An excerpt from The Coldest Winter, by Elizabeth Lutzeier, pp. 75-77.


The Roadworks

By the time Kate went to the post office to collect the letters a couple of weeks later, the Government had started the works again and there were some new clerks from England who were in charge of paying out the wages. All the scientists and all the officials they had sent to see what was wrong with the potatoes hadn't been able to solve the mystery and overnight the whole potato harvest had been blighted, the same as the year before. The Government set up new roadworks as well as the works by the canal, so all the hungry people who came into town from the country side around could earn some money.

'Where they all sleep is a miracle to me,' Aunt Julia said, when she came to visit and stood in the kitchen watching over Kate's attempts to beat up eggs for a cake.

Kate already knew where a lot of the people slept, but she didn't like to say anything about it. She was afraid that if she told Aunt Julia or Granddaddy about the families she had seen lying in the ditches, with only a thin, ragged blanket to cover them from the rain, she would not be allowed to go into town any more. Aunt Julia was convinced that all the poor, hungry, people wandering the roads were just waiting to rob and murder her in the middle of the night, and she kept trying to persuade Kate's stepmother to keep the children at home all the time.

The gang of men on the new works just outside the town, on the Rickardstown road, were heavily guarded by a group of soldiers as if they were prisoners. As Kate drew closer she realized that it wasn't only men who were bending their backs and breaking up stones with old, worn-out hammers. There were women there as well, weary-looking creatures with thin, sunken cheeks. Their babies lay by the side of the road with scarcely a blanket to cover them.

A tiny black-haired creature, no more than two years old but already with the pinched face of a tired old man, toddled up to Kate and held out his hand, a habitual gesture, as if begging was a trade he had been born into. Kate gave him one of the coins her stepmother had given her and the little, barefooted boy wearing only a ragged shirt, ran back to a woman working by the road and buried his head in her skirts.

Kate saw Eamonn working right at the end of the line. He looked stronger now, since Granddad had insisted on giving him and his family food every week. But he was as proud as his father. He had told his father and mother that he wanted to work because he didn't want to depend on Granddad's charity for any longer than necessary. And besides, he still dreamed of one day snatching his family away from the hunger that hovered around like a vulture waiting to devour them as soon as another potato crop failed. After he had to watch his little sister being taken ill and dying he was more determined than ever. Ireland was no place for the living - not unless you had a lot of money and a big warm house, like Kate's Granddad.

The weather was starting to turn cold again and Eamonn sometimes regretted selling the sweater Kate's stepmother had given him to keep warm. He knew that the gombeen man in Tullamore wouldn't give it back again unless he paid twice the money the man had lent him in exchange for it. But he had needed the money so badly.

He'd already had a letter from the place where one of his aunts used to live, telling him she had moved. When he wrote to the second address she had moved away from there too. He was convinced his aunt would help them if only he could get a letter to her. Now that he had her new address he didn't have any more money, and it looked as if it would take a miracle to raise the money without giving away his secret to his mother and father. Sometimes, when he felt like giving up the whole idea of moving to America, he closed his eyes and forced himself to imagine the joy on his parents' faces when he told them that they could escape at last.

The Coldest Winter by Elizabeth Lutzeier, by permission of Oxford University Press.