Dublin, Summer of 1911
we slipped in at dawn,
on plum-colored water
in the sloppy quiet.
- ‘After a Childhood away from Ireland’ Eavan Boland
At nine, Buffy was enchanted by her Aunt Jenny. She wasn’t strictly speaking, an actual aunt, but rather a cousin of her mother’s, and she had offered to take Joyce’s daughter for the summer. A year ago, Joyce would have hesitated to so openly associate with her scandalous cousin, but things had changed drastically since then, and she was glad to have the burden of her daughter removed for a few months, even if it was by a promiscuous theosophist.
Jenny was only a little younger than her mother, but she looked far better, and no one was precisely sure what her actual age, since she had claimed a variety of different birthdays over the years, each making her younger than the other. A passionate Irish nationalist, she divided her time between her grand house in Rathmines, inherited from her Irish mother, her townhouse in London, purchased with money from her father, and her lover’s chateau in France. She’d had two children with the man before their relationship had collapsed, and both had died in infancy. As a result, she was very fond of Buffy, who had been born only a year or so after her daughter’s death. Artistic, temperamental, and beautiful, she was also something of a tragic figure, but at nine Buffy knew none of her aunt’s great tragedies and mistakes. She only knew that Jenny was beautiful, generous, and indulgent.
It was an unusually lovely day, warm and sunny as it ever was in Ireland when Buffy met her Aunt at the port. Her nanny’s grip on her wrist was a tight but she only had eyes for her lovely aunt. Jenny was wearing a dark green dress with a string of pearls tossed carelessly around her neck, her dark hair piled on top of her head. Buffy fairly vibrated with excitement as they disembarked and her nanny arranged for their trunks to be collected.
“Darling,” Jenny said, bending down and kissing Buffy’s cheeks. “Let’s have a look at you, dear.”
And Buffy submitted patiently to her Aunt’s careless, loving scrutiny, as Jenny bent down to take in the changes, as all her parent’s adult friends were wont to do when they were reminded of her existence. She got a peck on the forehead and was called pretty, simply darling, before her Aunt straightened up and spoke more seriously.
“Come along, we’re going to the theatre tonight and we must get you fed and changed. A friend of your Auntie’s is premiering a play tonight, isn’t that exciting?”
Buffy nodded obediently as Jenny led her to her car, a gleaming modern machine. Her nurse trotted along after them, giving Buffy’s aunt a scandalized look. She would resign within a fortnight. Buffy was too enchanted by the car to notice Nurse’s distemper. She had only driven in one once before - it had been smelly, but exciting.
As Jenny’s man drove them back to her house, she asked Buffy lots of questions. Buffy told her about her parents, and her education, and her friends, and what she had done on holiday in France two months ago. All the while, Jenny pronounced her charming, and pretty, and sweet, and Buffy lapped it up as a kitten would milk.
When they got back to the house, Buffy put on her second best dress and they had tea, just the two of them, in Jenny’s parlor. The house was big and beautiful, and had been built by Jenny’s grandfather, who left it his eldest daughter, Jenny’s mother. Buffy’s mother was the daughter of the man’s second girl, who had married an American named Joshua Reynolds. Joyce had married Henry Summers, who was born in England, but had lots of business dealings in New York, where her parents lived. Buffy wasn’t precisely sure what she was, with all the traveling she did.
Jenny just laughed when Buffy explained that to her, and said that she would get along famously with her friend Mr. Giles, who had the same issue.
It was Mr. Giles who had financed the play they would be seeing tonight. Buffy hadn’t really understood it, because the people had very funny accents, not like they had in Dublin, and were hard to understand. People had gasped a lot, and made funny noises, so she assumed they had liked it. She had been bored though; all the characters were dirty and poor, and the girl who the boys seemed to be in love with wasn’t even very pretty.
After the play, Mr. Giles came up to their box to meet them, seeming surprised to see Buffy there. He was very nice though, even as he was clearly a bit nervous. He was very attentive to her aunt, but after he had shuffled them out of the theatre and to their car, past the noisy crowd amassed outside it, Buffy whispered to Jenny to ask if she was going to marry him, and her aunt only laughed and said no. They spent some time talking with the man, and he promised to call into them soon. He suggested they take Buffy to visit Dublin Zoo, and Jenny agreed. Then Jenny said she must take Buffy home, as she was getting tired, and they went back to the house.
It wasn’t any bigger than her home in London, or the house in New York that she barely recalled, but it was somehow more grand, more interesting, more special. There was something vaguely disreputable about the place, despite its posh décor. Jenny was an eccentric decorator, and rooms were filled with exotic foreign curiosities. She had lived in France for a few years, and had returned with Moorish carpets, delicate music boxes, and Italian glassware. The house was filled with eclectic items with lovely stories behind them, and that summer, Buffy loved exploring it and asking for the histories behind everything.
It was an enchanting place to live. Jenny had already set up a beautiful room for her, decorated in cream, blue, and gold. She indulged Buffy, to Buffy’s delight and Nurse’s dismay, often allowing her to skip lessons or taking her out on impromptu trips to the countryside. She took Buffy along to society events, and introduced her pretty, well-behaved niece to her glamorous, sophisticated friends. Buffy particularly liked Mr. Giles, who brought her sweets and asked her about her lessons in a way that didn’t seem like he was only asking to be polite. He also looked at her Aunt like she was something that was too beautiful to risk letting out of his sight. Buffy liked that. Someday, she was sure, someone would look at her like that.
The summer passed in a pleasant daze, where adventures and outings outweighed the boring days when her aunt was out, or those when Jenny would closet herself in secret meetings and Buffy was left with only Nurse, and Jenny’s dog Milsean for company.
One day in August, Nurse took ill, so Buffy was told to read in the parlor and not to disturb the meeting happening upstairs. Jenny was distracted and didn’t have time to talk with her in the morning, but gave her a pretty book with fairies and kings, which was much nicer than the books Mother let her read, full of boring children who never did anything wrong, or if they did, were very sorry and apologized immediately or else were eaten up by bears or wolves. Privately, Buffy suspected that Mother was trying to tell her something.
Jenny’s book was full of pretty pictures of maidens who seemed to have a hard time finding clothes, and men who looked awfully clean and attractive for having lived before the fortuitous advent of modern sanitation. They were all wicked pagans, and seemed to accidentally and sometimes on-purpose kill their family members. Buffy hoped this wasn’t another hint. If so, she wouldn’t be likely to understand it; the book was full of big-words she didn’t know. She was just resolving to ask Aunt Jenny what a paramour was, when she heard shouting. Buffy didn’t like shouting. Mother and Father were always saying mean things when they were shouting at each other, and sometimes they said mean things to her, even though they always said sorry and that they didn’t mean it after.
Still, Buffy knew she wasn’t supposed to interrupt so she tried to ignore the voices and focus on her book. But it was hard, and she heard feet stomping. When she acted like that she was sent to her bed without dinner; it wasn’t fair that grown-ups did that sort of thing and got away unpunished.
Buffy hesitated a moment and carefully marked her place. She picked up the book, tucking it under her arm and stepped carefully on her toes in the direction of the door. Exiting, she took the stairs slowly. She could make out her aunt’s voice among the cacophony coming down from the upstairs parlor. It made her feel anxious and she took a deep breath. Then came the sound of a door bursting open and a red faced man with a big ginger moustache appeared at the top of the stairs, and stopped abruptly when he saw her. Buffy froze and looked at him. She knew her mouth was open and she should probably close it, so she did. She shifted the book nervously in her arms. It was heavy.
Two other men came up behind him, also looking at her in surprise, and then Aunt Jenny appeared, with clenched fists and pink spots in her cheeks. She looked angry, and then startled to see Buffy. Buffy couldn’t take the silence anymore.
“I’m sorry” she said, “I know I was supposed to stay in my room, but-”
“Who’s this?” Ginger Moustache asked. Jenny glowered at him. Buffy inwardly agreed with her aunt’s reaction. The man didn’t seem very nice. After a moment, Jenny responded.
“This is my Cousin Joyce’s daughter. She’s come to stay for the summer.”
“Nosy child,” Moustache muttered.
“I am not,” Buffy exclaimed indignantly. “You were shouting and I couldn’t concentrate on my book, and anyway, you’re rude! You’re not supposed to be mean in other people’s houses. You’re supposed to be on your best manners when you’re a guest!”
Moustache’s eyebrows nearly disappeared under the low fringe he wore, and the other men appeared shocked, and Jenny- Buffy risked a look -seemed proud? But suddenly, a tall man with dark hair and dark eyes laughed, and walked down to Buffy’s landing.
Up close, she could see he was a young man, like her friend Leticia’s brother, Cyril, and very handsome. He got on one knee so their eyes could meet.
“You’re right,” he said to her seriously. He had nice eyes. “I’m terribly sorry, Miss.” His voice was also nice. Buffy liked his accent. “Will you accept my apology?”
Buffy blushed and nodded. The man turned to Moustache and his other companion.
“Well, lads?” he said, raising an eyebrow. Moustache looked grouchy and mumbled something that Buffy suspected wasn’t an apology, but the other man, looking amused, doffed his cap to her and begged her pardon, which she graciously accepted. There was another moment of silence, and Buffy turned to look curiously at the nice man.
“What are you reading?” he asked, nodding to her book. She held it out to him, and he took it, raising his eyebrows at the title.
“It’s a nice book,” he said, “a little risqué,” he directed to her aunt, who bristled.
Buffy glanced at Jenny before turning her attention back to the nice man.
“What does risqué mean?” she asked him.
“Oh” he said, looking surprised, before his eyes narrowed to focus on her. He paused a moment before continuing. “It means scandalous…or a little…grown-up, I suppose.”
Buffy evaluated him.
“Do you know a lot of words?” she asked. He smiled at her.
“Enough, I should think,” he said. Buffy bit her lip and nodded.
“Only, there are some big words I don’t know in the book,” she said, “and maybe you could help me?” He smiled at her again and looked apologetic.
“I’d be honored to help you, but I’m afraid we must be on our way. Still, it was nice to meet you…”
“My name is Elizabeth Anne Summers,” she announced, “but you can call me Buffy.”
“And I’m Liam Michael Mannion,” he replied, “but you can call me Liam.”
“But now,” he said, placing his hands on his knees and standing, “I’m afraid I will have to bid you goodbye, Miss Buffy.” He turned to her aunt. “Ms. Kalderash,” he said, and his voice wasn’t so nice. “Gentlemen?” he said to Moustache and the third man. “I don’t believe there’s much point in imposing on Ms. Kalderash’s hospitality any longer.”
Moustache nodded slowly and the three men walked down the stairs while Jenny stood and watched. The third one nodded at Buffy on his way down, and she gave him a small, unbalanced curtsy in return, her book tucked back under her arm. Jenny didn’t see them to the door, and they must have found their own way out. Jenny slowly walked down and sat on the stairs next to where Buffy still stood. She wrapped an arm around her niece’s waist.
“You should have stayed in your room darling. But I’m glad you didn’t” she said. Buffy hugged her back. Mr. McKearney appeared at the top of the stairs. He had a nasty bruise on his cheek. Buffy’s eyes widened.
“Are they gone?” he asked. Jenny nodded with tears in her eyes. Buffy squeezed her tighter, not knowing what else to do.
Years later, she would discover that members of the IRB had accused her aunt of being an informer. Mr. McKearney had defended her, to the disgust of his compatriots, and received a nasty punch for his perceived betrayal. (It was widely rumored the two were lovers, though Buffy had never been able to sort out fact from fiction when it came to her aunt’s romances.) It was fortunate that revolvers hadn’t been drawn. Buffy’s brown-eyed man had probably been an IRB tough, sent along to keep things in hand if they escalated. He, Moustache, and the third man had likely been killed in the Rising or else perhaps the Great War.
Jenny died four years later, from a broken heart some said. Others blamed the bottle of cyanide found by her bed. Though she had fended off accusations at the time of Buffy’s visit, they hadn’t disappeared, and after the end of her disastrous marriage, she had no one left to defend her from the accusations. In any event, she hadn’t lived to see the Rising, which would have thrilled her, or see the dream of an independent Ireland come to close to fruition. The possibility of a free state remained, if only the fighting would stop. Sometimes Buffy wondered what Jenny would have made of the bloody reality of her most fevered dream.
Jenny had left most of her sizeable estate to Buffy, in addition to a lingering feeling of guilt she could never quite shake. The inheritance was held in a trust, which stipulated that Buffy spend at least three months in Ireland every year. Her parents were furious, but had little choice but to agree or have their daughter forfeit a modest fortune. Buffy had learned to love her aunt’s country, in spite of what it had done to her, and she cherished her time there. And when she visited, walking through the dirty streets of Dublin, or the clean mud of the country, seeing the land that had so enchanted her aunt, she remembered Jenny, and held those memories close. Jenny had never lived her life on anyone else’s terms, and Buffy was grateful that despite the restrictions her will had imposed, Jenny had been trying to grant her the same opportunity. She only hoped that she would make wiser choices about men, and come to a happier end than her aunt had.