You look tired, traveler. Sit down, yes, there, and open up your satchel. Bread and cheese has sustained many a traveler before now.
You’ll be going to Scarborough Fair, I think. It’s not much farther – just down that road and over the hill. You’re almost there.
Let me tell you a story while you eat. It won’t take long. It’s not a long story.
When I was sixteen years old, I fell in love, which is a pretty usual thing to do at sixteen. But Cathleen – Cathleen was her name – was anything but usual. She was a bonny girl, as beautiful as any girl you’ve ever seen – yes, even more beautiful than the girl in the locket around your neck. Her hair was red as sunset, and her eyes were always laughing. Even when she had something difficult to do, she’d find something to laugh about. “If we don’t laugh, we cry,” she used to say to me, “and cryin’ isn’t what I was put on this earth to do.”
I worked at the house down the street from her in Scarborough. We were friends, she and I, snatching lunch together on the back stoop, taking our half-days to go walking through town or lie sleepy on the grass in the meadow. Sometimes when we were both working in our back gardens – she doing the washing, I weeding the flowerbeds – she’d teach me Irish folksongs, and we’d harmonize them as we worked. She had the sweetest soprano on God’s green earth, and that’s a fact.
Is it any wonder I fell in love? At sixteen, you’ll fall in love with nearly anyone who shows you a kindness, but Cathleen was beautiful and sweet, and her laugh was the most wonderful sound I knew. I couldn’t help it. I loved her.
But the Church, it wouldn’t like it. She an Irish Catholic, and I… well… I knew better than to ask. You learn that early, when you’re in service. You learn when you can ask, and when you have to keep your mouth shut. And with Cathleen, I couldn’t speak.
So I lied. Yes, I lied. Don’t presume to judge me. You would too, at sixteen, in love.
The next Fair day we had off, I told her I felt ill, and sent her on to have fun by herself. She didn’t want to leave me, the sweetheart, said she’d sit by me and keep me company, but I told her not to be daft, that we only got a few half-days and she had to go enjoy the Fair, for me as well as herself.
The moment she’d gone, I nipped out of bed and threw on the clothes I’d laid by. I’d begged them off my brother, who was a farmer in the next town. They didn’t quite fit – he ate better than we did – but they were different enough from my usual clothing that I thought I could pass. I combed my hair carefully, practiced standing and walking differently, pitched my voice low and rough. And I went to Scarborough Fair.
Now I wonder what I was thinking. I should have been discovered at once. But I was sixteen, and rash, and in love; I doubt I was thinking at all.
What is there to tell, traveler? I met her for the first time by the ribbon stall, and bought her a blue ribbon for her hair. She smiled at me, some faint glimmer of recognition flitting across her face before it was shrugged away. I walked her to see the fighting bears, then offered a shoulder for her to hide her face in. She looked at me for the first time not as me, but as someone who was interested in her – and I found that it nigh took my breath away.
From then on my employer “insisted” that I work Fair days. I couldn’t decide whether I was overjoyed that Cathleen seemed to be almost cheerful about the fact that I couldn’t accompany her – perhaps she thought I’d be envious of her swain! – or jealous that she wasn’t paying as much attention to me, now that she had other-me. Sometimes it made my brain swim.
It took three Fair days before Cathleen let me kiss her, shyly, under the old apple tree. She kissed like an angel, soft and sweet, and I held her close and begged God to forgive me for the lie. But I loved her, traveler. I loved her.
On her seventeenth birthday – mine was still two months away – we went into the meadows and danced, feeling the grass under our feet, laughing in the sunshine. I had bought her a necklace; it was a simple thing, but it had cost me two months’ spare wages. She let me clasp it around her neck, and kissed me until I felt quite dizzy.
We were happy. I hope she remembers that, her entire life. I hope she remembers that I made her happy, every day that we were together, for all of those short months. I hope she keeps the necklace around her neck – that there isn’t someone who made her throw it away, years since. Or is that fair, traveler? Perhaps I should wish her a married woman, with children on her knee.
If only the war hadn’t come.
Back then, my greatest fear was that there couldn't be a future for us. I knew that one day she would want more – she would want the farm I told her I worked on, to come and be my wife and raise my children, and ride in to Scarborough on Fair days. And oh, traveler, I wanted those things, with all my heart. I would have gone to Ireland if Cathleen had asked me to.
Then war came, and Cathleen didn’t ask me to go to Ireland. She asked me to go to France.
All the boys were joining, you see. Cathleen didn’t want to be the only girl with a coward beau. She teased and jostled me, cajoled and pleaded. And in the end I saw, it was join the army or lose Cathleen.
I could have faded back into my old life. Cathleen was still my best friend; we still sang folksongs in the back garden, and I still heard her laughter pealing out through the open windows. I shared my dinner with her, and she with me. I didn’t know which I wanted more – to be Cathleen’s friend, or Cathleen’s lover.
But one day, in the meadow, we lay together; she came apart under my hand, and I thought her more beautiful in that moment than she had ever been before. When she reached for me and I shook my head, shamefaced, she laughed, but it was not an unkind laugh. “Am I so very exciting, then?” she teased, and drew me down into a kiss. “Next time let me, dear heart.”
And I knew, holding her in my arms, that I could not give up being her lover.
What more is there to say, traveler? I enlisted. (The other me left town, seeking my fortune in the City.) She kissed me in the streets of town, for all to see, the day I left with my regiment. “There,” she said, smoothing my jacket down, “you have to come back now, Ned, or you’ll have ruined my reputation for nothing.”
“Sure and I’ll marry you, Cathleen O’Connor,” I said, and kissed her again.
I don’t want to talk about France.
I won a name in France; I was the bravest in my regiment. I came home with money in my pocket, a song in my heart, and a cough that wouldn’t go away.
I worried as I walked home that she wouldn’t have waited. I knew that she loved me, but she was so very beautiful, you see. I had been gone for years; I was no longer the eager sixteen-year-old I had been. Perhaps she had a babe on her hip by now. Perhaps she had found another to kiss, as she had once kissed me, with stars in her eyes and laughter in her mouth.
When Cathleen saw me, she dropped the sheet she was washing, right down on the ground, though it would all have to be done again. She flew to the gate, straight into my arms, and I held her close, feeling as if my heart would swell right out of my chest.
She lifted her head and looked at me, the tears in her eyes welling up. “I thought you’d never come home to me,” she said, and cupped my cheek with her hand. “My Ned. My Nellie.”
I still don’t know how long she had known. Perhaps she knew from the beginning. Perhaps she knew only when I was gone, as she thought back over the months. Perhaps she knew sometime in between. I never asked her, because it isn’t right to look too closely at miracles.
I married her, traveler.
We had a year. Cathleen could charm the pennies out of a miser’s pocket, and she found a place for me as a coachman on a nearby estate. They liked the idea of hiring a war hero, and they kept me as long as they could, before the cough became simply too bad.
She still lives in Scarborough. She comes, sometimes; she’s planted herbs here, just as in the gardens we used to weed together. Cathleen and Nellie, the under-housemaids, calling across fences and singing folksongs, eating our dinners together on the stoop. Parsley and sage, on your left; rosemary and thyme, on your right.
“Are you sorry you loved me?” I asked her, at the end.
She stroked my hair back from my face. “No,” she said. “Never, my Ned, my Nellie.”
They say there’s another war now; I can hear the trumpets sometimes, if I listen. It’s good to sleep.
Are you going, traveler? There’s a beautiful girl with laughing eyes, somewhere in Scarborough Fair. She may be an old woman now, but she will ever be my Cathleen.
Take the heather that grows by my headstone, and if you find her, tell her –
But she knows.