1947 – 49
I loved Sibrille. We had not four seasons, but one for every day. Save for those days on which we would have been blown away like matchwood, I brought Hector out along the cliffs. It never grew cold in Sibrille. Damp, yes — water ran down the walls inside, and seven months of the year, fires were lighting day and night to try and keep bedding dry — but the piercing cold I had been used to, the breath-catching frosts of the midlands, were absent here. Neither did the grasses die back as they had in Meath, but accumulated on the cliffs in fat, spongy wads that Hector and I bounced on. When the tide was rising and the moon was full, whatever the time of year, we wrapped up and went out on the cliffs to watch the molten silver pour in along the causeway.
Our lives, at least Hector’s and mine, seldom touched those of other people. At Christmas, we went to the Bloods in Eillne for drinks, where I met the local curate, Father O’Dea, a small, dark man who wore a long soutane and a cape with an embroidered hem. It was he who encouraged me to seek out other parts of the county, places like Leire, a coastal spot south of Monument with cliffs even more imposing than those of Sibrille, where one found a beach beneath a convent and dunes that on a warm day were a blessed place for a picnic.
The seasons seemed scarcely over till they came round again. November sea drove mightily over the causeway. After breakfast one Saturday, I heard activity in the yard as Hector and I went by. Peppy was on the mounting block, trying to sit a young horse.
‘Let Roarty up first,’ I heard Langley say.
‘Roarty’s not going hunting’, Peppy said.
She was fifty-five, but from the back, in her close fitting hacking jacket, she might well have been my age.
‘Watch out!’ called Langley as the horse, despite Roarty at his head, skittered away from the block; but Peppy had sat him, side-saddle, the double reins in her quiet hands.
‘Don’t like his eye,’ Langley muttered.
Hector was put to bed every day after his lunch, and for a few hours, if I didn’t go and lie down myself, or sit reading, I would explore the inlets and marshes around Sibrille that were too far for the child to walk to. One afternoon in late September, I put on boots and an old jacket of Ronnie’s and headed for the small bogs that lay on the other side of the village, where, between September and Halloween, Peppy wildfowled with a 20-bore. From these marshy places, she brought home food for two families: mallard and teal, widgeon and goose, pintail and pochard.
Ronnie was away for most of every day and often the evenings too; Langley was not someone with whom anyone could have more than a superficial relationship, I decided; and Stonely and Delaney spent much of every day playing whist in the kitchen. I had come to realise that Peppy was the core of the Shaw family and it was to her unwavering steadiness that I moored myself. She was a clever woman, far cleverer than any of the people she lived with. In Monument, she was regarded with respect, for she saw that the bills were paid mostly on time and treated everyone, no matter what their station, exactly the same. In this, I think, she had the great advantage of being English, for the English have little left to prove when it comes to Ireland, whereas the Anglo-Irish must ever strive to make the case in which they will always fail.
I had not seen Peppy shoot before, but since we had eaten our fill of her mallard on three of the five previous evenings, I thought that I would go in search of her that afternoon and get my fresh air along the string of bogs that hugged the valley. A fine, salty mist blew in off a churning sea. It was a Monday, a day on which the village was deserted since all the farmers in the area attended the Monday cattle fair in Monument. At the foot of the hill beyond the village, I crossed a stile and walked along a crooked path into the heart of the valley.
The acres to my left were hilly, to my right rushy and wet. Beyond the rushes — in reality, a river that had silted up — was poor, knobby snipe grass on which a cow and her calf stood in apparent contentment. The land gathered in a point about ten yards ahead of me. As I prepared to round it, two shots rang out, so loud they might have been inside my head. I began to shake. Two farther shots exploded, deafeningly.
Of course, only moments were involved in which the first brace of wild duck had crossed Peppy’s head on the far side of the point, and she had dropped one. Then a farther pair had risen from the reeds with the gunfire and she had killed one of those too and had then reloaded and taken the missed duck of the first pair, which had forlornly come back in search of its mate. I knew nothing of this until I felt her strong arms around me.
‘I understand, my poor child,’ she said. ‘I understand.’
We stayed there for a while, two women on a green, misty hillside within hearing distance of the sea. Later, we walked home, carrying the duck, and we talked. Down at the drowned sailors’ point, we sat and smoked cigarettes and talked more. Delaney took Hector for his tea and I poured gins for Peppy and me. She understood everything, and I daresay always had. I loved that woman so much. It was Peppy who saved me.
Twice each season, the foxhounds met in Sibrille, the first time being in November for the opening meet. Hector and I plodded in along the causeway and up the village. Mounds of steaming dung marked the passage of horses. A trailer pulled by a tractor had come all the way from Main on the far side of Monument with the mounts of the Santrys, friends of Ronnie’s whom we met occasionally. Father O’Dea had ridden over from Eillne; he sat on his cob chatting to a man called Coad, a long-established Monument solicitor whose grey mare was kept in livery by a family fallen on hard times, the Toms. The huntsman drank whiskey from little glasses brought out to him from the public house and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his scarlet jacket.
I saw Ronnie riding up the hill, smoke streaming from his jutting cigarette. He looked so distinguished. Hector and I waved, but he didn’t see us. His eyes appeared to be on something in the distance and his face was set in a strange blankness.
Hounds whined and panted in a cluster at the huntsman’s heels.
‘Mind the child there, Ma’am,’ said the huntsman.
Hector, his arms about the neck of a hound, squealed as I took him out. I saw Peppy on the fringe, her veil pinned atop her silk hat, her black hunting jacket tight on her figure and her grey skirt billowing down one side of her horse’s withers. The animal kept moving, never happy to stand in one place.
‘Has he a kiss for Peppy?’ she asked as we came over.
I caught the child and hoisted him up to her, but as Peppy bent the huntsman pipped once to move off and Peppy’s horse rolled its eye and reared. I snatched Hector back. As the horse dived, I saw the arc of Peppy’s back, her hands up along the animal’s neck. Then the steaming mass of horses, hounds and riders moved out, Peppy at the head of them, her mount back in her firm charge, dancing sideways on its four white socks. Langley came by, driven in a jeep by Roarty. I turned to point him out to Hector and realised that the child was crying.
The day turned wet. I sat reading in the lantern bay and saw Stonely, ponderous, bare headed and without a coat, walk slowly out the causeway. I thought about the blank look on Ronnie’s face as he had ridden up the village hill. We had little money and this worried him, I knew. He received a tiny pension from the army for his war wound and part of the pittance that came from the letting of the land around the lighthouse; anything else was from the commissions he received for the very occasional sale of land or from the sale of a young horse that he had purchased and made into a hunter. As I sat, I heard hooves, that of a horse flat out.
My first thought was that a cliff fox, interrupted during an inland foray, was now being hunted to its earth near the sea; then I saw Peppy’s horse, riderless, its single leather and iron bouncing, its double reins loose, come crashing down the steep road from the village and bolt straight out along the causeway. It was back in the yard when I reached it, creamy with sweat, feeding from a hay net. I caught its bridle and walked it to a stable, then ran out on to the causeway and listened, but could hear nothing except the tide. Hurrying back in again, I shouted to Delaney to keep an eye on Hector, then I found the keys to Ronnie’s car and, praying it had petrol, started it up and headed for the village. If you hunted, you fell, and Peppy had hunted all her life. Sibrille was deserted. I took the Monument road, the rain slanting from the north. The horse would not have bolted for more than fifteen minutes, I imagined, trying to work out how that translated into the distance from Sibrille at which it had unseated Peppy. After another few hundred yards I saw, cantering up the grass verge towards me, Ronnie and the huntsman, their horses’ ears flat. Ronnie, ashen, slid from his horse, grabbed open the car door and sat in, speechless. He steamed. He could only point for me to drive the way he had come.
‘Is she… all right?’ I asked.
Ronnie’s mouth hung open and his breaths came rasping. With a frantic waving of his hands, he motioned me on. I felt dread, an old feeling.
‘What has happened?’ I cried, driving.
Ronnie shook his head, closed his eyes. A man standing by the roadside, wet hair plastered down his face, waved his arms for me to drive up a boreen. I turned, but the car’s wheels skidded in muck and we slewed sideways. Ronnie was out, at the bonnet, with the man from the roadside who had run up the lane. The reverse gear roared and they pushed. The car leapt back.
‘Please let me drive.’
I scrambled around to get in the other door as Ronnie took my place. He reversed back out to the centre of the metal road, threw the lever into second gear and came back up the lane at speed. We careened from one limit to the other, briars scraping on both sides, the underbody grating rocks. I could see nothing for mud. Ronnie was weeping.
‘Is she all right?’
‘The priest is with her.’
‘Fucking horse dived under a tree.’
Ronnie’s shoulders were heaving in distress. We began to meet horses at the head of the lane. Ronnie jumped out. I saw the riders stare at him. I pushed through and the lane opened out into a bleak, boulder-strewn field. Men stood holding clutches of horses. Fifty yards in and to one side, next to a ditch on which grew hawthorn scraws and a twisted ash, I saw a huddle, people holding an overcoat to make a canopy. Her grey skirt was spread out around her like a blanket. Langley stood to one side, his mouth spiked in the grin of his usual insouciance. It was to him I rushed, almost crying with relief, for surely Langley’s unconcern meant that nothing beyond easy repair could have happened in this damp place.
He turned to me, his eyes empty, his smile fixed. ‘What a frightful day,’ he said.
‘Is Peppy… is she all right?’
‘Gone for the high-jump, I’m afraid,’ he said.
I stared at him. I became aware of Father O’Dea beside me.
‘Mrs Shaw,’ he said, ‘poor Mrs Shaw is dead.’
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Genre – Historical Fiction/Historical Romance
Rating – G