The Wonder Page 2

“I beg your pardon?”

“Ryan’s.” The driver nodded left to a building with no sign.

This couldn’t be right. Stiff after the journey, Lib let the man hand her down. She shook her umbrella at arm’s length, rolled the waxy canvas, and buttoned it tight. She dried her hand on the inside of her cloak before she stepped into the low-beamed shop.

The reek of burning peat hit her. Apart from the fire smouldering under a massive chimney, only a couple of lamps lit the room, where a girl was nudging a canister into its row on a high shelf.

“Good evening,” said Lib. “I believe I may have been brought to the wrong place.”

“You’ll be the Englishwoman,” said the girl slightly too loudly, as if Lib were deaf. “Would you care to step into the back for a bit of supper?”

Lib held her temper. If there was no proper inn, and if the O’Donnell family couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate the nurse they’d hired, then complaining would be no use.

She went through the door beside the chimney and found herself in a small, windowless room with two tables. One was occupied by a nun whose face was almost invisible behind the starched layers of her headdress. If Lib flinched a little, it was because she hadn’t seen the like for years; in England religious sisters didn’t go about in such garb for fear of provoking anti-Romish sentiment. “Good evening,” she said civilly.

The nun answered with a deep bow. Perhaps members of her order were discouraged from speaking to those not of their creed, or vowed to silence, even?

Lib sat at the other table, facing away from the nun, and waited. Her stomach growled—she hoped not loudly enough to be heard. There was a faint clicking that had to be coming from under the woman’s black folds: the famous rosary beads.

When at last the girl brought in the tray, the nun bent her head and whispered; saying grace before the meal. She was in her forties or fifties, Lib guessed, with slightly prominent eyes, and the meaty hands of a peasant.

An odd assortment of dishes: oat bread, cabbage, some kind of fish. “I was rather expecting potatoes,” Lib told the girl.

“’Tis another month you’ll be waiting for them.”

Ah, now Lib understood why this was Ireland’s hungry season—potatoes weren’t harvested until the autumn.

Everything tasted of peat, but she set about clearing her plate. Since Scutari, where the nurses’ rations had been as short as the men’s, Lib had found herself incapable of wasting a bite.

Noise out in the grocery, and then a party of four squeezed into the dining room. “God save all here,” said the first man.

Not knowing the appropriate response, Lib nodded.

“And ye too.” It was the nun who murmured that, making the sign of the cross by touching her forehead, chest, left and right shoulders. Then she left the room—whether because she’d had all she wanted of her meagre portion or to surrender the second table to the newcomers, Lib couldn’t tell.

They were a raucous lot, these farmers and their wives. Had they already been drinking elsewhere all Sunday afternoon? Spirit grocery; now she understood the driver’s phrase. Not a haunted grocery, but one that served liquor.

From their chatter, which touched on some extraordinary wonder they could hardly believe although they’d seen it with their own eyes, Lib decided they must have been to a fair.

“’Tis the other crowd are behind it, I’d say,” said a bearded man. His wife elbowed him, but he persisted. “Waiting on her hand and foot!”

“Mrs. Wright?”

She turned her head.

The stranger in the doorway tapped his waistcoat. “Dr. McBrearty.”

That was the name of the O’Donnells’ physician, Lib remembered. She stood to shake his hand. Straggly white side-whiskers, very little hair above. A shabby jacket, shoulders flecked with dandruff, and a knob-headed walking stick. Seventy, perhaps?

The farmers and their wives were eyeing them with interest.

“Good of you to travel all this way,” the doctor remarked, as if Lib were paying a visit rather than taking up employment. “Was the crossing awful? If you’ve quite finished?” he went on, without giving her a chance to answer.

She followed him out into the shop. The girl, lifting a lamp, beckoned them up the narrow staircase.

The bedroom was poky. Lib’s trunk took up much of the floor. Was she expected to have a tête-à-tête with Dr. McBrearty here? Had the premises no other room free, or was the girl too uncouth to arrange things more politely?

“Very good, Maggie,” he told the girl. “How’s your father’s cough?”

“Better, nearly.”

“Now, Mrs. Wright,” he said as soon as the girl was gone, and he gestured for her to take the single rush chair.

Lib would have given a great deal for ten minutes alone first to use the chamber pot and the washstand. The Irish were notorious for neglecting the niceties.

The doctor leaned on his cane. “You’re of what age, if I may ask?”

So she had to submit to an interview on the spot, although she’d been given to understand that the job was already hers. “Not yet thirty, Doctor.”

“A widow, yes? You took up nursing when you found yourself, ah, thrown on your own resources?”

Was McBrearty checking Matron’s account of her? She nodded. “Less than a year after I was married.”

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