Meet Lucy, a smart teenager with a bad attitude. She’s Irish, she’s Catholic and she’s stuck in a girls’ school. She’s also got polio and a boatload of bad memories. The year is 1928. The place is Sydney, Australia.
REGINA is delighted to introduce you to Lucy and her world in this exclusive excerpt from the amazing new novel by author Annette Young. We promise, you will not want to put this down!
The next day, however, I was confined to bed.
‘I can do it myself,’ I informed Mrs Murphy with a sneeze as I pulled myself up on my crutches. ‘I’m not needing your help.’
‘And I suppose you’re not needing my help to empty your commode either now?’ Mrs Murphy replied.
I scowled at her and edged back to my bed. Mrs Murphy became busy with my sheets and coverlet.
‘Did you not hear what I said? I told you, I’m not needing your help!’
Mrs Murphy paid no attention whatsoever. The moment I sat on my bed she took my crutches from me and placed them against the wall.
‘’Tis too far you put them,’ I complained. Mrs Murphy handed my crutches back and I repositioned them half an inch closer to my bed. ‘I told you I could do it,’ I remarked as I set them in their place. ‘Every night I do as much without the like of yourself to fuss.’
At least Mrs Murphy had the decency to let me sort my legs into bed. I reached over to pull the covers but they had been pulled too far back. So I had to put up with Mrs Murphy fussing over my bedding.
‘And did you get wet all on your own?’ she questioned while she smoothed and tucked the sheet and blankets. ‘Did anyone help you take a dip in the sea? You didn’t mind a bit of help then, did you?’ Mrs Murphy then launched an assault on my pillows, pommelling them into shape and verbally pommelling me in the process. ‘Madness! That’s what it is. To even think of it, in your condition, going into the water and getting soaked. Why, it’s April already! What’s more you put sand and salt through your boots and leg irons and didn’t they cost a pretty penny? As if your dear father hasn’t enough on his plate without spending hours cleaning them up. The things you do when you’re out of his sight! I’d like to know what company you’re keeping in that school. Wild young things! That’s what they must be.’
They were wild. They were wild and fun. There we all sat with waves washing round our toes, our knees and occasionally up to our waists. We swished our hands in the water. We splashed. We splashed each other and laughed and wet our hair. Pim carried me pick a back up the sand and let me fall on the picnic rug. We put another rug over my callipers, and by arranging picnic items and placing a hat on top, made it look as if someone was having a rest, with their boots sticking out from underneath. Never before had I laughed at my leg braces. We all laughed and licked ice cream and lay in the sun.
But then the boys’ shuttlecock landed in our midst.
‘You’d be that much happier if you offered your sufferings for the Holy Souls instead of hosting a pity party,’ continued Mrs Murphy. ‘You should take more advantage and use your sickness as a time of reparation, it being Holy Week and all.’
‘Reparation? Reparation?’ I repeated, even more irate. ‘And why should I be always saying sorry to God? Why, for Heaven’s sake does God not say sorry to myself now?’
‘Mercy!’ Mrs Murphy exclaimed.
‘Well, if God sent the polio, He’s not apologised for it. Not to my knowledge He hasn’t. ’Tis God should be making reparation, not myself.’
‘Proud as Lucifer, that’s what you are!’
‘Will you not shut your gob you ugly old cow!’
There was a knock at the door and Mrs Murphy trudged off to answer it. I listened for the visitor who was brought in without a word.
‘Hope I haven’t come at a bad time,’ Pim remarked with a glance in Mrs Murphy’s direction. ‘You sick?’
‘I am,’ I replied, crossing my arms. ‘I’m sick of Mrs Murphy, I’m sick of you and I’m sick of everyone!’
‘You’re sick of yourself more like.’
‘Listen, if you come here to sport—’
Pim groaned. ‘Don’t tell me you’re still brooding over what happened yesterday.’
I kept my arms crossed and glared at her.
‘You don’t understand, do you?’ I protested.
‘Oh, I understand all right. You wanted to get up with Della and me and play shuttlecock and talk with those boys and you couldn’t or, more likely, you wouldn’t. So you got angry and spent the rest of the afternoon sulking. You wouldn’t even do any more practice— you sat moping on the verandah instead!’
‘But yous all went off with them boys and left me behind!’
‘No,’ Pim admonished, wagging her finger at me as if I were a naughty child. ‘No you are not going to make me or Della or anyone else feel guilty for something you could have changed. You left yourself behind. You could have made things happen differently.’
‘And how would that be?’ I furiously interjected.
‘You could have watched us play. You could have dragged yourself over. You dragged yourself to the water all right.’
‘Aye, I did. All the way, and what’s more across sand it was. And I was tired. I’m still tired. Look at yourself: you’re strong and able with legs like a pair of hams. You’ve no idea what it’s like to pull the dead weight of your body like that, do you now?’
Pim reddened, but she was not going to relent. ‘Anyway, if you hadn’t bitten his head off when he offered you some help up, I reckon Ambrose O’Connor – he was the one who came to get the shuttlecock – he would have sat and chatted with you. He wanted to, but you, you—! What did you do? Get your fur up and spit like a cat at a dog.’
‘He was looking at my legs!’ I shouted.
‘So what?’ Pim shouted back. ‘All right, you’ve got legs like a newborn foal. You’ve got one foot smaller than the other. One leg’s shorter than the other. Your feet hang. You can’t wiggle your toes. You’ve got one hell of a scar running down your left leg and two on your right. I looked at your legs, too. So what? Why be rude to someone who only wanted to be friendly?’
I looked down at the covers and bit my lip hard to stop the blush I could feel sweeping over my face. It didn’t work so I squeezed my eyes shut.
‘Listen, Lucy,’ Pim’s tone softened and I felt her hand lean on one of my legs. I could not move my leg away. ‘Listen. I didn’t come all the way here to get caught up in some wretched argument about your precious polio.’
‘Get off my leg! Let you not talk about that for I’m fed up with it!’
‘For Pete’s sake, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it! I came to ask you something. Do you want to know what it is or not?’
I shrugged my shoulders and looked over at the fireplace.
‘Fine,’ Pim stood up. ‘Then I’ll go.’
The prospect of being left alone again was, at this point, unbearable.‘Don’t, Pim. Will you not stay a little more?’
‘And argue with you? No thank you.’
‘Oh, so you do want to know?’ Pim leant against the doorpost and folded her arms.
I nodded. If that meant more of her company and less of Mrs Murphy’s, so be it. But I was not at all prepared for what she had to say.
‘I’m going to the country for a few days after Easter to stay with my Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted,’ Pim explained as she sat on my bed again. ‘Rose wrote the other day to ask if I wanted to bring a friend. I don’t usually, but I thought you might like to come.’
‘Myself?’ I sent a wary glance in her direction for I had not left Pim’s house in the best of moods. Pim smiled at the reaction she had caused.
‘Same as the maths test when all you could think about was that decimal point in the wrong place,’ she remarked. ‘Apart from the shuttlecock we had good fun on the beach, didn’t we?’
‘Aye, we did.’ The thought of the water made me smile again.
‘And the morning’s rehearsal was terrific.’
‘Indeed it was.’
‘So would you like to come to the country?’ she asked.
‘Myself? How can I? What am I going to do? I can’t!’ I lamented. ‘I can’t walk! I can’t ride a pony! I can’t— And I’ll never be allowed! Not after yesterday! You should have heard my da when he found out—’
‘Calm down and forget about your legs for a minute will you? Mum’s written a letter to your folks. Would you like to come?’
Whatever Pim’s mother had written in that letter to my father worked a miracle. Daid and I met Pim, Benny her brother and Mrs Connolly under the big clock at Central Railway Station. Pim’s mother was determined to have a few words with my father and pulled him aside. Stooping slightly, with one hand on his chin, he listened to all she had to say, which seemed to have something to do with my polio. When he did chance to speak, Mrs Connolly had difficulty in hearing him. This forced him to bend a little more and raise his voice, something he never ever did.
We loaded our compartment. ’Cello, viola, bags, chrysanthemums picked from our front garden and a basket packed with a Connolly style lunch were placed inside, and Daid double-checked everything to make sure all was safe. He gave me his blessing and smiled in a rather worried way. Waving a last farewell, he carefully closed the door behind him.
The train passed through Strathfield. I bid a silent good-bye to all I had known of the world for the last few years and sighed as the train pulled across that private boundary. Pim became busy with our meal and the two of us dined upon an abundance of sandwiches, fruit and chocolate, and washed it all down with tea packed in a thermos.
Pim pulled out her knitting.
‘You’re knitting something, Pimmy Connolly?’
‘Certainly looks that way.’
‘What is it you’re knitting?’
‘Footy scarf. For Bertie. Bertie goes for the Shoremen. Gotta get it finished.’
‘A long scarf it is.’
Pim nodded and clicked away.
‘You got brothers?’ she asked.
I shook my head.
I pulled out Amusements in Mathematics and began another puzzle.
‘Say, do you normally read like that?’
‘You’ll ruin your eyes if you’re not careful.’
‘You’ve a right to know I see perfectly well up close.’
Pim clicked and clicked away. The afternoon sun made itself at home, stretched out its legs and, hushed by a chugged lullaby, nodded its head against my shoulder. Dudeney disappeared down celadon hills, a blanket of darkness descended and dim forms steamed far, far into the distance…
‘Wake up, sleepy-head! We’re here and we’ve gotta to get out quick smart. Station Master’s holding the train for you.’
Pim pulled two bags along with her and bashed her way down the corridor. A yell brought in a broad man – taller than Daid – clad in jodhpurs, long boots and an old, tweed jacket. He ducked his head as he entered, held out a huge, sausage fingered hand, introduced himself as Mr Pearse and ducked out again with my ’cello. Pim returned full of vigour, grabbed her viola, stuffed her knitting in the basket and pummelled me outside. A splash of crispy freshness welcomed me to Moss Vale.
‘Have a good trip?’ asked Mr Pearse.
‘Fine, Uncle Ted. By the way, this is Lucy.’
‘Bit slow, Pim, we’ve already met. You forgotten something?’ Mr Pearse made a cursory glance of the luggage he had loaded into the buggy.
‘Go on, Uncle Ted.’
Our remaining items were loaded. Pim, after lavishing attention on the horse, sprang up and encouraged me to do the same. But I could not climb up. Her uncle lit his pipe and took advantage of that operation to assess my predicament.
‘Just a minute,’ he mumbled as he put his pipe in his mouth. Then he walked back down to the station. With the assistance of a step stool borrowed from the station master, he helped me over to a surprised Pim, jumped up, clicked the reins and we set off at an easy trot.
‘You’re from the Emerald Isle I hear, Lucy.’
‘I am, Mr Pearse.’
‘Then you should find yourself quite at home. I imagine it’s not as lush as you’re used to but we had some rain ordered before you came. Hope it’s to your liking.’
It was. Oh it was! We clopped away through the township and out into a wide green world wrapped with sunshine and tied with ribboned hedges. Hidden inside were rare treasures: cottages with chimney smoke, horses in paddocks, thickets, roads of stone, tall pines and leaves of flame and gold. And an old wooden bridge and elm-lined drive undid the strings of the most beautiful parcel of all.
It was laced with lavender, rough-hewn and Georgian. There were rose bushes too, and an amiable clump of cypresses conversing in a corner. Small paned windows blinked shyly in the sunlight, and the front porch with its modest pediment, smart straight columns and double door introduced itself with friendly formality.
The door opened. A little boy with feathery blonde hair scrambled down the steps and ran up the path. Pim leapt out and ran towards him, picked him up, swung him round, tickled him and smothered the him with loud blowy kisses. Two more children romped out and were soon tossed and tickled and kissed to their hearts’ content.
‘Lucy, you able to climb down by yourself?’ It was Mr Pearse.
The step was too low.
‘Never mind. I’ll lift you off. There you go.’
He set me down and passed me my crutches before calling Pim and the children to help him with our things. He was met by a host of eager hands which tugged our luggage inside. Taking custody of my ’cello, Mr Pearse invited me to follow. We were barely half-way down the path when Pim gave a whoop of delight.
And she dumped her viola and ran and hugged the tall, sandy-haired woman who had come out onto the porch. Warm exchanges followed before Pim brought her to me and beamed an introduction. Pim’s aunt did not seem to mind my callipers and crutches. There was an affectionate embrace and I found myself the recipient of two kisses, one on either cheek.
‘Lucy! Welcome! I’m glad you could come. I’m Mrs Pearse. You’ve had a long trip.’
I nodded and endeavoured to say something about the flowers I now handed her. Unfortunately they had arrived in a somewhat wilted state despite Daid’s efforts to wrap them well.
‘Why, they’re lovely! And they’ll revive once we put them in water. You’ll see. They’re home grown, aren’t they? What a pretty garden you must have!’ remarked Mrs Pearse as she escorted me down the path. Before I even realised it, she was helping me with the front steps. ‘Pim,’ she continued. ‘Your room’s ready. I’ll let you show Lucy where it is. Have a wash and come and get some tea. I’ll get a vase right away.’
Pim’s aunt left with the flowers; and her uncle, after storing my ’cello in a safe place, wandered back to see to the horse and cart. Pim bounded up the stairs, yelling out for me to follow.
One look at those stairs and I knew I was not going to get up the way I would have liked. Fortunately no one was around. I lowered myself onto the second step and began to pull myself up backwards.
A door was wrenched open, an impatient call to hurry followed and Pim thundered down again.
‘What the dickens are you doing?’ she stopped in her tracks
I could not look at her and felt all too acutely the painful presence of that old torture: that slow, studied stare. Why did she have to come out then? I heard Della’s voice inside and I tried to smile but to no avail. No smile could rise above the nervous paralysis that had seized my heart. I continued to climb in silence. ‘I’ve never seen you go up stairs like this,’ she squatted next to me and moved up in the same way.
‘You haven’t, but these are steep steps and this is the way I climb steep steps.’
Once at the top, she helped me onto my crutches, pushed me into the bathroom and ordered me to tidy myself.
A pot of tea and a plate of hot scones with jam and fresh cream awaited us at the kitchen table. Pim and her aunt exchanged family news in a manner which seemed, from its intimate jollity, more sisterly than anything else. As always with Pim, there was an explanation. Aunt Rose was Mrs Connolly’s youngest sister and had been raised with the Connolly family since she was a baby. ‘In fact, she didn’t really become my aunt till after the War,’ remarked Pim. Aunt Rose laughed in agreement and offered more scones.
‘There time for a ride before tea?’ Pim asked as she finished her fourth scone.
‘Just a short one, Pim,’ replied Aunt Rose.
‘C’mon Lucy, I’ll show you around,’ Pim rose from the table and took another scone.
Aunt Rose watched me reach for my crutches. I coloured and muttered a tentative ‘Excuse me’, and followed Pim out of the kitchen.
Pim pulled a couple of apples from a barrel and took me out the back door.
‘You’ll need this,’ she said as she passed me one.
‘But ’twas a plateful of scones I’ve eaten already,’ I replied.
‘Not for you, silly, for Jezebel. She always likes an apple before she goes for a ride.’
Your horse is it?
‘Nah, Captain Thunderbolt’s mine. Couldn’t bring him to Mosman so I keep him here. You’re riding Jezebel.’
I halted. ‘Myself, you’re saying?’
‘Of course,’ Pim answered. ‘Don’t know how else I’m going to show you around.’
‘But—!’ I protested.
‘Your calliper things?’ said Pim. ‘Take ’em off.’
‘How can I?’ I began to panic. ‘What about my boots? ’Tis a spanner I’ll need for to take my boots off my callipers. I’ve not a spanner in my pocket!’
‘Don’t worry, Lucy,’ Pim confidently replied as she continued to walk towards the stables. ‘Hughie’ll have a spanner. Hey! Hughie!’ she called.
A young man with a well-baked face came out as we neared the stables.
‘Pim!’ he called back as he leant against the doorpost. ‘Thought I heard you. How’re you going?’
‘Great. Got a spanner on you? Lucy here needs a spanner to get her leg braces off.’
Such was my introduction. Hughie knelt down and studied my boots and callipers as if he were examining a fetlock. Had I been an able bodied horse, I would have kicked him or at least given him a good whisk with my tail.
‘Should have something that’ll do the job,’ he remarked as he inspected the calliper.
‘Why did you have to do that now?’ I complained to Pim as Hughie ambled inside to find the tool.
‘You and your polio,’ Pim sighed. ‘Didn’t matter to Hughie. You could tell him the sky was falling and he’d work out how to fix it. He’s that sort of bloke. Look, you go plonk yourself on those bales of hay over there and get your braces off. I’ll saddle up.’
Hughie reappeared with a spanner.
‘This do?’ he asked as he passed it to me.
I took it and fitted it over the nut of the calliper. ‘Aye,’ I whispered.
‘Beaut. I’ll saddle Jezzie for you.’
Pim and Hughie conversed in their lazy drawl while they prepared the horses and brought them to where I was sitting. Soon I came face to face with Jezebel, a stately old mare whose name was a humorous mismatch for what was undoubtedly a placid temperament. She let me pat her and I pulled the apple from my pocket and fed it to her.
‘You lead her out,’ said Hughie. ‘That way she’ll know who’s riding her. You can mount her from the fence. You’re tall enough and you look strong enough. Reckon you can pull yourself up?’
Somehow, with a bit of a push from Pim, I managed to climb the fence in question and somehow, with more pushing and pulling and tugging and fumbling, I was able to climb on top of the poor mare which did not flinch, despite the clumsy operation. I gasped in pain as I stretched my right leg over the saddle.
‘You all right?’ asked Pim as she mounted her horse.
I nodded, still not quite recovered.
‘Wanna get down?’
I shook my head.
Hughie, meanwhile, fitted my boots in the stirrups and passed me the reins.
‘You’re sitting well,’ he observed. ‘Give her a flick when you’re ready,’ he said. ‘She’ll know what to do.’
And off we set.
‘Crikey!’ exclaimed Pim with a smile as she looked across at me. ‘You know how to ride! How did you know to hold the reins like that?’
‘’Twas my Uncail Eachan, my Daid’s eldest brother, taught me.’
‘Aye, it was.’
‘Did you have a horse of your own?’
‘I did. ’Twas a white pony called Peigeasus. My uncle taught me to ride her bareback, you know, and without using my hands. Not a chance there’d be of doing that now with my legs all gammy.’
‘Well, you’re doing all right. And don’t worry. I’m not going to make you rise to a trot. How do you like it?’
We rode across a paddock and up a small hill. From our knoll, Pim pointed out the neighbouring farms, the boundaries of her Uncle’s property, some kangaroos bounding towards the creek, the Goulburn road and the direction of the town, and I feasted for an age upon that rich, verdant meal with its piquant sauce of chill air, its flavour enhanced by the golden liqueur of the setting sun.
But I paid for my pleasure. The horse-riding expedition left my thighs so badly bruised that I could not put the callipers on when I dismounted. There was nothing I could do to make the pain go away. To make matters worse, the night turned cold and frosty. I fell asleep from exhaustion, and when I woke the next morning, the result was what I dreaded most: stiff, frozen, aching legs.
I could not move.
And there was no Daid to help me: no Daid to warm and ease my limbs, no Daid to tell how much it hurt, no Daid make everything right again. There was not even a Mrs Murphy.
Pim’s bed was already made. She was nowhere in the room. There was no noise to indicate that she might be upstairs, either, and it was always easy to tell where Pim was. I laid my glasses aside and sucked my pillow.
A distant clatter of hooves, a bold push of the front door and a loud query as to my whereabouts confirmed her presence. Her heavy thud up the stairs was soon heard, the door was thrust open and a sponge was thrown in my face.
‘Wakey, wakey! Rise and shine! Sun’s up!’
Pim pulled off my bedclothes. Too occupied with removing the sponge to resist, I let her do as she pleased.
‘Up we get!’
I tightened my hold on my pillow and closed my eyes. Suddenly, savagely, my feet were wrenched.
‘Mo Dhia! Cuir stop leis! Cuir—’
‘What the devil’s the matter with you?’ Pim stopped dragging me off. My feet were thrown back on the bed and Pim thumped down beside me. I buried my head in the pillow.
One foot was raised. I winced. It was lowered again. A hand pressed the other.
‘Blimey! They’re blue with cold, Lucy. I’m getting Aunt Rose. She used to be a nurse. She’ll know what to do.’
Out she dashed before I could protest, trumpeting my predicament as she went.
That was news indeed. Pim’s aunt may have been a kindly soul but she was a nurse. And I knew that no matter how kind they were, nurses could inflict a great deal of pain: especially the ones who knew what to do. I stopped sucking my pillow for fear I would get into trouble if I was discovered. Nurses did not like pillows being sucked. There I lay, listening in dread for voices and footsteps. Sure enough I heard them, faint murmurs and thuds which became more distinct as they approached, to the point that words could be heard. Pim was describing my blue legs to her nurse-aunt.
The door opened.
‘Lucy,’ Aunt Rose came and sat beside me. I could not move away. She placed her hand on my shoulder. Her hand was soft and warm. ‘You’re not well. Are you in pain? Did you sleep at all?’ My back was slowly rubbed, round and round, and my hair was gathered and smoothed. ‘Now let’s have a look at those legs.’ I clutched at what I had managed to salvage of the blanket. I did not want her to see my legs and feet in their weak, raw state. I did not want her to touch them. ‘Show me,’ she persevered. ‘Don’t be frightened. I’ll try not to hurt you, darling.’
Usually when people said that, torture was sure to follow. I prepared myself for the worst. The blanket was coaxed away from my fingers. Aunt Rose’s hands wended their way over my spindly lower limbs and nursed and stroked my dropped feet.
‘Pim,’ she whispered. ‘Go and get me a good jug of warm water, a few towels and a sponge, Uncle Ted’s goanna oil and some sulphur. Emily will show you where to find everything. And do it quietly.’
The door was banged shut before that last word was uttered. Still stroking my feet, Aunt Rose continued.
‘It was a cold night last night. Did you have enough blankets? I’ll get an eiderdown out for you. It’s nice and light and it should keep you warm as toast. In the meantime, we’re going to have to try and get you on your pins again. We can’t have you spoiling your holiday with your legs all stiff. What a shame that would be. We’ll have an easy day today, though: a good massage, a nice hot breakfast, a little rest and maybe a short trip in the cart this afternoon. Somehow I don’t think we’ll be doing any riding today,’ she laughed a little. That was as close as I came to a scolding. ‘It’s a lovely morning outside – very cool at the moment, but it’ll warm up. Emily and Jack will be eager to play with you so you needn’t be shy of them. They’re very keen to make friends and they would love to show you their pets. Ah! That sounds like Pim.’
Aunt Rose opened the door for her niece who entered carrying a tray of supplies. Pim watched while her aunt sponged my legs.
‘I noticed you play the ’cello. Have you been learning long?’
She talked about music while she worked. They had recently bought a player piano which was a favourite entertainment, and she listed some of the rolls they had and sang a few tunes to see if I recognised them.
‘My, your legs are looking better already and I need to make your breakfast. Lucy, the most important thing is to keep warm. Sprinkle some sulphur in your socks. Put on a couple of layers – you’ll feel cosier that way. When you’re ready, put your braces on and come and get something to eat. Pim will stay to help you.’
‘Did I hurt you before?’ Pim took charge.
‘I’m sorry. I forgot. What do you need?’
Upon my request, she threw socks, stockings and clothes in my direction.
‘You want help with those leg braces?’ she asked.
I sighed at the callipers which had been placed out of my reach near the wardrobe.
‘I don’t want to wear them for ’tis too heavy they be and I’m bruised right where they do up.’
‘You don’t have to wear them, do you? You are on holiday, you know.’
‘But I can barely walk without them.’
‘And by the look of you, I don’t think you can walk with them either. Don’t worry, Lucy, we’ll look after you.’
‘But what about the stairs?’ I asked. ‘I cannot get down the stairs, Pim.’
‘Never mind the stairs,’ Pim replied. ‘I’ll get Ted. You finish getting ready and wait there.’
There was no chance to object. Pim dashed down and charged outside sending the news of my difficulties to the four winds. In due time there was movement back on the staircase, a knock on the door and Mr Pearse entered with his niece at his heels.
‘Gotta bit of a problem here? You’ll be right. We’ll carry you down. Ready?’
He deftly scooped me up and took me from the room. As we departed, I cast an anxious look after my crutches which had been left abandoned next to my bed.
Down to the dining room we went.
‘Well done!’ welcomed Aunt Rose as I was lowered into my chair. ‘Right on time. I’ve just put the tea on the table.’
She returned to the kitchen and came out with a plate.
‘Here you are, Lucy,’ she said gently as she laid my breakfast before me. ‘A nice, hot breakfast. Enjoy it!’
With an affectionate hug of my shoulders, she left me to my meal. Try as I might, however, I could not touch it. There on the plate sat a plump potato cake coated with oats, cooked on the griddle and cut into four. And there were two goodly rashers of bacon with large, ruddy heads and well-streaked tails. My soul swelled with the waves of salt tinged memories that crashed hard upon the rocks of my heart. All the ugly, unsightly, uncomely things of seven years past broke and splintered and scattered their debris across its shore. And deep beneath the waters was a face that looked up and smiled at me – the face of a fiery-haired fairy with eyes of glistening green, a fairy who had once filled our home and hearth with laughter and love – and who now lay cold and dead in a deep dark grave in Galway.
‘Lucy? You awake?’
The voice was all wrong. It was friendly enough, but it should have been light and crisp with a pretty Scots lilt.
I shivered and pulled the rug closer to my chin. The rug was wrong, too. It was knitted in bright coloured squares. Where was Mam’s cashmere that she used to coddle me on a winter’s afternoon? Where was my red flannel blanket?
‘Lucy? You all right?’
‘Who— who are you?’ I made an effort to speak in English.
‘It’s Pim, silly. You know, Pim from school. Pim who plays the viola. Pim who took you riding yesterday. Philomena?’
‘Why do you be here?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean?’ she replied. ‘Where do you think you are? Heaven?’
All the green began to make sense. ‘For a minute I thought I was Home again is all,’ I sighed. And before I could stop them, I felt the tears well in my eyes.
‘I don’t believe it!’ said Pim. ‘We’ve already bailed out the dining room, you cried so much. You’ll flood the garden too if you’re not careful. Crikey.’
She wrapped her strong arms about me.
‘I thought you’d gone stark raving mad,’ she continued. ‘You sat at the table, staring at your bacon, with tears streaming down your face and none of us could make sense of a word you said. In fact, it took us a while to get anything out of you that sounded like the King’s English. Then you held on to Aunt Rose for dear life and wouldn’t let go until you fell asleep. You’ve been asleep ever since.’
‘Asleep? Arrah!’ I muttered. ‘And what time is it now?’
‘’Bout four-ish. Just a minute.’
Pim excused herself and left me puzzling over the sinister deadness that seemed to trouble my legs. I leant over and tried to rub some life into them.
There were voices. I looked up but I could only make out the blurred forms of two figures coming towards me.
‘Lucy, darling, it’s Mrs Pearse,’ began Pim’s aunt as she sat. She took my hand and guided my fingers around what turned out to be a pair of eyeglasses.
‘I’m short-sighted, you know,’ I murmured as I peered at the black frames. ‘Mam says I’m short-sighted, like my Da.’ I put them on but they did not help much. Salt had crusted over the lenses and they were greatly in need of cleaning.
‘Dear me,’ remarked Aunt Rose, ‘they’re not much good, are they? I’ll go and wash them for you. And what about something to eat? You must be hungry.’
She left me with Pim who had sat down at the far end of the wicker settee.
‘Pim,’ I whispered. ‘I cannot move my legs.’
‘Have you gone that barmy?’ she replied. ‘Lucy, you had polio. Your boots and crutches are down here.’
It was reminder enough. Memories torrented in – of falling, of long months in a plaster coffin, of endless days with my legs fixed in splints, of being unable to move or do a thing for myself – and with them, another wash of tears.
‘Oh dear!’ exclaimed Aunt Rose. ‘Pim, would you mind taking the tray?’ I felt myself cradled in Aunt Rose’s arms. ‘You’ve had a very sad time,’ she said as she stroked my hair. ‘Well, darling, you can cry all you like, provided you don’t miss any more meals. Will you do that for me?’
Somehow I managed to laugh, sniff and sob simultaneously.
‘Good,’ replied Aunt Rose. ‘Now Lucy, hold on to me and I’ll sit you up and fix your pillows.’
She made her final comforting touches, smoothing out the rug and wiping my eyes with her handkerchief. ‘Your specs are nice and clean now. Put them on and have something to eat.’
Aunt Rose placed before me a bowl of Colcannon.
‘Here we go again,’ said Pim as she watched more tears fall.
I sniffed and wiped them away.
‘Another favourite?’ observed Aunt Rose.
‘Aye,’ I replied.
‘Then honour your dear mother’s memory and eat it all up. What would she say if she saw you push it away?’
I wiped my eyes and reluctantly began to eat. Then I realised I was very hungry.
And she continued to sit by me, her warm, freckled face with its wide-spaced, hazel eyes content to follow the passage of every mouthful.
‘Do you look like your mother, Lucy?’ she asked as I finished.
I shook my head.
‘Spitting image of her dad she is,’ commented Pim.
‘Do you remember her?’
‘She was like a Botticelli, only real,’ I closed my eyes and pictured Mam’s face before me. ‘Mam had soft hair – spun from silk of the finest copper-gold – and skin like alabaster and emeralds for eyes. They used to laugh, her eyes. You’d look at her and she’d laugh them at you, and her mouth would twitch before it smiled and while you talked as well.’
‘Like you do?’
‘I do that now?’
‘You’re doing it right this very moment,’ smiled Aunt Rose. ‘Save that your eyes are not laughing quite as much as I imagine they might.’
‘Aye, well she was always scolding and teasing and laughing and telling all in one breath was Mam. But she was gentle, too, and of an evening when I’d snuggle close to her by the fire or when she put me to bed, she’d listen to all my sayings and doings and we’d read together – she loved poetry my Mam did – and we’d say a prayer for this and that.’
‘You have lovely memories of her, Lucy.’
‘Aye. Only— well, that’s all they are,’ I sighed. ‘Memories.’
‘No,’ corrected Aunt Rose, ‘they’re more than mere memories. They’re your memories. They’re part of you, and you are part of your mother, darling. How lucky you are to have those memories! Now, it’s getting chilly and I need to check the roast. Pim, can you find out from Ted when he plans to be in?’
Pim strode off towards the sheds. Aunt Rose, meanwhile, picked up my boots and fitted them on my feet.
‘Aunt Rose?’ I asked.
‘What is it, Lucy?’ she answered with a smile.
‘Would it be putting you out if I called you Aunt Rose?’
‘Not at all, Lucy.’
‘You see, you’re as close as I’ve come to a real mother in years. I’d forgotten what it was like.’
Aunt Rose gave me another hug and passed me my crutches. Together we walked back to the house.
‘Did your mother nurse you through the polio, Lucy?’
I shook my head. ‘’Twas the nuns did. Mam died before that. The polio happened around Easter time and Mam died before Christmas the previous year. During the Troubles it was she died.’
A concerned look passed over Aunt Rose’s face. ‘The Troubles? In Ireland you mean? Was she killed, Lucy?’
I nodded slowly. ‘Aye, she was.’ And then I spoke of something I had never spoken of before. ‘’Twas the Goddam Black and Tans shot Mam.’
Aunt Rose opened the back door and studied me very carefully.
‘You didn’t see it happen did you, darling?’
Again I looked into her trusting face and nodded.
This time, however, there were no more tears left to cry.
‘’Twas the day I got my glasses,’ I began. The delicate smell of roast lamb and rosemary wafted through the kitchen. Aunt Rose bade me continue while she tended to the meal. Her youngest little one, Angus, ran in and she gave him a hug hello. He helped her collect some potatoes, piling them into her apron. These they brought to the table. Aunt Rose put her son on her lap, passed me a knife, took up another for herself and we began to peel.
‘’Twas a half day from school that day, it being the feast of the Immaculate Conception, you know,’ I resumed as I peeled. Somehow, peeling potatoes helped the words come out. ‘I walked home for lunch and then Mam and I we walked to the occulist for to collect my speclaí. After that we had a pot of tea and some apple cake at Mrs O’Malley’s tea shop. That was when Mam told me we were going to have another baby. She was so happy about it, you know. Then Mam decided to show me how bright and beautiful the world looked now I could see properly, so we visited all our favourite places. To the Claddagh we walked, and we stopped on the bridge to watch the swans on the river. We made a visit to the Blessed Sacrament at St Mary’s church, which has fine mosaics of fish in the sanctuary, and I said a prayer for the new baby and counted the fish. After that, we set off for home. ’Twas getting colder, so we stopped for to buy some chestnuts. We were near the college when we heard the lorries. That was when Mam remembered the curfew. Well, we kept close to the wall and one lorry rolled by. Full of soldiers it was and they shouted things at us that didn’t sound very nice. Mam blessed herself and pushed me behind her. Another lorry drove past. Then some shots were fired. A soldier on the truck fell down as they fired shots from that truck. Mam dropped the chestnuts and fell back on top of myself. I remember her looking up at me and trying to smile or tell me something, and then it was as if the world stopped still. Not a word I said for a long time after that. Not for months did I speak.’
I raised my glasses and studied the potato to make sure I had not missed any skin or eyes. I took up another potato, and in an effort to stop my hand from shaking, began again to peel.
‘You know, I’ve never told anyone how it happened,’ I said as I looked across at Aunt Rose. Now it was Aunt Rose whose eyes had become wet.
‘Not even your father?’ Aunt Rose kissed and stroked the top of Angus’ head.
‘Not even my Daid.’
‘And so your father has looked after you all these years?’
‘All by himself?’ Aunt Rose queried in a very puzzled way.
‘Aye. After I fell sick there was talk of putting me in a home but my Daid wouldn’t hear of that. He did everything for me when I came out of hospital. I used to beg him to make my legs work again, so he’d rub them the way my Uncail Eachann used to do to the horses and he’d wrap them in the warmest, softest wool he could find. Every morning he’d do it, and again at noon when he came for lunch, and then some more before I went to sleep at night. He wore himself out with it. Some mornings I’d wake up and find him asleep in a chair next to my bed, still in his clothes. But he got me walking again. He found me some crutches and taught me to use them. And then he helped me walk without them. He’s never given up on me, Aunt Rose.’
‘But he couldn’t have done all that alone, Lucy. Doesn’t anyone else help out?’
‘’Tis an old cow comes to help from time to time,’ I admitted, reluctant to disclose that piece of information.
‘Oh. And does the old cow have a name?’ Aunt Rose arched her brows. ‘Is it Buttercup?’
‘’Tis Mrs Murphy,’ I smiled. Buttercup was hardly the name to give Mrs Murphy. ‘And she doses me on martyrs, miracles and castor oil every chance she gets.’
‘I see,’ mused Aunt Rose with a knowing smile. ‘Well, I’m sure she tries her best.’
‘Well, ’tis a poor best,’ I mourned. ‘And it’s not the same as having a real mother.’
‘No it isn’t,’ Aunt Rose agreed. ‘But I gather you haven’t been the best of patients either?’
How did Aunt Rose know that?
‘It’s not easy to nurse someone whose sorrow is greater than their sickness, darling,’ she observed. ‘You can help their ailments but many a time you cannot help their hearts. And there are times when it seems you can do nothing right. I was in a war, too, you know.’
‘I was twenty-two and I went to France to do my bit for the boys on the front. I nursed. I had to tend young men with the most horrific injuries. Some had lost their sight, others had lost limbs, still others were badly burned and all were terribly disturbed by what had happened. I did what I could – we all did – but mostly it was the girlfriend who remained true, the wife who was strong and faithful, the family that stood by that really brought them through.
‘I remember there was one such fellow,’ Aunt Rose took up another potato, ‘a trooper who’d been thrown from his horse. The poor lad had lost both his legs and things were looking pretty bleak for one arm. He was in tremendous pain and we had to keep him heavily sedated. But he was so very gallant – deeply courageous – particularly given his injuries. We used to call him Romeo because when he was conscious he was always talking about going home to his Juliet,’ she smiled. ‘It was the one thing that mattered to him. I wrote her in the end: one of those difficult letters breaking the news and offering encouragement. She took the trouble to write and thank me. It was a lovely letter, and the look on that trooper’s face when I read him her reply, assuring him she would keep the home fires burning, was a joy to behold. I always hoped it worked out for Romeo and Juliet. For others, unfortunately, such loving support wasn’t there at all, poor fellows, and it was very hard indeed,’ she sighed, ‘for everyone.’
‘Aye,’ I agreed. ‘I’ve given Mrs Murphy a rough time, you know. Would you believe that when I was in a wheelchair I used to prefer wetting my pants to having her help me? And that was all because I wanted Mam. It upset my Da when I did that. But I’m telling you that if it ever occurred to Mrs Murphy to make fatai cakes, then things might have been a little different.’
‘I dare say,’ Aunt Rose’s eyes twinkled. ‘And what if there had been no Mrs Murphy?’
While I had often wished that the cat had eaten Mrs Murphy and the Devil eaten the cat, I had never considered the implications as seriously as I did now. I bit my lip in thought.
‘We’d better get those potatoes on or they’ll never be done in time,’ Aunt Rose interrupted my speculations.
Angus gave a shout when Pim galloped in with Jack on her back and Emily prancing alongside her shouting for her turn. It was the children’s tea time. But before the kitchen was turned into a corral, Aunt Rose intervened with firm indications that there were to be no horsy hands at the table. Contention arose over this for Aunt Rose and Jack had very different standards regarding cleanliness. Oblivious to dirty fingernails and patches overlooked, Jack insisted his hands were clean. His mother was not going to be contradicted and gave him marching directions under my supervision to make sure he did the job properly before he took his tea. While Aunt Rose, Pim and I prepared the rest of the vegetables, Emily and Jack chatted about their day around the farm. Squeals of delight followed when Pim galloped them upstairs and saw to baths and bed.
During my long sleep, the Pearse family apparently had taken the initiative to move all my things down to the parlour. There I went, to find that the room had been transformed into a very charming albeit makeshift bedroom, with clean white sheets, a pretty quilt and piles of pillows on the day-bed. On the little table beside it was a vase of flowers and a lamp. Amusements in Mathematics had even been found and placed beside the vase, ready for me to read. I also noticed my nightgown neatly folded and tucked under the pillows, and my callipers propped against the end of the bed.
I did my best to dress for dinner, found ribbons and pins for my hair, re-braided it and tried to put it up.
Whoever had been responsible for arranging the room had decided that I could do with some literature, for another book lay underneath my Dudeney. I picked up what turned out to be Pride and Prejudice, read the first two lines and dismissed it with a sneer.
‘Hey look at you,’ she said. ‘Nice hair.’
‘And you really think that now?’ I asked as I returned my glasses to my nose. Pim had thrown on a velvet frock in place of her jodhpurs.
‘Of course. A bit old-fashioned, but nice. C’mon. Dinner’s ready.’
Uncle Ted and Hughie, scrubbed up and ready to dine, rose from their chairs when we entered. Aunt Rose had prepared a splendid roast and it was followed by treacle pudding. Conversation flowed around the Easter Show, the polo and the farm; around the children’s escapades and family memories. Then we gathered round the player piano and sang song after song from Gilbert and Sullivan.
But there were other songs which were had that night: songs which had no sound; songs which were sung with the eyes and heart. Aunt Rose had a special message for everyone, but when she sang, she sang for Uncle Ted, and when he sang, he sang for her. Hughie and Pim sang as they shared the pedals on the pianola, and I sang my own songs for the mother and father and home I had loved so much.
Annette Young was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches and north shore. She studied music from an early age and it has remained a lifelong passion. Annette holds an honours degree in History from the University of Sydney and a Doctorate in English Literature from the University of New South Wales. She currently lives in Maitland, New South Wales with her husband, Francis, and their ‘quartet’ of boys. A Distant Prospect is her first novel, and is available on Amazon. You can follow her on Facebook or her blog