The story opens in 1916. The world is at war, Irish freedom fighters have just staged an armed rebellion in Dublin, and the three characters we first met in Her Secret Rose are deeply unsettled. The world famous poet, WB Yeats, “having come to 50 years” has decided it’s high time he was married and, by coincidence, the 1916 Rising has just made a widow of the love of his life, Maud Gonne. Maud’s thoughts are more political than personal. She is frantic to get to Ireland to join the freedom fighters there. While her daughter, Iseult, now 23 years old and as beautiful as her mother was at that age, longs for love, escape, and artistic achievement.
As three talented mavericks try to redeem their past against a background of escalating war and revolution, can they rise to what they truly need from each other? This novel is narrated by Rosy Cross, a working-class Irish woman, who’s spent her life investigating the involvement of these people in the infamous murder of her sister.
This is another snippet from my work in progress, Dancing in the Wind. If you’d like to receive a monthly extract, and contribute to the writing of this book, check out my Patreon Fiction Membership.
Until next time, happy reading!
The scent of soil from the plant pot is sour. The leaves are curled brown, at the edges. When she is finally able to speak to him, the words leave her slowly. “Do you remember, Willie, years ago when I struggled with my use of sleeping draughts? My cousin May hid my bottle but I found it and Iseult’s father said sarcastically, ‘How commendable! Just like a drunkard who can always find his way to the pub’. Well, I learned to sleep without laudanum.” As she says it, she remembers the dark green bottle, its cork stopper, the scent of the medicine, like the smell of mints. The sound of the bottle opening, a crackling, like a toy firework. “But Willie, I didn’t know I’d won that battle until I could leave another bottle beside my bed, untouched”.
He looks painfully puzzled, as if she had just inserted a thousand needles into his head. “I do not see your meaning.”
She crosses the room to him, and she can see that he thinks she is going to kiss him, and is terrified with the old fear. She can feel it, like an animal perched just on the edge of her perception, and she feels her own heart beating with such violence, her own fear that she will suffer a damage herself, or do a damage to him. Oh what had she been thinking? How many times can one make the same mistake?
This is the end for her, not just with him, but with all men.
And suddenly, she is calm. A clenched barrier spreads within, seeming to stretch from her breasts to her knees, like a dam of bone and silk. She pulls herself up, her height matching his, and tucks the rose into his breast pocket. And pats him down, tender as a mother. “Oh never mind, Willie dear. Just take it that you do NOT have my blessing”.
Iseult and Willie are alone, Iseult reading out a newspaper cutting from the oxblood box. “”The woman stood and faced the crowd who hissed her, her whole figure showing a lively emotion, but not…’”
WB interrupts her reader. “Which paper is it from? Who wrote this?”
Iseult examines the cutting, her own inked note at the top. The Irish Worker. Mary Colum.”
“Ah yes, wife of Padraig. Two minor writers still. They eke a living. Go on, go on.”
Iseult looks out the window. “What a day to be inside”.
“Are you finding my life story so very dull”?
“Don’t take it personally, Sir. Didn’t Moura tell you I never do anything for more than a fortnight?” She reaches for one of the two cigarettes on the the table. He has doled them out and watches her light it, inhale the smoke, conscious of being watched.
“The only thing that seems to stick is the chain-smoking.”
She reads on. ‘…her whole figure showing a lively emotion, but not responding to them. I saw the most beautiful, the most heroic looking human being I have ever seen, smiling and unperturbed. And I realised who she was. Maud Gonne. A legend to us.”
She waits for a reaction from him. None comes. Not for the first time since she started working on this memoir with him, he has abdicated. Gone to the land of memory. She longs to join him there.
“What did you say to them from the stage that night, Willie?”
“I spoke of artistic and personal freedom. I reminded them how England loved to see the Irish tear each other apart.”
“I thought you had moved beyond politics by then? So you said yesterday.”
“I spoke for your mother that night. It was, perhaps, the last time.”
“And who do you speak for now?”
He looks puzzled.
“Your poem. For whom did you write the line about MacBride being a drunken, vainglorious lout? Of whom were you thinking when you wrote the line about the bitter wrong he did to some who are near to your heart.”
She looks up at him, eyes distraught.
“Both of you,” he whispers. The ground between them has shifted and he is confused. Unsure how they have come to be here.
“And for whom did you ‘number him in your song’?”
“Oh Iseult, youth is so hard, so judgmental. I am trying to find my way to…to…”
“You are caught again in Moura’s spell, Willie, yet it is not real. It is so strange, almost like you feel you have a duty…”
“The poet’s only duty”.
“What is that”?
“You had best stick to Helen of Troy, Willie, and leave the flesh-and-blood women alone.”
He falters again under her piercing gaze.
Outside the cave, a little later, they sit on a rock, watching the tide come in. “Well my dear, you are young and so you…”
“Please Willie, can you stop saying ‘youth’ and ‘young’ every five minutes”.
“You know I say it only because when I am with you I regret my own age.”
They sit silent, then, knowing the moment approaches, pretending to look at the view. A view that’s been known since the dawn of time: the arc of the sky as the sun begins its descent over the sea. The changing colors of the sky as day gives way to evening, the clouds convene together like old friends, the shifting shades of mauve and purple, pale-salmon pink and light lemon and purple.
She knows it’s coming. She tastes the thin film of dried salt that streaks her lips and cheeks. Her whole body is coated in its briny tang, risen from the seabed. It is the taste of cold, the taste of blood, the taste of tears.
“You know you might marry me, if you would?”
“But what, Sir, of your ‘great age’?”
“In exceptional cases, even 30 years difference might not prevent happiness.”
Another world-weary retort leaps to her mind but she sees his open, trusting face, a wide slab of oblong concern. The handles on his cheeks press down beneath eyes so young. Like that day so many years ago in that picturesque church in Paris with him and Moura, when she had seen how her mother greeted those eyes. And here those very eyes are before her now, wearing the urgency of life. He seems like the human child of light. She cannot tease him.
“I could never live in London Willie.”
“We would not have to spend all our time there. You know I am buying a tower in Ireland. Lady Gregory is arranging it”.
“And I have vowed to myself that I shall not marry, except for love.” Though the words sound like a rejection, he takes them as invitation, puts a hands on each of her shoulder, kisses her. A chaste kiss. Dry, papery.
Iseult has never been so close to his body. She can smell the smell of him: sweat and salt and the tang of his black hair. She feels the need to breathe hard to control her heart. Does this mean she does love him, after all?
“I am sorry,” he whispers, but it’s a formality. He thinks his code of chivalry demands it.
“Don’t be, I wanted you to.” But even as she says the words, she is stepping back, feeling guarded again, her body turning cool and reserved. She is not made for the niceties of romance, but for the earth, for the wild. Her heart has the architecture of clouds, all light and delicate craft and yet highly lacquered, able to stand against the sun, and sail with the sturdiest wind. “But I do not believe it is possible.”
“Moura went from me, Iseult. She went from me a long time ago”.
“And you ‘could find nothing to make a song about, except helmets, swords and half-forgotten things’.”
“You really have read them all. You are one of the few who understands”.
“I did not learn about you and Moura from your poems, Willie. You forget I was there. I saw it all.”
“You were part of it all.”
“Then you know that this makes a fitting end.”
“For you. Maybe even for Moura.”
“And for you, a new beginning. My London will love you, my Dublin even more. And with me, you can return to France as often as you please. You will not be tied to the nationalists.”
She tastes the thin film of dried salt that streaks her lips and cheeks. Her whole body is coated in its briny tang, risen from the seabed. It is the taste of cold, the taste of blood, the taste of tears.