The plane sat roaring on the runway, waiting its turn. Stella particularly disliked both take-off and landing – that race to build up speed, the parting from the ground and then, at the end of the flight, the thump of the tonnage of aeroplane coming into contact with the earth. The way the wings shook and opened up like they were broken, followed by the roaring of the reverse thrust. Now she closed her eyes and gripped the armrest. Gerry put his hand on hers. He tapped a little rhythm on the back of her hand to comfort her.

‘What’s this?’ said Gerry.


‘Where did you get them?’

‘In duty-free.’

‘What are they supposed to do?’

Keep me from being sick.’


‘Pressure points.’ She showed him a white bead which touched her wrist on the inside. ‘It presses here – near your pulse point – it stops nausea. They’ve worked for me in the past. On ferries. Remember?’

‘Look, I’ve been flying for years and not once have I seen anybody throwing up. There was a child one time – probably had a feed of bad oysters and dodgy stout before he got on. You’d be far better off saying the rosary. For a special intention.’

‘Which is?’

‘God, don’t let me vomit on this flight.’

Stella smiled and said, ‘We used to say the rosary in the car going to dances.’

‘You did not.’

‘The driver was a lot older than us but he was kind. Did it for petrol money. He gave out the rosary as he was driving.’

‘Poor horny guys going along, paying their money, hop-ing like mad for a bit and you’re saying the rosary on the way there?’

‘Ireland in the fifties.’

‘Was nobody ever carsick?’

‘Not a one.’

‘So you’d be far better off saying the rosary than throwing your money away on bloody armbands...'

‘Wristbands. Armbands keep you from drowning.’

Gerry produced the packet of Werther’s.

‘Like a sweet for take-off, modom?’

‘You said you’d forgotten them.’ She pulled out another tube of Werther’s. ‘So I bought my own.’

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.

  • Midwinter Break

  • A Guardian / Sunday Times / Irish Times / Herald Scotland / Mail on Sunday Book of the Year
    Winner of the Bord Gáis Novel of the Year

    Midwinter Break is a work of extraordinary emotional precision and sympathy, about coming to terms – to an honest reckoning – with love and the loss of love, with memory and pain...this is a novel of great ambition by an artist at the height of his powers’ Colm Tóibín

    A retired couple, Gerry and Stella Gilmore, fly to Amsterdam for a midwinter break. A holiday to refresh the senses, to see the sights and to generally take stock of what remains of their lives. But amongst the wintry streets and icy canals we see their relationship fracturing beneath the surface. And when memories re-emerge of a troubled time in their native Ireland things begin to fall apart. As their midwinter break comes to an end, we understand how far apart they are – and can only watch as they struggle to save themselves.

  • Buy the book

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