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Read an extract: Homestead on the River by Rosie Mackenzie

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Read an extract: Homestead on the River by Rosie Mackenzie

An unforgettable tale of love, loss and betrayal from an exciting new Australian voice in historical fiction.

In stark contrast to her own childhood during the last days of the Raj in India, the spectacular beauty surrounding their home, Rathgarven in Ireland has proven to be a happy place for Kathleen O’Sullivan and her husband, James, to raise their four children. But Kathleen is no stranger to heartbreak, and when the family is faced with losing everything, she knows they will need to adapt to survive. Even if that means leaving their beloved home and moving to Australia to start afresh.

Lillie O’Sullivan knows that her mother and father haven’t been entirely truthful about the reasons for their move to Australia. But as they settle into their new home in rural New South Wales she is willing to give it a chance. That is, until the secrets her parents have kept for so long finally catch up with them.

Secrets that have the power to destroy their family and ruin their future.

From the vibrant colours of India to the meadows of Ireland to the harsh but beautiful Australian land, a family fight for their future.

‘A heartwarming novel … a welcome addition to the genre.’ – J.H. Fletcher, bestselling Australian author

 

 

Chapter One 

‘I do love this one,’ Alice said. ‘Such a good shot of Lillie.’
‘There’s no way she’ll let us use it,’ Kathleen laughed. ‘You can see her face.’
Kathleen O’Sullivan and her mother-in-law sorted through Kathleen’s photographs in the glass conservatory of Rathgarven, a stone manor house nestled in a secluded rocky cove of the Kenmare River in County Kerry. Alice was writing another article for an English magazine depicting country life in Ireland. To accompany it, Kathleen had taken some photographs, which she’d developed in the small darkroom set up off the woodhouse.
Kathleen picked up another picture of her daughter. Lillie was riding her horse Merlin among the apple trees in the walled garden. It was such a lovely photograph with the light filtering through the trees onto her dark hair. Kathleen had taken the shot from behind, as Lillie was adamant she didn’t want her face to be in a magazine.
‘Maybe this one will do,’ she said, handing the photo to Alice.
‘The colours are certainly lovely. But it’s such a pity we can’t see Lillie’s beautiful face.’
Another photo Kathleen had chosen was of her eldest son, Ronan, sailing their small yacht the Daphne on the river. There was also one of her younger boys, Marcus and Freddie, climbing the oak tree in the front garden, and a scene of the first hunt meet of the season gathering on the gravel driveway in front of Rathgarven, with Maisie, dressed in her best apron embroidered with harps and shamrocks, bringing the hunters a stiff stirrup cup before they headed off. In all there were five photographs. More than adequate for Alice’s article, Kathleen thought.
Now her attention was drawn beyond the window to the curve of the river where a red steamer chugged around the point, heading towards Rathgarven’s jetty. With a jolt Kathleen recognised whose steamer it was. Most likely it had come down the river from Kenmare Harbour where the Killarney bookmaker TJ Donoghue kept it. He had visited before under happier circumstances when there had been a regatta on the river. She glanced at Alice to see if she had noticed. Fortunately she still had her head over the photographs. What a hide Donoghue had to arrive like this. If he thought he was going to alight on Rathgarven’s jetty, he had another thing coming. Rathgarven wasn’t his house yet — and never would be, if Kathleen had anything to do with it.
‘I’ll just pull this curtain across,’ she said to Alice, pushing her chair back and moving to the window to block Alice’s view of the jetty. ‘You’ll be able to see more clearly without the sun on the photos. And,’ she added, glancing to the door, ‘can you give me a moment. Maisie’s heading into Sneem. I forgot to tell her to pop into the chemist for me.’
‘Of course, dear,’ Alice said as she looked at the photographs. ‘You certainly have a way of capturing all of Rathgarven’s moods. I’m not sure whether I like it wild and woolly best, or ablaze with sunshine.’
‘They’re both lovely,’ Kathleen said, heading towards the door. ‘Although I must admit I prefer it sunny.’
Outside, Kathleen flew down the stone steps and across the newly rolled front lawn, through the green wooden gate and across the meadow to the jetty.
‘How can I help you, Mr Donoghue?’ she called out, as the bookmaker disembarked. A small smartly dressed group stood on the deck behind him.
‘Ah, good afternoon, Mrs O’Sullivan,’ he said, tipping his flashy trilby in her direction. ‘I trust you be well on this grand day.’
‘I am, thank you,’ Kathleen said, anger tightening her voice.
‘That be great to hear.’ Donoghue glanced at the group on the deck. ‘I was telling these good folks about your lovely Rathgarven. And they persuaded me to let them have a wee peek.’ He puffed the cigarette in his hand and looked towards the house. ‘Would Mr O’Sullivan be around?’
Although her husband was up in the back field with Danny, the overseer, rebuilding a stone wall that a rampaging bull had barged through yesterday, there was no way Kathleen was going to tell Donoghue that.
‘I’m afraid it’s not convenient for you to stop off today. We have a large house party arriving from Dublin for the weekend,’ she lied. ‘Maybe you could give my husband a telephone call and arrange another time.’ She glanced at the group standing on the deck of the boat waiting to disembark. ‘I’m sorry to be so tiresome. Today’s not convenient.’ Donoghue’s smart sports coat did little to hide the many good lunches he’d partaken of over the years. Lowering her voice, she said, ‘Mr Donoghue, I’d be grateful if you could get back on your boat. Rathgarven is not yours as yet. And until it is, the only guests who’ll disembark on our jetty are the guests of the O’Sullivan family.’
‘Ah. Is that so, Mrs O’Sullivan?’ He removed his trilby and smoothed his thick black hair. ‘Though I’m sure Mr O’Sullivan would feel differently. It’s a pity he’s not here.’ He stomped his cigarette into the ground with one highly polished brogue. ‘In any case I’ll happily take my guests further along the river to where I know they’ll be greeted more cordially.’
‘Thank you,’ Kathleen said. ‘I’d appreciate that very much.’ She glanced at the hawser in his hands. ‘I’ll hold the rope steady for you until you’re back on board and give you a push off.’
‘That won’t be necessary,’ Donoghue grunted. ‘I can back out quite easily myself. But be sure to tell your husband I’ll be in touch. And be giving him my best wishes.’
‘I will indeed,’ Kathleen said.
Kathleen watched him reverse away from the jetty, the loud revving of the steamer’s engine sounding an angry farewell. Kathleen didn’t care. She was glad to get rid of him. Drawing a deep breath, she tried to calm down. Had there been a gun handy, she felt sure she’d have picked it up and taken a pot shot at him. She could imagine the headline in the Irish Times: ‘Angry Kerry wife shoots leading bookmaker’.
She turned and walked back along the jetty and into the meadow dotted with daisies and buttercups. For a moment she stopped and gazed up at the gabled house of pale grey stone with its wide French windows and the conservatory on the southern side, where thankfully the curtain was still drawn. The late-afternoon sun shone softly across the façade, coating it with a golden tinge. A shudder passed through Kathleen. Rathgarven had been the home of O’Sullivans for generations. It had even risen again after being burnt to cinders in the Civil War of 1922, when Ireland seemed to have lost all reason. How could James have put his family home in jeopardy? It would destroy his mother when she found out. Although Kathleen had only come to live at Rathgarven fifteen years ago, Alice had arrived as the young bride of the late Eoghan O’Sullivan at the beginning of the century.
She was too angry to face Alice yet and went to the drawing room instead. A copy of the Irish Times lay on the sofa with a photo on the front page of President Kennedy giving his civil rights speech. Exasperated, she scrunched the paper up and threw it on the dying embers and watched the fire come alight. James would be furious she had refused to let the party disembark. Well, blow James. He had got them into this pickle and Kathleen was darned if she was going to let Donoghue rub it in her face.
Just at that moment the door opened and James appeared. He was in his work clothes — the worn beige trousers and a bottle-green jumper under a tattered Donegal tweed jacket.
‘Donoghue was here with one of his fancy parties,’ she said, her voice shaking. ‘I told him we weren’t receiving visitors this afternoon.’ She gazed down to the jetty, now almost hidden by a soft mist. ‘Had you any idea he was dropping by?’
James walked over and knocked his pipe into the brass ashtray on the table. ‘I’m sorry, darling,’ he said. ‘I’d no idea.’
‘Does he think he owns the place already? Is that why he came? Maybe he told his guests he’d drop in to see how his new country estate is getting along?’
Kathleen paced the room. By the window she could see a robin redbreast playing among the rose bushes in the garden; in the front field the horses grazed unaware. She became still. James was a good, sensible man. Until this happened.
‘Why didn’t you come and get me?’ James asked.
‘What good would that have done?’
‘I might’ve been able to persuade him to hold off.’
‘Hold off! Oh my God, James! Can you hear yourself?’ Kathleen gazed around the familiar room she loved so much. ‘How has it come to this?’
James sighed. ‘I’ve told you. If I’d thought it was a risk, I’d never have done it.’ He picked up his pipe. ‘Lord Fitzpatrick agreed with me that the beast was a sure thing. He himself placed a bet on it.’
‘With his buckets of money and that huge estate, Drominderry, he could afford to lose. We couldn’t. Not with the amount of debt we’re in already.’
‘That’s true. Still, my darling, surely you’d have felt differently if the darn horse had come in?’
‘But it didn’t, did it? Nor did the others Donoghue cajoled you into betting on later.’
‘If they had won I would’ve made five thousand. Think of the new roof we could have put on Rathgarven, the school fees it could have covered … and …’
‘Stop, James. Please …’
‘Kathleen, I can understand why you’re upset. And for that I’m truly sorry. What we’ve got to do now is try and fix the situation. I’ll make an appointment to see Declan at the bank in Kenmare tomorrow. He’s sure to give us a loan to pay Donoghue off. And Paddy says we should reap a grand crop of barley in the spring.’
‘You may well be right with the barley,’ Kathleen sighed, turning her gaze to the lush, green fields beyond the window. ‘But you of all people know there’s hardly any collateral left. So nice as Declan is, he’s unlikely to be able to help. Besides, it’s in all the papers that none of the banks are lending to farmers right now.’
‘Donoghue’s a reasonable man. I’m sure we can come to an agreement. It’s a pity you didn’t get me when he dropped in. I could’ve spoken to him …’
‘With all those people there!’
‘I’d have drawn him aside …’
‘Too late now. Undoubtedly he’s floating up the river in his fancy red steamer regaling those very same people with our woes.’
‘Kathleen, you’re overreacting. It’s a lovely afternoon and he wanted to pop in to say hello. Nothing more.’
‘I think that’s highly unlikely, James. And, in any case, he had a hide to bring people with him. That was unforgivable.’
‘Yes. I can see that.’
Kathleen touched her hot forehead. ‘I think I’ll go to my room, I’ve got a headache coming on. Your mother is waiting for me in the conservatory, perhaps you could tell her I’m suddenly unwell and can’t join you for dinner … Or,’ her voice became high-pitched, ‘tell her whatever you wish, James.’
* * *

Fourteen-year-old Lillie tried to read her book in the library next door. The oak-panelled room was lined with overflowing walnut bookcases and sombre portraits of her O’Sullivan ancestors, who gazed down from gilded frames. From her spot in the window seat it was difficult to miss her parents’ raised voices. Ma sounded more upset than Lillie had ever heard her. Even more upset than when six-year-old Lillie had invited a group of passing tinkers into the drawing room for afternoon tea. Lillie didn’t like Mr Donoghue with his trilby hats, smart suits and fancy ties. She had seen her mother rush down to the jetty the moment he pulled up in his red steamer. Had Ma told him to leave? Was that why her parents were arguing?
Stealthily moving to the door, Lillie peered through the crack. She saw them clearly now: her beautiful Ma, graceful as one of the swans that swam in the cove, wearing a green plaid skirt and a cream silk shirt, her gleaming mahogany hair falling loosely around her shoulders; and Dad, a wiry man with slightly receding greyish hair and Lillie’s own slate-grey eyes. Dad placed his pipe in the ashtray and rested his hand on Ma’s shoulder, but she moved angrily away. Lillie could see tears in those magnificent hazel eyes and felt like crying herself.
‘And all I can say, James, is that it’ll be a tragedy if we lose Rathgarven because of your gambling on a horse,’ Ma said. ‘A tragedy indeed.’
Realising her mother might catch her spying, Lillie jumped over to the bookshelf and pretended to take down a book. Thankfully, she heard the far door in the drawing room open and shut again. Heaving a sigh of relief, she returned to the window seat, now bathed in the last of the late-afternoon sunshine. For some time she sat there, going over what she’d heard. She felt sick in the stomach. Surely what Ma said couldn’t be true. Dad couldn’t possibly have lost Rathgarven by gambling on a horse. Or had she misheard?
She looked out the window to where Merlin, her dappled-grey Connemara pony, grazed among the wildflowers under the alder tree in the front field. Contented after the long ride to Sneem with Lillie this morning to visit her friend Sheelagh, he lifted his head as though sensing his young mistress watching him. For a moment Lillie let her eyes wander past him down to the cove and across the river to the shadows and curves of the tumbling Kerry Mountains lifting halfway to the sky. To the left, beyond the jetty, there were corn-coloured haystacks in the far field. She and her brothers had helped Paddy stack them yesterday afternoon.
On the small island not far from shore, her younger brothers Marcus and Freddie scampered up the stone steps of the brooding ruins of an old fort. She heard their voices carrying across the water, squabbling, as they always did, driving Lillie and Ronan nuts. She sighed miserably. Before that man Mr Donoghue had pulled into the jetty she had been wonderfully happy. At long last the summer holidays had arrived, freeing her from her boarding school in Cork and stretching out like a scrumptious dream that went on and on.
There would be fishing for salmon with Ronan in the cove she loved so much, sailing the Daphne, riding up into the rocky hills or through the tangled woods teeming with fuchsias and ferns and picnicking by the shore where shearwaters, puffins, ducks, gulls and swans swam and pecked between the rocks and seaweed. Sometimes a dolphin might come in from the Atlantic to swim in the cove. Last summer she and Freddie had watched a seal and her pup cavorting there. She loved the never-ending hours of twilight when, if it wasn’t too windy or raining, the family would sit out under the oak tree, her parents and grandmother in wicker chairs, Lillie and her brothers sprawled on the grass. Sometimes they would still be there when the mountains turned to a vivid crimson in the last glow of twilight. And for Lillie there would be lazy times of lying on a blanket reading a book under the elm tree listening to the water lapping against the rocks. At low tide it was the pungent smell of seaweed drifting up from the shore she loved. Or if Paddy had just mowed the lawns it was the whiff of fresh cut grass.
Not that she didn’t like winter too, when the wind would whistle along the river, whipping up the water in the cove. As a special treat she and her brothers would be allowed to roast marshmallows in the roaring turf fire in the drawing room. Once when it snowed they tobogganed down the hill behind the house on pieces of plywood. In the kitchen was the warmth of the Aga. When Lillie was smaller, she would scuttle down the back stairs to help Maisie with breakfast, relishing the smell of yummy black puddings, bacon rashers, fresh soda bread and Maisie’s favourite Blue Grass perfume.
But now Rathgarven might be lost to that awful man Mr Donoghue. Not burnt to a cinder as had happened in the Civil War. Instead, it was crippled by debt and Dad’s gambling. She thought of seeking out her much-loved grandmother to ask her to explain what was going on, but she was due to have her afternoon nap. Maybe tomorrow, when Lillie wheeled her down by the water as she often did, she might be able to wheedle something out of her. Surely she must know what Dad had done.
* * *

After Kathleen left the drawing room James went to his study and rang Declan at the bank. He and Declan had been friends since their days in the sailing competitions at Kenmare Sailing Club. James had only recently managed to get the phone connected at Rathgarven, so he was glad to be able to use it rather than having to go into town to make an appointment. When the exchange put him through to Declan’s secretary he made a time for tomorrow afternoon.
He picked up a photograph on his desk that Kathleen had taken of the children on the jetty with their feet dangling in the water. There was a similar photo of James, his friend Finn Malone and James’s younger brother Dermot taken when they were much the same age as Marcus and Freddie. James cursed himself for what he had done. How could he have gambled away his family’s happiness?
However, after his meeting with Jessica in Dublin last month, he had been desperate. But couldn’t he have thought of another way of raising the money to satisfy her? ‘James, my dear, dear man,’ she had gushed as she bade him farewell at her hotel. ‘I know you of all people won’t let me down. And I promise if you come good with this, I’ll never bother you for extra again.’ She had leant forward and air kissed his cheek. ‘Of course you won’t tell darling Kate. So there’s no need for her to know I was over from London and didn’t ring her. It worked out well with you and Finn up in Dublin for the Blackrock reunion.’ She pulled her coat closely around her slim body. ‘I adore that man, ever since I first met him in India. He’s such a good friend, isn’t he? A great pity he couldn’t join us and had to rush off to the Duncans in Galway.’
‘They’ve been friends for a long time,’ James said.
‘But I believe he’s going down to Rathgarven before heading back to Australia.’
‘Yes, he is.’
‘Well, do give him my love.’
With a toss of her blonde hair she rushed towards the taxi waiting to take her to the airport. ‘I do so much look forward to hearing from you,’ she called back. ‘If I wasn’t so desperate I wouldn’t bother you. But,’ she added with a grimace, ‘as you know, regrettably I am. Bye, darling. Keep safe.’
And then she was gone, leaving James fuming. He had no alternative but to give in to her demand without disclosing to Kathleen what he had done.
When he’d got home to Rathgarven he’d saddled up his chestnut hunter and gone for a long ride through the woods and up onto the hills where sheep and cattle roamed between the rocks, to try and calm himself down. Below in the bog he waved to his neighbour, Joe Bourke, who was collecting turf with his donkey. But he didn’t stop to talk as he normally would.
From when he was a child James had always ridden. He’d started off competing in small horse shows around Kerry, then graduated to larger ones, finally winning first prize for showjumping at Dublin just before the war. Now, like Kathleen, hunting was his great love. Two days after the meeting with Jessica, and having not slept a wink on either night, he had gone to the Killarney race meet. Was it the lack of sleep that had caused him to do what he did? Not entirely, but it had certainly contributed to his poor judgement. When it hit him how much he’d lost, he had gone into Hannigan’s Pub with the intention of getting drunk. But after one drink he lost his thirst and had driven home to Rathgarven where he confessed his shame to Kathleen.
With a pang he remembered the first time he had met her. It was at her Aunt Mildred’s place, further along Kenmare River. Although he had had a number of girlfriends before, there was something very different about Kathleen. From the moment he saw her he was smitten. Not only by her magnificent cascade of auburn hair and the way she stood so proud and tall, talking animatedly to a friend of his, it was also her wonderful happy, free laugh. As though she didn’t have a care in the world. It was a long time since James had heard that carefree laugh.
Now he moved to the cabinet in the corner of the room and poured a stiff whisky. He was about to take a long sip when he looked at his watch. It was only four. Having a drink at this time of day could only make matters worse. Instead, he put the glass down and went to the door. There was still more work to be done with Paddy. When that was finished he would go and see if he could pacify Kathleen. Though he had grave doubts about that. Walking along the hallway he stopped and looked at the portrait of Dermot. What a fool I am, he thought again, holding his brother’s steady eyes with his. A damn, stupid fool.

 

Chapter Two

Ever since she had heard her parents quarrelling in the drawing room Lillie couldn’t get rid of a feeling of doom. So the next day when she positioned Grandma’s chair at the bottom of the garden so she could look out to the cove and enjoy the splendid, fragrant afternoon, she still felt quite sick in the stomach. Many years before, her grandmother had fallen off her young thoroughbred when out hunting and broken her back. From then on she’d been confined to a wheelchair.
Lillie looked out to where the Daphne was tacking across the cove in a stiff breeze. ‘I thought you’d like to watch the boys out on the water, Grandma.’
‘Thank you, darling. Perhaps you could come back to get me at five. Undoubtedly I’ll be in need of a rest by then. Lord and Lady Fitzpatrick are coming for dinner at eight.’
Lillie placed her bare foot on the brake of the wheelchair. She then leant down and carefully laid a tartan rug over Grandma’s knees. ‘Would you mind if I stayed with you, Grandma?’ she asked.
‘Of course not, darling. I’d love to have the company.’
Grandma picked up her knitting needles and unravelled a ball of wool from the small wicker basket on her knee and cast on a new row of stitches for the jumper she was knitting for Freddie. Grandma had knitted nearly all the children’s jumpers. Even Dad wore a number of her creations. And despite it being quite warm, Lillie herself was wearing a pink cardigan Grandma had knitted for her the previous year.
Lillie perched on a small log nearby. She picked up a blade of grass and placed it between her lips. A swallow fluttered from the oak tree onto the meadow and started pecking busily at the dirt. On the shore a family of ducks and a cormorant nosed among the rocks. After a moment Lillie stood up, removed the grass from her lips and stomped it into the ground.
‘Is anything the matter, darling?’ her grandmother asked. ‘You seem a little on edge.’
Lillie sat down on the log again and played with a craggy knot in the wood. ‘It’s just that I’ve been thinking about how things are hard here in Ireland, particularly in Kerry. You know … Farming and all that.’ She stopped, not wanting to tell Grandma what she had overheard. ‘I mean … what if we lose Rathgarven?’
‘Goodness me, my poor, poor Lillie,’ Alice said, placing her knitting on her knee. ‘You shouldn’t be worrying about things like that. Of course we won’t lose Rathgarven. Times are tough, there’s no getting away from that. Nevertheless, they’ve been tough before and we’ve stumbled through. Your O’Sullivan ancestors have been on Kenmare River since the sixteenth century when Eoghan O’Sullivan, who your grandfather was named after, lived at Dunkerron Castle.’ She turned to gaze at the large stone statue that rose up from the middle of an ornamental pond in front of the house, surrounded by camellias and rhododendrons. ‘And what about when the poor old house was burnt down in the Civil War? It came back from the ashes then, didn’t it? So a few financial problems are a mere drop in the ocean compared to all that history, don’t you think?’
‘Yes … I suppose you’re right,’ Lillie mumbled with little conviction. ‘Even so, what if Dad …?’
‘As I said, being the oldest son and inheriting a place like this isn’t by any means as great as it sounds. It’s not always easy making ends meet. As your father is finding out. While he struggled to make a living here, men like his dear friend, Finn Malone, who I believe is to arrive this afternoon, were able to flit off to India and Australia to try their fortune.’ She smiled. ‘India was where he first met your mother.’
‘Uncle Finn’s coming this afternoon?’
Ever since they were little, to Lillie and her brothers he had been Uncle Finn.
‘He is. I thought you all knew.’
‘Ronan might have. I didn’t. But how exciting. I really like Uncle Finn.’ Lillie raised a dark eyebrow and shooed a bumblebee away. ‘I didn’t know he knew Ma in Calcutta.’
‘If it hadn’t been for that fortunate meeting your father may not have met your mother, would he? And,’ she laughed, ‘there’d be no beautiful Lillie or your brothers.’
‘I suppose so.’
Behind them came the familiar clink of china. Lillie turned to see Maisie walking across the lawn with a large silver tray in her hands.
Jumping up, she ran to help. ‘Looks like a feast, Maisie,’ she said, eyeing a plate of sandwiches and a platter loaded with hot scones. To the side sat a jar of raspberry jam and a pot of fresh clotted cream.
Maisie glanced down to the shore to where the Daphne was being hauled up on the bank by Lillie’s brothers. ‘I could see that lot were on their way in, so I thought I’d kill two birds with the one stone and bring cool drinks for them as well.’
‘What a good idea, Maisie,’ Alice said. She looked back up towards the house. ‘What about James and Kathleen? Are they joining us?’
Maisie shook her head. ‘Not this afternoon, ma’am. Mr O’Sullivan be gone to Kenmare, while Mrs O’Sullivan be in her darkroom developing photos.’
‘Busy bees, aren’t they?’
‘They are indeed, ma’am.’
She then placed the tray on a log and left to return to the house.
As Lillie watched Maisie walk across the lawn, she saw smoke curling out of the kitchen chimney where the Aga was purring happily. She took a deep breath and turned around to pour Grandma a cup of tea from the silver teapot. She then handed her a plate with a scone smothered in jam and cream. She poured herself a long tumbler of lemon squash. Her stomach was in too much turmoil to eat anything.
Now Marcus and Freddie arrived, soaked to the skin, leaving Ronan to pack up the Daphne. They gulped down most of the scones and sandwiches in a matter of moments and scampered up to the house.
Later, Lillie settled Grandma in her room, adding a piece of turf to the fire and putting the brass fireguard back in place. Then she went to find Ronan. He was out in the back garden hitting a tennis ball against the wall of the woodshed. As well as playing in the rugby team at his boarding school in Cork he had also tried out for the tennis team and had made it as a reserve. He was determined to make it into the team proper when he went back next term.
‘Why didn’t you come out for a sail, li’l sis?’ he asked. ‘A bit rough for a mere girl, eh?’
Lillie adored Ronan, who always called her li’l sis.
‘I thought I’d keep Grandma company. Besides, with you lot on board, where was I supposed to fit?’
Ronan looked her up and down. ‘Yeah, that’s a point. Not as little as you used to be, are you?’
‘Ronan!’ Lillie exclaimed.
Lillie had put on a bit of weight lately, which was giving her the willies. Ma said it was the age she was. Lillie wasn’t so sure it wasn’t the way she was meant to be. She and Sheelagh, who was also a bit on the chubby side, spent hours poring over magazines looking at diets, but as soon as Maisie took a fresh loaf of soda bread from the Aga and Lillie smelt the rich aroma wafting through the house, any thought of a diet went flying out of the window.
To add to Lillie’s woes, Clara, the daughter of her mother’s friend Jessica, was coming to stay. So Lillie would feel even fatter — Clara was as slim as a pencil and hugely pretty.
‘Are you excited about Clara coming?’ she asked Ronan.
‘Yeah, it’ll be good to see her.’
When Clara had first come to Rathgarven, it had been with her mother. Lillie remembered being in awe of Jessica. When she’d got out of the car, Lillie thought she was a movie star. She was wearing a tailored cream suit with an otter fur around her neck. The otter still had its head attached. Lillie felt incredibly sorry for the dead otter, as she would hate that to happen to the friendly one who lived in the cove. On her head Jessica wore one of the most glamorous hats Lillie had ever seen, the colour of the blueberries in Paddy’s garden. But it was her perfume Lillie remembered the most. Long after she left a room, you could still smell the mixture of wild flowers and musk.
‘That horrid man, Mr Donoghue, was here again,’ Lillie told Ronan, trying to share her worries around. ‘He came yesterday when you were at the movies in Kenmare. It sounds to me as though Dad owes him a heap of money. He and Ma were arguing.’ She fiddled with the collar of her yellow seersucker blouse, which was always itching her neck. ‘Did you know Dad gambled? That he’s probably lost so much money we might lose Rathgarven? I heard Ma say so.’
Ronan leant down and picked up a tennis ball. He hit it hard against the wall, making the shed shudder. If Lillie hoped to get some comfort from him she was disappointed. When the ball hit a rough patch on the wall and dropped dead to the ground, he turned around and said, ‘It’s none of our business, li’l sis. I’m sure they’ll work through it somehow.’ There was something in Ronan’s voice that told Lillie he may have guessed something of their parents’ difficulties. ‘I wouldn’t go worrying too much if I were you.’
‘Oh yeah … And what about Mr Donoghue?’
‘If Dad owes him money he’ll find a way to pay him back.’ He hit another ball. ‘And, in any case, you probably misheard. Or misunderstood. Besides, you shouldn’t have been listening.’
‘I couldn’t help it, could I? I mean … it’s not as though I was standing outside the door to snoop. I was in the library and they were in the drawing room. The door was open a bit. You know how it’s always hard to close it properly.’
Ronan shook his head. ‘If we’re meant to know what’s going on, we’ll find out soon enough.’ He handed Lillie the racquet. ‘Here … you have a go.’
‘I don’t feel like it. And I don’t think you’re taking me seriously. If you’d heard them arguing I bet you’d be more worried. But go ahead. Keep hitting that tennis ball and leave the worrying to me.’
With an angry toss of her head she stormed up to her bedroom and threw herself down on her bed. Ronan could be infuriating at times. Sheelagh once told her about a family who lived outside Sneem whose father had gambled so much on the races that he lost their house to the bank and they now had to live in a caravan in that hideous caravan park near Killarney. What if that happened to the O’Sullivans? And, if it did, how would Ronan feel then?

 

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