Chapter 20 - Autumnal Mists and Misdemeanours
Kathleen and Aileen needed new winter coats and their Mammy went down to Connolly's, the Drapers shop, to buy the material. She had to choose from bolts of material, stacked one on top of the other. It seemed the one she wanted to look at was always out of arm's reach. She finally picked a sensible brown cloth with a speck of green in it.
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"Good hard wearing stuff, just right for your children", the shop assistant confided, not noticing the looks of disapproval and the head shaking of the two girls. In this shop they sold practically everything to wear and Mrs O'Hara returned home with the material and two swimsuits which had cost sixpence ha'penny each. Good value they were too with nice black and gold ribbed tops.
When they got home, as soon as she saw the swimsuit, Kathleen was undressed and into it.
"And where do you think you're going with that on? Apart from it being the wrong time of year, we don't live by the sea here".
"No but I can always make a start and now's as good a time as any so I'm heading for the stream below".
She was already racing down the field to the little brook in the hollow, close to the shuck they jumped over on the way to school. Once there, she stepped over the stones gingerly, surveying all this unknown vegetation, and finally sat in the water trying to cover herself. It was quite cold but exhilarating and she enjoyed it, throwing water over her shoulders and bringing her face down close to the water. Then she discovered she was sharing the water with lots of little minnows. She yelled for help and rushed out of the water and never stopped running until she was indoors, cold, wet and breathless.
Her startled mother said,
"You weren't long and where did you get your bathing?"
"With the minnows of course. I think I'll have to pay a visit to the sea sometime".
"Some hope", said her mother softly.
Next time Kathleen hoped Patrick would take her place seeing he knew so much about slimy things like tadpoles and minnows, learning all about nature instead of going to school. With that the swimsuit was put aside for future use.
The next day the two sisters set off for the dressmakers and were lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of McDonnell's hay slide, drawn by a horse. At that time, the men were taking in stooks of hay from the field beyond the bog and these forbidden rides on the slides were a source of great delight to them. If you were lucky, you might end up on the top of the hay beside the driver, if he had a mind to tolerate you. If not, you ran behind and jumped on when the driver's attention was elsewhere. Both of them managed to hold on to the back and jumped off when reaching the lane beside McCluskey's shop.
Next door to Mr McCluskey, lived Mrs McShane the dressmaker. She had been widowed early and this was her means of livelihood. She had a young girl at school but they rarely saw her. It was a small house consisting of a kitchen and a front room downstairs and probably two bedrooms upstairs. Mrs McShane must have enjoyed her work or perhaps it was the customers who brought a little sunshine into her life. She wore glasses and spent a lot of time looking over them. When you did see her eyes they were unusually dark brown. She was well on in years, small and neat. Her dark hair, streaked with grey, was pinned in a bun. She was lightning fast with the sewing machine.
The two girls were received kindly and taken into the front room where all the work was done. Clothes hung on pegs on the wall, were draped over chairs and from stools which also showed a good selection of pattern books. A model of a fat lady stood in a corner and all she wore was a pair of extra large pink knickers. All the colours of the rainbow were captured in that little room and while the sewing machine hummed away under her dextrous hands, Mrs McShane kept up a steady flow of conversation.
"I may have lost a good man but I'm never short of good company",
Neither was she.
Kathleen grew to like her and the time came when she was invited into the kitchen. Here she stood on a stool while Mrs McShane worked on her knees, pinning up the hem of the lining and then the coat itself. As she used her large scissors, inches of material fell to the ground around them. Then she tightened the shoulders with pins which appeared to come from her mouth instead of the pin cushion.
They stopped for tea. It was a very tidy kitchen with a little black stove giving off a power of heat. The kettle sang away until she was ready to make the tea. A large window looked out on a small garden with a high wall at the end. Here they sat and talked until a knock at the front door interrupted them.
"Another customer, I expect. Will you finish your tea while I get back to the grindstone."
Alone in the kitchen with no one to talk to she grew restless and decided to walk down to the garden wall. It was on the high side but she eventually made it to the top.
"Glory be, I never saw green water around Crossmaglen before".
There was plenty of it too and it seemed to be a drainage ditch lying between two walls where the back gardens backed on to the field behind. It wasn't all that inviting. It lay still and dank and seemed to be menacingly deep. No wonder there was a high wall, either to keep the children from falling in or the water out of the garden. It was quite unexpected and she was quite happy to take her departure.
As she was about to leave Mrs McShane called,
"Kathleen, do you think you could run over to Loane's shop and get me a spool of emerald green thread No. 40 before you leave?"
"Sure I'd be delighted",
and she was glad to run off across The Square, giving a side glance to McCluskey's window as she passed. She knew she wouldn't get across The Square unnoticed and she was right. A head appeared above the net curtain, pulling it down and there was himself, grinning at her. She didn't give him a second glance. Shure wasn't he too inquisitive cutting hair and looking out of the window at the same time. Lucky if he didn't cut one of the customer's throats by mistake.
When she reached Loane's shop, she found there was only one customer apart from herself and this was Mrs McCourt. She was buying large, pink corsets.
"Not another pair!" Then she shrivelled at her outburst and she watched the look of perplexity and raised eyebrows from Mrs McCourt. She knew about corsets because when she was in Mrs McCourt's class she did all her messages for her. Whether she read the messages or not she could recognise those Twilfit pink corsets when she saw them. Wasn't she the one with the tall stately figure and anyway Peter wouldn't be noticing those sort of things.
Mr Loane looked over his glasses at her in his tolerant way and gave her his bleak smile. After all, she wasn't a very good customer, but at least Mrs McShane was more than glad to get her purchase.
"Thank you child. Tell your Mammy I'll have the coats ready late Saturday night, so you should be doing a bit of modellin' on your way to last Mass on Sunday".
Kathleen was dismissed with a peck on the cheek and then the heavy door closed behind her. As she came down the two steps from the door and headed across The Square, himself was there as usual, pulling down the net curtain so she could see his exaggerated bow and the top of his thick white hair. Well he was wasting his time bowing and scraping to her.
In September, when the blackberries became ripe, it was a busy time for all. Mrs O'Hara and her brood would set off with buckets and baskets and the little ones carried tin cans, usually Navvy cans. They usually started in the field across from their house, their mother and the young ones taking one side of the field while Kathleen and Aileen managed the opposite side. They brought along a walking stick which they used to bring down the higher branches, dripping with plump ripe fruit.
Those briars held no respect for man or beast. While they tried to hold one branch, another seemed to advance on them, tearing at their hands, face and clothes. Many a naughty word exploded when contact was made with the thorns and many a pail full of berries slipped from their grasp as they battled with the prickly monsters. Pieces of skirt, pants and underwear hung from the brambles when the children had to beat a hasty retreat, looking back at maybe a couple of hours of hard but wasted effort, the blackberries strewn around, many hidden in the grass. It could be very frustrating but it was repeated most days in the season. Kathleen kept her peace only because she knew her mother would be busy making jam for the winter ahead.
Annual blackberry picking was a custom that had its lucrative side otherwise half the children around wouldn't have bothered. Mrs O'Hara made an lot of blackberry and apple jam and bramble jelly which all the children appreciated except Kathleen. Many of the other children took full baskets and buckets to a number of shops in the area, where they were weighed. The heavier the contents, the more money was paid for them. Kathleen's Uncle Ned bought the blackberries too. She had been there when horses and carts arrived in the back yard along with smaller gatherers carrying full buckets and tin cans.
The barrels on the carts were taken down and weighed on the scales. As her Aunt put the weights on the scales, the pickers put on their barrels. The contents were then transferred to a large vat container ready for transport to the Dye Works. Thank God for that. At least they would not end up in a pot of jam. It was shocking the antics the pickers got up to so as to increase the weight of each container. Water was thrown over the berries and came out as juice. There were times when the water was not even stained. Uncle Ned told her,
"Do you know Kathleen, when some of them are in a field of blackberries and no-one is in sight, they just wet into the berries themselves to increase the weight".
"Oh God, you're just puttin' me off blackberries altogether".
Kathleen had already taken an intense dislike to this particular fruit from just picking it but that information just about put the tin hat on it.
After the blackberry season came Halloween. This was the time when a barrel of apples arrived in the house along with a basket of hazel and monkey nuts. Then came the barm brack, a fruit loaf with an elusive sixpenny piece and a wedding ring lurking somewhere in its midst.
This year the fun started early in the evening when the children got busy with their spools of black thread. They tied it to doorknockers and at a safe distance pulled it. Countless neighbours came to their doors in answer to the multiple knocks. After all it was the custom. It was Halloween!
Their mother hung string from the ceiling with the lower end tied to a large knitting needle with an apple on each end. With their hands tied behind their backs, the children tried to get a bit off one of the apples as they bobbed back and forth. It was not very easy if you didn't have prominent teeth. Ducking your head into a bowl half filled with water wasn't easy either, if you were to come up with an apple in your mouth. This feat also had to be undertaken with the hands tied behind the back. It was almost like taking a bath with your clothes on. The children were drenched as well as the floor but the grown-ups joined in the fun, as this was the big event leading up to the Feast of All Saints. It was said this was the night the souls walked the earth so the children started their fun early, not wishing for an encounter with the unknown.
Earlier in the evening, the joke was more adventurous and less kind. The New Line consisted of eleven houses. Ten were strung together in a terrace, each compatible in size and then there was one small cottage, clinging as if for dear life, right at the end of the row. It was just one storey with two rooms and a quaint old lady lived there on her own. She was visited regularly by the children. Some came out of curiosity because she was so poor she reminded Kathleen of a little bird who was feeling the cold badly. The old lady wore a black shawl tightly around her sparse frame even though she sat close to the fire. When she opened the front door you looked straight through the back door. Halfway along the passage there were two openings, one into the little kitchen and the opposite one to the bedroom. The passage was cemented and cold, with the chill winds blowing straight through under both doors. Only the bedroom had a door, yet the house was tidy and there was always a fire in the hearth.
"Old houses are cold houses", she often told them. Her gnarled fingers held a rosary in one hand while she turned the wheel of the bellows in the other. The sparks flew and her own little kettle sang its own song. She sat with her back to the front window, looking towards the dresser which was sparsely covered with a few mugs, plates and her few items of food. It was as though she had turned her back upon the sunlight and was waiting for the final call. People were kind to he and she reciprocated in the only way she could by offering a cup of tea to all her visitors. She was a target for Halloween antics and this irritated her.
"You're a pack of hooligans. It's a pagan practice and you'd be better at home saying your prayers".
This evening one of the boys climbed on to her roof, which was invitingly low. Someone passed up a large slate, which he placed over the chimney opening. They didn't have to wait long for a reaction. Smoke began to pour under the front door and those watching at the back had a similar view. It all seemed great fun until poor old Rosie opened her front door, her eyes blinded with smoke and gasping for breath.
"Dear God", thought Kathleen," is she going to die?"
The old lady's distress was painfully obvious and a kind neighbour took her in while the culprits scattered. All Kathleen could hear was,
"Those pack of heathens will be the death of me yet".
She returned home in a state of shock. They could have smothered the old lady to death.
The news of old Rosie's encounter had reached home before she did. Her mother was furious.
"Kathleen, how could you be an accomplice to such an outrageous trick on a poor old lady?"
"We were only playing".
Even as she used once again the old refrain Kathleen realised it was becoming worn out.
"What were you doing mixing up with the bully boys? At your age I expect you to behave like a young lady. You've a lot to answer for Kathleen O'Hara".
"I didn't realise truly I didn't".
"And that poor woman trying to live on her ten shillings a week pension".
Her mother was really upset and angry.
"By the way what is this I hear about you walking along the top of the wall of the New Line instead of using the road like everyone else? Showing off as usual. Sometimes you'd try the patience of a saint".
Lately she had taken to skipping or walking along the top of the wall and her antics hadn't gone unnoticed. This wall protected the path and the houses from the road and its traffic. It was six feet high from the road but on the path side only about two feet. It had two openings from the path to the road, which she jumped with great agility.
She was beginning to be attracted to the two Cooper boys who lived on the New Line and this was one way of getting their attention. She could see through their kitchen and look into eyes staring at her. Mind you she hadn't reckoned on their mother's intervention. Only today she was skipping past, gaily and lightly when their front door opened and Mrs Cooper stood there. She was a good-looking mother with a good dress sense. Hands on hips she eyed Kathleen up and down.
"Now Miss O'Hara, which of my two boys are you trying to give the glad eye to?"
Kathleen stood like a statue, shocked and momentarily lost for words. A blush came to her cheeks. Then she recovered and, as usual, decided attack was the best part of defence.
"Well I'm not interested in either of your boys. As far as I'm concerned you can have them both for a lazier pair I've never met. Just you ask the Schoolmaster".
She had jumped from the wall and made a quick retreat, not daring a backward glance.
"That's a holy terror", she thought. "Even the secrets of me heart seem to be common knowledge. How on earth did she know I fancied one of her sons?"
It seemed grown-ups could be very perceptive and this included her own mother, who remarked,
"This unladylike display of wall jumping will now cease and school homework will now start earlier in the evenings".
With a raised eyebrow she remarked,
"Next time it will go straight to the top. You know what I'm talking about alright".
She sure did and knew better than to argue.