Chapter 13 - A Tale of two Cobblers
(One Permanently at Rest and the other Permanently at Lunch)
A nice Protestant family lived in The Square on one side of the O'Haras. There were two sisters and a brother with a lame leg. They were all well on in years and kept a spotless house. Sammy McIlroy was by profession a shoemaker. His cousin, Willie McIlroy lived round the corner on the Dundalk Road, was also a shoemaker and had the most of the trade. Sammy's clientele was of a different breed altogether. They came in from Creggan where they had their own little church and the farm lands around. A very thriving community indeed.
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Kathleen had been in a few times to Sammy, giving him their trade but she found him very quiet and anyway he didn't seem too fond of children. Maybe his leg bothered him. If it did he suffered in silence. All her endeavours to get some conversation out of him met with a quiet.
"Yes child. Yes child".
He had a habit of repeating himself. She decided he wasn't a great conversationalist but her mother said they were the best of neighbours.
"They're kind and tolerant particularly with my set of young hooligans. And Sammy's always in pain with that wasted leg of his. Those two sisters are a great tower of strength".
"I think they mollycoddle him, that's what they do".
The time came when poor Sammy died and Kathleen went along with her mother to pay their respects. When the evening of the Wake came, she followed her mother and all of the mourners up into Sammy's bedroom. They walked slowly, with decorum, showing their respect for the dead. There he lay, in the middle of the white bed, with candles lit all around him. People moved in silent order and talked in whispers. They all knelt down by the side of the bed, blessed themselves and said a prayer for his soul. It was comforting to know he had so many Catholic friends praying for him. She followed her mother's example, knelt down and said a prayer by the corpse. She didn't know if Protestants knelt down but a wee prayer couldn't do him a bit of harm anyway. A sigh escaped her lips as she gazed down on his closed eyes and marble skin that had lost its rosy glow. Those folded hands would hammer no more.
Her eyes wandered round the room and she was surprised to see so many holy pictures and texts on the wall. She whispered to her Mammy,
"Sammy must have been a very holy man".
She received a strong silent gaze and said no more. Her mother was given a glass of sherry and some sweet biscuits with a slice of cheese between them. Kathleen made sure she got the same, whispering,
"Can I try a glass of sherry?"
Her mother's grim look didn't encourage it but she had plenty of cheese and biscuits.
Tobacco smoke was everywhere as the old people smoked the white clay pipes, which were handed round at all the Wakes. She had to peer through the smoky atmosphere before she found Rosie Brady stuck in a corner with a pipe in one hand, a glass of porter in the other, telling her neighbour,
"Ah shure, God knows he never did a bad turn to any man. He was a foine, dacent and upright man. 'Tis only me knows of his kindness and generosity. I still owe him for the last pair of boots he mended for me but now he's gone shure the poor man won't be needing it".
She was in her element, enjoying her free porter and her free pipe.
They moved into another room filled with mourners. Cups of tea were handed round along with the clay pipes. Kathleen had tobacco in hers and she put it in her pocket. The biscuits and cheese were very good and the two sisters carried their grief with great dignity, moving round seeing everyone was comfortable and their drinks topped up. The atmosphere wasn't at all mournful. People were enjoying themselves and the crack was good. It was nearly two o'clock in the morning when they left. Others, and Rosie were sure to be among them, would stay all night keeping the vigil and an eye on the corpse, as though poor Sammy had a care in the world. His soul had already gone to God.
Following Sammy's death, Willie McIlroy got all the O'Hara shoes to mend and Willie and Kathleen began their confrontations. Willie was a bachelor and had a small house with a very large window full of boots and shoes awaiting repair. Outside there was a wooden bench on which she stood when she wanted to see if he was home, which was seldom. It seemed every time she went round that corner to his shop, he had a notice up saying,
"Gone to Lunch."
This would be there no matter what time of the day it was. It was enough to try the patience of a Saint and Kathleen had never been over endowed in this respect.
Willie was a tall angular man with a great liking for stout. His workshop was confusion of boots, shoes and leather skins hanging from the ceiling. A long wooden bench faced a small fire. When not at lunch, Willie sat on a wooden chair side on to the window. All his old cronies and customers sat on the long bench which certainly had the imprint of the years on it. Being a bit fussy, Kathleen cleaned it before she sat on it as there were nails and tacks all over the place. On her last visit Willie looked up from his work as she cleaned up the bench,
"You know what's wrong with you, Kathleen O'Hara - you're too fussy. Better people than you have graced this workshop and sat on that bench without so much as a complaint".
"If I wasn't careful, I would be sitting on a bed of nails for all you care".
"That wouldn't be a bad idea either. If you keep complaining, as you always are, one thing I'm certain you'll never get a man".
"A man is it? What about you? There's Brigid Farney up the road looking for a man and I bet she wouldn't give you the time of day".
"Well now, she'd be wasting her time if she did for no dacent fella would look at her if he was in his right mind. Sure one of her eyes looks East and the other West".
"Ah you're just a confirmed bachelor and that's just your excuse".
"And I think you're getting too far out of your box Miss O'Hara. If I was in your shoes my lass I'd be gettin' out of here fast".
Business was concluded and Kathleen tried to make a dignified departure but she never could resist trying to get the last word.
"You know Willie, one of these days you'll probably choke on one of those nails you hold in your mouth and you're prickly enough without them".
It was remarkable how Will could sit there hammering, shaping and talking away with all those nails and tacks in his mouth. When he did get down to work he was very deft and quick. He could sole a shoe in next to no time, turning it round as he hammered in the nails. His final touch was to spit on the polishing rag and give the shoe a fierce rub to give it a nice clean finish. This met with Kathleen's approval. It was like watching an artist at work but she wasn't about to tell him that.
One day she returned from Willie's shop, fed up, after seeing the usual sign on the door,
"Gone to Lunch".
It's too much of a good thing", she told her mother, "That man's never at his work bench. Think of the custom he must lose".
"You should know where to find him. Doesn't he spend all his spare time in Martin's Pub? That's his favourite haunt".
The next time Kathleen saw the sign up, she didn't bother to get up on the bench outside to look in the window. She decided to brave the lion in his den. She stepped up to Martin's Pub, pressed the latch and opened the door. Glory be. This was a new experience - a man's Pub. She stepped in and opened her eyes wide to take in the scene. It was a dark room, full of tobacco smoke, with a large counter covered with glasses and half-empty stout bottles. There were men standing around, slouching over the bar and some looking broodingly into their glasses. A small round shouldered man sat reading his paper, no doubt the racing page, with his glasses balancing on the end of his nose.
Hard hats, soft ones and peaked caps all turned in her direction as she made her entrance. Talk stopped as they all gazed down on her. She had entered the "Holy of Holies" and didn't need to be told she was not welcome. It was written on their faces. She cast her eyes along the bar and they finally fell on Willie, downing his stout as if he had just come in from the desert.
Kathleen looked Willie straight in the eye.
"Just as I expected Willie McIlroy. Isn't it about time you got back to work instead of spendin' all your days and nights drinking here?"
"Be the Holy, gersha, you're gettin' to be a bad habit. No woman is comin' in here and telling me what to do".
"Well I'm telling you Willie".
Kathleen's voice faded as some of the men came to life, guffawing with laughter.
There standing sedately behind the counter was Miss Martin herself and her a real lady. Kathleen felt guilty about her remarks. She hadn't realised Miss Martin had to stand behind that long counter and listen while the men got themselves drunk and their language got courser.
Willie caught Kathleen's hand and pulled her with him through the door. They walked round the corner to his shop, Willie muttering all the time under his breath about the "indignity of it" and "all youngsters should be kept in their place and keep their inquisitive noses out of men's places". He put the key in the lock and they both entered. Willie was very irritable and all Kathleen's persuasions went unheeded.
"Wouldn't it be grand Willie if you had a nice wife of your own to go home to instead of drinking your life away?"
Willie was stung.
"You mind your tongue young woman and listen to a few home truths. If you want to know the only woman I ever fancied was your mother and I still do".
"I don't believe it";
She was completely lost for words and remained silent as he reminisced.
"Lord, she was one of those lovely creatures God meant men to look at - her with that shock of blue-black hair, dreamy blue eyes and the figure of an hour glass".
"Glory be Willie, you're not telling me you could have been me father?"
"God forbid. I'd hate to have a brazen lassie like you".
They traded insults until Willie had enough. He worked so fast he missed a nail and hit his finger instead. His language warmed up the workshop and Kathleen found herself being propelled out the door and told to sit on the wooden bench outside until he was finished.
There she sat, twiddling her thumbs and beating a steady rhythm with her feet on the pavement. She was in disgrace. Knowing Willie, he'd make an extra long job of it now. She would just have to wait with as much patience as she could muster.
Little Mrs Cassidy from one of the cottages up the Dundalk Road passed by.
"Ah Kathleen I see you're in a spot of bother with Willie. I wonder what you did or he didn't do?"
"Women! You're all the same. Nag, nag, nag".
Willie's grumbles didn't bother her. She chuckled and said,
"Forget about him and his dark moods. Its about time you paid me a wee visit and had a sup of tea with me Kathleen".
"Thanks Mrs Cassidy. I'd love to come."
Shortly afterwards, the tall figure of Willie towered over her.
"Here gersha. Take your shoes and I'm not accepting your money. I'll wait until your dear mother pays me a visit".
Kathleen looked him square in the face but held her tongue. She thought,
"Just wait 'till I tell me Daddy".
As she walked away, she flung over her shoulder,
"It'll be a long time before I set foot in your shop again Willie McIlroy".
"And that'll be too soon!", he replied.
Then he put up his notice "Gone to Lunch", locked up the shop and disappeared back into Martin's Pub round the corner.