Authors: Anne Bennett
I would like to dedicate this book to my eldest
daughter, Nikki Wilkes, with all my love.
Both Bridie McCarthy and her cousin Rosalyn were lying across the straw bales on the upper floor of the barn, the place both girls made for when they needed a bit of peace. Rosalyn was reading the latest letter from Bridie's sister Mary, who was married and living in Birmingham and had written asking if Bridie could come and stay with her a wee while before school opened again in September.
Rosalyn handed the letter back to Bridie with a sigh. âYou're so lucky,' she said.
Bridie didn't contradict her cousin. Instead she said, âWell, Mary did promise I could go on a visit when she had her own place. You mind they had to stay with Aunt Ellen first after their marriage last year?' She hugged her knees with delight. âI can't wait.'
âI bet,' Rosalyn said. âAnything would be better than this place day after day.' She crossed to the barn window and Bridie got to her feet and joined her. âIt's not to see Birmingham,' she told Rosalyn. âIt's to see Mary. I've missed her so much since she left. Before then â Mary leaving and all â I thought life would just go on the same way year in, year out.'
âFor me it does.'
âNo, even for you there's change,' Bridie reminded her. âFor a start you'll be working in the shirt factory in Donegal town in a few weeks, now that you're fourteen, instead of going back to school.'
âAye, I'll work longer hours, give most of my pay to Mammy and still be at her beck and call when I'm home. “Rosalyn, do this, or that, wash the dishes, see to the weans, change the baby”. God, it would sicken you.'
Bridie burst out laughing. âDon't be such a grouch,' she said.
âWell, don't you ever want something to happen?' Rosalyn demanded. âGod, Bridie, there must be more to life than this.'
Bridie looked out at the farm and countryside she loved with all her heart, where the sun shone down from a cloudless sky giving everything a glow. In front of the squat whitewashed cottage the hens strutted about the yard, pecking the grain that had fallen between the cobbles, while the cows placidly chewed the cud in the lush fields and occasionally leaned their heads on the five-bar gate to watch the world go by. To the side of the house was the orchard, the trees heavy with fruit at that time of the year. Much of the fruit would be picked in another month or so, Bridie knew, and bottled or made into jam, except for the apples. They would be stored in straw-layered barrels in the barn.
Everywhere she looked there were trees and greenness and beauty and it always left her with deep satisfaction to look upon it. There were other cottages like their own dotted about, all on the same lines and most with a curl of smoke wafting from the chimneys. Some cottages seemed almost to nestle in the verdant green Donegal hills that were dotted with sheep who tugged relentlessly at the grass.
The lane to the road divided the cows' field from the tilled ground where Bridie could see her father and her brother Terry working. Just a little way along that road the lane meandered down to run alongside the rail bus tracks at the bottom of the farm.
The red and cream diesel-driven rail buses had been a feature of Bridie's life since as far back as she could remember. Her father had told her rail bus tracks were laid all over Donegal and ran on narrow rails because they had to climb and dip over unaccommodating hills, or negotiate other austere landscapes. He'd said they had opened up life for the people in the outlying farms and villages, which had been fairly isolated until then.
The one that ran past the bottom of the McCarthy farm came from the port of Killybegs in the west. In the cars and trucks pulled behind the rail bus would be fish from Killybegs, and cattle, sheep and produce from the surrounding farms. The rail bus would bring back vital foodstuffs, coal and Guinness from the north.
It also took fathers to work and mothers to shop. Bridie had been on it herself a few times with her mother, as far as Donegal Town, on the rare occasions when no one was taking the cart in. She'd never travelled on it the other way though; there had never been the need.
She well remembered the day Mary left, beside herself with excitement. She'd been mad to go with Aunt Ellen and Uncle Sam, who'd wanted to take her back for a wee holiday to their house in Birmingham, and she hadn't been at all sure that her mother would allow it. Bridie had been sorry to see her sister go and would have been worse still if she'd known she'd never come back to live at the farm again.
She wondered if her mother had had an inkling of the way it might turn out, for she'd not wanted Mary to go either and Bridie had overheard the conversation she had about it with her sister Ellen. âWhat is the point of going to a place like Birmingham for a holiday?' Sarah had complained. âHaven't you said it's fine and dirty and the air full of smoke and fumes from the factories? Hasn't Mary all she needs here for a holiday if she wants one?'
âAye, and what does she see of it?' Ellen retorted. âCooped up all day in a shirt factory.'
âIt was her choice to work there,' Sarah said, bridling at the implied criticism.
âI wasn't blaming you, Sarah,' Ellen said in a conciliatory tone. âBut let me take the girl for a wee change. Show her things and take her places you haven't here. I'd like to do it, Sarah. You know I think of your children almost as my own.'
Sarah could say nothing after that. The blight on Ellen's life was the fact that she and Sam had never had any children. Ellen, older than Sarah by five years, had lived with Sam's parents in Letterkenny for six years after her marriage and initially put the fact that she was childless down to the stress of living with in-laws she barely got on with, certain it would come right when she and Sam had a place of their own.
She'd seen and approved her sister's marriage to Jimmy McCarthy, and only had a slight twinge of envy at the birth of Seamus the following year and Johnnie the year after. Shortly after this, she followed her husband to Birmingham, where an uncle promised him a job in a new rubber factory set up by an Irishman named Byrne, later called Dunlop's.
Ellen had been glad to go, for Sam's father's farm made little enough money and Sam, being the second son, would never inherit it anyway. At first, all they could find to rent were two mean little rooms and Ellen was actually glad she hadn't weans to see to in the place and said as much to any who asked her.
She'd been married almost ten years when they got the house on Bell Barn Road and she settled down to life there. She was confident children would be part of their marriage and, please God, children she could rear, not like her poor sister Sarah, who'd lost three wee babies to consumption.
But no children came. Ellen had a comfortable home â Sam earned good money, though he worked hard for it and came back home each evening as black as any miner and stinking from the rubber, and he was a good man, a good husband and provider and, Ellen thought, would have made a wonderful father. But it wasn't to be. âWhat can't be cured must be endured,' she told Sarah, when she had eventually come to terms with her barren state. She visited her sister and her children at least once a year, sometimes twice, and all of them loved her and Sam dearly.
Sarah had never resented the love her children had for her sister and her husband, for didn't she love them herself and felt heartsore that they hadn't been blessed with children? She was quite willing to share hers. Ellen had never suggested taking any away before though and Sarah had serious misgivings. But then, she told herself, she had Mary all the time, and Terry and young Bridie too. Surely she couldn't be selfish enough to begrudge her sister a week or two of her daughter's company?
âSure don't I know you love my weans?' she told her sister. âAnd it's bad of me to deny you Mary's company. It isn't as if she's not due for a holiday from the shirt factory either. I'd say she was more than entitled. So you take her along with you and Sam and Godspeed to all of you.'
Bridie knew then that Mary would go and that she'd miss her desperately. As it was she'd hugged and kissed her that early morning as the family all assembled at the end of the farm where the rail bus would obligingly stop to take Ellen, Sam and Mary on their journey.
As it had pulled up beside them, Mary had peeled herself away from her weeping sister, who was wrapped around her, and had turned to embrace her parents. Ellen had taken Bridie in her arms. âShe'll be back before you know it,' she promised. Bridie had tried to swallow the sobs and nod to Ellen. She couldn't blame her aunt, she loved her too much and anyway she'd heard her mammy say often how hard it was not to have a chick or child belonging to her.
After the rail bus had left the farm and Bridie's parents and Terry returned to the farmhouse, Bridie had climbed up on the five-barred gate as she'd often done with Rosalyn and watched the rail bus chug its way to Derg Bridge Halt, the next station.
From this height, as long as the sun shone, and no mist shrouded the hills you could often see the glint of the tracks disappearing between the two towering peaks in the distance known as Barnes Gap.
Her uncle Francis, Rosalyn's father, would keep them all entertained on winter evenings with tales of the highwaymen who used to lurk there in the past and prey on the unsuspecting people travelling along the road.
Francis was a gifted storyteller and he could paint a grand picture in words, and Bridie gave a smile at her own foolishness as she remembered how feared she used to be. Today Barnes Gap was a famous landmark where only sheep, not highwaymen, wandered at will.
The sun had turned the rivers running down the mountainsides into silver snakes and a tributary of one of those rivers ran beside the farm. Bridie could see it in the distance and she remembered playing in there as a child and how the boys had learned to swim where it ran deeper behind the rocky waterfall. She gave a sigh of pleasure at the memory as she turned to face her cousin. âI'd never want to leave here, Rosalyn. I love it all. What more could you want? It's beautiful!'
âAye. Beautiful and dull, deadly dull,' Rosalyn replied contemptuously. âBut you at least can get away from it. If Mary's place doesn't take your fancy, haven't you two fine brothers in New York?'
Bridie knew she had. They were shadowy figures she could barely remember, who sent weekly letters to her mother Sarah with dollars folded inside them.
âI can't remember either Seamus or Johnnie,' Bridie protested. âI was only five when they left in 1919, and before that they'd been at the Great War for three years.'
Rosalyn, a year older than Bridie, remembered how happy everyone was that Bridie's older brothers had escaped injury in the Great War that had killed so many and arrived home, if not totally fit and well, at least in one piece.