MRS FANSHAW'S pink parasol rested her on her plump shoulder as she smiled through thin lips at the young woman standing in front of her.
"We have waited so long for someone of your profession Mrs Barton but we expected someone a little. . .."
"Older," piped Mrs Crawley her gaunt face already blotched by the heat of the morning sun, "and with a husband."
"As I told your husband Mrs Fanshaw, I lost my husband one month out of England. I had no choice but to come here and make a living for myself and my son."
"Gertrude!" Ethel Fanshaw nudged her friend in the ribs. "I'm sorry Sarah, may I call you Sarah? She means well but has a poor way of expressing her self. What she means is that - you're so young. . .."
"I'm twenty nine."
"Really? It must be the cooler climate that has kept your skin so smooth."
"A couple of years here will change all that my dear." Mrs Crawley tittered.
"Yes, well if you will excuse me I better not be late on my first day."
"You the teacher?" The deep voice seemed out of place among the chatter of women and children. Sarah turned and shaded her eyes against the sun. All she could see was the outline of a broad shouldered man astride a tall horse. His hair formed a blonde halo around his head.
"Yes I am - Mr?" She walked to the shadow of the horse and stared up into deep brown eyes set in a weather burned face.
"Got me two kids here for a bit of schooling. This one here is Liam."
A wiry boy with the same colouring as his father slid down from the horse and put his hands up to steady a younger girl as she clung onto her father's arm. "This is Kathleen. The boy's ten and the girl a year younger. Some days they won't be here - I'll need them back home."
Liam stuck out his hand to Sarah. She shook it feeling the roughness of his palm. The girl looked at the ground, her dark wavy hair hiding her face.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch your last name."
"Brian Cleary. The childer know their way home. Be a good girl now Kathleen." His horse turned and started to canter up the dusty street.
Sarah gave Liam a gentle push. "Take your sister inside and find a seat."
"My advice Mrs Barton is have as little as possible to do with that man."
Sarah watched the first of her pupils walk through the door of her house that would now be a school. "Why is that Mrs Fanshaw?"
Parasol twirling the woman sniffed. "Because he murdered his wife."
* * *
"Anginon, why don't you sit over there, it will give you more room to - stretch your legs." Sarah watched him waddle over to a side table that served as a desk. "Now, the rest of you children, come closer and we will get to know one another. There are ten of you, I know three of you, that leaves. . .."
"Seven Miss." She looked down into two lucent brown eyes staring at her from an unsmiling face.
"Well done Liam. I'm not a Miss, I'm Mrs Barton. I lost my husband on the voyage coming here. That means I'm a widow."
"Like my dad."
"Your dad killed your mother!" A high pitched voice sneered from the corner of the room.
Sarah noticed Kathleen, Liam's sister, pull hard on his sleeve.
"Anginon! We will not have any gossip in the school room. Now, will the rest of the children give me their names so we can get started."
Putting the pen down beside the inkwell, Sarah smiled at her pupils.
"We have one more pupil, although he may be a bit too young at the moment. Over there, in the basket fast asleep is Benjamin, my son. At fourteen months I think his name is too big for him so, I call him Benny."
"We have no eating during class. Anginon, bring those sweets over here and leave them on the desk. You can share them with your new friends at lunchtime."
* * *
"How was your first day at school Mrs Barton?"
The suit was well cut but could not hide how skinny the man standing in front of Sarah was. She felt naked under his wandering eyes.
"Very well Mr Fanshaw, thank you."
"And my son," he ruffled Anginon's straw textured hair, "did he behave himself?"
Before she could answer a tall young man dressed in a similar suit but of cheaper quality, coughed. "Excuse me Mr Fanshaw, I'm sorry to interrupt you but there is an important client waiting for you."
"Really Smith, can't you see I'm busy at the moment."
Smith leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
"Well, why didn't you say so in the first place." All smiles, he bowed to Sarah. "Excuse me Mrs Barton, but a bank manager's job is never done. Smith, see that my son gets home safely."
"Yes Mr Fanshaw."
They watched in silence as the bank manager hurried away.
"You must be the new teacher. I'm Edward Smith, our daughter Anne is in your class."
"Ah, yes. Bright but a little shy. She will soon get over that."
"My wife will be very pleased to hear that and she will kill me if I don't ask you over to dinner."
"Thank you, I would love to. I haven't met many people so far."
Edward pushed his hair back from his forehead, a sparkle in his eye. "Of course you've met the most important personage in town - Mrs Fanshaw."
Sarah burst out laughing. "Yes, and her friend, Mrs Crowley."
"Yes, thank you."
* * *
"That was a most delicious meal, thank you Frances, and such good company. People of my own age."
Frances Smith handed Sarah a cup of tea and sat down beside her on the wooden seat that took up most of the back veranda. "Both our babies are fast asleep, Edward is walking with his favourite girl and now we can relax."
"It's nice to see a father take an interest in his daughter."
Frances glanced at Sarah. "Shame your husband didn't live to see his son grow up."
Frances blushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry."
Sarah rested her hand on the other woman's arm. "No. I'll feel better if I tell someone." She smiled. "I feel I can trust you. I hate lying to people but there are some who, if they knew might see me out of a job."
Frances laughed. "We won't mention names."
"No." Sarah stared across the open paddock that stretched away from the house. She put the tea cup down on the table in front of her and took a deep breath. "The truth is my husband fell overboard blind drunk. It went down in the records as accidental death."
"Oh you poor thing." Frances reached for Sarah's hand.
"My husband," Sarah continued, "was drunk every day we were married. The reason we were coming here was to get away from all the people he owed money to."
Frances took both of Sarah's hands in hers. "You poor brave thing. Never fear, no-one will ever know."
Sarah's chin jutted out, "I will bring my son up without stain to his character. Out here we can start with a clean slate."
"How appropriate - a clean slate."
Sarah smiled and hugged her new friend.
"I'm very lucky. I have a good husband."
"And handsome to boot."
Frances nudged Sarah gently. "You keep your eyes off my man. Speak of the devil, here he comes."
The two women watched Edward as he swung his daughter off his shoulders. "Have I done something wrong?"
"No dear, come and have a cup of tea while I put this young lady to bed - school tomorrow. Anne, say goodnight to Mrs Barton."
The little girl smiled shyly and whispered goodnight before running into the house.
"Tell me Edward, did Brian Cleary kill his wife?"
Dropping three sugars into his mug of tea, Edward pondered her question. "Some say he did. He was supposed to have rolled the wagon over while he was drunk and his wife was crushed by the weight of it."
Sarah stared at him intently. "What do you think happened."
"Me? Nobody has ever asked me before. I know Brian well, I do his banking for him. Mr Fanshaw thinks he's a bit below - I mean he's busy with other customers."
They both smiled.
"Well, he is a hard working man." Edward continued, "It's not easy making a living off the land. He can clear only a little bit at a time. I have never seen him take a drink. They seemed to be very happy. She was always talking about their children getting a good education. She would have liked you. . .." Brian blushed. "I mean - I didn't.. .."
Sarah smiled and patted him on the arm. "I know what you mean. Go on."
"They had been here in town for most of the day, stocking up on their food. It was terrible, never stopped raining. The river was rising and she was anxious to get home. They set off an hour before dark. Two riders coming into town the next morning found him trying to lift the wagon off his wife. He was crying all the time that he'd killed her. The truth is I think he was blaming himself for losing his way in the dark."
Edward sighed. "Yes, he's never been the same since, hard on himself and his kids - not that he beats them. He just keeps his distance from them."
Frances appeared with a lantern. "Better come inside before the mossies carry you away."
"I'd better get home to bed, I have school tomorrow, teacher might be cross if I fall asleep during class. Thank you for a lovely meal."
As they walked Sarah to the front gate Edward spoke softly. "Your other friends may not be too happy you coming here."
Sarah mumbled and Frances laughed. "Goodnight Sarah."
"What did she say?"
"Never you mind Edward Smith, just get into the house and get to bed."
* * *
Sarah wiped her brow, her temper rising as fast as the heat on the tin roof of the schoolroom. She watched as Liam held his sister's hand as they walked toward her.
"Did you walk all the way from the farm?"
"Yes ma'am." Liam wiped the sweat from his face.
"How far is it?"
"Me dad reckons 'bout five miles."
Renting a horse and trap that afternoon, Sarah, her temper no better, took the children home. Rounding a dusty bend of the road she was surprised at the size of the well-kept house.
"I'd like to talk to your father, where would I find him?"
"Round the back I 'spect. He'd be cutting posts for the new paddock."
A steady thwack! of metal on wood echoed as she walked around the back of the house. Her mouth watered when she saw two rows of ripening tomatoes beside some cabbages and potatoes.
"Can I help you."
Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him emerge from the shed. He was naked from the waist up. His broad brown muscular body rippled as he walked toward her. "Oh! it's you Mrs Barton, what can I do for you."
Taking a deep breath she ignored the near naked man if front of her. "I've come about your children. It is a disgrace that they have to walk five miles to school. Surely you have a spare horse they can use?"
Brian Cleary sighed. He picked up a towel that was laying beside a bucket. His accent was stronger than she remembered.
"Fer Gawd's sake don't you start. I've had enough from me mother this past two days about it." He tipped the bucket of water over his head.
Sarah noticed the way his body glistened as the water cascaded down his back. "Well your mother is right."
"Dad, Dinner's on the table."
"Tell yer Grandma to put another plate down."
"Thank you but I must get back to my baby."
"No doubt he's well looked after. There's mutton and cabbage and some of those juicy tomatoes. Knowing me mother, she'll have pints of cool buttermilk."
Sarah saw the twinkle in his eye as her mouth salivated. "Very well, you've talked me into it."
"Brian Cleary, will ye put a shirt on yer back and not disgrace me in front of a visitor!"
Sarah smiled as she saw him go a deep red under his brown skin. Strong hands guided her to the table.
"Well, you must be Mrs Barton the school teacher. The widow woman with a young mouth to feed. Sit down and get stuck in, yer as skinny as a rake!"
The children remained quiet throughout the meal, glancing now and then in their father's direction. His mother filled the silence with a constant stream of chatter as she fussed around the table.
By the end of the meal Sarah knew all about the Cleary Family. How they cleared the land of rock and tree. Tom, her husband died of the fever and Brian did all the work himself.
Brian's wife was never mentioned.
"Go feed the chickens, childer." Without looking to see if they did as they were commanded, he leaned back and picked up a pipe from the bench behind him. His mother picked up Sarah's plate and paused as the younger woman exploded.
"Why are your children so afraid of you. You treat them as if they were your dog or horse. They sat here waiting for some word and all you can say is feed the chickens!"
The pipe fell from Brian's open mouth. "Afraid of me? What are you talking about, course they're not afraid of me." He retrieved his pipe from the floor. "I've never once hit them!"
Sarah felt a hand squeeze on her shoulder. "You tell him darhling, he won't listen to me. All he does is work."
"Watch yer mouth son, I'll none of that language in this house."
"You can't let those children walk in this heat to school, they'll die."
Brian stood holding the tobacco to his chest. Sarah jumped as he roared. "Childer, come here."
As if they had been waiting outside they filed in.
"Go down to the lower field. There's an old mare hobbled there, she's for you two to ride to school." He glared at the two women. "Satisfied?"
Sarah blushed at the departing figure. Strong arms surrounded her. "God bless yer darhling, that's the first time I've seen him lose his temper since - since his wife died."
"I'm sorry, I get a bit annoyed when it comes to children. My upbringing was not very good." She patted the old woman's hand. "It's getting late, I must get home."
"Brian! Come and say goodbye to Sarah."
As she climbed onto the trap Sarah felt a tug on her sleeve. "Don't believe everything ye hear in the town. It was an accident plain and simple."
Sarah smiled down at the worried face of Mrs Cleary. "I don't listen to gossip. I could hardly believe the stories they've told about my husband."
"How did he die?"
"He fell over board - drunk."
"God love ye."
A look of understanding passed between the two women.
"He does Mrs Cleary."
A thunder of hooves filled the air. A grey mare cantered round the side of the house with Liam and Kathleen clinging onto to her bare back.
The boy slowed the mare down and brought her to a stop in front of his father.
"Oh Daddy," Kathleen flung herself off into the surprised arms of her father, "thank you - thank you."
Sarah watched as he started to undo her locked hands around his neck, then slowly wrapped his strong arms around her skinny body.
"The town is having a celebration day next Saturday, Mr Cleary, I expect you to bring your mother to hear your children sing in the school choir."
"Saturday? I can't..."
"We'll be there darhling!"
* * *
"Honest to Gawd, I had no idea me childer could sing. Grand it was."
Sarah smiled. Brian seemed to relax more as the day went on. The hard lines around his eyes had softened. His white shirt, open at the neck, unlike the town's men with their stiff collars and ties, highlighted his dark skin and blonde hair. With a slight feeling of guilt she thought he was the most handsome of men.
"Mrs Cleary, you must be tired carrying my son around. . .."
"Not at-tall darhling sure he's a grand child and for the love of God will ye call me Maggie. Will ye go and buy those two songbirds a cool drink?"
"It would seem Maggie," Sarah glanced up at Brian, "that they are financially secure, their father has given them some money."
"Are ye going to the hooley tonight?"
"He means the dance darhling."
"I'm afraid I can't. I have to look after my son and it would not seem right to go without a part. . .."
"Me mother could take care of the young ones, couldn't ye mother."
"I could, I could. Not a bit of bother."
Sarah smoothed her dress. "Can you dance Mr Cleary?"
He ran his fingers through his long hair. "It's been a while but I could step the Pride of Erin better than any man."
"That's some boast - Brian. I'd love to."
Sarah heard Brian sigh. "There is one thing Mrs Barton, you may become the talk of the town, being seen with me."
Sarah smiled as she took his arm. "I certainly hope so Mr Cleary, I certainly hope so."
© John W. Kelly