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Authors: Claire Keegan

Walk the Blue Fields

BOOK: Walk the Blue Fields
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Walk the Blue Fields

CLAIRE KEEGAN

For Jim and Claire

 

When sunlight reaches the foot of the dressing table, you get up and look through the suitcase again. It’s hot in New York but it may turn cold in winter. All morning the
bantam
cocks have crowed. It’s not something you will miss. You must dress and wash, polish your shoes. Outside, dew lies on the fields, white and blank as pages. Soon the sun will burn it off. It’s a fine day for the hay.

In her bedroom your mother is moving things around, opening and closing doors. You wonder what it will be like for her when you leave. Part of you doesn’t care. She talks through the door.

‘You’ll have a boiled egg?’

‘No thanks, Ma.’

‘You’ll have something?’

‘Later on, maybe.’

‘I’ll put one on for you.’

Downstairs, water spills into the kettle, the bolt slides back. You hear the dogs rush in, the shutters folding. You’ve always preferred this house in summer: cool
feeling
in the kitchen, the back door open, scent of the dark wallflowers after rain.

In the bathroom you brush your teeth. The screws in the mirror have rusted, and the glass is cloudy. You look at yourself and know you have failed the Leaving Cert. The last exam was history and you blanked out on the dates. You confused the methods of warfare, the kings. English was worse. You tried to explain that line about the dancer
and the dance.

You go back to the bedroom and take out the passport. You look strange in the photograph, lost. The ticket says you will arrive in Kennedy Airport at 12.25, much the same time as you leave. You take one last look around the room: walls papered yellow with roses, high ceiling stained where the slate came off, cord of the electric heater swinging out like a tail from under the bed. It used to be an open room at the top of the stairs but Eugene put an end to all of that, got the carpenters in and the partition built, installed the door. You remember him giving you the key, how much that meant to you at the time.

Downstairs, your mother stands over the gas cooker waiting for the pot to boil. You stand at the door and look out. It hasn’t rained for days; the spout that runs down from the yard is little more than a trickle. The scent of hay drifts up from neighbouring fields. As soon as the dew burns it off, the Rudd brothers will be out in the meadows turning the rows, saving it while the weather lasts. With pitchforks they’ll gather what the baler leaves behind. Mrs Rudd will bring out the flask, the salad. They will lean against the bales and eat their fill. Laughter will carry up the avenue, clear, like birdcall over water.

‘It’s another fine day.’ You feel the need for speech.

Your mother makes some animal sound in her throat. You turn to look at her. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. She’s never made any allowance for tears.

‘Is Eugene up?’ she says.

‘I don’t know. I didn’t hear him.’

‘I’ll go and wake him.’

It’s going on for six. Still an hour before you leave. The saucepan boils and you go over to lower the flame. Inside, three eggs knock against each other. One is cracked, a
ribbon
streaming white. You turn down the gas. You don’t like yours soft.

Eugene comes down wearing his Sunday clothes. He looks tired. He looks much the same as he always does.

‘Well, Sis,’ he says. ‘Are you all set?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You have your ticket and everything?’

‘I do.’

Your mother puts out the cups and plates, slices a
quarter
out of the loaf. This knife is old, its teeth worn in places. You eat the bread, drink the tea and wonder what Americans eat for breakfast. Eugene tops his egg, butters bread, shares it with the dogs. Nobody says anything. When the clock strikes six, Eugene reaches for his cap.

‘There’s a couple of things I’ve to do up the yard,’ he says. ‘I won’t be long.’

‘That’s all right.’

‘You’d want to leave on time,’ your mother says. ‘You wouldn’t want to get a puncture.’

You place your dirty dishes on the draining board. You have nothing to say to your mother. If you started, you would say the wrong things and you wouldn’t want it to end that way. You go upstairs but you’d rather not go back into the room. You stand on the landing. They start talking in the kitchen but you don’t hear what they say. Asparrow swoops down onto the window ledge and pecks at his reflection, his beak striking the glass. You watch him until you can’t watch him any longer and he flies away.

*

Your mother didn’t want a big family. Sometimes, when she lost her temper, she told you she would put you in a
bucket, and drown you. As a child you imagined being taken by force to the edge of the Slaney River, being placed in a bucket, and the bucket being flung out from the bank, floating for a while before it sank. As you grew older you knew it was only a figure of speech, and then you believed it was just an awful thing to say. People sometimes said awful things.

Your eldest sister was sent off to the finest boarding school in Ireland, and became a school teacher. Eugene was gifted in school but when he turned fourteen your father pulled him out to work the land. In the photographs the eldest are dressed up: satin ribbons and short trousers, a blinding sun in their eyes. The others just came along, as nature took its course, were fed and clothed, sent off to the boarding schools. Sometimes they came back for a
bank-holiday
weekend. They brought gifts and an optimism that quickly waned. You could see them remembering everything, the existence, turning rigid when your father’s shadow crossed the floor. Leaving, they’d feel cured, impatient to get away.

Your turn at boarding school never came. By then your father saw no point in educating girls; you’d go off and another man would have the benefit of your education. If you were sent to the day school you could help in the house, the yard. Your father moved into the other room but your mother gave him sex on his birthday. She’d go into his room and they’d have it there. It never took long and they never made noise but you knew. And then that too stopped and you were sent instead, to sleep with your father. It happened once a month or so, and always when Eugene was out.

You went willingly at first, crossed the landing in your nightdress, put your head on his arm. He played with you,
praised you, told you you had the brains, that you were the brightest child. Always he put his arm under your neck, then the terrible hand reaching down under the clothes to pull up the nightdress, the fingers, strong from milking, finding you. The mad hand going at himself until he groaned and then him asking you to reach over for the cloth, saying you could go then, if you wanted. The mandatory kiss at the end, stubble, and cigarettes on the breath. Sometimes he gave you a cigarette of your own and you could lie beside him smoking, pretending you were someone else. You’d go into the bathroom when it was over and wash, telling yourself it meant nothing,
hoping
the water would be hot.

Now you stand on the landing trying to remember
happiness
, a good day, an evening, a kind word. It seems apt to search for something happy to make the parting harder but nothing comes to mind. Instead you remember that time the setter had all those pups. It was around the same time your mother started sending you into his room. In the spout-house, your mother leant over the half barrel, and held the sack under the water until the whimpering stopped and the sack went still. That day she drowned the pups, she turned her head and looked at you, and smiled.

*

Eugene comes up and finds you standing there.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says. ‘Pay no heed.’

‘What doesn’t matter?’

He shrugs and goes into the room he shares with your father. You drag the suitcase downstairs. Your mother hasn’t washed the dishes. She is standing there at the door with a bottle of holy water. She shakes some of this water on you.
Some of it gets in your eyes. Eugene comes down with the car keys.

‘Da wants to talk to you.’

‘He’s not getting up?’

‘No. You’re to go up to him.’

‘Go on,’ Ma says. ‘Don’t leave empty-handed.’

You go back up the stairs, stop outside his room. You haven’t gone through this door since the blood started, since you were twelve. You open it. It’s dim inside, stripes of summer light around the curtains. There’s that same old smell of cigarette smoke and feet. You look at his shoes and socks beside the bed. You feel sick. He sits up in his vest, the cattle dealer’s eyes taking it all in, measuring.

‘So you’re going to America,’ he says.

You say you are.

‘Aren’t you the sly one?’ He folds the sheet over his belly. ‘Will it be warm out there?’

You say it will.

‘Will there be anyone to meet you?’

‘Yes.’ Agree with him. Always, that was your strategy.

‘That’s all right, so.’

You wait for him to get the wallet out or to tell you where it is, to fetch it. Instead, he puts his hand out. You don’t want to touch him but maybe the money is in his hand. In desperation you extend yours, and he shakes it. He draws you towards him. He wants to kiss you. You don’t have to look at him to know he’s smiling. You pull away, turn out of the room but he calls you back. This is his way. He’ll give it to you now that he knows you thought you’d get nothing.

‘And another thing,’ he says. ‘Tell Eugene I want them meadows knocked by dark.’

You go out and close the door. In the bathroom you
wash your hands, your face, compose yourself once more.

‘I hope he gave you money?’ your mother says.

‘He did,’ you say.

‘How much did he give you?’

‘A hundred pound.’

‘He broke his heart,’ she says. ‘His own daughter, the last of ye, and he wouldn’t even get out of the bed and you going to America. Wasn’t it a black bastard I married!’

‘Are you ready?’ Eugene says. ‘We better hit the road.’

You put your arms around your mother. You don’t know why. She changes when you do this. You can feel her
getting
soft in your arms.

‘I’ll send word, Ma, when I get there.’

‘Do,’ she says.

‘It’ll be night before I do.’

‘I know,’ she says. ‘The journey’s long.’

Eugene takes the suitcase and you follow him outside. The cherry trees are bending.
The stronger the wind, the stronger the tree
. The sheep dogs follow you. You walk on, past the flower beds, the pear trees, on out towards the car. The Cortina is parked under the chestnut’s shade. You can smell the wild mint beside the diesel tank. Eugene turns the engine and tries to make some joke, starts down the avenue. You look again at your handbag, your ticket, the passport. You will get there, you tell yourself. They will meet you.

Eugene stops in the avenue before the gates.

‘Da gave you nothing, sure he didn’t?’

‘What?’

‘I know he didn’t. You needn’t let on.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘All I have is a twenty-pound note. I can send you money later on.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Do you think it would be safe to send money in the post?’

It is a startling question, stupid. You look at the gates, at the woods beyond.

‘Safe?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Yes,’ you say you think it will.

You get out and open the gates. He drives through, stops to wait for you. As you put the wire on, the filly trots down to the edge of the field, leans up against the fence, and whinnies. She’s a red chestnut with one white stocking. You sold her to buy your ticket but she will not be
collected
until tomorrow. That was the arrangement. You watch her and turn away but it’s impossible not to look back. Your eyes follow the gravel road, the strip of green between the tracks, on up to the granite post left there from Protestant days and, past it, your mother who has come out to see the last of you. She waves a cowardly little wave, and you wonder if she will ever forgive you for leaving her there with her husband.

On down the avenue, the Rudds are already in the meadows. There’s a shot from an engine as something starts, a bright clap of laughter. You pass Barna Cross where you used to catch the bus to the Community School. Towards the end, you hardly bothered going. You simply sat in the wood under the trees all day or, if it was raining, you found a hayshed. Sometimes you read the books your sisters left behind. Sometimes you fell asleep. Once a man came into his hayshed and found you there. You kept your eyes closed. He stood there for a long time and then he went away.

‘There’s something you should know,’ Eugene says.

‘Oh?’

‘I’m not staying.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m giving up the land. They can keep it.’

‘What?’

‘Can you see me living there with them until the end of their days? Could you see me bringing a woman in? What woman could stand it? I’d have no life.’

‘But what about all the work you’ve done, all that time?’

‘I don’t care about any of that,’ he says. ‘All that is over.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘I don’t know. I’ll rent some place.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know yet. I was waiting until you left. I didn’t think any further.’

‘You didn’t stay on my account?’

He slows the car and looks over. ‘I did,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t much use, was I, Sis?’

It is the first time anyone has ever mentioned it. It feels like a terrible thing, being said.

‘You couldn’t be there all the time.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘I suppose I couldn’t.’

Between Baltinglass and Blessington the road winds. You remember this part of the road. You came this way for the All Ireland finals. Your father had a sister in Tallaght he could stay with, a hard woman who made great tarts and left a chain of smoke. Boggy fields, bad land surround this road, and a few ponies grazing. As a child, you thought this was the West of Ireland. It used to make the adults laugh, to hear you say it. And now you suddenly remember one good thing about your father. It was before you had begun to go into his room. He had gone into the village and stopped at the garage for petrol. The girl at the
pumps came up to him and told him she was the brightest girl in the class, the best at every subject, until you came along. He’d come back from the village and repeated this, and he was proud because you were brighter than the Protestant’s daughter.

BOOK: Walk the Blue Fields
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