Family is Family
Anne Turner (Macquarie University, Australia)
Ruthie and Ciara sat under Pop’s smelly feet on the floor of their smoke-hazed Morris Minor Traveller. Eight people and a dog jammed in together. They were the picture of chaotic, peasant Irish that all the English saw them as. The family was heading to Ireland, as they had every summer since leaving in ’58, sputtering down fast roads to reach the coast for the long ferry ride ‘home’.
Looking up, Ruthie watched her brothers squirming on the seat next to Pop, who was spread in all directions and puffing steadily on his pipe. Conor was trying to sleep off his night shift at the meat works. Little Jacky started a staring competition with her. He was about to lose, so suddenly stomped on Ruthie’s head, then tickled her when she flung her arms up to whack him.
“Gerrof, for the love of Chr-”
“Watch yer mouth, lassie!” Da called from the front.
He turned his bleary gaze to the back in warning and they caught the stale smell of Guinness on his breath.
Tired, bony Ma turned too, cradling the new baby.
“Jacky, now stop that. You know Ruthie can’t abide tickling.”
Ciara rubbed Ruthie’s back as she cuddled up to their mongrel black dog, Paddy McBride, who shared the car floor with them.
Ciara and Paddy were the only ones Ruthie allowed so close.
After the lurching overnight ferry ride, Da found a place to pause. Ruthie wobbled onto the green field for a quick pee before their last leg of the journey to the old family farm.
“I feel a bit funny, Ciara” said Ruthie to her sister.
“It’s just the sea legs, Ruthie. You always get sick.”
“I s’pose. I forget what the aunties look like, though. They’ll think I’m a bad girl!”
“Don’t worry, no one will know. I’ll whisper you which one is which.”
Back in the car, they bumped along narrow lanes and slowed into tiny villages.
Ruthie felt more fluttery the closer they got to the farm. She thought there must be something wrong with her. They always had so much fun here.
Ruthie and Ciara were to stay at Aunty Jean’s place; the boys in the shepherd’s hut with unmarried Uncle Jimmy. The rest would stay with Aunty Theresa and Uncle John in the village.
Family was family and it didn’t matter where you laid your head. The children had grand adventures outside on their own. And Ruthie knew to take the rest as it came. She was a good girl.
As Aunty Jean’s face shadowed the doorway, Ruthie wondered how she could ever have forgotten. Taller than Da, with dark blue eyes and high cheekbones, she was almost beautiful. But the tight grey bun, thin mouth and pointy chin ruined it. The girls suspected Aunty Jean was a witch – she was only missing the wart.
The girls’ room upstairs had two rigid beds, made up with a scratchy wool blanket each. Ruthie immediately pulled her blanket off, added it to Ciara’s bed and climbed in.
“Still?” asked Ciara, “You’re getting a bit big Ruthie, this bed is tiny.”
“You know I’m scared in the dark. Especially here.”
“I know,” sighed Ciara, “I suppose we’ll be warmer anyway.”
In the morning, they were greeted with a whip of their aunt’s tea towel as they tumbled into the kitchen.
They should have made the tea already and collected the milk for her; it would be the spoon next time.
After eating they were to wash up then do chores before she would release them. There was mending needing doing and Jimmy needed help in the barn.
Ruthie went cold.
“Can we both do the mending, please Aunty? The boys could help in the barn.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, lass. The boys are in the fields. Ciara will help me and you can muck out the stalls and be helpful for once.”
Ruthie walked slowly to the barn.
She hated being alone with any grown-up, but smiling, joking Uncle Jimmy filled her with dread. She had never told anyone this, not even Ciara who knew all her secrets and sins.
This sin was too big to tell. Ruthie didn’t even know the words.
Jimmy did what Ruthie knew he would. He always had, sometimes in the barn, sometimes the outside toilet. She only remembered sketches, flashes of hot colour that overcame her in odd moments, in wrestles or the still of night. But this pain between her legs, the need to disguise her hobble, to split herself off from the shameful girl in the barn – none of this was a surprise. It was as inevitable as Aunty Jean’s wooden spoon.
When all the children had finished their chores, they tramped off to the stream to catch taddies. Ruthie pretended to slip, then stayed sitting in the shallow eddies. The chill water soothed her searing insides.
After a while, she forgot the morning, as the siblings gorged on blackberries, then made their own fishing rods. She knew they would never catch anything, but she could have sat there till the stars came out. Then she would dig a little burrow under the trees and curl up like a hedgehog, bristles cocooning her from the world.
Every day, the girls stuck together as much as they could. They tried to wake early to prepare breakfast and avoid Aunty Jean’s wooden spoon. If they stayed on her good side, they got most of the day to themselves.
One afternoon they were called back early for bath night. Ciara was to fill the bath with pots of hot water from the range. Ruthie was to round up grubby children and any grown-ups so inclined for their weekly wash. She found her brothers outside and brought them back to the house with her.
Uncle Jimmy was there. He’d offered to help fill the bath and Ciara was now having hers. Ruthie pulled straws with the boys for who would go next. She got last but didn’t care; she’d be in and out in seconds.
Ciara was cranky that night, sniping at Ruthie for dropping her fork and spilling her tea. She was usually so patient. When Ciara refused to let Ruthie sleep with her, Ruthie cried.
“You have to stop being a baby!” Ciara told her. “Besides, you hog the mattress and kick me all night long! I just want a decent sleep for once!”
For the first time, Ruthie wondered whether she should tell.
He always said she mustn’t tell. It was their secret. She would be in so much trouble if anyone found out what a dirty little girl she was.
But Ciara wouldn’t hate her. Maybe, if she knew, she’d let Ruthie sleep with her again. Maybe Ciara could keep her safe.
By the time morning came, an exhausted Ruthie had concocted a Plan: if he touched her again, she would tell Ciara. They would run away back to England, get a job mending clothes and pay for a room in a posh hotel. Ma and Da would come find them but they would only agree to come home if they never had to see Uncle Jimmy again. Or Aunty Jean, for good measure.
Ruthie smiled to herself as she stirred tea leaves in the pot for their breakfast. She was sure Ciara would like the Plan.
He hurt her again the very next day. Ruthie shuffled out of the dim barn, dazed but determined that it would be the last time.
Ciara was nowhere to be found – not in the house, not in the field, not by the stream. Ruthie remembered the grotto at the top of the hill and kept walking. Ciara was there.
She was kneeling in front of Our Lady, placing flowers on the stone shrine. Ruthie started rehearsing the words to explain her Plan when Ciara’s intoning prayer reached her ears:
“Make him stop, make him stop, I’ll be good, make him stop.”
A sob carried on the wind. Ruthie was stunned. Ciara never cried.
“Ciara?” Her sister didn’t move.
Ruthie suddenly knew what Ciara was praying about. The Plan would have to change slightly. She could rescue both of them.
Ruthie tried to pull her sister up.
“Ciara, we have to run away. He won’t stop. He never stops. But I have a Plan!”
She told Ciara all about it.
Ciara listened to it all, then smiled sadly at her sister.
Ruthie knew the Plan was over before it began. Her bright new courage and hope dissolved into darkness as Ciara spoke.
“Ruthie, darling, we can never tell,” Ciara said. “Ma and Da would die of shame.”
All they could do was try to be good, to earn the grace of God so their punishment would stop.
Ruthie argued feebly, but Ciara knew best.
“You have to promise,” Ciara said.
Ruthie sank to her knees beside her sister and looked up at the Mother of God. Our Lady looked back, her faded stone eyes unseeing.
“I will never tell.”
Anne Turner is a teacher, writer, mother and very busy liver-of-life! She is currently completing her Master of Creative Writing at Macquarie University. Anne draws inspiration for her writing from poignant moments, big and small, in her life and the lives of those extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people around her.