The Portrait of Isabella Simmons
Arriving at the tall gates, Johanna stares outwards at the tree lined avenue, the thick canopy twinkling in the midday sun. The cawing overhead brings her attention to a murder of circling crows diving and dancing in flight. Shortly, the trees give way to an expanse of smooth fields rolling towards a small lake reflecting the shadow of Harrington House, a large grey building with tall chimneys dominating its roof. Johanna’s eyes marvel at the sight of the house, a dream she could never have imagined to come true. What would her mother think of her now? She has been given this opportunity and she will not waste it.
As the rolling carriage nears the house, it soon becomes evident of its size and grandeur, with taller windows at the lower levels which become shorter as her eyes lift towards the third floor. The carriage enters a court yard at the rear of the house and Mr. Kavanagh, who has remained quiet since picking her up at the village market, now ushers her out. The court yard is bustling with people working, horses moving in and out, and helpers bringing baskets of food into the house. There is so much that mesmerises her eyes. Mr. Kavanagh’s hand on her shoulder moves her towards the rear of the house; its tall striking grey facade is dominant and cold.
The smells from the outer kitchen strike her nostrils, followed by the sounds of the kitchen workers busy preparing dinner. They glance briefly in her direction, only to return to their tasks and carry on. Being pushed inwards to the larger kitchen, its sheer size overwhelms her. Her own little cottage on the hills of Connemara would fit inside it. A woman of her own mother’s height, but stronger and carrying a little too much weight, stands in the centre of the kitchen barking orders, her hard voice audible over the din. Her grey hair is tied up in a bun and a dirty white apron hangs around her wide body. On sighting Mr. Kavanagh, she stops and moves in his direction, casting a quick glance at Johanna before nodding to the man standing behind her.
“What have you found for me this time? I hope it’s better than the last wretch that came my way!” Mrs. Horan begins, standing in front of Johanna.
“Tell Mrs. Horan your name girl. Spit it out,” Mr. Kavanagh prods her right shoulder with his fingers.
“Johanna Cahill,” she whispers as she holds her gaze on Mrs. Horan standing before her. Work continues all around, and Johanna cannot help but survey the scene before her.
“Thanks Mr. Kavanagh, I’ll do what I can with her. If she works well, she’ll be fine. Okay Johanna, we’ll get you familiar with the kitchen and you can start by helping to keep the pantry stocked up and carrying potatoes and vegetables from the garden,” Mrs. Horan instructs as she casts her eyes towards the rear of the kitchen. “Sorcha,” she calls to another young girl busy sweeping the floor. “This is Johanna. She’ll be helping us out here for a while. Can you show her to the pantry and then to the garden? I’ll leave her in your charge.”
The young girl nods and beckons Johanna to join her.
Johanna spends the remainder of the day with Sorcha and that first week at Harrington Estate learning her new duties. She listens attentively, never questioning, nor does she fear Mrs. Horan or Mr. Kavanagh like the other girls do. She is not sure why, but something has changed within her since her incident at home with her father. What happened would never cross her lips, this she promised her mother. The dream of some day leaving home and working for a big house like a neighbouring girl had once done is now becoming a reality. She wonders if this dream can come true, then what other dreams could possibly come true if she allows or wills them to happen.
At the end of her first week on the Estate, she rests in the walled garden during her break following her dinner. It’s her favourite place to be, sitting among the vegetables and potato plants, watching and observing everyone and everything. The honey bees circle around her on nearby blossoms, disturbing the white garden butterflies. The fast flying, swooping swallows are her company. They are not bothered by her.
She has rarely seen the Belfort family who use the adjoining garden of flowers and shrubs, but it’s not permitted for anyone save the gardener to enter. She has occasionally caught a glimpse of Mrs. Belfort and her two sons, whom she discovered are called Edward and Maurice, both younger than her in years. Casting her eyes around the blooming garden, she feels blessed with the opportunity despite the circumstances of how she has found herself at Harrington Estate. Her life is suddenly different and dreams are possible.