Authors: Catherine Dunne
To the next generation:
Alexa, Aoife, Brian, Clare, Eamonn, Féilim, Jane,
Julia, Michael, Niall, Niamh.
In memory of Eoin
remember the dark curve of my sister’s face on the evening Mama and Papa brought her home from boarding
school. Her eyes had the startled look of someone dislocated, as one thrust violently from some familiar country into a sudden, other universe. The whole house had acquired that air of still,
hushful expectancy which I had learned long ago to associate with Mama’s white, tight-lipped smile, and Papa’s silent fingering of his moustaches.
I was frightened, for myself and May as much as for our eldest sister. I watched from the drawing-room window as Hannah alighted from the brougham. After a brief hesitation, she accepted
Papa’s hand, outstretched to help her. I counted the seconds it would take them all to ascend the steps – Papa first, his back very straight; then Mama, without a backward glance;
finally Hannah, her head bowed as she gathered up the folds of her grey silk day-dress and followed our parents up to the front door. It seemed a long time before there was any sound of the door
being opened. That in itself was strange: there was no bell rung, no warning peal to bring Katie and Lily running from their various duties around the house. Papa must have brought a key. This,
then, was some private, family shame which no servant was to witness. I was impatient to find out: ever since the delivery of yesterday morning’s envelope, addressed in a slightly cramped but
well-educated hand, my small world had begun to tilt uncertainly. For a wild moment, I considered hiding behind the heavy drapes, but I knew of old that Mama’s sharp eye would find me out. I
would stay, then, until they sent me away. I needed to look closely into Hannah’s troubled eyes, to offer her my wordless affection.
I have never been able to see my sisters suffer.
on the second landing. Both women almost collided, but Sophia stopped abruptly, just in
time, averting disaster. Lily’s arms were full of what looked like puffed, frothy bundles laced with blue and white ribbons. Her round, open face was flushed with effort; perspiration
pinpricked across her upper lip so that the coarseness of her pores was suddenly visible. Sophia had never before noticed this faint suspicion of a moustache.
‘Oops – I’m sorry, ma’am; I was just bringin’ you the girls’ dresses.’
Sophia nodded. She waited until Lily got her breath. She felt a moment’s sharp sympathy for her: the July heat was intense, debilitating; the humidity unusual. Ironing the girls’
best dresses must have made the kitchen all but unbearable. No wonder she was panting.
‘Thank you, Lily. I’ll take them.’
Sophia held out her arms.
‘Are you sure, ma’am? Don’t you want me to help dress baby Eleanor?’
Sophia smiled and shook her head.
‘Hannah has become quite the little madam. She’s just given Eleanor her bath and now insists on dressing her baby sister herself. I’ll stay with them.’
‘Yes, ma’am. The carriage will be here to collect you and Mr Edward at three. The girls and I are to leave a little earlier.’
‘Thank you, Lily. They’ll be ready. I’ll call you if I need any help.’
Sophia walked down the corridor towards the bathroom. She found it difficult to suppress the surge of anticipation which had kept her awake and on edge since four o’clock. She had tried to
lie still, not wanting to disturb Edward; but her mind insisted on speeding ahead of her, cramming future days, months, years into restless, unknowing confusion. Keeping busy with the girls all
morning was the only way she had been able to maintain her accustomed aura of control. She was deliberately trying to keep the three of them calm, and in the process had had to steel herself not to
expect too much from this afternoon, not to be too disappointed if the unthinkable happened. She pushed open the bathroom door, but the children had already left; small pools of water beaded here
and there across the chequered linoleum.
Sophia made her way into the bedroom which Hannah and May shared. Hannah was taming Eleanor’s wild curls into unwilling submission. As usual, the baby sat on the floor, still and
contented, her thumb in her mouth. She never protested as long as Hannah was within sight. May was struggling to brush her own hair, although she had been told to wait.
Sophia laid the dresses carefully across the bed, smoothing the lacy ruffles, untangling ribbons. She took the hairbrush from May, and the child hardly protested. Her small arms must have become
‘Hannah, I want you to begin dressing now. Eleanor’s hair is perfect.’
Hannah beamed. She loved wearing her best dress, although fastening the buttons on her petticoat was always tiresome.
‘Yes, Mama,’ she said. Eleanor whimpered a little and then stopped. Hannah had only moved away as far as the bed.
May seemed content to lean against her mother’s knees while Sophia brushed her thick hair vigorously. She was surprised at the little girl’s stillness, but then May had always been
sensitive to atmosphere. Sophia wondered if the child was catching some of her mother’s suppressed excitement.
Looking at her three daughters, Sophia felt pride mixed with the now familiar tug of anxiety. They were all growing up so quickly. Hannah was six, already showing promise as a musician. She had
a good ear, had learned to pick out some simple tunes on the piano. May was four, a dark, intense child who wanted always to be with her sisters, but even in their presence succeeded somehow in
remaining separate from them. And then there was baby Eleanor. A delightful child of two: happy and sunny. ‘Mouse,’ Edward always called her. She was a quiet, undemanding little girl.
She suited her father well.
Sophia knew that she was ambitious for her daughters. She wanted them to have every opportunity to move in the best circles, to become young women of accomplishment and grace. If for no other
reason, then Edward’s advancement was essential for that. This house would soon be too small for them. Sophia had recently learned that in all the best families, each child was now being
given a room of their own. Sharing would soon become a thing of the past. And good schools were important, too, with music, drawing and dancing lessons. She knew that the years ahead would be
expensive; she could not expect her father to continue helping for ever.
Besides, Edward was clever: he was a competent, professional man, respected by his peers. He deserved to succeed. If he had a fault, it was that he was too modest, too self-effacing. Sophia was
growing stronger in her belief that her husband needed to push himself forward more. She knew it went against his nature. She also knew that if he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it, then she
would be driven to do it for him.
She dressed the girls and took them down to Lily. Hannah and May looked so pretty in their best dresses, matching blue ribbons in their fresh curls. Hannah’s hair was fair almost to
whiteness, her skin pale and translucent. May’s dark looks were a perfect contrast. Sophia smiled at the picture they made.
‘Now, girls, you must sit quietly for Lily until she’s ready. Hannah, I suggest we leave Eleanor’s dress until the last possible moment.’
Sophia had been thrown into turmoil some four weeks earlier when Edward received his invitation to the Lord Lieutenant’s garden party. This was the most important event in the Civil
Service social calendar: an invitation like this could only mean that Edward had at least put his foot on the ladder. He must be deemed suitable, satisfactory: perhaps he was already under active
consideration for promotion.
Now, as Sophia checked through everything she had planned to wear that afternoon, her hands began to shake a little, her stomach shifted uneasily. She was not ashamed to admit to herself how
badly she wanted this for Edward, for their family. She would be scrutinized almost as much as he. She knew she had to behave as an intelligent, sophisticated woman, one who would do the Service
justice no matter where her husband might be posted. She said a silent prayer. Promotions did not always go to deserving Catholics. She would need to play her part well.
hand tightly. Lily pushed Eleanor along in her bassinet. The children’s
summer party was to take place in a separate garden of the Vice-Regal lodge, away from the adults’. The wrought-iron gate to the garden whined as Lily opened it and shooed the two girls in
before her. Hannah thought that Lily looked very smart today: she wore a navy dress with a white collar; her hat was white straw trimmed with white and navy flowers and matching ribbons. It was not
usual to see Lily all dressed up, and today couldn’t be her day off.
Some lady had arrived at the house earlier and helped Mama dress. When she’d finished, Mama had looked more than smart: she had looked beautiful. She wore a pale blue silk gown with cream
embroidery, one that Hannah had never seen before. Her hat was much bigger than Lily’s and she had flowers plaited through the complicated arrangement of her hair. She had seemed pleased when
Hannah blurted out how beautiful she was. Sometimes she was not pleased when Hannah spoke out of turn, but today was different.
Hannah had never been to a real party in a garden before. Especially one in a garden like this. A long table was set out in the shade under the trees, with great glass jugs of what looked like
Lily’s special lemonade. There were long salvers of cakes and pastries too, filled with summer fruits, and jellies of every colour. Some of the children were already queuing for the garden
swing; others were waiting politely to play musical chairs. Hannah’s eyes widened when she saw a young woman seated at a piano, ready to strike up for the game. She nudged May.
‘Look!’ she whispered. ‘A piano in a
May laughed out loud. Hannah turned to Lily.
‘Lily – please may we go and play musical chairs?’
‘Off you go, Miss Hannah. Mind you take care of your sister, now. I’ll be here with Eleanor when you want me.’
Hannah dragged May over to the waiting line of children. None of them spoke to her. She didn’t care. She had her sister. And perhaps that smiling lady at the piano might allow her to play
something later, when things were quieter.
At six o’clock, the carriage came to take them home. The piano-lady had been very kind, patting the stool beside her to show that there was enough room for Hannah. She
taught her to play the opening bars of ‘Für Elise’ and praised her for the speed with which she’d learned.
‘My word, Hannah, but you’ve picked that up quickly! Do you take lessons, dear?’
‘Not yet,’ said Hannah shyly. She felt suddenly breathless with excitement. She would ask Mama now – at once – tonight – if she might have piano lessons. The
lady’s question seemed to have made some hidden wish settle comfortably into a place already prepared in Hannah’s mind, as though it had been wandering around looking for somewhere to
sit. This was something that she wanted badly enough to fight for.
She wished they could stay longer, but May had had enough. Her long dark eyelashes seemed to sweep her cheek as she fought tidal waves of tiredness, struggling to keep standing. Eleanor was
already asleep, her cheeks pink with contentment, her bonnet still in place.
Lily helped them all into the carriage, her face more flushed than ever, her eyes bright.
‘Wasn’t that a wonderful party, children?’ she asked.
Hannah was surprised. Lily had never called them ‘children’ before. She had always been very careful to give each of them her proper name. Perhaps she was just tired.
Hannah nodded. May’s head had finally slumped to one side, coming to rest on her sister’s shoulder. Hannah stayed silent, not wanting to wake her.
She wondered if Mama and Papa’s party had been as enjoyable as theirs. She hoped so. Something about Mama’s earlier nervousness and Papa’s intense, hurried busyness for the
brief time she had seen him had made Hannah tread carefully around the grown-ups. She had the feeling that today was a very important day for all of them.
left the presbytery quickly, just as soon as he had
disrobed after seven o’clock Mass. The streets of Millfield and Carrick Hill were quiet, filled with the distinctive silence of Sunday. Thin, greyish plumes of smoke were already ribboning
from the clustered chimneys above him, speckling the morning mist with the ever-present smudges of soot.