Chapter 16 - Last but Not Least
Winter started mildly but suddenly in early December it turned to snow with icy winds and slippery roads. Poor Jimmy, along the road, with his short legs said,
" I know we are in for a hard winter. I could feel it in my bones. This kind of weather will still be with us when the primroses are fighting their way through to welcome Spring".
Jimmy had a touch of the poet in him.
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The frosty roads were a hazard for the grown-ups but great fun for the children. They concentrated on long, treacherous slides, running down one side of the road. Some were about forty yards long. Many were the mishaps but few the tears for this was sport in a big way, filled with thrills and spills. The boys took every opportunity to dare the young girls on to the slides and then pursue them as they glided over the surface.
Their own particular slide started just outside the Police Barracks gate and ended beyond Murphy's Garage on the corner of The Square. A fine one it was too with many children edging on to it. The only time it was clear was when a policeman passed to and from the Barracks. Then everyone went helter-skelter into the fields and behind the bushes until the "all clear". A few oaths reached their ears when big Sergeant Boyd hit the ice. He went down hard and his language was that of a very angry man.
"Be God I'll have their guts for garters".
That was between cursing and fighting for breath. He was having great difficulty picking himself up but sure no-one would go to his rescue. If they did they were liable to be taken home by the ear, or worse still, into the Barracks to be given a good dressing down. They all knew what happened when little Patsy Flynn got caught on the first day and look at him, not able to sit down since. His father had administered a few well-aimed kicks to Patsy's behind after Sergeant Boyd had marched him home.
"These children will be the death of me yet", the Sergeant roared, his big round face red with annoyance.
"Himself and his little gang of hooligans terrorisin' us with all their slides. Faith what is this country comin' to at all?"
Kathleen didn't think she was a hooligan nor did she think she was infringing the law. She told Sean,
"Isn't there plenty of room on the other side of the road? Sure if it's dark they have a light on their bicycles and they're bound to see the shiny surface".
"That's right Kathleen. If they have no light and can't see the slide then they're the ones breakin' the law".
Consoling herself with this thought, she went on sliding until one day she discovered one of her shoes was worn through and them her good ones too.
Just the same, the next day she was back on the slide again and dressed to kill. She wore a woollen sweater, scarf and little woollen cap with two tassels, all in matching red. With this ensemble, she wore her brother Patrick's heavy pants and boots. Boy oh boy, could she slide in those boots. Each time she took a run on the slide she heard the thump of heavy boots behind her. She knew it was Sean Rafferty, always there to steady her. She resented this and wouldn't have minded a change. Sean was too serious, too big and too jealous.
As night fell she was able to lose him and mingle among some of the other hefty lads. When one fell they all came to grief. Speed was the thing now. The quicker the take-off the faster the slide. It sure was fun. It was most exhilarating as they neared the end of the slide and jumped clear without falling. Some made it while others capsized and slid ungracefully towards the edge, their screams of joy or pain rising in the night air. They made a noisy bunch and bound to draw attention to themselves sooner or later. When Kathleen's turn came she was always off with the speed of a bird. It really was thrilling with the icy winds biting her face and her scarf flying behind her. She felt elated.
Suddenly, out of the darkness a figure loomed up right in front of her. She couldn't miss it and screamed out a warning. Almost simultaneously she felt the impact of her body against the dark figure and down they both went. As they scrambled up and she looked into the flashlight of a torch, she heard an unfamiliar voice say,
"Why it's Kathleen O'Hara to be sure. I'm surprised at you".
She was speechless and her cheeks turned bright scarlet. Had he fallen for her or had she fallen for him? She wasn't sure but certainly felt bowled over. Constable Young held her hand as he helped her up and brushed the snow off her clothes. It was him alright, the new policeman replacement, and he had all the local lassies giving him the glad eye. While there was surprise in his voice at her latest escapade, she felt she detected a note of gentleness and understanding too. As Kathleen went home she thought to herself that she had made her mark on him even if it was a bit unorthodox compared with the other girls.
Now that Seamus had grown to the stage where he no longer needed her care, Kathleen was beginning to enjoy life, but she knew something was wrong the minute she woke up one Spring morning. In the first place, her father had not gone off to work which was most unusual. He worked very hard and cycled to the Border daily, and into the Free State where he worked.
"What on earth is Daddy doing at home today? The kitchen stove isn't lit. Where's Mammy? Don't say she's ill".
All the younger ones gave her their mute look. It was beyond their understanding. As Kathleen bounded up the stairs and threw open the door to her parent's bedroom, she almost collided with her Daddy who rushed past her going for the stairs. She called after him,
"Why aren't you at work Daddy?". But the divil of a reply did she get. She turned her eyes towards the bed, where her mother seemed to be in pain as she walked from one bed to the other.
Someone had lit a fire in the room and then out of the blue her Aunt Mary arrived. Kathleen was instructed to keep the kettles on the boil and the children quiet. Her Aunt was a great one for issuing orders when she should have been at home looking after her own family. Kathleen remained in the kitchen with her ear cocked for each knock at the front door. First Mrs Kelly walked by with not so much as a "Good morning children". Very unusual.
"Glory be! Was that Nurse Morris knocking at their front door". She opened the door just enough to make sure who it was, saw Nurse Morris and promptly closed it again in her face. Her heart pounded as she stood with her back to the door.
"Please Daddy, don't open it".
She might as well have been talking to the wall. He didn't seem to hear her. He opened the door and apologised to Nurse Morris while gently ushering her upstairs. Kathleen's bewildered gaze followed them as they made their way to the bedroom. Everything was getting out of hand! She was shushed back into the kitchen and told to look after the young ones.
They had closed the door on her curiosity but as the morning wore on she could hear her father's footsteps as he paced backwards and forwards from the foot of the stairs to the front door. Even the clock seemed to have a mournful sound as the minutes dragged into hours. Then she heard a baby's cry and wasn't surprised at all when she was invited upstairs to see her new baby brother. However, she was still not prepared for another boy. A girl maybe but not another whingin' boy.
She walked into the bedroom. It smelled clean and antiseptic, redolent with baby powder. Nurse Morris was very kind as she said to her,
"Isn't it time you had another boy in the family?"
Kathleen glared. "Why another? We don't need another boy. It's only when you appear at our door with that black bag we get another baby pushed on us".
Her eyes fell on the open bag yawning in front of her. All she could see were instruments and bandages.
She looked down at the new pink baby. Right enough it was a lovely child but she wasn't prepared for this extra one. She heard her Mammy remark,
"Kathleen, come up when we bathe the wee fellow".
"No. We are finished with boys. If we must take it, it will have to be a girl".
She looked at the baby and remarked as she left the bedroom.
"It's a girl anyway. I don't know why you're botherin' discussin' boys".
Later she was invited to help bathe the baby with Nurse Morris, who kept saying,
"Isn't he a lovely wee fellow?"
She helped to wash and dry the baby and then turned to her mother and said,
"We'll have to think about a girl's name for the baby. It should be a saint's name like Brigid".
Her mother lifted her eyes to the ceiling and made no reply while Nurse Morris shook her head, her face a study in sheer disbelief.
As Kathleen rushed from the room, she decided to find a new home for this baby. She went straight out of the front door and in to Mrs Kelly's house next door. She was in too much of a hurry to knock and almost fell over the threshold as she rushed across to the astonished neighbour. She touched her arm and gasped.
"Mrs Kelly, would you like another baby?"
She could hardly wait for the reply.
"Of course I would Kathleen".
"Well in that case you'd better have our new one. We have plenty of our own and this one's to spare".
If Mrs Kelly was surprised, she didn't show it as Kathleen went on,
"It's a funny thing. God only sent you two and sure they're grown up. He sends us more than we need or want. Did you ever think of praying for one?"
"Well Kathleen I've always prayed for a miracle".
"Now you've got one Mrs Kelly and with my blessing too".
She left the house smiling and contented.
"Glory be. I know why God hasn't sent her any more. She's a poor Protestant woman and I don't suppose he'd bother to listen to her prayers".
Although they had a young girl helping in the house, Kathleen didn't relinquish any of her duties. Washing the baby was one. She looked down at the little infant in her arms. While she was bathing him, he held tightly to one of her hands. He was so helpless and trusting he won Kathleen's heart completely. Suddenly she realised she couldn't part with him. Anxiety crept into her face as she looked across at her mother.
"Mammy what am I going to do? I can't part with the wee fellow and I promised Mrs Kelly she could have him".
Her mother sat bolt upright in the bed.
"So you've finally accepted he's a little boy. Did you notice anything different about him?"
"I did, oh I did and...."
She nodded meekly while her mother asked,
"Well, what are you going to tell Mrs Kelly then?"
She knew what she had to do. She handed the baby back to her mother and this time her steps were slow as she descended the stairs. She knocked timidly at their neighbour's door, a bit scared about breaking her promise, yet determined at all costs not to part with her little brother.
The door opened and there stood Mrs Kelly beaming at Kathleen who burst out crying.
"I've changed me mind Mrs Kelly. I just can't part with little Brian. He needs me Mammy and he needs me to look after him".
After her outburst she closed her eyes and waited for Mrs Kelly's indignation to follow. Nothing happened, and when she finally looked at her neighbour, she was smiling at her with her big brown eyes. Patting her on the head she said,
"You're a good girl Kathleen and thanks for the offer but I don't think you'd really want a Protestant woman like me having your baby brother baptised in Creggan Church instead of your own lovely Church here in Crossmaglen. Sure you won't mind if I come and visit the baby sometimes?"
"Not at all, sure you know you're always welcome in our house".
At that she turned away, lighter in heart and contented in mind.
"Gosh that was a close thing. It never crossed me mind, I would have ended up with a Protestant brother!"