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Stoneybridge is a small town on the west coast of Ireland where all the families know one another. When Chicky Starr decides to take an old, decaying mansion set high on the cliffs overlooking the windswept Atlantic Ocean and turn it into a restful place for a holiday by the sea, everyone thinks she is crazy. Helped by Rigger (a bad boy turned good who is handy around the house) and Orla, her niece (a whiz at business), Chicky is finally ready to welcome the first guests to Stone House’s big warm kitchen, log fires, and understated elegant bedrooms. John, the American movie star, thinks he has arrived incognito; Winnie and Lillian are forced into taking a holiday together; Nicola and Henry, husband and wife, have been shaken by seeing too much death practicing medicine; Anders hates his father’s business, but has a real talent for music; Miss Nell Howe, a retired schoolteacher, criticizes everything and leaves a day early, much to everyone’s relief; the Walls are disappointed to have won this second-prize holiday in a contest where first prize was Paris; and Freda, the librarian, is afraid of her own psychic visions.
Sharing a week with this unlikely cast of characters is pure joy, full of Maeve’s trademark warmth and humor. Once again, she embraces us with her grand storytelling.
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Maeve Binchy is the author of numerous best-selling books, including her most recent novels, Minding Frankie, Heart and Soul, and Whitethorn Woods, as well as Circle of Friends and Tara Road, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. She has written for Gourmet; O, The Oprah Magazine; Modern Maturity; and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. Married to Gordon Snell, she lived in Dalkey, Ireland, until her death in July 2012 at the age of seventy-two, shortly after finishing this book.
The night Chicky returned to New York, Mrs Cassidy listened to the plans, nodding with approval.
‘You really think I can do it?’
‘I’ll miss you, but you know it’s going to be the making of you.’
‘Will you come to see me? Come to stay in my hotel?’
‘Yes, I’ll come for a week one winter. I like the Irish countryside in winter, not when it’s full of noise and show and people doing leprechaun duty.’
Mrs Cassidy had never taken a holiday. This was groundbreaking.
‘I should go now while Queenie is alive, I suppose.’
‘You should have it up and running as soon as possible.’ Mrs Cassidy hated to let the grass grow beneath her feet.
‘How will I explain it all . . . to everybody?’
‘You know, people don’t have to explain things nearly as much as you think they do. Just say that you bought it with the money Walter left you. It’s only the truth, after all.’
‘How can it be the truth?’
‘It’s because of Walter you came here to New York. And because he left you, you went and earned that money and saved it. In a way, he did leave it to you. I don’t see any lie there.’ And Mrs Cassidy put on the face that meant they would never speak of it again.
In the following weeks, Chicky transferred her savings to an Irish bank. There were endless negotiations with banks and lawyers. There were planning applications to be sorted, earth movers to be contacted, hotel regulations to be consulted, tax considerations to be decided. She would never have believed how many aspects of it all there were to put in place before the announcement was made. She and Miss Queenie told nobody about their arrangement.
Eventually it all seemed ready.
‘I can’t put it off much longer,’ Chicky said to Mrs Cassidy as they cleared the table after supper.
‘It breaks my heart, but you should go tomorrow.’
‘Miss Queenie can’t wait much longer, and you have to tell your family some time. Do it before it’s leaked out to them. It will be better this way.’
‘But to get ready to go in one day? I mean, I have to pack and say my goodbyes . . .’
‘You could pack in twenty minutes. You have hardly any possessions. The men in this house aren’t great on big flowery goodbye speeches, any more than I am myself.’
‘I’m half cracked to do this, Mrs Cassidy.’
‘No, Chicky, you’d be half cracked if you didn’t do it. You were always great at taking an opportunity.’
‘Maybe I’d have been better if I hadn’t seized the opportunity of following Walter Starr.’ Chicky was rueful.
‘Oh yes? You’d have been promoted in the knitting factory. Married a mad farmer, have six children that you’d be trying to find jobs for. No, I think you make great judgements. You made a decision, contacted me for a job and that turned out all right for twenty years, didn’t it? You did fine by coming here to New York, and now you’re going back home to own the biggest house in the neighbourhood. I don’t see much wrong with that career path.’
‘I love you, Mrs Cassidy,’ Chicky said.
‘It’s just as well you’re going back to the Celtic mists and twilight if you’re going to start talking like that,’ Mrs Cassidy said, but her face was much softer than usual.
The Ryan family sat open-mouthed as she told them her plans.
Chicky coming home for good? Buying the Sheedy place? Setting up a hotel to be open summer and winter? The main reaction was total disbelief.
The only one to show pure delight in the idea was her brother Brian.
‘That will soften the O’Haras’ cough,’ he said with a broad smile. ‘They’ve been sniffing after that place for years. They want to knock it down and build six top-of-the-market homes up there.’
‘That was exactly what Miss Queenie didn’t want!’ Chicky agreed.
‘I’d love to be there when they find out,’ Brian said. He had never got over the fact that the O’Haras hadn’t thought him worthy of their daughter. She had married a man who had managed to lose a great deal of O’Hara money on the horses, Brian often noted with satisfaction.
Her mother couldn’t believe that Chicky was going to move in with Miss Queenie the very next day.
‘Well, I’ll need to be on the premises,’ Chicky explained. ‘And anyway, it’s no harm to have someone there to hand Miss Queenie a cup of tea every now and then.’
‘And a bowl of porridge or packet of biscuits wouldn’t go amiss either,’ Kathleen said. ‘Mikey saw her picking blackberries a while ago. She said they were free.’
‘Are you sure you own the place, Chicky?’ Her father was worried, as always. ‘You’re not just going in there as a maid, like Nuala was, but with a promise that she will leave it to you?’
Chicky patted them down, assured them it was hers. Little by little they began to realise that it was actually going to happen. Every objection they brought up she had already thought of. They were worried about the economy and no one would be taking holidays. Her years in New York had made her into a businesswoman. She knew if she kept it simple, it would be just what people would want to get away for a rest. They had learned from the past not to underestimate Chicky. They would not make the same mistake a second time.
Her family had arranged for yet another Mass to be said for Walter, as Chicky hadn’t been at home for the first one they said. Chicky sat in the little church in Stoneybridge and wondered if there really was a God up there watching and listening.
It didn’t seem very likely.
But then everyone here appeared to think it was the case. The whole community joined in prayers for the repose of Walter Starr’s soul. Would he have laughed if he could have known this was happening? Would he have been shocked by the superstition of these people in an Irish seaside town where he had once had a holiday romance?
Now she was back here, Chicky knew that she would have to be part of the church again. It would be easier; Mrs Cassidy had gone to Mass every Sunday morning in New York. It was yet one more thing that they had never discussed.
She looked around the church where she was baptised, made her First Communion and her Confirmation, the church where her sisters had been married and where people were praying for the repose of the soul of a man who had never died. It was all very odd.
Still she hoped that the prayers would do someone somewhere some good.
There were a series of minefields that had to be walked very carefully. Chicky must make sure not to annoy those who already ran bed-and-breakfast accommodation around the place, or who rented out summer cottages. She began a ceaseless diplomatic offensive explaining that what she was doing was creating something totally new for the area, not a premises that would take business away from them.
She visited the many public houses dotted around the countryside and told them of her plans. Her guests would want to tour the cliffs and hills around Stoneybridge. She would recommend that they see the real Ireland, take their lunch in all the traditional bars, pubs and inns around. So if they were to serve soup and simple food, she would love to know about it and she would send customers in their direction.
She chose builders from another part of the country, as she wanted to avoid giving preference to the O’Haras or their main rivals in the construction business. It was so much easier than choosing one over the other. It was the same about buying supplies. Offence could easily be taken if she was seen to favour just one place. Chicky made sure that everyone would get something from the project.
The main thing was to get the architects in and out and the workmen on site.
She would need a manager, but not yet. She would want someone to live in and help her with the cooking but again, that could wait.
Chicky had her eye on her niece Orla for this job. The girl was quick and bright. She loved Stoneybridge and the life it offered. She was energetic and sporty, into windsurfing and rock climbing. She had done a computer course in Dublin and a diploma in marketing. Chicky could teach her to cook. She was lively and good with people. She would be a natural for Stone House. Irritatingly, the girl seemed to want to stay in London where she had a job. No explanations, she just went. Things were so much easier for the young these days than in her time, Chicky thought. Orla didn’t have to ask permission or family approval. It was assumed that she was an adult and they had no say in her life.
The plans went on and on. There would be eight bedrooms for guests and one big kitchen and dining area where all the guests would eat dinner together. She found a huge old-fashioned table that would have to be scrubbed every day but it was authentic. This was no place for fancy mahogany and place mats or thick Irish linen tablecloths. It must be the real thing.
She got one local craftsman to make her fourteen chairs, and another to restore an old dresser to display the china. With Miss Queenie she drove to auctions and sales around the countryside and found the right glasses, plates, bowls.
They met people who would be able to restore some of the old rugs in the Sheedy home, and who could replace frayed leather on little antique tables.
This was the part that Miss Queenie loved most. She would say over and over what a miracle it was to have all these lovely treasures restored. Her sisters would be so pleased when they saw what was happening. Miss Queenie believed that they knew every detail of what was going on in Stone House, and watched it all approvingly. It was touching that she saw them settled in some happy place waiting for the hotel to open and checking the comings and goings in Stoneybridge.
It was rather more unsettling when Miss Queenie also assumed that Walter Starr would be there in heaven with the two Miss Sheedys, cheering on every development that was being made by his brave, courageous widow.
Chicky made sure to tell her family about her plans each week so that they could be well briefed and ahead of the game. It gave them great status to know in advance that the planning applications had been approved, a walled kitchen garden to grow their own vegetables planned and oil-fired central heating for the whole house.
She would probably need a professional designer as well. Even though she and Miss Queenie thought they knew what the place should look like, they were pitching for discerning people, they would charge real money and must make the place right. What Chicky thought of as elegant might well be considered tacky.
Even though she had looked at all the hotels and country houses in magazines, she had little practical experience in getting the right look. Mrs Cassidy’s Select Accommodation hadn’t been a real training ground for style.
There would be a lot of work ahead: she would have to have a website and take bookings online, still a very foreign world to her. This is where young Orla would be her right hand if she were to come back from London. She had telephoned her twice but the girl had been distracted and non-committal. Chicky’s sister Kathleen said that Orla was like a bag of cats and that there was no talking to her on any subject.
‘She’s more headstrong than you ever were,’ Kathleen said ruefully, ‘and that’s really saying something.’
‘Look at how well and sane I turned out in the end,’ Chicky laughed.
‘The place isn’t up and running yet.’ Kathleen’s voice was full of doom. ‘We’ll see how well and sane you are when you’re open for business.’
Only Mrs Cassidy, over in New York, and Miss Queenie believed it would happen and be a big success. Everyone else was humouring her and hoping it would take off but in the same way that they hoped for a long hot summer and for the Irish soccer team to do well in the World Cup.
Sometimes Chicky would go and walk the cliffs at night and look out over the Atlantic Ocean. Always it gave her strength.
People had enough courage to get into small, shaky boats and set sail over those choppy waters, not knowing what lay ahead. Surely it couldn’t be too hard to set up a guest house? Then she would go back indoors where Miss Queenie would make them a mug of hot chocolate and say that she hadn’t been so happy since she was a girl, since the days when she and her sisters would go to a hunt ball and hope they might find dashing young men to marry. That had never happened, but this time it would work. Stone House was going to happen.
And Chicky would pat her on the hand and say that they would be the talk of the country. And as she said it, she believed it. All her worries would go. Whether it was because of the walk in the wild winds or the comforting hot chocolate or Miss Queenie’s hopeful face or a combination of all three, it meant she slept a long, untroubled sleep every night.
She would wake ready for anything, which was just as well because in the months ahead there was quite a lot she had to be ready for.
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