Authors: Nina de Gramont
I didn’t follow Mr Mahoney’s advice and speak with an Irish brogue. Once the nuns had explained the rules of my new home, I barely spoke at all, not for weeks.
A young person can’t know her life, what it will be or how it will unfold. When you grow older, you gain a sense that hardships occupy particular moments in time, which, by and by, will pass. But when you’re young, a single moment seems like the whole world. It feels permanent. Years hence I would go on to live a bigger life. I would travel all over the world. But that winter I was scarcely more than a child. I knew exactly two places: London and County Cork and only tiny pockets of both. I knew I was young but I didn’t understand
young, or that youth was a fleeting condition. I knew the war had ended but I didn’t yet believe it. The Great War had seemed not so much an event as a place, unmovable as England but nowhere near as destructible. In London my father’s favourite pub had been blown to rubble, kegs of ale rolling out onto the street as more bombs fell. For the rest of his life my father would say the world lost its innocence during the Great War.
The first task I was given at the convent – my hair shorn, my own clothes taken away – was tending the nuns’ graveyard. With two other girls, both of them heavily pregnant, I went out to sweep and rake, and clean the headstones of lichen. The cold air might have tasted like freedom if not for the iron bars extending around the perimeter, as far as I could see. To the right was a high stone wall. Thin sounds carried over it, which I didn’t realize were the voices of small children, brought out for a breath of air before their supper. Visible through the iron bars lay the road that led away from the convent; no sign of Mr Mahoney returning for me with a change of heart. Neither of the other girls spoke to me. We weren’t supposed to speak at all, or even know each other’s names.
The nuns’ headstones were thick crosses, each one etched with the words
Here Lies Sister Mary
. As if only one woman had died but she somehow needed fifty graves. I ran my coarse cloth over the stones, dipping my fingers into the carved grey words. And I knew in that moment. The world had never been innocent.
But I had been innocent.
Let’s go back a little further. Before the war, this time. See me at thirteen – skinny and nimble as a cricket – the first time my parents sent me to spend a summer at my Aunt Rosie’s and Uncle Jack’s farm.
‘Nan likes to run,’ my father said, formulating the plan. ‘She wasn’t meant for the city, was she.’ He worked as a clerk at the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company, and often said these same words – not meant for the city – about himself. It pained him to stoop long hours over a desk for little money. I always suspected
Da would have regretted leaving Ireland, if that wouldn’t have meant regretting us. His wife was English and that meant his family was too. Except, apparently, for me.
My sisters Megs (elder) and Louisa (younger) were proper girly girls, interested in clothes and hair and cooking. Or at least that’s what they pretended to be interested in. My sister Colleen (eldest) only cared about books and school. I liked books, too, but I also liked kicking a football with the neighbourhood boys. Sometimes after dark my father would come and find me with them, sweaty and filthy in an empty lot.
‘If she were a boy, she could be a champion,’ he boasted.
‘She’s too old for that now,’ my mother complained, but my father took pity.
‘Those other three are yours,’ he said to Mum, ‘but this one’s my Irish girl.’
My father had grown up on a farm just outside the fishing village of Ballycotton. Since I’d been born he’d gone back to visit once or twice when his brother paid the way. But there’d never been enough money for us all to travel there. The thought of my going at all, let alone for a whole summer, was thrilling. I knew it was a modest house but much roomier than our London flat, which only had two bedrooms, one for my parents and one for us four girls. Uncle Jack had done well with the farm. His wife Rosie inherited a small amount of money when her father died, and they’d added solid wood floors and lined the walls of the sitting room with bookshelves. They kept the grass near the house cut short for lawn tennis. (‘Tennis,’ my father scoffed, when he told us. ‘Now that’s an idea above his station.’)
The landscape existed in my mind, the most vivid green. Rolling hills and low stone walls – uninterrupted miles for me to
kick a football through the meadows with my little cousin Seamus. I clasped my hands together and fell to my knees beside my mother, imploring her to let me go, only partly joking about the fervour.
My mother laughed. ‘It’s just I’ll miss you,’ she said, and I jumped to my feet and threw my arms around her. She had a dear, freckly face and wide green eyes. Sometimes I regret losing my East End accent because it’s meant losing the sound of her.
‘I’ll miss you, too,’ I admitted.
‘It won’t be a holiday,’ my father warned. ‘Jack’ll pay your passage but you’ll be doing plenty of chores to pay him back.’
Most of the chores would be outdoors, with horses and sheep, a joy to me. I was grateful that my uncle would hire a girl to do them.
And so we come to the Irish boy. Finbarr Mahoney was a fisherman’s son. Two years before we met, he came upon a wizened farmer at the village docks, about to drop a puppy – the runt of a litter of border collies – into the freezing sea.
‘Here,’ Finbarr said, hoisting a bucket of mackerel. ‘I’ll trade you.’
Nobody would have known there was anything urgent in the transaction. Finbarr had the lightest, smiling air about him. As if everything – even life and death – was easy. He hoisted the puppy under his chin and handed over the bucket, knowing he’d have to pay his father back for the fish.
‘The man was about to throw the puppy away,’ Finbarr’s father scolded. ‘Do you really think he expected to be paid for it?’
Finbarr named the dog Alby, first bottle feeding then training him. Uncle Jack was glad to hire Finbarr to bicycle over to the farm on his days off the boat, to help move sheep from one pasture to the other. Jack said Alby was the best herding dog in County Cork.
‘It’s because of the boy,’ Aunt Rosie said. ‘He’s got a way with creatures, hasn’t he. He could turn a goat into a champion herder. You can’t tell me another handler would have the same results with that dog.’
My uncle’s collie was a passable herder but nothing to Alby. I thought that dog – small, slight and graceful – was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I thought Finbarr – hair black and silky, gleaming nearly blue in the summer sun – was the second most beautiful. He had a way with creatures, as Aunt Rosie had said, and after all, what was I? Finbarr was a few years older than me. When he rode by, he’d pretend to tip the hat he wasn’t wearing. I have never liked people who constantly smile, as if they think everything’s funny. But Finbarr smiled differently, not out of amusement, but happiness. As if he liked the world and enjoyed being in it.
‘It seems a wonderful thing,’ I said to my Aunt Rosie that evening, while we did the washing up, ‘to always be happy.’
Right away she knew who I was speaking of. ‘He’s been like that his whole life,’ Aunt Rosie said, with deep fondness. ‘Sunny. Proves rich or poor doesn’t matter, if you ask me. Some people are just born happy. I think that’s the luckiest thing. If you’re sunny inside, you never have to worry about the weather.’
One evening after supper, Finbarr bicycled over to the house when Seamus and I were playing tennis. I’d learned to play in my first week and now won every game. ‘I don’t know where you
get the energy after a full day of work,’ Uncle Jack had said to us, shaking his head in fond admiration.
‘Where’s Alby?’ Seamus called to Finbarr. He was ten then and as dazzled by the dog as I was.
‘I left him at home. I thought you’d be playing tennis. He’ll chase the balls and spoil the game.’
My uncle’s collie, Brutus, lay under the porch, tired after a day of herding, uninterested in playing.
‘You can play with Nan,’ Seamus said, handing over his racket. ‘Win one for me, will you?’ His red curls drooped from the failed attempt to best me.
I bounced the ball on my racket, recognizing it as showing off but not able to help myself. Finbarr smiled as usual, blue eyes turned grey by fading evening sunlight. ‘Ready, then?’ I hit the ball over the net before he could answer. We goofed like that a bit, sending the ball back and forth to each other. Then we played in earnest. I won two games before Alby came crashing over the hills. Running straight for Finbarr, then changing course, leaping to snatch the ball from the air.
We threw our rackets down and chased him. There were other balls but it seemed the natural thing to do. Laughter filling the sky. Uncle Jack and Aunt Rosie came out to the porch to laugh along with us. Finally Finbarr stopped running, stood stock still and yelled, ‘Alby, stop.’
The dog halted so immediately, so precisely, it was clear Finbarr had this power all along.
‘Out,’ Finbarr commanded, and Alby spat the ball onto the grass. Finbarr approached him with measured steps, scooped the ball up and held it in the air. ‘Nan,’ he said, ‘make a wish.’
‘I wish I could stay in Ireland forever.’
He threw the ball, a long arc, and Alby went rushing for it, catching it mid-air, paws miles above the ground.
‘Granted,’ Finbarr said, and turned to me. Magical enough to make it so.
A few days later, he came by the house after helping Uncle Jack. I had finished mucking out the stables and lay on the hill in a pocket of clover, still reeking of manure, reading
A Room with a View
. Brutus lay beside me, resting his head on my stomach.
‘Your uncle will need a new dog before long,’ Finbarr said. Alby stood at his side, ears perked. ‘You can tell they’re getting old when they’re tired at the end of the day.’
‘Doesn’t Alby get tired sometimes?’ I shaded my eyes to see him.
‘Never.’ Finbarr said it with a confidence so firm it had to be wishful.
‘Well, Brutus will never get old,’ I said, also wishful, patting the dog’s narrow, tawny head. From somewhere nearby a skylark chirruped, continuous and complaining. Of course, there were birds in London but I’d never noticed them much. Since coming to Ireland I’d learned the sky was its own separate universe, just above our heads, teeming with its own brand of singing life.