Chapter 21 - Of Spiritual Matters and a Fall
When she finished paying the bills on a Saturday, including her weekly encounter with Mr McCluskey, before returning home Kathleen visited the Church to say a few prayers and to light a candle for some poor soul. She welcomed the opportunity for this weekly visit at a time when there were few people around. She liked to be alone with God and sitting in that large empty Church gave her a feeling of infinite peace.
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It was all so familiar with the flickering candles radiating a warm glow, sunlight shafting rainbows through the stained glass windows and the little red votive lamp which appeared to be suspended in space as it blinked its way through time. It all looked so serene and permanent yet just outside was the graveyard. It was a sobering thought when she realised she was just one transient mortal. One day the grave would claim her too while this edifice would still stand a living monument to future generations.
On such a Saturday, in this contemplative mood she moved from the Church out into the graveyard. Like the Church, it stood on the hill sloping down to a high protective wall by the main road. On the opposite side of the wall stood a cluster of tall trees. The graveyard sprawled behind and into the distance, yet clung tenaciously to the surrounds of the Church. Here, all her mother's people were buried and had been for centuries past. It was easy to find her Grandmother's resting place, nestling at the bottom of the slope, close to the wall and tall trees. The black marble headstone stood where the afternoon sun touched and warmed its sombre beauty. Seven years it had stood there, erected soon after her grandmother's death.
Kathleen had been told her Grandmother was a small active woman with a mass of dark hair piled high on her head. Her face, obscure in her memory, must have been a kind one, as they said her mother was like her and she was always kind and loving. As she stood there, a gentle breeze sent the tree branches sighing. Were they whispering to the souls?
"Sleep on and take your rest".
Suddenly the wind gathered force and the branches shook as if in torment as the wind sobbed and howled. She wondered if this noise penetrated the wall of the sleep of the dead to regenerate them, or did they continue to sleep on oblivious to the turmoil and unrest above them. Her contemplation ended when Mr O'Connell approached.
"Ah Kathleen, how nice to see you praying for your dead. So often the young haven't time to remember, they're too busy engaged in living. Only the old seem to have the time and the memories".
Kathleen detected a note of sadness in his voice.
"Sure there's no hurry on you. I could be gone before you so don't you be feeling sorry for yourself ".
He seemed to be ageing now but still carried his corpulence in a stately way, if at a slower pace. He used his walking stick more often and it appeared slightly bent as if he was using it to lean on. He had a good, kind heart and was a religious man and she had always liked and respected him as did all the town folk.
They walked past marble angels, hovering over gravestones and graves where the names were almost obliterated by time, past laurel bushes, neatly trimmed hedges and trees whose leaves shone silver in the pale sunlight. He had a long memory and she found herself frequently on her knees, praying for the dead she had never known, but he had. They walked from the Church to The Square, passing the tall cluster of trees sheltering a large Georgian House where Dr Gibson lived. She had been to see him once or twice. He kept a tidy Surgery. She might have gone back if it hadn't been the appearance at his door of Nurse Morris!
She thought long about Mr O'Connell. What must he think of her? As the O'Haras had dealt with his shop for a long time he was used to her comings and goings. Did he know that every time she passed through his shop and kitchen out into his yard to fill her can with paraffin oil, she was tempted? She wanted to draw 41/2 pints instead of four. Rarely did anyone come out to fill or measure it for her. The girl was usually too busy looking after the shop, as well as cooking meals for the men. Anyway, wasn't she supposed to be getting strong with plenty of time on her hands. Leastways, that was what Willie McIlroy always told her. He never allowed her to dwell on her illness and didn't think it worth talking about even when she had been in pain. He always said,
"If it's sympathy you're after you've come to the wrong place".
So she always filled the can herself and had many opportunities to take a little extra, though why she should want to steal an extra half-pint of paraffin oil she could never understand.
"Sure it's the divil temptin' me. He has plenty of time for idle hands so he's keeping a special eye on me waitin' for me fall".
A gallon of paraffin was heavy enough to carry home as it was and it wouldn't be any good confiding in her Mammy if she brought home an extra half pint. She'd have been sent right back to pay for it, with the added indignity of explaining why she had taken it in the first place. The large container of paraffin oil stood right outside the kitchen window with the two measuring cans and it wasn't unusual for her to look up and find Mr O'Connell at his meal, with his white napkin tucked into his collar, smiling away at her and looking almost as angelic as the angels in the Churchyard. That amiable and loveable face overcame her temptations.
They formed a firm and lasting friendship. He was full of wisdom with an intellect sharpened by the passage of time. No errand or visit was complete without her seeking him out and exchanging views on horse or dog racing. He was quite an authority on racing and sure it was no wonder. Didn't he own one of the most lucrative betting places around. He had his regulars. Rosie Brady never let a day go by without paying him a visit to put a little on a horse and especially to quench her endless thirst and there were many around like her.
"It's the best shop in town", Rosie always said, "and he keeps the best porter".
Kathleen's mother liked to have a flutter on the horses but only on the big races and she was a dab hand at picking winners. Their Daddy would give it a lot of consideration and back one of the favourites which usually was an also ran. But then he didn't listen to the Gypsy's forecast like her Mammy did. She just read it in the paper and sent Kathleen flying down to place her small bet in time.
When their youngest Aunt was home with the O'Haras, her first step was visiting Eva O'Connell. Mr O'Connell himself helped in the entertaining and they were lucky if they saw their Aunt that night.
After visiting Eva, Short's house was a must for their Aunt and that suited Kathleen and Aileen very well. Mary, a daughter of the house, was a firm school friend of Aileen and they spent many an hour in the house upstairs in the "Forbidden Room". One of the sons of the house must have spent a lot of time in the Far East, as this one room was filled with oriental vases, wood carvings, rugs and gold sovereigns, all looking very rare and expensive.
It was a long airy room with high ceilings and large Georgian windows, letting in sounds from the street as well as a good dose of fresh air. It smelled of polish and was kept very clean with not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere. There was a baby grand piano standing out on its own so that people could move freely around it to admire the objects of art. The piano was the magnet for the children. Getting into the room wasn't easy as the door was always kept locked, and with good reason. The people of the house were very hospitable and did most of their entertaining downstairs in the front room. The key to the "Forbidden Room" was kept in a most inaccessible place on top of a wardrobe in the hall. It was hard to reach at the best of times but once you walked four steps up the stairs, at a stretch one of the girls could manage it and the elusive key was safe in a moist hand.
The house had its Pub facing The Square but if one turned into Short's Lane, there was a shop where food was sold, including fresh loaves and where a drink could be consumed by anyone seeking privacy. Hiding behind the dark, spacious, high counter, it was easy to denude a fresh loaf of it's outer crust and lots of bottles of lemonade disappeared upstairs along with a bottle opener.
While their Aunt was receiving hospitality in the front parlour and all was politeness downstairs, all hell was let loose upstairs in the "Forbidden Room". This day, Mary just asked her Uncle Paddy for the key and he handed it to her without a second thought, surveying her companions with a kindly smile and great understanding.
"Sure youse are entitled to a bit of fun too. Away and enjoy yourselves".
"Thank God some men have a big heart", thought Kathleen.
There was much laughter in the room and they sang songs accompanied by a loud, haphazard and discordant strumming on the piano. This was followed by a display of dancing which included much stamping of the floor. As far as they were concerned, it could have been anything from a waltz to a four-hand reel. As they pranced their way around the piano, all of a sudden a little fat, porcelain Chinese figure went crashing down on to the floor and broke into little pieces. It could have been a rare and unique Budda but all that was left now was the imprint where it had stood on the piano. Someone must have forgotten to pick it up when polishing or maybe it was too precious. At any moment they expected the door to open and their guilt exposed for all to see. The clocks ticked away and moments became minutes. Their eyes were fixed to the door but no one came.
"I think they must all be deaf down there, Mary".
Mary just giggled.
"Maybe they're just drunk and sleeping it off".
Finally, emboldened by the lack of any reaction to their escapade, they decided upon a strategic retreat. They opened the door and crept furtively along the corridor and down the stairs, the stair carpet cloaking the sound of their feet. Then they were quietly out the little side entrance, through the shop to freedom.
"Be God, that was a close one", was all that Kathleen could say as she regained the shop to freedom. Their Aunt hadn't an inkling what had happened in the "Forbidden Room" upstairs and Mary never divulged any repercussions to her at home, though it was reported that her mother went up to the room and spent a quiet hour rearranging the oriental ornaments.
Short's Lane was the short cut to the Post Office and for people going to early Mass. It was also a favourite spot for courting couples and it was not unusual to encounter a drunk weaving his unsteady way along it. Young girls seldom used it. Whenever Kathleen had a nightmare it was always of Mick the Riddle pursuing her along this lane and she didn't go down it very often. When families passed early in the mornings on their way to daily Mass, they were liable to find empty and broken bottles strewn around, evidence of those who had passed that way during the night, and if they had time some of the good citizens would try to clear the lane up.