My mother died in March last year, aged almost ninety-three, and we’ve just sold her house. I had time to think about all that today as I walked home from town. There were chestnuts on the ground, and the opening line of a story by Maeve Brennan ran over and over in my head: ‘From the time I was almost five until I was almost eighteen, we lived in a small house in a part of Dublin called Ranelagh.’
From the time I was three and a half until I was twenty-one, we lived in a red-brick house in a part of Dublin called Terenure. Right in the middle of what’s now known as Terenure village, it’s the kind of Edwardian house that became very desirable during the boom, with granite window-sills and sash windows; but when I lived there, and especially when I went to national school at the Presentation Convent, across the main road and up past the shops, it felt vaguely shameful. Six- and seven-year-olds arrived at our school every day on buses from new housing estates to the south, carrying large copper pennies in their mittens for bus fare and to spend on sweets. Their houses were semi-detached, with central heating and lots of light; their addresses tripped off each other’s tongues. They lived in Something Avenue, Drive, Crescent or Grove, and they stared without comprehension at the name of our unheard-of Whitton Road, where the occupants of twenty-eight cold, net-curtained, terraced houses were elderly widows, mostly, and what used to be called maiden ladies along with a couple of maiden gentlemen.
Near my classmates’ homes, I learned by careful listening, were green spaces to play on and lots more children of our own age, and behind the houses lay fields, with hedgerows and trees, where they were free to roam until the bulldozers moved in to build yet more estates. Certain girls among them led the playground games and picked the teams. They had big sisters and brothers, and the rest of us fell silent, faced with their focus and authority. At this time of the year, when we had just moved up a class and changed from ankle socks to knee-socks, with elastic garters to hold them up, those girls, whose schoolbags often lacked essential items, and whose socks were allowed to slip down, came to school with conkers, carrying them carefully in Calvita cheese boxes. I can’t remember that they ever played with them, though there was talk of brothers having conker fights; instead, they held the boxes close, handling their contents rarely, and with reverence, so that we uninitiated ones understood at least that they were precious.
A conker was a chestnut, and the mystery that turned it into a conker was the boring of a hole, with a nail and a hammer – or maybe just a stone – and the threading of a piece of string a foot long or more. Boys ‘conquered’ each other’s chestnuts by smashing them to pieces, and rumour had it that they soaked them in vinegar to make them harder, but nobody on our road did any of that. Some boys came in summer to cannon down the slope opposite our house on what The Beano and The Dandy called soap-box carts, with ball-bearing wheels, and a rope for steering; and in winter, when it snowed, they made slides, pouring water on the snow at night and polishing the ice to lethal smoothness the next day with their shoes. From our front window, in envy and wordless admiration, my little sister and I would watch as those boys launched themselves down the hill towards the main road with its traffic, but we never spoke to them, or they to us.
It took me a long time – perhaps a whole school year – to make the connection between conkers and the shiny red-brown chestnuts we sometimes found in late September and October: horse-chestnuts, of course, since ‘real’ chestnuts and the smell of their roasting still belonged exclusively in books and comics. With no stems to show where they had come from, chestnuts were magical, and had you told me they were the eggs laid by a polished mahogany table, out of which new tables would emerge, I might have believed you.
No trees grew on our road, and only chrysanthemums and London Pride did well in our small gardens. There were no trees either on the way to school, where the playground was all concrete and the nuns’ garden, which we saw from upstairs windows, was closed behind a wall. Trees grew lavishly around Palmerston Park, though, a mile or so away, and today again, on Palmerston Road, I picked up a new chestnut, as I always do when they appear, and put it in my pocket. Our mother used to walk us to Palmerston Park in the summer when we were very young, pushing the youngest in a pram or buggy, which we called a go-car. She’d meet our auntie there, her sister, and they’d sit talking on a bench while we attempted to play. They liked to sit where they could look across the green lawn, with its Victorian planted beds, instead of near the swings, but signs said ‘Keep off the Grass’, and we feared the park keeper with his stick. We didn’t visit the park in the autumn, and if I did find myself in October on a road with chestnut trees, all that remained on the ground most of the time were the spiky, soft green covers, for children living nearer had usually been there first. New, shiny chestnuts, with their enigmatic polish, were rare treasures then. They’re much thicker on the ground now, but still seem to contain the secrets I wished I knew in childhood, and so I pick them up and carry them in my pockets until they lose their shine.
I moved out of Whitton Road at twenty-one, married at twenty-two, and over the next three years lived in two small rented houses in Connemara, a student apartment and a country gîte in Brittany, then a shared house and a garden flat in Dublin until 1977, when my then husband and I bought a house on Cherryfield Avenue, Ranelagh. Built in two phases, before and after the First World War, Cherryfield Avenue is too late for red brick, or granite window-sills, too early for semi-detached. It’s where Maeve Brennan grew up, in the modest, stucco-fronted terraced house where she set her stories of the Bagots and the Derdons, and versions of her own early life.
Like most Irish people in the late 1970s, we’d never read Maeve Brennan. Apart from the wonderful David Marcus, who had taken a couple of her stories for the Irish Press years earlier, the literary world here had never noticed her. She was still in New York; she had struggled with mental illness for up to ten years by then, and the New Yorker, which would continue to support her until her death, would publish just one more piece of hers. My husband and I had just got jobs, I as a junior lecturer at UCD, he as a scientist with An Foras Forbartha. Part of our house deposit was our reward for dire poverty in Brittany: six months on bread and sardines, awaiting increments of my Travelling Studentship, which then arrived all at once, too late to spend. But the real reason we could afford a house was that my intrepid mother had noticed prices starting to rise and had learned from an even more intrepid neighbour, the late Eileen Murphy, of Brighton Gardens, that parents could pledge their own house deeds to secure bridging finance for their children until a mortgage could be drawn down. She had decided to do just that.
We bought at auction in October, breathless, bidding on our own behalf in the Clarence Hotel. This was long before the hotel’s connection with U2, and all I remember is the backs of grey heads in an overheated room, down a gloomy corridor whose terrazzo floor curved up onto the bottom of the walls, like the ones at school. We knew we could afford no more than £16,000, an outrageous sum to us in any case, but decided to go one bid above, in case others might be in the same position. And so we beat our nearest rival by £250, and paid the 25 per cent deposit on the spot. The title turned out not to be in order, however, and it was months before we could turn the key and step into the grim reality of what we’d bought: old carpets and lino, faded curtains, and much dust; a piano-stool full of an old lady’s shoes; torn green wallpaper in the kitchen, with a repeating pattern like the labels on Rose’s Lime Cordial; adhesive plastic over the wallpaper in the tiny third bedroom, and a gas water heater on its wall: relics of an attempt to convert the house into two flats, each with a kitchen, but sharing one small bathroom. Similar water heaters above the bath and kitchen sink would do duty for a while as we renovated in the evenings and weekends, with my family’s help, while my brother and sister alarmed our friends with cryptic references to ‘the old geezer in the bathroom’. We ordered coal, to light fires on our return from work, and bought a paraffin heater for the kitchen, to make it bearable for breakfast and for cooking. Old flannel pyjamas, torn into strips and twisted into short ropes, became draught excluders that we stuffed between the rattling, whistling, single-glazed wooden casement windows and their frames.
It was February when we moved in, and snow was on the ground. A lot of snow, as I remember. Open gates at the top of the avenue led into the Jesuits’ grounds at Milltown Park (the view over those grounds at the back was what had made us want the house), and on the first Saturday my sister and I, bundled up in jackets, hats, scarves, thick socks and wellington boots, went to walk there. No one else was out. We plodded from the grounds of Milltown Park into those of Gonzaga College, and when we reached the far side of several sports fields, drifted snow – frozen against a feeble corrugated-metal fence – allowed us easily to cross over into the lands of the Sisters of Charity. This was Mount St Anne’s, where the Sisters had a girls’ school, a national school, and a sort of urban farm, as well as their Novitiate. On and on we walked, over the snow, in an uncanny rural freedom, less than three miles from the centre of Dublin. But when we reached the serious boundary that separated Mount St Anne’s from the new grounds of Alexandra College, with the Dodder running below on our left between banks of frozen lace, we retreated, and with some reluctance gained the public road.
Eighteen years later, after some heartbreak and many adventures, I came back to Ireland from a two-year stint in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sole owner of the house for nine or ten years by then, I had put in central heating, and the new mortgage I’d taken out had shrunk to manageable size. I talked to the bank about a loan to convert the attic, rescue the bathroom from the chipboard-and-paint job we’d done on it so long ago, and extend the kitchen to let in the morning sun. Soon the builders moved in, and immediately began tearing out the ceiling above the stairwell. All the sooty filth and rubble of seventy years came raining down, and I moved out, to stay in Whitton Road. My father had died about eight years earlier, and my mother had gradually made a new life in her seventies, especially in Daonscoil Átha Cliath, the Dublin Folk School, where she met other retired people, skilled at making creative use of their Free Travel Passes. They went hill-walking, attended lectures and theatre performances, visited galleries and museums, and even went away in small groups on holiday, where by all accounts they had great times. She and I met as friendly equals during those weeks: two busy women living in the same house, chatting when we met in the kitchen.
Mum was out on some Daonscoil expedition one Saturday in October, when I had appointments to meet the builder and the kitchen man in my own house, several hours apart. I went over there about two o’clock, inspected progress and spent half an hour with the builder. I was wearing jeans, boots, a thick off-white cotton sweater with frayed cuffs that I’d bought in the US, and a dark-green wool jacket with patch pockets. Still the cold seeped into my bones, so as soon as the builder left, I went out to walk. For safe-keeping, I took with me the envelope I’d left the previous evening for the engineer in charge, which he hadn’t managed to pick up. It contained a bank draft for the work to date: a loan draw-down of £10,000. Heading up the avenue towards the hospitably open gates of Milltown Park, I passed the window of a neighbour I hadn’t seen since work began and waved to her. When she quickly appeared at her front door, urging me in, I was more than happy to sit talking at her warm fireside and drink cups of tea. Eventually, though, after much chat, I stood up, to get my walk in before the kitchen man arrived at six.
Schoolboys had gone home after rugby practice when I reached Gonzaga, and the air was crisp. I walked along the field perimeters, recalling that inaugural snowy walk with my sister, looking carefully when I came to the corrugated metal fence. Soon I found a join where kids had bent back a triangle of metal, and a reasonably fit woman wearing old clothes could easily squeeze through.
I came into a misty abandoned cabbage field, far behind the convent buildings, where everything was silent. Negotiations were already under way, I think, for the departure of the Sisters and the €100 million development of luxury apartments and houses on the site. Slowly, quietly, I followed the beaten path around the cabbage stalks, beneath the trees, where the occasional sweet wrapper caught in the seed heads of cow parsley was the only clue that schools lay all around. Fallen leaves rustled against my boots in the grass, and I stooped repeatedly as I walked, filling my pockets with that year’s chestnuts.
The light began to fail, and I remembered my six o’clock appointment, and the need to pee. Neither my bathroom in the house, I suddenly realized, nor the tiny new downstairs loo, had a door on it at present. No one was nearby: it was hard to believe that anyone had stepped this way for years, but still, I was on convent grounds, uninvited, in the Sisters’ private land, so it felt headily transgressive to step off the path where it curved into the corner of the field, and hunker down behind tall weeds.
Refreshed, relieved, brave and liberated, I strode out of that field and into the next, and the one after, down the drive and out the gate, to meet the kitchen man as darkness gathered at my front gate. He’d been working all day Saturday in his showroom; he was glad to finish quickly with me and head home to his young family. When I produced handfuls of chestnuts from my pockets for his children, his face at the front door showed bewilderment, then briefly, nostalgia and awkward thanks – or he might simply have been humouring my strangeness. I locked the door in any case, and headed back to Whitton Road.
Mum was still out. I hung my jacket under the stairs and made myself something to eat. Later, washing dishes at the sink, up to my elbows in suds, I smiled, recalling the moments of the afternoon. A dull coldness crept up my back then, before the thought formed words: the white envelope … Where was it? Where was the bank draft for £10,000?
I opened the press under the stairs. Nothing in the pockets of the green jacket. Nothing on the floor. I took the car keys: out into the chilly dark. Nothing on the seats. Nothing on the floor or between the seats or under them. Back into the house. All the coats out from under the stairs: still nothing on the floor; nothing caught in folds of cloth. I was back at the sink, clearly seeing the envelope, addressed to the engineer, propped on the shelf inside the front door in Cherryfield, when Mum arrived home, wind-blown and happy after her day out. Together we looked at the green jacket, with its big patch pockets. Together we agreed that there was no white envelope. I phoned my friend: it wasn’t in her house either.
‘I’ll come with you,’ Mum said, when I realized I’d have to go back to Ranelagh.
Together we peered at the dusty floorboards in the hall, stared into all the corners. My mother, seventy-seven years old, sat calmly in the car while I walked up the road, looking carefully in all the front gardens and in the gutter, but the gates to Milltown Park were locked, so we went home.
Next morning, Sunday, I was there at nine, as soon as the gates were open. Back I walked around the fields, examining every clump of grass, looking under every bush, always with the floating feeling of unthinkable disaster. Once again I got through the twisted gap in the corrugated fence; in a different kind of daylight, I surveyed the still-empty cabbage field. My last hope was the corner where I’d hunkered among the weeds beneath the trees, my pockets full of chestnuts.
And there it was, of course, where it must have slipped from my right pocket as I stood up in failing light. Half on the ground, it leaned damply against withered vegetation, the engineer’s name just about legible still. The small creatures of the night had gnawed and nibbled away the edges of the flimsy envelope, but nothing that could read had seen it, for inside was the bank draft, printed on heavy paper, and only slightly stained, made out to the engineer’s limited company. I learned later that had I not found it, there would have been no remedy: I might as well have left ten thousand pounds in bank notes in the corner of a field, where perhaps a nun might walk once or twice, before the bulldozers came.
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