Bernie McGill

The Watch House

Bernie McGill

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Ginny McQuaid

Rathlin Island, April 1899

The face of her, grey as flint, lying there in the iron bed.

            Such a lot of blood to birth one measly thing. Grainne Weir said she’d never seen so much. ‘But Nuala Byrne is young and strong, she’ll get over it. Let her sleep. It’s the best tonic for her. We’ll give the child panada till she comes round.’

            ‘You’ll take a drop, Grainne? It’s been a long haul. You’ll have a wee drop for your trouble?’

            The way it came out, the veil still round its face. I’d never seen the like of it and nor had the handywoman. Speechless, the pair of us, till she thought to wipe that thing off its face with a scrap of muslin like you would a cobweb off a windowpane. The yell it let out when its face appeared, fit to raise the dead. And Nuala Byrne in the bed moaning, only half sensible to what was going on.

            ‘What a thing,’ said Grainne Weir, after a sup, ‘for an islander to be born in the caul. A child born like that, it can never be drowned,’ she said, quiet. Putting curious notions into my head.


Nuala Byrne thinks that my old eyes see nothing, that I didn’t know what was going on the time she was up at the watch house. I had my suspicions, sure enough. And then, ‘There’ll be another mouth to feed in the spring,’ said she, innocent as you like, rising from the fire, and our Ned the Tailor looking like she’d slapped him across the face, before he came round and smiled his big childish smile over at me like he’d done something right after all. And her, blowing the breath out her nose like the bellows in the forge pushing out air, like she’d gotten away with it, like she’d fooled us all. She might have fooled the Tailor with her story-making, with her telling of it the way she’d like us to believe it and not the way it was. Our Ned’s a good man but he’s an awful gam. God knows where he’d be without me. Nearly six years between us, I’ve always had the care of him. For all I know he believes he’s begotten a child by rubbing his chin on her face. But I’m not fooled. Every morning since she’s stepped over that threshold I’ve checked the sheets in the bed in the upper room and they’ve been as dry as if they’d just been shook out off the hedge. If there was to be another mouth to feed, I knew that mouth wasn’t the Tailor’s doing and I’d a fair idea whose doing it was.

            And as for this blind runt with the blood at its ears and its sprout of black hair, swaddle it up with its mewling mouth closed, bind tight its wriggling fists and heels. Let Nuala Byrne believe it didn’t thrive. She’s that far gone with the pains and the blood-letting she knows no sense. Grainne Weir is too stewed with drink to remember anything other than what I tell her to remember and the Tailor, still on Islay, will believe anything I say: ‘The child was sickly. Nuala wasn’t fit to nurse it. That can happen with a first. The priest was off the island, you were away at the Fair. Grainne Weir was wrung out working with her and the two days of her hollering. I buried it in the killeen over at Kilbride myself, in the unhallowed ground, before I left for the Fair. Nuala’s healthy and strong. She’ll get over it. There’ll be other babies. You’ll see.’

            Kilbride is too far for me to walk but there are other ways to do. Thread a thick length of twine through the eye of the cracked loom stone that’s been propping open the lower room door these fourteen months and more. Wrap the twine round the bundle, a good tight knot. Slip it into the basket under the fine linen napkins that the glenswomen go mad for at the Easter Fair. Tuck a piece of sail around it to keep the splash water out. April morning early, the warble of a skylark rising out of the barley rigs over by Coolnagrock, singing the same question over and over, bright, insistent, not a lullaby. The basket heavy and rocking with the weight of the bundle and of the stone as I walk up the road from Portavoolin to meet Dougal coming from Ballycarry on the cart, leaving Grainne Weir and Nuala Byrne sleeping, the pair of them like babies in the crib.

            Climb up into the cart, grip the side tight.

            ‘Walk, Susie,’ says Dougal, believing what I tell him, knowing nothing of what I’m carrying, his big soft heart breaking for the Tailor and for Nuala with the sore sad news of it all. ‘You should have sent for me,’ he says, rubbing his hand over his great stubbled chin.

            ‘There was no work in it for a man.’

            ‘I could have buried the child,’ he says. ‘I would have done it with a heart and a half. It was too far for you to walk.’

            ‘There are times when you get the strength from somewhere you didn’t know you had,’ I say to him. ‘It was an important thing to do.’ And Dougal nods, and I know from the set of his mouth that he’s biting the flesh on the inside of his cheek the way his big soft father used to do to stop the tears from spilling. There’s too much of the Duffins in my cousin Dougal, not enough of my aunt, who was sharp McQuaid through and through. He’s no match for the cunning of a woman. The cart rattles over the white stones all the way down to Church Bay.

            On the pier a commotion: three islanders, foorins from the upper end, trying to boat a cow. They have the beast coped over on a scattering of straw and they are going at it hell for leather, binding its legs, lowering it down with ropes into Jimmy Boyle’s boat where it lies looking up at us like a dog curled on the hearth. Nobody pays heed to an oul’ woman in a shawl with a basket full of linen for the Fair, and if there is a peep out of the basket, how would you hear it with all the roaring and bellowing of the beast? Push the napkins tight in round it, swaddle it up well. Who will buy this bonny bundle? Hah! No need to worry. It’ll never make it as far as the mainland. A small thing makes a small splash in the swirl of Slough-na-Mara south of the Rue, where the eddy will swallow a thing and never throw it up again. No bastard child under my roof taking the McQuaid name. We’ll keep this quiet. We’ll get a son for the Tailor yet, his name on a piece of island soil. I’ve drowned many an unwanted kitling in the Lough in a sack with the mouth tied tight. One more’ll make no difference.

Opening chapter from The Watch House by Bernie McGill (out with Tinder Press, August 2017)

Bernie McGill

Bernie McGill’s short stories featured in two celebrated recent anthologies of women writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson, The Long Gaze Back (New Island Books, 2015) and The Glass Shore –Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland (New Island Books, 2016). Her story collection Sleepwalkers (Whittrick Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, and, beside numerous other awards, she won the Zoetrope: All-Story Award in 2008. She is also a novelist and has written for theatre. Her acclaimed historical novel The Butterfly Cabinet (first published in 2010; re-published in 2016) is based on the mysterious events surrounding the death of a young girl in 1890s’ Portstewart, the Northern coastal town the author has lived in for many years. McGill’s new novel, The Watch House, set on Rathlin Island, will appear in August 2017 with Tinder Press.