Chapter 10 - The Irresistable Challenge of Bicycles
Kathleen's Uncle Ned decided to get engaged. It was about time there was a wedding in the family, she thought. There had been great fun when Mary was married. That day Mary had laughed, sang and danced many a jig. She wasn't quite so sprightly now after having her baby. She still came daily to the O'Haras but by four o'clock had gone home. Kathleen hated to see her go for there was always something for her to do like looking after the younger children. She was fed up with babies. That very day she had wheeled her baby brother out into the middle of The Square again and left him crying away. She told her Mammy,
"I put him there so I couldn't hear him crying and to give the neighbours a bit of peace."
Her mother gave her an odd look.
"Very thoughtful indeed I must say. The way you worry about the neighbours".
[ Chapter 11 ] or [ Table of Contents ]
Now she rested on the front step watching the red bus go down behind the rooftops. There was a rosy glow in the sky and one in her heart as she glimpsed her new Aunt, Uncle Ned's intended, riding across The Square towards her on a brand new bicycle. This was an engagement present from Uncle Ned and though Kathleen couldn't ride a bike she thought this was certainly a good time to investigate this mystery of balance. Opportunities like didn't come along every day and she was determined not to allow this one to pass her by.
Eileen was the new Aunt's name and she was a raving beauty. She had large green eyes and blond, silky hair that fell to her waist, a perfect nose with a slightly large mouth. The overall effect was of a Grecian, haughty beauty. Uncle Ned fell hard and no wonder. When Eileen passed, all eyes turned in her direction. Today her hair was plaited and braided on top. When she say Kathleen she dismounted, took her by the hand and gave her half a crown to buy sweets. That was big, big money in her small hand and she was already working out the extras she could buy from Peter McCourt.
She propped her bicycle against the wall underneath the Dining Room window for the very good reason that she didn't want the children to take it away and try to ride it.
*I'll leave you to mind it, Kathleen", she said, eyeing the younger children.
"Don't worry Eileen, I won't take my eyes off it".
It was new, very shiny and a great temptation. She put her thinking cap on, went to Cissie and Josie who lived next door and told them Eileen was in their house.
"Did you see her? What do you think of her? Isn't she the ravin' beauty".
She didn't wait for their answer.
"Would you like to see her new engagement ring?" she prompted.
"Sure we'd love to Kathleen but you know we can't leave the shop".
"Oh that's all right. I'll send her round so you can see it for yourselves. It's a beautiful ring with five flashing diamonds and sapphires and Uncle Ned says he's sorry he can't give her ten to go with her flashing smile".
Her mission accomplished, with her mother and Eileen safely next door with Cissie and Josie, it was an easy matter for her to walk the cycle away. Well perhaps not quite as easy as she had thought. It turned out to be a heavier bike than her father's and she had great difficulty in keeping it upright. She got one leg on either side and lifted one foot on to the pedal while the other one remained on the ground for safety. When she came to the little hill beyond her house, the bicycle gathered speed. Kathleen took fright and ended up an undignified heap outside O'Connell's Pub with that damned bicycle on top of her. She sat up, well aware those awful men had rushed out of the Bar to witness her confusion, and her with a bruised lip, cut knees and shin. Mr O'Connell appeared too.
"Oh, Child of Grace, I'm thinkin' you'd be better to stick to the smaller variety".
There seemed to be blood everywhere and she was a sorry sight but there wasn't a sign of a scratch on the new bicycle. She wheeled that beastly machine back up the hill and placed it under the window. There was nothing for it, for the moment she would have to content herself with smaller things.
Shortly after her Uncle's engagement, illness struck the O'Hara household when her elder brother went down with Double Pneumonia and Pleurisy. Dr O'Brien came and went. Then a second opinion was needed and old Dr Gibson arrived. They were melancholy days as the children walked about the house like zombies while their fevered brother fought for his life. Then suddenly there was an ambulance outside the door and Patrick was taken to Hospital in Newry. He put up a good fight and was lucky enough to have his young Aunt able to nurse and care for him. She devoted all her time and energy to nursing him but yet the day came when his parents were called and told time was growing short for this young life. They went to the hospital in McCluskey's taxi and Kathleen stayed home to hold the fort.
It was a long day and she spent a lot of time on her knees praying. When her parents finally got back, they were tired with despair in their eyes as they glanced at on another. Only sighs came from their mother's lips.
"Pray Kathleen. Pray like you've never prayed before".
She dutifully fell to her knees as her father recited the Rosary and the family answered in low tones laden with sadness.
Out of the blue, their Aunt decided to buy Patrick a fairy cycle and brought it into the Hospital Ward where he could gaze on it and dream. From that time he started to improve. It wasn't easy getting to Newry from Crossmaglen although it was only 18 miles away. Crossmaglen could only boast one bus and two taxis. These were kept busy and were expensive so most people waited for the daily bus. Kathleen's first journey was by bus to see her brother and a tiring journey it as too. She accompanied her father, holding on to the many gifts sent by all the neighbours. The bus seemed to stop every five minutes to pick up more passengers and it was a long winding road to Newry through lovely villages nestling in a valley enclosed by the majestic Mourne Mountains.
Kathleen thought he brother looked very well indeed. Maybe his cheeks were a bit too rosy.
"Sure it won't be long till you're home again and riding that lovely bicycle".
All the while she was eying the fairy cycle.
"Patrick I think it was meant for a young lady. It hasn't got a bar on it".
"I don't care. Take a good look at it now. You won't be ridin' me cycle when I get home".
She didn't bother to argue with him, as he was still very sick. He had reached the stage where he could ride his fairy cycle round the Ward and extract a word or a smile from most of the patients. Her eyes followed his every movement. Wasn't it wonderful to glide around on two wheels just as though he was on skates. The sooner he got home the better, from her point of view anyway.
Finally he was brought home by ambulance and was kept mainly in bed for a month afterwards. Their young Aunt came too, full of love, and she cared for him night and day. A mattress was laid on the floor of his room next to his bed and there she slept, moving silently in the long nights that followed, holding cups of Bovril for him to sip and measuring out his medicines, She was a real ministering angel, even better than Florence Nightingale.
"Do you know Mammy, they ought to canonise her".
Her mother whispered, "In my eyes she's a saint already".
While Patrick recovered, Kathleen had time to persuade Alice Quinn to give her lessons on his bike. Alice, a big broth of a girl, was at first a willing tutor. Most days, Kathleen left their house riding the bike round The Square with Alice running behind her, holding on to the back of the saddle. When she became proficient enough to round the corner, they usually ended up outside the Police Barracks on the Culloville Road. Kathleen liked this route because she could have a look at some of the young policemen there. She knew she was too young but she was never told she couldn't look. This became her regular route with Alice puffing and blowing behind her, while she regaled her with stories about her Uncle Ned's feats on his bicycle.
"He wasn't Ulster Champion for nothing. Did you know, Alice, he has a room full of trophies?"
"Stop your boastin' Kathleen. Sure doesn't everyone around here know that. I suppose you'll end up as Ulster's First Lady Champion too!"
"Don't be so sore Alice. Get on with the good work".
One day she called for Alice as usual only to be told she had a headache and didn't feel like running. She was bitterly disappointed and ran home and asked her mother if she could have an Asprin for a headache.
"When did these headaches start, Kathleen?"
She didn't wait to answer but armed with the pill she was off again and made a protesting Alice down it with water. Once again she was on the bicycle with a protesting Alice taking up the rear. She was in great fettle, chatting away to Alice and rounding the corner beautifully. When she came to the Police Barracks she shouted,
"How do you think I'm doing Alice?"
There was no reply. She took a quick glance over her shoulder. There was no sign of Alice. When it dawned on her that she had actually cycled all the way alone, she was so shocked she promptly fell off the bike, collapsing in a heap right outside the Barrack's gate.
Oh! The humiliation of it! And there was still more to come in the shape of Sergeant Boyd standing over her.
"Kathleen O'Hara, I think you ought to stick to the three-wheeled kind. I hope you realise you're showing your knickers to all the young policemen in the Barracks. Just look across and see them laughing at you".
That was all Kathleen needed to put her completely on her dignity. She picked herself up, tossed her head and walked her cycle away with freezing hauteur, remarking only,
"I can ride now Sergeant anyway and on my own too". And so she did.