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Authors: Marita Conlon-Mckenna

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BOOK: Fields of Home
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Mr Fletcher Parker stood beside the bride. For once he looked actually handsome, as they both welcomed and conversed with their guests. Laughter filled the house, both inside and out, as family and friends joined in celebrating Roxanne’s wedding day.

The sun was sinking and lamps lit up the dark outside when the first guests began to slip away. Peggy’s back and shoulders ached after the long day and she longed to sit down and rest. Mrs O’Connor flopped in the kitchen chair, and thanked God that everything had gone so well. Many compliments had been paid to the cook, and her choice of menu had been considered very wise.

Peggy and Kitty and Miss Whitman stared in disbelief at the huge pile of dirty plates and glasses and servers still to be washed. Wearily they re-filled the kitchen sink with water and Peggy washed and scrubbed for what seemed like hours, with Kitty drying and Miss Whitman putting the dishes away.

Peggy had no idea what hour it was when they eventually climbed the stairs to the attic. Kitty, still wearing her uniform, fell onto her bed, pulled up the
light sheet and was asleep in a second, her unsteady snores annoying Peggy. Peggy was about to jump up and shake her friend when she realised that soon Kitty would be gone and there’d come a time when she would miss even the snores of her fellow-maid.

CHAPTER 7

The Widow O’Brien


MAMMY! COME QUICKLY
!’ shouted Mary-Brigid. ‘All the neighbours are walking up the boreen!’ She ran as fast as she could up the stony path to the house, dying to tell the news.

Her mother put down the greasy pot she was scrubbing, and, dipping her hands in some clean water, came to the door to see what was happening. She could just make out the backs of a group of people disappearing around the gentle curve of the boreen.

‘What did they say, pet?’ she asked, anxious.

‘They said ‘tis a viction, Mammy. What does that mean?’asked Mary-Brigid, her dark eyes puzzled.

Her mother put her hand to her face, covering her mouth. Surely the child must have got it wrong.

‘What is it, Eily? What’s the child on about?’ enquired Nano, rising awkwardly from the kitchen table where she was kneading dough.

‘There’s something going on a bit up the road, Nano. I think I’ll go and see,’ said Eily, pulling off her damp apron, and adjusting the comb in her coiled-up hair.

‘Wait a minute, Eily, and I’ll be along with you,’ said Nano. ‘We’ll take the children too. Mary-Brigid, pass me my shawl from behind the door!’

Mary-Brigid sensed the urgency and foreboding that passed between her mother and Nano as they closed the cottage door behind them and followed in the direction of the others.

‘What is it, Mammy, what’s a viction?’

‘Just you keep quiet for a few minutes, Mary-Brigid, till we see what all the fuss is about!’ snapped her mother.

Mary-Brigid was right vexed with her and fell into step alongside Nano. Her old auntie was slow enough at walking these days but she still loved a bit of fresh air.

‘This will put roses in our cheeks, Mary-Brigid!’ murmured Nano, her pure white hair and sturdy, black-clad figure bending down towards the child.

Mary-Brigid couldn’t help smiling and putting her fingers to her cheeks. ‘Are they rosy yet?’ she joked.

Both Eily and Nano burst out laughing.

But all the merriment disappeared the minute they turned the corner. Over the thick green hedgerow they spotted the small crowd gathering outside the Widow O’Brien’s simple, one-roomed cottage. There was no denying the cottage was neglected, with weeds fighting to grow up over it, dirt and moss clinging to it, and the rotting thatch almost bare in places.

In front of the cottage were three men on horseback. Two were constables, the third was the bailiff.

Mary-Brigid grabbed hold of her mother’s hand as fear washed over her. ‘What are they going to do?’

‘We’ll know soon enough, pet,’ Eily whispered, putting her arm protectively around her daughter.

‘Failure to pay rent,’ shouted the bailiff, a big lump of a man with a bald head. ‘Failure to follow acquittal notice! Failure to maintain dwelling! Failure to develop and maintain allotted land-holding!’

‘God almighty!’ muttered Eily. ‘A poor soul like Agnes O’Brien, a widow woman all on her own being evicted! ‘Tis a disgrace!’

The crowd murmured, drawing in close around the cottage, flattening the thigh-high weeds.

‘Leave her alone! She’s only a poor old woman!’ shouted one of the men.

‘Let her be!’ added more voices angrily.

‘We’re only doing our duty,’ replied the younger of the constables. ‘The old lady has known for quite some
time that she would have to give up this dwelling.’ He blushed, embarrassed.

Nano pulled at Eily’s arm, nodding in the direction of the small, grubby window. They could just make out the white, scared face of Agnes O’Brien peeping out.

The bailiff banged on the door again.

‘Let her be!’ shouted Tim Hayes. ‘What use is a cabin like that to anyone? Let her stay there, no one else would be interested in it.’

‘I’ll ‘mind you to look after your own business, Mr Hayes,’ sneered the bailiff. ‘Mister Hussey plans to plough up this whole piece of land, not that that is any of your concern.’

Mary-Brigid stood silent, wishing that her daddy or more of the men were here to help. Unfortunately, he had gone to the bog to turn and dry out more turf for the winter.

‘It’s the only home poor Agnes has ever known!’ said Nano loudly. ‘She’ll be afraid leaving it. Her two sons were born under that roof. She nursed her family when they all got fever in that one room, managing to feed them on scraps and meal and berries and roots.’

There was a hush now as the muttering stopped and the whole crowd paid attention to Nano. ‘It was through that little bit of a door that the boys left to go to America and two years later that her husband, God be good to him, was brought out when he died. Agnes
thought she’d follow on after him in her turn. She never imagined the like of this happening.’ Nano could barely disguise the shake in her voice. ‘She deserves better than this at her age!’

Mary-Brigid hugged her aunt close, smelling her usual scent of lavender water.

‘Mrs O’Brien, please collect your things and leave this dwelling,’ ordered the younger constable, ignoring Nano’s plea. ‘No one wants to hurt you or harm you; we want to keep this as peaceable as possible.’

The older constable looked around him at the swelling crowd. People were sitting on the low stone wall, leaning against the rusty gate, standing in the overgrown patch of garden. The last thing he wanted was for a mob situation to develop.

He knew a lot of the people here. By and large they were mostly good folk. He himself felt uncomfortable at having to enforce an eviction order against an elderly woman all alone.

‘Do something, constable,’ muttered the bailiff.

‘All in good time,’ replied the older constable. He was not going to provoke a situation unless he had to.

‘Oh poor Agnes! That poor woman! Perhaps if I went in and talked to her,’ Nano said quietly to Eily. ‘I’m afraid she’ll get injured or hurt during this.’

Nano pushed her way to the door of the cottage. ‘Agnes, dear!’ she called out. ‘It’s Nano Murphy. Do
you want me to come in and give you a hand? I know what’s running through your mind at this moment, but believe me when I tell you, you have many friends and neighbours here with you.’

Agnes was obviously at the other side of the door, listening. ‘Ye may come in, Nano,’ she whispered.

Eily grabbed at her elderly aunt. ‘Nano, I’m coming with you,’ she whispered frantically. ‘What if Agnes locks you in there with her?’

Nano frowned for a second, then shook her head as they heard the rusty latch lift. ‘Don’t you worry, Eily, you stay with the children! Remember, Agnes and I are friends. She wouldn’t harm me.’

Mary-Brigid felt as if her heart would stop beating. She was not going to let Nano go inside on her own. She darted quickly behind Nano’s long, full, black skirt and shawl, and followed her in.

‘I’ll only be a few minutes,’ Nano called to the bailiff.

The bailiff tried to shove past the crowd but the constable blocked his way. ‘Let her be,’ he ordered.

Nano pushed in the door to the damp, smoky room. Agnes was standing in the middle of it all, a small, slight, scrawny figure in a grey shift, her hair hanging in streaks around her pale, anxious face.

‘What am I going to do, Nano?’ she whispered. ‘Where am I going to go?’

Mary-Brigid wrinkled her nose. The room was dirty
and smelly and untidy, the fire nothing more than soft ash. There was barely a stick of furniture in the place and the few bits of crockery the woman had lay dirty in the sink or on the small kitchen table.

Nano turned around and saw her. ‘How did you get in here, Mary-Brigid? You never listen to a word I say, child. I’m scalded with you!’ Mary-Brigid tried to look downcast and ashamed, but she was glad to be there with Nano. ‘Still, you’ve a good heart! Hasn’t she Agnes?’ Nano added.

‘Aye!’ whispered the old lady, who was now crouched on the narrow, iron bed which stood against the wall.

‘Agnes, girl, the time has come to leave this place. I know you’re broken-hearted, but they’ll not let you stop here any longer. You must gather your things and your clothes. Pack up now,’ urged Nano.

‘I’ll not go!’ screeched the old woman. ‘Let them burn me out if they want. I’m willing to die.’

‘Hush, Agnes, none of that kind of talk. You’ll not let them destroy you. You’ll walk out of here with your head held high.’

Mary-Brigid thought it far more likely that Agnes would be dragged out the door kicking and screaming and cursing.

‘Mary-Brigid,’ ordered Nano, ‘see if there is any warm water left in that kettle over there. The ware in the sink could do with a bit of a wash, no doubt, then
we’ll dry it and wrap it up.

‘You must have a dress and a pair of boots, Agnes,’ she continued. ‘Come on, now, and we’ll get you dressed.’

The distressed woman pointed to a worn, dark navy, wool dress hanging from a hook behind the door. Nano fetched it, shaking it before she pulled it over the unprotesting figure sitting on the edge of the unmade bed. The near-threadbare grey stockings and mud-spattered boots lay flung underneath the bed. Nano watched as the widow squeezed her bony, gnarled toes into the stockings.

‘That’s a lot better!’ stated Nano, talking the way you would to cajole a small child like Jodie.

Nano dragged the cleanest of the grimy-looking woollen blankets off the bed and laid the rest of the old lady’s clothes in it. ‘Mary-Brigid, you can help by gathering up some of Agnes’s bits and pieces.’ Mary-Brigid was pleased to leave the washing-up to Nano as the greasy plates, encrusted with stale food, had almost turned her stomach. She looked around the room. There was a small, torn bible, and a carved crucifix that hung over the bed. There were a few shabby ornaments and some chipped bowls. That was what remained of Agnes’s family life.

Nano poured warm water over the rest of the crockery and the two or three items of glass that Mrs
O’Brien possessed, then she dried them off as quickly as she could.

‘Agnes,’ Nano said gently, ‘tell me, which are the special keepsakes you want wrapped carefully?’

The bent, arthritic fingers pointed out two favourite cups and saucers, then a willow-pattern serving plate and a matching bowl and three drinking glasses. Nano wrapped them all carefully in the sheet Mary-Brigid passed to her, hoping they wouldn’t break.

‘Smash that door down, man!’ ordered the bailiff. ‘She’s had more than enough time already!’ Mary-Brigid jumped as the glass in the window shattered and the bailiff’s ugly face peered into the room.

‘A few more minutes, constable, please,’ pleaded Nano. ‘We’re almost ready!’

She offered her own dampened handkerchief to Agnes, telling her to wipe her face and freshen herself up. ‘Have you a brush, Agnes, a hairbrush? We’ll tidy your hair up.’

Mary-Brigid watched, amazed, as Nano calmly brushed the greasy grey streaks of hair back and upwards into a tidy bun. ‘Have you any hair pins, Agnes?’ The other woman, who seemed almost in a daze, pointed forlornly to the rickety chair near the bed. Nano tidied her hair up securely. ‘Are ye nearly ready, Agnes, do you think?’

The commotion outside was getting worse. Agnes
O’Brien stood up. Her eyes scanned the small, familiar room, a shudder going through her at the thought of leaving it. Mary-Brigid half-expected her to pull the pins from her hair and drag off the dress and curl up by the ashes. Instead, she wrapped the thin grey shawl she took from behind the door tightly around her.

‘Good times and bad times I’ve had under this roof,’ Agnes whispered, ‘but I never imagined it ending like this.’ Tears ran down her cheeks as Nano escorted her out into the sunlight. Eily ran from the crowd and helped Mary-Brigid lift out the parcelled-up blanket and the sheet-wrapped crockery.

The crowd stood hushed, as the Widow O’Brien left her cottage for the last time. Then, one by one, the neighbours began to file past her, each offering her their condolences and wishing her well in the future.

BOOK: Fields of Home
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