Child of the earth
People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.
The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden. If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.
Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.
One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.
“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.
“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”
Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.
Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.
A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.
It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.
“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.
Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.
“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”
“Gives the mind something to focus on.”
“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.
“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”
“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.
“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”
At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.
She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.
That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.
The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.