By Kevin Mc Dermott
‘John’s the boss now,’ your father said. And that was the end of it. John, the prodigal, home after years on the buildings in London. John, who didn’t know his arse from his elbow. Twelve years putting your heart and soul into the fucking place, twelve years listening to your father talking shite. And then, ‘John’s the boss now.’
‘Right so,’ you said.
And the next morning you were on the first bus out of there, with not a backward glance. You headed east and put the mountains between you and Ballinaclash. At the mart, you’d seen the farmers from Newcastle and Newtown – Protestants, with money and intelligence, not like the pair of gobshites you’d left behind, with neither brains nor ambition.
‘Good riddance,’ you thought.
Newcastle was a bit of a let-down, with its one shop-cum-pub.
‘Is there anything stirring here, by way of entertainment?’ you asked the shopkeeper.
‘Try Farnham’s on the Murrough,’ he said. ‘There’ll be cards and maybe a bit of music.’
There were both, and a pot of tea and egg sandwiches. And there were two daughters. The younger, Ellen, was a beauty with smooth white skin and brown hair that tumbled in waves. But she wore a ring, and a fellow had his arm around her waist the whole night, afraid he’d lose her. A big scrawny fellow in a suit – a garda. They were newly married and had a house in Kilcoole. The older daughter was plain, a big loose-limbed woman who was easy in her skin.
And when she went outside and you slipped away after her, she didn’t seem surprised and walked the railway line with you while you smoked a cigarette. And when you pushed her against the wall of the railway shed, she laughed.
‘Oh is that your game, now?’
And then you were all over her.
‘Easy, easy,’ she said, and pushed you away. ‘Here,’ and she undid the buttons of your trousers and fondled and squeezed your mickey till every drop of your milt was spilled.
‘You haven’t that much in you,’ she teased when you gasped and lay back against the wall, catching your breath. ‘What’s your name, anyway?’
‘Jimmy Doyle, that’s very romantic. Mine’s Rosie Farnham and if you want more than you got tonight, you’ll have to marry me,’ she said, and her laughter was infectious.
The shopkeeper mentioned that the farm manager in Robbs had up and gone to America.
‘That would be a grand job,’ he said, ‘and there’s a fine house goes with it.’
There and then you called to the big granite house, beside the rectory. Mr Robb quizzed you and looked you over. He was no one’s fool. He said he’d give you ‘an opportunity to prove yourself’. He walked you out to the yard. It was spotless.
‘Come back on Monday, Mr. Doyle, and I’ll talk you through the schedule.’
‘The schedule’. For fuck’s sake. The place was run on military lines. Two men were employed full-time and more ‘could be applied to when circumstances demanded.’
You wanted to laugh, the way Robb spoke, but when you looked round the yard, so neat and ordered, and thought of your own in Ballinaclash, with things thrown here and there and machinery rusting away in corners, you pulled yourself upright and answered in a voice you’d never heard yourself use before.
‘I look forward to it, sir,’ you said. You were twenty-eight years old and equal to any man and you’d prove that, too.
‘The manager’s house is in the Glen,’ Robb said. ‘Connie and I are going into Wicklow, so we can drive you up there now and see if it meets your requirements.’
That was the first time you laid eyes on Connie Robb, though when she came out that day and sat into the car you presumed she was the daughter of the house, she was that young.
Rosie put you in the picture. Old Robb had been married for forty years. His wife had been a real lady, Rosie said, and everyone had loved her. They had three daughters, who all married well. When the wife died, Robb lost little time in marrying the girl who kept house at the rectory, some distant relation of the rector. It was rumoured that she was recovering from a disappointment in love. She was far too educated to be a housekeeper. Old Robb’s daughters were shocked but what could they do? People said the new wife was a gold-digger and Rosie said worse.
You can imagine the dirty talk when the new wife produced a son, Donald James, after nine months, but what did Robb care about talk and him with an heir?
‘Ah, there’s no fool like an old fool,’ Rosie said.
The Robbs’ cook, Mrs. Crowe, was a great friend of Rosie’s and gave her all the gossip from the big house, so that Rosie thought herself an authority on everything that went on there.
‘Once the child was born, a wet nurse was in and madame was out of the marriage bed and sleeping on her own in the best room in the house. Every other day she’s up in Dublin. Off spending his money in the department stores, so she is. She’ll have him bankrupt in jig time.’
You tried to reconcile all you heard with the quiet young woman who sat in the car with old Robb. You were not sure that you could.
Rosie took more of an interest in you after you got the job as farm manager. She was tired of living with her mother and father and keeping house for them and looking after the hens and the sow. She was tired of serving tea to the crowd who came to play cards. You showed her the house in the Glen, which was long and low and spacious, and she liked it. She let you have your way with her then, and when her month’s blood didn’t show, you married quickly before tongues started to wag.
After the wedding Rosie got a job doing a bit of cleaning up at the rectory. She liked being around the well-to-do, and she and Mrs. Crowe could compare notes.
You were happy, in your own way, you and Rosie. You each had something the other wanted and fair exchange is no robbery. And there was the added happiness of the child Rosie was expecting. It was not romantic, and it wasn’t love but it was enough, or so you thought. And Rosie was not coy or shy when it came to sex. She took an amused view of the whole thing.
‘Are you finished there, now,’ she’d say, after you’d sweated in your marriage bed, like you were a child learning to use the pisspot. ‘Aren’t you the great man?’ And all she was short of doing was wiping your arse and patting you on the head.
Spring came. You’d been up at dawn with the lambs and came home for a wash and some food. Rosie was off away. You were shaving when you heard someone call out. You recognised the voice at once. You pulled up your braces, towelled your face quickly and went into the hall.
‘Oh Mr. Doyle,’ Connie said, surprised. ‘I beg your pardon, I was expecting your wife.’
You stood before her, like a clod. There was an awkward silence.
‘I see I’ve disturbed you,’ she said, and touched her cheek.
It took you a minute to understand. Then you brushed the foam from your face and you both laughed.
On impulse you said, ‘The kettle’s on,’ and she surprised you by accepting the offer of a cup of tea. You talked about everything and nothing, about Newcastle and Ballinaclash. She was refined, ladylike, but with a bit of devilment in her, and her laugh came from her throat. She laughed a lot that morning, like it was a relief to laugh. And you laughed, too.
And when she left, her words kept playing in your mind, ‘I see I’ve disturbed you,’ and you wondered had you made a mistake marrying Rosie Farnham. And you imagined starting your life over and learning how to love and be loved in return. You wondered what it would be like to be with someone who would listen to your dreams and not laugh when you talked about Ballinaclash, and the smell of the soil, or the oak trees in the far field and how much you missed seeing them and thinking of them as yours.
You and Connie began to meet. You’d go out in the morning and come back after Rosie left for the rectory. Then Connie would drive down in the car. At the start, you just talked, talked like two people possessed. Talked about ordinary things – farming and flowers and the pleasure of seeing things grow. She referred to her husband as ‘Donald’. One morning she spoke about loneliness and began to cry. You gave what comfort you could.
‘It’s a rare thing to feel safe with someone, Jimmy,’ Connie said, ‘and I feel safe with you.’
That was the start of your intimacy.
The first time you undressed her, she stood like a child with her arms in the air and you pulled her dress over her head. She wore a silk camisole and silk stockings. You’d never felt silk before, and you were ashamed of how rough your hands were. She stood naked, then, not brazen but not shy, either. And you took in her loveliness.
‘You’re beautiful,’ you told her, and you meant it, with all your heart.
And then she stripped you, taking care in opening your buttons, laying your clothes down in a neat pile. She took her time and was in no rush. You’d never been with a woman in that way. And when she kissed you, it was like she was searching for an answer to a question and thought she might find it in you.
Connie was putting her earrings in and you were lying on the bed when Rosie found you. She was near her time but had insisted on going to the rectory that morning. When the waters broke she came home with Mrs. Crowe following in close pursuit.
Rosie must have seen Connie’s car in the yard. So she must have known or suspected before she walked through the door. Poor Rosie. You’ll never forget the sight of her, her belly swollen under her apron. Connie screamed and tried to run out but Rosie blocked her way and struck her on the face with her fist and knocked her sideways.
‘Jesus, Rosie,’ you said, running over to Connie. There was blood coming from her mouth. But she pushed you away and fled out the bedroom door.
‘Connie,’ you called and followed her out.
‘Go on,’ Rosie screamed, the tears rolling down her cheeks, ‘that’s right, run after your fancy woman,’ and her whole body shook with hurt and anger, though you were already out the door and didn’t see it. ‘And you needn’t bother coming back.’
Rosie left with Mrs. Crowe and it was she who didn’t come back. To this day, you don’t know where the child, your son, was born. After the birth Rosie went to stay with her sister. You cycled to Kilcoole, but Ellen wouldn’t let you into the house and when you started to call out Rosie’s name, the long lank of a garda-husband came out tapping his baton on his open palm.
‘We don’t want any trouble here, Doyle,’ he said.
‘I want to see my wife and child.’
‘Little thought you had for them when you were off with your fancy woman,’ Ellen said, ‘you filthy bastard.’
‘Rosie, Rosie,’ you cried.
And then the lank smashed his baton on your shoulder and you fell to your knees with the pain.
‘Clear off now, Doyle, your sort is not wanted around here.’
‘Rosie,’ you shouted, ‘I’m sorry. Can I see the child, please?’
But the only answer you got was another belt of the baton across your shoulder and the door slammed in your face.
You went back to the Glen and waited. One of the men brought a note terminating your employment and obliging you to quit the house. He gave you an envelope with a month’s pay. He said the master and mistress were planning a trip abroad and would be gone till Christmas.
It was raining when you left Newcastle on the bus for Ballinaclash. You were going home with your tail between your legs, like a tired dog who has nowhere else to go. It was raining and the wet leaves lay in droves along the walls of the granite house near the rectory. And you left without a backward glance, leaving behind the infinite possibilities you thought you’d found there. And you wondered how you had let it all slip through your fingers. You closed your eyes and put your hand on your heart. And you could scarce believe it was still beating.
Category: Featured, Fiction