As she pulled on the clean bolster cover, Bessie cast an eye around the bedroom she shared with her younger sister, catching sight of herself in the mirror on the washstand. The mauve housecoat complemented her black hair, pinned loosely into a bun. She was longing to go back outside to the animals. That promise to her parents, to remain in charge and indoors, while they were gone to church, seemed foolish now. Anne was stripping the bedlinen, singing as she shook out the sheets in billowing waves; her golden ponytail streaming.
Frantic barks from their sheepdog tied up below in the yard, interrupted. The sisters looked at one another and edged to the window, Bessie first. Down the avenue, they caught sight of a young man staggering towards the farmhouse. He sidestepped the collie and made for the back door as Bessie led the way downstairs, too late to prevent him entering the kitchen. Slight and struggling to breathe, he leaned back against the door, winded.
‘There’s Crown soldiers after me. Please, I need somewhere to hide!’
Something in the boy put her in mind of her brother, who had fought and was slain over in France. The saucer eyes, the lanky body. Bessie bit her lip. At her back, she felt her sister clutch at her sleeve. Anne spoke up.
‘You’ve come to the wrong house.’
A spit of fire snapped in the grate and then, from outside, the sound of a heavy vehicle drawing near. The dog broke into another frenzy. Eyes pleading, the lad seized Bessie by the wrists. ‘If they catch me, I’ll be done!’
Turning to her sister, Bessie bid her help. Together they knelt by the bottom of the dresser, emptying out every blanket, each folded coverlet. The young lad squeezed onto the narrow shelf, in behind the lattice, and Bessie covered him up completely, pulling and tugging at the woollens.
‘Anne run and fetch the barley wine. Go!’
A vehicle with three British soldiers screeched into the yard. Two corporals leapt down and began a search of the outbuildings. The officer in charge hastened to the back door where Bessie had steadied herself to greet him warmly. The man introduced himself as Charles Meade, smoothly apologising for the interruption. His mouth was barely discernible underneath the bush of his moustache.
‘We’re searching for one of these insurrectionists. He got separated from his column and we almost had him. Dark civilian clothes. Fair hair. About seventeen or so.’
‘We’ve seen no one.’
Anne returned from the parlour bearing a bottle of ruby liquid, trying to catch her sister’s eye. Pouring a drink for the officer and for herself, Bessie was about to cork the bottle when Anne thrust out a glass of her own. The sisters’ eyes met. Meade draped himself against the chimney breast, facing the dresser opposite. Drinking to their good health, he regretted he had to be on his way, smiling over at Bessie.
Moving to lean her hip against the dresser, Anne ran her fingertips slowly along the wooden edge, kicking her heel rhythmically against the fretwork enclosing the bottom shelf. Her older sister’s throat tightened.
Anne drained her wine demanding to know how dangerous the man on the run was? Jumping in, Bessie advised turning their search towards Sliabh Bhuí; that the fugitive was likely to be ranging across the mountain, hiding out in the gorse. Meade emptied his glass and presenting it to Bessie, he took hold of her hand.
‘May I call on you again sometime?’
‘Certainly,’ came the reply.
The officer gave a slight bow and bid them good evening, taking his leave. Bessie put her finger straight to her lips. Out in the yard, voices were raised and the vehicle horn sounded before it was driven off.
Immobile, the sisters stood, listening to the wind bristling the beech leaves and guttural bleats from sheep on the hillside. They waited on while the blue October sky darkened.
After an age, Bessie began to remove the blankets. She pushed aside the lattice frame and assisted the young lad to crawl out. Whispering that he must leave immediately, she counselled him to go downhill, crossing the fields. He implored her for food and much to Anne’s disgust, she wrapped some bread and ham in a muslin cloth and put it into his hand.
Red-cheeked, Anne pulled open the back door and bluntly ordered the intruder out. ‘Find your friends and fight your war far away from our door!’ As the boy crept past and disappeared behind the stable wall, the dog kept up a ferocious growling and barking.
‘You nearly gave him away!’
‘Would to God I had Elizabeth.’
‘Better a life saved, than taken with a bullet.’
The low ticking of a motorcar echoed around the yard and when the dog didn’t bark, Bessie knew it must be her parents getting their lift home. She undid her housecoat and folded it on a chair. Anne glared over.
‘I will tell… You won’t be forgiven by Daddy for this.’
‘Do what you must.’
Lifting the latch, Anne marched out into the darkness. Bessie moved towards the fire, steeling herself. She listened to the quickening footsteps approach and the force of her father’s hand opening the door.
© Sylvia Cullen
This short story was written as part of Words & Deeds, a project which was funded and supported by Wexford County Council in partnership with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media as part of the ‘Decade of Centenaries 2023 programme’.