‘ELLEN’ – prologue

Dear John,
Here is the photograph:

You see five children and an adult in a hayfield, posing for the camera.
That's me on the right in the shapeless skirt; hand shading my eyes from the sun. Beside me is Michael, my younger brother. The others are my cousins: That's Mary in the middle. The old man holding the hay rake was a local; long since dead.

You count six people.

But look a little closer; a few yards behind the furthest child. Look to the left, next the haystack, partly in the shade of the tree. Can you see it; the stooping figure of a girl?

I find I can't look nowadays without my eye being drawn to her alone.

Perhaps it's no more than a coincidence of light and shade- a leaf becomes her jaw; the hand, a coil of twine: Her shift might not be a smock at all – but some back-lit gap between the briars: I've heard it all before; an exercise in rationality. But even those dismissive of such things can’t help but take it up a second or a third time; a frown or half formed word betraying their bewilderment.

 A friend once had the photograph enlarged: It proved nothing: Like staring into the depths of space; everything expands into a myriad of cloud-like wisps and darkened nebulae until the eye, frustrated in its task, sends you back to start again. I must have searched that face; perhaps a thousand times.

 It's hard to be certain, I know: But most agree at least: She's looking up in my direction.

But if you ask 'is she there?' then you've already decided that she can't be: I too asked that question first - but then I added 'why?' It's best simple to look. 

We had left Derryhannagh later that same afternoon. I never saw the photograph until, by chance, it was shown to me many years later at the funeral of the woman who we youngsters had called 'granny' during our earlier stay. She was one of the Knoxes.

I hope you trace your relative and I'll help as best I can: I've grown to anticipate your airmail stamp. But now that you know where the photograph was taken; make of it what you will.

Regards, E


County Armagh 1903:

Most summer evenings, from long before the flax flower reached full height, till after it was pulled and retted and stood in stooks in fields to dry, Johnston steered Corr's lighter back along the River Bann to moor it for the night.

At a certain of the river's bends and across its meadows awaiting a second cut, a familiar farmhouse bathed in softening salmon light came into view at last. 

The tow horse, Ned,  always pulled a little harder at this place and the lighterman also took the gable's glow to be a welcome sign: 
It was time for him to shift. He swirled the last tea dregs in his mug then cast the remnants out across the placid fly-flecked waters before standing to angle off the tiller which began to roll a rounder, swollen wave that swayed the reeds along the Derryhannagh side.

 Corr House soon came into sight and Johnston made his way along the long barge to make his final preparations.

Usually at this point he would cease his song entirely: But on a whim that evening he sang still louder while closing on the moorings then slung a rope towards a well-worn post there; easing the lighter ever closer to the planks. By habit, he ran his eye along the lighter’s length a final time to see that all was right; tied the rope secure then up he stepped to mark the closing of another day. 
Talking soothing nonsense, he fed the tow-horse tit-bits from his jacket pocket as he led it down the path then left Ned free to feed and graze along the fresher fringes there.

This done, Jimmy paused and cupped his hardened hands and lit another smoke. Exhaling slowly, he leaned upon the gate and took his time to look a while across the fields of lengthening shadows.

In truth, by this time of day there wasn’t much to take his notice: The scent of dusk was already heavy on the meadows and the fields, long since emptied, now lay abandoned to the swallows that swooped in lightning darts among the ricks. 
The only sounds were those of far-off lowing cattle and the shouts and whoops of the boys who steered them back to Knox’s farm for milking.
Following the remnants of the calls and curses, Johnston let his gaze drift along the distant tree-lined Derryhannagh lane to where his destination lay; past the flax cottages; beyond the Knox’s farm and out across the Derryhannagh bog.

High above the Moss he could make out distant specks. Crows for sure; wheeling slowly on the evening air: The moon hung low and was still a pale and timid interloper.

Behind the lighterman, Ned snorted and shook his head with a sudden, shuddering vigour. “What ails ye?” Johnston inquired, looking back and bid his companion, ‘Aisy’.

Closer to the river, swarms of midges, frenzied by the failing light, danced in teeming golden clouds. At the far bank, the statued heron that had eyed him earlier, lurched clumsily to flight.

But it was time the lighterman was also on his way. He snigged his smoke and tucked it in behind his ear as he was known to do. He took up the air of his lament once more and began to amble on along his path to join the Derryhannagh lane. 

Soon his song and shadow mingled with the deepening evening until he himself became no more than just another part of it.

[Scene extract]

[Corr House]

….. Corr House entirely dominated that end of Derryhannagh; although the term 'House' had always been something of a misnomer: To those who had only heard of the place, the word 'House' tended to conjure up images of some residence in the English style and on a much more grandiose scale than was actually the case. 

Certainly it was large by comparison with the dwellings of others around the town-land of Derryhannagh - and only the Knoxes' place at the far end of the lane merited any meaningful comparison.

But Corr House was no English styled county residence: The truth was somewhat different: No wrought iron gates or sweeping lawns were met on its approach and, in any event, the building's proportions had more in common with those of a large rectory.

It’s title had come to be ascribed by those inhabited the much humbler abodes dotting the surrounding area and further back along the lane and whose livelihoods were inextricably linked to Corr House through linen.

The worker's cottages by comparison were entirely rustic in appearance and construction: Low overhanging roofs of thatch or rush prevailed. Their walls were rough and built from clay and gathered stone, limed over to a white complexion. The doors were generally halved; the windows tiny; and as for floors - no tiles or polished wood - but clay tramped to compaction.

But for those well known for ‘calling a spade a spade’ - the Corr place was clearly on a different scale and most certainly a ‘House’.

One had to step well back from beneath its shadow to break an odd illusion - given in a certain light - that it was the clouds which stood still while Corr House moved across the land.

As to a particular style: None came readily to mind. But the place exuded a quiet confidence, a church-like gravity and sense of permanence that can only be acquired through time alone.
Yet, while the Corrs were clearly ‘moneyed people’, little had been spent on the surrounding grounds.These were devoid of any idle trappings of success and, likewise, the building’s design was entirely bereft of any decorative carvings, trimmings or the like. Its sandstone facade erred on the staid and parsimonious; as if such things had been deliberately disdained. But then many see such plainness as a virtue and are fundamentally opposed to ostentatious displays of wealth or any feature that could be misinterpreted either as graven images or akin to the sin of pride.

If indeed such beliefs had originally guided the hand behind the building's design then it had be admitted that success had been achieved in their translation into solid stone:  Corr House had survived as a testament to fundamental truths, simple faith and the rewards associated with shrewd business practice married with hard work.

Everywhere, the practical was preferred to the ornate. The upper window; their blinds always precisely drawn to half, looked down, if not judgmentally, then with a mute unblinking stare; minding business that was their own:
The porch did what a porch does best: It blocked the rain as the knock awaits an answer and framed a heavy solid door of black. And where the sandstone was bereft of tints of lichen, veins of ivy of some kind were checked right back in their advance and only given rein around the gable nearest the lane-end. There, alone, unfettered, its fingers spread and clung in tight embrace as they aspired towards the chimney's height; the leaves turning a blood-red towards the harvest time of year….

[Extract 3]

Linen was 'what the Corrs' did'. Demand had grown in the preceding centuries but then had expanded rapidly and World-wide in the latter.

What had at first been served by a thriving cottage industry had, over the second half of the nineteenth century, exploded onto an industrial scale served by ever larger linen mills.

Initially, demand had been driven by the material’s practical properties. But with refinements in technique and skill in its embellishments, linen items had gradually become a luxury item; a perception that only served to drive  prices ever higher in its finer grades. 

At any social event upon which the sun shone, be it a garden party, a regatta or at the races, those gathered preferred linen for its light and cooling feel.
For those who could afford it, linen had become, quite literally, part of the fabric of a cultured way of life; wore by day and slept in or on by night:

On the English village cricket green, the bowler rubbed a shine against it as he turned to spin a slow delivery. And when he found the scuff before the wicket’s crease, onlookers dabbed cambric kerchief to powdered brows and leaned to inquire as to the reason for the sudden shout.

Dinner party guests came through to tables adorned with it - the linen’s understated sheen, a natural ally to the kindred softness of candlelight and silverware’s low lustre.

 Clerics donned it as the confetti fluttered and again at an infant's Christening. Wound round with care, it comforted the sobbing child who grazed a knee on stumbling; or cleansed and dressed the wounds of those fallen on some foreign field. Its manufacture employed thousands in the north of Ireland; be they harvesting in the field; at the larger town or city mills; or sitting quietly at a fireside with needle and nimble fingers. But, to each and all; at the end of the day, linen was simply money.

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