Noon in front of the pub-cum-grocery: those were the instructions. Viola was the first to arrive at the crossroads. No jeeps, no horse boxes. She cursed herself for being punctual.
A man mowing in the churchyard three fences over stopped his work to stare at her. She felt ridiculous in starchy jodhpurs and one of Cormac’s riding jackets – red and white, like something out of an old painting. She would have dismounted if she hadn’t been afraid she wouldn’t be able to get back up again.
She’d forgotten the horse’s name already. She would give it her own name, something unthreatening: Geraldine, perhaps. Geraldine the horse. She’d collected it that morning from the Rollestons’ stables. Cormac hadn’t been around; his mother, Margo, said he had gone to help with the hounds. Margo had retrieved the horse for her and was clearly alarmed at Viola’s lack of finesse at getting into the saddle.
‘Are you quite sure you don’t need a hand there?’ Margo spoke with the same clipped aristocratic cadence as her husband, Kenneth. Viola looked at her boyfriend’s mother, standing there in her quilted vest jacket and wellies. Just go back inside, Margo, and tend to your pregnant bitches: the thought came with a venom that surprised her.
It was a knuckle-rawing day. A GAA flag tied to an electricity pole flapped darkly, like a crow. Geraldine began to stir, and Viola pulled the reins tight: she felt sick to her stomach. She hadn’t been on a horse since the summer she was fifteen and staying at her uncle’s farm. Her cousins, faintly disbelieving that she couldn’t ride, had taught her. It had seemed easier then.
For weeks Cormac had been pressing her to join them on the hunt. The Rollestons’ Saturday-morning rituals had come to seem like an elaborate performance for her benefit: Cormac rooting through the general chaos of the big house for his riding crop, Kenneth carefully filling a hip flask with his favoured ratio of brandy and port, Margo complaining that she couldn’t go along because of her degenerating joints. Eventually, Viola relented. After all that, it seemed odd that Cormac had left her to fend for herself this morning.
Soon the crossroads was thronged with four-by-fours and trailers, snorting horses, men and women in sturdy boots and fleece jackets. Viola could discern two distinct sets: the tweedy, horsey Anglo-Irish, and the outdoorsy Catholics with thick midlands accents. It was either field glasses or binoculars, beagles or bagels.
Cormac arrived at last, unfolding himself from the passenger side of a jeep hitched to a trailer. He caught her eye and approached her with long, skating strides. He was tall, much too tall for her; she still had to adjust herself to him. As always, the sight of him warmed her.
He was a local like her, but until a year she had never spoken to him. They had different churches, different schools, different pastimes and pubs. She’d known him to see, of course – everyone knew the residents of the big house. Gangly, red-haired Cormac and his small, stately father strode around the village with a certain mismatched charm. They ran a business together making artisanal cheeses, Cormac’s role as sales rep meaning he was often out of town.
She was working in the local pharmacy, after a couple of post-college years failing to find steady work in Dublin. The string of marketing internships she took didn’t pay, and the dole barely covered her rent. It was with a distinct sense of failure that she accepted her parents’ roof and the pharmacy job. The old pair were fine – they quietly pottered about their own lives and didn’t ask too many questions – but it depressed her to be back home. She most feared seeing her old secondary schoolmates around the town; something in their smiles told her that they were happy she’d come crawling back, her city experiment a failure.
Working in the pharmacy wasn’t without its voyeuristic pleasures. An old teacher turned out to be bipolar; a father of five had erectile dysfunction; a friend’s kid sister was already on the pill. She enjoyed talking to the locals, too, helping to ease their small ailments. Cormac had come in sneezing one day, eyes streaming, and that was that. A generic antihistamine: her first love-gift.
He squinted up at her now and nuzzled his head against the horse’s. ‘Oh, do come down from there.’
‘It took three goes to get up in the first place.’
‘Come on – you must see the hounds.’ He grabbed her waist – her hips small jutting points in his palms – and pulled her down.
The dogs were howling. P.J. Killackey, who looked after the pack, got out of the driver’s side of the jeep. Viola had known him all her life. He’d played hurling with her father back in the day, and was still involved with the club as a medic. He steered his beer belly gracefully through the crowd. Some of his upper teeth were missing, and when he spoke the words whistled through the gaps.
‘Good mornin’, Miss Coughlan.’
His mode of address wasn’t down to chivalry, Viola knew; it was just that he couldn’t remember which of the Coughlan sisters she was. Still, it was good to see a familiar face. ‘Morning, P.J.’
She peered into the trailer. The dogs were piled on top of each other. P.J. told her there were thirty-eight of them. The wailing escalated. ‘Ah, sure they’re only rarin’ to go.’
He opened the grate, and the dogs spilled out like grain. Their howls took on a happier, puppyish tone. They busied themselves by twining around the nearest pair of shins or by pissing against the chunky tyres of the jeeps. They excited the horses, who gave great shuddering neighs; Geraldine bucked a little, tottering on her back legs, and Viola was glad to be on solid ground.
A man leading a chestnut horse through the sea of dogs raised a gloved hand to Cormac. ‘The old man here yet? We’re about to get moving.’
‘He should be along soon.’
The man, whose tanned, lined face made him older than he was, smiled uncertainly at Viola. ‘Are you the fieldmaster?’
‘It’s one of my father’s jackets,’ Cormac said. ‘Sorry Jonathan, this is my girlfriend, Viola. We’re inducting her today.’
Jonathan looked delighted. ‘Are we now? Pleasure to meet you, Viola. Well, I suppose we know who wears the pinks in the relationship, what!’
She laughed, because it seemed appropriate, but she didn’t know what he was talking about, and his gaze unnerved her: it was appraising, as though he was itching to examine her teeth. He snapped the cuffs of his gloves. She was relieved when he was called away by someone else.
She looked at Cormac. ‘Pinks?’
‘Your coat. The fieldmaster – the, uh, leader – usually wears them.’
She held up her sleeve. ‘This is red. Also, I thought you were lending me your jacket.’
‘You’d be lost in it. Dad is much closer to your size. And look, it’s still a bit big on you.’ He fussed with her lapels, brushing against her breasts with a smirk. She pulled away.
‘I thought you were lending me yours,’ she repeated. He said nothing, but blinked in a way that let her know he was counting to ten.
She’d asked Cormac, once, why Kenneth and Margo never had any kids of their own.
‘I am their own,’ he said.
They were walking in the hills behind the big house. Viola could see her own parents’ house from here, a tiny pinprick on the horizon.
‘I always wondered about your name, y’know? It’s not a very … Protestant name.’
‘Viola’s not a very Catholic name.’
‘Are you saying Catholics don’t read Shakespeare?’
Abruptly he swung her into his arms and kissed her, a long, deep slaking kiss. She gently shoved him away.
‘But you know what I mean. Are they not able to, or?’
‘I suppose not. They’ve had sex, if that’s what you’re asking.’
‘Stop.’ She swatted him.
He grinned. ‘There were definitely … issues. They always wanted a son, and they chose me. That’s how my mother always explained it to me, anyway.’
Viola thought of Margo’s puppy-breeding obsession. ‘I bet it’s your mother who can’t … you know.’
‘Jesus, V, does it matter?’
She should have known to leave it there, but she didn’t fully credit his indifference. ‘Are you not even a bit curious about your biological parents? Like, what if they contacted you? Would you …?’
He shrugged. ‘Well, that hasn’t arisen. But probably not. I mean, what would I say? “Oh wow, you have red hair too and are tall. Thanks for having me.”’
‘Come on.’ He stretched out the arm that was holding her hand and wheeled her around. ‘Let’s go home.’
At last Kenneth appeared, stomping down the road on a black horse even bigger than Geraldine. He acknowledged his son, but didn’t even glance at Viola.
‘Are you all right?’ Cormac whispered to her.
She forced a smile. She felt shivery in her skin; Kenneth looked apocalyptic on that horse. Until now, she hadn’t really considered the possibility of blood being spilled.
‘Are you expecting to actually, y’know … kill a fox?’
Cormac shrugged. ‘That’s the hope.’
‘Girl needs a bit of reassurance, Cormac,’ said Jonathan. ‘The fox’s options are endless. He can go to ground. If he crosses the river, the hounds lose his scent. He can retrace his steps. Believe me, Viola, there’s more chance of one of us falling off and breaking our necks than there is of a fox being killed.’
Cormac stared at him. ‘That was reassurance?’
‘Ah don’t mind them, Miss Coughlan,’ P.J. said. ‘In my time I’ve only seen two foxes killed, and one had only three legs, and the other was fierce old.’
One lazy afternoon in bed, with the rain machine-gunning the old window panes, she’d explained to Cormac that she got the hunt, she really did, apart from the fox-killing part.
‘Why don’t you just go out for the ride?’ she’d asked. ‘Dress up in your fancy pants and run with your dogs?’
‘Because it’d be like playing tennis without a net.’
Cormac’s ceilings were high, the walls lined with bookshelves and portraits of what she assumed were ancestors. She could hear Kenneth pacing in the cold stone hallway, knew the tread of his feet.
‘I saw it happen once, when I was eleven,’ Cormac said. ‘Didn’t go back on a hunt till I was fifteen.’
‘You see? It’s traumatizing!’ She traced a hand over his pale chest. ‘What happened?’
‘Well, a few of us got separated from the main group. We were lagging behind, trying to catch up. Suddenly we could hear the dogs howling like some horrible wind. We turned a corner and they were running straight for us. The whole pack.
‘I managed to halt the pony just as I saw this flash of rust red bob up in front of the dogs. It was almost part of the pack, you know? I wouldn’t have taken any notice of it if the dogs hadn’t. It was small, a cub really. When it saw us it didn’t seem to know what to do with its paws, each one went the opposite way. Then the dogs converged on it. I really couldn’t see or hear anything, apart from a few snaps like … twigs. When the hounds finally pulled apart, there was nothing left but the odd clump of fluff. Dad was raging there was no fox brush for him to take home.’ He paused. ‘It was very quick, nothing wasted. It almost bothered me.’
‘You wanted blood and guts?’
He laughed and rubbed the jutting bone at the top of her spine. ‘Every eleven-year-old wants blood and guts.’
‘Then how come you didn’t you go back till you were fifteen?’
His elbow was on the pillow, propping up his head, red as the fox’s. ‘I just couldn’t help thinking – is that it?’
Kenneth’s arrival signalled the start of the hunt. The forty or so riders were elevating themselves gracefully onto their horses. Viola gave Cormac a meaningful look; he boosted her into her saddle.
She saw P.J. getting back into his jeep. ‘Aren’t you riding, P.J.?’
He indicated the binoculars hanging around his neck. ‘Spectator only! Spectator and first-aid man.’
They filed into a field and began cantering up the grassy slope. The hounds banded together tightly and soon picked up a trail, stringing the riders into a dense evergreen wood. Viola had forgotten the exhilaration of being carried this way. She was already anticipating having to walk on her own two feet again, the jelly-legged spaceman feeling of it. The foliage raked her arms, and a rain-soaked branch slapped her face, leaving her scratched and with a sappy taste in her mouth. She laughed, the sound lost in the whooping of the dogs and the drumming of hooves.
Out the other end of the wood, the dogs were bottlenecking. Jonathan dismounted and opened a gate; the riders slowed to ease through in pairs. Viola felt a hand on her back.
It was Kenneth. He was squinting at her from under his shaggy grey fringe. He grew his hair that long just to prove he still could, she thought. He was smiling closed-mouthed.
‘You’re doing just fine.’ His black horse gave a derisive snort.
She glanced around for Cormac. He was ahead, talking to Jonathan.
Kenneth looked at her, his raincloud eyes delving into her own. ‘Don’t worry. The boy has no idea.’
The previous Wednesday, Cormac and Kenneth had brought her to the stable and introduced her to each impossibly long, bobbing head that protruded over the stall doors. Take your pick, Cormac said – proud of the horses, proud he could offer her one. Proud of her, too. Kenneth suggested a pony. Just to spite him, she went for the seventeen-and-some-odd-hands mare.
‘She’s beautiful,’ she insisted, with awe in her voice so the men wouldn’t argue.
Kenneth spoke. ‘And you last rode a horse when?’
‘I was a teenager. It’s probably like riding a bike, right?’
Cormac smirked at her over the top of his father’s head. Last weekend, while he was in Dublin at some food festival, Viola had been in this very stable with Kenneth. It wasn’t their first encounter, but it was their first time outside of the big house, and she’d made it unintentionally funny for herself by thinking of the Jilly Cooper novels she’d read as a teenager. But Jesus, she thought: this was fucking. Exhilarating, absurd, like nothing she’d ever experienced. It was what she’d expected of this strange place, these people who were other. It was what she’d thought she was getting with Cormac.
Cormac, who was tender and well-adjusted and made her laugh. Who liked giving her back rubs, who whispered sweet things in her ear after he came. Cormac, who she loved, and who was not his father’s son.
Kenneth jabbed his horse in the ribs and took off down the road. She followed, her stomach knotted, the adrenaline rush from the ride almost spent. They crossed another field, and another. Boggy this one, with a river gushing near the ditch. Viola could feel the horse sinking a little into the muck, a sticking tension as the hooves rose and fell. She was vaguely aware that she was at the front of the group now, only the dogs in her sight. The other riders’ scrutiny weighed heavy on the back of her neck. She could hear voices behind her, but not so loud as the wind whistling in her ears. A bog hole loomed, a gash of black in the green. Panicked, she yanked the reins to one side, wheeling the horse around.
Geraldine let out a strangled cry, tensing and shaking beneath her, bucking straight up as if to cut her in two. Jump! Cormac shouted. But instinctively she held on. She had cut into the path of another rider, and there was a jolting crunch. Viola tipped from her saddle and fell, seventeen hands down.
About three months in, Cormac had invited her to the big house to be formally introduced to his parents. The fireplace in that cold sitting room was at least a head taller than she was. She had heard so many stories about the place. There was the one about Everard Rolleston, the nineteenth-century landlord who’d poured hot cement in the ears of a tenant for disobedience; legend had it that afterwards, no door would lock in the old house, no gate would stay closed. She wanted to ask if it was true, but was afraid they’d think her even more common than they already did.
Cormac leaned back in an overstuffed armchair, his long legs tucked under him. A pregnant dog flopped in front of the fire. Margo fussed with saucers and biscuits. Kenneth chain-smoked, imperious and silent. He had that particular charisma, she thought, that came with insecurity.
Later that night, with everyone else in bed, she’d found him in the kitchen when she went looking for a glass of water. The water would be her explanation, anyway, should she run into anyone in the corridors; in the dark, the old house seemed like something out of a period film, seething with whispers and spying servants. Kenneth hadn’t moved from his wing-backed leather chair. He stubbed out his last cigarette into an overflowing ashtray. Then he approached, eyes unblinking and level; she leaned against him, letting her hair brush against his face.
An hour later she went back and lay down beside Cormac. He snuffled into her shoulder, not waking. He hadn’t missed her.
The horses were a tangle on the ground; she rolled away from their spindly, frantic legs. Her ankle felt heavy. The other rider – it was Jonathan – lay with his face to the bog. She crawled over to him and reached out.
‘Don’t touch him!’ someone shouted. Kenneth leapt from his saddle and grabbed the reins of the two horses on the ground. Jonathan’s grey swung to its feet, whinnying and shaking its head, but Geraldine remained motionless, seeming so much smaller now, one eye fixed on Viola.
The riders gave them space, clustering together to watch from a safe distance. P.J.’s jeep lumbered across the uneven ground. Cormac rushed forward, the look on his face suggesting he’d foreseen something like this. He crouched beside her. ‘Are you all right? Can you stand?’
Her ankle wouldn’t support her. Cormac eased off her liquid-mud boot, his teeth bared. She sucked in a breath. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been so aware of the synapses inside her, the inner electricity. Tears cut clean tracks on her face.
P.J. eased Jonathan into a sitting position. ‘I think we have a broken collarbone on our hands here, lads.’
‘Oh god. I’m so sorry.’
‘Your ankle’s swelling up like mad,’ Cormac said accusingly.
‘It’s fine, honestly.’ She bunched his shirt in her fist. ‘Is he OK?’
Cormac glanced over at Jonathan, who looked like he might throw up. ‘He’ll live.’
‘What about Geraldine?’
‘Who?’ Cormac followed her gaze to the horse on the ground. ‘You mean Glaswegian Gilly? It doesn’t look good.’
‘That horse was too bloody big for you, love!’ Jonathan said, his face puce.
P.J. looked down at them. ‘Does she need a doctor?’
‘No,’ said Viola.
‘I think she does,’ said Cormac.
‘I’ll take the two of them so. Come on now, Miss Coughlan …’
‘Take Jonathan, I’m grand.’
Cormac looked in her eyes. ‘Go with P.J. I’ll ring you later, OK?’
‘Where are you going?’
He stood up, looked over at his father. ‘I have to deal with the horses.’
As P.J. helped her into the back seat of the jeep, to sit in awkward silence beside Jonathan, Kenneth’s voice needled her ear.
‘That’ll break her in, eh son?’ He clapped Cormac on the shoulder and swung back onto his black horse.
P.J. found a country-and-western frequency she hadn’t known existed; Bonnie Tyler was singing about it being nothin’ but a heartache. Viola focused her mind on the lyrics to distract from her ankle. P.J. had judged it to be a minor sprain and fed her painkillers from his green plastic first-aid kit. He was taking her to A&E all the same, ‘to be sure to be sure’, but Viola sensed a certain charity in the suggestion.
Jonathan’s arm was strapped to his chest. He’d been given a stronger dose of painkillers and looked woozy.
‘I’m so sorry, Jonathan,’ Viola said, for the third or fourth time. It felt important to elicit an acknowledgement of her apology. He nodded, barely, and stared out the window.
P.J. drove slowly, as though reluctant to tear himself away from the hunt. It had resumed in the hills overlooking the road. Viola watched the hounds swarming down from the quarry. She glanced down at her once-resplendent pinks, now plastered with stiffening mud.
‘It’ll be the knacker’s yard for that poor mare, hah?’ said P.J. The accusation – pointed or accidental, Viola didn’t know – filled the car like a bad odour.
She swallowed. ‘Sorry, P.J. To be dragging you away like this.’
‘Not a tall. That’s what I’m here for.’
She got the feeling he’d be dining out on this story for quite a while. ‘Will you go back to the pub later? When the riders get back?’
She imagined the crowd of them bundling into the pub-cum-grocery, muddy and laughing, full of winter glow. On the slim chance that the pickings had been good, Kenneth would be the one to bring home the fox brush, she was sure. She could nearly see it displayed on the mantel in the big house, like some exotic plant, the rust-coloured fur camouflaging the dried blood.
‘Oh jays no. I haven’t touched a drop in fourteen year.’ P.J. pulled out onto the main road, humming along to Crosby, Stills & Nash.
At the hospital, the frowning doctor asked her some questions. A few days earlier, she’d googled her symptoms: ‘spotting cramping nausea’. The phrase autocompleted: numerous other nervous women had typed those words before. She found this oddly comforting.
She’d missed her pill once, maybe twice, that was all. She mentioned it to one of the girls at work, who told her not to panic. She didn’t want to tell Cormac, who would have smothered her with sensible advice. She’d pushed it from her mind.
Now, there was a urine test, blood taken. The doctor ushered her into a little room to offer his sober congratulations. You’ll have to be more careful on horseback from now on.
Then she was parked on a drab hospital chair in a dark corridor, waiting for an X-ray on the ankle, an afterthought. She had a faint memory of running through these very corridors when, as a child, her parents had laid siege to a hospital bed, waiting for an elderly relative to die.
Cormac’s lanky silhouette appeared out of the gloom. ‘There you are,’ he said, bending down to wrap his arms around her. ‘No, don’t get up.’
She knew, somehow, that he would be glad. She took his hand and reached for the words. It would be a boy, she was sure. He would grow up strong, connected to the land. Tall with a shock of red hair, perhaps, or small with raincloud eyes.
To read the rest of Dublin Review 54, you may purchase the issue here.