Chapter 22 - A Senior Girl at Last
School and household chores kept Kathleen busy. She progressed into a new class and another school next to the senior boys. She noticed this with satisfaction, when she took a walk down to the schoolyard. It was easy to see over the wall into the boy's playground. At the end of this playground stood a large drill shed with a red corrugated roof. It was used to shelter from sun and showers and often open air lessons took place under the watchful eye of the Schoolmaster. It also had other uses and advantages for the more daring boys who climbed on the roof, lay flat and had a good view of the young ladies as they came and went. They were well aware of the boys. There were coy looks and faint blushes and little notes were passed to and fro. The older boys and girls made dates. Yet for the life of her, Kathleen couldn't understand what went on at these dates. She was content to look from a distance. Anyway she fancied older men!
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The young Schoolmaster was worth casting a glance at. She kept her fleeting glances for him. She felt mysterious and uncontrollable tingles that left her frustrated and perplexed. What was happening to her at all? One day she was buoyant and happy and the next day she seemed to reach the depths of disquiet and unrest. At home they just shrugged it off.
"Ah she's down in the dumps again".
Her Mammy thought otherwise.
"Give her a chance. Kathleen's growing up and she's not finding it easy".
Kathleen had already reasoned that this must be part of growing up. There seemed to be no other way of explaining her high and low moods or her desire to be alone.
Her first experience in the Girl's School was a forbidding one. On entering the porch door, she heard the loud voice of an angry teacher and the unwelcome sound of a cane resounding off a desk. It was enough to make anyone wet their knickers and if she could have bolted, she would. She stood shivering by the door, taking in the scene before her. It was a very long classroom with a blazing fire at the far end. The Teacher's desk stood like a Witness Box right up in the corner. It was here she stood for the Roll Call and from here she issued her commands. A little red warning light flashed through Kathleen's mind.
"Watch it Kathleen. Beware, you've met your match".
She moved forward into the room and looked into a sea of faces, not cowed, afraid or guilty, but jolly, friendly and interested in the newcomer. The room was filled with murmurous sound, which ceased only when Mrs O'Shea voiced her greeting.
"Welcome, Kathleen O'Hara. I hope you continue your good progress here. If you have any of your mother's brains you should do well".
Kathleen whispered her thanks but felt very awkward standing there until Eileen Clarke made room for her behind her desk. The desk seated six girls already, and now, with a crush, seven.
Eileen turned out to be a wit. Not especially bright in a scholarly sense but productive in the field of satire, with a remarkable gift for mimicry. Often Mrs O'Shea was the butt of her mockery, which continued as long as she remained in ignorance. Then one sunny day the little shows came to an abrupt end. As soon as Mrs O'Shea left the room, Eileen was on her feet and amid applause and encouragement, she gave a good caricature of their teacher roused in anger, hitting desks and blackboards with the cane, stamping her foot and in a loud penetrating voice demanding silence from the class. The afternoon sun streamed through the classroom window, enveloping Eileen in its blinding rays of light. Kathleen followed the rays as they exposed cobwebs hidden in the corners of the room, suffusing the class with a rosy glow.
Eileen was still continuing her tirade when Mrs O'Shea returned and brought the impromptu show to an untimely end. Eileen looked up into a pair of hostile eyes, flashing with anger, and cheeks at first crimson and then pale. It was a silent eruption of real anger and tears flowed down Eileen's face as she quietly took her seat. There were no reprimands and this was very strange indeed. Gone was Mrs O'Shea's usual aggressive manner to be replaced by a cooler and more forbidding appearance. Her voice was now quiet and modulated but it had the unmistakable air of implacable authority. She had been censured by her class.
Time heals all wounds and gradually things slipped back to normal. Kathleen developed an understanding and respect for her teacher and did her utmost to please her. Geography class was one of her favourites. It meant standing at the far corner of the room, far removed from the fire, facing a large globe of the world that spun easily on its axis. The pupils formed a circle and looked on far away places they might only dream about, but whatever knowledge was gained came from the books held open surreptitiously in the back row.
This class was often interrupted by visiting clergy and wasn't Father O'Grady always welcome. He was a grand understanding man who didn't bother to ask questions, but liked to warm his hands by the fire and engage in conversation with the teacher. If he was lucky he might end up with a warm cup of tea in his hand. He had a charming easygoing manner. With each girl, he took an interest in her progress, shared her camaraderie and approved her behaviour. He had a ready twinkle in his eye and a sympathetic sense of humour.
Today they were in for a surprise. He walked into the classroom, spoke to Mrs O'Shea and went straight into the circle, looking over his glasses as he observed the globe. He bent over and gave it a twirl with his finger, turned round on the girls and started a barrage of questions, most of them simple. When he asked them to tell him the capital of Abyssinia there was complete silence. He picked out girls' names at random.
"Come on Cissie. Surely you must know. You're not going to let me down". The result was still the same; mute and silent looks. He gazed on the class with a look of incredulity spreading over his face.
"A fine lot of educated young ladies I have here. There's not even one of you with a titter of wit. I can't believe it. You could end up in Timbuctoo and I doubt if you lot would know what part of the world it's in. I'll tell you what. If one of you girls answer my question I'll give you sixpence".
He pushed his hand into his pocket and produced a shiny sixpenny piece which he dropped from one hand to the other. The sight of that money sparked off Kathleen's brains. She wasn't sure if it was the money or a desire to please Father O'Grady that got her brain clicking. Suddenly inspiration came to her and she found herself humming a popular jingle of the day.
"Will ye come to Addis Ababa will ye come
And see if Mullolini's got his gun".
That did it. Her hand shot up.
"Father its Addis Ababa".
He was delighted.
"Ah Kathleen, I knew you had it in you. Sure you must take after your father. He's knowledgeable and he's a great man with the words".
Mrs O'Shea thought differently.
"If you don't mine me disagreeing with you Father, I think she got the brains from her mother".
"You don't say".
"Well I should know. She was my best friend at school".
A great feeling of serenity suffused her as she allowed these compliments to sink in. It was the reference to her father that made her day. Wasn't that the knowing priest to recognise a brainy man when he met him! Evidently he didn't know her mother as well as Mrs O'Shea.
Time passed pleasantly. The older girls were dance crazy and each time the teacher was absent from the room, they were on the floor dancing with one another, foxtrotting or waltzing, with one recruit providing the music and timing. With each performance the dancing improved and the younger and more timid girls, Kathleen among them, became initiates - if you could call her timid. She became so adept that in a short time she was able to lead her partner in a foxtrot or waltz. This was quite a feat at times when her partner turned out to be a big lump of a girl who looked and felt like a sack tied in the middle and walked and danced with leaden feet. She found her ideal dancing partner in Eileen, who sang while Kathleen manoeuvred her around the room.
Once this became a marathon with encouragement from the other girls and it was only interrupted by the appearance of the teacher. As Mrs O'Shea walked into the classroom, she came face to face with the dancers. Kathleen was quick to see her but the shock of looking into her teacher's eyes left her completely inarticulate and her mute expression conveyed nothing to Eileen, who continued to sing at the top of her voice. Kathleen could do nothing about it. Her legs were still making the steps in a mechanical way, refusing to co-ordinate with the rest of her body. At any moment Eileen would back into the teacher who stood as one transfixed, her gaze a study of suppressed humour, not unlike the Mona Lisa! The moment of truth arrived when the teacher's voice broke the spell. With it, Kathleen found release. Explanations were advanced, dismissed and refuted by Mrs O'Shea who suggested dryly they confined their dancing in future to the playground, where they might be able to find male partners, if they were lucky. Mind you there would have been plenty of competition from the older and more experienced girls.
Kathleen's evenings were filled with learning now. While the younger children were not old enough to appreciate good books, she did and it was her father who fostered her interest. She was the only one allowed to take down his "Books of Knowledge". As the evenings faded to dusk and the long winter night approached, she lay on the hearthrug, watching the flames dancing on the blackened chimney breast, and their reflections on the dark green walls, darting and prancing like dancers escaping from the pit of hell. Just like the pictures she had seen of Dante's Inferno. In her flights of fancy she visited hot steamy jungles and watched wide eyed, as the natives practised their War Dance, their dark skins gleaming with sweat and their eyes flashing fire. She could even look into their hypnotic eyes and keep time with their athletic, leaping bodies. On other nights, she visited palm-fringed beaches in the South Pacific with surf rolling over the long stretches of sand, caressing her toes. She could almost feel the warmth of the balmy nights, with the pale trees whispering a lullaby in the breeze. She looked at cool marble sculptures, each with its own beauty, and vistas of virgin snow, which invited her to leave her footprints there forever,
While she dreamed her way through the "Books of Knowledge" one evening, she watched her mother put a match to the wick of the oil lamp, covering the flame with it's glass globe, turning the wick to the correct height and leaving the lamp standing in the middle of the dining table, radiating its warmth and driving all the shadows from the wall. As her mother threw the match on the fire, she eyed Kathleen with those grey eyes.
"Do you think you could ask for half an hour off school tomorrow so that I can get to the Bank before 3 o'clock?"
"Alright Mammy. I'd need to leave school at 2:30 I shall have to see the Headmaster in the Boy's School".
"That shouldn't cause you any bother. Isn't Mr Morris one fine big man with a big heart, and anyway it'll give you a chance to eye the boys. He has two himself, well worth looking at".
Kathleen caught her mother's sidelong glance and knew she was having her leg pulled. All the same, her mother saw only the Headmaster's heart of gold, but she could hear his loud tempestuous voice each morning as she passed the Boy's School. It always made her shudder. Still she was nothing if not forthright herself and it wasn't in her nature to shirk responsibility at any time. When duty became a challenge she liked to meet it head on.
Since this was going to be a monthly affair, she wasn't looking forward to it at all. The dread of entering the Boy's School and a classroom was enough to scare the pants off any girl. Just the same the following day she made her entrance. After many timid attempts, she knocked the door loudly enough to be heard above the din inside. She walked in to hear a tirade being directed at one of the big boys. She looked helplessly on, ignored by the headmaster and the class, and was in the act of slipping out again, when a loud manly voice brought her to an abrupt stop.
"And what can we do for you Miss O'Hara?"
Did she detect a note of derision? She hadn't time to worry about that. A silent class awaited her answer but for a few seconds she was too petrified to reply as she looked on this sea of watchful eyes.
"Come child, come child, we haven't all day to waste time, with me trying to get through to some of these numbskulls".
His glance hovered over the class.
"Look at them. They look too young to be away from their Mammies. It's a nursemaid I am",
Finally, fumbling for words she managed to say,
""Please Sir, me Mammy wants me home early to....".
Before she could finish the sentence a curt,
left her speechless. Without another word, she turned and almost ran from the room, telling herself "It will be a long time before he sees me again - makin' a fool of meself in front of all those boys".
She was true to her word. Each month she made a pretence of asking. She walked as far as the door of the porch, heard the awful racket inside, turned on her heels and walked back to her own schoolroom, informing her teacher that permission was granted. With the speed of a colt, the first time, she took the short cut home across the Playing Field, gathering speed to jump the river below the brow of the hill. Then she was home in a matter of minutes.
"I didn't keep you waiting long Mammy, did I? Don't hurry back, I'll set the table for tea".
"Well Kathleen. One thing for sure. It will be well for the man that gets you".
With such a compliment from her mother she was on top of the world.