rude in Emma’s opinion. At least Miriam seemed to have made an effort, even if the result was somewhat dowdy.
As for the mother! Emma sighed. Sheila was going to drive her mad. If only she’d stop fussing. Handing her the plate of sandwiches before she’d even finished the one she was eating. Pressing buns and slices of rich fruit cake and tarts on her. She’d never seen anyone eat like Mr Munroe. He’d scoffed three sausage rolls, one after the other. This was definitely the last time she was going through this ordeal, Emma vowed. They’d all seen the ring. She’d met the family. That was more than enough.
• • •
‘She’s got a very poor appetite,’ Sheila said disapprovingly. She was making another cup of coffee for Emma before she went home.
‘Stop worrying, Sheila,’ her husband said.
‘Maybe she didn’t like my cooking? She hardly ate a thing,’ Sheila fretted.
‘She’s a skinny little thing. Two bites of a sandwich would fill her,’ Mick comforted.
Sheila was not one bit happy. The tea had not gone well. Ellen had a face on her. The children had misbehaved. Sheila couldn’t even face the thought of the wedding breakfast. Maybe it wouldn’t come to that. Maybe she could persuade Vincent that Emma was not the girl for him. Things were not working out as planned at all. The Connollys were too posh for the likes of them. And that was something that Sheila Munroe had never thought she’d admit to anyone. Well she wouldn’t admit it to anyone, she was just thinking it to herself, she thought crossly as she poured water over the coffee and hoped that she hadn’t made it too strong.
• • •
‘What did you make of Emma then?’ Ben asked as he deftly changed his son’s nappy.
‘She’s a bit silly if you ask me. With all those airs and graces. And Mummy this and Daddy that. I thought she’d an awful cheek saying that about the windows and dismissing bungalows as if they were slums,’ Miriam retorted. She’d told Ben what Emma had said.
She was glad the tea was over. She had a thumping headache. Daniel had got extremely cantankerous and Connie had knocked her cup of milk all over Sheila’s good tablecloth. Miriam had been on edge until they left.
‘She’ll get sense. She’ll suit Vincent though. They’ll be a glamorous couple, climbing to the top. Not like us pair of fuddy-duddies.’
‘I like being a fuddy-duddy.’ Miriam leaned over and gave her husband a kiss. ‘I don’t want a split-level house and a horse and stables. I’m perfectly happy here with you in our little bungalow with poky windows.’
‘Me too,’ Ben grinned. ‘Did you see the face of Ellen when Vincent offered to wash up and Mam told him it was all right, Ellen would do it. I thought she was going to burst. I went out to give her a hand and by heavens Mam was lucky to get all her crockery washed up in one piece. Ellen was sizzling. I can tell you one thing, I’m glad I’m in my own little peaceful abode tonight.’
Miriam laughed. She knew Ellen wouldn’t put up with such treatment in silence. There’d be fireworks when she got Sheila on her own tonight. It served her mother-in-law right, Miriam thought unsympathetically. She knew Sheila was in a right state too about the International. Well, they’d all had the judge’s daughter shoved down their necks, ever since Vincent started dating her. Now Mrs Munroe was just going to have to put up with the consequences of getting involved with high society. Emma’s arrival into the Munroe family was going to make for some very interesting times ahead, thought Miriam as she took Daniel from Ben and began to feed him his bottle. Now, Sheila Munroe just might realize how lucky she was with her other daughter-in-law. Even if she was only a farmer’s daughter. Miriam had enjoyed her mother-in-law’s discomfiture today. It helped make up for all the many little barbs that had been cast in her direction over the years. Miriam thought that Emma was just what Sheila deserved.