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For Isa and Davie Reid, life as immigrants is simultaneously full of excitement and disappointment. On the long journey from her home in the northern isles of Scotland, she meets up with Sarah, a young girl from the Irish community in Liverpool. Sarah has been sent to Canada to marry a man twice her age whom she has never met. Through the years, both Sarah and Isa grow into strong independent women.
The struggle to build a better life in this new, often harsh land is intercepted and exacerbated by the great war, which brings tragedy to some, yet gives Sarah the means of escape from what she sees as the nothingness of her existence.
Left alone during the war years, Isa is faced with extra trials that she could have never foreseen. Tragedy of the past and challenges of the present threaten to overwhelm her, yet she confronts every setback with her normal strength of spirit and unending optimism. And then she receives a letter ......
Sarah watched the trap pull away, then looked round the flat miles of grassland verged with thick forests and blue hills, or was it clouds, in the distance. The family was nice, except the man who came to fetch them. He scared her with his black eyes and dark skin. She wanted to stay with Isa, move on with her to whatever comfortable home she would find that night.
She turned slowly to study the shack. Behind it, pine trees reached into the sky. Sarah shuddered, imagining all sorts of wild animals watching her from the depths.
The blank window stared. The dog ceased his barking and now whined, his ears flat. Kneeling down, Sarah held out her hand, allowing the animal to sniff her fingers and when he wagged his tail she fondled his ears. She had always wanted a pet of her own. Suddenly from somewhere nearby, came a deep baritone voice singing a song she knew, a song she often heard her father deliver while the worse of drink. This voice, however, was note perfect.
Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The voice grew in volume and the strains drifted into the still evening. Sarah straightened up and at that moment the low sun caught the glass of the remaining window and turned the panes to fire; a rare streak of beauty amidst the depressed surroundings.
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.
She picked her way up the path between weeds, broken glass and lumps of wood. A pile of green logs and an axe lay against the wall. At the door she stopped, fear of what might be inside preventing her from raising her hand to knock. Then she noticed it was slightly ajar. She pushed at it with her fingertips and, with a slight groan, it swung open. Before her, on a wooden armchair, sat a man with his head drooping forward, black, curly hair hiding his face, broad shoulders, thick arms bent at the elbows and big hands dangling between his knees.
He began to sing again, this time the chords muffled and the voice blurred.
Oh Danny, Oh Danny...
Sarah's bag hit the floor. The man lifted his head. A big, unclean man with a ruddy complexion. His hands shot to the arms of his chair and he pushed himself to his feet. 'By Jaysus, where'd you fall from, girl? Ye made my heart jump like a grasshopper on heat, so ye did.'
Sarah swallowed. 'Are... are you Patrick O'Brien?'
'That I am. How... how'd you get here?' He glanced at the clock. 'Holy Mother o' God, will you look at the time.'
Rays of low sunlight fell across his unshaven face; a broad face, coarse, heavy eyebrows, dark, slitted eyes with deep crinkles running from the corners. His nose had been broken at one time. Below the full lips jutted a deeply-clefted chin and a thick, short neck. The room stank of stale whisky and neglect. Sparse furniture, crude home-made efforts, littered the space as if tossed in by a careless hand.
'A family going west gave me a ride.' It was cold in here, so cold that she could see her breath.
Paddy O'Brien ran his hand over his head. 'Ah, ma coleen, I should have come to meet ye.' He crossed to the table, picked up a lantern and raised the globe. 'We'll get a light and a fire going.' He lumbered around, scratching matches which burned his nicotine-stained fingers and fell to the ground before they reached the wick.
'Let me.' Sarah took the matches from his hand, lit the wick, shook the match to extinguish the flame and replaced the globe.
'Ach − ah. It's a fine girl ye are. Now the stove. I meant to have it all right and proper for ye, so I did.' He dropped to his knees before the pot-bellied range. This time he managed. The flames caught on the scrunched paper and licked up and around the logs.
Paddy stood up, swayed and wiped his hands on his trouser leg. Bloodshot eyes travelled from Sarah's face to her feet and back again making her skin prickle.
'Ye're not like I expected, no not at all. Ye look more like a girl from a convent than one from the streets.' He turned away. 'Ye'll be wanting a bite to eat.'
'Ye...s, please.' Her words sounded thin and dry. She couldn't remember when she last ate or drank anything. Even her stomach cramps had deserted her. 'Could ... could I have a drink of water?'
'Ye can that, ye can that.' Paddy pulled the lid off a wooden bucket and the cover fell from his hands and rattled on the floor. He took a tin mug from the dresser and filled it from the pail. The water splashed over the side as he as thrust it at her. Sarah grabbed it in both hands and swallowed the water in gulps.
'Sit yourself down. Down here.' He pulled out a chair and wiped the seat with the flat of his hand and then his elbow.
Sarah stepped forward, lowered herself onto the seat and fought to remain upright; the legs were of different lengths.
Paddy placed a plate of thickly-cut bread and a slice of cheese before her, then took a seat opposite. 'Made them earlier. Since my wife died ain't had a home cooked meal. But things'll be different now, eh?''
The bread was curling at the edges, but to Sarah it was manna.
The hound in the yard howled.
'Best let Ned in.' Paddy made an unsteady exit and returned with the dog. It bounded in, sniffed at Sarah's hands, jumped up, placed his front paws on her knees and began licking her face.
'Settle down, boy,' said Paddy in a rough voice. The hound dropped and slunk to the corner.
'I...I don't mind. I like dogs.' Sarah already missed the warmth of the welcome.
'Can't have that, no, can't have that.' Paddy shook his head. 'Got to keep them in their place, dogs and women, eh?' He gave a laugh.
Sarah wasn't sure if she was supposed to respond, so she forced a smile. Exhaustion hit her like a sledgehammer and she swayed where she sat. Longing for sleep, she glanced at the back wall where a bench covered with several animal skins stood. What would be expected of her this night, she wondered, shuddering at the thought of being touched by this great brute of a man, by any man for that matter. The heat from the range warmed her body, her head fell forward and she fought to keep her eyes open.
Paddy's words continued filling the room with meaningless chatter. She was aware of the glug of liquid being poured into a container and of Paddy's voice as if from far away, now singing a song about going 'off to Dublin in the green' as the room swam and sleep overtook her.