Anne Walsh Donnelly
I wasn’t going anywhere on my own. And I was sure that as soon as Peter heard what Mother was planning, he’d put a stop to it. We’d escape from her bellowing and Father’s bleating and I wouldn’t have a crick in my neck from looking at the dirty flagstones in the kitchen. There’d be no more of her towering over me, spitting and saying that scouring the floor was all I was good for now.
“You dirty scrubber…”
“I’ll never let anyone harm a hair on your head,” said Peter, the day he turned my world inside out, on a stack of hay in the lower field.
He was laughing and joking with me as he always was and the next thing I know we’re kissing and his tongue burned mine; in a good way. His hands swept over me and brushed away some of the bitterness that Mother had sown in my heart. I still can’t help wondering how it didn’t hurt that much. But I was consumed by the feel of a man losing himself in me. That and the smell of him mixed with the scent of the freshly mown hay. I never saw a sky as blue as I did that day, and the days after. Even the corrugated iron on his hayshed, where we’d often meet in winter, wasn’t as rusty as it normally would be. But colours are colours. They don’t ever change.
He couldn’t stay long after that first time nor did he ever.
“Herself will be looking for me,” he’d say as he’d wipe himself with a handful of hay or grass or sometimes even my underskirts.
I’d let him go because I knew the sooner he went, the sooner I’d see him again and the picture in my head would carry me through the cow-milking, calf-feeding, butter-churning, Mother’s bullish face and Father’s hollow-sheep eyes. Even when there was nothing to be cross about, she still gave out.
Peter didn’t talk about his wife much when he was with me but I asked him once, “Why did you marry her? She’s so old.”
He was always more likely to answer my questions in the few minutes before he’d pull up his trousers.
“I suppose I felt sorry for her when her husband died. And look at me now, a man with the biggest farm of land in these parts.”
“Only it’s not yours.”
“Maybe not but it’s a fair sight better than trying to farm the boggy scrap of land that my father left to myself and my brother. You could hardly feed one family off it, let alone two,” he said, rolling away from me.
“I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He stood up, settled his shirt into his trousers and pulled his belt tight.
“It’s okay. Sure, I’ve a grand life now and meeting you has made it all the sweeter.”
As he bent to kiss me, I thought I might be able to prise him away from his wife if I gave him something that she couldn’t. We’d make a new life for ourselves somewhere else and I wouldn’t have to put up with Mother and her briary moods anymore.
A few months later I could feel my body change and it didn’t take Mother long to notice.
“For one that’s always been so scrawny you’re getting a bit fat lately,” she said, after breakfast one morning.
“It’s not from all the food I get here.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Father sneaking out the back door.
“When did you last bleed?”
I shrugged my shoulders and scooted out of the kitchen, a bucket of meal for the hens in my hands.
When I came downstairs in my Mass clothes the following Sunday, the crockery on the kitchen table jumped as she battered it with the broom.
“You’re not going anywhere near town looking like that. You’ve brought nothing but shame to this family.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I said.
The broom fell out of her hands.
“Grandmother told me before she died. She wanted me to know that I had a brother or sister. Probably having a much better life than me.”
She flinched as Father’s Ford Anglia roared into life in the yard. I could see him through the kitchen window, shoulders hunched over the steering wheel, waiting.
“That was a long time ago. This kitchen better be tidy when we come home.”
I was mulching mangels for the pigs when they arrived back from Mass.
“Fr. Murphy will make the arrangements,” said Mother.
“We can’t send her to a … a mother-and-baby home,” said Father, as he took off his good coat and hung it on the back of the kitchen door. Mother twisted the gloves in her hands so tight I wanted to grab them from her.
“We don’t have much choice,” she said.
“Maybe the lad that did this will marry her.”
“He’s probably already married.”
“I’m not going to one of those places,” I said and ran out the back door before Mother could stop me.
Over the fields, I belted. I hunted through every shed in Peter’s yard but couldn’t find him. Then his wife came out of the house with a face on her that would sour the freshest of milk.
“Where’s Peter?” I asked.
Her eyes widened and face reddened as she stared at my swollen stomach.
“Be off with you now and don’t come back.”
“I’ll give him what you can’t,” I said and stared into her sparrow hawk eyes.
Then I left her standing at her half-closed door and thought there’d be no turning back now. She’d kick Peter off her farm for carrying on with a young one like me. So I waited for him to come get me. Monday passed and Tuesday.
The front door boomed on Wednesday and I started to gather up my bits and pieces. Only it wasn’t Peter.
“There’s a place available in a home on the north-side of Dublin. Take her tomorrow,” Fr. Murphy told Father.
Mother thanked him in the voice she reserved for Mass.
“I’ll help her pack,” said Father when the priest left.
“Oh, child, please tell me who did this to you?” he said, as he stood watching me put the few bits I had in the little suitcase Grandmother gave to Mother when she left home.
The way he asked nearly pulled Peter’s name out of my mouth and I came close to telling him that I was hoping we’d get the boat to Holyhead and start a new life in London or maybe get on a big ship to New York or somewhere else where nobody knew us. But I kept my mouth shut.
After I had everything in the suitcase, he sat on my bed, dragging his fingers across his forehead. I took hold of them and fingered the cracks that Mother and his wretched farm had put there.
“Do I have to go to the home?”
“I wish you didn’t, but …”
The kitchen door slammed and his hand stiffened as Mother roared up the stairs.
“It’s time the cattle were milked.”
We looked at each other and couldn’t even cry for fear of what she might do if she saw us blabbering. He stood up, clasped the little case shut and dropped it at my bedroom door.
“Can I go say bye to Breeze before I go?”
“You want to say goodbye to the bloody donkey.”
His voice nearly cut me in two. I’d never heard him use a swear word before. Indeed he had a path worn from his forehead to chest and out to his two shoulders from blessing himself every time Mother cursed. I started to sniffle.
“Go out the front door so she won’t see you but don’t be too long.”
Peter was turning hay in the corner field. As I watched him, I wondered if our baby was a boy, would he have the same big hands and mousy hair that Peter had. Then his sheepdog barked. He turned and dropped the pitchfork.
“They’re sending me away.”
“Oh, you poor creature.”
He ran to me and wrapped his arms around my trembling body and I nearly squeezed the breath out of him.
“Don’t let them do this to me.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
I dragged his hand to my stomach.
“I want to keep our baby.”
He let it rest there for a minute. Something stirred.
“Let’s leave this place,” I said.
“But this is the only life I know.”
I clutched his fingers until they turned white.
“We could make a new life.”
“If I leave here all the hard work I’ve done will be for nothing.”
He broke away from me, picked up the pitchfork and skewered a lump of hay. I grabbed the fork from his hand and threw it on the ground.
“So this farm is more important than your baby and me.”
Behind him a big dirty cloud invaded my blue sky.
“Mother was sent to one of those homes when she was my age … never the same again …,” I said.
He turned and paced the ground between the rows of mown hay.
“I can’t go back to being poor again,” he said
The first drop of rain hit my head.
“I won’t come back.”
He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and picked up the pitchfork. Then the rain started to pelt down on top of us.
“I’ll never get this hay saved now.”
So I left him in his field, with his half-turned wet hay. And I hoped it would rise up and strangle him to death, a long slow one; though something told me his wife would do that anyway.
The next day Mother stoked the raging fire and sent sparks all over the hearth. She didn’t even turn to say goodbye. The Ford Anglia stuttered when Father started it and then lurched over every pothole on the gravel road to town. I looked out at the hay yet to be saved, to take my mind off my churning insides. As the grey buildings of the town rose to meet us, Father’s shoulder bumped against mine and I bit my lip to stop myself from crying. We were early for the train so we waited in the car. He rummaged around the inside pocket of his coat and handed me a bulging brown envelope.
“I sold Breeze this morning. Peter gave me a good price for him. There’s enough there to get a ticket to Holyhead and a bit more to keep you going until you get a job.”
“Thanks. She’ll go mad when she finds out.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” he said, as he stared out the windscreen.
“Why do you put up with her?”
He turned towards me.
“It’s the only life I know.”
Then I reached over and clung to him until we could hear the roar of the train as it thundered into the station. After he deposited me in the front carriage, with a kiss on my forehead, I watched him walk down the platform and it struck me that he had the same broad shoulders and long back that Peter had. Only Father’s shoulders were a lot lower and his back all crooked and I thought that by the time Peter was Father’s age, he’d probably be just as stooped.