His elbow hurts my ribs and something clashes against my forehead. The scarf gets knocked off me and I squint into the sunlight of a Dromore market day.
There’s a trace of what must be blood on my gloves but not enough to scare me. I hear the passing guffaws at our tumble. He stinks of whiskey and I can’t bare to look at him.
I smooth down my jacket and glance around feeling a drip onto my face and a breeze on my knee. My hand reaches past the hem of my tweed skirt and he says, ‘Them stocking yolks rip wild easy.’
Holding my ribs, I find my usual lack of speak, a torture.
‘Will ya live?’ he asks me and I force myself to take a quick look at him.
It’s Ernest Tilby. The man who takes prizes in every tug-of-war with his identical twin Edward. He’s one of the Tilby twins. The men who have the best land about Dromore. There’s talk Edward went to school and Ernest only really had freedom to leave the farm when Ma Tilby died.
‘I’m awful rough. Minnie isn’t it?’ the deep voice on him asks. His grip is harsh and he holds my elbow tightly. ‘Jesus. You’re cut?’ He tries to shield us both from prying eyes passing. Towering above me I hear an urgent whisper, ‘I’m sorry young one. Let’s get you inside someplace.’
He steers me towards McGovern’s pub, possibly from whence he came and I stall like a horse at a fence. My boots dig into the hardened earth, but it doesn’t stop us from moving. He has the strength of ten men as I try to wriggle free. But there’s nothing to be done as I’m dragged into McGovern’s porch.
‘Let me see?’ he urges pushing back on my brown hair and stinging the skin on my hurt temple. I wince and make my usual sound of annoyance. Mammy says it’s like a hissing cat. ‘Maybe you caught on my buttons or something but Jesus it’s a deep enough gash for such a light bump. ‘I’m not convinced it was all that small of a clash. Maybe it was to him. I hear his tuts and can sense his mind whirring at what to do with me. ‘Your mother’ll kill me if ya die on me?’ he says trying to be funny, tilting my head up to look at him.
Someone is coming in off the street and aims to move us on into McGovern’s -where I’m not allowed to be. Without ceremony he lifts me with one hand and pulls the door towards him with the other and we are through into the forbidden smokiness. I cannot bare to look around. If I don’t see the sins in there, I won’t be at fault. My eyes clench closed and I hear someone ask him ‘What’s up now, Ernie?’
‘I need the Doc,’ he says as if it’s a bottle of that awful porter. I shake my head violently and feel it hurt all the more. ‘I clashed into Minnie Hatton on the street.’
‘The mute?’ someone asks and I peek one eye open a little to glance at the worn tiles and the legs of the stools.
‘She’s hurt,’ he says. There’s worry in his chest and his breath on my hair. ‘I may have hurt that mark on her face too?’
I want to scream at him that the hurt is all inside and the splash of purply-red is my special friend. She’s my Matilda. She and I usually live in comfortable silence every-day.
‘Her wild mother, will be after ya,’ someone to my right offers. I spy a grey-haired man I know as McGovern. He called on Mammy a few times after Daddy was killed in the fields by the bull.
‘Minnie, won’t your Mammy kill him?’ McGovern shouts at me slowly as if I were simple. I nod reluctantly. I’ve always been told to tell the truth and Mammy will be livid.
‘She knows herself it was an accident,’ Ernest states pulling me even closer. ‘Is the Doc in at all this afternoon? It being a Saturday and a fair day?’
I hate to think of the Doc’s state if he’s in this den of sins. He’s a good man, but we all know he has a weakness for whiskey. I clap my eyes tightly shut as the men’s are all on me. I can feel their interest in Matilda from here. She stands out proud and defiant.
‘Have ya cut her bad?’ McGovern shouts and there’s an intake of breath around us and Ernest heaves me closer still so my nose is touching his pocket. There’s a penknife or something hard in behind the material. There’s a trickle of blood that runs past my eye. It reminds me that I’m really cut. I don’t like the sight of blood and I feel the haze descend and the sweats rise in me.
Then there’s a nothingness.
Matilda’s cross me with. If the Barren Widow, who’s living here too, wasn’t in the vegetable patch she’d probably be angry with me as well. But Mammy’s not cross at all. She’s worried. I can tell that she is by way she pounding the bread dough.
I can’t help the fainting fits. Matilda shuts me down when it all gets too much. There’s nothing I can do. I want to tell Mammy that and hope she will listen to me although all is silent.
‘How’s your head?’ she asks putting the dough into the warming tins.
I shrug and give her my best smile.
‘Thugs that’s what them Tilbys are. Thugs. Always were. Although that Ed isn’t the worst.’
I start on the dinner as that’s my job. Mammy’s hand holds my shoulder and she leans her chin on it to look with me into the yard.
‘The hens aren’t one bit scared of my shouting. They’re here too long,’ she says. Her chin leaves me and I watch those little beaks peck at the earth. ‘You know Ernest offered you a job cleaning their house? As if that’d make up for walking on you?’
I turn to face her now as she’s rubbing her hands in the tail of her apron.
‘You don’t look too disgusted? I would be. You haven’t seen their hovel in years. Fine two storey like this it was. But they say it’s a shack now with the dirt growing dirt on the floor. They’ve not a hand put to it since Ma Trilby died. I know you liked her.’
She’d been the woman dressed in black, who sat behind us in church. Her twins had grown-up jobs to do; gathering the collection or giving out the prayer books. I used to peek at Ma Tilby through Mammy’s skirts. She’d give me a mint every week from her old fashioned handbag with the big clasp that clicked. I sucked carefully on it and made it last to the end of the service.
The spuds need peeled and I think on how Ma Trilby kept her twins housed, like Mammy does to me. But their Ma had been worse than Mammy. The boys weren’t allowed away from her at all. Even when others lingered outside the church to pass the gossip to and fro, she’d march them back up the tight climb to a farm nestled in a small valley at the top of Dromore hill, called ‘Fern Hollow.’
Talk was their Ma was going to leave the farm to the eldest Edward and there now there’s bad blood between them.
‘All for the luck of a few minutes,’ McGovern said when Mammy gave in and he came calling to rent our farm.
We couldn’t keep up with the seasons even when The Barren Widow, Dottie joined us. Now there’s just a few acres around the house to give us privacy and good drills for the vegetables.
‘Are you sure you’re alright?’ Mammy asks me and she seems more concerned than usual after I have an episode.
There’s no need for me to reply, for as usual Mammy thinks what she wants. I touch the bandage and nod.
‘It just gave you an awful fright. I know that Ernest’s a scary animal. Did he talk to you at all before you passed out?’
I wonder when she’ll hear about me being in McGovern’s. I take out one of my little note-books and write - Knocked into me outside McGoverns. Stunned and bleeding. He took me inside. I didn’t want to go. Fainted. Home.
‘The Doc was probably in there?’ she asks.
I place a large YES on the page.
‘I’ll forgive him taking you in there so,’ she smiles and goes to check on the oven. ‘Some day you’ll talk to me won’t you Minnie?’
It’s many months since she’s asked me. She’s like Matilda. Making me feel guilty that I won’t speak up. I want to scream at her but I write, If I could I would.
‘You can and you should. Otherwise all you’ll be good for is cleaning up the mess those Tilby boys make. You’re clever enough to be a teacher? A nurse? Skinny little Minnie like you needs to use your head.’
She means no man will marry me. That’s what she means. It stings almost as much as the cut on my head.
I’m flicking through Mammy’s recipe book by the kitchen sink when there’s a tap on the window. Looking up all I see Ernest’s dark eyes.
‘You’re still livin then?’ he says loudly and it’s the first time I get to take in all of his face at once. He’s smiling and I can see all of his face together as I’m not stealing a glance at the side of his nose, or peering at him in the distance fields.
I watch his lips move and his eyes twinkle at me. My lips curl at the ends. He winks. I pull away from gazing at him and go to the door.
‘You’re alright then?’ He strides in and looks around. ‘Alone?’ he asks and I nod. Mammy and the Barren Widow, are in the vegetable garden.
I take a long look at Ernest. He’s shaved and washed. Looks cleaner, more respectable and very handsome with his hair greased back roughly and his sideburns trimmed.
He says, ‘you look better anyhow. Except the mark of course.’
My lips fall downwards and I point to the wobbly stool by the table.
‘Did your Ma say to you about the work?’ he asks and I put the heavy kettle on the hot plate on the range. ‘She did I hope? Fine woman your Ma.’
He sounds like dirty McGovern but I nod at him.
‘Edward wanted me to come see if you’d thought about it. We need someone and you’re no gossip.’
His hair glistens in the morning sunlight and I stare at the bow in his lips, it’s large and round like a girl’s. His teeth are straight and pearly moving up and down as he’s saying something about the ‘fine mornin’ and his pink tongue peeks through those teeth. There’s something very pretty about his chin and I can’t pull away from the darkest eyes I’ve ever seen.
‘Will I speak to your Ma? Or do you want to just say yes and come tomorrow?’
I nod at him not really listening. Being near to him gives me a jitter in my tummy and there’s a longing in me to make the stray curl near his ear sit down.
‘So that’s a yes then?’ he asks but goes on. ‘Course you’ll have to pass the field you found your father in.’ I get awakened from my day-dreaming but he goes on, ‘that’ll be alright now after all this time?’ He’s eager that I let him know I’m going to make it over the place I dread most in the whole world. ‘You don’t remember much about that now?’
My eyes fill with tears. I don’t want them to but one drips out and I try to hide them by walking past him to get the milk from the scullery.
‘I’m rough with everything,’ he says getting to his feet but the stool wobbles as I pass him and he grabs at my arm to steady himself. I’m not of enough bulk to do much to steady us but somehow we don’t fall. ‘Jasus,’ he curses and stands upright. ‘I’m a danger to ya.’
All I can think of is that I want his man’s hands back on me again and want to be near him.
There’s a dreadful silence as he sits again and somehow a pot of tea gets made and I tremble placing the tea-cosy in place. He’s watching me and I feel the sweat rise in my arm-pits and the flutter in my innards come again. The knife makes a grating noise on the plate as I cut a wedge of porter cake for him. He layers on the butter and as I cannot look at that, I see his dog in the yard chasing the hens. They start up quite a fuss. He says nothing. The din should’ve made him do something. But no. The crumbs get pushed into his lovely mouth and then those lips slurp around the cup. He winks, ‘Fine cake.’
Like lightning, a grin spreads across me until I see Mother striding past the window and hear the squeal of a kicked dog. The latch on the kitchen door gets lifted and there she is standing clattered in clay and looking like a warrior princess from the story, Dottie’s reading to us in the evenings.
‘That dog?’ she starts and then sees Ernest. She spies the cake and the tea-cosy. Holding my breath, my cheeks pound. I feel guilty about something, I’m not sure what.
‘I called to see my Minnie,’ Ernest says.
‘She’s fine. Better than our hens,’ Mammy points to the yard. ‘I kicked your bitch off home.’
I wince at Ma’s cursing. She never uses those words unless there’s a man about.
‘Minnie’s willing to come to work,’ he says. ‘She’s coming tomorrow.’
I like the way he speaks to Mammy. She doesn’t reply and his confidence doesn’t give her a choice. There’s a flutterin’ in me again as Mammy goes to wash her hands in the sink. I sense Ernest’s looking at me and I become brazen from somewhere and wink at him. It’s a quick, knowing connection between us. A naughty secret - behind Mammy’s back.
Those dark eyes twinkle at me, he slurps from the mug and stuffs in the last of the cake and smiles. Why is it that I never want him to stop looking at me that way?
‘You’re only going a few fields over to clean from some filthy men,’ Mammy’s telling me as I wrap my cleaning scarf into the packed satchel and fix my hair again in the mirror on the nail by the back door. ‘Did you take a flask and something nice to eat?’
Dottie’s seen to my needs. Mothering me like I’m her own. I ignore both of them and check my satchel again for the soap, the Jeyes Fluid, the hard soup men like and all the cloths we could make from the old sheets and towels. I’ve the new sweeping brush by the back door and a mop. I’m leaving the bucket feeling I may look comical going across the fields.
‘Take no nonsense from them,’ Dottie says again, ‘there’s no shame in coming home if they’re not good ta ya.’
She doesn’t seem at all jealous that I got the job she wanted.
‘There’s no shame in slapping a man who takes advantage,’ Dottie adds.
I wave as I’m leaving them both and despite lugging the brush and mop, I’ve never felt so grown up and fancy, in all the world.
And there’s that lovely feeling I have with thinking of being near Ernest. His grip, his eyes and that hard chest, his breath on my hair, the way he looks at me. I’m a woman who’s winked and smiled at. It’s just the best feeling in the world.
The mizzling rain isn’t dampening the new life I’m making. The long march on the road instead of across the mucky fields doesn’t bother me. The tight walk up the hill is fine. The larger plops of rain don’t wash away my smiles. My hair hanging lank and my dress sticking to me will be alright, until I get to the sign at Fern Hollow. The letter E is so dirty I cannot see it and the wall has ivy clinging all over it, like an insistent mother. When I turn in the gate and spy the avenue and front yard, the torrents of rain wash all romance away. Back down the hill all hope flows, in the many rivulets.
The sheep dog’s chained near the front door and there’s a circle of clear earth around her. Vegetable peelings are strewn all over the cobbles, mounds of manure stink in large piles. There’s enough room to turn a vehicle but it’s obvious no-one cares about visitors. The smell’s so bad that even my wet trembling hand cannot stop it. I approach the open half-door of the house which is letting in the lashing rain.
Now when I pick my steps the anticipation’s more like a dread. The smell easing but the dog barking and her chain clanking.
‘Go on in Minnie,’ someone shouts from a barn nearby. I cannot see with the sheets of falling rain but I sense it’s Ernest and the dog stops it’s racket. I do as he tells me and my eyes adjust to the darkness inside as the curtains are drawn. There’s a smell of tobacco and cooked potatoes and I think briefly that it’s not the worst room I’ve ever seen - but it is.
‘So how did it go?’ Dottie starts at me when she’s in from the field. My sore hands are peeling the spuds for the dinner. I smile and shrug. She seems satisfied I’m in the one piece. How could I tell her of the horror in my heart at the state of the place. The sheer despair I felt when there was no sign of Ernest’s boots in the matted dog-hair on the grimy tiles. There were only the commands of Edward who had been pleasant but a milky version of the brother I was expecting. He slinked about not looking me in the eye.
Matilda didn’t like him much. She told me he found her distasteful and we both missed the wink of Ernest and it made my work all the harder. I took on the cleaning crusade and made some in-roads on the general tidiness. Swept and mopped and wiped until the sweat lashed down my already damp back.
Every noise might’ve been Ernest, but it wasn’t. I left as miserable as the rain I walked home in.
‘Are you going back next week?’ Mammy asks after she’s eaten her stew. She knows the answer. ‘And as Dottie says take no nonsense from them two boys.’
How do I tell her that for the last few days I’ve only seen Edward and I cannot even ask for Ernest. It’s like a cloud of doom to think he’ll stay away when truly he’s the main reason for my enthusiasm.
‘You’ll have tomorrow off and you can go to the fair. It being Saturday,’ she offers.
I dress for the fair and fix my hair up nice but there’s no sign of my dark-haired Ernest in the throngs in Dromore. No sign of him in McGovern’s when I marched through it like a brazen hussy. There’s a need in me to see those dark eyes and feel near to the man who made Matilda disappear. So in a determined love I stride up the hill to Fern Hollow.
The E is clean on the sign and the dirty ivy’s dragged by my fair hand right back to the pillars on the end. As I stroll into the yard, the sheep-dog wags her tail at me and I can hear voices coming from over the half-door. My heart skips a beat as I sense it’s Ernest and him in from the fields and getting ready for the fair.
‘She’ll find out,’ a voice says. It sounds exactly like Mammy. ‘She’ll find out. And then what?’ I know for certain it’s Mammy.
I slink up to the half-door and peer sideways into the gloom. There’s my Ernest with his arms around Mammy. All of her hair is down and falling onto her shoulders. He’s looking into her face and she’s saying, ‘She’ll find out there’s no Edward. What then?’
I gulp in air and lean back against the cool stone of the house. Listening, yet not wanting to hear.
‘If I leave Dromore no-one will think it strange. And Edward and you can live happily ever after.’ There’s the noise of kissing. The slurp and slop of mouths which turns my stomach.
How can Mammy take up with Edward if he’s no longer here? My mind whirrs and then Matilda’s sad for me. She knows how much I wanted a man like Ernest all for myself.
‘She’s bright,’ Mammy says. ‘I’m surprised she’s not recognised you.’
He laughs. ‘She’s a slip of a girl who knows nothin’.’
‘You shouldn’t use her.’
He laughs. It’s a cruel laugh. ‘She’s got a soft spot for me,’ he says. ‘But once we’re together she’ll come around.’
‘She must never know,’ Mammy says. ‘Lie to her on Monday and say Ernest has run off and left you to the farming alone, just like your Ma wanted.’
I sneak a peek into the kitchen and she’s still in his large arms. He kisses at her again and all of my innards coil and knot with the awfulness of it all.
He says after a few seconds. ‘I like seeing you in her.’
‘Don’t you see Peter at all?’ Mammy asks him and he mutters something I can’t make out and then she adds. ‘You must never harm her. Never.’
He murmurs, ‘I won’t.’
‘You mustn’t play with her feelings.’
I can hear them moving towards the door. I race around to the gable of the house and pant my back into the wall there. Hoping that Mammy just leaves and there’ll be no more kissing. No more words to burn my soul.
Ernest says, ‘don’t go just yet.’
‘I’ve to get back. Promise me you’ll say to Minnie you don’t need her. No more games.’
‘Stop your worrying,’ he says.
Matilda pokes me to come out from around the corner. But I can’t move.
Mammy is Mammy when I get home; but she isn’t the Mammy I know. Her eyes are strange to me and Dottie knows there’s something up even if Mammy can’t see it.
‘I don’t like the way you’ve been since you went about Fern Hollow,’ Dottie says.
The church service on Sunday is a tense blur. I’m worrying needlessly that a Tilby might sit behind me, even though they’ve never been there since their Ma took sick. No-one cares much about their absence except me, and probably Mammy. No-one knowing there’s only one of them left?
I can’t stomach to go to Fern Hollow on Monday so I have one of my episodes on Sunday evening by the fire. Dottie’s unsure if I’m well enough to be left in bed alone. But I snuggle in trying to see all of the good things in the past. I picture Mammy nestled into the covers with Daddy like I remember.
‘Was it really a bull?’ McGovern had questioned a few times and Mammy’d ignored him, cried into her handkerchief and pulled me in tightly to her. There’d been so much blood and Daddy hadn’t been much of a man when I found him. More like bits and pieces and mush on the grass. ‘Nothing other than an animal could’ve done that to Peter,’ McGovern had said and the Doc agreed.
I remember the bull was shot.
The Tuesday sun is on my back as Dottie and I walk solemnly back up to Fern Hollow. Dottie by my side all the way in case I fall faint in the ditch.
The dog wags her tail at me. Then the man I know as Edward appears out from the byre. ‘I’m glad you’re here today,’ he says. ‘Ernest’s left. I won’t be needing you anymore. He’s the one who felt sorry for ya.’
I write on my notebook, Ernest hasn’t left. And you’re not Edward.
I show the pad to Dottie and then thrust it at the man before me.
’What playing are you at Minnie?’ Dottie asks me pulling at my sleeve.
Of course those dark eyes cannot read and he says, ‘I need glasses.’
You killed my Daddy and Edward. This is Ernest, Dottie. He cannot read. Dottie gasps and watches those dark eyes squint and pretend to be blind to the words on the page. ‘Tell me the words,’ those lips I once loved say. I hiss like a cat at the bastard.
‘She’s saying she’s happy to leave now. And thank you.’ Dottie pulls the note book away from his calloused hands.
‘My God Minnie, is this true?’ she whispers at me when we’re out the gate and on the road home. ‘He could’ve killed us both.’
I shrug. I really don’t care. Right now, I’d rather be dead. I write on the notebook for Dottie, And Mammy knows. She helped him.
Sharon Thompson is represented by Trace Literary Agency and writes historical crime fiction. She co-founded trending tweet-chat #WritersWise.