It was Friday. At any spare moment, in the office or at home, Bett had been researching guided tours to Ireland. She now hopefully had enough information to satisfy Lola.
After the surprise announcement two nights earlier, she and Lola had only had time for a short conversation before Bett’s phone had rung. It was Daniel, accompanied down the line by loud screams from both Zachary and Yvette. Nothing urgent, he’d said, well, except that Yvette had fallen over in her cot and hit her head, and Zachary had panicked and started crying, and now he couldn’t get either of them to settle and there was a lump on Yvette’s head and he was just wondering should he put ice or ointment on it . . . Bett had stopped him there, reached for her car keys and apologised to Lola, promising to research flight packages to Ireland and get back to her as soon as she could.
As she walked up her grandmother’s path now, at the arranged time of eleven a.m., she saw the front door was wide open. She could hear pop music playing as she came into the hallway.
‘Lola?’ she called. ‘Hello?’
‘In the kitchen, darling.’
Lola was sitting at the table. Two young women in their early twenties were on either side of her. A barely recognisable her.
‘That is you under there, isn’t it?’ Bett said to her grandmother.
Lola opened one eye, peering through a thick paste of cream covering her face. ‘Somewhere, yes.’
‘I like the new hairdo.’
‘Take a bow, Rachel,’ Lola said to the young woman on her left. ‘Dear Rachel wanted to do an old lady perm but I talked her into this instead.’ ‘This’ was a spiky arrangement of Lola’s short white hair. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the cover of a punk music magazine.
‘Are those blue tips permanent?’ Bett asked.
‘What is permanent these days?’ Lola said. ‘We live in a fragile, ever-changing world.’ She introduced both young women to Bett, then promptly ordered them away. ‘Pop outside for a cigarette, darlings, or to check your phones or whatever it is young people do to amuse themselves. I need to have a confidential conversation with my granddaughter.’
Bett waited for them to leave before she spoke. ‘Did you order them online as well?’
‘Of course not. They’re from the salon in town. Trainees. They needed guinea pigs to practise on. I said, “I’m more of an old sow than a guinea pig but if you’re game, I am.” We’ve had a lovely morning. I look adorable, don’t I?’
‘Alarming, but adorable.’ Bett sat down. ‘Lola, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we spoke the other night. About Ireland.’
Lola began to sing a warbling verse of ‘Galway Bay’.
Bett ignored her. ‘I’ve been doing lots of research for you. Looking up travel companies. The best times to travel. And travel insurance too.’
‘Do they do insurance for people as old as me? Don’t bother. If I die when I’m in Ireland, just leave my body there and come back on your own. I won’t mind.’
Bett blinked. ‘On my own?’
‘You are coming with me, aren’t you?’
‘To Ireland?’ Bett laughed. ‘Lola, I can’t.’
Lola’s eyes widened through the paste. ‘But I can’t go alone, surely? An old lady, frail, defenceless, travelling solo across the world? How could you live with yourself if something happened?’
‘Lola, stop it. We never even discussed me coming with you. It was all about you going back, not me. How can I possibly go? I’ve got work. The kids —’
‘Such lovely children too. They’re a credit to you and Daniel. I thought of asking Carrie to come as well. But that might be too hard, I decided, both of you away. So I tossed a coin. Carrie was heads, you were tails. Or was it the other way around? No matter. You won. Or lost, depending on your attitude to a fortnight in Ireland with your grandmother and your thirteen-year-old niece.’
‘I’ve invited Ellen too. She said yes immediately. I knew she would. Such a clever young girl.’
‘Lola, seriously, stop this. First you decide I’m coming with you. Then you invite Ellen. All without any discussion. It’s impossible anyway. Number one, I’d have to ask for time off —’
‘You’re the boss. Ask yourself. Do it now, if you like. I’ll be your witness.’
‘— and Ellen’s got school too. She can’t just take off for two weeks.’
‘She can if her school principal gives permission. Which he has. He thought it sounded like a wonderfully educational trip for Ellen. We also agreed that next month would be the perfect time.’
‘Next month? So soon? Lola, no. Look, I understand how important this is to you, I promise, but I was sure you were talking about a guided tour of Ireland. I researched a whole selection. I thought perhaps you’d go with one of your friends. Margaret loves to travel, doesn’t she? Or even Dad.’ She reached into her bag and took out a bulging folder. ‘It’s all here, brochures, itineraries —’
‘Aren’t you marvellous? No wonder you’re such a good journalist. But let’s forget about Ireland for now.’ Lola lowered her voice. ‘I’ve got a scoop for you.’
‘No, you haven’t. You’re just trying to distract me. I know your tricks.’
‘Of course I’m trying to distract you. You’ve become quite hysterical. But it really is a good scoop. Fine, though. I won’t tell you. If you want someone else to write about it first, so be it.’
‘I can’t even tell if you’re joking with all that cream on your face.’
Lola patted her cheeks. ‘You’re right. It should come off. I’ll look like a baby if it’s left on any longer.’
Bett had no choice but to wait as Lola called the two trainees back in. Ten minutes later, they had finished their work, been given generous tips by Lola, packed up their equipment and left.
Bett looked at her surprisingly fresh-faced grandmother. ‘What was in that mask? Elixir of youth?’
‘Crushed kittens and French champagne, I think. Now, back to my scoop —’
‘Forget the scoop. Let’s get back to Ireland.’
Lola beamed. ‘I knew you’d come round. I truly can’t wait. And the sooner we leave, the better, for all our sakes. I’m going to start packing tonight.’
Bett glared at her. ‘I swear, if I didn’t love you so much, I’d want to murder you sometimes.’
‘After all the fuss you made about my alleged suicide notes? That’s hypocritical, isn’t it?’
‘Lola, quite apart from the impossibility of me coming with you work-wise, home-wise, and at such short notice, I’m sorry to put the final dampener on it, but I can’t afford it. I’m sure Glenn could pay for Ellen, but that’s not the point.’
‘You’re right, it’s not. And getting money out of Glenn is like getting blood out of a stone, we all know that, rich as he is. But you don’t have to afford it. I’m paying for it all, darling – from your pre-flight gin and tonic to every glass of Guinness to your eye mask on the flight home.’
‘How can you? You don’t have any money either.’
‘I won’t have by the end of this, no. But I do have enough to pay for it now. I sold some shares.’
‘Shares? Since when did you have shares?’
‘I’ve had a long and serious life, dear Bett, and you don’t know everything about me even if you think you do. Perhaps it wasn’t shares. It might have been a diamond ring. Yes, it was a diamond ring. You didn’t know I had one, did you? Either way, don’t you worry your pretty curly head about it. All you need to know is that my bank account is full to overflowing – well, full to half-full – and I have this covered. So no matter what objections you raise, the financial one won’t wash with me, sunshine.’
Bett put her hands over her face and gave a silent scream.
‘But as I said, enough about Ireland for now,’ Lola continued blithely. ‘Back to my scoop. I’d lower my voice for dramatic value, but there’s no need, we’re the only ones here. I’ve got some breaking news for you. The mayor is making a big announcement today.’
‘I know,’ Bett said. ‘About a road project or something. It’s in my diary already.’
‘It’s not about roads. It’s about something much more exciting than that.’ Lola paused for effect. ‘Hollywood is coming to the Valley, Bett. Well, not Hollywood exactly. But a film crew from Sydney and a whole cast of fine actors. And surely at least one of them has been to Hollywood at some stage. So at a pinch you could make that your headline, if you think it would fit.’
‘Lola, what are you talking about?’
‘A TV series. A murder mystery. Being made here, in the Valley. It’s been in the planning for months. There have been location scouts here and everything, visiting the wineries and choosing the different settings. Not that anyone knew it was for a TV series. They were told it was for a tourism video. A good cover story, don’t you think? They’ll be filming the main exterior shots for a start, I believe. They’ll even be at the Gourmet Weekend next month. I understand the interior scenes will be shot in a studio in Sydney. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Once it’s edited you’ll think it was all filmed in the same place, not here and there all over the country.’
‘The working title is Murder in the Vines, but that might change.’
‘How do you know all this? More to the point, how come I don’t and I’m editor of the local paper?’
‘Better sources, I suppose. You’ll find out soon anyway. I’m just giving you the – what’s that saying? The heads up? So you can prepare your questions and not be caught on the hop.’
‘How long have you known?’
‘About a year.’
‘And you’re just telling me now?’
‘It was a secret before now.’
‘But I’m your granddaughter.’
‘I was sworn to secrecy. See, I can be discreet.’
‘Why is every visit with you like being in an industrial washing machine? Why can’t you be like a normal grandmother? Pink-cheeked, baking apple pies and knitting woolly hats?’
‘She sounds deranged. Now, off you go and write that scoop. Ring the mayor if you want to get the skinny —’
‘And if he asks how you know what you know, tell him Deep Throat told you.’
‘And the Ireland trip?’ Bett said weakly.
‘We’ll discuss it later. Trust me, darling. It will work out. I’ll also ring Carrie and tell her she lost out.’
‘I can’t trust you. And I haven’t said yes to anything. But you’re right, Carrie will be furious.’
‘Oh, Carrie’s always furious about something. But, as it happens, I’ve had another idea, tailored especially for her. It’ll make her feel special and keep her busy, a win-win. It concerns you too, actually. But don’t worry about that now. Off you go back to work. You need to be at that council announcement soon. No harm to run a brush through your hair, either. Unless that tousled look is deliberate?’
Bett had just stepped into the office when her mobile rang. She held the phone away from her ear as Carrie launched into a monologue.
‘You’re seriously going to Ireland with Lola? Next month? That’s so not fair. You’ve already been to Ireland and lived in London and seen far more of the world than I have. All I’ve ever done is travelled through Asia, and that was a disaster. I was sick half the time and —’
Bett eventually managed to interrupt, keeping her voice calm. ‘Do you truly think I had any say? I haven’t even said yes. It might not happen anyway. She just needs something to look forward to —’
‘It’s Lola. It will happen. I can’t believe she tossed a coin to decide between us. I bet she didn’t even do that, just chose you. You’ve always been her favourite. If she was going to toss a coin, she should have done it under proper conditions, with an independent observer —’
‘From the UN? Carrie, stop it, would you? I’m at work, I can’t talk for long. I’m still getting to grips with it myself. How can I possibly go on an overseas trip out of the blue? God knows how Ellen is feeling about it too, the thought of heading to Ireland with her elderly great-grandmother and nearly elderly aunt. Not exactly a thirteen-year-old’s idea of a good time, I’m sure.’
‘Ellen? Ellen’s going too? Lola didn’t even mention her. Oh, great. So it’s a beautiful three-generational trip, a homecoming for Lola after a hundred years away, and I won’t be there. Well, too bad – I’m coming, whether you all like it or not.’
‘Carrie, do me a favour, would you?’
There was silence from Carrie.
Bett started to laugh. ‘Can I remind you? You are nearly six months pregnant. It’s your fourth. You have three other little kids at home. Their names are Delia, aged five and a half, Freya, aged four, and George, aged three.’
Carrie laughed then too. Bett did love that about her sister. Carrie could be petulant and spoilt and infuriating, but in an instant she could see the funny side. It had saved their relationship many times.
‘I don’t suppose Lola would wait until I’ve had the baby?’
‘If Lola had her way, she’d be at the airport now. I have to go, Carrie. I’ll talk about it with you later. I need to be at a council announcement in ten minutes.’
‘I know! About that TV series! It’s so exciting, isn’t it?’
‘You too? How come everyone knew about this except me?’
‘Lola told me just now. She’s also got a great idea for you about promoting it in the paper. Well, not you. Me, as it happens. She said it’s a fantastic opportunity tourism-wise and I have to say I agree.’
Bett was back in the industrial washing machine. ‘Hold on. You’re going to promote this surprise TV series in my paper?’
‘Exactly! Lola said she thought it would be great if you got me to write a weekly column about the filming, interview the actors, visit the locations, all that kind of behind-the-scenes stuff people love. She thought you could post it on the paper’s website, that the film company would see it as good publicity. I know she also thought it would keep me busy and distract me from being jealous of you all being in Ireland. She’s right, actually. And you wouldn’t even have to pay me, I’d do it for fun. I know you’re losing money at the paper as it is. How many words would you want for each column? And should I take the photos too, on my phone, or would you get Daniel to do those?’
Bett counted to five before she spoke again. ‘Carrie, I’ll call you back.’
Bett rang Lola as she walked down the main street to the council offices. ‘Do you know the most annoying thing about you?’
‘Heavens, where do I start? At least you only see me a few times a week. Imagine what it’s like for me, with myself every minute of every day. For nearly ninety years. It’s a wonder I’m still sane.’
‘You’re eighty-five not eighty-nine and yes, exactly. You deserve a long-service medal.’
‘You’ve heard from Carrie, I gather? That column is a good idea, isn’t it? And Carrie will be great at it. She loves all that film and TV gossip, and it will keep her busy while we’re away.’
‘And her children won’t? But you’re right. It is a good idea and she could do it over the phone if she isn’t up to driving around. You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?’
‘I do try. You know I didn’t toss a coin either, don’t you? It had to be you who came with me. Not only because I love you so much. You lived in Ireland far more recently than me. That insider knowledge will be invaluable.’
‘I was in Dublin for less than six months, Lola. And I didn’t see your childhood home because you sent me to the wrong part of the country, don’t you remember? Over to Galway when all the time it was County Kildare you’d grown up in.’
‘What a scallywag I am. But you do want to come with me, don’t you, Bett?’ The joking was gone. There was a different, vulnerable tone to Lola’s voice. ‘I’m sorry if it feels like I’m bossing you. But I’d love it so much if you and Ellen were there with me.’
Her words went straight to Bett’s heart. ‘I’ll think about it, Lola, I promise. That’s all I can say. I’ll talk to Glenn about Ellen coming. I’ll talk to Daniel about how he and the twins will get on without me for two weeks. I’ll talk to my assistant about managing while I’m away.’
‘That sounds like a lot of talking to me. Why don’t you cut out the middle man and say “Yes, Lola”?’
Bett stopped walking and shut her eyes. There was no point sometimes in even trying to resist.
‘Yes, Lola,’ she said.