Aileen stopped looking at the unfinished paintings and knelt alongside the envelopes. She picked up an airmail one, shakily addressed in soft pencil to MICHAEL SHEEHAN, BALLINLOUGH HOUSE, LISNAGROOB, IRELAND, and unfolded the single sheet of ruled paper inside it. The handwriting was on alternate lines, the letters carefully formed.
Dear Michael, Aileen starting reading. We’ll look after Bridget, don’t worry. It’ll take her a while to settle in after all the trouble. Tell her to bring plenty of warm clothes for little Aileen and the boys. We’ll find some things for the baby before it arrives…’
Collum glanced up from the box he was rummaging through. ‘Who’s the letter from?’
Aileen turned the sheet over. ‘It’s from Great Aunt Sarah. It must be to Granda Sheenan – he was Michael. It’s dated 1951. That’s when we sailed, and the baby Mother was carrying was you!’
‘So what trouble does she mean?’ asked Collum, sitting beside his sister. ‘Carry on reading.’
‘There’s nothing more about it here. There might be another letter from Sarah.’ Aileen and Collum started to tidy the envelopes. ‘It’ll be airmail, 1951 or earlier. Here! 1950, same pencil handwriting.’ She unfolded the two-sheet letter and started to read. Dear Michael, I’m awful sorry to hear about Bridget and Stephen. I always said those O’Hanlons were a bad lot. It’s a terrible thing when a man lets his wife down that way. And that Mary, supposed to be the mother’s help and all. It’s disgusting. What will Bridget do with the little ones? She can’t stay in her half of your house, even though she’d be near you. She could come here to live with us, get a new start away from the gossip. Talk to her about it but whatever she does that dirty woman must move out of the back cottage…
Collum interrupted. ‘Wow! Who was that ‘dirty woman’? Is that the back cottage?’ He pointed at one of the paintings which showed a third, distant building.
‘I know Mother had help with us children from a woman called Mary. She lived in for a few years. Could it be her?’ Aileen looked troubled. ‘And what was Father up to with her?’ Collum’s mischievous grin suggested that he had an idea. ‘I don’t even want to think about it now,’ she said, carefully re-folding the paper and replacing the letter on the tidy but somehow ominous pile of envelopes. ‘It’s funny to think of Father, Mother and us children in that house with Granda reading these letters.’
‘Wasn’t the sky always grey when you were a kid?’ Even though Collum knew exactly what Aileen would say in reply to his next question, he asked it just to hear her say the words. ‘And did it always rain in Ireland, like they say?’
As he knew she would, Aileen slipped into her mother’s faint trace of a brogue when she replied. ‘Agh, be away with you! And even if it does rain, sure and isn’t that the price you have to pay for an emerald isle?’
Collum smiled: that ‘emerald isle’ thing was a joke of their mother’s, so often repeated that had become a family saying. Like ‘that dirty woman’ might now become…