‘There’s no sense in you moving away, Kit,’ she tells me. ‘Either of you. There’s room aplenty here.’
And it’s true for her; Malachy has worked our farm, alongside Patricia, since Daddy died and I’ve known nowhere but Aghnagrena in my eighteen years.
‘We’ll stay, surely,’ I say.
‘Carry her across the threshold altogether, will you?’ Patricia calls from within and, because it’s she who says it, he comes back, scoops me up and over we go to our new life. My face aches from the grin that’s been on it since I woke.
We eat our meal in silence save for the sounds of our cutlery, but we can hear the burble of the hens in the yard and the call of the brindled cow who bellows in the low field like a hawker at a fair.
‘Thank you, Patricia,’ Malachy says when his plate is clean as the moon, ‘that was good eating.’ He rises to change out of his Sunday suit into his working duds.
‘I’ve put ye into my room,’ she says. ‘Both your things are in there now. I’ll take the wee bedroom at the end of the corridor.’
‘No, we couldn’t up-end you,’ I say but, really, it’s what I’ve hoped for. What use is a wide mattress to a spinster? Mammy would have wanted Malachy and me to have the marriage bed, not my sister, it’s as plain as that.
‘You’re awful good, Patricia,’ Malachy says. ‘Thanks again.’ He sends that small, lit-up smile he reserves for her across the table and goes up the stairs.
Down the years there has always been an ease between Patricia and Malachy that’s hard for others to slip between. It’s as if they have an invisible rope that binds them and no one can get beyond it, not even me. Their attachment didn’t bother me overly much before, but I’m the woman of the house now and I won’t have Patricia sharing soft looks with my husband. Mrs Cahill from down the way – who has watched out for us since Mammy passed – told me I need to announce myself. So I rise now and step away from the table; I place Patricia’s old cushion onto the settle by the wall and I sit into Mammy’s chair by the fire. I see my sister get up from the table and pause, but then she begins to clear the dishes. I put my feet near the glow of turf and watch her.
There’s not much to Patricia: she’s broad of face and of hip, with a solid, simple nature. Patricia was Mammy’s firstborn and I’m the scraping of the same bag. She and Malachy are the one age. Still, it was always going to be me that he would marry, despite the ten years between us. I have black hair to my waist and a slender frame and, from a girl, Mammy meant me for wedlock. Not with a farmer but, with half the men gone to France to fight the Kaiser, Malachy does me grand. I know him, it seems, all my life and isn’t there comfort in that?The bedroom is aired and dusk-bright, the sun doesn’t slide beneath the low field until after eleven these nights. Patricia has left a jug with grasses and butter-eyed daisies on the chest of drawers and I pull at the petals, too hastily perhaps, for I end on he-loves-me-not. I’m beginning on another flower when Malachy comes in; I drop the daisy and sit on the edge of the big bed, my heart a-wallop behind my ribcage. He doesn’t look at me but takes off his shirt and trousers, folds them and sets them on the chair. Malachy turns to me in his undershirt and nothing else.
‘You look lovely, Kitty,’ he says, the words rasping up from his throat, and I run my hands over the white chemise that Patricia helped me to sew. I open my arms to him and he comes.All day I hold our first night to me, the strange, glittering secret of it, the pain and the push of it. I had expected kissing, but Malachy kept his head to the pillow, the better to muffle his pants and cries, I suppose. But his touch was gentle and reverent, a soft cajolery into the darkest, silken parts of me. There was a certain violence in the act itself, to be sure, but there was also love; I could feel that it was love, I know for sure it was that.
I sit in my fireside chair and watch Patricia lift the kettle – she has the bread made already – and I feel a bit triumphant that I have done something she will never do. I’ve known a man and she won’t ever be able to say that. My skin seems to burn and bloom today, but still I crave more heat.
‘I’ll have my breakfast here by the hearth,’ I say, and I remember that Mammy often took her meals in this chair, away from us at the table, and I’m glad I took the notion.
‘As you wish, Kit,’ Patricia says, but she doesn’t smile at me or acknowledge that I’m a woman now and a tiny part of me wants to pinch her for spite.
When I have eaten my porridge, finished my tea and licked jam from my fingers after a toasted farl, I get up.
‘I’m away down the boreen to see Mrs Cahill,’ I announce and, though Patricia looks as if she might want to say something, she doesn’t.
Mrs Cahill runs out from her cottage to welcome me and she pulls me to her apron with cries of, ‘Kitty, Kitty, you’re all grown up now.’
She has tears in her eyes and she drags me inside to sit with her. I’m surprised to see Mr Cahill within – he’s normally on the land – and his eyes, too, are wet and I think he’s crying with fatherly joy for me, until I see the letter in his hand.
‘John is away to France,’ he says, and he shudders and lets a peculiar gasp that I recognise as pain and I feel as if I should go home and leave them to their bewilderment.
Mrs Cahill bustles me to the fireplace and shoves me into a chair. ‘John never once told us he meant to go, a leana. This letter is all we’ve had.’
They are stricken, the pair of them, and no rational words will come to my tongue, so I just shake my head like a fool. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I manage at last.
Mrs Cahill lunges forward and grabs my hand. ‘John is his own person, we must leave him go. He’s strong, he’ll get through it all.’ She swipes at tears with her fingers. ‘But, Kitty, love, you mustn’t fret over our woes. You are a woman today and may the Virgin bless you and make you fruitful.’
I put my hand to my stomach shyly and lean my head into Mrs Cahill’s and we both laugh. Mr Cahill folds up their son’s letter, puts on his hat and leaves the cottage.I pluck bridewort and forget-me-nots on my way home, arranging them into a posy that I will put into the jug with the daisies, to pretty up our bedroom even more. Our bedroom; it pleases me to think those words. The dark part between my legs aches pleasantly and thoughts of Malachy’s long, hot body cause a wee jolt down there that makes me smile. I cut across the field before ours and follow the trickle of the Owenbrean, hoping to spy my husband before he spots me. I come up to the river’s easiest crossing place and I see him not far ahead of me, but Patricia is by him, they’re sitting together on the big rock, their heads close. I wave and am about to call out, when my sister looks up into his face and his hand comes down to caress her neck. A white heat runs from my scalp to my toes. Malachy tilts Patricia’s chin to his and his lips go to hers and he kisses her so slowly and so tenderly that I crash backwards and almost end up in the river. I want to scream, I want to bash their two heads together, I want to cry long and loud, but I can’t seem to make a sound come from my throat. I drop the bunch of flowers and run up to the farm.Patricia comes in, a butter-wouldn’t-melt set to her, and I’m tempted to take the skillet and slam it into her face, to ruin those lips that have stolen kisses that are meant for me. Instead I continue with my bowl and my flour and my salt and my buttermilk.
‘I’ll make the bread in this house from now on,’ I say.
‘It’s no bother to me to bake, Kit,’ she says, and I grunt and tut, making her pause.
‘I’m the wife,’ I say. ‘I’m the woman of this house.’
Patricia sets down the basket of eggs she’s brought in. ‘Well, I know that, Kit.’
‘See that you remember it,’ I bark, not taking my eyes from her face that bears not a smidgen of guilt or upset or anything at all, and that infuriates me more.
Malachy comes to the door. ‘What ails you, Kitty?’ he says.
I sweeten my voice. ‘Nothing at all, love,’ I say. ‘I was below in Cahills’ before; I came back up by the Owenbrean. By the big rock. Now I’m making soda bread for you.’
They glance at each other and well they might. ‘Any news at the Cahills’?’ Malachy asks.
‘Young John is gone to war.’ I toss the dough onto the floured table. ‘Oh, he was ever a brave fellow. A true man, that John. Loyal, you’d say.’ I begin to knead. ‘Isn’t it a wonder every able, healthy man doesn’t go to France or Turkey to fight to keep his family safe?’
‘Go back to your corner, Kit,’ Patricia snarls. I stop my bread-work and all three of us stand, grave still, staring at one another.Malachy takes off before sun-up in the trap. I go down and Patricia is already dundering about the kitchen, bashing crocks and bowls and wooden spoons.
‘Where is he gone?’ No answer, just the cold of her back to me; I speak louder. ‘Patricia, I said where is he gone?’
She turns and her look is not one I’ve seen before, a mix of vast impatience and venom.
‘Aren’t you the wife, Kit? Surely you know better than I where your husband is.’I nudge the hours by. Though it’s not like me, I scatter grain for the hens. I lead the cow to fresh grass. I sweep the floorboards in our bedroom and finesse the bedclothes. I sit into the windowsill and wait for the rise of dust in the lane that will mean he’s returned. Eventually I get up and curl onto the eiderdown to rest my head on the pillow. My mind and my heart are churned up; I’m angry but I’m sorrowing and both are a bitter stew that seeps through my blood.
I must fall away to slumber, for I’m roused by murmurs below. I come down to find them either side of the fireplace, her head bent over stitching and his big hands around a bowl of mutton soup. My bile rises – I won’t be treated like a trespasser in my own marriage, in my own home. I close the door to the stairs with force but neither of them looks my way. Malachy spoons soup into his mouth and Patricia shifts the sewing in her lap. I hang back like a ghost, then peer closer at the work my sister is doing and go to stand over her.
‘What’s this?’ I say, lifting the grey-green sleeve of a rough jacket. She stares up at me, raw anger on her face now. I dip lower; she is sewing a khaki epaulette onto the shoulder, ‘Inniskillings’ it says.
‘Your husband has joined the fusiliers.’ Patricia lifts the jacket and bites the thread to break it, keeping her eyes fixed to mine. ‘Are you happy now, Katherine?’
Mrs Cahill looks at me strangely. ‘And he just decided to volunteer? Overnight?’ She shifts in her chair. ‘What does Patricia say to this?’
‘What does it matter what she says?’ I snap.
‘You girls will have no man about the place, Kitty. The farm-work will become a burden. How will you manage?’
I begin to shake and a cascade of tears falls from my eyes. ‘Maybe he won’t go at all,’ I say. ‘Maybe it was a wee lie Malachy told, to shake me. A wee prank, just.’
Mrs Cahill kneels before me and puts her arms around my waist. ‘There, there, a leana.’
Mr Cahill pulls his pipe from his mouth. ‘Once a man has signed the papers, he has no choice but to go,’ he says. ‘He’s free no more.’
Malachy is standing at the top of the low field looking down, rigid in his uniform. The grass keeps up a light dance, though it’s bent with dew, and he stays, staring out over Aghnagrena as if it’s the last place he will ever see.
I come up beside him. ‘Won’t you let me take you in the trap to Enniskillen?’ I say.
He shakes his head. ‘Is Patricia still sleeping?’
‘She is.’ I look up at his face, cankered with worry. ‘You haven’t even told me what you’ll be doing over there.’
‘I’m to be a stretcher-bearer. That’s all I know.’
I start to ask him what that means but, of course, I know exactly what it means. We hear the trundle of a cart and Mr Cahill pulls up in the yard; he whistles, a sharp summons that cuts through the dawn like a bullet.
Malachy stoops and kisses my cheek. ‘Goodbye, Kitty. Look after one another, won’t you?’
I watch him trot up the field to Cahill’s cart and hop in.
‘Don’t go, Malachy,’ I whisper, my body reaching out to his like sun rays to the earth. ‘Don’t go,’ I wail, my tears falling heavy.
But, in a moment, he’s disappeared from sight.
Mrs Cahill is sitting at her table, idle as a crone.
‘We both have men gone to war now,’ I say.
‘Men, is it?’ She thumps the table. ‘Sure they’re only boys.’ Her fire is dying and the bread’s not on, so I go and stoke the embers and take the big bowl from the dresser. ‘Away now, Kitty,’ she says. ‘See to your own house.’
She comes and grabs the bowl from my arms and I whimper, turn about, and leave.
Our place is sore neglected. Patricia lies in bed half the day, moaning into the pillow, and she only nibbles at the meals I bring. The hens peck my ankles and the brindled cow is sullen and she bucks when I milk her. When I go and complain to Mrs Cahill she just nods and shakes her head. Mr Cahill follows me out to the lane when I leave.
‘Put away your grousing, young miss, her mind is full with her own concerns.’
‘We can be a comfort to one another. We can talk about Malachy and John.’
He snorts. ‘To think Patricia gave him up to you.’
I snap my head up to look at him. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Kitty, you know fine well what it means.’
A letter comes from Malachy, addressed to both of us. I bring it upstairs to Patricia and sit on the bed to read it out. He tells us that he’s lucky to be alive. He tells us cannon balls rain around them, their impact knocking some soldiers over, killing others.
‘I watch bullets skitter like hailstones and already I am used to it. I see them dug into men’s skin like ticks; when the Medical Officer tends to them, the fellows mewl the way an infant does. I bandage and carry the injured and move through dirt all day and all the time it’s as if I’m waiting for the hand of God to lift me out of this awful, wretched place.’
‘He’s not sparing us, Patricia.’
She shakes her head, closes her eyes and shivers; I put my hand over hers and squeeze it tight.
The Cahills get two telegrams, the first on Christmas Eve to say that John is missing in action. The second, three days later, expresses the deep regret and sympathies of their majesties the King and Queen.
Patricia and I go arm and arm to the church for his memorial service. John will be buried where he fell in France. The Cahills look like they have been hollowed out; they are a pair of ghouls compared to the man and woman they once were.
Malachy writes to tell us he played football with the Kaiser’s army on Christmas Day. He says Princess Mary sent each soldier a gift of a small tin, with a greeting card, tobacco and cigarettes, and her portrait engraved into the metal lid. He says he rubs her face and thinks of us both. ‘I send love to you, Patricia and Kitty,’ he writes. ‘Kitty and Patricia, I send all my love.’
Patricia begins to wait by the gate. She is afraid, I think, that news will come and she will be asleep. Or that I will be handed the telegram first and have to bear its weight alone. She talks to herself out there and, today, while I tend to the hens, I move closer to listen to her whisper the same wee sentence over and over. I go nearer to hear better.
‘If you perish, I perish,’ she says. ‘If you perish, I perish,’ she repeats, soft and sweet, as if into her lover’s ear. I go and stand beside my sister at our gate, putting my own shawl over her cold back. ‘If you perish, I perish,’ she says again.
‘If you perish, I perish,’ I echo.
And we stand huddled together, waiting for our man, while we send our words out over Aghnagrena like a prayer.
Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. Her forthcoming fifth novel, NORA, is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Her new chapbook of historical flash fiction, Birdie, is just published by Arlen House. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk. www.nualaoconnor.com
Read how Nuala O’Connor wrote ‘Tin’ here.
Photograph by Jo Mazelis, 2020.