Life creases time into an accordion of memories—billowing and contracting as I walk the familiar path that leads to the old cottage, which lies deep, almost buried, amid the colourful crowning vibrancy of Rowan and Birch trees.
Even at the middle-old-age of seventy-five, I remain altogether besotted with autumn. While yes, the aforementioned high chroma is a peripheral reason for my inclination, it is the meeting of Imogen on a breezy, long-ago, mid-October morning that tips the scale of my autumnal devotion.
Reflection allows one to acknowledge the privilege of years not bestowed on everyone. I am confirmedly conscious of endorsing this fact when I open my eyes every morning to the familiar warmth of Imogen lying beside me. I know she will rise to the day once she hears the clink of breakfast dishes being laid upon the table (I invariably arise before her).
I was but a child when we met. Still in ownership of blithe sprightliness, not yet burdened with the mindfulness of a maturing adolescent. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
The year was 1926, and my mother had asked me to pop down to the local shoppe, Niall’s Bits and Bob’s, to acquire a sewing needle. My twin sister, Tara, was not interested in accompanying me; thus, I hastened from our little cottage alone, singing a song about a young woman who falls in love with Lugh, a High Irish King of Legend. This was a romantic notion to an eight-year-old girl, marrying a handsome King. I clearly remember advancing down the lane, procession-like, taking long, elegant strides, stick in hand, waving to the trees and shrubs, fantasising that they were my royal subjects.
This fantasy did not last terribly long, as the wind surged and swept a smattering of crisp autumn leaves up into the air, inspiring them to swirl, suspended, for longer than gravity would usually allow. One, in particular, was so taken by the updraft, that it whirled above the tree line and I watched in wonder as it floated to a height where it was no longer visible to my eyes. My stick eventually fell behind me, etching snake lines in the dry earth, as I envisioned that lone leaf in limitless motion above me.
There was, of course, no conceivable way for me to know that while I kicked the foliage beneath my feet, with thoughts of eventual marriage, that I was about to meet Imogen, a girl who would befriend me and entirely re-define my life. I could not have known, as I tripped the dew from near dormant branches, that a mere eleven months on, the father of my new friend would pass from this life to the next. That his heart would give out, from grief, some would say.
I was never keen on entering Niall’s Bits and Bob’s, as Mr Doyle, the owner, was sour-faced and uncongenial. His Shoppe was the only option for supplies without travelling a great distance, so I suppose he felt omnipotent in his dealings with the public.
The ancient hinges on the door gave their usual objectionable squeal when opened. My father felt Mr Doyle never addressed this issue due to his tight-fisted disposition. Rather than acquiring a door chime, he chose instead to let the old rust do the job of announcing customers.
I cordially uttered a salutation. Mr Doyle glanced out from the back room but, upon seeing it was merely a child, retreated without so much as a nod of acknowledgement. I stood quietly at the counter for what felt like several minutes, anticipating his return. All that reverberated back to me was the echo of items being shifted on shelves.
I cringed as the shoppe door squawked again, and an unfamiliar man, parcel in hand, entered; a young girl, with pitch-black hair, in a deep blue, woolly coat following behind. The stranger handed the package to the child and instructed her to carry it back to her Uncle Niall. We gifted each other soft smiles and sheepish hellos as she passed, her blue coat matching her sparkling wide-set eyes, and I noted we looked to be about the same age.
The unknown man strode past me and stepped to the back of the counter, slapping both hands upon it, saying, “What’s it yer after then?”
A day later, we learned the origins of the newcomers, and I was informed that the girl’s name was Imogen.
Imogen arrived at the village with her father, Davin, shortly after the death of her mother and much anticipated new sibling. The perilousness of childbirth had taken mother and boy away. As such, Davin sought out his own brother for familial support in our tiny village on the West coast of Ireland.
Davin’s elder brother, Niall, had lived in the village for forty-odd years and owned the shoppe. This new life, Davin hoped, would offer himself and his eight-year-old daughter emotional deliverance as well as the fortification of family.
Niall, a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor, assured his brother that he would not be opposed to their arrival. Truth be told, Niall was pleased with the fact that his brother would present a modest sum of money that could be steered toward expanding his ever-struggling business.
For Imogen, the months preceding her father’s unanticipated death had been principally charged with bleak tension.
A length of fabric separated the shoppe area from the two rear rooms. Imogen was given an old mattress with pathetic canvas cloths for sheets and a few musty wool blankets for warmth. This excuse of a bed was crammed in the back of her Uncle’s storage area amid shelves piled with disorderly stock.
She was gladdened not to have to sleep in the one bedroom where the two men slept, but the mattress on which she slept was uncomfortable, and there was a constant draught from both the cracked floorboards and from underneath the rear door, not far away. Her Uncle Niall was miserly with the coal and turf; thus, the shoppe and living quarters were often cold and penetratingly damp.
While her mother was alive, Imogen had attended and loved school, eagerly soaking up lessons in the hope that she would one day hold the position of teacher. Since moving, however, her father showed little care for life and its normalities. School for a daughter and the prospect of being responsible for assisting with lessons seemed a burdensome task to a man riddled with grief.
Her Uncle Niall had no concern one way or the other and, as such, appointed Imogen to mind the duties of the household until, as he put it, ‘she was old enough to work off her keep in the shoppe.’
While other children attended school, Imogen washed clothes, scrubbed floors, and saw to the meals for the men. Imogen’s father and Uncle both had a predilection for bending the elbow, and many a night, she was left to listen to their slurred conversations, or worse, pugnacious squabbling, which would more times than not end with items being tossed about the place.
Imogen would cover her ears when it got too boisterous and would occasionally retreat out the back door to the privy, to physically disconnect from the thrashing and often sour exchanges.
Imogen’s father had invested what little money he had into his brother’s business. The two men, when not squabbling, were, in fact, quite astute. Both had a penchant for choosing not only daily necessities a community might need but allowed for carrying a smattering of low-cost luxury items one might purchase, such as sweets, sugar, and currants.
If not working in the Shoppe or obsessing over the ledgers, Davin worked in the field or tended the sheep; anything to keep himself from having to sit idle and think on his departed wife and son. Try as he might to overcome his sorrow, Imogen’s once robust father turned gaunt and grey. It so pained Davin that young Imogen was so like her mother in looks and gesture that it was near impossible for him to look her squarely in the eyes.
The drink did nothing but propel the process of ill health, and within a year of their arrival, he lay cold and stiff, atop a wooden table, accepting only in his death the delicate good wishes of those who filed past him.
Imogen was an orphan. During the hazy days of her father’s wake and the surreal day of his burial, her Uncle Niall had drunkenly sworn to a familial allegiance with his niece, vowing to keep the child and raise her as his own.
The young girl’s one day of freedom was Sunday. Almost without fail, this day would be filled with the company of her friend, Neala. The two would faithfully meet at a spot they called ‘The Crossroads’. It was not actually a road but a place near a rise of a hill, overlooking the dark and wild Atlantic. The area looked menacing, but the girls found a graduating embankment that led to a yawning cave, receding into the hillside.
Invariably, I brought books, parchment and pencils to The Crossroads and would recite what I could recall from school lessons the previous week. This was how Imogen learned all things school-related, secretly, by feeble light, amongst craggy rocks.
I can point to one particular Sunday (years after the death of Imogen’s father, when we were but thirteen-year-old adolescents) when my love for Imogen became more complicated than childhood comradery.
Imogen was late to arrive, and when I finally caught sight of her, she was running at an accelerated pace toward our spot. I could plainly see that Imogen was upset. Stopping at some entangled trees, she bent to catch her breath. Upon rising, it was evident that not only had she been crying but that her right eye was swollen, and a dark red mark etched itself across her flushed cheek.
Imogen’s Uncle had struck her for accidentally cracking a teacup. I was perplexed, as I was convinced that she and I held no secrets between us, but it was divulged this day that there was an issue so tender that Imogen could never release the words from her mouth. Her Uncle was a thug and had hit her many times before. This time, much to Imogen’s embarrassment, it had been a facial wound and one that she could not conceal.
Huddled in the cave, Imogen fell into my arms and wept unabashedly. I stroked my friend’s hair and promised to look after her, to be her guardian when we were older. At that moment, not entirely understanding the depth of fervour of my proclamations, all childhood fantasies of a High King husband vanished, and all that remained was a life filled with Imogen.
Mr Doyle was still Imogen’s legal guardian, and as such, she remained his shoppe hand. However, it was agreed (more likely insisted upon, by my father, once I relayed the circumstances of Imogen’s injuries) that she would board in the spare room of Mrs Jones, a childless widow at a cottage not far away from the shoppe, in exchange for housekeeping. This made Imogen’s days long and tiring, but she was greatly relieved to have a room with a bed and the warmth of a fire.
She and Mrs Jones got on famously, and over the years she lived with her, the widow taught Imogen many things, including the skill of making savoury pies and sweet tarts.
At sixteen years of age, our childhood conversations took a sharp turn. We were both maturing now, and boys were paying us attention. Neither of us felt particularly interested in the allurements coming our way, as we were content in our cocoon of two.
While walking along the strand, the brothers Dara and Callum Byrne shot past us, whistling and calling out terms of endearment. Dara looked directly to Imogen and yelled, “Imogen, remember me when next you are doing the washing. It’s a lonely tub that has no man’s shirt in it!”
I felt jealousy rise within me and was, frankly, quite taken aback by the ferocity of it. I looked immediately to Imogen, my cheeks flushed, to evaluate her response to the young man’s flirtatious comment.
Her gaze, which had been pointed downward toward the white sand, suddenly looked up to meet mine. She laughed, and called after Dara, yelling loudly, in Irish, “Go n-íosfaidh an cat thú, agus go n-íosfaidh an diabhal an cat!” (May the cat eat you, and may the devil eat the cat.)1
We both howled, and I threw my arms around her neck, proclaiming, “Ahh, I do love you, Imogen.”
Imogen held tight, arms around my waist, responding softly, “I love you too, Neala.” There was a moment of knowing, of quiet need and comfort, before the wall of inappropriateness fell between us. A guillotine’s blade of shame split us apart.
It was Imogen who spoke first. “Look where the sun is. I should be gettin’ back to the shoppe.”
In that sacred moment, I reached out my hand to her and whispered, “Imogen.”
“Honestly, Neala, I must go,” Imogen said, tears welling in her eyes.
And then, she was gone, over the dunes as a rabbit being pursued by a fox.