As I bent down, once again creating another stook I cursed my husband. Freaking turf, it was bad with the company of a man but all this bending and stretching in the dry wind on top of the bog was crap without him. I’ll get this row done and go see how the bog tea is brewing, three hours of this back-breaking labour calls for the special tea that tastes like the milk and honey of the Promised Land. Oh, Dan, I do so miss him.
It was his words that ran through my mind like a rural rule book, “Girl, a fierce day at the bog, saw young Jerry Pa, what a scoundrel! His father, a great man, will be reeling in his grave. His turf will be wet and heavy that’s for sure. It’ll never draw fire, that’s for sure. You should’ve seen him, the cocky little sod. No turning or footing, making some giant stook at the edge of the bank like one of the sculptures on the side of the road. It’s no way to treat the sods. Ye have to take time, turn it, leave it to dry in the wind for at least two weeks, then foot it.”
“What’s a foot, Dan?”
I was a naïve city girl, civilised, used to imported Polish smokeless coal. We were just married, Dan had said not to go up to the bog this first year because the midges would know I was a wee blow-in. Till he met me, well no, till we started courting, as he put it, Dan was a fully paid-up member of the bachelor club with thirty-five years under his belt, never had time, so he said, for the girls in the village and then they all got themselves married or moved away.
According to village gossip, I was the flighty piece from the city, twenty-two years in my cotton socks. The old men of the village had me pegged as a gold-digger, only in it for Dan’s cash, they warned him frequently about my feminine wiles.
If they only knew how we met; six years previous to our wedding I was actively running away from home. I was a bit mussed up, sitting on the train, no clear plan, just to get away. Dan sat down opposite but when the train lurched to a stop we bumped heads and in the ensuing apologies we began to talk. He chatted to me like I was a person, not like mam always treating me like a child. Told me all about his trip to the city to see a solicitor. He was chuffed to bits because Auntie Cissie had left him a few acres and a cottage with a chimney.
“Don’t all houses have chimneys?”
“Ah, in the city you probably get them without don’t you. Those on the gas, or electric? In the country, it means you have a wee bit of bog. Each bog was split up and if you had a house in the area on the day they split you got a strip of the bog. The saying goes ‘the bank goes with the chimney’. The new house doesn’t get banks.”
He told me about his Auntie Cissie and her south-east facing bank of turf, her couple of acres of mature trees and her house built in 1945 when Uncle Peter came home. Cissie was the only one who knew he painted, he’d wanted to go to college, but there was no money and he daren’t have told his daddy so he got work as a carpet fitter in the nearby town and began to save.
When the train started again we shared our food and in a very serious voice Dan asked for my address, not my phone number, not that I would’ve given an old man my phone number, but he asked for my address. I felt so grown-up writing out: 13 Poplar Crescent, Mayfield, Cork. He folded the paper and put it in his wallet then produced a fiver. He told me to go home, he said if I didn’t go home I’d never get his letter. I reluctantly agreed although I was looking forward to receiving mail.
He wrote, it arrived two weeks later, full of news from his new house, full of plans, he asked my opinion on colours and asked a whole bunch of questions about school and home. I wrote straight back telling him all the goss from school, tales about our Darro, my troublesome little brother, Mammy and her hips and Daddy and his allotment. I began to tell him how I hated school and how I loved my Nana who died earlier that year. I had filled four A4 pages when I wrote, write back soon.
Dan got my head around school, slowly in the letters he suggested careers, courses, subjects. We wrote to each other by return, never letting a week go without a letter dropping on the mat in either house. I did okay in my leaving and got a place at the Institute of Technology doing business. He began to come up to Cork on the odd Saturday, we’d have lunch in the old Roches Stores and then off to the pictures on Grand Parade. On fine days we went for long walks by the Lee out to the Carrigrohane Straight.
He’d been made redundant, people were putting in wooden floors and there was little call for carpets and he had no prospects of getting another job. Auntie Cissie’s house was being transformed and each visit he’d regale me with tales of windows, loft conversions and insulation thanks to his savings and redundancy package. Dan described everything so well I could almost see the cottage; one long hallway with the rooms coming off it on both sides. On the left was a den, a single bedroom and the master. On the right was a small kitchen with a new extension housing a scullery and utility room. The bathroom was next and a study, finally another single bedroom. The loft extension was Dan’s studio, his painting was still hidden from the world but now he had the space to explore his artistic streak. Outside, raised beds growing veg, fruit bushes and trees. Chickens, ducks and a bad-tempered goose had been joined recently by a female goat.
On my nineteenth birthday, Dan arrived in his new acquisition, an old van. We ate in a Chinese Restaurant and over coffee Dan put a small jewellery box in front of me.
“Lilian, will ye marry me?”
“I don’t know, yes, no, yes, I think, I mean we haven’t even kissed.”
Dan smiled shyly and suggested we take care of that straight away. Of course, I knew Dan was the man for me, I had always known.