Since I was a tot, I’ve loved a lass called Betty Scott. She always sends me a Valentine’s Card, confirming our mutual love.
Betty is 76 years old. Never married. Lives alone in a small granite cottage about a quarter-mile east of the old Front Gates. Her sole companion is a young Jack Russell called Sandy – a surprise gift who spends his days following her around, yapping. Sometimes Betty has to interrupt her story-telling to throw things at the dog. A remote control, a plastic bag, whatever comes to hand. She looks like she’s about to burst into tears, then bites her lower lip and carries on. I have lately taken to scooping Sandy up on my arrival and depositing him in the bathroom. You can still hear the yapping through the walls and doors, but it’s a duller, more manageable sort of yap.
Betty is among the last of her kind: an ostensibly Catholic woman who devoted the bulk of her life to helping out the Protestant Anglo-Irish family living in the “Big House” up above. That’s the way it must look on paper, I suppose. But it’s always been much stronger than that. Betty is part of the family. She is as much a part of my childhood as she was a part of my father’s childhood before me.
Betty goes to Mass once a week. It’s not that she’s particularly religious. If she doesn’t go, her phone doesn’t stop ringing (anxious friends wondering whether she’s dead). She has her own spiritual beliefs. Padre Pio may twinkle merrily above the whistling kettle, but Betty has never sworn total allegiance to JP2 and his henchmen.
When my grandfather died in 1959, the lads on the farm were discouraged from entering the Protestant church for his funeral. It wasn’t right for a Catholic to attend such an occasion. Betty’s uncles – the Abbey Brothers – went to a proddy funeral once, back in the 30s, and the local Bishop made them walk to Carlow and back for a week as penance. Betty was a rebel from an early age. She stood by the grave as my grandfather was lowered into the earth and she wept. There were no recriminations. Why should there have been? It was barely a week since my grandfather had asked her to pack up his suitcase, small medical problem, nothing serious, he’d be back again in a couple of days
If I’m a cheeky, disrespectful type, then Betty is to blame. My earliest memories involve winding her up. She looked so funny when she was cross; I knew she’d never do anything but briefly sulk, even when she’d come down the avenue to collect me off the school bus and find a small, giggling mess of untucked shirts, biro marked cheeks and irretrievably torn trousers. But she could be fearsome when she wanted to, Betts. When my parents accidentally hired a semi-psychotic nanny to put some manners on us, Betty was always there to defend, to wave a fierce and threatening wooden spoon at our beady eyed assailant, don’t you dare lay another finger on that child…
Betty started work for my grandfather on March 2rd 1941. Sweet seventeen and my father a chubby ba-ba of 18 months. Grandfather had gone off to fight the Nazis in Belgium, so my grandmother was left in charge of the family pile, trying to keep the show going when all about was butter rations, aerial bombs and dire Emergencies. It must have been an odd time to start at Lisnavagh. The house was much bigger in those days, a vast rambling Gothic structure built by a wealthy naval forbear a hundred years earlier. Betty’s mother, a devout Catholic, had joined the staff four years earlier; the opening gambit in my liberally inclined grandmother’s purge of the hitherto exclusively Protestant household staff.
I sometimes wonder what Betty thinks when she’s alone. Does she dwell on the past? On her brother William who caught pneumonia and died when he was a small boy in the 1920s? Or her sister Nancy who wanted to be a ballerina only she broke her back one day and so they had to bury her instead? Can she still hear the rattle and clatter of the dining room staff clearing up after one of the great shooting banquets? Or the sound of the old Rolls cranking up on a cold and frosty morning? It’s difficult not to romanticise. I hope she sometimes finds herself laughing aloud, perhaps at some long-running joke she used to share with the gardener, or a spontaneous proverb she once heard that suddenly seems appropriate.
It’s good that Betts has Sandy. Someone to yell and rant at during the blue spells. Returning from funerals, she can throw terracotta pots at the terrier who barks. And barks and barks. The yaps must be a welcome distraction from the otherwise melancholy silence.
I saw her recently. She wanted to know how things were up at the Big House these days. I said they were grand. She sighed and started telling me a series of stories, which I’d heard before, about my grandmother riding her horse through the house and such like. The thing about Betty is she can evoke crystal clear memories in my head of events that I later regard as doubtful.
She told me we were the only family she’d ever had. That’s not strictly true but the way she said it, you’d be forgiven for believing her. She’s followed my father and his sisters from their earliest wails to the present. And now she’s doing it all over again with me and my siblings. She’s the link, you see. The butler and the chauffeur have long gone; the Rolls garage reduced to a lawnmower shed. Betty’s still there.
It’s odd to think of Betty scampering about the bedrooms of the Big House when she was a young lass, sprinkling lavender drops on pillow cases and delivering brandies to the decadent inmates. Odd because she regards the subsequent six decades of service as her raison d’etre, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I believe the allegiance extended both ways, that some of my family’s better ideals rubbed off on her just as her own unconventional beliefs came to become a part of ours. In a modern world of short-term leases and get-a-better-job.coms, I find myself drifting back to an age when mutual loyalty meant something.
This column appeared in The Dubliner in April 2001.