Chapter 23 - Learning The Facts of Life and Death
It wasn't often Kathleen visited McConnell's Grocery Shop though she was well acquainted with the happenings at their Bar, next door, especially on Market and Fair Days when it seemed to hold the record for the numbers of drinkers ejected from it. A prominent disk above the door encircled the date 1830. It came as a surprise to see how busy it was and how most of the country people went to buy their groceries, flour, meal and coal there. She didn't like queuing and could see herself stuck there for another half hour, so she decided to come back another time.
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She walked out just in time to see three carts come out of the yard laden with groceries. As she watched, she recalled she had seen a hearse come out one day, with two men dressed all in black and with high hats. They had looked very sombre and dignified as they sat on top of the slow-moving horse drawn hearse.
She thought they might have a Saw Mill as she often heard the sound of a machine cutting wood and right enough there was a smell of wood. The same smell had come from the Carpenter's Shop below the School. She decided this was a good time to investigate, keeping close to the side wall to allow the carts and traps to pass by. She found she was looking down a very busy and industrious yard. She headed for the last and biggest shed and as she got closer, the sound of hammering and the smell of wood met her. It was a hive of industry with sawdust everywhere and the noises of saws humming and screeching away.
At first she assumed the levelled out boards were for building purposes but as she got nearer, she had a shock to see shelf after shelf showing coffins of all descriptions. Dark woods, light woods, long ones and short ones and some with gleaming handles and nameplates. Big Gerry saw her and her look of surprise and distress and quickly took her by the hand. She was taken on an inspection of the homes of the dead. There was even a little baby one, with its own frilling all round the inside, ready to receive the body of a little baby boy.
"How sad it all is Gerry".
"Yes Kathleen, but someone has to look after that side of things too. After all, we make our living here looking after the dead".
"Do you enjoy your work Gerry?"
She sensed he was uncomfortable. It bothered him and he gave it some thought before answering.
"You know, I lost a wee one too and I had to prepare her little body for burial and make her coffin and that was hard but I did it as lovingly as I could, as I hope I still do".
He was busy brushing wood shavings from his apron as she left. It was a very sobering experience and she hastened her steps back to the shop and the noise from the living.
That experience gave Kathleen much food for thought. She now remembered the funny business about the baby that didn't come. She had no idea another baby was expected. Yet only a few weeks ago she was quite startled to see her Daddy at home when he should have been at work. That should have set her brain working. Her Mammy had retired to bed and she had concluded she was having her usual bilious attack. She hadn't seen Nurse Morris's arrival but had noticed her silent departure. She did see Dr O'Brien walking up the stairs and when he left her mother's bedroom, there was a hush as the Doctor and her Daddy walked down the stairs in quiet conversation. Kathleen had asked.
"What's the matter Doctor?"
"Ah nothing to worry about. Your Mammy will be fine. By the way how's the old ticker?"
With that, he produced his stethoscope while Kathleen stood impatiently, looking up the stairs. He broke in on her meditation, remarking,
"Good girl. Keep up the good work and take your medicine and plenty of rest".
At that moment she couldn't have cared less what he told her. Her thoughts were upstairs with her Mammy. Just look at himself, walking out the front door, deep in thought and with that brooding look she knew so well.
Something wasn't right. She felt it in her bones. Inside the house, the familiar hubbub of children's voices was replaced by a monastic silence. Their Daddy had paced the hall from the foot of the stairs to the front door, as he had done several times before, with all the cares of the world on his shoulders. She had wanted to say something to comfort him or say something to make him look happier but knew her words would fall on deaf ears. She had watched impatiently as the morning drew slowly on. Pushed away in the kitchen it was hard to hear or see anything. Then there was the sound of voices but all spoke quietly and sombrely as though hand in hand with tragedy. What could have happened?
She had pushed the kitchen door open just enough to see a strange man going up the stairs carrying some kind of box. In a little while she heard the subdued murmur of voices as they passed by her door and out into the outside world. Their Daddy went along and Kathleen was just in time to see them push something into the back of a small black car. This quickly disappeared and, still baffled, she returned to her place of waiting. Eventually it was her Aunt who informed her that her Mammy had a stillborn child.
"It was a little girl, God rest her soul, but your Mammy will be fine".
"Can I see her now?"
"No Kathleen. She's having a much needed sleep and we must all keep very quiet".
Their mother never spoke about it but she shed many tears and only the loving arms of their father seemed to comfort her. He seemed very upset too, so Kathleen had to leave them to their sorrow. She didn't think there would be any more babies now. When she was up and about again, their Mammy seemed to move about in a trance. She had a great deal of comfort from Mrs Kelly, who was always a good and understanding neighbour, but it was real woman's talk and Kathleen kept out of it. She prayed hard and spent many an evening in Church on her knees pleading with God to bring happiness once more into their home. There she met up with Rosie Brady who was very concerned and understanding.
"Shure Kathleen, God thought her so pure He wanted her for Himself",
"I thought Rosie, those babies went to Limbo".
"Limbo how are ye. God makes them and he takes them".
And that was her final answer.
It was on reflecting back to all this, she realised the wisdom of Gerry's words.
"Well someone has to look after that side of things. I make my living looking after the dead".
On leaving the shop, Kathleen was walking down the Dundalk Road minding her own business, when suddenly she spied Noddin' Tim standing very close to the hedge, intently interested in something she couldn't see. She had to find out what it was.
"Hey Tim, what's so interesting in that hedge that you can't see a body go by?"
He beckoned to her in a whisper, a finger to his lips and she was careful in her approach as it wasn't everyone Tim bothered to talk to. Himself was worth looking at. A man of middle years he had a forward stoop that seemed to be pushing him into old age and he made little apparent effort to stop it. What remaining hair he had was carroty red and stood up around his head, framing his weather-beaten pate. He looked not unlike some mad scientist she thought but was careful to keep this to herself. He had piercing blue eyes that could look right through a body and maybe find them wanting. His trousers, originally brown, were weathered and worn. They were shiny with two patches across the backside and another one needed where there was an exposure of flesh. Small it was and very white. The trousers were held up with a length of ope that looked bulky around his spare hips. It was obvious he needed a woman to look after him but he was still a bachelor.
He pulled her over and she felt her nose almost touching the hedge.
"I can't see anything Tim but an auld hedge".
He swung round on her so abruptly she almost fell on her knees.
"There you are. You a child of nature and you can't see the beauty of it all around you".
His eyes took in the countryside and then he pulled her back to look at the hedge.
"Bet you never saw Carrickmacross Lace look as fragile and perfect as that".
Then she saw it. A dew covered cobweb and it was beautifully patterned, perfect in all detail, catching the glints of the sun. She discovered the hedge was covered with them. She smiled at Tim and he nodded his approval.
"At least child, you have your eyes opened at last, and if it wasn't for Himself Above".
Then she saw his famous mannerism. He touched is forehead with his finger and nodded as though he was touching an imaginary cap. There was a certain reverence in it.
"Look around you child and drink in the wonders of nature. Can you not see beauty in the lowly thistle?"
"I have no time for them Tim. They're far too prickly".
"Ah, just like you. If it wasn't for Himself Above".
Again the finger to the forehead and the nod. Then he raised his eyes towards Slieve Gullion, Kathleen dutifully doing the same.
"There must have been some great upheavals at the beginning of time and look at what we have now. Beautiful trees, green fields, cultivated gardens and potatoes growing in abundance and all because of Himself Above".
His gesture was repeated.
She was getting a little impatient with him. After all, he kept showing his respect for God, nearly every minute, yet he never mentioned His name. She tackled him.
"You have great respect for nature and for God and yet you never mention His name".
"What d'ye mean, what d'ye mean child?"
"Why don't you call him God and have done with it?"
"Christ child, whoever raised you to be puttin' a man in his place at my time of life?"
"You said it Tim, you said it. Christ was the Son of God".
Kathleen was jubilant. He turned on his heel to leave and then she saw the patched trousers and white hole.
"Forget about your poetic tendencies and get down to brass tacks Tim. Why didn't you marry Biddy Maguire. People say you had many a chance. Then you wouldn't be sneakin' across the fields every time you need a new patch on your trousers".
Stunned for a moment, he looked at her contemplatively, turning his head from side to side, tightening his mouth and frowning hard. Soon he was in a reverie as he lifted his head and gazed across the field to where Biddy had her little cottage.
"I could have. I could have at that and a fine wife she would have made. She's still a fine figure of a woman you know, but I don't think she's interested in the marriage stakes any longer".
He straightened himself up and shrugged his shoulders.
"Sure I'm no good to any woman now. I'm worn out. The well's gone gry and the childer are the bright sparks left in Biddy's eyes. If it wasn't for Himself Above".
There he was off again so she stopped him in his tracks.
"Tim you know Biddy does all McCoy's mending and he looks like a Lord walkin' the loanins with nicely mended pants. He has only to look at Biddy and she comes runnin'".
That set the sparks flying alright.
"You don't say. Bad cess to the frigger McCoy makin' use of my Biddy".
There it was out. Kathleen knew he still hankered after her. Biddy away in the distance watched the pair of them from her front door. That prim poise now looked more relaxed and inviting. Tim took a long hard look at her and then turned.
"Kathleen, you know you're a dreadful matchmaker. I often hear them talkin' about you over at the Cross-roads and they're right. You'd have a man walkin' up the aisle to matrimony and no mistake".
"Well it wouldn't be a mistake. You couldn't do any better Tim. She'd have those auld trousers off you before you knew where you were".
He gave her a wicked glance but she continued,
"She'd have you in a new pair for sure and it's well known she's not without a penny or two".
She stopped for breath.
"You'd never have to worry about washing and cooking any more, You'd be the Lord of the Manor".
Kathleen was making great progress without interruptions so she continued.
"After all your land joins hers down by the loanin' and that would be a great merger, with a decent sized farm to run and a wee wife to care for you, not forgettin' the childer of course".
It came to an abrupt end.
"What would you know about childer Kathleen O'Hara?"
"If anyone should it's me Tim. I'm almost like a mother to the rest of the family. Anyway didn't Oweny Loye get himself a grand wee wife and now he has two children. That Nurse Morris has a lot to answer for. I saw her coming out of Loye's house and sure enough there was another baby".
Tim went very quiet, just nodding his head up and down. Then Kathleen confided.
"If it wasn't for her we wouldn't have a house full of kids".
"You don't say", said Tim in a very droll manner and Kathleen had the impression he was quietly smiling.
"Well I'm right aren't I Tim?"
"Well I don't know gersha, I thought you were a bit more old fashioned than that".
The nodding and tipping of the forehead had ceased and Kathleen was now the one to be perplexed. Those sombre blue eyes of Tim were suddenly smiling, lighting up his face.
"Do you mean to tell me gersha, you blame Nurse Morris for all of the births around this part of the country?"
"I do indeed Tim! When me Mammy gets tired of the children, they're handed over to me, so I'm like a second mother and I get all the cryin' side of it. I'm fed up to the teeth with it and I'm sick of kids".
"Ah now child. You acknowledge your Mammy as mother. She mothers the children".
"That's right Tim".
"Did you ever think who fathered them?"
The words were spoken slowly and with great respect. Kathleen looked into his eyes and he seemed to be saying something to her that needed a great deal of thought.
"You mean she doesn't carry the babies in that black bag of hers?"
She was looking far away now and Tim appeared to be doing the exact same. He pondered deeply as he gazed at Kathleen and beyond. She could see his brain was in a turmoil and he was uncomfortable. Glancing across at Biddy didn't help though she still kept her position by the door as though she could hear every word of their conversation and was acting as sentinel.
Kathleen's brain was buzzing too. Tim patted her head in a very fatherly and compassionate way.
"Now Kathleen you're a big girl. I think its about time, well overtime, your Mammy told you about the birds and the bees".
That really hit a sore point.
"For God's sake Tim. I keep being told to find out about them every day of my life".
She paused when she remembered her Aunt Eileen saying the same thing to her. She, who had no interest in orna.......ornithology! And look at what happened to her. She was the proud mother of a wee baby girl.
"Tim why don't I ask me Daddy. He's the intelligent one in the family. Do you know he could tell you all about Bonaparte and his battles - and.."
She was anxious that Tim should think kindly towards him.
"Sure everyone in the country knows about Napoleon Bona parte".
She thought she'd go one better.
"I bet you couldn't tell me who won the Battle of Thermopolae".
"Ah now we have the wars between the Spartans and the Trojans".
She lifted her eyes to meet his gaze and he was very interested indeed.
"Ah a Greek scholar bedabs. I always knew him to be an intelligent conversationalist but we never got round to that subject."
"Sure I could tell you Tim about Alexander the Great. You know he almost reached India and he visited Persepolis too. Sure I don't suppose you have the faintest idea where some of these places are".
Tim's eyebrows were raised. He slid on hand into the pocket of his jacket and produced a very worn spectacle case, extracted a pair of steel rimmed glasses and held them up to the sunlight. Slowly he placed the glasses on the end of his nose and gazed at her calmly over the rims, half closing his eyes as he gave her a long searching look.
"Bedabs you're some eye opener. Does he spend his nights teaching you all this stuff? What do girls know about wars anyway?"
She galloped on.
"He could tell you about those Persian Kings Darius and Cyrus. They all lived in their summer palace at Persepolis".
"You don't say. He's a foine man, imparting his knowledge to you".
"Well it's not wasted is it Tim? I can almost see the ruins of that palace. See meself standin' there breathin' the fine mountain air and gazing across those wonderful plains that brought the Kings and their chariots to the Palace".
"Go on gersha, go on".
She had his interest now alright.
"Me Daddy says the palace would still be standin' if they hadn't built most of it in wood. They must have been havin' a great banquet when most of it went up in flames. Mind you there are still some ruins to be seen. Frescos I think you call them. Anyway if you want any more information you'll have to read some of me Daddy's Books of Knowledge. I'll ask him Tim. After all he has me reading them and we've got shelves full of them. I know when I had those pains and couldn't go to school, I used to spend hours reading and he used to come home from work and tell me what a good girl I was, taking an interest in his books. Mind you Tim, I was the only one allowed to take them down and read. He didn't trust the younger ones - anyway they'd have torn them to smithereens".
She was looking up at him and he was looking down at her, giving her his quizzical look.
"Mebbe you should ask your Daddy if he'd like an ignorant countryman like me to have a loan of one of his books".
"Of course I will Tim".
"Well now me young lassie, I still want you to go home and have a wee talk with your Mammy and maybe you won't feel so intolerant to Nurse Morris. Sure if it wasn't for Himself Above!"
She hadn't time for any more of that nonsense. She turned on her heels. She had to get home and the sooner the better. The hill was steep and her heart protested but she streaked home. Breathless, she rushed through their front door and confronted her mother. As usual, she was sitting placidly, cuddling the youngest baby.
" I want a word with you now Mammy and I mean now".
She knew she carried authority in her voice. That was the way her Daddy said it. Her mother remained calm and unhurried as she put the baby in the pram. Not so with Kathleen. She tugged at her mother's skirt wherever she could get a hold and steered her towards the Dining Room.
"My, Kathleen, but you're the impatient one today", said her mother as she gently closed the door behind her.
A little later a very quiet and subdued Kathleen walked from the Dining Room and ascended the stairs, her feet dragging, with all her young years lying heavily on her shoulders. Her mother's sweet voice was still ringing in her ears.
"Why didn't you ask me sooner Kathleen instead of having half the country laughing at your innocence".
It was the very same room she had walked out from when the magic went out of Christmas.