This was recorded by Lin Sagovsky for Liars’ League in December 2021, available on YouTube It is edited to fit in with their Christmas theme. The original version was set in summer.
The bank slopes gently to the river so there is no danger for the girls. Mamma has said they may play there while she is gone into Mullinvane but they must not get their clothes wet. She has taken the pony and trap and Dada is away up the fields somewhere, so they have promised to be on their best behaviour.
But it is not the river bank they want today. That is a summer place, for building dams and fortifications of pebbles. The river bank is for dressing down. Off with the boots and stockings, skirts tucked into knickers. It is for soft silt between the toes and sunlight dancing on the arcs of water they send flashing into the air.
No. With Mamma safe gone, it is to be dressing up, and acting it out in the kitchen. Eileen is the oldest and should therefore be the sensible one, as Mamma often remarks. But Eileen is daring and often leads young Kathleen astray. Kathleen, it must be confessed, is willing to be led. Eileen’s games are always fun and Kathleen knows that, as the youngest, she will get off lightly.
It is always Eileen who makes up the rules.
‘We must have Mamma’s boots, so as to be tall enough, and then her aprons, so as to stay clean. That’s all right,’ she reassures Kathleen. ‘There’s aprons in the kitchen. But we’ll have to go into her room for the boots.’ They look at each other with big eyes. Mamma’s room. Kathleen wants to giggle at the excitement of it, but Eileen is stern. She takes her hand and they tiptoe to the staircase. There is no need to tiptoe. The house is empty, awash with thin, winter sunlight and silence. All the shutters are open but the kitchen door must be tight shut. Mamma does not mind the chickens wandering in but the sow is to be kept out at all costs. Once inside you couldn’t hold her. There’s no knowing the damage she could do. Kathleen is a little afraid of the sow. They helped Mamma once to hold the door shut against her and Kathleen has not forgotten how the wood creaked and threatened to splinter under the sow’s great weight.
Eileen is not afraid of anything. She leads her little sister up the narrow staircase, holding her hand tightly, not even letting go at the awkward corner where the steps take a turn and wind up in the opposite direction. Mamma’s room is at the end of the landing and the door is shut. Eileen has to reach high to twist the knob. They pause on the threshold and perhaps Eileen is afraid of some things. Not of the old sow, or even of Dada when he is angry and shouts. But just a little bit of Mamma, when she looks down at you, her eyes like chips of glass, and you can hear the ice in her voice.
The bed is broad and flat, a plump quilt defying you to sit on it. The wardrobe is wide, in glossy wood, and just for Mamma’s clothes. Dada’s compactum is smaller, ‘because he doesn’t have skirts and petticoats,’ Eileen has explained to her little sister. They are sometimes confused by the hierarchy of the household. Dada is the head, of course, and it is his money from working in America that paid for the farm. But he does not always have the final word and ‘Mamma says. . .’ is often used to deflect his authority.
Holding hands, the two girls cross the floorboards to the chest of drawers. Tucked underneath is Mamma’s pair of Sunday boots. They look down at the boots then at each other. They do not speak, however, because to do so in Mamma’s room could bring down some dreadful retribution. Eileen rouses herself and is now all business. She lets go of Kathleen and gathers up the boot hooks from the top of the chest and the boots from the bottom. Kathleen follows her out and is ordered to shut the door, but she cannot reach. Eileen tuts, bundles the boots and hooks into Kathleen’s arms and, reaching up, turns the knob. Down they go and Eileen sits on the bottom step.
‘I’ll have the boots,’ she announces, ‘and you can have Mamma’s galoshes. They’re in the porch.’ But she needs help with all those buttons. She takes the longer hook, with its smooth wooden handle, and begins, grunting with the effort. Kathleen, below her on the flags, sets to work with the smaller hook. This one is her favourite, its silver handle engraved with coils and twirls which she thinks are very beautiful. Sometimes she can see swans’ necks in the design or curled up babies. She wants to ask Mamma if she can have this one for her very own one day, but she does not dare to say it.
When they are done the boots do not look quite right on Eileen, but she totters into the kitchen, ignoring the flap of leather on her skinny calves, and orders Kathleen into the galoshes. Even worn over her boots they are too big and she can only move very slowly, in perpetual danger of tripping, which exasperates Eileen. Two inches taller now, she is full of self importance and issues orders for aprons and eggs and bowls and flour and sugar . . . and Kathleen gives up on the galoshes as she dances around the kitchen to her sister’s tune.
They are making a Christmas cake to surprise Mamma when she comes home. She is to walk into the kitchen and see their beautiful creation on the scrubbed table, and her eyes are to light up, and she is to gather them into her arms and murmur her thanks and her love. So there is much whisking of eggs and milk to be done, and pinches of this and dabs of that, and then the great concoction is slurped into a cake tin and slid into the range. They are impatient for it to bake but there is all the cleaning to do in the meanwhile. Clouds of flour have drifted everywhere and all the bowls and utensils have to be washed. They seem to have used rather a lot.
The heavy kettle is perilous when full of boiled water. They scorch their hands as they trek it across the kitchen, and Kathleen has tears in her eyes but she does not let Eileen see. Now they have to lift the great thing up to the sink and that cannot be done. They are too small. They set it on the floor and Eileen looks around for inspiration. She drags a stool across and they heave the kettle up so now she can tilt the spout into the sink.
Kathleen smooths butter into her burns to take the sting away, because that is what Mamma does. They are pleased with their tidying up but Eileen is aware that things are not quite as before. The cake, however, will make up for that and they go often to the range to peer in at its progress. Mamma’s cakes rise up high and springy and they are a little concerned that only one side of theirs is showing any sign of rising at all.
‘When will we know it’s cooked?’ Kathleen asks, and Eileen decides it will be done just before it starts to burn. They are, however, only able to gauge this after the cake has started to blacken.
‘But it’s just the edges,’ says Eileen, ‘and we can cut those bits off.’ She nearly drops the cake as she tries to slide it out of the range and Kathleen has to help her lift it across to the table.
‘It seems very heavy,’ Kathleen says, blowing on her hands where the hot tin has awoken her burns.
‘Ah, that’s because we put so much in. It’ll be grand when we ice it.’ Eileen’s confidence reassures Kathleen and she trots off to the dresser to fetch the marzipan Mamma made yesterday. Getting their creation out of the cake tin is not easy. Neither thought to grease the tin and great gobs of burnt dough adhere to the sides. They try easing it out with Mamma’s palette knife and begin to see that their cake is not the great success they had intended. And then the knife will not go through it. The mixture has set hard. Even the crumbs are not edible.
‘We’ll get rid of it. Mamma will never know and you are not to tell her.’ She looks hard at Kathleen who nods agreement but is already formulating the phrases that will gain her Mamma’s sympathy. She will curl up in her lap and whisper so that Mamma must listen closely and she will tell her how she loves her and that they wanted to surprise her but . . .
‘You are not to tell her,’ Eileen says again. ‘Now help me with this and we’ll throw it in the river and no one the wiser.’ She sits on the stool and Kathleen can pull the boots off without unbuttoning them.
They struggle down to the river bank, the great lump of a thing shedding a trail of crumbs. Together, they try to hoist it high and the cake is heaved out into the water. Ice cracks as it thumps down in the shallow stream and they realise, with panic clutching at their hearts, that it is plainly visible and will not sink. Eileen is all for wading in and whacking it to pieces, but Kathleen is off. She must remove herself as far as possible from the evidence of their crime so she flees across the yard and slides in behind the hen house, out of the wind. She crouches down and soon Eileen joins her, the pair of them squatting in the frozen mud. They hold their breath, waiting for the sound of the trap coming over the bridge. They do not speak, and eventually drift asleep, coiled against each other.
So they do not hear Mamma coming home. She sits high in the trap and as it rolls over the bridge, she sees the great pale heap down in the river and her heart stops. Her girls are down there, drowned, their skirts ballooning out in the water. She gives a great cry and jumps down. As she runs she begs God that it will not be so, please let it not be so, dear God, bless us and save us and let them not be dead.
Then Mamma is standing on the bank and she is crying and laughing. She thanks God that he answered her prayers, and, as she calls for the girls, plans the whipping they will have. She knows where they will be hiding and strides towards the hen house. They do not hear the creak of her boots as she approaches. Their sleep is full of the soft chuckles of the hens and it is only when the birds run squawking to greet Mamma that Eileen stirs. She nudges Kathleen awake. Mamma stands over them, blotting out the sun. And she has a long switch of hazel in her hand.
‘My heart turned over inside me,’ she tells Dada that night. ‘They should really have gone without their tea, as well as being whipped. Such a mess they had made. Christmas cake indeed.’ She has just come from their room, from kissing their foreheads as the two girls lie sleeping, a bar of moonlight aslant across their bed. And Eileen is dreaming of tomorrow and the next adventure and the whole world waiting for her. Her sleep is giddy and she will wake full of energy and wilfulness. But Kathleen is curled up against her sister, feeling only warmth and comfort, and she does not dream.