© Pat Goulding
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The smell of Christmas hit me the minute I opened the door; that smell of spices and baking. On the kitchen table, the cake cooled on a wire rack. With floury hands, my mother spooned the pudding mixture into plastic bowls. “Mmm,” I said tracing my finger around the sides of the bowl, a routine that never failed to annoy my mother.
“Stop that, you silly girl. Why do all of you do that?”
“Because it’s tradition, Mother.”
I’d taken to calling her mother from time to time whenever I felt the need to remind her of my new status as a first-year University student. The next question I asked had become another sort of tradition.
“Is Aunt Harriet coming this year?”
“Oh, for goodness sake, there you go again."
“Ask about Aunt Harriet when you know well what the answer will be, and we the only family she has.”
I went upstairs to my room and changed into a tracksuit. Mother was right; I don’t know why we all asked about Aunt Harriet every year but we did. She had turned into a cranky, complaining old woman and with every passing year, she grew more cantankerous. She was a pest–there was no other word for it. And yet she hadn’t always been so.
As a young boy, my father had spent summer holidays at the farm with Aunt Harriet and his Grandparents. He had happy memories of those times. By the time we moved to Cork the farm had long been sold and she had bought a large three-storied house right on the main street, next to the Old Rectory. Ballynoe was a small village, the grocer's shop doubled as a post office. There were two pubs, a hardware store and a church. It was a mystery to all of us why Aunt Harriet had wanted such a large house. Maybe it was an investment. Who knew?
Mother and I often visited her on a Sunday afternoon when Catherine and Louise were still only babies.Dad loved to listen to matches on the radio on Sunday afternoons anyway, and so was quite happy to keep an eye on my sisters while we walked across the village to her house. I remember thinking the first time we visited that my mother was bursting with curiosity about this new found relation. A tall woman, her brown hair caught in a soft chignon, she seemed intimidating to an eight-year-old girl, but when she crouched down to my level and spoke, I could see that she had kind eyes.
“Your mother and I will have tea but I’m sure you would prefer lemonade. Is that so?”
I nodded and sat up onto one of the stiff chairs. Boredom soon set in as the two women talked and I fidgeted in that uncomfortable seat.
“Why don’t you go out into the back garden, dear? I'll show you how to get out there. Here follow me.” Aunt Harriet brought me through a long passageway that led from the front of the house through the kitchen and out to the garden.
"Come back in whenever you want. Ok?"
I nodded again and Aunt Harriet returned to join my mother.
The garden was divided by a stone path, a neat lawn on both sides and some well-tended flower beds. An arched opening in the hedge led through to a different area altogether. Here tall poppies grew alongside big daisies and buttercups. It was a garden allowed to return to its natural state. Bees buzzed furiously past me and butterflies were plentiful. I loved it immediately and began to wander farther and farther from the house. It felt like a new magical place.
On a seat under a huge chestnut tree, I imagined no-one could see or find me. Old statues, green with lichen, stood forgotten in dark corners and great stone urns spilled over with weeds.
In Dublin, we’d lived in a housing estate where our back garden had just enough room for a washing line. At our new house on the outskirts of the village, the garden while large, was really an unremarkable rectangle of grass. Here in Aunt Harriet’s I almost believed there could be fairies in this forgotten place. Time slowed and I slipped into a world of my own. When my mother called me, saying it was time to go, I couldn't believe two hours had passed.
“Can I come again, Aunt Harriet”? I asked.”
“Of course you can, my dear. Come anytime.That wilderness back there is more than I can handle, but it is a great place for a little girl with an imagination.”
The clatter of footsteps on the stairs broke into my thoughts as Louise and Catherine hurtled into the room and threw themselves on top of me. Louise was 16 and Catherine 14. They were at that giddy stage and liked nothing better than to annoy me. I listened to stories of their day in school and we settled down comfortably on the bed. Soon mother was calling us and we went down for dinner. Jamie was still in front of the television in the sitting room. He was only 10 and always had to be called several times.
“I can’t wait for Christmas,” he said bounding into the room.
“Don’t ask the question.” My sisters and I chorused.
“What question?” Dad put his briefcase on the floor.
“Oh, the usual,” mother said, “about Aunt Harriet and whether she’ll be spending Christmas Day with us.”
In recent years, Aunt Harriet’s presence seemed to cause angst in our house, particularly at Christmas. When she retired from teaching and was still active she often called to take Jamie for walks, staying for dinner, especially if it was Sunday. A late addition to our family, Jamie delighted Aunt Harriet. As he progressed from baby to toddler he became too much for her. She had developed arthritis by then anyway and visited less often. Now it was only on Christmas Day that she joined us.
She would arrive leaning heavily on her walking stick and holding firm to my father’s arm. Her hair had turned steel grey and was captured in a severe bun. As soon as she was settled in an armchair, the inquisition began. Rapid fire questions about our school reports and progress in various areas of study. It drove us mad. Then there were comments and criticisms of our mode of dress and behaviour. I, as the eldest, often imagined that I was her main target but Louise and Catherine also came in for their fair share. Jamie, however, seemed to escape Aunt Harriet’s waspish comments and sharp tongue. We tended to bicker among ourselves while she was there and then either Mam or Dad would get cross and we would sulk. I suppose that was why we tended to ask that same question every year.
It was still dark when the shrill ringing of the 'phone woke us. Dad went downstairs to the hall while we hovered on the stairs listening.
"Hello, Mrs.O'Brien. Shush now, collect yourself."
"I see. You must've got a shock, you poor woman. Ah, well it's how we'd all want to go, isn't it?"
Silence again. Mother clutched at the neck of her dressing gown. We gasped and made to speak. She silenced us with an upraised hand.
"Yes, Mrs.O'Brien, I'll be there in five minutes. Get yourself a strong cup of tea. I'll take care of everything when I get there."
He placed the 'phone back on its cradle with care, then looked at us gathered in a huddle in our nightclothes.
"Aunt Harriet passed away in her sleep last night."
We couldn't believe it. It was only two weeks to Christmas.
"The Lord have mercy on the poor soul." My mother blessed herself and we did the same. It was what you did, wasn't it?
"No school today for you lot. Our family is in mourning."
"I'll go and make a start on the necessary 'phone calls," Dad said. He had dressed hurriedly in a jumper and slacks. He used the palm of his hand to swipe at a tear threatening to roll down his face.
I went back to bed, but I couldn't sleep. My thoughts, now, were not of a cranky old lady annoying us all at Christmas time. I remembered instead, the times I had spent with her at her house when I first began Secondary school. I often helped her in the garden and learned a lot about plants and flowers from her. She also introduced me to books she had read as a girl, books by authors like Annie M.P.Smithson, Daphne du Maurier and of course the Bronte sisters. I became an avid reader and I think it was due to Aunt Harriet's influence that I was now doing a B.A. in English Literature.
We hung around the house for the rest of the day. We poked out some black clothes to wear at the ceremonies. All talk now was of funeral arrangements. The Christmas shopping frenzy was put on hold and we knew that this year things would certainly be different in our house.
It was by any standards a small funeral. A few locals, Mrs. O’Brien, teachers from her old school and ourselves made up the mourners. Aunt Harriet’s brothers were long dead and their families were scattered around the globe. Any connection they had with Aunt Harriet had been tenuous at best. After the burial Mr.Hyde, the solicitor had spoken briefly to my father. He asked him to call to his office after the holiday season when Aunt Harriet’s will would be read. Mother had already made it clear that our help would be needed when it came to sorting Aunt Harriet's personal effects and cleaning and clearing the house before it could be put for sale. It was accepted that our family would be sole inheritors of her estate.
For the first time that we could remember, we sat around the dinner table on Christmas Day without Aunt Harriet. Then we realized that we missed her. Jamie, in particular, was completely out of sorts. We ate our dinner in relative silence. Our normal Christmas Day exuberance, which had so annoyed Aunt Harriet, was absent. Mother seemed lost in her own thoughts and Dad had never been much of a talker in any case.
Later as we played Scrabble, we almost expected her interruptions and an occasional poke with her walking stick through the bars of the chairs. In spite of, or maybe because of all our moaning about her, her absence was palpable and in some strange way upsetting. Was it, I wondered due to the fact that her passing had been so near the Festive Season.
As Christmas Day drew to a close, peace reigned as we watched the Christmas Shows on Television. In previous years Aunt Harriet’s very vocal dislike of television usually ended with Dad switching it off altogether. This was a new and pleasant experience for us all. Stomachs overfull from gorging on mince pies, chocolates and other goodies, we yawned and stretched in front of the fire until one by one we said goodnight to our parents and drifted off to bed. It had been a strange day in some ways but quite restful all the same.
On the day set for the reading of the will, we all trooped into the offices of Gerald Hyde & Son, Solicitors.
"Mr.Ernest will be with you shortly." the secretary said showing us into an adjoining room.
When he arrived I saw a dreary looking man, aptly named I thought. His bushy eyebrows shot up as he watched us cramming ourselves into the small office. He fussed over my mother making sure she was seated and then called outside to a young girl to fetch more chairs.
He cleared his throat several times and then began to read the document in front of him. It was much as we expected. Several pieces of jewellery were nominated and allocated to us girls. Jamie was to receive a coin collection containing some rare coins and Mother was to choose from the house any items of furniture or ornament that pleased her. A sum of cash was bequeathed to my father. It was quite a decent amount and I saw my mother relaxing back into her chair. A smile played around her lips. I imagined her planning an exotic holiday.
In a moment the smile was gone to be replaced with a look of horror. “The proceeds of the sale of the house are to go to my son Gordon. I have charged Mr.Hyde with the task of locating him but so far he has had no success. I hope that by the time you hear this news the matter will be resolved.”
So read Aunt Harriet’s Will. We were all dumbstruck until Jamie piped up “But Aunt Harriet couldn’t have had a son. She wasn’t married.”
“Be quiet,” my father said.
“But the child is right.” Mother had found her voice. "What does this mean Mr.Hyde? How could there be a son? Where has he been all these years? Where is he now?”
Clearing his throat once again, Mr.Hyde said. “Some years ago Miss Courtney told me that as a young woman she had given birth to a baby who was adopted. As you heard, she instructed me to locate the whereabouts of this young man. Unfortunately, I haven't had any success to date. It is a difficult business but I will continue to make every effort to honour your Aunt’s wishes. There I’m afraid the matter rests. I dare say you might have had reason to expect to inherit the house and I’m sorry if you are disappointed.”
“Expect, expect.” Mother was red in the face.
“Indeed, we did not expect any such thing. Why should we? We only did for Aunt Harriet what any family would do. We didn’t expect or wish to receive any recompense for what was purely a Christian act.” She rose from her chair and as if on cue we all rose with her.
“Goodbye Mr.Hyde and thank you for your time,” my father managed to blurt out as we filed out of the room. We walked home in silence. A million questions chased each other in my head.
During the following week, no one spoke about what was uppermost in all our minds. Then one morning my mother summoned us girls out of bed with orders to look sharp as we were going to Aunt Harriet’s house for the big clear out.
The house already felt strange and old with a musty smell. Under my mother’s watchful eye, Louise, Catherine and I worked sorting clothes. We had each chosen our pieces of jewellery and the furniture earmarked for removal to our house was put to one side.
In the room Aunt Harriet had referred to as her den, there was one whole wall covered in bookcases, each crammed full of books of all kinds. Making a note to contact the local library and second-hand bookshop, Mother then turned her attention to Aunt Harriet’s desk. It was an ancient looking piece of furniture and made a clickety-click sound as the top rolled back. Inside on a green baize surface were Aunt Harriet’s bills and private correspondence. A large white envelope stood to attention making itself immediately visible. It had my mother’s name on it. Just “Maureen,” it said. She didn't open it at once, as I would have done, but turned it over several times in her hand as if reluctant to reveal its contents. “What is this?” she said almost to herself. “Some sort of explanation or excuse or, God forbid, maybe even an apology for denying us the inheritance we had every right to expect.”
I knew the bitter angry words were caused by deep disappointment. Putting my hand on her shoulder I gave it a squeeze.
"Go on Mam, open it." Then we both sat down and she opened the envelope.
“My dear Maureen, (the letter began), I expect that as you read this letter you must be quite shocked by the contents of my Will and maybe a little disappointed also. There is no-one that I would rather have had benefit from my passing more than you, John and your family. However, I felt I had to make some sort of atonement to my son for the decision I made a long, long time ago. A million excuses can, of course, be made, the times we lived in, the avoidance of scandal etc. etc. but maybe if I had had more courage–well, that’s neither here nor there now, is it? The matter has weighed heavy on my heart for many years. As I could not share this secret with anyone else, I have written down all that happened at that time in my journal, which you will find in the desk. The journal is marked ‘private’ but as I write this letter I have a great desire that you or one of your girls would read it and maybe remember me a little differently because of it. I thank you sincerely for all your kindness to me over the years. I hope you can find it in your heart to think kindly of me. Yours ever, Aunt Harriet.”
My mother sat there unspeaking, still, her hands folding the letter over and over, but I was already rummaging in the desk for the journal. Finding the hard covered notebook, I noticed that the pages were held in place by sticky tape attached to the front and back covers. Even though now dead and past caring and with her permission, I still had a great sense of invading a private part of Aunt Harriet’s life. I didn’t open it and looked to my mother for direction. “Take it with you if you wish,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to read it right now and maybe I never will, but it is her personal story and I wouldn’t want it to fall into other hands.”
All of a sudden my mother seemed tired and decided enough had been done for one day. We had bagged all Aunt Harriet’s clothes for the Charity Shop. Already the hallway was lined with stacks of books and it was a formidable sight. “Let’s go home,” my mother said. “Perhaps we will return again another day to finish the job.” But we never did.
That initial burst of energy my mother had seemed to fizzle out. Once I heard her muttering to my father. “That house will go to rack and ruin with no one living there in this cold weather.”
Another time, “What are the chances, do you think of Mr.Hyde ever finding that person. By my calculations, he must be over 50 years of age. Is he going to trawl the world in his search while that house stands idle and rotting away before our eyes?”
Indeed Aunt Harriet’s house looked sad and neglected every time I passed it and I often thought about that beautiful garden and what would become of it.
Meanwhile, Aunt Harriet’s Journal sat on the top shelf in my bedroom tempting me like a box of luxury chocolates. I bristled with curiosity about its contents. Then one Saturday I got the perfect chance. I had a bad cold and knew the planned trip to the January sales would be exhausting, so I stayed behind tucked up in bed. A whole day ahead with no one to disturb me, I reached up and took down the journal. Peeling back the sticky tape from the leather cover I remembered Aunt Harriet’s wish that one of us would read it. “Here goes,” I said and began to read
Now that my 65th birthday has passed I have decided to write down an account of events that took place many years ago.
I will not dwell on my early childhood years only to say that I was aware from a young age that my parents were older than those of my school friends. I often heard adults use the phrase ‘a late baby’ and somehow knew they were referring to me.
When I was still a child my brother Tom was almost a young man and my two older brothers, Liam and Sean, had already emigrated to America. Our farm was small and could only provide a living for my parents. They were very keen that we should receive a good education and for that, they made many sacrifices. They always had plenty of jobs for me to do after school. I was certainly not unhappy. However, there was a loneliness in me that I filled with my love of reading. Books became my friends. My parents were old fashioned and did not encourage visiting or visitors. It seemed we were the kind of people who liked to keep ourselves to ourselves.
At the end of May 1950, I had completed a Secretarial Course but jobs were scarce. I had a promise of work in Mr.Hyde’s office in September when the lady then occupying the post was due to be married. Impatient, I scanned the papers and saw an advertisement for a temporary secretary to an American Writer living presently in the locality.
Saying nothing to my parents, I cycled out to the address given and presented myself as a candidate for the job. I was immediately drawn to Rob McHugh and would have cheerfully worked for him for nothing. His manner was relaxed and friendly and his deep blue eyes crinkled at the corners whenever he smiled. The fact that he had already written and published two books filled me with awe.
Rob, (he had insisted I call him by his first name) called to my parents' house to introduce himself. They were very taken with him. He told them about his grandmother and the bequest she had left him so that he could focus completely on writing. His father was Scottish but his mother’s people had originally come from Ballynoe. This was the reason he had chosen to come to Ireland to write his latest book.
“I want to walk the land, breathe the air and experience the place for myself,” he said. Whatever the reason, my parents were agreeable that I should take this job and so there began for me the most wonderful period in my life.
Rob had rented the old Hamilton House by the lake and I cycled out there every morning. I felt a wonderful sense of freedom as I set off every day on my bike. I loved to feel the fresh morning breeze fanning my face as I sped along the narrow roads. Suddenly the hedgerows seemed bursting with life and colour and I felt completely alive.
I loved the work and the company of course. Some days the house would be silent with no sign of Rob. Sheets of handwritten paper would lie beside my typewriter. This would mean that he had been writing during the night and would be sleeping late. On other occasions though, he stood by the bay window looking out over the countryside and dictate at a frightening speed. My knowledge of Pitman Shorthand was sorely tested at these times. Then of a sudden, he would say “Well, Miss, we have worked hard enough for the moment, let’s take a break.
Then walking along the peaceful country roads, we almost always ended up at the lake. Rob loved the lake. Sometimes it was calm and still, its surface like a mirror, other times a wind would whip up little wavelets that lapped around our feet. We were mostly quiet on these walks. Occasionally Rob talked about his family in America; at other times he would ask me questions about my own life and life in Ballynoe. I was so unused to company, particularly male company, but I never felt ill at ease with him. I suppose the fact that he had two sisters both younger than him allowed him to relate to me. We fell into companionable silences and yet we could chat for hours on some occasions. He was 27 years old and so had experienced much more of life than I had and yet I never found him patronizing or condescending. I will admit I was smitten with him. He was not the tall dark and handsome hero of the many novels I had read. Although tall, he had a head of glorious blond hair, which he grew rather longer than was usual at that time. Frequently it fell over his face and with a toss of his head, he flicked it back. It was an unconscious habit which I found quite endearing.
The month of June seemed to slip by in a glorious haze. I was experiencing a joy in life I never knew existed. I had fallen in love. That much I knew. What, if anything would come of it, I had no idea. Then in July, something terrible happened and it changed all of our lives forever. When I look back now I can almost believe I am back there in the farmhouse - a silent watcher of the events that unfolded that day.
Tom, Sarah and the boys were expected for their annual holiday at the farm at the end of the month. I had folded my long frame into the window seat in the parlour and was engrossed in a book when my mother interrupted.
“Harriet, put that book away and help me with the beds. You can make up the double as usual although Sarah isn’t coming now.”
“Oh, who knows? That one she’s like the weather. You don’t know where you are with her. I don’t think she much cares for the countryside anyway. Typical Dublin girl.”
My mother flounced off and I followed in her wake, collecting the bedclothes for Tom’s bed and the single bed for John. I made up the old cot for Daniel. I knew my mother would be secretly pleased to have them all to herself for the week. She roasted and baked all day and by evening time she had everything ready for them.
“You’d think they’d be here by now.” She said to my father as he came in from milking.
“Ah sure they’ll be here shortly, I’d say.”
“Well, I’ll hold the dinner another while, anyway.”
My father sat down in the armchair by the fire and began to read the paper while we just waited at the kitchen table.
Then a young lad cycled into the yard and came in the door. He was out of breath. It was Brigid Doran’s son from the Pub. He spoke directly to my father.
“Mam says someone rang but wouldn’t leave a message but will ring again in half an hour, so she sent me to get you.”
It was the longest hour of our lives. When we saw Dad’s long back bent over as he walked into the yard, we knew it was bad news.
“Tom’s had a heart attack. It seems there was nothing they could do. He’s gone. The Lord have mercy on his soul.”
My mother gasped and collapsed into the armchair. “No, No, she screamed over and over. Then she began to wail. I had never seen my mother display that level of emotion in my life. I feared for her sanity. Then as great sobs shook her small frame, she began to cry. I was crying by now myself. My father stood behind her chair and gripped her shoulder making hushing noises.
“We must be strong now Hannah. We have to make arrangements to go to Dublin for the funeral next week. I’ll have to get Joe to come in to do the cows and a few other jobs but the place will be alright for a day or two.”
His gaze was fixed on some faraway place as he spoke. He seemed dazed. Then he turned to me.
“Harriet there’ll be no need for you to travel. You can look after the hens for your mother and any other bits and pieces. Your mother will tell you all when she has gathered herself. Leave us alone now like a good girl. We need to be alone.”
I could hear him trying in his halting way to say words of comfort to my mother as I went to my bedroom. I lay on the bed then and continued to cry. I wasn’t sure who I was crying for. I had no great bond with Tom for all that he was my brother. I hardly knew him but the sadness was overwhelming all the same. I think I cried for my parents and those two small boys left without their Daddy.
When my mother and father returned from Dublin they seemed like beaten people. A gloom settled over the house. My mother’s grief was a frightening thing to behold and I felt helpless in the face of it. Now she knew that not only was her son lost to her but that the likelihood of her seeing her grandchildren in the future was small. Sarah and my mother had only ever tolerated each other for Tom's sake.
She retreated to a dark place and her only comfort seemed to lie in the Church. My mother wore black from that time on and I don’t know if she ever really got over Tom’s death. Of course, my father was also grieving, but they could not help each other and each coped in their own way. My own feelings were only of guilt. I expected that I too should be locked in grief but the fact was that though I was saddened by the knowledge of his loss, I did not feel it personally. He had after all been little more than a pleasant stranger in my life.
Worried as I was by my parents’ grief, I continued to work for Rob and worked longer and longer hours there, postponing my return to that house of sadness and despair.
Rob’s book was progressing and so were my feelings for him. I counted the hours until I would see him and I dreaded the day when the book would be finished and he would return to America. That this was inevitable filled me with desolation but try as I might I could not command my feelings and knew I was now hopelessly besotted with Rob McHugh.
I arrived at the house one morning in August to find Rob standing with his back to me looking out the window. There was nothing strange in that but when after some time he had not even greeted me I ventured a ‘Good morning’ to his immobile back. He did not answer or turn around immediately. When he did, I didn’t like what I saw on his face. He was disturbed, that much was plain to see. When at last he spoke his tone was serious and my heart was pounding. This was the moment I had been dreading.
“My dear Harry,” he said (he was the only person to ever call me by that name) “ you know it's almost time for me to return to America. I've had numerous letters from my Publishers and I can't put them off any longer. Also, my family, Mom, Dad and the girls are wondering when I will be coming home. Much as I need to, I really don't want to go. I think I have fallen in love with you and the thought of parting from you is breaking my heart.”
I was thunderstruck and my face suffused with colour. Never had I dreamed, never had he by so much as a word or action indicated that I might have been special to him. My heart was at once wild with joy and torn with distress. If indeed he felt as I did, how could we live with the Atlantic Ocean between us? As if reading my thoughts he spoke again.
“I understand that you can't leave your parents. You're all they have now. The only thing to do is that I will come to live here in Ireland. That is, of course, if you feel the same as I do.”
Without even thinking I moved across the room and took his two hands into mine. “I think I have loved you, Rob McHugh since I first laid eyes on you.” I couldn’t believe my own boldness but I continued. “I've been dreading this day too but your plan to move here would be a huge sacrifice.”
“Nonsense, he said, I love this place. I can write anywhere. There are aeroplanes flying across the Atlantic now and I can go over there when I need to.”
“But...” I began to speak again when suddenly he silenced my words with a kiss, a kiss as sweet and gentle as a whisper. I couldn't be sure whether or not I had imagined it. The kiss that followed was deep and full of passion and I surrendered every iota of my being as I melted into his arms. Months of suppressed emotions were given full rein as we explored and delighted in each other. We became lovers that day with no feeling of shame or regret. I was filled with joy, a joy I had never known or believed possible. We loved each other. We made plans, wedding plans, family plans way into the future and old age. We agreed not to tell anyone until Rob returned from America. He needed to break the news to his parents and particularly to his youngest sister Rhona. Rob’s other sister Janet had already married and lived near her parents in Boston. Moving to Ireland full time would be hard on them. He assured me that when they knew the reason for his decision, they would be delighted.
The book was finished and while Rob was engaged in the business of sorting and packaging his manuscript, I started work in Mr.Hyde’s office as agreed 2 weeks before Miss Casey was due to leave. She showed me the filing system and the daily routine. She told me about Mr.Hyde’s little foibles, his method of dictation, how he liked his tea and which biscuits were his favourite. I was instructed in the rules of client confidentiality and the manner in which I would greet and introduce clients. I found it all a bit dull compared to being involved, even if only in a small way, in the creation of what I was sure would be a best-selling book.
In the evenings after work, I would slip out unnoticed by my parents and go over to meet Rob. All too soon his flight was booked and he was ready to go. Those last few evenings spent together were bittersweet for both of us; hating the thought of being parted even for a few weeks and yet knowing that when he returned our life together would truly begin.
The night before he left we clung to each other in the great big double bed and talked and cried and comforted each other and we made love over and over again. As I left the old Hamilton House that night I did not even look back. I just ran and ran through the dark, tears blinding my eyes, my feet alone knowing their way home. I crept into the silent house and sleep did not come much before dawn.
When the alarm clock began to ring my first thoughts were of Rob. He would be setting out for Shannon Airport with a long flight ahead of him. Somehow I pulled myself out of bed and prepared to go to work. I could not falter in my daily routine as I awaited his return.
“You’re looking a bit peaky today, Miss Courtney,” remarked Miss Casey as I arrived at the office. “A bit of a cold coming on” was my response and this seemed to satisfy her. I concentrated very hard on every task she set and the day passed quietly enough. I longed for the solitude of my bedroom and the opiate of sleep.
Passing the barracks I saw Guard Sheehan standing outside.
“Good evening Guard.”
“I was hoping to catch you, Miss,” he said. “I know you’ve been doing some work for Mr.McHugh out at the Hamilton place and thought you ought to know that I’ve just had a ‘phone call from the Guards in Co. Clare. It’s bad news, I’m afraid.”
My heart was thumping. Guard Sheehan’s figure seemed to drift off into a mist. His sombre tones broke through the fog in my mind.
“His car went out of control rounding a bend and I’m afraid he died at the scene. It seems he kept mentioning Ballynoe before he died, hence the ‘phone call.” He put out his hand to steady me as I began to sway.
“I hope I haven’t upset you Miss but I wanted to tell you first. I’m sure it’s a shock for you.”
Guard Sheehan would have continued speaking but with a curt, “Thank you, Guard,” I began to walk away. My heart was still pounding, threatening to break out of my chest. Thoughts raced in my mind. It can’t be true. It mustn’t be true, but if Guard Sheehan said it was then it must be. My head was spinning. I ran all the way home, faster and faster I ran stumbling and almost falling until I burst in through the door and threw myself into my mother’s arms.
“Rob’s dead, Rob’s dead.” Over and over again I said those awful words.
“Whist, child,” my mother said, “Do you mean Mr.McHugh.”
I nodded dumbly. I repeated what Guard Sheehan had told me and my mother blessed herself.
“May the Lord have mercy on his soul and on his poor mother. Only someone like me who has buried a son would know her grief.”
I ran upstairs to my room. I expected I would cry but I just lay there on the bed alternating between disbelief and a sense of despair so awful I felt I might die from the pain of it. I was way beyond the place where tears could help.
The sun came up the next day and I was amazed that it should. My mother called out to me and mechanically I got ready for work. My world was shattered and yet daily routine continued it seemed. I remember I wondered at that, but in a very detached sort of way.
The local papers had a piece about the accident and the whole town seemed agog with the terrible news. People talked all that day about him, about how nice he had been, how awful it would be for his parents that he should come home in a coffin but none of it touched me. It was as if I had placed an invisible shield around myself and I daren't let it slip. If it did, I felt I might lose my mind.
At work, I moved around the office doing routine tasks like a robot. I focused on the detail in everything such as lining up the headed notepaper, positioning the carbon and copy paper until it was perfect, rolling it into the old Underwood. I typed and filed and greeted clients and one by one the days passed. Days became weeks and then months.
The typing of Deeds of Sale was a particularly tedious job and demanded great concentration. No errors were allowed on the expensive parchment paper. I was engrossed in typing one of these documents one evening and hadn’t noticed the time passing until Mr.Hyde called me to his office. Only then did I realise that the rest of the staff had already gone home.
“Sit down Harriet,” he said, “There’s something I think we should talk about.”
I looked blankly back at him. Silent for a moment more, he finally said,
“Harriet, my dear, please do not take offence at what I am about to say but could it be possible that you might be expecting a baby.”
“No, no, not at all,” I immediately replied but now my eyes would not meet his. Yes, yes a voice inside my head kept saying. The signs were there. I had known it myself but anytime the thought came to the edge of my awareness I merely dismissed it to that place in my consciousness I seldom visited. His gentle voice roused me again.
“Harriet, I am a married man with four children. I think I can recognise when a woman is pregnant. I don’t want to judge you but to help if I can.”
It was then that I broke down. It was the kindness in his voice that did it. I put my head down on the desk and sobbed my heart out; explaining between gulps the hopelessness of my situation, the fear of bringing shame on my parents. I could not do it to them. They had suffered enough. I thought of the pointing fingers and the backhanded whispers and knew my parents were too old and broken to survive that. What on earth was I going to do?
“Dry your eyes now Harriet,” said Mr.Hyde. “There is a priest I know who helps girls in your situation and I will contact him and see what can be arranged. Please don’t distress yourself anymore. Leave the matter with me for the moment and between us, we will think of a way out of this situation.”