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 friendshaip 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 heals 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 â€“ 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€˜Okay. Whoâ€™s going to make their New Yearâ€™s resolution first?â€™ asked Patsy, a buxom, petite blonde perched on the lid of the closed bidet, her satin peep-toes the colour of bubble-gum. 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, who was lying 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€˜Arenâ€™t you supposed to keep them a secret?â€™ asked Clare, at thirty-six, 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 glamourpuss. Tonight, enthroned on the closed toilet seat, she wore a plain black dress and sensible low heels, her long brown hair tied back severely in a diamante clasp â€“ her only apparent concession to the festive season.
â€˜No,â€™ said Patsy, waving the objection away with her hand and coming perilously close to spilling champagne on her black pencil skirt. â€˜Sure, if we canâ€™t tell each other,â€™ she said, stopping to suppress another hiccup, â€˜who 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. The idea of hosting the party â€“ which she 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 closest friends had a more optimistic take on life and resolved to humour them.
â€˜How about you, Kirsty?â€™ said Janice, addressing the woman seated cross-legged on the laundry bin, a solid teak chest 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€˜I know what your resolution should be.â€™
â€˜You do? Oh, donâ€™t tell me. Let me guess. Time for me to get myself a man,â€™ said Kirsty, rolling her pretty grass-coloured eyes. Unlike Clare, 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 green halter-neck dress that matched the 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€˜Not exactly,â€™ laughed Janice. â€˜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€™
â€˜I know Iâ€™m a woman,â€™ tutted Kirsty good-naturedly, swiping her hand in Janiceâ€™s direction. â€˜I donâ€™t need a man to find that out.â€™
â€˜Janiceâ€™s right enough, though,â€™ said Patsy, who was the oldest of the group, a full decade older than Kirsty and fancied herself a bit of an agony aunt. â€˜It might do you good to get out and meet new people,â€™ she said euphemistically, though 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 colour of Janiceâ€™s eyes, straining against her large bosom. Patsyâ€™s 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€˜I suppose youâ€™re right,â€™ she said and immediately Janice regretted any pain she may have inadvertently caused. But before she could speak, Kirsty cleared her throat, raised her champagne glass and said gamely, â€˜My New Yearâ€™s resolution is to...to get out more and date.â€™
â€˜Too vague,â€™ said Clare.
Kirstyâ€™s hand dropped to her side in frustration and she looked imploringly at Janice and Patsy. â€˜What should I say then?â€™
Janice spoke first. â€˜Clareâ€™s right. You need to be more specific. How about saying that this year you will date at least ten men?â€™
â€˜Ten?â€™ gasped Kirsty incredulously.
â€˜Steady on, Janice!â€™ said Patsy, almost choking on a mouthful of champagne. She pointed at Kirsty. â€˜Where 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€˜Point taken,â€™ said Janice with a giggle. â€˜How about five, then?â€™ Patsy raised her right eyebrow just a fraction and Janice rolled her eyes.
â€˜Okay. Four. Come on! Thatâ€™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€˜Chance would be a fine thing,â€™ said Kirsty with a wry smile and then, more upbeat, she added, â€˜Okay then. This year I will date at least four eligible bachelors.â€™
â€˜Great. Well done, Kirsty,â€™ said Patsy, sounding like a proud mum.
â€˜Okay, someone else now,â€™ said Kirsty, looking pleased to have her turn, like a visit to the dentist, over and done with.
â€˜Kirsty, 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. Using a fluffy hand-towel to capture the beads of water that ran off the bottle like perspiration, she refilled Janiceâ€™s glass.
â€˜Thank you, sweetheart.â€™
â€˜Anyone else for a top-up?â€™ asked 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, she put the empty bottle back in the sink, alongside the one theyâ€™d finished earlier.
â€˜So, what about you, Patsy?â€™ said Kirsty. â€˜Whatâ€™s your resolution going to be?â€™
â€˜Well, you know Iâ€™ve always wanted to go to Africa and on safari?â€™
â€˜Yes!â€™ said Clare. â€˜I remember you talking about it the very first time we all met at that art class. How long ago was that?â€™
â€˜Fifteen 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 new friends.
â€˜God, youâ€™ve 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€˜We should celebrate,â€™ went on Clare, earnestly. â€˜Itâ€™s quite special, isnâ€™t it, staying friends, the four of us, all this time?â€™
â€˜I know! How about a girlie weekend in London?â€™ said Patsy. She slapped her thigh like Doris Day in Calamity Jane.
â€˜New York!â€™ cried Janice. â€˜Think about the shopping.â€™
â€˜Steady on,â€™ said Clare, with a nervous laugh. â€˜We havenâ€™t all got platinum credit cards.â€™ She flushed slightly and chewed the skin on the side of her thumb. Janice silently chided herself for being thoughtless. Clare was a stay-at-home mum to two small children and she and her accountant husband Liam had limited means.
â€˜Mmm, Clareâ€™s got a point,â€™ said Patsy. Her forehead creased into a frown, she rested her chin on one hand and pouted her red lips. Then she sat up suddenly and cried, â€˜I know. We could use my brother-in-lawâ€™s place in London for free. Eamonn only uses the flat during the week. Heâ€™s always on at me and Martin to go there.â€™
â€˜He wouldnâ€™t mind us lot pitching up?â€™ said Kirsty cautiously.
â€˜Hell, no!â€™ laughed Patsy.
â€˜We could get a cheap flight,â€™ said Clare thoughtfully, now chewing the nail on her little finger.
â€˜Okay then. Letâ€™s do it,â€™ said Janice decisively.
â€˜Brilliant! No time like the present,â€™ said Patsy, rising unsteadily on her heels. She tugged at her skirt, bunched up around her shapely hips. â€˜Iâ€™ll go and ask Eamonn right now. Heâ€™s here tonight.â€™
â€˜But what about your New Yearâ€™s resolution? Iâ€™m the only one whoâ€™s made one so far,â€™ said Kirsty, sounding peeved about the fact.
â€˜Whoops!â€™ Patsy sat down again abruptly, and grinned lazily. â€˜Forgot about that.â€™
â€˜You were talking earlier about the African safari,â€™ prompted Clare, who appeared the most clear-headed though it was hard to tell. She could drink copious amounts and still appear relatively sober.
â€˜Oh, yeah,â€™ enthused Patsy. â€˜Itâ€™s something Iâ€™ve always dreamt about. Ever since I was a little girl. Itâ€™s our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this September. 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€˜What did you do for your first?â€™ asked Kirsty,
â€˜A week boating on the lakes of Fermanagh.â€™
â€˜It was,â€™ said Patsy and she gave Kirsty a suggestive wink that made her friend blush. â€˜We 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. We spent the first four years of marriage saving up to buy our first house. Then I fell pregnant 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€˜You can say that again,â€™ agreed Kirsty with a vigorous nod.
â€˜But this â€“ thisâ€™ll be special,â€™ went on Patsy dreamily. â€˜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€˜Does Martin know?â€™ said Janice, thrilled by Patsyâ€™s infectious enthusiasm.
â€˜Thatâ€™s the best bit! Itâ€™s going to be a complete surprise. Iâ€™m going to book it all and then only tell him at the last minute.â€™
â€˜Heâ€™ll need his jabs though,â€™ cautioned Janice, a seasoned traveller. â€˜Heâ€™ll know somethingâ€™s up then.â€™
â€˜Okay, 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.â€™
â€˜Weâ€™ll have to do our London trip after then,â€™ observed Janice. â€˜Maybe October.â€™
Kirsty looked at Clare. â€˜And whatâ€™s your resolution?â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m going to take up painting again,â€™ Clare said quickly, as though she had been waiting to be asked. â€˜Seriously this time, no amateur stuff. Thatâ€™s my resolution.â€™
There was a short pause while everyone took in this unexpected news.
â€˜Jesus, youâ€™re a dark horse, Clare McCormack,â€™ said Patsy, sounding surprised. â€˜You never said a thing before.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™ve been thinking about it for a while,â€™ said Clare, staring at the empty glass in her hands. She sounded like she was making a confession. â€˜Iâ€™ve done the mummy thing and, well, itâ€™s about time I got back into the real world, I think. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m thinking of painting.â€™
â€˜Commercially?â€™ said Patsy, and she sat up straight, her interest as art connoisseur and gallery-owner stimulated despite her lack of sobriety.
â€˜Donâ€™t you think Iâ€™m good enough?â€™ asked 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€˜Hellâ€™s bells. Youâ€™re more than good enough,â€™ enthused Patsy. â€˜Sure, before you had the children, your pictures sold like hot cakes at the annual art show,â€™ she added, referring to Clareâ€™s striking watercolours of local scenes. Janice nodded in agreement.
â€˜Yes, but that was all veryâ€¦very amateur,â€™ said Clare. â€˜Iâ€™m thinking of trying to make a career out of it.â€™
â€˜And you will, Clare. Wonâ€™t she, girls?â€™ said Kirsty, looking round the room for support.
Everyone nodded. â€˜Just 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€˜If 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. Clareâ€™s clear-headed ambition served only to underline the inherent futility of her own existence. 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.
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 you had control over your 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€˜Your turn, Janice,â€™ said Clare, right on cue.
â€˜Well,â€™ said Janice, clearing her throat. â€˜Iâ€™ve decided that this year Iâ€™m going toâ€¦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€˜Janice, are you in there?â€™ said her husbandâ€™s voice.
â€˜Yes, Keith!â€™ she shouted in response. The women collapsed into a spate of girlish sniggering, like theyâ€™d been caught smoking behind the bike sheds at school.
â€˜Whoâ€™s in there with you?â€™ said Keith, not waiting for her to answer and sounding slightly peeved. â€˜Youâ€™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€˜Shit! Is that the time?â€™ She pulled herself to her feet, hoisted her long black velvet dress to her knees and stepped gingerly out of the bath. â€˜Itâ€™s just me and the girls in here, Keith,â€™ she shouted. â€˜Weâ€™re coming.â€™
And then to the other women she added in what she thought was a whisper, â€˜Come 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€˜What 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€˜Not so fast, Keith,â€™ she protested, shaking off his hand. â€˜I canâ€™t walk in these heels.â€™
â€˜You 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 on a 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€˜Iâ€™m sorry,â€™ she said. â€˜I didnâ€™t realise we were in there so long.â€™
â€˜But youâ€™re neglecting the other guests.â€™
The truth was Janice 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 her husband, she found them intimidating. They were lawyers, barristers, doctors and the like â€“ all the well-heeled of Ballyfergus. She felt intellectually inferior to them.
â€˜Arenâ€™t the staff doing their job?â€™ she said, referring to the caterers theyâ€™d hired in for the night to serve food and drinks.
â€˜Yes. 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 fifteen years, what she owed him. This knowledge didnâ€™t loom large over their marriage â€“ 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, far from it. She was inordinately grateful. But it was there nonetheless.
â€˜Janice?â€™ said Keith.
â€˜What are you thinking?â€™
â€˜Nothing,â€™ she said brightly and smiled. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry. I didnâ€™tâ€¦think. It was rude of me. Come on, letâ€™s go down.â€™
â€˜Just a moment,â€™ he said, reaching out to flick a lock of dark chestnut hair off her shoulder. â€˜Have I told you that you look gorgeous tonight?â€™
â€˜Thank 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 he loved her and that she was beautiful, that 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.
â€˜There you are, Janice! Keith!â€™ came the sound of Patsyâ€™s voice from the bottom of the stairs, demanding their attention. â€˜Youâ€™ve got to come and see this. Hurry up!â€™
â€˜Weâ€™d better go down,â€™ said Janice, without looking back, 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.