A steady pulse in her left eye signaled the problem before she even tried to open her eyes. Rosie’s right eye sprang open while the left one remained firmly stuck in place. She skimmed the eye with her finger and winced. The smooth eyelid was warm and puffy while her eyelashes crusted to the lower lashes with crystals of dried sleep.
Oh, for fucks sake, why today? She doesn’t need the mirror to tell her that the eye is that shiny pink and twice its normal size. At least if it was both eyes than it would look like a gross eye infection like pink eye but with just the one she knows it’s going to look like a freshly pucked eye. Never mind that it will be weeping all day, everyone will assume it’s the precursor to a black eye. A tired pavee woman with a swollen eye is a too familiar sight around town.
Rosie held a flannel under the hot tap before she held it to her eye until the crust loosened. Her wide right eye still had smudges of eyeliner from yesterday. The eye wasn’t as swollen as the tightness had her believe but she can only see a sliver of colour in contrast to the conker in her right eye. The gentle throbbing of the sty brought her back to a much sharper ache in her left eye ten years ago and the crows feet surrounding her eye disappeared. The swollen pink eye was no longer the problem but rather a purple bruised eye socket. The eye was a not a good keepsake from her one and only summer romance. Some girls got letters and stuffed toys but not Rosie McDonagh.
‘We’ve finished clearing up from breakfast now Auntie Theresa. Can we head up to the town now?” Rosie asked her mother’s younger sister.
‘Go ahead but keep an eye on the little ones. Your hair certainly looks nice today Rosie” she stuck her head out the caravan door and yelled at her children, “Girls, make sure you stay together because if your father hears so much as a whisper that one of the Ward girls was seen alone with a boy neither me nor the Virgin Mary will be able to save you…”
She turned back into the doorway and shared an adult smile with her eldest niece Rosie. It was a big help to have her on the road with them for the summer while her sister’s gang stayed home in Galway.
Rosie skipped a few steps ahead of her flock of chattering cousins down the road. The sun was out, her long hair was half pulled away from her face to show off her new gold hoops and she was on her way to meet a boy. No scratch that, she was on her way to meet an actual man! She had barely been able to sleep all night thinking about John and what she would tell her cousin so she could get away for a few hours. She could not wait to tell her sister all about him when she got home – she would be dead jealous to hear how he’d told her she was the most beautiful girl on the whole west coast. He said he was normally too shy to even speak to a girl, let alone one as pretty as her but he knew as soon as he saw her that she was going to be his wife so he had to pluck up the courage to talk to her. Just the memory of his voice and soft breath on her ear sent shivers down to the toes of her pink plimsolls.
While the girls crossed the bridge, the river breeze kept the air fresh and cool but the flowing water was no match for the cacophony of hooves, voices, instruments and engines that marked the horse fair every year. The horse fair was the main event of the week and it was certainly the main event for the Traveller men and boys that came from all over Ireland and England to make a few bob on their ponies. Families kept a running tally of the dealings between them over the years so there was a lot more at stake than just the animals and money as men tried every trick in the book to get a few more pounds than their horse was worth. Neither Rose nor her cousins looked twice at any of the animals they passed; once they could stay clear of the horse manure, flailing hooves, and speeding sulky carts they could care less about what kind of trot a pony had! Even though her auntie’s oldest boy probably bought his own first horse as seven or eight, his sisters had never even been up on a horse and wouldn’t dream of hopping in a sulky cart. Rosie quickly ducked out-of-the-way of a country man’s lead rope and did a quick head count of her cousins. 1, 2, 3, 4….5. She didn’t have to worry too much about the little ones since all the girls had been weaving between horses and carts since they were old enough to walk but she had to make sure Theresa’s oldest didn’t wander too far off. That girl was her only hope of sneaking off to meet John, not that it was easy to do much sneaking around here since every few feet she was sure to meet some relation.
The three oldest girls stared straight ahead with studied indifference as a group of young teenage boys laughed and pushed each other before shouting hello over the heads of farmers and horses. The girls pranced and preened like fillies but refused to acknowledge the boys until they were up the hill a few steps, then her cousin shook her long pony tail back and forth and waved cheekily over her shoulder.
“Girl, don’t even think about heading down there,” Rose chuckled, “You better be careful or they’ll start chasing you up the hill and one of your brothers will see you. Wait until we’re up with the women before you start causing trouble!” Rosie grabbed her cousin’s elbow and hurried her towards the stalls while her sisters shrieked and headed straight for the candy floss. They only had a few pounds between them but they were doing to spend every last cent on sweets, minerals and chips. Galway Races, Puck, the Rose of Tralee, and then Ballinasloe were the only times of year where the girls were allowed out without their brothers or older relatives keeping a close eye on them. They were only allowed in town when there was shopping to be done and their mother was usually with them or they were dragging one of the babies around with them. While the girls knew how to keep house and care for babies long before their counterparts, they didn’t know much about meeting boys and certainly knew nothing about dating.
Rosie’s parents would find her a nice family to marry into this year and since they weren’t travelling it would probably be at a family wedding, christening or communion and Rosie would only visit with him in front of all her relatives. They’d probably meet up once or twice during the year at different occasions and then the wedding would be planned between the two fathers. She knew her mother liked their cousins the Tuam O’Briens and they had five or six boys around her age. Nothing about those boys made her shiver.
“Brigid, quick, look over by there in front of the pup….no, no behind me. Do you see him?” Rosie whispered to her cousin.
“Rosie, I can’t hear a word you’re saying. There’s an old fella playing the squeeze box behind us, music on the loudspeaker, about a thousand horses running around and hundreds of people in this square so why exactly you whispering and who are exactly are you whispering about? I’m guessing he’s gorgeous by your face but I’d like to get a look at him myself,” Brigid lectured in a perfect imitation of her mother before trailing off into giggles and bouncing up and down on her toes.
Ok, ok, I think I’m just being a small bit paranoid because you know how the women are at these things, they’re way worse than any ban Garda could ever be with their spying. Who’s talking to who and who’s walking out with who and who made a show of herself and has ruined her reputation for ever and ever. And it’s not just the old women, sometimes the boys and girls are as bad. Remember when your brother saw you talking to those lads at the Races last year and he went and told uncle Mikey and then they wouldn’t let you away from the caravan without me ma or your ma chaperoning us?!. I feel like everyone can tell that about to meet a man alone, I’m so excited I must be bright red cause my cheeks always get all rosy when I’m excited and that’s a dead give away!’
“Would you breathe Rosie, what in the world is going on? You’re going on and on like a mad woman whose in desperate need of confession…you haven’t even done anything wrong yet…wait, have you?” Brigid said while steering Rosie behind a tent flap.