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Authors: Marita Conlon-Mckenna

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BOOK: Fields of Home
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‘I’m not about to sit back and let you destroy a good horse,’ said Toss, ‘because that’s what’s going to happen.’

‘I’ll run good races, win all around me. In time I’ll win in the Curragh,’ jeered the young jockey. ‘I’ll win in England, too,’ he added. ‘I’ll make his lordship a fortune. A racehorse needs a firm hand!’

‘It don’t make a difference if you’re the best jockey in the whole of Ireland, the horse is the thing. You have to care for the horse. I can’t have anybody around this yard that don’t understand the value of these horses. I won’t have them, and Lord Henry agrees with me.’

‘Lord Henry!’

‘Aye! He saw Jerpoint this morning.’

‘What would he know about it?’ shrugged Peadar.

‘More than you think. I’ve instructions to give you
your marching orders,’ said Toss firmly. ‘How and ever, I’m giving you one last chance. But one more misdeed and you’re finished here at Castletaggart, my lad!’

Peadar stood for a second, stunned, his greasy, brown hair falling over his eyes.

‘And for the moment you’ll look after the rest of the horses,’ continued Toss. ‘The other lads will attend to the racers and you’ll do no riding-out. And, by the way, you’ll be the one to muck out Jerpoint’s stable while she’s resting up.’

Without a word, Peadar turned on his heel and left the tack room.

Michael coughed.

‘You heard?’ asked Toss uneasily. Michael nodded. ‘The lad’s a good rider but he has a lot to learn about horses, else he’s no use to us.’ With that, Toss took down one of the leather saddles and left.

Michael loved the early-morning ride-out; it was the time that he treasured most in the whole day. The horses were fresh and itching to gallop, the chilly morning air turning their breath to clouds. Each racehorse had a different temperament, all needing a different approach – some gentle coaxing and patting, others a sharp hand.

It was only when Michael checked in on Jerpoint later that he wondered about Peadar. The horse was standing in a fresh pile of dung – why the hell hadn’t
Peadar attended to her? He searched around the stables and out by the paddocks, but there wasn’t sight nor sign of him.

Michael climbed up to the sleeping quarters above the coach-house and looked in the corner that Peadar had made his own. Peadar’s blanket was still there, but there was no sign of any of his clothes or boots or his few personal bits and pieces. He’s done a runner, thought Michael to himself.

‘Has Mr Know-It-All taken himself off?’ Brendan had followed Michael up to the room.

Michael shrugged. ‘It looks like it.’

‘I’d heard that Toss gave out to him this morning. Good riddance is what I say.’ The young stableboy smirked; he had so often got a clatter from Peadar for no reason. ‘Nobody’s going to miss the likes of Peadar.’

‘Yeh, I suppose so,’ agreed Michael, though secretly he was sure they hadn’t heard the last of Peadar Mahoney, not by a long shot!

CHAPTER 9

Harvest Home

THE SUN BLAZED BRIGHTLY
day after day through the late summer as every man, woman and child old enough to help worked on bringing in the harvest. Even the horses seemed to pick up the air of excitement and cantered across the fields to see what was going on. Women and youngsters carried cans of milk and thick cuts of bread to the men who worked at saving the hay till the sweat dripped off them.

The carts were piled as high as could be with the sweet-smelling hay, the horses straining to pull them. Stooks of wheat were tied, ready for thrashing, and oats and barley stored in huge cereal bins. The work continued on long into the summer evenings, till the exhausted workers finally went home at sunset to sleep.

Michael unharnessed and patted the big old
farm-horses who were now the heroes – they well deserved their tin buckets full of oats and the respect of those who worked with them on the estate.

‘’Tis a grand harvest,’ said Brendan.

‘Better than last year even,’ agreed Michael.

‘Lord Henry will be rightly pleased.’

Brendan nudged Michael and pointed at Markey, the donkey, who trotted past them pulling a small cart. ‘I see they even have Markey working hard. ‘Tis about time!’

Michael chuckled. The donkey’s only job in recent years had been to keep the racehorses company. Any of them that got lonely or seemed to be acting up always improved if they had the old grey donkey to share their field or paddock with them.

Rolling up their sleeves and pulling on their caps, Michael and Brendan ran to help unload Markey’s cart.

Michael could remember a time long ago when he was only a small boy helping his father, bending low to pick up stray blades of wheat scattered on the ground. He could almost see the curly, dark head, as black as his own, the powerful shoulders, the sweat-soaked shirt clinging to the muscles, and then the laughing voices of his mother and two sisters, Eily and Peggy, as they ran across the fields with a jug of cold, cold water from the well and boiled potatoes wrapped in a cloth and still warm from the pot in their home at Duneen.

‘Are ye all right, Michael?’ enquired Brendan, looking anxiously at his friend who had suddenly stopped working.

‘The sun is blinding me, that’s all,’ said Michael softly, unwilling to banish the childhood memory and the comfort it gave him.

Finally, one night as the sun sank and the fields lay trim and gleaming, the field-mouse scurrying to find her lost mate, the corncrake safe with her young in a small uncut patch, the host of small birds fighting over the feast, it was time for the workers to be rewarded.

The kitchen staff had been busy for days and the whitewashed laundry rooms had been cleaned. Huge trestle tables were set up for the harvest supper. There were roasted meats and huge bowls of floury potatoes, trays full of griddle cakes and oat biscuits, jugs of thick brown gravy and boiled carrots and baby cabbages they called sprouts.

Michael ate and ate, his stomach so full in the end he felt it would surely burst. Mercy laughed at him, as she avoided the glances of the farmers’ sons, her eyes twinkling only at him. Outside there were barrels of porter and ale and a punchbowl for the womenfolk and lemonade for the children. Lord Henry and his wife, Martha, joined them all, dressed in their finery, while their daughters, Rose and Felicia, in matching pink dresses, giggled with excitement as they took in
the scene and mingled with the tenants. Felicia spotted Michael and made him shove up on his bench so she could sit beside him. She gabbled on about the high jinks they were having and pointed out her cousins, and her uncle Robert who was home from India.

The empty coach-house was soon filled with the sound of the fiddle and pipes as Dermot and Dinny Callaghan, two old bachelors who lived down by the river, began to play.

Old men and young men alike twirled the women around the room, dancing to their hearts’ content. Michael grabbed hold of Mercy, never letting go of her hand for a minute the whole night long. ‘Isn’t it grand!’ she laughed as they danced together, keeping in step with the lively music. After a while the coach-house became too hot and crowded, so like many of the younger folk they found themselves dancing out under the stars. Mercy uncoiled her thick plait of wavy brown hair, letting it tumble around her shoulders as she waltzed with Michael O’Driscoll, the boy she loved.

It was late by the time the Callaghans stopped playing and the company began to break up. Farmers lifted sleepy children onto their shoulders and mothers wrapped their shawls around themselves as they made their way back home across the fields. Michael fell onto his bed, muscles aching, heart pounding, the horses quiet below.

CHAPTER 10

Lonesome Times

MRS ELIZABETH ROWAN WAS UPSET
. She wept as she said goodbye to her now-married daughter, and waved sadly as Roxanne and Fletcher’s carriage turned in the driveway and headed out through the open gates, leaving Rushton behind.

‘I don’t think I can bear it, Peggy, I miss her so much already,’ she said as Peggy poured her a cup of coffee, the rich brown liquid filling the white china cup.

‘I understand how you feel, Ma’am,’ said Peggy shyly.

Kitty had gone on ahead of her new mistress, escorting the wedding gifts and some special pieces of furniture from her home that Roxanne’s parents had insisted she keep. Peggy was feeling mighty lonesome herself, now that her best friend had gone.

‘The best thing is to keep busy, visit people, visit
new places, that’s what my friends have told me. Perhaps my husband and I will go and visit Roxanne when she’s settled.’

‘I’m sure she’d love that, Ma’am. It’d be a chance for you to see her house and get to know Baltimore a bit better.’

‘Yes, indeed!’ Mrs Rowan sipped the coffee daintily. ‘We’ll give her time to settle in though.’

There was a fruit tart and a tray of honey biscuits baking in the oven. Mrs O’Connor was relieved that the fuss and flurry of the wedding was over and that things had returned to normal, at least in the kitchen. Of course, the mistress wasn’t herself – all broody and tense and tearful and barely eating a pick, no matter how fine a meal was served up to her.

And as for Peggy O’Driscoll – it was as if the young maid had had her left arm cut off! She no longer sang or hummed as she went about her work. At night she would sit in the kitchen curled up reading a book, joining in conversation only when Mrs O’Connor or Eliza Whitman deliberately asked her a question.

Mrs O’Connor was anxious about Peggy. The departure of her friend had taken all the spark out of the girl. They would replace that young one Kitty eventually, of course, but that might take time. Peggy was due a day off, thought Mrs O’Connor, perhaps that would cheer her up a bit. She could visit some of her
Irish friends; it might put a bit of colour back in her cheeks and sparkle in her eyes.

* * *

Peggy strode along Russell Avenue. The sun beat down on her back and on her straw bonnet. The heat of the pavement seeped up through the light shoe-leather. It was another scorcher. The sky above her was blue and cloudless. Back home when she was young, herself and her big sister Eily used to lie on the grass in their field and make pictures out of the clouds, telling each other stories, as the soft white shapes rolled across the sky above them. But here the summer sky was cruel, the sun blazing down relentlessly.

Peggy crossed the narrow street and made her way to the dreary entrance of the apartment building where Sarah lived with her two brothers. She climbed the depressing, dirty stairs, hitching up her skirt so as to avoid the dust and peeling plasterwork.

Sarah’s landing was clean and swept, and the linoleum washed. The long, narrow window was open and the glass – well, as far as Sarah could reach – was polished. Peggy knocked on the door. Sarah’s brother, John, opened it and smiled warmly when he saw her.

‘It’s Peggy, Sarah!’ he called.

‘I’ll be out in a second, Peggy, sit ye down. I’m just finishing getting dressed.’

Peggy sat on the round, squashy armchair. A mauve throw-over covered it in a vain attempt to disguise the ripped arm where the stuffing protruded. Looking around the large room, Peggy guessed that Sarah had been up since early morning, tidying. The clothes rail had been folded away and the circular table covered with a lace tablecloth and set with the assorted mis-match of crockery that her friend possessed. A row of cheerful blue and yellow cushions rested on the grey velvet couch the brothers had bought in the second-hand market three years ago. There was a multicoloured rug on the floor and a basket of lavender was propped in front of the fireplace.

‘Would you like a cup of tea, Peggy, while you’re waiting?’ enquired John.

Peggy nodded. She watched as he set the kettle to boil on the small stove and searched for a clean spoon. Sarah came out of the bedroom, and ran to embrace Peggy. ‘Oh, Peggy it’s grand to see you! Tell me all the news. I’m dying to hear all about the wedding and Miss Roxanne.’

Sarah looked tired. There were smudges of grey under her eyes and her skin had a pale, translucent sheen to it. Peggy couldn’t help but notice her friend’s broken nails and bruised fingers, and she saw that Sarah held one hand stiffly and that it looked very sore.

BOOK: Fields of Home
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