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Open Features: Bridget

…They were fey these two and inseparable. They were philosophers who studied the red, crackling embers of the burning wood in the fire place, their thoughts taking them away from the small room away into the world beyond. Bridget sat on his knee and listened to the engine room of his heart, his stories of the voyages he had made in the first big war and she would question him until his ears could take no more of her….

Four-and-a-half-year-old Bridgid’s grandfather takes her on a proper voyage on which she will be Queen of the pirates.

But will they see mermaids? And is there a disaster waiting to happen out there on the waves?

Anni Leppin tells a vivid remember-for-ever tale set in Ireland.

Settle down do, and enjoy a long, luxurious read.

“There’s mermaids just off that point”

He pointed westward with the stem of his pipe.

“And why can I not see them?” Bridget asked “Can you see them and Granda, what’s in those wooden boxes on the deck?”

He ignored her question. “You can’t see them because you cannot stand still long enough,” he grumbled “Go outside of the wheelhouse now and stand in the bow. Keep your eyes peeled and watch for their tails and listen will you. Be quiet and listen for the splash as they dive under the water.”

So she stood in the bow her feet snug inside the sturdy seaboots and a thick warm jersey to keep out any chill. She stared out into the west beyond the land’s forefinger which pointed out into the reflections on the water of the bay. She wasn’t quite sure what peeling her eyes was supposed to mean really but she assumed she must watch very carefully for a flip of tail or the long red curls of a mermaid.

Bridget had heard her Granda’s soft voice gently wakening her in the early lightless morning and felt the tickle of his beard in her ear as he pulled her jersey down over her head.

“We’re away off on a proper voyage now,” he whispered with a finger across his lips. “You will be the Queen of the pirates today and I shall be your bravest fighting man. We’ll take your seaboots and socks from the front door and I’ve bread and butter and a thermos of grand hot strong tea. Take your old trousers now and quiet as you go.”

And once outside, the door softly pulled behind until the quiet click of the fastener fell into place, the pair of them made for the jetty. Her grandfather stowed her, the bag with the food and the huge Thermos of tea into the wheelhouse of the Granuaile. He cast off the ropes from bow and stern, allowing the boat to float gently away from the jetty, then when he felt he was far enough away he hand cranked the engine into life, replaced the wooden casing over the engine box and once in the wheelhouse steered her gently away from Innislyre, the deep harbour coast guard station. When they were far enough out into the bay so that nobody at home could hear them, with the sunlight yawning across the water to show them their way, Granda notched up the speed a little and followed the channels that flowed between the islands.

He was a Coast Guard skipper as was his father and his grandfather before him. She was four and a half years old and she adored him. He smelt of pipe tobacco, engine oil and his hand knitted woolen jersey was crafted from the waterproof wool of hillside sheep but it had the stiffness of dried kelp. He wore a battered captain’s cap which had belonged to his father Joachim. This was the best of all times for the child, this time spent alone with her grandfather.

The people of the Irish west coast referred to him as the Spanish man because of the darkness of him; his hair, his eyes and sometimes his demeanor. There was none of the knackling, gnarled, clean shaven uncles, smelling of the whisky and hurting her ears with their strange Gaelic tongue. The only time they referred to Bridget they interspersed their native tongue with “the English Sailor’s daughter” in English. More than likely when they were together, and in their cups, one of the four would take offence over some imagined slight and there would be a set to until her grandfather put a stop to it all before it became physical combat.

Mick O’Malley knew well that this grandchild of his had “been here before “. He saw the secrets held deep within her dark eyes and she sent him her thoughts which he always caught and understood. He would watch her at meal times when she went somewhere else in her mind, her spoon held midway between the plate and her mouth and inevitably, when her Granny nudged her, told her to get on with her meal, the child would ask,

“Is my mammy coming soon?”

“She’ll be as quick as she can be Macree.” Her granny would reply. “There’s much she has to see to with your new baby sister and you daddy back at sea. Don’t fret yourself now. She’ll be fine.”

She would look to her Granda for reassurance and he would wink a sailor’s wink and Bridget would finish her meal. There were times when Bridget would turn her head toward a window or an open door and watch something just beyond the cottage. Her mouth would curl upward into a wide smile and her head would fall to one side as though listening to some invisible being and her hair would move as though a gentle breeze had passed through the room or maybe her hair had been tousled gently by a loving hand.

They were fey these two and inseparable. They were philosophers who studied the red, crackling embers of the burning wood in the fire place, their thoughts taking them away from the small room away into the world beyond. Bridget sat on his knee and listened to the engine room of his heart, his stories of the voyages he had made in the first big war and she would question him until his ears could take no more of her.

“Granda?” she asked him. “When I get big will my nose be as big as yours? And would they call me the Spanish child instead of the English Sailor’s daughter?”

“Do you think I have a big nose then,” he replied. “Are you telling me it’s ugly, is that what you are saying?”

“No Granda, it’s a grand nose. But it would be too big for me just now wouldn’t it? ”

And as her grandparents laughed so did she but she didn’t really know why. She loved her Granda’s nose. It was a throwback from his Moroccan ancestors, high bridged and slightly hooked it surely was a grand nose. Each night she inevitably fell asleep on his lap and was carried to her small bed in the corner of the room.

Sometimes when he was late back from the sea Bridget would sit in the sill of the window and although her granny would tell her all would be well the cement in her stomach only dispersed when she heard the engine and saw the swinging lights in the rigging.

Her Granda told Bridget deliciously scary stories of the mermaids who lured sailors down into the secret depths of the sea and he heard the stories of her famous pirate queen forbearer Granuaile O’Malley who disobeyed her father and stole a ship and went to sea to fight her family’s enemies.

“A pirate Queen for a grandmother is quite exciting“ Bridget thought, although pirates seemed to fight a lot and used swords. Her garrulous uncles didn’t use swords of course. But they did fight and she had seen one of them hit another. Quite hard it must have been because she had seen a bit of blood on chins and knuckles.

Out on the water on their special voyage they both inhaled the sweet mist which rose from the water and Bridget tried to catch it but it was like grasping smoke and her hands slipped through the wraiths which mocked her and drifted off taking with them her day dreaming laughter. He steered his boat slowly in between the islands of Clew Bay giving her the names of each island as the boat’s engine growled throatily over the still water. Sea birds rose as the boat approached their nesting places, screeching into the sky, annoyed by the intrusion. They circled above the boat until it passed and quorked their anger as they returned to the land.

“Do it again Granda,” laughed Bridget as she turned toward him. “Make them fly.”

But he shook his head and beckoned her up to the wheelhouse, replaced the two-way radio receiver in its cradle stepped outside to the engine casing and stopped the engine. On his way back from the stern where he let go the anchor, he lifted the child up and placed her onto the wheelhouse window bench. He poured hot tea into a blue edged white enamel cup. In went the sugar and the milk and he handed it to her,

“Careful now the mug could be a little hot, blow on the tea for a while to cool it and stir the sugar all the way, right through.” He instructed her as he cut through the thick slabs of home cooked bread. “That’s Clynish there. They all went to America when the troubles were at their worse. It’s all empty now but over there is Innishfree where you have your aunts, uncles and the cousins. Now take not a bit of notice of what they say if they start on you. Sally is the one to watch out for. She’ll take the mickey out of you and everybody for miles around. She’s a willful miss but she has a good heart. We’ll eat our breakfast now and pull into shore for a natter with them when we’re ready.”

Bridget stirred her tea, clattering her spoon against the enamel cup and puffed out her cheeks as she blew into the dark brown liquid. She sipped a little of the tea to test the temperature.

“It’s a little bit hot Granda so I’ll just wait a bit. Who were you talking to on that thing?” she pointed to the mechanics of the radio close to the steering wheel.

“Ah nobody but the man. Just to check that all is fine around the bay. Take this.” he replied, handing her a doorstop of bread with the butter on it as yellow as dandelions and almost as thick as the bread.

“Can I dip it into my tea?” she asked.

“Well there’s no granny here to see you, so off you go. But mind you pull it apart and dip it not too far in otherwise it will sink in to you tea.”

So they sat in the wheelhouse in quietness which only people who enjoy their own company are aware of. The water gently rocked the boat adding to their pleasure. It was as though the sea was a mother. Gently soothing, calming and peaceful. Nevertheless her grandfather knew she was a changeable mistress, the sea. Without warning she could become an angry storming Banshee, screaming against the sky and the land and forcing boats to seek safe harbour.

When they had drunk their tea, finished off the bread and butter and placed the mugs, tea, sugar and milk into the bag her grandfather lifted her from her perch.

“Off we go Bridget; off we go to see your noisy cousins.” He said “No doubt they will have finished their breakfast and are readying the young ones for school.”

Bridget could hear the noise from the house as they approached the small jetty.

“Oh that’s a big house there.” Bridget pointed toward the land. “They have an upstairs and down stairs. Why do we not have the same?” Bridget asked.

“They need the room. There’s a brood of them in there, too many to count because they are never still.” her Granda told her. “Will you listen to that racket, Mother of God it’s like listening to animals in the zoo.”

He cupped his hands and called loudly,

“Are you there Pádraig? I need a hand here to tie up.”

A bear of man came through the open door and called back,

“Hold your horses. Hold your horses.”

As he walked toward the jetty Granda threw the forward line and the man caught it, threw the loop over a mooring post and headed toward the stern caught the rope and made it fast around the capstan.

“She’s surely lying low in the water Mick. Is it a big lot you are carrying this trip. Are you bringing the child ashore?” asked Padraig.

“What do you suggest I do with her you eejit? Of course I am bringing her with me. And the boat’s no lower that the last time. In fact it’s a small lot this time and this is the last of it.” He turned to Bridget “come on here Macree Bridget and I’ll had you down to your uncle Padraig.”

“He’ll drop me in the water, I know he will,” she said as she stared into the eyes of the man on the jetty. There was a mean hardness on the man and Bridget sensed it. “You go on down Granda and you help me off the boat.”

“Fine, that’ll be fine.” He pulled on the forward rope, pulled the boat hard into the jetty and lightly jumped ashore. “Now come on here to me Bridget. I’ll have you safe and sound ashore in the blink of an eye.”

Confidently she reached out to him as he took her in one arm and set her down on the jetty.

Pádraig said something to her Granda in his own tongue and Granda just nodded at him.

“Well you better come on up to the house, they’ll all be wanting to see the …”

“Don’t say it Pádraig. Hold your mouth now. You will leave this child be. Do you take my meaning?’

Bridget clutched her grandfather’s hand and together they followed the Pádraig man toward the front door of the cottage. As soon as they entered the silence was so loud Bridget thought that she had imagined all the yelling and laughing she had heard as they approached the island.

There were boys and girls everywhere, half way up the stairs, half way down the stairs, sitting on the floor in various stages of dress, some were pulling on boots, some buttoning up shirts, freeze framed into silence. Over by the huge kitchen table stood a diminutive wisp of a woman who was struggling to force the tight red curls of a girl surely a little bit only, older than herself, into some semblance of tidiness. There must have been ten of them, but Bridget couldn’t count past three, so she was not quite sure. Then, as if on command, they all started talking again.

“How’s yourself then Mick?” asked the woman and not waiting for an answer she asked, “Is that Mary’s child you have there?”

“I’m the same as I was last time you saw me Kitty, and that was two days past.” Granda replied “You know full well this is Mary’s child. You could have come over at any time and you know it so it’s your loss.” He turned to Bridget who stood beside him squeezing the feeling from his hand. “Say hello to your Aunty Kitty and you’ll get to know the children later no doubt.”

“Hello.” was all she could muster, and that was almost a whisper.

The woman, who was her Aunty Kitty, gave a final tug to the hair of the child and walked over to Bridget and her grandfather.

“Ah now. Sure your mother will never be gone while you are on this earth child. “She reached out and pulled Bridget into her arms. “Well she’s more an O’Malley than some I’ve seen.”

Her aunt smelled of warm bread, freshly washed linen, tears and mother’s love and Bridget nestled comfortably for a second or two until she heard a call from the stairs.

“And who do we have here mammy? Is this Aunty Mary’s baby? Is this the child Bridget?”

Bridget turned toward the sound of the voice and there, coming down the stairs was Sally O’Malley, Padraig and Kitty’s first born child. Bridget stared in amazement as the girl stood in front of her.

Her hair was the colour of holly berries, tight curls cascaded in a fire escape of redness falling to the small of her back and her eyes were greener than the ocean on a calm day and as wild as the waves during a storm. She wore a skirt of green silky stuff, which swished around her ankles as she moved. Sally laughed gently and said to the child,

“Cat gotcha tongue Bridie girl? Why so sad. You need a feather in your knickers you do.”

“You are a mermaid aren’t you? And there is not a cat here. ”

“I am that. I’m the only mermaid in the whole of Ireland that cannot swim. I swim like a rock.”

“You look like the mermaids my Granda and granny tell me about.”

“Ah well, if you say so Bridie girl,” laughed Sally. She turned toward her mother and asked “Are all this lot ready now mammy? I’ll take them over to the school now.”

“Can I come with you?” asked Bridget

“Oh Macree! Not this time. I’ll not be back here until the school day is over.”

“Maybe be another time Bridget,” said her Granda. “Sally would be happy to take you another time. Is that not right Sally girl?”

Bridget saw the look that passed between her Granda and the adults in the room. Some things were not being voiced out loud; instead there was the uncomfortable shifting of eyes and shuffling of feet.

The children gathered together, farewelled everybody noisily and Bridget was left with Granda, Uncle Padraig and Aunty Kitty. The sudden silence confused her and sensing this, her Aunt said,

“Well you two men be away about your business. The sooner you have it sorted out the sooner you can this little one back home. Come with me now Bridget and we’ll have a natter while we wait for them.” Taking Bridget’s hand she led her to the table and over her shoulder she said to the men, “Go on now, away with both of you.”

“So you think our Sally is a mermaid do you?”

“I think she is. I think she looks just like a mermaid should look. Have you seen them swimming out there? Why do I need a feather in my knickers?”

“Just to make you smile. Bless you child. Of course I’ve seen the mermaids. Your mammy and I spent many a time out there in our boat. I think my sister and I saw more mermaids than anybody else in the country.”

The two of them sat at the large table and her aunt told her of the adventures she and her sister, Bridget’s mother, had out on the islands and the waters of the bay. It was not long before her Granda returned alone.

“We’ll be off now Kitty. It’s all unloaded and Pádraig’s taking it over to the old fort as we speak. Come on now Bridget, your granny will be wondering where we got to.”

Her aunt gave her a hug and kissed her on both cheeks.

“I’ll be seeing you soon Macree and you watch out on the way home for those mermaids.” To her Granda she said, “I’ll come out and cast you off Mick.”

Soon they were heading back through the channels but Bridget was far too tired to look out to sea. She curled up in the bow of the boat and felt the warmth of the sun on her. She was asleep still when they arrived home and slept on even when her grandfather had carried her into the house and placed her on her small bed in the corner.

Bridget only ever saw Sally one more time. She came to the island with two of her brothers and a basket of home made jams, fresh eggs and some photos in an old tin box. For one whole day the four of them explored the inlets around the island. They climbed the hill behind the cottages and stared down into the deep pit at the top. They looked at the photos and Sally told them who they all were.

“Why is there a big hole here on top of a hill?” asked one of the boys.

“Sure this is where the rainbow ends.” replied Sally “They’ve been digging her for the gold the eejits. Never” even found a pound did they?”

“Not at all you eejit Sally” sneered one of the boys. “It’s where they kept crates of guns for the fighting.”

“Where they for the uncles that are always fighting?” asked Bridget looking at Sally.

“Oh not at all Bridie, no such thing as crates of guns at all.”

“Why is it full of rocks and branches?” asked Bridget.

“To stop people falling down there and breaking their necks of course.” said one of the boys scornfully.

It was a grand day that was.

It was all laughing and rolling down the hill.

It was splashing in the shallows and skipping stones across the still water.

It was eating ham and cheese on fresh bread, drinking buttermilk and seeing who had the best white moustache residue.

It had to be too good to last.

Indeed it was.

It was three weeks later when Bridget saw her first mermaid. On the way back from a shopping trip over at Newport, Bridget was at her usual place in the bow of the boat. Her Granny was in the wheelhouse with her Granda. Then suddenly there she was, her green tail moving gently in the water, swishing slowly backward and forward with each wave. Her bright red hair floated all around her in long seaweed like tendrils and Bridget, when she found her voice, screamed to her Granda,

“Over there Granda. Quick! Look over there. There she is. There’s the mermaid. I peeled my eyes and found her.”

But her Granda could not hear her voice above the engine noise so she ran to the wheelhouse to tell him and she fell, hitting her head on the side of the wheelhouse door. When she woke up her granny was bending over her sponging her head with a wet cloth.

“Are you feeling better Macree? You have a lump the size of an egg on you. That was quite a knock you took.”

‘Did you see her? Did you see the mermaid?

“Hush now. Calm yourself now.” Her Granda’s face came into view and his voice was heavy with concern.

“No. No. We have to go back. Please! I have to see her. You told me I would find her if I looked hard enough and I did, I see her.”

“Tomorrow child, we shall go tomorrow. You have to stay quiet now and rest." said granny.

“Too late. It will be too late. She won’t wait that long.” sobbed Bridget.

Her head hurt and she cried herself to sleep in her granny’s arms and when she woke up it was night time outside, she was in her little bed in the cottage and somebody was banging loudly on the front door, over and over and calling out her Granda’s name.

“Mick! Mick will you wake up man? We need the boat.” It was her uncle Padraig.

Her Granda lit the oil lamp and called back,

“Hold on there I’m coming. What’s happened? Is there a wreck?”

He opened the door and three men fell into the room.

“It’s Sally. She didn’t come home from the mainland this afternoon. They found the boat with only one oar in it. It was floating out near the reef off Westport.” Her uncle’s voice was getting louder and more urgent by the second. “We need the Coast Guard boat Mick. We need the searchlight. Come on man can we get out there?”

Her granny bustled around finding Granda’s jersey and socks and with a tumble of urgency the men left the cottage. Granny crossed herself, put the kettle on the hearth, added some wood and stoked the embers. As in all timed of great worry it was tea these people turned to. Something to busy the hands, making a useful contribution of sorts.

“Come here to me Bridget and sit by the fire. They’ll find her I’ve no doubt about that. Holy Mother of God, where can she be?”

Bridget climbed into her granny’s lap and they waited together until the daylight came in through the windows. With the morning came the mournful sound of her Granda’s boat.

Bridget ran to the door and down to the jetty and waited as her Uncle Padraig tied the boat up. He turned and saw her there. The hardness had fallen from him. He looked as though all the inside of him and gone and there was left just a frame of the big man he once was. The three clean shaven uncles stood on deck quiet and still. Not an ounce of fight in them.

Her Granda called to her,

“Go back inside the house Bridget. Go in to your Granny and ask her to come down but you stay inside, Do you hear me now?”

She nodded and turned back to the house to let her granny know she was needed but she knew right then she would never see Sally again. They told her later, after Sally had been buried. The Banshees must have been abroad on the sea that day. The boat was hit by a freak wave and Sally who swam like a rock drowned, was pulled down by her long skirt and her heavy boots.

The day came when Granda took Bridget and Granny to Westport and they passed the spot near the sea grasses where Bridget had seen the mermaid, and she said to her Granda,

“That’s where I saw my mermaid just over there.” and she pointed to the spot. “Before I hit my head. I remember. That’s where she was, over there in the sea grasses.”

They looked at each other, her granny and Granda. Then they looked to Bridget.

“I told you Sally was a mermaid. I told Sally she was a mermaid as well.”

**


Macree is a term of endearment
There were crates of guns
The names are fictional, maybe….

Sally did drown, but the uncles were so drunk they honestly thought she was a mermaid.
How much truth – just enough….. Anni

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