Prologue PROLOGUE Christmas Eve
She pulls her shabby black woollen coat tighter around her and wraps her scarf snugly against her cheeks. It is bitterly cold, her breath forming an opaque mist in the frosty moonlight. The stony path that leads from her grandmother’s cottage down to the farmhouse is slippery with ice, and she skitters and slides, grabbing a furze bush with her woollen-mitted hands to save herself from a fall. She pauses to catch her breath.
Venus, a radiant golden jewel, shines as brightly as the yellow slice of new moon against a black velvet sky speckled with glittering stars. Candlelit windows down in the valley and on the hillsides spill pools of light in the darkness. She’d lit the fat, red candle in her grandmother’s parlour window before she left, for the traditional welcome to the Christ child on Christmas Eve.
Normally she would feel delight and anticipation on this blessed night, though she is no longer a child and doesn’t believe in Father Christmas, unlike her two excited youngest siblings at home, who have already hung their stockings at the end of their beds.
Tonight she is bereft, her heart shattered into a thousand sharp-edged pieces. She looks down to her left beyond the stony fields that quilt the mountain, where weather-bowed, bare-branched trees and hedgerows define the boundaries to the Larkins’ farmland. Her heart feels as though a knife has stabbed and twisted it when she thinks of black-haired, brown-eyed Johnny Larkin, who had told her that he loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone. Who had pressed her up against the cold, hard wall of his father’s barn and kissed and caressed her in her most private places and done things to her that, even though she’d demurred and then protested, had shocked her, yet given her a fierce delight that Johnny loved and wanted her and not that skinny little rake, Peggy Fitzgerald, whose father owned the big farm next to the Larkins’.
Two days after Johnny told her he loved her, his engagement to Peggy had been announced. Tomorrow at Christmas Mass, Peggy will simper and giggle on Johnny’s arm, flashing the diamond ring Pa Larkin has lent his son the money to buy.
She can’t bear it. An anguished sob breaks the deep silence of the night. Her sorrow overwhelms her. A sudden, unexpected pain in her belly doubles her up, causing her to groan in agony. She feels dampness on her thighs, and pulling up her clothes sees the trickle of blood down her legs. Another spasm convulses her and, frightened, she takes deep breaths until it eases.
In the distance, she hears the sound of the carol singers who go from house to house, singing the glorious story of the birth of a child who would bring peace to all mankind.
As she loses her own child, in the shelter of the prickly furze bush, she hears the singing of “O Holy Night” floating across the fields from her parents’ house.