The Woman of the House

The Woman of the House

by Alice Taylor

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780863222498
Publisher: Brandon Books
Publication date: 12/31/1999
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 7.78(h) x 0.85(d)

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Chapter One

    There was no key for the front door of Mossgrove, nor had there been for as long as Kate could remember, but her grandfather had fitted a large iron bolt to stop the door shuddering on stormy nights.

    The east wind would whip up along the valley and blow in underneath the heavy door, shaking it in its wooden frame and rattling the brass knob. With the first rattle her grandfather would get up from his armchair by the fire and go out into the front porch where he would shoulder the old door firmly into position and shoot the bolt. Then he would throw a knitted jumper that he had worn for many years during the winter ploughing along the bottom of the door. The heavy old jumper was a patchwork of darns, but it kept out the draught and soaked up the driving rain. He was an old man at that time and the cold chilled him. She had been eight when he died twenty-four years ago, but she could still remember him.

    As Kate turned the brass knob with its familiar dents, and the door did not open she knew immediately that Martha had it bolted on the inside. The first time this had happened Kate had felt a sharp stab of rejection, for this had been the front door of her childhood and had always stood open in summer. Every year the ivy had grown down around it and her mother had peeled it back gently so that it had thickened to form a deep fringe above the lintel and two long curtains down the sides. Each time the stations came to Mossgrove it had got a fresh coat of paint. Over the years it had worn many different coloured coats, but when the hot sun of a few summers dried andsplit the top one, all the others hiding underneath peeped out and gave the old door a rainbow appearance.

    Kate had felt some of her childhood carved away when Martha, soon after her arrival in Mossgrove, had stripped it of all its coats and painted it a pristine white. Now it was glossy and perfect, but it no longer smiled in welcome.

    As a child Kate had sat on the warm flagstone outside this door doing her lessons. Her schoolbooks would be scattered on the step when she wandered out into the garden to pick some of her mothers Gallica roses. She would bury her nose in their dark velvet petals and breathe in their heavy rich fragrance. Sometimes she had eased the petals apart and laid them between the pages of her schoolbooks. There for a short while they would hold the musky scent, but gradually it would die and the petals crinkle up until all that remained of their former beauty was the faded pink colour. Other evenings she would pick daisies from around the garden and sit on the doorstep making daisy chains while Bran snoozed beside her. Often he would wake up with a start to snap at inquisitive flies who insisted on investigating the inside of his nostrils or the dark channels of his ears.

    This doorstep had been her favourite place. From here she could watch the birds around the garden darting in and out under the hedges and bushes. She had discovered all their nests secretly tucked away. The wren had the best nest of all, a ball of feathery fur with her own front door knitted into the centre. When she sat on her eggs her brown beady eye peered out. Kate decided that she was far wiser than the crows who built their nests on the top of the beeches at the bottom of the haggard to be tossed back and forth on windy days.

    Standing on the doorstep she could see down along the fields of Mossgrove and over to the farms on the hills across the river. The house faced south into the warmth of the sun and had its back to the cold north where Grandfather had planted sheltering belts of trees. The summer before he died, when she was seven, he used to sit out here in his chair and doze in the sun, his thick black stick against his large bony knees and his long white hair falling sideways like a pale curtain over his face. It was her job then to pick up his pipe when his grip loosened in sleep and it slipped to the ground.

    Years later, when she returned on holidays while nursing in England, she had opened this door to feel the house welcome her back. She had loved to creep in quietly and take them by surprise. A flood of joy lit up their faces when they saw her and it washed away the loneliness of the big impersonal hospital in London. Her mother with her strong, kind face. A face that had endured suffering but had not been bowed by it. She would open her arms wide, and as they wrapped around her Kate felt the warm love fuse through her. Then darling Ned, tall and athletic, who to hide the emotion of his delight in her return would swing her around the kitchen to welcome her back. And always with them Jack Tobin, who had been her father figure in the world of Mossgrove and whose eyes glowed with joy to see her.

    But now there was no warm feeling, no open door and no welcome. The door was not normally bolted but when Martha saw Kate coming she bolted it. She was deprived of the old freedom of just walking in. The neighbours had never knocked on the front door of Mossgrove or any other house in the townland. They just walked in and announced their arrival by whistling or singing or even talking aloud to themselves. It was one of the local unspoken practices that everyone observed. The only ones who knocked were strangers or people unsure of their welcome. The fact that she now had to knock forced Kate into that category. From Martha there was never a welcoming smile, only a lift of the eyebrows and a cool "Oh it's you" as she would turn on her heel and Kate would have to swallow hard and follow her in.

    Martha had started this practice soon after her arrival in Mossgrove. A few years later she had a porch built at the back of the house with a door out into the farmyard so that the farm traffic came in that way. Kate had made the mistake of thinking that she too could use it. Martha had informed her that she would prefer if she used the front door as the back way was only for the family, although sometimes Kate had found herself outside the front door being told from behind the bolted door to go around to the back.

    This place where she had grown up had a deep grip on her. The little saplings that her grandfather had planted were now big trees, and she had watched them grow. Even to walk down the fields with the familiar names where she had picked mushrooms and blackberries stirred forgotten memories and made her feel at one with this place. Ned understood how she felt because he shared her feeling. It was an unspoken agreement between them that they never discussed Martha. She was his wife and would have to be accepted gracefully into the fold.

    Now as the January east wind whipped up the valley Kate shivered and realised that she had been standing in the cold for too long. Just as she was about to put her hand up to knock at the door, it was whipped open. Martha looked down on her with veiled hostility. Tall and slim, she favoured long dark dresses and wore her glossy black hair caught back in a knot which accentuated her high cheek bones and large dark eyes. She always put Kate in mind of a graceful black swan.

    "What are you standing there on the doorstep for?" she demanded now, looking down at Kate.

    "Just thinking," Kate told her evenly.

    "Fine for those who have the time," Martha said dismissively, sweeping into the kitchen ahead of her. Before every visit Kate had to brace herself not to feel cowed in her presence. Martha never showed the slightest interest in anything that she did or inquired about her work as district nurse.

    "I'm going away on a course at the end of next week. "Kate attempted to make conversation.

    "Nice for you," Martha said sharply and continued to write on a pad at the table. She's trying to freeze me out, Kate thought, before Ned and Jack come in. She knew that they had a cup of tea together in the kitchen every morning and she wanted to wait for them.

    Kate looked around the spotless kitchen. Martha might not be a loving sister-in-law but she was an efficient housekeeper. The long dresser that stretched the entire length of the wall at the end of the kitchen was loaded with ware and beneath it the kitchen pots were neatly stacked. On one end of the dresser was a white enamel bucket full of fresh spring water that was drawn daily from the well and on the other end another gleaming bucket which was filled each morning with milk from the churn in the yard. To the left of the dresser the stairs curved upwards, and beneath them a door opened out into the back porch which had been rechristened the scullery. In the yard behind the scullery all the farm activity took place and could be viewed through the back window of the kitchen. Kate now sat on a chair beside this window and was glad of the warmth of the fire while Martha sat at the kitchen table beneath the front window that looked out into the garden.

    As they heard the clatter of the pony and cart coming into the yard, Kate looked out the window. Across the yard Ned and Jack chatted as they unloaded the churn out of the creamery cart. As it was January and only some of the cows had calved, there was just one churn. The small wiry figure of Jack had an agility that belied his sixty-five years. He eased up the tight-fitting cover and wheeled the heavy churn full of separated milk to the edge of the cart and tilted it towards the big barrel on the ground. Ned reached up to steady the churn, lowered it slowly until a white river of milk poured down into the waiting barrel and then swung the empty churn out of the cart.

    Years of physical work on the land had filled Kate's slim brother out into a solid muscular man and turned his blonde mane of hair into a bronze thatch. Easy-going by nature he moved calmly and quietly through life. She was the one with the inclination to be hasty. Jack had said that they took after the two different sides of the family: Ned tall, calm and measured like their mother Nellie, and herself small and dark, with the impetuous nature of their grandfather Edward Phelan.

    The back door opened and they came in together. Ned had to stoop to come in clear of the door, but Jack, who was at least six inches shorter, had no such problem.

    "Hello," Ned smiled at her. "I saw your bike outside. We seldom see you on a Friday morning."

    "I had to make a call back this way, so I thought that I'd hit the tea after the creamery."

    "Good," he told her, going to the dresser and taking down some cups. "Do you want me to make the tea, Martha?" he asked.

    Martha rose silently and catching the teapot off the dresser went to the kettle that was boiling over the fire. Kate caught Jack's eye and understood that normally the tea would have been on the table for them.

    "How are you, Jack?" she asked.

    "Grand," he told her. "We're not too hard pushed at the moment though we have some of the cows calved."

    Most farm workers took the month of January off, but Jack was not the usual run of the mill and even helped out over Christmas.

    "Aren't you going away on your course soon?" Ned asked.

    "The end of next week," she told him.

    "Will it be a bit of a holiday?" Jack smiled.

    "I doubt it," she laughed. "I haven't studied for a good few years so my brain is probably gone rusty."

    "By God, Kate, if your brain is rusty I'd hate to see into my old model," Jack declared. "It's probably suffering from dry rot."

    "Jack, you're as sharp as a needle," Ned assured him.

    "It's well for some people who can have a few weeks off whenever they feel like it," Martha intercepted coolly. "But then again when you haven't husband or children there's nothing to stop you from doing what you like."

    "It isn't a holiday," Kate said evenly; "it's part of the job."

    "Well, some of us don't have cushy jobs with plenty of time off," Martha told her sharply.

    Kate had to constantly remind herself not to rise to the bait. She had inherited the quick temper of her grandfather but so far had kept it in check where Martha was concerned. She could never let anything come between herself and Ned. With her father and mother gone he was the only family she had left, and they had come through a lot together, what with their father's early drinking and sudden death and watching their mother struggle to keep Mossgrove going. Now thankfully times were good in Mossgrove. Ned was an excellent farmer, but of course Jack had trained him well. Kind and faithful Jack who was the backbone of the place. She looked across the table at his brown weather-beaten face and thought that they could never thank him enough for all he had done for them.

    He had cushioned her against the reality of her father's drinking. After his death, Jack had assured her that her father had been a good man, and he had related stories of their early days in school together. It had been important to her then to think well of her father. Her mother, like Jack, had never pointed out her father's weaknesses to her, and for that she was grateful to them. Ned had woken up to the reality much earlier, but then he had been a few years older.

    "What are you dreaming of, Kate?" Ned asked, smiling at her across the table.

    "I was just thinking what a great job yourself and Jack have made of Mossgrove compared to the way it was when our father died," Kate said.

    "He wasn't up to much by all accounts," Martha commented.

    "Well, I suppose," Jack put in easily, "we're all as good as we can be in one way or another."

    Good man, Jack, she thought, always the one to pour oil on troubled waters. She could see Ned's jaw tighten so she rose from the table.

    "I'd best be on my way," she said, "but I'll probably see you all again before I go away next week."

    "I'll walk up the boreen with you," Ned told her. "I want to check the sheep in the well field anyway."

    As they walked up the boreen her brother drew his pipe out of his pocket. When he had checked that there was still some tobacco in it, he lit up, drawing deeply until he was satisfied that it was lighting sufficiently well to keep going.

    "You'd want to get a new pipe," Kate told him; "isn't there a crack in that one?"

    "There is, and I'll get a new one some time," he smiled.

    They walked on together in companionable silence, but she sensed that Ned was thinking out something that he was finding it difficult to say.

    "Kate, I would never want you to feel that you aren't welcome here," he began slowly. "When we were growing up, you put in a lot of hard work to keep this place going. You're entitled to be treated well here."

    She knew that he was apologising and her heart ached for him. She put a hand on his arm.

    "Ned," she told him, "it will never be a problem."

    "Thank God for that," he said, his face clearing. "We're the only two Phelans left, so we might as well stick together."

    "What about your children?" she smiled. "Nora and Peter are the next generation of Phelans and the future of Mossgrove."

    "That's right," he agreed cheerfully. "Peter seems to like school better than Nora, and I hope that when it comes to it that he will like the farming as well. Jack says that he's more like our father than the old man. It makes me smile sometimes the way Jack always refers to our grandfather as the old man."

    "I suppose that's because our father was never an old man. When Jack started here as a young fellow our grandfather must have been in his prime, and Jack saw him become an old man," Kate said.

    "As far as Jack is concerned, Grandfather was the one who created Mossgrove," Ned smiled, "and he has kept him alive around this place by constantly talking about him."

    "He certainly did that," Kate agreed, "but to me it was Nellie who gave the heart to Mossgrove because she was so easy and uncritical of everything that we did."

    "She was great," Ned agreed; "she worked hard but she never became hard."

    "Strange how we always called her Nellie," Kate mused, "almost as if she was a sister rather than our mother."

    "In a way she was a bit like a sister, wasn't she?" Ned said. "And then of course Jack always called her Nellie, so we picked it up off him after our father died."

    "Jack and herself were a great team, weren't they?"

    "The best."

    "He loved her of course."

    Ned came to a standstill, his face full of surprise.

    "I never thought of it like that," he said slowly. "It never even crossed my mind."

    "Somehow I always felt it, and in the end I think that she grew to love him too. It was an unspoken understanding between them."

    "That's a revelation to me," Ned said quietly.

    "I can never remember being surprised by it, because it was an awareness that grew on me over the years and it made home a warmer place," Kate told him thoughtfully.

    "Was I blind or something?" Ned asked.

    "Not at all. Maybe because I was away from here I could see things more clearly."

    "When you were away they talked about you all the time, but of course when you got the job here they were over the moon. It was new life to them."

    "To me too," she confessed. "I love nursing, but doing what I'm doing now is more than nursing. You're going into people's homes and becoming part of families, sharing their joys and their tragedies. You can work as many night hours as day, but I enjoy it."

    "It's so good to be doing what you like," Ned said seriously, stopping to relight his pipe. "I don't think that our father liked the land and some day I must ask Jack about that. But if ever I bring it up he kind of shies away from it," Ned finished in a puzzled voice.

    "Jack would be very slow to criticise Dad," Kate told him. "But those few years before Dad died must have been a very rough time, with Dad squandering money that was needed for Mossgrove. Jack probably does not want to remember those days," Kate concluded.

    "But it would be well to know," Ned said thoughtfully, "and we might learn from past mistakes."

    "Why, what makes you say that?" Kate asked curiously.

    "I'm thinking of Peter," he answered. "Jack says he's like our father, so I don't want history to repeat itself. I'd like Peter to have more schooling than I had, and there seems to be no way around it only boarding school. But he'd probably hate being away."

    "He's finishing in the Glen school this summer, isn't he?" Kate asked.

    "He is, and the nearest secondary school is twenty miles away, so we'll have to come to some kind of a decision over the next few months," Ned said.

    "Would anybody ever think of starting a secondary school in the village I wonder? The place around here badly needs one."

    "That would be too good to be true."

    "Well, you've six months to get things sorted out," Kate told him, "and a lot can happen in six months."

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The Woman of the House 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
mazda502001 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This Irish author has opened up a new line of books for me. I will definately be reading more by her - a lovely book.Back Cover Blurb:It is a story of love for the land, love for the Irish countryside and village life of over 40 years ago. This love is handed down from generation to generation but that love can cause jealousy between neighbours, which can turn to violence. The family - the Phelans. The house - Mossgrove.
Cailin on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Great book about the ups and downs of a farm family in Ireland. The book can be a little slow so this is one you want to read when you're relaxed and have patience to get through it. The Woman of the House is a sweet story set in Ireland about the Phelan family and their neighbors the Conways. I look forward to the 2nd book in the series.
Fiorghra on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Great book about the ups and downs of a farm family in Ireland. The book can be a little slow so this is one you want to read when you're relaxed and have patience to get through it. The Woman of the House is a sweet story set in Ireland about the Phelan family and their neighbors the Conways. I look forward to the 2nd book in the series.