Authors: Babs Horton
1947. In the remote village of Ballygurry in western Ireland, middle-aged Solly Benjamin is roused at midnight to find a small child on his doorstep, carrying a battered suitcase, a length of cord loosely tied round her neck. On the attached name tag is written his own name and address. The child is Dancey Amati, abandoned by her mother on the Camino de Santiago, and subsequently looked after by an old pilgrim, Peregrino Viejo, who teaches Dancey the recipe for dandelion soup, favoured dish of saints and martyrs. Together, Solly and Dancey embark on an epic journey across France and into Spain, following the medieval Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela, seeking news of the mother who abandoned Darcey and the elusive Peregrino Viejo, who always seems to be one step ahead of them. As Solly painstakingly pieces together the story of this remarkable child and the reason why a complete stranger would send her to him, he is forced to look back on his own past, to confront his greatest fears and rekindle his dreams.
Absence diminishes commonplace passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and kindles fire. Maximes (1678) N°276, Due de la Rochefoucauld
Recipe for Dandelion Soup
Take a fistful of garbanzos
A clutch of white beans
A handful of dandelions
Two wide-brimmed hatfuls of spring water
A slosh of olive oil
Some slivers of monastery beef
Two cloves of silvery garlic
One enormous wrinkled tomato
An old potato, and one stout stick for stirring
Pick only the leaves of the most succulent dandelions. Be sure to select only those that bend westwards in the breeze. A breeze not too cool, neither too hot. If the dandelions are in flower check the petals carefully, the petals of the dandelion are the most beautiful of all the flowers, petals that are sparks of fire thrown straight from the sun.
Soak the beans overnight. Toss the beef in a pan with the olive oil and stir until cooked. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for three hours over a fire of pine cones and olive branches until the beans are tender. Sprinkle with dandelion petals.
Eat in the best company under a sky full of stars.
THE OLD PILGRIM
It was almost dark when the Old Pilgrim found her, a small wide-eyed child abandoned in the long waving grass. As the sun dropped behind the mountains and the smoky mist drifted up from the river far below, he had sat cross-legged on the soft grass beside the weeping child.
Away in the distance the narrow arched windows of the monastery of Santa Eulalia reflected the dying embers of sunset. A soft wind carried the sound of the monks at prayer and brought with it the smell of wild rosemary and thyme, candle wax and incense. Overhead a hawk screamed and plummeted to the earth and a large moon drifted above the far off mountain peaks.
The Old Pilgrim had taken a silver flask from the folds of his black cloak, poured the golden liquid into a battered tin cup and handed it to her.
“Dandelion soup. Favoured dish of saints and martyrs. Provider of sustenance to weary pilgrims. Succour to the dispossessed, nectar of the vagabond and the outcast.”
She had never forgotten those words.
“Food of the gods, fare of erstwhile virgins,” he’d said.
And she had smiled, dried her tears and drunk deeply. Then, she had taken his proffered hand and he had wrapped his filthy cloak about her small shoulders. Together, as the moon rose higher and the first stars lit the sky, they had walked into the darkness of the night.
They made a strange couple; a tall man in a dark cloak and a wide-brimmed hat and a small skinny-legged girl in clumsy boots and a shrunken blue dress carrying the few things she owned in a battered suitcase.
For almost a year they tramped the roads of the Camino de Santiago in search of her mother.
Eventually they had followed the road out of Spain and into France, but to no avail. There was no sign of her mother.
Then he too had abandoned her, given her money and directions and carefully written a name and address on a label, hung it round her neck on a piece of string, as though he were bestowing jewels upon her.
They had stood together for one last time. He stooped to kiss her and then his face had crumpled and her own eyes were blinded by icy tears. Then she heard only the sound of his broken boots on the ground as he hurried away and the whispering swirl of his cloak in the cold Parisian wind as he, too, was gone from her.
Ballygurry was a small village of dank, dimly lit houses, crouched low in a mossy hollow and blasted on all sides by the wild winds and inclement weather that came down from the mountains and in from the restless ocean.
Twice a week the clackety steam train wheezed through the station but rarely stopped unless it had a new batch of orphans to unload for St Joseph’s, or parcels done up with string and sealing wax sent from those now fled to America or London England.
There was a musty, fusty shop-cum-pub called Donahue’s, a dim den reeking of whiskey and yellowing sprouts, old newspapers, dying cabbages and fresh gossip.
There was a sweet shop run by a sour-faced old crone, and a butcher’s shop with a carpet of sawdust and sad-faced pigs hanging on hooks. There was the polished, flower-filled church of Saint Bridget and a graveyard where the yew tree bent double in an easterly, groaning and moaning and throwing its black twisted shadows across the cough-lozenge gravestones.
There was a spotless presbytery that housed a succession of lonely but well-fed priests. On the roof of the presbytery a weather vane whirled and spun until the dizzy cockerel begged for mercy.
In the centre of the village there was a horse trough with magic powers where you could make a wish when the time was right: when the moon was full to bursting and the presbytery cockerel blowing anti-clockwise. On the stroke of midnight you’d to kneel down and stare into the horse trough and make a wish without blinking, only if the water was completely still mind, and then you would see the face of whomever you wanted to see or wanted to see you whether they were dead or alive.
Out past the village along the shore there was a crooked chimneyed schoolhouse with a bell on the top and a schoolmaster’s house next door.
And at the end of Mankey’s Alley there was a big, dilapidated old house with a foreign-sounding name where the Black Jew lurked behind misty net curtains and was said to count up his ill-gotten money over and over.
The orphans were sent to St Joseph’s from all over the country. There were newborn babies whipped from the freckled arms of bold, brassy girls who opened their legs for love or a pickled gherkin and a glass of port and lemon. Beautiful little pink and blue babies, take your pick. Bonneted and mittened babies who were swiftly snapped up by wealthy families from Cork and even as far away as Dublin. Sweet little Cinderella babies who fitted the Silver Cross prams a treat. Prams with rattles on elastic and banana-shaped glass feeding bottles with rubbery teats. Delrosa and rosehip. Virol and gripe water. Babies who were reborn and renamed on the ride back to the cities. Babies who would grow up in the leafy avenues and staid villas of distant towns and cities.
Then there were the ones who came and stayed. The snot-faced boys of St Joseph’s. Hard, pinchy-faced things with styes on their eyes and warts on their fingers. Boys who kicked sullenly at tin cans and piddled over the top of privet hedges. Bleary-eyed boys who yawned through mass and scratched through benediction. You could tell just by looking at them that they would have liked to shoot cats if only they could get their hands on a gun. Dirty-minded snickering things; bad boys in the making.
And there were whey-faced little girls with eczema behind their knees who cried nightly into their pillows, chewed their nails to the quick and peed the beds. Stick-legged girls who metamorphosed at fourteen into po-faced little madams with contraband lipstick and bottles of cheap scent. Brazen-faced girls clutching battered suitcases, mouths painted as red as wild poppies, chins set firm on a life in the big city. Giving two-fingered salutes to the charitable nuns of Saint Joseph’s. The sound of their high heels clattering down the lanes of Ballygurry on the way to the station and freedom.
It was dark in the Guardian Angels dormitory except for a weak glimmer of moonlight that had wormed its way in through the high narrow windows. Padraig O’Mally stirred in his sleep and was woken moments later by the whistle of the train and the low warning call of the white owl that lived in the Dark Wood.
Padraig lay still and listened to all the usual night-time dormitory sounds, the soft snoring, the wheezy breath of the weak chested, the creak of rusty bed springs and the occasional whimper from the sleeping boys.
A cat wailed outside in the grounds and the wind blew through the leafy boughs of the conker tree like the echo of a restless sea. Stray leaves rustled on the gravel drive and somewhere a loose drainpipe clattered.
Padraig wanted to get up, slip on his clothes and sneak out into the blustery night. He longed to stand out there in the dark beneath the stars and feel the cold wind on his face, but there was no way out of St Joseph’s after dark. The heavy doors were locked and bolted and the keys were probably under Sister Veronica’s hair vest next to where her heart should have been.
The wind was gathering in strength and Padraig smiled. The only good things about living in Ballygurry were the great rough winds and the wild weather that came roaring in off the sea or sweeping down from the mountains. He loved the winds and the fiercer the better. When other people pulled up their mufflers and hurried away indoors all he wanted was to be out there in the middle of the raging winds.
There was nothing as grand as the feel of an icy wind on your face whipping up your blood and making your heart beat like a drum. Sometimes out in the schoolyard when the gusts came rampaging in from the Atlantic he ran with his arms stretched wide, the wind puffing up inside his orphanage jacket. Round and round he went, like an out of control airplane, nose diving, gliding, weaving and curling, in and out of the clouds of shivering kids, lost and happy in a world of his own. He imagined that if he shut his eyes he could be up and flying, off out of Ballygurry for ever, stealing a ride on the mad wind’s back.
Above his head he could hear the creak of floorboards as mad Sister Immaculata paced backwards and forwards in the attic where she was locked up at night for her own good.
Padraig knew the names of some of the winds now. Mr Leary, his new teacher, had taught him. The Chocolatera from Mexico. The Cafs Paw from the USA. Matanuska, Mistral, Moncao. Sirocco, Suestado, Zephyr.
There were soft warm winds and sultry wet winds. There were scorching, dry desert winds that could whip the hair off a camel’s arse no sweat. Arctic winds bringing icy sleet and blizzards of snow enough to freeze the knackers off a polar bear. There were typhoons, tornadoes, cyclones and hurricanes.
The winds were free; there weren’t any rules that they had to obey. They could blow on any bugger they fancied. They could whip the hats off the poor and lift the skirts of the rich. They could batter the castles of lords and ladies; hammer the farms and barns of paupers and peasants. They could ring the church bells and blow out the altar candles of Catholics and Protestants. All the people of the world were at the mercy of the winds: Aborigines, Eskimos and Bedouins. Snot-faced tinkers and sniffy-nosed bishops.
He lay still for a long time, hands clasped behind his head, thinking of some of the places in the world that Mr Leary had told them about in school.
England. Capital London. River Thames. Red buses. Orl right mate. Shuttya mouf. Uppyabum. Jellied eels and boiled beef and carrots.
France. Capital Paris. River Seine. Bonjour. Au revoir. Zut Alors. Frogs’ legs and snails and bread with chocolate in the middle. In Paris there was a dance hall full of forgetful women without knickers.
Spain. Capital Madrid. Rio Manzanares. Rio meant river in Spanish. Hola. Adios. Hasta la vista. Paella and tortilla. Bloody bullfights and dizzy guitar music. Toreador. Matador. Picador. Madrid was freezing in winter and scalding hot in the summer. The people there had a sleep in the middle of the day; lazy sods.
Siesta. Fiesta. Flamenco.
Mr Leary had been to Spain to fight against a madman called Frank O. He never told them that in class but Jimmy Hoolistan’s da said it was true, Mr Leary told him once when they got slaughtered together in Donahue’s Bar. Hoolistan’s da said Mr Leary got shot and he had bullet holes in his legs that missed his mickey and his knackers by inches. Jimmy Hoolistan’s da said you could see daylight through the holes. Padraig wondered when Mr Leary went swimming would he sink or would bubbles come out of the holes when he jumped into the water.
He listened. Someone was sobbing. It was one of the smaller kids, over in the bed by the window, probably the new boy Donny Keegan.