Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

Miracles come in all sizes in this intense exploration of love and uncertainty during a midwinter break in Amsterdam

Midwinter Break

‘I’m really looking forward to this,’ she said. ‘There’s some things I want to do.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘My own concerns.’

‘You’re so organised.’ Gerry put the sweets back in his pocket.

The plane’s engine note rose and it javelined down the runway, pressing them into their seats. Then the rumbling undercarriage noise stopped.

‘We’re off.’

Stella smiled and opened her eyes.

‘Have you brought a book?’

‘I’m on my holidays.’

She snuggled back in her seat.

‘I’m really looking forward to this,’ she said. ‘There’s some things I want to do.’

‘Like what?’

‘My own concerns.’

Gerry hooted as if there was something mysterious in what she’d said.

‘Me likewise.’

‘So we don’t necessarily have to do them together.’ She smiled an exaggerated smile.

‘Why didn’t we go somewhere warm?’ he said. ‘Like to a nearby hemisphere?’

‘Too much hassle.’

The plane rose and began to judder as it entered cloud. Again he put his hand on her hand.

‘How come you were in Amsterdam and I wasn’t?’

‘A conference. With teachers.’

‘When was this?’

She shrugged.

‘I think it was the eighties? Anyway I thought it would be good. To remind myself.’

‘It’s a very elaborate piece of storyboarding.’

‘How do you mean?'

‘Planning ahead. Mapping it all out. The way you want things to happen.’


‘It’s a movie term. They draw a comic first – then film it. It’s a way of setting out exactly what you want to happen.’

‘I like that word,’ said Stella.

It wasn’t a long flight. Stella did two crosswords. Both cryp-tic. One in the morning paper, the other – kept flat in her Filofax – clipped from Sunday’s paper. She had a theory about crosswords: that they would keep her mentally active in her very old age. Press-ups for the brain, she called them.

The plane turned on its side and below they could see Amsterdam.

‘It was summer last time,’ said Stella. ‘We flew over tulip fields. From the air they looked like freshly opened plasticine. Rows and ridges. All primary colours.’

‘Looks very grey now.’

‘If it’s raining I wouldn’t mind a snooze when we get as far as the hotel.’

‘In the middle of the afternoon?’

‘Last night I discovered what bad sleep is.’


‘Lying awake. You and your music,’ she said.

‘You never go to bed in the afternoon at home.’

‘Away is different.’

The first smell in the airport building was of flowers. Hyacinths in January. Stella drew some euros from a hole-in-the-wall machine after checking the exchange rates. It shelled out high-denomination notes only and she tut-tutted. She gave half to Gerry and he slid them into his wallet. As they made
their way to the train station Gerry pointed at her wristbands.

‘You can take those things off now.’

‘They keep me nice and warm.’ Stella’s face was turned up to the huge noticeboard. ‘Look.’


‘Europe,’ she said. ‘Does that not do something to the hairs on the back of your neck? To be on the same piece of land? Rome, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague. Moscow, even. You could get on a train...’

‘Let’s get to Amsterdam first.’

The board changed with a roar and a flutter of individual letters and in an instant the whole board trembled and all the information leapt up a line.

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