The small homestead could no longer keep out the bitter draft. It poured through cracks in the wood and stone, chilling the room with its icy breath and unleashing eerie whistles that made the girl shudder. She pulled up the threadbare blanket and wrapped it tightly around herself in an effort to deflect the chill. Cupping the candle flame with one hand, she picked up the worn copy of The Monk and started to read, speaking each word aloud, as she always did.
“He let the hand drop slowly which held the crucifix, and which till then he had pointed towards her. The apparition bowed her head and her form melted into air…”
A groan came from beside her. “Scarlett, I’m tryin’ ta’ sleep.” The words were thick with both accent and tiredness.
“Sorry, Connor,” Scarlett replied in a tone as soothing as her husky voice would allow. She glanced down at her brother, who had tucked himself into such a tight ball on their shared cot that it was as if he were trying to make himself disappear. He was a tiny thing - ten years old but with the frame of someone half his years. Connor was one of the unfortunate many marked by the cruel touch of polio. His right arm and leg were twisted by atrophy, and he had a disposition that was inclined towards sickness. Regardless, he was the sweetest boy and Scarlett loved him more than words could express. He rolled over and the blanket slipped away from his fragile body. With great care, Scarlett wrapped it back around him and slid closer to share her body warmth.
Scarlett continued to read The Monk, trying her best to whisper the words. Among all the books she read – and there were many – it was one of her favourites. Beyond the supernatural, which always captivated her, there was something about the tragic corruption of Ambrosio - a man of such purity and piety – that made her spine tingle with excitement. It was an unusual book for a girl of only fifteen to enjoy, especially one from a Protestant family.
But then there was nothing usual about Scarlett, or her family. Secrets were familiar to them all.
Firstly Scarlett could read and write. It was a trait not shared by any of the men or boys who laboured on the potato fields with her father, or the women and girls who worked at the laundry house with her mother. There was no school in Teine. ‘Education for all’ was an idea stirring in the town of Belfast not ten miles away, but was still a faint whisper that would not reach the village for years.
The skill to read and right had been taught to Scarlett by her father and was one that she treasured with all her heart. To be deprived from the incredible worlds hidden within words - the horror and romance, vengeance and love – was to her like standing at the doorway to heaven without the key to unlock it. Scarlett was able to practice these skills because unlike every other family who lived on the farmland, her family owned dozens of books. They stayed hidden in a large box under her parents’ bed. Access to a plethora of novels had allowed Scarlett to become far more educated and erudite than her societal position gave her any right to be. Her knowledge rarely transferred from mind to tongue. Scarlett’s father had warned of the probing questions a literate potato famer’s daughter could bring, so she kept her thoughts quiet and her accent as thick as her mother’s stew.
The front door creaked open and Scarlett’s heart skipped several beats. The book lingered in her mind and for a moment she imagined seeing the ghostly form of a phantom standing on the threshold. It shifted into the familiar form of her father, who had returned from the village alehouse. The icy breeze that followed him in was topped with the scent of stout. It took much longer that it should have for her heart to settle, and she pressed a trembling hand to her chest to comfort herself.
Her father frowned and sat down next to her, placing a hand on her raised knee.
“Are you okay sweetheart?”
She gave a weak smile, setting her book down and cupping her hand over his. “I’m fine, Da.”
“What are you still doing awake?” he whispered. As he spoke, his voice shifted from the broad tones to the controlled accent he used only with his family.
“You know I can’t sleep when you’re not here,” she said.
Her placed a hand gently against the dark red hair that spilled down the sides of her pale face. “You shouldn’t worry so, Poppy, I’ll always be here in the morning.”
Poppy was Scarlett’s nickname. At a young age she had found a single one of the flowers growing behind their cottage. Thinking it was special; she picked and bought it home with her, excitedly showing her father. He in turn had taught her how to dry and press it so she could keep it forever. Her enthusiasm over the whole event had earned her the affectionate nickname.
“You know I can’t help it.”
He smiled. “I know. Actually I’m glad you’re still awake, I have been meaning to speak with you about something important.” His expression changed, becoming more serious. He took the candle from Scarlett and set it down on the floor, taking both of her hands in his.
“What’s wrong?” Scarlett breathed, feeling anxious. She leaned forward. “Is there something the matter with Connor?”
“No my darling, its nothing like that. The thing is…” he paused as he tried to bring himself to say his next words. “We have none of the money left.”
The money was another secret.
It was the reason Scarlett had access to dozens of books, and how her father could teach her anything printed within their covers. Desmond Reid had once been aristocracy – the wealthy son of a lord who also owned a vast number of tobacco factories on the outskirts of Belfast. Desmond had been an intelligent and well-educated young man. He had studied English and Politics at Oxford University, and it had been David Reid’s hope that his son would go on to become an important figure within the Irish government. Unfortunately for his father, on a chance visit to one of his factories at the age of twenty-two, Desmond Reid caught sight of a worker named Mary O’Connell.
When the shameful scandal finally emerged of Mary’s pregnancy, Desmond was given a stern ultimatum by his father. Abandon the whore and the bastard child in her belly, or be disowned by the family. Scarlett’s father always spoke of how satisfying the moment had been when he had delivered his answer.
Married in secret, Desmond took his pregnant wife, a large selection of books from his personal collection, and all money he owned – well over three hundred pounds – and loaded them into a carriage. Together they had left the vibrant town of Belfast in their dust, and travelled around Ireland – each destination less glamorous than the last as their family grew - until their money dwindled enough that they settled in one of countless draughty stone cottages that lined a vast field in the quiet village of Teine. The educated man who had studied at Oxford University and had once considered taking up politics, was now a potato farmer.
Scarlett said nothing, unsure of what her father’s confession meant.
Desmond rubbed his hands over his face. “I tried to make it last as long as possible so that we could eat a little better and live a little happier, but Connor’s medicine is so expensive.” He sighed. “That money is gone now and we are surviving on small wages. Your Ma and I have tried to carry on as normal, so that you can stay home and keep looking after your brother, but we just can’t.”
Scarlett stared at her father. “You want me to work.”
It was a moment before Desmond replied, and when he did his words were heavy with guilt. “I do, Poppy.”
“What about, Connor? Who will look after him?”
“Your brother can go to the laundry with your Ma in the day and help out there as much as he can. He will be well looked after by the girls, you know they love him to distraction.” Desmond dropped his gaze to the floor. “Your mother and I wanted desperately to keep you both from that kind of hard life, but we just can’t anymore.”
Scarlett moved closer to her father, taking hold of his hands as he had hers. “Da, look at me.” He lifted his head and she smiled. “I will do anything I have to for this family. If you want me to work, I’ll work.”
Tears glistened in Desmond’s eyes. “I just wanted so much better than this for all of you.” He glanced around at the tiny homestead and shook his head. “This was the only way we could be together without my father finding us and making our lives difficult. I’m so sorry I let you down.” He let out the long sigh of a man trying to control his emotions. The alcohol was making him sentimental, it always happened when he drank too much. Regardless, his words came from the heart. He was the kindest and most caring man Scarlett knew, and she would happily work her fingers to the bone if it meant she could help support him.
“You haven’t let us down, Da. You’ve always done your absolute best by us, so now let me help you.”
He nodded. “Thank you, Poppy.”
“Do you know somewhere that is hiring?”
Her father scratched the thick stubble that lined his neck. “The scullery maid at Oakley Manor just upped and left a few weeks ago. I heard that they are still looking to fill the position.” He sighed. “It’s unforgiving work.”
Scarlett squeezed his hand. “Work I’ll happily do. ”
Her father gave a smile. “What did I do so right that I was blessed with such wonderful children?” He kissed the top of her head. “I’ll speak to the housekeeper tomorrow. Now go to sleep darling, it’s late.”
Scarlett used the dried poppy to mark her place in the book and then handed it to her father. He read the title and chuckled. “Always with the supernatural and horror. Why not try reading something more suitable, like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre?”
Scarlett screwed up her face. “So boring!”
Desmond laughed, a deep rumbling sound that Scarlett loved.
“I had to try. Right, time for bed I think. Did you say your prayers?”
He placed a hand gently on Connor’s good arm and held it there for a second. Then he stood up, swaying a little and walked to the only other room in the cottage. He turned back to face Scarlett, who was just about to blow out the candle. “Now to try and get to bed without waking up your ma. Let’s hope I’m successful, or I’ll be sleeping out here with you two.” He winked and Scarlett laughed.
A few moments later there was a series of creaks as her father settled himself into the old bed. Soon afterwards came the sound of him softly snoring, a sound that always gave Scarlett comfort. She thought for a moment, thinking what it would be like to have a job in the grand manor, with its almost infinite number of rooms – no doubt including a library filled with more books than one person could read in a lifetime. She imagined how exciting it would be to meet all the different people who worked there and to help make the grand house she had only ever seen at a distance even more beautiful. The work would be hard of course, but she was not afraid of that.
It’s going to be a good thing, she thought as she leaned over and blew out the candle.
It was not a good thing.