Portrait of a gate (a simple story)


I have a thing about old gates and love to wander along country lanes on the yellow bicycle taking photos of them or sketching them. They are a skilled craft, a work of art and they each have a story to tell.

Portrait of a black gate

I am walking with my Mother and one of my sisters along a laneway.

The lane is bordered by old stone walls covered in a tangle of wildflowers.

The smell of the dog roses and meadowsweet is making us giddy.

My mother is carrying two empty milk bottles and we are fighting over who will carry the empty egg box.(The unspoken rule is, whoever carries the box one way will be free of it on the return journey and who would be mad enough to want the responsibility of carrying a dozen precious eggs when there are walls to scale, butterflies to chase and flowers to pick)

It is summer and we are camped below at the sea and as with every summer camping in this place, we have an agreement with one of the nearby farms to buy our daily milk and eggs from them.

Further along the lane we come upon old Mrs kavanagh standing at her gate.

A black wrought iron affair of good craftsmanship. But the salt air is tough on iron and two of its bars are collapsed due to rust.

These are held together with thin wire. Even so, it is strong enough to hold her stout frame as she leans heavily on it, one wellingtoned foot resting on the bottom bar.

Strong enough also to stop the bull calf at her legs escaping in search of its mother.

A black scarf is covering her silver hair, a black apron tied around her waist and her eyes, as blue as the sea below and sharp as razors, are gazing into the distance.

To the main road in fact, just visible across the fields.

As we reach her, we turn to follow her gaze.

A long line of people, small moving dots on the skyline, are walking behind a hearse.

Mrs Kavanagh, too old and arthritic to make it to the church, is watching her husband’s funeral.

We don’t know if she is saddened or joyous at his death. She is certainly not shedding any tears, instead it’s a worn and resigned face, wrinkled by eighty winter storms, that turns towards us as the old sheepdog, his tail matted with burrs comes barking to greet us.

My sisters and I, after mumbling a shy greeting, run to stick our hands through the gate calling ‘sucky sucky’ to the calf (as we have heard the farm children do).

He butts our outstretched hands and sucks furiously on our fingers, wiggling his tail as we laugh in delight unaware of the sadness of the occasion.

My mother holds out her two hands, warmly enclosing the pair of gnarled ones and offers her condolences.

I only learned later that my father had offered to take Mrs Kavanagh to the church and on to the graveyard (this was 1963 and few if any of the locals had cars) but she refused, preferring to do her grieving here by the old black gate.

The two women talk for a while, their quiet voices rising and falling and drifting away on the sea air as the breeze picks up and billows out the white sheets drying on the line. Despite death daily chores continue.

We say our goodbyes but not before she rustles her hand into her apron pocket pulling out two wrapped toffees and handing them to us.

And we, not allowed such sweets (my father having a thing about our teeth and dying with not one of his own missing, forbade us both toffees and ice pops) glance at my mother before popping them guiltily into our mouths.

Just wait till we tell our siblings!

Sucking earnestly we say our goodbyes and turn up a smaller road at the end of which is another farm. There is noone around as everyone is at the funeral and a dog barks frantically from the shed.

My mother leaves the price of the milk and eggs in a jam jar on the window sill.

Then taking the two freshly filled bottles of milk out of the bucket of cold well water and putting the dozen eggs from a bowl into our own egg box, she leaves the empty bottles at the door and we make our way home.

Passing Mrs Kavanaghs house we see her again, this time up the field where she is bent over probably picking potatoes for the dinner.

I still camp here for a few weeks every summer and often think of her when I’m cycling along this road passed the still standing black gate which someone has tidied up, even painted.

I try to imagine her in her youth, brought here by her husband all those years ago.

Did he proudly open the gate with a flourish, when he brought his young bride home.

And in the following years how many times did the doctor open and shut it, probably cursing as the calves tried to push past and make their getaway.

Were the babies now older, instructed to close it properly on their way out to school and not let the animals loose?

But no fear of that. They would climb over it instead, as children do when faced with the prospect of a good climbing frame.

And did she, having an hour or two between milking, feeding hens, fetching water, making bread, mending clothes, and waiting for her boys to return from school and her husband to come home from the fields or the bog or the sea, take her bike from where it leant against the gable and carefully maneuvering herself and it through that gate, artfully preventing the calves from escaping, cycle to the village to catch up on the news and buy sugar and flour and salt?

Did she wait at the gate for the postman bringing letters from her sons now married and living in england as what work was there here for them?

Did she walk slowly back up to the house, The dog at her heels, clutching an envelope to her chest and sit at the fire and read the news to her husband whilst he, looking over her shoulder, exclaimed as he held each photo up at how big the grandchildren were getting and how well they looked in their school uniforms?

Did she watch us go by every summer, our car filled with children and camping gear, excited to be down again for another two weeks of camping in this wild and wonderful place and wait excitedly for her own grandchildren to arrive and spend the long summer days in her company?

I like to think that this was the case.


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