Chapter 1 - The Illness
She woke with a start. Where did that dreadful banshee scream come from? Oh no, it couldn't be her! Yet why was she drenched in cold sweat and her heart thumping like a machine and there was that agonising pain. It was her alright. Hadn't she wakened all the family and there they were circled around her bed. For them it had been a nightly ritual. All her nights were a complete nightmare when delusions held her frail little body captive, pushing her to the edge of a dark abyss where she was tortured by multicoloured snakes dancing towards her, bobbing up and down like puppets, their fluorescent bodies shining with a brilliant radiance. Away in the distance, standing and watching her agony, a tall stately peacock remained unmoved while Kathleen shouted out in anguish.
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The comforting arms of her mother and her whispered concern brought her back to reality. There she lay, spent in her arms as her mother wiped the perspiration from her pain racked body and gently lulled her to sleep. She had never seen a peacock or a snake in her life except in books so why should they come to torture her at nights?
After consultation with Dr O'Brien, she heard she was to go to Dublin to see a Specialist. Now what did she want with a Specialist when she had one of the best Doctors in Ireland and one of the handsomest too! A tall, blond, good looking man, the spitting image of her own father. You could hardly tell the difference. Eileen was sure his blue eyes must have created havoc among his female patients.
She had never been away from home and knew only one town, the place where she was born. Mind you if a stranger passed through this town the only memory he might take away was of a very large Square with its solitary pump and telegraph pole and the Market House with the "Jackson Clock" chiming away the hours. It was certainly not the inspiration of a Michael Angelo.
Life had started for Kathleen in the rural Irish village of Crossmaglen, close to the Free State border in South Armagh. Times were peaceful after "The Troubles" in the early 1920s and tranquillity reigned in the village Square which some said was the largest in Ireland.
There wasn't a man, woman or child living in The Square that Kathleen didn't know. She sat on the doorstep of her home in the early summers of her life, drinking in the scenes around her. There was the stately mountain of Slieve Gullion, dominating and commanding in the distance. She could while away he time just looking at its ever changing beauty, thinking that blue must be the favourite colour in heaven.
On warm days she sat at her usual spot on the top step and gazed across The Square, almost silent, with the heat shimmering on the metal bars surrounding the water pump. The only intrusion came from The Forge with the sound of the hammer on the anvil but that was music to her ears.
Kathleen was a small, thin, blue eyed girl around seven years of age with wispy brown hair and a leaning towards precosity. Here she was today, alone as she had been on most days in the past year. It was about this time last year that people began to talk about her health. She was sitting on the same doorstep then and not feeling at all well. She had watched the children at play, her blue eyes taking in the familiar scene, while trying to stifle the feeling of nausea. It was the pain, racking her whole body then that made her so restless on the cold, hard step but where was there a better place to sit and see life go by.
She remembered that time all too well. It was then that she heard Eve, the magistrate's daughter, remark to her mother, "You know Mrs O'Hara, Kathleen hasn't been looking at all well of late. You should take her to the Doctor." Her mother had replied, "I must say she hasn't shown her usual robust energy for some time now. I'd better have a word with her father".
She remembered Eve so well because she was young, pleasant and jolly with the gift of the gab and a flair for dressing flamboyantly. Large black and white designs were a great favourite with her. Her hair was black, springy and cut short with a wave that fell provocatively over her right eye. When she threw back her head in laughter you could see a depth of beauty in those dark, defiant and worldly eyes. She always wore black silk stockings over a good proportion of curvaceous legs which were topped by black frilly knickers with elastic legs. These served a dual purpose. Secreted within them, secure from her fathers eyes, she kept her packet of cigarettes.
In the safety of their sitting room, Eve quickly and expertly exposed the silk clad leg and with an elegant flip of the hand brought out a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. All this was done with a great show of dexterity and yet it conveyed a certain innocence, which never failed to fascinate. The packet was offered around to all the company. Her first satisfied puff was taken in a leisurely fashion and then just as expertly the packet disappeared back to the elastic security of the leg of her knickers.
Eve was always the life and soul of the party. Kathleen recalled when her young Aunt and her cousin arrived with the intention of going to the Annual Ball. The cream of local society must have been attending as these young ladies spent some time ironing their evening gowns and putting on their war paint. The two cousins were both nurses but there the likeness ended. One was small, dark eyed and vivacious. She was Kathleen's favourite Aunt and wore her clothes like a model. The other was a remote, blue eyed blond with a slender figure and a face like the Madonna. She caught the men's eyes alright.
Eva came to join them that night, wearing a striking black frock with a smattering of sequins over her bosom. This encased her buxom figure like an hour glass. She took their breath away and they gasped, "Where did you get that fabulous frock Eva?" "Oh! It's just a hand-me-down from my sister", then, disdainfully "Or maybe one of her throw outs".
As they were all such good friends, the dance seemed to take off in the O'Hara front parlour. When her father arrived home the gramophone was produced to provide some lively music. Kathleen had kept busy keeping her eye on her good-looking Daddy having the time of his life, dancing all the lassies. She hadn't liked it all all when she saw him with his arms around her blond cousin dancing and her laughing up into his eyes. Kathleen had raged inwardly and stamped her foot but she knew she dare not interrupt. But she didn't approve. That blond was beautiful and had a way with men. Maybe her Daddy could fall under her spell?
She had made a quick exit to the kitchen and in the process bumping into the tray her mother was carrying into the parlor. "What on earth has got into you child? Your sudden speedy movements cost me more bone china than we can afford".While her mother picked up all the bits and pieces Kathleen had tugged her arm and pulled her skirt. She had been quite frantic. "For Gods sake Mammy. If you don't hurry we could lose our Daddy. That Maureen has her eye on him". But when she got back into the parlour, there he was dancing with Eva and enjoying it too. She hadn't stopped to realise he was the only man there. Then her mother was in his arms and dancing too and only then did she heave a sigh of relief. There were just too many good-looking women in that room, enveloped in clothes she could only dream about. Soon the girls had disappeared with their escorts and everything was back to normal.
Last year, back on the doorstep, looking down on Mrs Murphy's small front garden could have been very pleasant if it hadn't been for the pain that never left her.
There were seemingly endless sun-drenched days of high summer with fragrant flowers turning their heads towards the sun and a faint whispering breeze creating a drowsy atmosphere. Yet the sudden bursts of severe pain had completely drained her of energy, leaving her pale and ashen and her legs powerless to move.
"God help me to stand the pain".
Friday was Market Day and the first Friday of each month was a Fair Day. Then the Square was filled with cattle, pigs, horses and poultry. The noises of the animals and crowing poultry mingled with the bustle and haste of country folk coming in to sell their wares. When the Jackson Clock struck nine o'clock most of the people were already there, some hastily erecting their stalls while others were taking up vantage points for their carts to display whatever they had for sale. Trailers from Newry took up quite an area, displaying second-hand furniture and clothes.
Police patrolled the six roads leading to The Square, ever watching for smuggling and for those seasoned in the trade. The carts wre laden with new-laid eggs, fresh country butter and vegetables and fruit in season. There was honey in the comb and large heads of cabbage freshly picked from the fields with the dew still on them. Cart-loads of swedes, turnips, mangolds and sacks of floury potatoes abounded. Some stalls just dealt in clothes while others were covered with an assortment of boiled sweets, lollipops and musical tops that hummed as they spun. It wasn't an unusual sight for a squealing pig to break loose, scattering confusion as it ran riot through the stalls, overturning furniture, scattering pots and pans and causing many a passer-by to make a run for it.
On all Fair Days the children remained behind the school walls, most of them having their lunches brought to the school. The O'Haras each received two slices of hot buttered toast. On such a day, a year ago, Kathleen, away from school on Doctor's orders while waiting her appointment in Dublin, found herself picking her way through the Fair to reach the school where her brother and sister waited impatiently for their lunches.
"You took your time. What kept you?" was their greeting and it annoyed her as she threw them their packets. Lord, didn't they know how lucky they were to get them. It had taken it all her time not to unwrap on of those lunches and eat some of the hot toast, oozing with melted country butter. She passed through the school gates and Mary Martin gave her a quizzical look. She walked up to her and stared her straight in the face.
"Are you wondering why I'm not at school?"
"Oh I t'ought you might be midgin' - you're not missed anyway".
"Well I'd like you to know Miss Martin I'm going to Dublin to see a Specialist if you don't mind and I won't be back for a long time".
There was more than a hint of bragging in Kathleen's voice and Mary did not take kindly to it.
"What's so special about that Kathleen O'Hara?" "Didn't I take a week off when me Grandmother died and she looked a lot healthier than you do right now!.
Then she was gone and Kathleen turned on her heel in disgust, closed the school gate behind her and started back home.
The market was a din of cackling hens, screeching pigs and lamb's bleating. She came face to face with a pen of docile lambs. Suddenly one took fright and ran away scattering all before it. A milk can on its side spread its milky fluid before her but she wasn't prepared to step into it. Instead she made a beeline for Coyne's Drapers shop and escaped the vituperative remarks that followed the lamb. She bumped into Paddy Joe from the Culloville Road and in her sorrowful mood remarked,
"Did you hear I'm going to Dublin tomorrow and I'll be gone a long time. Will you miss me?"
She could see the surprise register on his face as she prattled on,
"Felix O'Dowd is driving us to the Station in his side-car and I'm hopin' he'll let me sit in the dickie seat beside him and maybe let me hold the reins".
"He might for Felix is a grand wee man with a soft spot for childer".
Paddy Joe's sister came on the scene carrying a large brown parcel. She put her hand in her pocket and handed Kathleen a small medal of the Sacred Heart.
"We heard the news and we shall all be prayin' for you and wishing you a speedy recovery".
The tone of her voice frightened Kathleen and she didn't feel boastful any more. She felt a little sick and guilty inside and very apprehensive for the future. Mind you she didn't disclose the deepest thoughts in her heart. It was difficult to forget Dr O'Brien's remark even when she pushed it to the back of her mind. That morning he had examined her and while listening to her heartbeat his eyes took on a sombre look, but he said,
"Now don't you worry Kathleen you'll fight it until you get better and I'll give you my full and individual attention".
She thought he was going soft in the head but she kept her counsel. However, a little later as she had struggled to walk down the stairs she overheard him in deep conversation with her parents.
"She's a fighter alright but I doubt with her condition if she'll ever reach 40".
She had stood silently on the stairs while the blood drained from her face and her heart kept up an unsteady flutter. Her legs felt like putty and tears ran saltily down her face and into her mouth. Beads of perspiration came out on her forehead and mingled with the tears. She lowered herself to sit on the stairs while pain shot through he body. Her hands clung to the stair railing. She was doomed to die and and she hadn't even had time to grow up and get married either.
"Dear God come to my aid and put the power and strength back in my body".
Frail she was and she did realise that for some time now she could no longer climb the stairs to bed at night or lift her legs into the bed. As if in answer to her prayers a comforting thought came into her head.
"After all, if I live to be 40 I'll be a very old lady anyway so why worry about it".
For some time now her mother or father carried her to bed, mostly her mammy. She knelt down beside her mother to pray and lifted her eyes to the picture of Lourdes with the Mother of God smiling down on St. Bernadette. She was praying earnestly when she heard her Mammy say,
"Kathleen do you think you could climb into bed tonight without my help?"
"Course I can Mammy".
But try as she might she couldn't lift her legs. They just wouldn't move. Wasn't it awful she was so helpless? Her Mammy was her Guardian Angel. Only the other night she had been shocked to see her cry. She had sobbed,
"Kathleen try a little harder tonight and maybe you'll make it".
She had tried but in the end pain and tiredness had taken over her whole body and her ministering angel had finally lifted her into bed. Her tears had fallen on Kathleen's face and she was overcome with sadness.
"Please Mammy, don't cry. I promise I'll try again tomorrow night".
Dr O'Brien had said she would be away from school for a year or too so it appeared she would be confined to the life of an invalid.
"Dear Jesus make me better soon so that Mammy won't have to worry about me any more".
After each night of pain spent fighting off those reptiles that invaded her dreams, dawn saw Kathleen lying back exhausted in her bed. Her eyes caught he golden sunrise as it flickered across the lacy window curtains. Suddenly the whole room was bathed in sunlight. The walls looked pristine, clean and white and all the pictures seemed to smile and come to life. This was the day of her departure to Dublin and she was impatient to be up and away.
She slipped out of bed and found to her surprise that she wasn't walking nearly as well as usual and ended up crumpled on the floor. That was where her parents found her. The household came to life and it was probably the first time that the whole family had greeted the sunrise together. Her face was wet with tears as she said goodbye to her brother and sisters. Since her father had to work he mother accompanied her to Dublin. She had found a capable girl who would take care of the children.
Altogether, it was a disappointing journey. It was two miles to the border. Felix was outside the door ready with his pony and sidecar. He wrapped the rug snugly around her and then they proceeded to Culloville, slowing as they descended the steep hill to the River Fane. She should have enjoyed the journey more and Felix did his best to amuse her. He helped her alight from the seat and watched her walk across the bridge over the river into the Free State. "Don't forget Kathleen, we're all praying for you and I'll be here at this very spot to welcome you back home. I'll even let you drive the pony home".
She managed a smile but her eyes were diverted to the river below.
"Man alive Mammy, will you look at those disturbed waters".
It was an old Mill stream full of large boulders and foaming white water thundered under the bridge seemingly in a great hurry to reach the sea. Now they were standing at the Custom's Post and a kind voice in a large body asked them if they had anything to declare.
"What a silly question to ask me on the way to see a Specialist"
It was out before she could stop it but her gentle mother calmed her down and the big man seemed full of understanding.
A hundred yards further along, they met the same reception at the Free State Customs but it was a good three quarters of a mile walk from there to the Railway Station. She was past exhaustion now and her mother and a kind gentleman carried her. After what seemed to be many bends she finally glimpsed the Station in the distance, passing a shop that looked more like a wood and metal structure of long ago. Her mother conversed with the friendly Station Master who seemed anxious about Kathleen.
"Didn't I have it myself Mrs O'Hara a long time age. Man, no one knows what the pains are like. Poor wee gersha - I hope she makes it".
"Indeed I will," was Kathleen's tired answer.
"Now, Kathleen wasn't he a nice man to be bothered about you at all".
Kathleen's look of derision closed the subject.
The train finally arrived and the two of them got seated for the journey to Dublin. A long an wearisome journey it was too. As the pains came on, the sweat stood out in beads on her brow. Her cheeks were flushed with the fever and she could neither sit comfortably nor stand. The train rushed on relentlessly and she walked the corridor seeking relief. One sight did hold her attention. The train slowed down as they crossed the River Boyne, the famous river where King James and William of Orange had fought their battle, which sometimes still seemed to be going on. It looked peaceful enough.
"God in Heaven, weren't they high up on this bridge looking down on the river below".
"Look Mammy, surely he couldn't be stoppin'?"
He did and that was the longest five minutes she had ever experienced. She was loth to look down but all the other passengers had their noses glued to the windows. She gently pushed her mother aside and saw a round tower of other days close to a ruined castle bestowing its benediction on the calm water below. Then they journeyed on through the verdant green hills of Slane. The jolt of the train, the sound of the whistle, the sight of the smiling eyes held no interest for her anymore - she was so tired.
At the journey's end she neither looked nor cared to see who picked her up. She was whisked away quickly and only remembered the inviting look of the little white bed and the coolness of the sheets before sleep enveloped her.