She stood at the cottage door watching until man and pony were out of sight along the road. Then she closed the door and went to sit by the fire. She took two lumps of turf from the old basket and laid them carefully on the smouldering embers. As she slowly turned the handle of the bellows, a tear spilled down her cheek. It was the first time in her life that she had not attended the Christmas Market. Through good times and bad, this day had been an important marker every year. The day when livestock and produce was brought to town to be sold or bartered for other goods and services. When secret gifts would be purchased from shops or stalls, and hidden away throughout Advent to be given on the Holy Day.
But this year was different. Not just for Mary and Paddy. For everyone around them. The persistent rains which had rotted the potatoes in the ground had also washed away the road outside the church. On that miserable Sunday morning in October, after Mass, the wheel had grounded in the deep rut and sunk up to the axle. A sickening crack was heard as the spokes tore away from the felloes, and Mary had just time to scramble out onto the road as the trap tumbled onto its side in the ditch. The bentwood shafts pulled the pony sideways, dragging him to his knees. As he struggled to his feet the belly-band snapped allowing the trap to roll further. The traces held for a few seconds, as the pony jibbed in panic, then the hames-strap snapped and the collar fell from his neck. Paddy quickly unbuckled the reins so they slipped through the terrets on the straddle, and glanced over his shoulder at the sad sight of his wrecked trap and burst harness at the side of the road. His young wife was sobbing as her friends gathered round to comfort her. Mercifully she was unharmed, just upset to see their vehicle, their livelihood, destroyed in the blink of an eye.
The past two months had been the hardest times the young couple had ever known, Mary thought as the slow flames flickered around the turf, and a few sparks leapt in the hearth. Her life had never been an easy one. Her mother, at the age of sixteen, had come home late one night after a midsummer fair, the unfamiliar smell of alcohol on her breath. She never could account for the fact that the following March she had given birth to wee Mary. Soon afterwards she left the parish to take up a job as housemaid to a family in Dublin, leaving the baby to be reared by her parents. Mary�s grandfather was a weaver, some said the best in the county. The clickety-clack of his loom was her lullaby, and all her life she had loved the sound, and the smell and the sight of the yarn transformed under his touch into tweed and blankets. When she wasn�t helping her grandmother to feed the chickens or gather the eggs, or carry the milk from the cowshed, Mary would be sitting beside her grandfather at the loom. As the old man�s sight began to fail, she took over the business, and everyone agreed that by the time she was fifteen, her nimble fingers could turn out cloth as fine as any.
The foal was born on Paddy�s 18th birthday. His father said �This is the lad who�ll take you to church on your wedding day, and every holy day after that!� Paddy understood that he would be given the pony when he married. A smile spread across his face but he couldn�t meet his father�s eyes as he mumbled his thanks. The old man had never regarded this day as one of celebration. He remembered it each year not as the day his only son came into this world, but as the day his beloved Annie was taken from him. He had been almost twenty years older than her, and had always expected that she would be there for him in his old age. Their two daughters were ten and twelve years old when the boy was born. They had cared for him as best they could, feeding him goat�s milk till he was old enough to take solid food. Both girls were married before Paddy reached his teens. There was no more schooling for him then. The old man took his bay mare �Maggie� into the town most days throughout the summer months, and made a good enough living as a jarvey. Paddy was expected to keep the house clean, as well as digging the spuds, and cutting hay to feed the ponies through the winter. Maggie would have a foal most years, and it would be sold at the Christmas Market, bringing much needed cash. But the mare was getting on in years too, and both Paddy and his father knew that this foal would be her last.
Three years later, his father proudly handed the reins to Paddy. It was the day he was to marry his lifelong friend, his childhood sweetheart, his next-door neighbour, Mary. The trap had been given a fresh coat of paint for the occasion, and the young couple arrived at the church in a flush of hopeful anticipation. Both were proud that they had skills to earn their living, and neither expected to ever know real poverty or hunger.
Paddy took over his father�s patch in the town, jarveying the visitors during the summer months. When the mare Maggie was found cold and stiff in the pony-shed one morning, it was as if the old man lost his will to live too. Paddy called to see him every evening, bringing a meal that Mary had cooked, but mostly the food would be left on the plate after a few mouthfuls. �I�ve no hunger�, he�d say. �I�ll eat it later, or in the morning.� Paddy suspected that the food mostly ended-up in the old dog�s bowl. Within a month, they were burying him beside his wife. The landlord put a lock on the door, and later in the year, the thatch was stripped from the roof one stormy night and the roof timbers were left exposed. No-one would ever set foot over the threshold again.
Mary was sad that her grandmother had died the year before the wedding. They had tried to trace her mother then, but the letter labouriously written to the house in Dublin where she had found work two decades earlier was returned after a month, marked �Not known at this address�. Mary and her grandfather had cried together that day, each bearing their own private sorrow. The old man had lived on for another year, lovingly cared for by the young couple, but he rarely left the fireside. The rhythmic rattle of the loom often lulled him to sleep, where vivid dreams played over his blind eyes. Then, one morning, he didn�t wake. Mary thought it was the best way anyone could hope to die.
The years that followed brought a level of prosperity to the Weaver�s cottage. The wide doors in the north gable stood open when the weather permitted, and Mary worked long hours to meet the demand for her cloth. Throughout the year, the pony would take them to church and to market, carrying the cloth that Mary wove, bringing home yarn and whatever supplies were needed.
But none could have anticipated the hardships that were to come.
The crop failure was a cruel blow to a population already on the breadline. Butter still had to be handed over to pay the rent on the humble dwellings. The imported yellow corn intended to feed the people was sold by unscrupulous traders at whatever price they could extract. No-one had money to spend on clothes or blankets when there was no food on the table. The tailor was amongst the first to take his family across the Atlantic in search of a better life. The number of visitors to the town fell dramatically. Within two years, the countryside was depopulated by emigration and starvation. Paddy and Mary saw their neighbours leaving the area, heading for the workhouse or the famine-ships. Now the valley that was once lit by dozens of lanterns stood in darkness.
The pony was eight years old now. In his prime, thought Paddy, as they walked side by side along the quiet road, their breaths mingling in the frosty air. Wearing a simple rope halter with a lead-rope dangling under his chin, the pony gave Paddy a nudge on the arm, and whickered softly, almost as though he read the man�s thoughts. With both hands deep in his jacket pockets, Paddy rolled the two shillings around in his left hand. He could hardly believe that their lives could be brought so low. He knew what he must do, but his heart was heavy at the prospect. On the outskirts of the town, a four-wheeled dray pulled by a piebald cob passed him on the road. Paddy thought he glimpsed the bright wheels of a fine little trap tied down under a tarpaulin up on its deck. The sight of it made him catch his breath as the longing for times past tugged at his heart.
The town was quieter than he had ever known it on this day. A few hollow-eyed men stood on the street hoping to find a buyer for their ribby cow or scrawny pig. Paddy made his way past the shops, many of them boarded-up now, and the hotel badly in need of renovation. He had an appointment to keep.
Mary set to work that morning clearing the space in front of the wide doorway of the cottage. She swept the floor and washed the plates and cups. When the watery sun reached its highest point beyond the distant mountains, she heard the rumble of the cart wheels on the road outside, and she knew the time had come.
With about an hour left before darkness, Paddy shouldered the hessian sack, and started to make his weary way home. In the dusk he noticed the dray parked outside a public house. The same tarpaulin covered a load about the same size as the trap he�d noticed earlier, but it seemed to be a different shape somehow. Bending under the weight of his load, Paddy told himself he had done the right thing. Mary would be able to turn this yarn into fine cloth, which would fetch a good price in a few months time.
Four miles away, she wiped the tear from her cheek and looked again along the darkening road, listening for the call of the pony or the familiar whistle as her husband returned from town. She could not stop her eyes from constantly returning to the empty space she had never known before. Again she begged her grandfather�s forgiveness, and hoped that Paddy would understand why she had traded her loom for the good little trap.
Del Richardson Castle Pook Feb 09