Green Colleen

300px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

 

The calls of the stevedores and the calls of the gulls vied for height as Eliza stepped off the gangway.   Turning her back on the dockside and following a hand-drawn map, she made her way to the offices of the Liverpool Courant, the two day passage from Cork unsteadying her legs.  A fine drizzle settled about her shoulders.

Within the high vaulted hall of the newspaper publisher, glass fronted cabinets displayed the pages of the latest editions.  Several of her own forebears had seeped their way along the same Mersey dockside, some to make the heroic journey across the Atlantic, others to fall foul of corrupt city life.    “You’ll find the Classifieds alongside the west wall”, had written her her Aunty Beat, lately of Ballytinowe now in Baltimore,  for such useful knowledge and facts travelled along the fine filigree that stretched between the old world and the new one and all ports between. 

Aunty Beat also cautioned her to ‘step carefully now’.   A clerk at his desk had spotted Eliza, her salt-rimed shoes planted upon the tessellated Neptune in the middle of the floor.  No doubt James Lunn’s whispered offer of a fish supper later that night was a genuine one.  But it should not be overlooked that many a young girl’s ambition had broken after just such a repast with just such a clerk.

Under Situations Vacant, applicants for the position of Maid of All Works at Dennings Hall, Lawfoot Feel were invited to write with their particulars.   Eliza resolved to present hers in person.

The train north followed the long sweep of Morecambe Bay.  The setting sun turned the water fiery orange.   She pressed her balled fists into her lap or else she would bubble over, her life was now coursing along with possibility, distinct possibility.

The morning light was soft and gentle, giving permission to the early insects to hum and buzz in the white frothed hedgerows.  She followed a grooved track over cow pasture, side-stepping the dung, wanting to give the warming horseflies no cause to rise and bite her.  This landscape and this quest for work were not so different from back home, nor was the cruel clench of hunger in her belly.

As the altitude rose, so the meadow grasses gave way to rough moorland.  She stumbled on bleached, sharp edged stones.  A buzzard circled overhead.  A thin wisp of smoke rose from a barley twist chimney just visible through a break in the dark green patch of Cyprus trees.  This she judged by distance and direction to be Dennings Hall.

“I’m here about The Position”.  This she repeated three times – to the maid who stood mutely by the door to the laundry yard, to the housekeeper in the kitchen and then to the butler in his pantry.   She spoke forward in her mouth and guillotined the long vowels to make herself understood above her Co Cavan accent. 

In no time she was well within the house and put to work drawing water from the scullery pump, the housekeeper, short-staffed, counting herself party to the same cast of good fortune that had brought Eliza to her door.  To Eliza, it seemed that a singular rush of courage and good luck had placed her at the well-head, for once.

Lord Furmiston, squire of Dennings Hall, loved water too; his own life force akin to the powerful rush of water along a valley floor that could sweep away a human life as easily as it could roll and tumble a fallen tree.

Water skittered and danced its abundant way down the hillsides of his 3000 hectare estate to creep and seep amongst the horse tail and bulrush.  Marshland being no good for grouse, ptarmigan or pheasant, fastidious creatures, at the start of the year Lord Furmiston’s man had engaged a team of itinerant navvies, six men intelligible only to themselves and Eliza.

Mosquitoes rose now  with the summer’s heat.  Aerial tides brought the year’s swallows and lapwings.  June whispered soft and July blistered.  From the saloon windows, Lord Furmiston watched the diggers and ditchers as they carved their way across and down the fells.  He watched as the men carried hods of broken stone to infill the ditches.  A capillary of runnels spread from west to east, north to south across the hillside.  Slowly, slowly, the design became dimensional.  Man, or men, perfecting nature.  Rising within him, a feeling of satisfaction, as he conducted, albeit largo, his great work.  Earth, stones, men were his to command.

One morning he called Eliza to stand beside him at the window.  He pointed out where the waters would soon rush off the fells through a break in the rocks behind the rhododendrons, tumble down level after level of sheer, flat rock.  A ladies walk would protect them from splashing.  Finally, a fountain would rise in the lawn, controllable by a system of gears and levers for the delight and delectation of visitors.  On windy days, frosty days or quiet days, the fountain would be locked down and the water taken away by underground tunnel, out of sight, down to the River Alstom below. 

Lord Furmiston allowed himself a quiet cough of satisfaction.  The ladies’ feet would remain dry for the shoot, as would those fastidious game birds’, as they scrabbled, honking and hooting, to outpace death.

By and large, Eliza shunned the company of this rough crew.  They did not bring news of home, being Dubliners.  But there was some interchange, naturally. 

The men slept in the stables, above the stalls.  Of a night, Eliza was charged with seeing they had all they needed  – hot water to wash in, coals for the fire (for the summer nights were not warm on the fellside), oatmeal, meat and potatoes for their dinner.  Where James Lunn’s luck had failed him, it would seem that Declan O’Brady was bolder.  He would rush over the courtyard as she advanced towards the outer stone steps, the iron pitcher full of steaming water bumping against her calves, arm outstretched for balance.  He would hold the cotton covers down over the foodstuffs to stop the corners rising in the breeze and covering her face.  She was a gentle reminder of the softness of home – the quiet hum of women together, food and a glowing hearth.  He wanted to pull her to him, wrap her around him, immerse himself in her comfort.

His back was straight, for now, unlike those as bent as the travel of the pick axe at work.  His fingers still slim, knuckles not yet knotted, his breath not yet browned by ale and tobacco.

Sadly for Declan, although his home sickness was deep, his pain mute and prolonged, Lizzie was not about to sweeten the bitterness.   She had her own ache.  Before her, as he hefted the basket from her hips to his, she saw only a rough son of the soil, an inarticulate grin beneath pathetic eyes. 

She would give him no quarter.

Next Lammas Day, all the workers given a half day holiday, Eliza strolled about the gardens, intent.  There was the door, the wood cracked wide and splintered, iron hinges cast as curling fish.  The stone wall and the door itself were sheathed in briers but, following the line of the wall, she found a break where stones had tumbled.  She climbed over, into a green, green space. 

The air was still but the water, thick and gelatinous, within a rectangular, raised lip of stone thirty strides by ten, pulsed as if responding to a subterranean beat.  The silence seemed to hold an instant in time and a century of time.

And the ache came back to Lizzie.

The water shone, luminous green, as if lit from within.  It became the colour of joy, of peace, of home.  Eliza’s body slid in.  Weeds that had lengthened over the decades swayed aside to allow her entrance and then closed over her.  She floated, gazing upwards, as the water gently pooled in her lap, in her clavicle, in her cupid’s bow and sent gentle prying fingers up her nostrils.  The heavy weave of her skirts suckered up the moisture.  Her white sleeves billowed.  Worms of water made their way through the eyelets of her boots, massing together to pull her below. 

Her body was not found until the next day when one of the spaniels set up a whining alert.  The curious ones gathered at the poolside, stiffening when Lord and Lady Furmiston joined them.  “We should give her rosemary for remembrance”, commented Lady Furmiston, having just read an account of Ellen Terry’s Ophelia to Irving’s Hamlet.  “We should get her out of here, that’s what we should bloody do”, rebuffed Lord Furmiston.  He nodded to three of her compatriots, who made the sign of the cross, removed their jackets and gingerly lowered themselves into the water.  Surprisingly, it only came to their waists.  They slipped and slid on the algae-ed floor, as if trying to catch a grotesquely enlarged fish.  Cradled in their crossed arms, she rose above the surface, dripping. 

“A green colleen” commented the doctor as he closed her sightless eyes, picking moss from her cheek.

No blame.  Just another young life smashed on fortune’s rocks.  Not knowing whence to return the body, she was buried in the margins.

Work finished shortly after.  Only Declan O’Brady thought to put flowers on the rudimentary grave before the gang departed. 

The New Year’s Day shoot was a great success.  The trenches, ditches and drains allowed the fashionable, the new breed of financiers, engineers, speculators, barons, to walk from hide to picnic area with no danger of miring themselves.   The fountain was much admired; a perfect combination of beauty and practicality.

Lord Furmiston’s thoughts were, perhaps, also flowers on her grave.  Finally stowing the plans away in the archive, he thought of his Green Colleen.  Taking down a dusty copy of the Winter’s Tale, he found the phrase he was looking for, “lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram” – green and pungent .  He remembered the summer’s day in his study, the sun slanting on her unruly copper hair as she traced the details on the plan, asked about the carp pool.  She should have flowers of middle summer, ‘The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun / And with him rises weeping’.  He would see to it.

And as the ripples of her death spread over space and time, in the tales of the itinerant workers, in the estate records, in the non-return of the Green Colleen, no-one would know the impulse and the ecstasy of her drowning.