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.
''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.''
''I say,'' shouted the proud father, ''you're doing dashed well, Mary. That's it. By jove, Louis, she's doing it.''
''May I come out now?'' I gasped. This is how the fish feel, I was thinking, poor things.
''You've done very well.'' Uncle Louis hauled me up as if he was landing a splendid catch. ''By George, this is the way we teach them in the Navy, John.'' He turned to my brother, who was lurking behind Luggie, ''Like to try?''
''He's too young,'' Father responded,
Meanwhile I lay on the pier frozen with cold, but full of pride now that it was over and feeling every inch the mermaid.
''We'll do it again tomorrow,'' said Uncle Louis, ''and every morning while I'm here. Jove, this is a great day.''
''Now we must go fishing for real things,'' said Father. ''Tell the missus we'll be home in time for dinner,'' he addressed Luggie. ''Into the boat.''
I was dried down with a rough towel and then we made our way back to the house, where Mother was waiting - reading yesterday's newspaper.
''I swam! I swam!'' I told her through chattering teeth.
''She did, Mummy, she did,'' John loyally backed me. Brought up mostly by and with women, he learned to tread warily at an early age.
''Well, it gave those silly men a lot of pleasure if nothing else,'' said Mother amiably. ''But that's no way to teach swimming. You have to learn it the right way.''
''Captain Louis was so pleased with her. Too bad he has no chickabiddies of his own.'' Luggie began bundling up her hair into an enormous bun on top of her head.
''Uncle Louis said he'd teach me again tomorrow.'' I looked at mother questioningly.
''Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,'' she sighed, ''and all our yesterdays light fools the way to dusty death. Your dinner is waiting. Lamb chops.''
I never had another swimming lesson in the lake. The next morning a boy in a donkey cart arrived from Killorglin, the nearest postal town, and delivered two telegrams. One for my father and one for Uncle Louis. They were to report immediately for duty. It was the 4th of August and war had been declared between Germany and England. A delirium of packing, tears, and farewells followed and they left to catch the earliest possible train from Killarney.
That afternoon we sat beside the lake with Luggie. She was very tearful because her brother, who was in the British Army, would surely be ordered to the front. It was a calm, beautiful afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, and the mountains loomed in the distance half shrouded in a silvery mist. It was so still the only sounds we heard were far away in the distance, the baaing of a sheep, the barking of a farm dog. Two swans emerged from the reeds near where we were sitting and sailed past us, occasionally dipping their beaks in the still waters of Caragh Lake. None of that little group, the governess and three small children, could hear the guns of August or smell the dogs of war. We sat there innocently (the youngest asleep with her head in Luggie's lap) and could not know or imagine what was to come. We only saw the white swans drift past us and were startled when a lark rising from the heather beside us burst into his thin small song as he flew heavenwards.