Robinswood, Co Waterford, 1939. The once grand house is home to two very different families. Despite delusions of grandeur, Lord and Lady Kenefick and their adult children live a life of decayed opulence as the money needed to keep such a large house and grounds ever dwindles. Meanwhile, the Murphy family, Dermot, Isabella and their three almost grown-up girls, live and work on the estate and do their best to keep everything running smoothly. Social structure is vital. Everyone knows their place, but as war looms, both families find themselves drawn into the conflict and begin questioning everything that once was true. From the leafy grounds of an Irish stately home to the bombed-out streets of London in the Blitz, Jean Grainger’s latest bestselling historical saga will sweep you away.
Release date: June 24, 2018
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Print pages: 512
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What Once Was True
Robinswood, Co Waterford, 1940
‘Well, if you want to be the big man, going off to fly planes for the British, don’t let me stop you.’ Kate knew she probably sounded petulant, but Sam was being so annoying.
He grinned at her, the sun dazzling behind him. He looked so much older than twenty-one in his RAF uniform, and Kate hated the way he made her feel like a stupid kid.
‘Kate, I am British,’ he replied, delighted to annoy her. It was always like this—him teasing her, and her quick temper rising to it every time.
‘And what about Robinswood? And all your responsibilities as the new Lord Kenefick? None of that matters anymore, I suppose? I know you are all caught up in the war and going off to be a pilot, but what about us? What about your home? Now that your father is gone, God rest him, you can’t just up and leave this whole estate, the house, all the people who work here, who rely on Robinswood for their livelihoods.’ She had to try to get through to him.
They walked through the orchard as they had done since they were children. The big old house up on the hill to the east of them might have looked imposing or intimidating to others, but to Kate and Sam, it was just home. And, indeed, it was a beautiful house. Four floors and a basement, built in 1770 of cut limestone with red sandstone edging, with a huge front door accessed by fifteen granite steps. Verdant green lawns stretched to the ha-ha, the sunken fence used to keep the deer and cattle off the perfect grass, and beneath the bank was rich farmland, acres of it, dotted here and there with belts of trees. The winding avenue up from the village was two miles long.
Kate often admired the paintings in the long gallery of hunt balls and parties at Robinswood years ago. It was where the landed gentry had come to play, in and around the house and estate. Of course, that sort of thing no longer happened, but in its heyday, the house was one of the finest in Munster.
Kate automatically pulled weeds from the strawberry beds as she had been taught to do since she was small. Her father was the estate manager and her mother the housekeeper, so she and her sisters had scampered all over every inch of that house, just as Sam and his older sister, Lillian, did.
Sam opened the orchard door, resting his hand for a moment on the warm stone wall facing west - it absorbed the evening sun. When Kate was a child, and several gardeners worked on the estate, glass houses were built against the wall, full of grapes and lemons and pears. But no more. Old Danny O’Leary did all the gardening now, and it was all he could do to keep the grass down. Only the hardiest of fruit grew now. Sam led her down the path to the old stone bridge over the river that ran through Robinswood. On one side of the bridge was an ornamental pond with a huge marble statue of a kingfisher in the middle, and the water’s surface was covered with lily pads. Kate loved it there. It was where they’d had all their serious chats over the years.
He said nothing until they were both sitting on the bridge, feet dangling over the edge, the water slowly flowing from the pond into the stream below them.
‘Look, Kate, I know.’ Sam’s tone was no longer teasing. ‘I don’t want to go - well, that’s not true. I do, I want to fly, be a pilot, and of course we have to defeat Hitler. It simply must be done, and we are the generation to do it. My father’s generation saw them off the last time, but now it’s our turn.’
Kate could hear the excitement in his voice, no matter how hard he tried to sound regretful.
‘But you’re Irish, for God’s sake, in every way that matters. I know you were born there and went to school, and you’re Protestant, and the title and all of that, but you grew up here. This is your home. I just can’t believe you’re going to walk away from...well, from everything.’ She coloured. What she could never say was how she hated the thought of him leaving her.
‘No more Keneficks at Robinswood? Your family have lived in Robinswood for centuries. It’s just...well, it’s just wrong.’
His voice softened, and he turned to face her.
‘If there was any other option, some way of keeping things going here, I’d take it, I swear I would. But there isn’t. The debts my father left are beyond even what Mummy knew, and she knew a lot. He gambled almost everything. Patches of land, the artwork, antiques, horses… He never really let on how bad things were. You know what he was like—all parties and whiskey and off to the races. He didn’t want to face the truth.
‘And now that it’s all mine, well, I’ve been over it with my mother, and there’s no other way. We’ll rent the land to Charlie Warren and close up the house. We’ll sell the rest of the furniture, china, silver—everything that we can, and that will have to be used to pay the debts. Nobody in their right mind would buy Robinswood. The house is too big, and it needs a fortune spent on it to even make it waterproof. You know yourself all about the damp and everything. I hate to do it, Kate, I really do, but there’s no other way. I’m going to talk to Warren, though, to make sure you girls and Dermot and Isabella are looked after. He’ll probably keep your father on; he can’t manage four hundred extra acres on his own, and nobody knows Robinswood like Dermot Murphy, my father always said that.’
Kate swallowed. ‘When Daddy hears about—’
Sam interrupted her.‘Kate, please,’ Sam interrupted her. ‘Let me try to sort everything out first. Don’t say anything to your family until I can make sure they are provided for. Please, there’s no point in worrying everyone unnecessarily. Promise me?’ He lifted her face with his finger to look straight into her eyes.
‘Please, Kate, just let me deal with it.’ He gazed at her, and she melted inside.
‘Fine,’ she said gruffly to hide her embarrassment.
‘Thanks. I’ll sort this out for your family.’ He looked around, taking in the beautiful vista of the trees, the babbling brook, and the glimpses of the azure Atlantic in the distance. ‘I’m heartbroken, but we’ll have to ship out. It’s the only way.’
‘There’s always another way,’ Kate muttered, though she was only parroting something she’d heard in a film. She’d had no idea things were so bad. Daddy and Mammy were appalled at how much land Austin, Sam’s father, had given up, and while her father was excellent at his job, she knew he was being expected to do more and more with less and less money. She and her sisters, and her mother too, were taking on so much more work. Half of the household staff had been let go, and many of the farmhands were no longer full-time. No matter what Dermot did, he couldn’t work with nothing.
‘Look, Kate, my mother is so fed up at this stage,’ Sam went on. ‘Lillian is swanning around in London, not a care in the world except where her next bottle of champagne is coming from, while Mother is trying to keep my father’s creditors at bay. And now that I’m going back to England as well… Well, she’s had enough. But I’m going to make sure you and your family are taken care of, I promise.
‘To be totally honest, she’d been trying to tell me for ages, but I didn’t want to hear it. My father always said to ignore her, she was always fussing or worrying about something, and that seemed by far the easiest option. But now that he’s gone and all of this falls to me, I’ve come to realise I should have listened to her a long time ago. Maybe if I had, I could have averted this mess before it went beyond saving. But I didn’t, and here we are.’
Kate turned to look at his profile as he stared despondently into the river below. She knew he loved Robinswood and this wasn’t easy for him, but surely there was something less drastic that could be done? She couldn’t bear the idea of him leaving—maybe even forever.
He’d always been handsome, even as a boy, but in his RAF blues, and his curls Brylcreemed back under his hat, he was just irresistible. Of course, she would die if he ever realised how she felt about him. He saw her as a tomboy, the servants’ child. Sure, she was a girl who could beat him at arm-wrestling and was not afraid of anything, but that was all he saw. Her love of Sam, and that’s what it was, pure love, took her by surprise.
She was seventeen, and while she knew she wasn’t very worldly, she knew how she felt about Sam Kenefick. Growing up in the dullest village on earth - Kilthomand, County Waterford - so far, her life experience went from Robinswood, to their farmhouse on the estate, to the school in the village. Someone like him, who had been to boarding school in England and regularly went to Dublin or Galway or even over to London, and now was joining the RAF… No wonder he saw her as a provincial nobody.
‘You can’t promise that, Sam. Nobody can. If Charlie Warren takes over Robinswood it will be up to him who he hires. He won’t take instructions from you or your mother. And what about Mammy? She’s a housekeeper, but Charlie Warren’s wife runs their house. So she’s going to be out of a job as well, all because you want to play war games with the Germans, defending a country you’re not even from. No, we Murphys will have to take care of ourselves.’
She’d hoped to see a spark of something in his eyes. At night, she dreamed that he realised she wasn’t some ragamuffin servant child but the great love of his life. But so far, there had been no indication of that.
‘Well, I hear Aisling is going to be alright anyway. Isn’t she doing a line with Sean Lacey? She’ll do well there, getting her feet under the table of the draper’s only son?’ He nudged her to show he was joking, but Kate was suddenly angry and defensive.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! My sister is not trying to get her feet under anyone’s table. Aisling isn’t like that. She would never go out with someone just because he had money. It shows how little you know about real life here in Kilthomand. Maybe it is better if you take off for your precious England.’ Kate jumped up and stalked off the bridge. ‘So go on off, Sam, and to be honest, I couldn’t care less if I never see you again!’
She stormed off, seething all the way home. She was so upset at Sam leaving tomorrow for God knew how long—maybe he would never come back—and then how dare he say that about Aisling? She was by far the nicest of the three Murphy sisters, two years older than Kate and two years younger than Eve, and she was in love with Sean Lacey. Even if nobody in the Murphy family thought Sean was good enough for Aisling—he was a bit of a Mammy’s boy and really boring with it—Aisling really liked him.
When she let herself in to their house, everyone was out. The clock ticked loudly on the dresser as it had done for as long as she could remember. She loved their home, though technically it belonged to the Keneficks. It was as part of Dermot’s package that they got to live there, but they saw it as theirs. In fact, Kate didn’t think any of the Keneficks had ever stepped inside the door.
In lots of ways, it was so much nicer than the big house. It was cosy and warm and always smelled of baking or fresh laundry. It had a large kitchen where everything happened, with a huge AGA stove for keeping the whole house warm. There was a parlour as well, but it was north facing and always felt cold so they hardly ever used it. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, but the three girls shared a room, and the spare room was full of stuff. Mammy was a meticulous housekeeper, and the place was always neat and tidy, but that one room was full of clothes that didn’t fit, old coats, toys, and all manner of other rubbish she should really have thrown out but had yet to get around to. The girls were happy sharing anyway. They had three single beds in a huge sunny bedroom that overlooked the river on one side, and on the other, you could see as far as the ocean. Her parents had the back bedroom.
Kate checked the cake tin, and sure enough, there was an apple tart inside. Kate could eat anything she wanted and never gain an ounce of weight. It drove her sister Eve mad because she had to watch her figure, though Kate thought she was imagining the fat. She went to the larder, spooned the cream off the top of the milk, and poured it on her apple tart. She always ate when she was upset. She never understood those ones in the films fading away to nothing when the hero goes off with someone else. She was the total opposite.
Mammy would be still up at Robinswood, cooking and cleaning, and Daddy would be out milking for another hour at least. Eve was helping him, because yet another farmhand had been let go, and Aisling was gone into the village for some groceries, hoping to bump into dreary Sean, no doubt.
So Kate went up to their bedroom and threw herself on the bed. Only then did she allow herself to cry. She really didn’t want Robinswood to change. It was all she knew; her whole family relied on it for everything. But that wasn’t the main cause of her tears.
What if some German shot Sam’s plane down? What if he got killed and the last thing she ever said to him was that she didn’t care? Maybe she should go back and apologise. He was leaving tomorrow morning.
But she couldn’t. She’d have to go up to the house, and though it wasn’t ever said outright, she knew Lady Kenefick would not be in favour of their friendship, so they’d always kept it under her radar. She was such a snob, Kate couldn’t stand her, but neither her father nor her mother allowed any talk like that in the house.
She cried into her pillow. Even Eve and Ais wouldn’t understand. They’d think she was off her head to be setting her cap at Samuel Kenefick. She probably was, too.
‘Mammy will murder you if she sees you with that,’ Eve warned Kate, who was busy pulling all sorts of faces in the mirror to spread the tiny amount of scarlet lipstick on her generous lips. She was testing it out in the hope of being allowed to go to the dance.
’Where’d you get it, anyway?’ Eve flopped down on the middle bed.
‘It’s Aisling’s, but don’t breathe a word or she’ll go mad. Old Lady Kenefick gave it to her, said it was almost gone anyway. But sure that old bat is half blind—there’s loads left.’
‘Kate, don’t say that about the mistress, you know full well she’s only in her fifties and she is remarkably well preserved at that. I do wish she’d employ some more young lads for the milking, though. I’m exhausted from it.’ Eve sighed and examined her cracked and broken nails.
‘Well, she’s like a briar since her precious Sam is gone off to single-handedly finish off Hitler,’ Kate muttered. ‘Not that he ever did much farming anyway, but still. The workforce situation is getting ridiculous. Daddy is shattered; he nearly bit the head off me earlier when I mentioned about the dance in the hall on Friday night.’
Eve smiled at her sister’s indignation.
‘Not that there’s going to be any point anyway. There’ll probably be nobody even half decent left to dance with anyway. All the good-looking fellas are gone over to England—Sam Kenefick, Douglas Radcliffe, Daniel Burgoyne...’
‘All the Protestants, you mean.’ Eve grinned. ‘There’s plenty of local lads who are still here. Sure, can’t you dance with them?’
‘Ah, Eve, you’re as bad as Aisling, in love with that clown, Sean Lacey. She is so much better than him, I just don’t see what she sees in him. I met him in the village earlier, and he hardly was able to string a sentence together.’
‘You probably scare him.’ Eve winked. ‘There’s some nice lads still left. What about the O’Learys? Or Damien Keane, he’s always smiling at you at Mass?’
‘Damien Keane is a child; sure, he was a class below me in the national school. And as for the O’Learys, all they care about is heifers and silage, and they’d bore you to tears. The only hope would be a gang would come out from Dungarvan; otherwise, we’re stuck with the local eejits here with their dung-encrusted boots trampling the toes off you and thinking if they buy you a bottle of lemonade they’ll get a grope in the bushes on the way home. Sam is so lucky to be away from this place. Imagine what it’s like in England compared to here? I was reading that there’s going to be Americans over there soon, and dances every night, and everyone in uniforms. It sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?’
Eve threw her eyes heavenward. Kate was full of the romance of the war. It was all over the newspapers, every single day, and Mr deValera was full of how it is nothing to do with us and we’re a neutral country and all of that. Eve was sick of it already, and it was only just started. She hoped it was going to be over quicker than the Great War. They said the last time that it was all going to be finished by Christmas, but it dragged on for four years. Chamberlain had done his best to avoid a war coming so soon after the last one, but Hitler wasn’t going to be stopped, it would seem.
Most of the local Protestants were gone, but then, they felt more English than Irish. Kate had expressed a wish to join them as the family walked home last Friday night after Mass. Mammy and Daddy had nearly gone cracked when she said it.
‘Would you have a hair of sense, you foolish girl?’ Daddy said unusually sharply. He usually indulged Kate’s mad notions. ‘The British have sent more than enough young Irish men to their deaths that last time out. At least this time, deValera is keeping us out of it, and out of it we’ll stay. Now, I’ll have no more talk of such rubbish. Join up indeed, and go over there and fight their war for them? No chance. Churchill and Hitler can be scrapping away to suit themselves—‘tis one of them, two of them, as far as I’m concerned. But I’ll tell you this: no child of mine will have anything to do with it. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes, Daddy.’ Kate had been despondent, and Eve squeezed her arm. She was the youngest, and she was a divil for a bit of adventure. Eve could hardly blame her; life these days wasn’t exactly exciting. The same dull routine of housework and farmwork, day after day. They were expected to pitch in even more now as staff were let go.
‘Come on, let’s go down and have a cup of cocoa to warm us up.’ Eve dragged her weary body off the bed with a sigh. ‘I’m fit to collapse, but I’m freezing. Let’s get a heat up downstairs and then get into bed.’
Kate looked down ruefully at her chapped hands as she got up to follow Eve downstairs.
‘I’m wrecked, too. I swear Mammy was finding smears on purpose,’ Kate grumbled. ‘I polished the fire irons about fifty times, but still, it wasn’t good enough. And anyway, it’s all going to be sold and the house closed up, so why on earth is she on a cleaning frenzy? She had Sheila Hanratty and Jenny Glavin helping poor Ais to clean the flipping windows. Four floors and only three of them to do it, and all of this before Aisling went to visit drippy Sean and his scald of a mother. And Lady Muck then swanning around as if she’s loaded when the whole parish knows she hasn’t one shilling to rub off the other.’
‘If Mammy or Daddy hears you talking like that, you’ll be for it,’ Eve warned. Since they were small girls, their parents had drilled into them the need to keep a respectful distance from the family of the house and estate they served.
‘I know, I know, but I’m only telling you, Eve. Sure, I can tell you anything; you’re like the grave, Mammy says.’
Eve gave a hoot of laughter.
‘Oh yes, Kate, I’m like a grave all right.’ She winked and pushed the door open into the big warm kitchen. ‘Aisling should be back soon.’
‘And we’ll have to hear all the fascinating details of Mrs Lacey’s latest hymn for the choir.’ Kate sighed dramatically.
‘Ah, Kate, don’t be mean. You know Aisling was all excited to be invited to Laceys for her tea. I know he’s a bit of an eejit, but she’s mad about him, so try to be nice, all right?’ Eve shivered and pulled the old brown flannel dressing gown around her. It had been left behind by one of the guests after the Robinswood New Year’s Eve Ball two years ago, and even though it was a man’s dressing gown, Eve loved how cosy it was.
Their parents were still out, so Eve set some milk to heat on the stove and Kate went to the larder for the cocoa.
‘I’ll be absolutely gushing, I promise. Though why our Aisling, who is gorgeous and could have anyone she wants, is considering shackling herself to the monosyllabic Sean Lacey and his warbling screecher of a mother, I will never know.’ Kate shook her head theatrically, and Eve giggled. ‘He’s not even good-looking. Not like Sam!’
Eve swiped at her and rolled her eyes.
‘You better not let anyone hear you going on like that about Samuel Kenefick, miss.’
Despite the years between Kate and Eve, they were very close. And even though the little sister was incorrigible, she had a way of making everyone see the funny side of things. For example, Mrs Lacey ran the choir with an iron fist, and even poor old Father Hartigan was afraid of her, so nobody challenged her. That’s why the devout of Kilthomand had to endure her ear-splitting version of ‘How Great Thou Art’ every Sunday, trying not to wince as she almost reached the high notes. Her only child, Sean, was her pride and joy, so the invitation extended to Aisling was a very significant event.
Eve went on to admonish her youngest sister,
‘And anyway, Sean is nice.’ Eve poured the hot milk into two mugs and stirred in the cocoa. ‘He’s just a bit shy. But Aisling says he’s very chatty with her, so that’s all that matters.’
‘I’ll never understand it.’ Kate shook her head and took her cup to the old armchair beside the stove. ‘There’s a whole world out there beyond this place, and yet she’s hitching her wagon to Kilthomand’s bachelor boy. I’ll tell you something for nothing—I definitely don’t want to go with any of the fellas from around here. Sure, where would that lead? Only to a life that never ventures beyond the parish of Kilthomand for your whole life? Not for me, Eve, no way. I’m going to travel the world and have adventures and give scandal wherever I go by keeping bad company and drinking gin.’
Eve laughed out loud at her little sister. She really was a character.
Kate drew attention wherever she went with her unruly black curls. She looked like a painting Eve had seen one time of a gypsy girl, all dark hair and flashing eyes. She was tiny, barely five feet, with a handspan waist that Eve could only dream of. And Kate knew full well the effect she had. Men found her delightful, and women thought she was flighty. Both were right.
There was no mistaking her and Aisling as sisters. Aisling was taller, and her hair was straight but the same jet-black. And she had the same voluptuous curves and dark-blue eyes—almost navy blue. They both took after their mother, who always told them they got their looks from their grandfather, who had been a Spanish sailor who fell in love with an Irish woman in the west of Ireland when he was delivering wine. The story went that he couldn’t bear to leave her, so he settled in County Galway and they raised a huge family, Isabella being the youngest. When people questioned her exotic name, their mother explained she was named after her father’s mother, who pined away in Granada for her only boy, who would never leave Ireland.
Eve caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the dresser and sighed. To be fair, the brown dressing gown and beige bedsocks probably didn’t do much to improve the situation, but she definitely was more like her father’s side. Tall and well built, strong from all the manual labour, with copper-coloured hair that was neither curly like Kate’s nor shiny and straight like Aisling’s but just kind of wavy with a mind of its own. Her hazel eyes were set wide apart, and a sprinkling of freckles dusted her nose. She didn’t take the sun, unlike her sisters and mother, who in the summer were the colour of conkers. She felt so dowdy beside them and was sure that where looks were concerned, she’d really drawn the short straw.
Aisling burst in the door. It was unusual for the three girls to be at home alone, but their mother had gone to settle Mrs Kenefick in for the night and Daddy was out looking for poachers. Someone was helping themselves to rabbits and pheasants off the estate, and he was determined to find out who it was.
‘Well, how was the big occasion?’ Kate delivered the last word in a high-pitched warble that had her sisters giggling.
‘Stop!’ Aisling took off her coat and hung it up behind the door. ‘She was grand. Not exactly welcome-to-the-family, but fine. Poor Sean was mortified, though, with her going on and on about how he was top of his class in school, and all the hurling medals he won, and how he was basically the best person for four counties. Poor fella nearly died. He kept trying to change the subject, but she’s determined, you’d have to give her that. I had to see his certificates and medals and everything. That house is like a shrine to him. He was disgraced.’
‘So did he walk you home?’ Kate asked slyly, nudging Eve.
‘He did, and that’s as much as I’m telling you because you are obsessed with sins of the flesh, and ‘tis down on your knees you should be, praying for your own black soul instead of worrying about what two respectable young people get up to on a perfectly innocent walk home. Now, is there any more cocoa going? I’m perished.’ Aisling winked at Eve behind Kate’s back.
‘A chance to be obsessed with sins of the flesh with someone would be a fine thing,’ Kate responded, not realising her father had entered the kitchen behind her. Eve smiled as she made her sister a drink.
Dermot Murphy looked suitably horrified at the conversation going on between his daughters.
He opened his mouth to say something but closed it again. He once tried to be an authoritarian, but with three opinionated daughters and a spirited wife, he had long since accepted his fate.
‘Don’t worry, Daddy, we’re only messing,’ Kate said when she spotted him. ‘Sure, nobody around here is up to anything, only working and sleeping.’ She smiled sweetly and kissed her father on the cheek.
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