Then is now
I remember it well, almost as if it were yesterday. I was a little girl eight years old, running down the mountain path to the lake to meet my father and my uncle, who were going to teach me to swim. They were waiting at the pier. I was accompanied by my brother, John (he was six), and my sister Christabel, a tiny thing of four, was clinging to the governess' hand. The place was Caragh Lake in County Kerry, the year was 1914, the date was August 3rd. We had rented Ripley House for the summer. How beautiful everything seemed! How joyous! Miss Luggett, the governess (we called her ''Luggie''), suddenly stopped and pointed heavenwards. She was a highly dramatic character who washed her hair once a day and left it swinging to dry and often burst into song.Skip to next paragraph
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''Cheers, chicks, cheers,'' she carolled, ''I sight a golden eagle. Look. See that large bird up there circling, circling. He has an eyrie up there on the highest mountain.''
''How do you know, Luggie?'' I asked, a great one for questioning.
''Everybody knows it, chickabiddy, because it's probably the last eagle we'll see in County Kerry.''
I looked obediently at the distant outline of a mountain range known as the Magillicuddy Keeks and then I looked nervously down into the brown waters of the lake. I would soon be in those waters, swimming for my life.
''Oh, Luggie,'' I sighed. ''Must I learn to swim?''
Now we were at the pier. Two tall thin men were standing there staring down into the water. Uncle Louis, who was a captain in the British Navy, had a grey pointed beard and a very stern expression which totally belied him. He was a most satirical character, always cracking jokes and making everyone else smile but never smiling himself. I adored him. My father, also a joker, was, like Uncle Louis, on leave. He was in the Colonial service and only came home every two years. He was stationed in Nigeria, then known as ''the white man's grave.''
They looked up at us as we ran on to the wooden pier.
''Here you are at last,'' exclaimed Uncle Louis. ''Come here. See, I'm going to tie you to my fishing rod.'' Luggie removed my dress and displayed me already in my swimsuit, which was worn high to the neck and below the knees with sleeves to the elbow. ''I'm going to lower you into the water suspended from the rod, see here, just below the jetty, and you will swim of your own accord. Children take to it naturally. You'll be quite safe, me darling, because you'll be safely tied to the rod.''
''You'll be a nice little sixty-pound salmon,'' said my father helpfully.
I was very obedient, but I was terrified.
''We are velly velly frightened,'' said Luggie, smiling playfully.
My brother, John, who couldn't swim yet, but nobody seemed to care, suddenly began to cry. ''She'll be drownded,'' he sobbed. ''Mary will be drownded.''
''Shut up,'' said Daddy pleasantly. After six years, men were not men if they cried. Uncle Louis now lifted me tied to the rod and lowered me into the water. I was in every sense out of my depth. I clenched my teeth, then swallowed some water. No, I must not cry. Suddenly, miraculously, I began moving my arms and legs and stayed afloat.
''Jolly good!'' shouted Uncle Louis. ''You're a heroine, me darling, you're a mermaid.''