The middle room was a good place for the girls to escape to when there were lots of jobs to be done. It had their parent’s big brass bed with a huge patchwork quilt, where with a bit of imagination, you could rig up a passable tent.
There was a heavy wardrobe which Mammy said was a converted settle-bed; whatever its past life, it was a great place for hide-and-seek. High on top of it was the double-barrelled shotgun that Daddy took down occasionally, to shoot ducks or rabbits. Beside it was a rusting toy gun which no-one ever spoke of, the girls had vague memories of the small brother who died years ago. Mammy always cried when she heard the song ‘Little Boy Blue’ on the radio.
The Virgin Mary in the heavy gilt frame had a sad face too, even though she had a chubby Infant Boy in her arms, and a couple of angelic cherubs guarding them. The Infant had a rather supercilious look on his face, he must not have known what was going to happen to him eventually. That was graphically depicted in the crucifix on the opposite wall.
Not that the girls were concerned about such theological niceties – there was a much more interesting object in the far corner of the room, Mammy’s trunk. This was the nearest thing in their experience to Pandora’s Box or Aladdin’s cave. All those years ago, before any of them were born, it had come to the house with Mammy. It was already a much-travelled trunk, having come originally from Argentina where Mammy’s older sister lived. Judging by her letters she led a very exciting life, though Mammy always referred to her as ‘poor Bridie’ – something about her hopes of re-settling in Ireland not working out. There were still labels on the side of the trunk, faded and peeling, but you could just make out the name of the liner that had carried it across the ocean … S.S. Mauritania
It was hard to open the clasps on the trunk, but it was worth persevering with. Such treasures were in there, wrapped in tissue paper, smelling of a mixture of lavender and camphor. Maura’s favourite were the soft fox-skins with dangling paws. She loved draping them over her shoulders and snapping the clasps in the fox’s mouth on to the bushy tail. One fur was the deep auburn of a fully-grown fox, the other the honey-colour of a cub, this one had been part of Mammy’s honeymoon suit.
In the hat-box there was a jaunty red hat with a curling feather; with the fur stole it made a very glamorous outfit – Maura loved to parade in it before the flaking mirror on the creaky old dressing-table. Then there were a couple of pairs of long sleeved gloves, and flimsy blouses with rows of tiny buttons, but you would need lots of time to dress up in those. Not that Mammy ever considered wearing any of these lovely things any more, except for the colourful silk scarves that she sometimes pulled out of the trunk to dress up the ‘serviceable’ coats that she wore nowadays.
Another fascination were the little velvet-lined jewellery boxes; one had Mammy’s five-stone engagement ring, (a couple of the stones were missing), another had a little gold brooch with a spider’s web and fly, which Daddy had given her as a wedding present, though the girls could not imagine their parents having any romantic history. There was a string of pearls with a broken clasp, a heavy silver fob-watch permanently showing six o’clock, a vividly coloured fan from South America and all the memory-laden bric-a-brac of a variety of lives.
Sometimes when the girls were exploring the contents of the trunk, Mammy would discover them. If she were initially cross with them for shirking the jobs to be done, usually she could be mollified by getting her reminiscing about the past. Old photographs would be pored over, serious-looking wedding pairs facing the camera with a look of grim determination, family groups posing self-consciously for a special occasion, wide smiles squinting into the sun on summer outings.
But the past would soon have to give way to the pressures of the present. There were endless farm chores to be done, cows to be milked, calves to be fed, missing animals to be tracked down.
So the trunk full of memories and secrets would be closed; the old room which had seen conceptions, births and deaths over the generations, would return to its brooding and the moths and mice could re-appear.