Because Rawney's job kept him away a night or two each week, my trust paid for Missus Shaughnessy to live with us as our housekeeper. She wasn't like the foreign maids my mother was always hiring and presently replacing at Cork. Missus Shaughnessy was the fattest woman I ever hoped to see. She always smelt clean as a new bar of soap, and she had no time for any foolishness from me or Rawney, and gave it to him as good and loud as she gave it to me whenever we transgressed. Which was often, since she had very fixed ideas on how everything should be done. My trust was spit to her. She believed no little girl, prospects be damned, should fail to practice the basics of a household. She taught me how to do the bacon and potatoes for supper, how the loo ought to be cleaned, the proper way of tucking sheets, and the method of damping anything linen before ironing. She did condescend to make my oatmeal and a boiled egg and milky tea for breakfast. Pussycat tea, she called it, on account of the condensed milk which made it mild.
And once or twice a month when Rawney came stumbling home late from Des Costello's, a pint of stout and shot of whiskey more than he could carry aboard, she did laugh and chortle, and helped him off with his boots and into bed. He'd be singing something awfully mournful, sometimes tears would trickle down his flushed cheeks. Or else he'd be singing about the bold IRA, then tap the side of his nose and give us a knowing look with his bloodshot eyes, which slid in and out of focus. "Mum's the word with us." He'd be snoring in no time and Missus Shaughnessy would be wiping her hands on her white linen apron. "A frail head has he, poor man," she'd say. "And the worse for it in the morning."
Though Rawney was a generally cheerful soul who some said spoke more than any good mood encouraged, he was foul as November sleet every time we left Mister McGillicuddy's. "The man's no heart, no heart at all. Some quack took it out when he was wee and replaced it with a ship's pump. That's what keeps the brine moving through his veins, the pickled bastard." Rawney would carry on the whole bus ride back to Cobh. But rant and sulk was all he could do, for it was all down in law: so much for my living, so much for my schooling, and the capital, which Mister McGillicuddy called "a grand sum, quite grand," into my own hands and my own name always, even if I married, when I turned twenty-five.
My grandda knew the exact sum. It embittered and amazed him, and he hated that he couldn't get his hands on a single pound of it for his own. "Liam, me own though he was, so bent. Never reckoned bein' bent could pay that handsome," Rawney said once after a whiskey too many. And he thought it was a waste, the education, which cost well over a thousand pounds a year at Nano Nagle, though the state would pay tuition fees if I went up to University College at Cork. I had no idea my school fees were weeks of wages for a man like Rawney, who at fifty was already dreaming of a retirement with more "little extras, treats now and then" than his pension would allow. He made, when he remembered that I might be generous when I came into my trust, efforts to keep to my good side.
"Yeh've a fortune awaiting yeh, Una. But yeh'll be a woman like any other, wanting a husband and wee ones," Rawney would tell me. I hated boys then. I thought he was cracked, and said so.
"It'll be money down the drain, all this schoolin'. Yeh might set a bit aside for yer poor old grandda that loves yeh," said Rawney Moss, railway engineer, whom most believed had driven his own wife to an early grave with his unmatchable persistence in whining and complaining about nothing ever being right, and the chances he'd never had.
Like hell, Rawney, I'd think when I got older and began to see the ways of the world. The sea would give up its dead and I'd walk over them to America before I'd settle for what you'd have me have in this life.
Reprinted from WATER, CARRY ME by Thomas Moran by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Moran. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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