TO CATCH A DREAM
County Cavan in the north of Ireland, 1873
‘Will you shut your mouth, woman? Haven’t I enough on me plate without your constant whining?’
Fear tickled the muscles in Bridie’s stomach and tightened her throat. The eruption of her pappy’s anger grated in the already tense atmosphere that coated the walls of their home.
‘’Tis as I’m worried to the heart of me, Michael . . .’
‘Whish, woman, you’d drive a man insane, you would. Would you have it any different? Would you have that traitor free to do further damage? It has to be done. sure, the cause depends on it. We must rid ourselves of those who would betray us.’
Torn between staying to see that her mammy was all right and delivering the loaf she’d been told to, Bridie hesitated, but she knew her disobedience would only add to her pappy’s agitation.
The argument taking place in her parents’ bedroom quietened. Her prayers begging for her mammy not to keep protesting at whatever Pappy referred to seemed to have beenanswered, though she knew that if her pappy came out and found her there, listening, it could all start again. she couldn’trisk that.
‘Is that yourself, Bridie?’
‘’Tis, Mrs Finney. Mammy sent me with some bread foryou.’
‘Aye, that’s good. your mammy is kindness itself. Is shekeeping better?’
‘She is. she’s been grand these last weeks.’ It wasn’t easy to keep the tremor from her voice, but Mrs Finney didn’t seem to notice it.
‘Come away in, then, my wee lass, and let me get a propersight of you.’
Disturbed from his peaceful grazing, the piebald tethered nearby snorted. His nostrils flred. His cream, silky mane fanned out with an annoyed movement of his head. ‘Whish now, Ginger, ’tis only me.’
One more defint huff and he settled down. Catching up the hem of her muddied, rust-coloured skirt, Bridie climbed onto the ladder. The familiar creak of the Vardo steps enhanced the excitement in her. she loved it when the travellers arrived.
They visited her pappy’s farm twice a year: once in springtime to help with the planting and, as now, in the autumn, to lift the potato crop and turn the soil ready for winter. Going into the semi-darkness of the interior blurred her vision. It took a moment to adjust after the bright sunshine outside. Once she could focus, she saw Mrs Finney lying on the bed at the back of the caravan, her swollen legs supported by a block with a soft flece thrown over it.
The old lady peered at her and said, ‘you’ve grown. Is it fourteen you are now?’
‘Yes, I’m not for having to go to school any longer. I left just after your last visit at Easter time.’
‘And is it you have to work at the castle like the rest of the girls around here?’
‘No, the priest tried to get me a place in service, but Pappy would have none of it. He says there is enough for me to do around here.’
‘Aye, Michael’s always looking for the cheap labour, so he is. But you should be fiding yourself a fella by now and settling down. All my girls did by your age. They’ve all caravans of their own and are off around the country. some have even crossed the water.’
‘You know that isn’t our way, Mrs Finney.’
‘Aye, we have our differences. Put the loaf on the shelf next to the tea chest, my wee one, but wrap it fist. Use one of those cloths from the pile in the corner.’
The aroma of fresh-baked bread as Bridie wrapped it in the crisp, white muslin mingled with the smells of the small woodburning stove, the canvas of the arched roof and the sheepskinrugs. This, and the clinking of the jars containing jams and preserves as she slid them along the shelf to make room, settled a feeling of homeliness in her and calmed her tangled nerves.
The brass key of the small, wooden tea chest – a legacy from the days when it had lived in a much grander place –swayed back and forth, as if to remind her that it had once locked out anyone not allowed to touch its contents. now it no longer housed expensive real tea, but a blend of herbs and nettles. These brewed into a delicious, refreshing hot drink and held properties to heal you of all manner of illnesses.
Bridie didn’t give thought to how it came to be here, or how any of the rich-looking jugs with funny faces and the inlaid boxes found their way into the Finneys’ possession. She just liked to admire them, adorning the shelf around the interior of the Vardo and arranged amongst the colourful plates that she had watched the gypsy girls paint.
‘Sit yourself down.’ Mrs Finney waved towards the trunk opposite the stove. ‘Just look at you, Bridie! sure it is you are turning into a beauty. In just these short months you have blossomed into a young woman.’
Bridie blushed, but her embarrassment was tinged with a little pride. she too had noted the changes in her body. And her mirror reflcted the truth of what everyone said: ‘now, don’t you know that it is you that features your mammy, Bridie.’
Her unruly, long red hair, falling into ringlets around her face, and her large blue eyes, replicated those of her mother, as did her height and shapely fiure. Already she had breasts bigger than all the girls of her age from the nearby town, and most of the older ones too, as it happened. not that she found
this something she admired or wanted. For weren’t they the cause of her attracting stares from the lads, and looks of envy from the girls? These she coped with, but the way older men leered at her repulsed and disgusted her.
Sometimes, when going into the town, she would resort to tying a band from one of her frocks around herself to fltten her chest, and pinning her shawl in such a way as to cover herself. As if reading her thoughts, Mrs Finney said, ‘’Tis, Bridie, as you’ll be for having problems with the menfolk. God made
you for them, so He did. And you will find a burning need in you for what they have to offer. But don’t be giving into it, my wee Bridie, as it will be your downfall.’
The tone of caution lay heavily on the dread still lying within Bridie concerning the worries of her pappy, and she was glad as Mrs Finney’s voice changed and made light of the warning.
‘So, mind you take care, but don’t be for hiding behind your cape. ’Tis their sin, not yours, if they have bad thoughts at the sight of you. Hold yourself proud and give off an air of : You can look, but don’t be touching. That should sort them out.’ Her cackle of laughter held a naughty insinuation as she said, ‘That is, unless it’s your choosing to have them touch!’ she laughed louder at this and the sound filed the space in the Vardo.
Bridie stared at the one tooth hanging at the front of Mrs Finney’s open mouth, but the embarrassment she’d felt at her words dissolved as the laughter got to her. And though she hadn’t been for understanding what Mrs Finney had said, her easy sense of fun had Bridie giggling until the tears rolled down her face. But then Mrs Finney sobered Bridie and nudged the trepidation inside her as she changed the subject.
‘Eeh, it’s good, so it is, to have the crack. now, will you be around when the stars are up, as we plan on having a sing-song round the campfie? That is, if Seamus gets home from the dealings your pappy sent him on.’
‘Do you know what it is Pappy asked Seamus to do, MrsFinney?’
‘No, he didn’t tell me, as is the way of it with the menfolk. Why, what has caused the powerful look of concern you have on your face?’
‘I hear things, Mrs Finney. Pappy has visitors, and they hold their meetings in our parlour. He doesn’t know it, but sometimes when they rant and rave their voices come through the wall to my bedroom.’
‘And what kind of things are you hearing?’
‘I know Pappy is a member of the Fenians and, from what they are saying, I think they have a hand in some of the bad goings-on. not the killings – to be sure Pappy could not take part in those – but the torching of buildings and the movement of weapons. And last night Seamus attended—’
‘Aye, well, don’t be worrying. These are troubled times, but as daft a job as the men will make of it, we women have to leave the politics to them. Besides, that grandson of mine can take care of himself, so he can. now away with you and leave me to me rest.’
This sudden dismissal came with an odd, intense look, which shuddered through Bridie. ‘Are you out of sorts with me, Mrs Finney? Is it as I have . . . ?’
‘No, you haven’t done anything. ’Tis me all-seeing eye troubling me. I need to have time on me own. Will I see you the night?’
‘Aye, you will, Mrs Finney.’
‘Good, and Seamus will be here, to be sure. But, Bridie, afore you go, listen to me. you have to let go of how everything used to be. don’t be for hanging onto how things were when you were little. you are a grown woman now. What you dreamed of as a child must remain that – a dream. Are you getting my meaning?’
A blush crept up from inside Bridie’s chest. Unable to hold Mrs Finney’s gaze, she said her goodbyes and left.
Taking care to avoid the water-filed ruts the wheels of the gypsy caravans had gouged, she picked her way along the muddied lane leading to her home. The uncomfortable, prickly feeling visited on her by Mrs Finney’s words remained with her as she realized that her inner secret had been seen by
others. But then, it was the way of Mrs Finney to be knowing of all things, so she would not have missed the adoration Bridie had for Seamus.
As a child she’d spent many hours playing with the traveller children of her own age and following the bigger ones around, especially Seamus.
Seven years older than herself, he’d fascinated her with his knowledge of the land and the animals. When she tired, he’d lift her up, calling her his little red-hairedgirl. She would fall asleep on his shoulder, twiddling his dark curls between her figers.
Sometimes she longed for those days. now Seamus had other things on his mind, and on the last couple of visits had spent little time with her. At twenty-one, he’d become one of the main men of the clan and had serious duties to attend to. She didn’t like to think of him mixed up with her pappy’s lot. And, like her mammy, she wished her pappy would leave things alone, too.
Although her parents tried to shield her from the politics of Ireland, she understood more than they thought, and knew where her pappy’s sympathy lay. When in drink, he always toasted the bravery of Michael Barratt, a lad from the next county who had gone to the gallows for trying to blow a hole in the wall of Coldbath Field Prison, over in England. Her pappy expressed condemnation of Michael’s public hanging and spoke of him as a hero for trying to release the Fenian prisoners.
Mammy always said Pappy had changed after that event. He’d started going off on his drinking bouts. He’d be gone for days and they had to cope on their own; but, worse than that, on his return the rows would start. Many days went by with her mother not leaving her room. Muffled cries of pain sent hurt and loneliness through Bridie, and she’d squat in a corner, curl up her body and cover her ears with her hands.
But Pappy would say it was just one of Mammy’s turns, and off he would go again. An end would come suddenly and without warning, signalled by the whistling. Pappy would come in, heralded by a cheery tune and without a care in the world.
He’d send Bridie off on some errand or other, but she never minded, for on her return home he would be there again, and Mammy would greet her, looking beautiful, smiling at Pappy and snuggling into him while he teased her and planted kisses in her hair.
A tenanted farmer, her father had a lot of worries: how he would meet the rent, how to get the filds hoed when he couldn’t afford the labour, and what would happen if Gladstone didn’t get amendments to the Irish Land Act. And what would happen if he did.
All of it confused Bridie. It seemed there was a need for an Act to restrain the landlords from putting up the rent, but her father talked as though this wouldn’t happen. She’d heard him say to one of his friends, ‘The British government won’t interfere in matters of private property, to be sure they won’t.’
When she approached their small cottage built of grey stone, her mammy stood in the doorway, broom in one hand and holding her back with the other. A different worry crept into Bridie. Her mammy suffered from many bad pains, and her body seemed to bend over more every day. And yet her radiant
beauty returned the moment she smiled and, like a miracle running through her, the life of her came back into every part of her. That transformation came about as she caught sight of Bridie and called out, ‘you didn’t stay long, Bridie. You needn’t have hurried back. I have everything done now.’
‘No one was about, Mammy. no Petra or rosalee . . .’
‘Oh, that’s right. didn’t they say as they may have their betrothal in the summer? It must have happened. Did MrsFinney not tell you?’
‘No, she only talked about the changes in me, and it wasn’tlong before she seemed eager for me to leave her. Mammy, are you for thinking she can see things?’
‘I don’t know. she’s a funny one. she did predict the blight back in ’45, when my own father was alive and running this farm. But then, ’tis the way of things, as travellers pass through many counties and she could pick up on things along the way. Why is it you are asking?’
‘She knew a secret I had held, and she had an awful lookon her just before she said she needed her rest.’
‘Aye, I know what it is. Haven’t I had the dread in me at times, when she gives me one of her looks? don’t be worrying, me wee lass. She’s only getting her fun at our expense.’
‘Well, I wished she wouldn’t. Anyway, they’re for having shenanigans tonight, and I said I would go.’
‘oh, that’s good. ’Tis just what we’re all needing – a little fun and laughter in our life. now, away with you. Go for a walk and see if there is anyone around to chatter to. Pappy has gone to the village, so he has, and there’s nothing to keep you here.’
‘Is it sure you are, Mammy? That would be grand. I might meet up with Amy; she should be leaving the castle just now.’
With a lighter heart, Bridie waved to her mammy. It wasn’t often she had the freedom to roam. When she did, she gave way to the child still lurking inside her, for more often than not the confusion of growing up left her unsure of which person she wanted to be: the one with longings that she didn’t understand, or the carefree, full-of-fun young girl.
The night, crisp and moonlit, turned into a swirl of colour and fun, dampened only by the knowledge that Seamus and his grandmother had made a hasty decision to move off on the morrow. No one would say why, and her father verged on anger with Bridie when she asked.
In an effort to try to put it out of her mind, she let the excitement take her and threw herself into the moment. she danced as well as any of the traveller girls. Her bright, emerald-green frock, made by her mother from some old curtains that once hung in the dining room of the castle, and bought at the jumble sale, swished around her feet.
The fited bodice showed just a hint of her cleavage, but enough to suggest a passion burning inside her. Like a princess, she captivated everyone’s attention. The concerns of earlier drifted away from her. The rhythm of the mouth organs and the fidles filled the air, and she twisted and twirled in the heat of the bonfire.
‘For sure, you are a regular travelling lass, Bridie.’
She stopped dancing and fell against Seamus, laughing up at him. ‘I love it. It is so exciting.’
‘It is as though you were born to it. Here, let me join youin a jig.’
He caught hold of her hand and together they reeled around, egged on by the younger ones enclosing them in a circle and clapping to the music. Seamus never took his eyes from hers, and the look Bridie saw in the depths of the dark pools of his enlarged pupils stirred feelings in her she couldn’t understand, tightening her throat and sweeping a heat through her body.
Without warning, the world she’d allowed herself to enter splintered at the sound of her pappy’s voice. ‘Right, that’ll be enough of that. Come on, Bridie. your bedtime has passed this good hour since.’
Not wanting the moment to end, she begged of him, ‘Not yet, Pappy. Sure the night is early and I am having a good time.’
‘I said now! Will you disobey your pappy?’ The music stopped. His grip on her arm bruised her. ‘Get yourself away,girl.’
Seamus stepped forward, but she saw the look on her pappy’s face stay his protest. When he turned back to her, he’d become the Seamus she’d always known. The magic had gone. ‘Do as your pappy bids, Bridie,’ he told her.
‘I don’t need your help with the discipline of me daughter, Seamus. Come now, Bridie, I will see you to your bed meself, so I will.’
‘Michael . . .’
Bridie held her breath as he looked round at her mammy. His face held a dark warning as he said, ‘And you get yourself in, too. We’ll speak of this later.’
Something about her father frightened Bridie more than she’d ever been frightened before.
Once in her room, he flung her onto her bed, his teeth clenched in anger. He bent over her. ‘You disgraced your mammy and me, flinging yourself around with that gypsy as though you were no better than them. I’ll not stand for it. You remember: you’re not the child you were!’
‘Pappy, ’tis sorry I am. I did not know I did anythingwrong. I—’
‘You must think of the consequences of your actions. You cannot behave with Seamus how you were used to doing. He’s a young man and his needs are different from what you understand. His kind have no respect.’ His voice thickened. ‘Bridie, Bridie, you’re still Pappy’s little girl . . .’
His stroking of her hair sent an unwelcome chill throughher body. ‘Pappy?’ His hand stayed. His eyes bored into hers, then he turned and left her room.
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