Authors: Nina de Gramont
‘I brought you something.’ Finbarr held out a four-leaf clover. I reached for it without sitting up and straight away the fourth leaf fluttered away. He’d been holding it there with his finger.
‘Fake luck.’ I flicked it away with a laugh, still delighted.
Finbarr flopped down beside me. He never minded being contradicted, just like he never minded me winning game after game of tennis. He never minded anything.
‘I hope I don’t smell like fish,’ he said.
I thought about lying and saying no. Instead I said, ‘Well, I smell of sheep and horse shite, so we’re a good match.’
‘I smell of those things too.’ He wove his fingers together, arched his arms over behind his head and made a pillow of his hands. ‘You like to read, do you?’
‘I could read that book when you’re done.’ He stared straight up at the sky, not at my book. ‘Then we can talk about it.’
‘Do you like to read?’
‘No. But I could start.’
‘This one’s mostly about a girl.’
‘I don’t mind reading about girls.’
I turned my head and stared at him, and he tilted his head towards me. Long black eyelashes framed eyes of layered blue. Soon Uncle Jack would come up over the hill and he wouldn’t like to see us, lying side by side, even though we were a good two feet apart.
‘I think I’d like to be a writer,’ I said. It was nothing I’d ever thought of before. I liked to read but had never tried my hand at stories or poems.
‘You’d be a grand writer,’ Finbarr said. ‘You’d be grand at anything.’
He put a strand of grass between his teeth and turned his eyes back to the sky. Legs crossed at the ankles. Alby tugged at his trouser legs, dissatisfied with a full day of running, or else eager to get home for the evening meal.
‘Nan O’Dea,’ my aunt called from the house. ‘You get up this minute, please, and wash for supper.’
I knew the sternness in her voice was over me and Finbarr lying down together, not my need to wash. We jumped to our
feet, both of us with mussed hair, sun from a day working outdoors rosying our cheeks.
‘Stay for supper, Finbarr?’ Aunt Rosie called, forgiving him, as no one could ever help but do.
‘I’d love to, Mrs O’Dea.’
With as much energy as the younger of the two dogs, we raced each other to the house. Finbarr won. He jumped on the porch with both feet, raising his arms up in the air. Victory.
Sometimes you fall in love with a place, dramatic and urgent as falling in love with any person. I started begging to return to Ireland almost the moment I arrived back in London. My sisters belonged to my mother and England, but Ireland was where I belonged. I had an ancestral memory of those green hills. The place lived in my bones so they ached when I was away from it. At that age, when I thought of Finbarr, it was as another part of the landscape.
‘I’ll only send you back if you promise never to stay,’ my mother said. ‘I don’t want any of my girls living far from home. Not even you, Colleen.’
Those last words were spoken in a loving tone but Colleen didn’t answer. She sat sprawled at the kitchen table, her green eyes fixed on the pages of a book by Filson Young about the
. Her wild blonde hair spilled onto the table, curtaining her face. The rest of us had brown hair and brown eyes like our father.
Mum laughed and shook her head. ‘The roof could fall in around that one and she wouldn’t notice.’
Louisa, the most practical of all of us, pushed her hand against Colleen’s shoulder. Colleen sat up, blinking, as if just
woken. ‘She’s already living off far from home,’ Louisa said, tapping the pages of the book.
Oh, let me pause for a moment here. Colleen, seventeen years old, with her life ahead of her. All of us together and hopeful for the future, in the tiny, rundown kitchen that was the heart of our home. Our mother still able to believe her four girls would transition seamlessly from providing her a house full of children to one full of grandchildren.
My father stamped in, breaking the merriment as he sometimes did, carrying his heavy day with him. ‘That Jones boy was hanging about outside waiting for you,’ he said to Colleen.
She put her book aside and lifted her heavy hair to knot it on top of her head. Years later I’d read a poem by William Butler Yeats and chafed at the lines, ‘
only God, my dear, / Could love you for yourself alone / And not your yellow hair.
’ It brought my sister to mind, and how boys who didn’t know a thing about her loved her in an instant. My mother worked a few days a week at a haberdasher’s, Buttons and Bits. One time Colleen covered a shift for her, and the owner forbade her from ever working there again because she drew too many boys, leaning on the counter with no interest in buying anything. Colleen’s hair was like a siren, screaming out to the city streets, drawing attention, and not from God. I hated that poem.
Every night when we sisters settled into our beds in the room we shared, Colleen would tell us stories, sometimes recounting the book she was reading and sometimes making up her own. There were mornings all four of us woke with a stoop in our back, our stomachs aching from having laughed so hard the night before. I would have loved Colleen if she had no hair at all. So would Megs and Louisa. And my mother.
‘That Jones boy can wait all he likes,’ Colleen said. ‘I never said I’d see him.’
‘There must be something you do,’ my father said, shaking off his coat. ‘To lead those blokes on.’
Colleen let out a quick, outraged laugh. Just yesterday Derek Jones and two other boys had dogged Colleen and me on our way to the Whitechapel Library. ‘You’re spoiling our walk,’ she’d finally told them, sharp and firm, and they drifted off with longing glances over their shoulders. Colleen wore a knitted woollen hat and pulled it down over her ears. Much as she liked to disappear into books, when she returned to the world, she was direct and no nonsense. ‘Lucky me with such admirers, eh, Nan?’ she’d said.
‘Hush with that,’ Mum said to our father. ‘She does nothing but live in the same world with them. Do you want me shaving her head? Leave the girl be.’
Colleen snapped up her book and disappeared into our room while the rest of us worked on dinner. Mum patted my back because I was nearest, and it always soothed her to touch one of her children. Perhaps she was thinking what she must have already known. Sometimes living in the same world with them was all it took.
The next summer, Finbarr came to the farm for tennis almost every night. He trained Alby to lie absolutely still, no matter what happened. I think Alby would have expended less energy running ten miles than it took to fight his every instinct and stay frozen in the face of that bouncing tennis ball. But stay frozen he did, never jumping to his feet until Finbarr gave him the command.
‘Ready. Ball,’ Finbarr would say, and finally the dog could catapult into the air.
In the autumn, back home at my family’s dinner table in London, I listed the tricks Alby could do.
‘Finbarr tells him to sidestep one way and then another. He tells him to stand still until he gets the command to move.’
‘Not so impressive for that breed,’ my father said, from the looks of him remembering the dogs of his youth.
‘I’m not done. Alby can do all the usual tricks – sit, sit pretty, cover. Uncle Jack says he’s the best herding dog he’s ever seen.’ This would mean he’d be the best my father ever saw. ‘And Finbarr taught him to catch a football and balance it on his nose. He taught him to jump on a horse’s back and sit pretty.’
‘You make it sound as if Finbarr’s the clever one,’ said Megs. ‘I’d say it’s the dog.’
‘They’re both clever.’ But I knew Finbarr could do the same with any dog. He had a gift.
‘Perhaps I’ll go next summer, too,’ Megs said.
‘Give your sister some competition for this clever Mahoney boy,’ my father said.
My sisters and I had a particular look we exchanged when my father said something ridiculous. We would never fight among ourselves over a boy.
Mum ended the conversation by saying what she always did, speaking to me but looking at Colleen. ‘Don’t you go marrying that Ballycotton boy. I don’t want to have grandchildren I only see but once a year.’
‘Why do you always look at me first?’ Colleen objected. ‘I’d be the last one ever to leave you, Mum.’ She stood up and collected our plates, stopping to give Mum a kiss on the cheek.
That night in our room Colleen said, ‘What if I go with you next summer, to get out of the city? Do you think I’d like it?’
Colleen and I slept in one bed, by the window, Louisa and Megs in another, pressed against the wall. I sat up and said, ‘Oh, you’d love it.’ I started to spill into my usual paeans for Ireland and she clapped a hand over my mouth.
‘Yes, I know,’ she said. ‘It’s sheer heaven. But even heaven’s not for everyone.’
‘Heaven may not be. But Ireland is.’
The following summer I was fifteen. Uncle Jack’s farm was going strong, but not strong enough to pay passage for two of us.
‘I wonder if Colleen should have a turn,’ Mum said, when Da got Jack’s letter. She was tying a bow at her collar, trying to look smart on her way to work at Buttons and Bits.
‘Oh, I’d never take Ireland away from Nan,’ Colleen said quickly, before I even had a chance to turn pale with loss.
‘Just as well,’ Da said. ‘I want this one here where I can see her.’ He tapped her chin fondly but the way Colleen bit her lip I could tell she knew he was only half joking.
The exchange occurred so fast I only realize in the telling of it the debt I owed my sister. Travelling back to Ireland on my own. I must have had my share of doubts and forebodings, during this time in my life, as we do in all times of our lives, even childhood. But what I remember is a beautiful ignorance of everything the future held. Ignorance of the looming war, and how it would permeate all our days to come. Reality wasn’t the newspaper making my uncle’s face crease with worry. Reality was the way the ocean carried through the air I breathed. Reality was the clean white sheets we hung on the clothes line to dry in the sun, so that by the time they got to our beds a hint of brine stayed with them, filling our dreams with waves, rocks and seals. Reality
was the black-haired, blue-eyed boy and his dog, travelling over green hills to see me.
‘Nan,’ Aunt Rosie called. It was morning. I had just come downstairs and was tying my apron on to help her with the boxty. ‘Finbarr Mahoney’s out front. He’s wanting you to ride with him.’
‘May I go?’
‘Sure you may.’ As much as my mother hated the idea of my one day moving to Ireland, her sister-in-law loved it. ‘Jack’s got errands in town so there’s no work with him today. You can ride Angela. Let Finbarr take Jack’s horse. Be home in time to help me with supper. And take Seamus with you.’
The three of us rode half a mile down the road, towards the shore. Alby trotted beside us. Finbarr drew his horse to a stop and pulled tuppence from his pocket. He sailed the coin over to Seamus. It was a good toss but Seamus missed it. He had to struggle down from his horse to collect it off the road.
‘There’s a good lad,’ Finbarr said. ‘Go off on your own, will you? We’ll meet you here in a few hours.’
Seamus tossed the coin back to Finbarr. He was only twelve but knew he’d been sent along as my chaperone. ‘I think I’ll be staying,’ my cousin said, and climbed back on his horse.