In northwest Ireland, eighteen-year-old Miranda Martin lives in a country estate home with her father. A recent widower, he spends his days consumed by a project to reforest their tranquil Donegal surroundings. Miranda, on the cusp of adulthood, spends her summer engrossed in a chaste but passionate courtship with a local boy named Cathal. Members of the Anglo-Irish class and the Protestant Ascendancy, Miranda and her father are sympathetic to the burgeoning movement for home rule. On the other side of the argument is Miranda’s brother, Andrew, a soldier in the British military during the First World War. On leave from service, Andrew has come home with his friend and fellow soldier, Harry. Their fateful visit, recalled by Miranda years later, is marked by tensions over the family’s disparate politics and culminates in a heartrending cataclysm foreshadowing what’s to come for Ireland in the twentieth century.
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By Jennifer Johnston
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Jennifer Johnston
All rights reserved.
There are no new days ahead of me.
Is this what they meant by limbo?
Waiting time, floating time, time for snatching at the comfortable and uncomfortable moments of the past.
Why do I die is not the question. All fools know the answer to that one.
How has my life led me to this moment?
There is no day, no night, here.
The river is wide and slow.
They pluck from time to time at the remains of my body with their kind, warm hands.
Their voices flow, a counter-stream across me.
As yet, I hear no voice from God.
I do pray from time to time that when, or should I say if, there is some revelation of heaven, it won't be like living eternally through Songs of Praise.
I don't want to meet all my loved ones again, their faces burnished with soulfulness and goodwill; if I have to come across them, I want them to be as they were, undiminished by the eternal joys of heaven.
I can still laugh at myself.
Paradise holds out no charms for me.
I said to Cathal once ... yes, to Cathal ... only to him would I have said such a romantic thing, that I would be a ghost here, along with all the others. He laughed. I remember the sound of his laugh. I remember the evening sun hurling its light across the water. The memory hurts my eyes.
The ghosts here have always been so solitary, no carousals or laughter; distant doors close, steps move past you on the stairs, someone will sigh. Well ordered, you might call them, but not unhappy. Perhaps they are all content to pass eternity here at Termon, their sanctuary.
I have wondered from time to time over the last few years, what will become of this house; this white elephant.
Thirty years ago it would have been bought by the nuns, but they're selling the convents now.
A country house hotel maybe? I suppose it could have a worse fate.
If anyone were to ask me I would say that I would rather it were just left to fall down. Isn't that terrible of me? How everyone would disapprove. Feckless, thoughtless, typical of Miranda, they would say.
A romantic ruin full of ghosts. The children and young people from the village and roundabout would make daring trips, hoping against hope to see or hear something that would set their hearts racing with fear and excitement. Stories upon stories would be told, truths and half-truths argued over. That would be the most acceptable solution for the ghosts. Then the house would truly become their sanctuary.
I am not nostalgic for old times.
Things are different now, better perhaps in some ways. Yes, yes of course better.
People have freedom. That was what everyone wanted.
I think it was. That was the word they used.
I used it too.
I talked wildly about freedom.
I felt briefly at one time a longing to fight for freedom, but I merely cried for freedom; an inadequate contribution to the struggles of a nation.
I am laughing.
Can't you hear me laughing?
Their hands adjust the covers, smooth my hair.
They cannot hear me laughing.
They would be upset if they could hear me.
They would be sure to consider it a manifestation of physical pain and they would in their kindness inject me with drugs. A stinging in the wrist or my backside and I would be relieved. My head, even, is lost to me when they do that in their kindness. I can no longer see or hear the images of the past. Then, I am lonely, afraid. So I try not to upset them in any way.
I can call them all to my side now, as I was never able to through my living years.
The cast of my play. The play that is in my head, always in my head.
Mother, whose lingering presence was so strong for the others, was, and still is for me, merely a series of sharply recollected sounds in my head; the swish of a dress in my nursery bedroom as she crossed the floor to kiss me goodnight, the tapping of her shoes on the flagstones of the hall; the sound of the piano playing, always playing, summer and winter, afternoon and evening, music always, always drifting through the air.
Au clair de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot,
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour ecrire un mot.
Ma chandelle est morte;
Je n'ai plus de feu.
Ouvre-moi ta porte,
Pour l'amour de Dieu.
I didn't know what the words meant, but I sang them obediently for her each evening, before climbing the stairs with Nanny to my room.
Nanny didn't know what the words meant either.
'Don't always be asking questions. It's a song that's what it is.'
She herself would sing me songs, in Irish as well as English.
Songs that grew inside my bones and head; incomprehensible, sorrowful words.
ImBeal Atha na Gár atá an stáid bhrea mhóduil ... No, this is not the time for Nanny's song.
'Don't always be asking questions. You're a holy terror for asking questions.'
Mother is not among my cast.
Of course, if Mother had been alive, had been with us that weekend nothing would have been the same. I would not have been the same Miranda, nor Cathal the same Cathal. Idiotic really to muse on such things. We are faced all the time with the indelible reality of the past. Even if we dare to shut our eyes to the truth, it is still there waiting to outface us when we open them again; if we open them again, perhaps I should have said.
Maybe I should have married after all; raised a great brood of children, if only to keep this place alive and kicking, save it from the gombeen men; or the nuns, or the country house hotel crowd.
But I didn't allow myself that freedom.
There were times when I cursed myself and God and even Nanny for the position in which I had landed myself, times of real loneliness and pain; so often I longed to do a bunk, like Andrew, get away, like any sane person might have done.
Yes, get away.
But here I am still and it's all over now.
When Father died in 1939 the little church was full.
Luckily it was a warm spring day and our Catholic friends and neighbours and tenants stood outside in the sun waiting for the service to end. The church smelt of the dust that had heated and cooled with the years on the central heating pipes, of Brasso and of all the funeral flowers heaped along the altar steps. Andrew and I stood in the front pew, he sleek and upright, his face like the face of a ghost.
The day Thou gavest Lord is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
Thy praise shall hallow now our rest.
So lonely, he looked, so pale. Pale ghost, I see you now.
The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
'Sing loud,' I said. 'Please Andrew, sing loud.'
He opened his mouth and for the first time in our lives did something that I had asked him to do.
So be it Lord, Thy throne shall never
Like earth's proud empires, pass away.
I could hear the people outside the church singing also.
I remember hoping briefly that they wouldn't be excommunicated.
But stand and rule and grow forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
When he kissed me goodbye his lips were cold and his eyes burned like the windows of the house in the evening sun.
'Are you all right?' I asked.
He held me tight against him for a moment.
'I don't want to come back. Ever, Miranda. Don't make things hard for me.'
We laugh in this country for such strange reasons.
I didn't understand his pain until it was too late.
I suppose I was the only one who might have persuaded him to come back, but I didn't realise that until it was too late either.
It takes so long to learn.
It's the fumbling I have hated; painful groping through grey light, the only certainty being that you will arrive at this gate.
In a hundred years from now no one here will remember my name, nor Father's.
His trees will have been cut down by then. His reclaimed land will still be farmed, rich fertile land, but no one will remember that once it was sand and bent grass, beautiful desolation. Maybe even the little church will have become a supermarket or a craft shop; that sort of transformation is happening all over the place these days. Perhaps some lovers of the curious will have collected Father's pamphlets on reafforestation and land reclamation; his meticulous maps of these townlands, his notes like black ants crawling on the margins. Perhaps they will become collector's items. He would have been amused by such a thought.
Henry Augustus Martin, collector's item.
I won't even leave that mark.
I walked like King Wenceslas's page, in his footsteps leaving no trace of my own.
It was so easy to do that.
I lost my taste for danger when they killed Cathal. After that I chose my road. At the time it seemed the right thing to do, creep in Father's warmth; avoid confrontation with the world. Of course, looking back from here, I see how wrong I was.
I should have battered at their doors.
As gutless as the men who took Cathal away that night and shot him in the head.
I looked for heroes then.
Those men were the heroes that I got.
Better keep quiet.
Better not think such thoughts.
Better not waste what little energy I have on bitterness.
They move again. I hear their whispers and the soft rustling of their clothes.
They are ready. The tears are waiting behind their eyes. I will be washed from their lives. Soon. Kind lives. Kind hands. Kind murmuring voices.
I am almost ready.
Just one more time I must assemble the cast. I must search for the clue. Maybe there is no clue. Maybe the truth is anarchy. Maybe there is no truth. Maybe there is only pain.
They move away now. They are the ghosts now. Their arms rise and fall. Their voices rustle. They fade into the darkness beyond my knowing.
I am alone.
It is time to begin.
Still, golden afternoon.
The sun leaning towards evening, casting long evening shadows. The leaves already changing colour. No more green among the branches.
That which gives an Indian Summer its memorable quality is the warmth of the colours as well as the unexpected warmth of the air.
The cycle is for a short while disrupted; even time seems to pause.
Seems to pause.
The clocks cease to tick.
We live for a few days, a week even, through an unearned respite.
Through the stillness sliced the whistle of the train, its energy startling the peace.
This perfection is an accident, an aberration. Termon belongs to the world. The cycle will re- commence, has, in fact already begun to do so.
Miranda heard the whistle and put the top on her fountain pen.
Though the office was on the wrong side of the house to get the evening sun it was still warm, stuffy, full of dust. The maids were never allowed in here to clean, so, thought Miranda, even the dust was antique. From time to time Mr Dillon took a broom to the place and swept the mouse droppings and decayed spiders' webs out into the yard, stirring the lazy dust as he did so which then settled again on the books and papers and on the big mahogany desk.
I hate figures, she thought, as she screwed the top of the ink bottle. I hate adding and totting and multiplying. It gives me a headache and inky fingers. I hate writing boring figures down into these account books, lines and lines of boring figures and boring words, and boring, boring facts.
I wonder will Cathal like my hair, or be angry. Father hasn't noticed. He hasn't said he's noticed. That probably means he doesn't like it. Cathal will notice.
She rubbed at the ink on one of her fingers.
If he comes.
He'll come. He has to come.
My head feels light, not just from losing a weight of hair, but from the weight of figures. A paradox.
Is that what you'd call a paradox?
I am such an ignoramus.
It was Nanny calling.
Amazing how her old voice had so much carrying power.
She has heard the train too. Old hawk ears. That's why she's calling me; to let me know she knows my innermost thoughts.
Old hawk brain.
She'll shake her finger in my eye, that's what she'll do.
The yard was warm and smelling sweetly of horses.
Not a breath of wind stirred her shingled hair or the golden leaves on the chestnut trees outside the gate.
She never has to be told anything. She knows everything that goes on in the whole world. She knows bad thoughts, good thoughts, nothing escapes her hawk eyes.
She ran across the lawn below the house.
'Coming, coming, coming.'
The old woman was sitting on her usual summer seat under an oak tree by the path that ran down to the beach. When the sun was shining it was warmer there than in the house, she always said, and now she had need of all the warmth she could get. From her seat she could keep her hawk eyes on the movements of the maids opening and closing the windows to let warm fresh air into the house, the boy weeding the long border on one side of the lawn and the kitchen yard, where in her opinion the cook wasted too much time talking to the gardener when he brought the vegetables up to the door ... and of course the comings and goings of Miranda. Her knitting bag was beside her on the seat, her fingers twitched fretfully in her lap. Her fingers had once been deft, but had become in the last few years arthritic, painful and clumsy. She no longer had control over the needles and fine soft wool. To her anger and slight shame, she now had to fumble with the largest needles and thick strands of wool.
'Blankets and shawls are all I'm fit for now,' she would mutter, as if reproaching herself for her own inabilities.
'I called you,' she said, as Miranda appeared beside her. 'I called and called.'
'I heard you. I answered you. I came.'
'I like people to jump when I call them.'
'I jumped. Don't I always jump? You have me very well trained.'
'What did you call me for, anyway?'
'I'm out of wool. I need another skein wound. Sit down there now and hold it for me.'
'It's in the bag. The blue. Stop hopping around like a cat on a brick and do what you're told.'
'Can't I do it later, Nan ... or get you one of the girls? I was just going down to the beach.'
'Sit down there, child. The beach won't run away. Don't think I don't know what's in your mind. I can't see with the lamp to knit, so I need it now before the light goes on me.'
Miranda sighed and sat down.
'You're a bully.'
'Yes. But where would you all be without me here giving you the odd little push? Dootherers.'
'I'd be down on the beach.'
'Hold that wool still, till I find the end of it. Giving cheek will win you no prizes.'
She began to wind the wool round two fingers. Her hand moving slowly backwards and forwards as she wound. Old comforting routine, thought Miranda, twitching her thumbs as the wool ran round them.
'Do you like my hair? Father didn't notice.'
'He notices nothing these days. The house could fall down and he wouldn't notice. Schemes. That's all is in his head. Schemes and dreams. And his old trees. Your mother had lovely hair, God rest her.'
'It's my hair I'm asking you about, Nanny. My modern hair. Do you hate it or love it? You didn't say a word when I came home yesterday.'
'I can't see why you wanted to get it cut. A woman's hair is her crowning glory.'
'Everyone's getting their hair cut. No more silly fiddling with those awful hairpins. I like it anyway. I looked at myself in the glass this morning and I thought I was someone else. Someone old.'
Nanny tweaked at the wool.
'Someone sophisticated. Do you think I look sophisticated?'
'Hold your hands out like a good girl. You're letting the wool slip.'
'I'd love to look about twenty-five.'
'People of twenty-five have a little sense.'
'I am sensible. I've spent all afternoon being sensible and dusty. Look, my fingers are all covered with ink. If I didn't do those boring accounts, who would? Answer me that.'
'Your mother was twenty-five when she came to this house.'
'We could go bankrupt, for all Father cares.'
'If she could see the state of things now she'd turn in her grave. You're as bad as the master. I don't know what the pair of you would do if old Nan wasn't here to keep things up to the mark.'
'My head is full of dust and boring figures. I want a swim, some evening air ...'
'Your mother had skin that was white like a lily. She didn't go rushing in and out of the sea at all hours of the night and day.'
'You're always on about the past. On and on and on.'
Excerpted from Fool's Sanctuary by Jennifer Johnston. Copyright © 1987 Jennifer Johnston. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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