Fifteen years ago, chance brought them together, and friendship has bound them until now. Over the years, in the small Irish town of Ballyfergus, four women have shared their triumphs and tragedy. Men have come and gone, children been born and left home. Life has taken them down paths they never expected, but through it all their friendship has endured... But all that's about to change. This year their friendship will be tested as never before. Can it survive the strain and come through unscathed?
Warm, emotive Irish storytelling, perfect for fans of Cathy Kelly and Maeve Binchy.
People said that time healed all wounds. But Janice Kirkpatrick knew that wasnâ€™t true. She could remember every minute of that New Yearâ€™s Eve â€“ the one just after sheâ€™d turned eleven â€“ as though it were yesterday. She bit her lip, closed her eyes and, by sheer force of will, made the memories disappear. Just as she had done for the last twenty-seven years.
She opened her eyes and tried to focus on the present. It was the thirty-first of December and she was locked in the en-suite bathroom with her dearest friends: Patsy, Clare and Kirsty. Downstairs, the party was in full swing, the thud of a glam rock hit from the seventies reverberating through the thick walls of the house in Ballyfergus.
â€œOkay. Whoâ€™s going to make their New Yearâ€™s Resolution first?â€ asked Patsy, a short buxom blonde wearing satin peep-toes the colour of bubble-gum who was perched on the lid of the closed bidet. She hiccupped and slapped her hand over her mouth. Janice and the other two women giggled, the sudden exhalation of their breath causing the flames of nearby candles to flicker.
Janice, reclining in hedonistic fashion in the empty claw-foot bathtub, a champagne flute held aloft, felt suddenly uneasy. She wasnâ€™t in the habit of making resolutions, not public ones anyway.
â€œArenâ€™t you supposed to keep them a secret?â€ asked Clare, at thirty-five the youngest woman in the room. She had one of those faces that could, with the right grooming, look striking. But in spite of all Janiceâ€™s encouragement and advice over the years, Clare just wasnâ€™t cut out to be a glamour-puss. Tonight, enthroned on the closed toilet seat, she wore a plain black dress and low heels, her long brown hair tied back severely in a diamante clasp â€“ her only apparent concession to the festive season.
â€œNo,â€ said Patsy, waving the objection away with her hand and coming perilously close to spilling champagne on her black pencil skirt. â€œSure, if we canâ€™t tell each other,â€ she said, stopping to suppress another hiccup, â€œwho can we tell?â€
Janice didnâ€™t like New Yearâ€™s Eve and the retrospection and sentimentality that accompanied it. And the alcohol sheâ€™d consumed wasnâ€™t quite enough, yet, to obliterate all the dark thoughts that normally accompanied this evening. For her, the idea of hosting the party â€“ which they did every year â€“ was to fill the house with noise and laughter in an effort to displace the depressing nostalgia she always associated with this night. However, she was well aware that her three dearest friends had a more optimistic take on life and she resolved to humour them.
â€œHow about you, Kirsty?â€ said Janice, addressing the prettiest woman in the room by far, who was seated cross-legged on the laundry bin, a solid teak chest Janice had specially imported from Thailand. It suited the oriental theme of the black and grey tiled room â€“ Janiceâ€™s serene retreat from the world beyond. But before Kirsty had time to answer, Janice added, â€œI know what your resolution should be.â€
â€œYou do? Oh, donâ€™t tell me. Let me guess. Time for me to get myself a man,â€ said Kirsty, rolling her eyes.
Unlike Clare, thought Janice, Kirstyâ€™s natural beauty did not require much in the way of enhancement. Tonight she wore little more than mascara and lip-gloss and she looked gorgeous in a halter-neck dress that matched the grass-green colour of her eyes and complemented the autumnal reddish tone of her shoulder-length hair. She could do with being a tiny little bit thinner â€“ if she was a size eight, like Janice, and a tad taller, she would be model material.
â€œNot exactly. But it is time for you to have some fun. Time to get out and about and start dating. You need to remind yourself that youâ€™re a woman,â€ said Janice, putting an ooh-la-la emphasis on the last word.
â€œI know Iâ€™m a woman,â€ tutted Kirsty good-naturedly. â€œI donâ€™t need a man to find that out.â€
â€œJanice is right enough, though,â€ said Patsy, who was the oldest of the group â€“ a full decade older than Kirsty â€“ and fancied herself a bit of an agony aunt. â€œIt might do you good to get out and meet new people.â€ What she really meant by â€˜peopleâ€™ was men. She pulled herself up to her full seated height, the buttons of her grey satin blouse, the same colour as Janiceâ€™s eyes, straining against her large bosom.
Her eyes, the grey-green colour of the sea on a dull day, twinkled with mischief.
Kirsty let out a soft sigh and smiled, her eyes moist in the candlelight. â€œI suppose youâ€™re right,â€ she said and immediately Janice regretted any pain she might have inadvertently caused. But before she could speak, Kirsty cleared her throat, raised her champagne glass and said gamely, â€œMy New Yearâ€™s Resolution is to . . . to get out more and date!â€
â€œToo vague,â€ said Clare.
Kirstyâ€™s lowered her glass and looked imploringly at Janice and Patsy. â€œWhat should I say then?â€
â€œHow about saying that this year you will date at least ten men?â€ said Janice.
â€œTen?â€ said Kirsty incredulously.
â€œSteady on, Janice!â€ said Patsy, almost choking on a mouthful of champagne. She pointed at Kirsty and said in her deep, gravelly voice, incongruous with her short stature, â€œWhere in the name of God is she going to meet ten decent men? Have you seen what passes for eligible bachelors in Ballyfergus?â€
â€œPoint taken,â€ said Janice with a giggle. â€œHow about five, then?â€
Patsy raised her right eyebrow just a fraction and Janice rolled her eyes.
â€œOkay. Four. Come on!â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s only one a quarter. Surely you could manage that? Unless of course the first one turns out to be The One and then you donâ€™t have to date any more!â€
â€œChance would be a fine thing,â€ said Kirsty with a wry smile and then, more upbeat, she added, â€œOkay then. This year I will date at least four eligible bachelors.â€
â€œGreat. Well done, Kirsty,â€ said Patsy, sounding like a proud mum.
â€œOkay, someone else now,â€ said Kirsty, looking pleased to have her turn, like a visit to the dentist, over and done with.
â€œKirsty, darling, do the honours,â€ said Janice, presenting an empty crystal glass to Kirsty who reached into the ice-filled sink and pulled out a bottle of Bollinger champagne. Using a fluffy hand-towel to capture the beads of water that ran off the bottle like perspiration, she refilled Janiceâ€™s glass.
â€œThank you, sweetheart.â€
â€œAnyone else for a top-up?â€ said Kirsty and, in response to the murmurs of assent, she proceeded to dispense the effervescent straw-coloured liquid in the over-careful manner of the mildly inebriated. When everyoneâ€™s glass was filled to the brim, Kirsty put the empty bottle back in the sink, alongside the one theyâ€™d finished earlier.
â€œSo, what about you, Patsy?â€ said Kirsty. â€œWhatâ€™s your resolution going to be?â€
â€œWell . . . you know Iâ€™ve always wanted to go to Africa, on safari?â€
â€œYes!â€ said Clare. â€œI remember you talking about it the very first time we all met at that art class. How long ago was that?â€
â€œFifteen years this September,â€ said Janice, quick as a flash. Sheâ€™d signed up for the art class within weeks of moving to Ballyfergus, a busy port on the East Antrim coast, in the hope of finding friends.
â€œGod, youâ€™ve got an amazing memory,â€ said Clare.
Janice smiled and wished this wasnâ€™t true â€“ she wished she could edit her memories like digital photographs, ruthlessly choosing which ones to keep and which to discard.
â€œGo on, Patsy,â€ she said. â€œThe safari?â€
â€œWell, itâ€™s something Iâ€™ve always dreamt about,â€ Patsy enthused. â€œEver since I was a little girl. Itâ€™s our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this July. And thisâ€™ll be our second honeymoon. The one we never had first time round.â€ She stared at the wall, an enigmatic smile on her lips.
â€œWhat did you do for your first?â€ said Kirsty.
â€œA week in a cottage in Portstewart.â€
â€œIt was,â€ said Patsy and she gave Kirsty a suggestive wink that made her blush. â€œWe never had the money back then to go abroad or do anything fancy. Martin had just got promoted to Assistant Manager in Bangor and he wasnâ€™t earning much. And neither was I. And then I fell pregnant shortly after we were married and there was never the money to go off and do something so indulgent. With kids thereâ€™s always something more important to be spending your money on, isnâ€™t there?â€
â€œYou can say that again,â€ agreed Kirsty with a vigorous nod.
â€œBut this â€“ thisâ€™ll be special. I know itâ€™ll be expensive but Iâ€™ve been stashing a bit away here and there from the galleryâ€™s profits. Itâ€™s going to be fantastic!â€
â€œDoes Martin know?â€ said Janice, thrilled by Patsyâ€™s infectious enthusiasm.
â€œThatâ€™s the best bit! Itâ€™s going to be a complete surprise. Iâ€™m going to book it all and only tell him at the last minute.â€
â€œHeâ€™ll need his jabs though,â€ cautioned Janice, a seasoned traveller. â€œHeâ€™ll know somethingâ€™s up then.â€
â€œOkay, so Iâ€™ll keep where weâ€™re going a secret. Iâ€™ve been looking at Botswana and September seems to be a good time to go â€“ itâ€™s between rainy seasons. So . . .â€ Patsy injected an air of formality into her speech, â€œmy New Yearâ€™s Resolution is to take my gorgeous, sexy husband on African safari!â€ She raised her glass to the room in general, put the rim to her lips, and knocked back the remaining contents.
Everyone cheered noisily and Kirsty said, â€œAnd what about you, Clare?â€
â€œIâ€™m going to take up painting again,â€ she answered, as though she had been waiting to be asked. â€œSeriously this time, no amateur stuff. Thatâ€™s my resolution.â€
There was a short pause while everyone took in this unexpected news.
â€œJesus, youâ€™re a dark horse, Clare McCormack,â€ said Patsy, sounding surprised. â€œYou never said a thing before.â€
â€œIâ€™ve been thinking about it for a while,â€ said Clare, staring at the empty glass in her hands. She sounded serious, like she was making a confession. â€œIâ€™ve done the Mummy thing and, well, itâ€™s about time I got back into the real world, I think.â€
â€œGet that woman another drink, would you?â€ hissed Janice to Kirsty.
Kirsty obliged as Clare went on.
â€œI never shouldâ€™ve resigned from my old job as Arts Officer for Ballyfergus Council. Jobs like that donâ€™t come round often.â€ She wrinkled up her nose like sheâ€™d smelled something bad.
â€œAch, now, donâ€™t be saying that,â€ said Patsy. â€œYou wanted to be at home with the babies. Itâ€™s a privilege to raise them. You said so yourself.â€
â€œIt is â€“ and I am glad I did,â€ said Clare, shooting a glance at Patsy. â€œBut I need something more now. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m thinking of painting.â€
â€œCommercially?â€ said Patsy, and she sat up straight, her interest as art connoisseur and gallery-owner stimulated.
â€œDonâ€™t you think Iâ€™m good enough?â€ said Clare, too quickly, her glance bouncing between Patsy and the glass in her hand like a ping-pong ball. Then, as though it was too much of a distraction, she set the flute on a shelf behind the loo and folded her arms. She blushed, her insecurity laid bare.
â€œHellâ€™s bells. Youâ€™re more than good enough,â€ enthused Patsy. â€œSure, before you had the children, your pictures sold like hotcakes at the annual art show.â€
â€œYes, but that was all very â€“ very amateur,â€ said Clare, intertwining her fingers. â€œIâ€™m thinking of trying to make a career out of it.â€
â€œAnd you will, Clare. Wonâ€™t she, girls?â€ said Kirsty, looking round the room for support.
â€œJust think, you could be the new Sam McLarnon,â€ Janice said, referring to a highly regarded local artist who, like Clare, specialised in watercolours of the East Antrim coast.
â€œIf I was half as good as Sam, Iâ€™d be delighted,â€ said Clare.
The conversation turned to the going rate for a McLarnon watercolour and Janice tuned out. It was her turn next to make a resolution but she had no idea what to say. She didnâ€™t make resolutions as a rule, past experience having taught her that what happens, happens. You just have to ride the wave of life, deal with it, cope. Just as she had always done. Fate dealt you a hand and it was foolishness, almost bordering on arrogance, to think that you could actually influence it. Hadnâ€™t she tried once â€“ and failed?
Just as she hated looking back, Janice abhorred the notion of planning ahead. Sheâ€™d discovered long ago that the best way to deal with life was to live, like a child, in the moment. The making of resolutions implied that one had control over oneâ€™s life. And Janice knew that this was not the case.
Still, she had more sense than to share these deterministic views with her friends. She didnâ€™t want them to think her depressing on this of all nights, when as well as looking back, everyone wanted to look forward with hope and optimism. And most of all she didnâ€™t want to disappoint them.
â€œYour turn, Janice,â€ said Clare, right on cue.
â€œWell,â€ said Janice, clearing her throat, â€œIâ€™ve decided that this year Iâ€™m going to . . . to start a new project.â€
There was silence, the others waiting for her to go on, assuming she had some further clarification to share with them. Patsy nodded her head encouragingly.
A loud rap on the door saved her. â€œJanice, are you in there?â€ said her husbandâ€™s voice.
â€œYes, darling!â€ she shouted in response and slapped her hand over her mouth. The women collapsed into a spate of girlish sniggering, like theyâ€™d been caught smoking behind the bike sheds at school.
â€œWhoâ€™s in there with you?â€ said Keith, not waiting for her to answer and sounding slightly peeved. â€œYouâ€™ve been gone ages. People are wondering where you are.â€
Janice peered at the gold Rolex on her arm and said, in a stage whisper, â€œShit! Is that the time?â€ She pulled herself to her feet, hoisted her long black velvet dress to her knees, revealing slim smooth legs, and stepped gingerly out of the bath. â€œItâ€™s just me and the girls in here, Keith,â€ she shouted. â€œWeâ€™re coming!â€
And then to the other women she added in what she thought was a whisper, â€œCome on, girls. Itâ€™s gone eleven.â€
They filed sheepishly out of the bathroom into the bedroom, where Keith stood with a smile on his face, but not in his eyes. At fifty-two, he was fourteen years older than Janice but he still had the build of a rugby player â€“ stocky legs, broad shoulders and muscled arms. He wore smart dark-blue jeans with a brown belt and soft chocolate-suede shoes. His white shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. His greying hair suited his tanned face â€“ by anyoneâ€™s standards, he was a handsome man.
â€œWhat were you doing in there?â€ he whispered, as he took Janice proprietarily by the elbow and steered her along the landing after the others.
â€œNot so fast, Keith,â€ she protested, shaking off his hand. â€œI canâ€™t walk in these heels.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t just go off in the middle of a party and leave me like that,â€ he persisted.
She stopped to face him at the top of the stairs. Down below in the hallway, people milled about, the sound of their chatter rising like a chorus, and the rhythmic beat of too-loud music filling the air. In heels she and Keith were level, nose to nose. She could see from the softness in his hazel eyes that he wasnâ€™t really angry with her. Just a little annoyed. â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ she said. â€œI didnâ€™t realise we were in there so long.â€
â€œWhat were you doing?â€
â€œJust having a laugh. You know, the usual stuff.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re neglecting the other guests.â€
The truth was she didnâ€™t really care about the other guests. She wanted to spend time with her best friends. Most of the people downstairs were business contacts of Keithâ€™s. Though she would never admit this to him, she found them intimidating. They were lawyers, barristers, doctors and the like â€“ all the well-heeled of Ballyfergus and beyond. She felt intellectually inferior to them.
â€œArenâ€™t the staff doing their job?â€ she said, referring to the caterers theyâ€™d hired in for the night.
â€œYes. But thatâ€™s not the point, Janice. Youâ€™re the hostess and itâ€™s rude to abandon your guests.â€
Janice opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. He was right of course. And then she remembered, as she had done every single day for the last sixteen years, what she owed him. This knowledge didnâ€™t loom large over their marriage and no doubt rarely crossed Keithâ€™s mind, if at all. But it was never far from Janiceâ€™s and it moderated all her thoughts and actions. She did not resent Keith because of the debt she owed him, not at all. She was inordinately grateful. But it was there nonetheless.
â€œJanice?â€ said Keith.
â€œWhat are you thinking?â€
â€œNothing,â€ she said brightly and smiled. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I didnâ€™t . . . think. It was rude of me. Come on, letâ€™s go down.â€
â€œJust a moment,â€ he said, reaching out to touch the diamante strap on her dress. Then, thinking better of it, he flicked a lock of dark chestnut hair off her shoulder and withdrew his hand. He smiled. â€œHave I told you that you look gorgeous tonight?â€
â€œThank you,â€ she replied automatically and returned a frozen smile, self-conscious and awkward. Keithâ€™s frequent compliments had her spoiled. So often had he told her that he loved her and that she was beautiful, she had become immune to his praise. It wasnâ€™t that she doubted the sincerity of his words. They just did not penetrate the surface of her, as though they were arrows meant for some other target, someone more worthy than she.
She turned from him and lifted her skirt slightly so that she could see her feet and navigate downstairs.
â€œJanice?â€ he said softly.
She hesitated, teetering on the second step down, and raised her eyes to meet his.
â€œSometimes I wonder if I know you at all,â€ he said. Their eyes locked for a few moments and Janice did not say anything. What could she say? For in this, as in most other things, he was probably right. Instead of a reply, she gave him a weak smile that felt unconvincing even to her.
â€œThere you are, Janice! Keith!â€ came Patsyâ€™s voice from the bottom of the stairs, demanding their attention. â€œYouâ€™ve got to come and see this. Hurry up!â€
â€œWeâ€™d better go down,â€ said Janice, without looking back at Keith, and she picked her way down the steps. At the bottom, Patsy grabbed her by the hand and pulled her in the direction of the large drawing room. When she glanced over her shoulder, Keith, swallowed up by the crowd, was nowhere to be seen.