Chapter 27 - High Spots, Sleepy Steps and High Kicks
With spring, a measles epidemic came to the town and before it subsided all seven children succumbed. The first and most seriously affected was Aileen who started with a nosebleed lasting twelve hours. During that time, sheets and old-fashioned patchwork quilts were carried from her room saturated with blood, and left to soak in the wash house. Because of the seriousness of the nosebleed, Dr O'Brien was called in. He arrived, his usual bright and breezy self, and smiled as he walked past the line of subdued children, standing on the stairs, looking upward to the bedroom door.
"Where have I seen this particular scene before? Ah and how often? Why don't you children get out in the fresh air and enjoy it?"
At the same time he pushed open the bedroom door and then slammed it behind him.
[ Chapter 28 ] or [ Table of Contents ]
At the top of the stairs, Kathleen took her stand, adjacent to the door, giving a running commentary on the imagined actions of the Doctor behind the closed door. It was all so quiet and still in there, the silence only broken by hurried movements and the low murmur of voices. In the stillness the tick-tock of the Grandfather clock in the hall sounded thunderously loud, increasing the children's uneasiness. The arrival of a white-capped Nurse did little to dispel their concern.
"What d'ye think she's here for?" asked Deirdre. "Are they taking her to hospital?"
Kathleen was derisive.
"That's all you ever think about. Hospitals and green apples".
Silence took over and time lay heavily on the young shoulders. It soon became obvious to Kathleen that one or two of the younger ones weren't feeling too well either. They appeared to have spotted faces and were hot and flushed looking. Dr O'Brien finally emerged to gaze at the row of upturned faces all mutely asking the same question. They were all so young, so serious and so troubled.
"She'll be alright", he said as he passed through their midst, stooping to look at the youngest two boys.
"I see we have measles here too. Kathleen stop moping around, looking as though it was the end of the world. Get busy and get them to bed straight away".
Without waiting for further orders, Kathleen took her two young brothers upstairs, undressed them and bundled them into bed, glad to have something to occupy her mind. They were flushed alright and lacked their usual vigour. It was the following day before any of the other children were permitted in to see Aileen. She'd had three visits from Dr O'Brien and now as he left he remarked,
"She's over the worst of it now. You won't be needing me any more. As for the rest of the children, they'll be going down like ninepins. Just keep them in bed for a few days and see their rooms are kept dark and plenty of warm drinks".
Aileen's room was dark, with the blinds pulled down and a large quilt spread across the window, keeping out the light. The whole room smelled of disinfectant and carbolic soap. The light from the open door showed a pale, exhausted Aileen lying on a mountain of pillows. She was completely drained of colour and resembled a waxen doll. Her dark hair clung to her heart-shaped face and fell in tendrils above her eyebrows. Her beautiful blue eyes, fringed with long, dark, upturned lashes, showed a sweet sadness that clothed the usual light of merriment.
The pillows were beautifully white and there was not a bloodstain anywhere. This was surprising following the sight of so many bloodstained bedclothes yesterday. Aileen managed a smile and a slight rosiness returned to her cheeks but her gaze told Kathleen that she had suffered. Four of the children were now in bed with the measles and the next day it claimed two more victims.
These were busy times for Kathleen and her mother with all the children in bed. Bridie was their permanent help but being on the frail side she let Kathleen do most of the running up and down the stairs. Half the time she went round in a daydream anyway. Their mother treated her like one of her own children, more cosseted if anything. Often she was given the top of the milk while the whole ravenous tribe looked on. Now at least she was kept busy washing the dishes that went up and down the stairs.
As soon as they had seen Mr O'Hara off to work, tray after tray was carried upstairs for the invalids. Kathleen remarked to her Mammy,
"They may have caught the measles but it didn't harm their appetites. They drink a lot too, juices, lemon barley, in fact anything they can get their hands on".
"Yes Kathleen, they could drink the Sahara dry".
Aileen was the only one who showed little inclination to eat and it was only by gentle persuasion and her desire to please that she ate anything at all. All the others had ravenous appetites and no coercion was necessary. Apart from itching all over, particularly at night, they seemed to enjoy their enforced rest, and the food brought up on trays vanished like magic. All day long they played and argued, scurrying from one room to another. The twang of the mattress springs as they jumped on each other's beds was a sure indication that vitality was returning. Kathleen began to wonder if it had ever left them.
Aileen was different. Weak from loss of blood, she remained fragile and enervated. All during this time, Kathleen continued to help but she began to feel hot and exhausted herself as she continued her journeys up and down the stairs with trays and her legs were getting weaker. As the younger ones filed downstairs once more, she took to her bed, not without some misgivings. She worried because there was so much to cope with and Aileen hadn't regained her strength and Bridie always had to be told what to do. Dr O'Brien called, took one look at her and told her to get into bed and stay there. She overheard his remark to her mother,
"She's been walking round with the measles and looks to be over the worst of it. Still a day or two in bed will do her a lot of good and rest that wee ticker of hers"
Kathleen didn't take too kindly to a darkened room.
"How am I going to pass me time?", she expostulated to her mother.
"You'll do as the Doctor says. No more old talk from you".
"I can't read or write and I've no intention of going to sleep".
"Why don't you say a decade of the Rosary for some poor soul, Kathleen".
That floored her. She had no answer to that.
Outside the children played on the flagstones, whoops sounded and tops were spun across the forecourt. She listened to recitations and verse as the girls skipped and jumped. Their cries of delight were like arrows in her heart. The days were sunny and a balmy breeze heralded the return of warmer days. The smell of young green grass and hawthorn from the hedges across the road stole into her room, lingering and tantalising. All she wanted was to see the mists rising up from the fields as the sun rose to cover the earth with its warm caress and to feel the springy grass under her feet as she walked through the meadows to meet the rosy dawn.
She was feeling particularly restless and frustrated when she heard Mrs Kelly talking outside their front door. She leaped from the bed, pulled aside the window covering, opened the window and called to her.
"Have you time to talk to an invalid? I think they are trying to make a prisoner out of me".
"Shouldn't you be in your bed?" Mrs Kelly asked.
"I am but I'm sick and tired of it already with no-one to talk to and nowhere to go".
"Oh you poor creature! I must see if I can find you something nice".
By now she had perched herself on the windowsill, breathing in the fresh fragrant air while her gaze wandered over the fields towards the mountains and the waiting sea beyond.
When Mrs Kelly returned, she carried an armful of sweet juicy pears, which she threw up to Kathleen at intervals. They were delicious and measles or no measles they went down a treat. Her one day in bed came to an end and the next morning she was up and about as usual, running for bread and standing at the door with a large milk can, waiting impatiently for Jimmy, the Milkman, to arrive. He drove a horse and trap on which stood his large milk cans. It was all done efficiently and quickly and he always added a drop more "for the babbie". She also gathered eggs in the barn and even one out in the fields where a little White Wyandotte chose to lay. She carried two buckets of water from the well at the bottom of the garden. On the way she met their neighbour, mr Quigley, who enquired after her health and the health of the younger ones.
Kathleen knew Mr Quigley and of the nights he spent in the Billiards Room. When he returned home around ten o'clock in the mornings, she heard him pass by, with his distinctive limp and the use of his walking stick, helping him to tap his way home. There was an odd night when their father joined him. She didn't know the background, bur Mr Quigley was the retired Schoolmaster, who limited his friends to the McConnell brothers, the Brannigans, Dr O'Brien and Mr O'Hara when he was available.
She didn't like the nights her father spent in the Billiard's Room although they weren't too often. She didn't really know why but one thing was certain, she could never close her eyes and settle down to sleep when he was out, but spent the time listening to the Market House clock chiming away the hours. The Billiards Room was at the corner of The Square with Short's Lane running behind it. She only glimpsed it once when she went in search of her father. She knocked and didn't get an answer, so boldly pushed open the door an looked into a mist of tobacco smoke. There was a large table covered in green baize around which men stood. One was lying across the table with stick in hand ready to hit the white ball at one of the countless coloured ones. He saw her, stopped, and then took up his position again.
Divil a one took any notice of her, but beyond she could see through the haze of smoke, a card game in progress with Dr O'Brien's blond head peering over his cards. Mr Quigley and her father were there too. It was strange how alike Dr O'Brien and her father were. You could have taken them for twin brothers alright. They were both tall, distinguished strawberry blondes. The fact of her presence eventually got through. Eyes peered at her over horn rimmed and gold rimmed spectacles. She sensed an instant dismissal as the games went on and she was left out in "the cold". What could she expect? Hadn't she entered another "Holy of Holies" uninvited? It was a place where men took their ease alone and women were unwelcome! She closed the door silently behind her, wondering why Mr Quigley spent so much time there. Maybe he was lonely and bored. Her Daddy would certainly have some explaining to do when he got home, particularly when he didn't even bid her the time of day. She wondered if he realised how foolish she had felt.
Mr Quigley's garden ran alongside theirs and it was funny how his fruit and vegetables tasted so much better than theirs. This was something her parents knew nothing about. He must have had a wonderfully big understanding heart, for many a time he caught them red handed, devouring his blackcurrants and gooseberries and even invading his strawberry bed. His peas and beans too disappeared like magic. When Kathleen was caught pinching his peas she had the audacity to tell him,
"You know Mr Quigley, I don't think your peas are as good as they were last year".
"Well if anyone knows, you should Kathleen. You're even quicker than the birds".
When her conscience bothered her, she offered to carry his pail of water up the garden path and she felt this was an act of charity. He often had a chuckle to himself, as he knew full well that she was trying it on.
"Kathleen, I see you're trying to lead me up the garden path and it's not the first time either".
Long afterwards, thinking it over she came to the conclusion that he was a tried and very patient man, full of love and understanding of children. She reflected it was a pity there weren't more like him.
Not long after her illness, Aileen suddenly started to walk in her sleep. It happened when all the family was asleep. All that is except Kathleen, who shared her bed with her mother and the newest addition to the family, Brian. He was such a cuddlesome little creature that every night she found some excuse for taking him out of his cradle and bringing him into bed. Every night her mother would say,
"Not again Kathleen! That's one way of starting bad habits. He'll leave the cradle soon enough".
"Shure he's only a babbie and he likes the feel of the warmth of our bodies and it helps him to sleep.
They were the three occupants of one of the large front bedrooms. If it hadn't been for the whimpering of the baby, Kathleen would have been asleep too - well maybe.
Finally, all was silent and peaceful when a slight sound drew Kathleen's attention to the door. There in the dim light from the Sacred Heart lamp, she watched petrified as the door handle moved gently and the door pushed open to reveal Aileen quietly walking into the room. She looked like a little angel in her nightgown. She looked neither left nor right, just straight ahead towards the window. She hadn't spoken and this frightened Kathleen. She sat upright in bed gazing at the figure now standing by the window, perturbed by the lack of recognition in Aileen's eyes.
"Could she be sleepwalking?" she thought.
With a start she realised just in time that her sister really was sleepwalking. It was at this moment that Aileen started to push open the window and lift herself on to the windowsill. The moment the window was open a blast of cold air hit them and Kathleen was out of bed in a flash. She caught her sister and her mother, now awakened, whispered,
"Don't wake her".
She wheeled Aileen gently round and walked her back to her bedroom. Not once did Aileen speak and neither did Kathleen.
Aileen lifted back the sheets and slipped back into bed as quiet as a mouse with still not a sign of awakening. For Kathleen, the remainder of the night was a vigil. Never a good sleeper, she remained awake and alert, only succumbing to sleep when a rosy dawn streaked sunlight into the room and the birds ceased their morning chorus. Aileen woke next morning, none the worse for her nocturnal adventure and she never repeated it.
When the weather was bad, the children had to content themselves staying indoors and this was always an effort. All, except Patrick, showed a determined leaning towards the stage, especially the four girls. There were always arguments about who would get the principal part and Kathleen usually won. She was the eldest girl and the most pugnacious and used her position ruthlessly. Aileen claimed to be the better actress and so she was but she wasn't a great singer. Kathleen, on the other hand, had a sweet soprano voice and wasn't at all shy about singing, on demand or without it, either at home or at school. Her mother often remarked,
"She's bawlin' again. She must be happy. She'll be giving Dame Melba her autograph one of these days".
She always maintained that she worked much better at home when she was singing. Her poor mother thought she would lift the slates off the roof with the power and enthusiasm she put into it.
"If you have no feelin' for us at last show a little charity to our long-suffering neighbours"
"Ah you worry too much Mammy".
The children held concerts regularly in the kitchen. It seemed an ideal place with the kitchen range giving out great heat. The stage was the kitchen table, behind it the window and the garden, and beyond the distant hills of County Monaghan with "Molly Ash", near Castleblaney, cloaked as usual in a mist which was the harbinger of wet weather. The kitchen window had suffered many times from the children's games and they had been firmly told that new panes of glass were expensive.
One wet day the three eldest girls, Kathleen, Aileen and Deirdre arrayed themselves in their mother's best finery, with long frocks, high-heeled shoes and large hats. Deirdre arranged an old curtain around her head to represent a shawl. They pulled the table away from the window in case of another "accident". The young audience clapped and cheered their appreciation as the three girls climbed on to the stage and started their act with an opening chorus number, feet dancing in time and skirts held high. They stepped and swayed across the table. Things were going good with Aileen radiant and full of zest, kicking out with great vigour when suddenly there was a crash.
"My God, you've done it again Aileen. There'll be hell to pay".
The shattered pane of glass fell in a thousand pieces, luckily most of it going outside. The wind came in through the gap in great gusts laden with rain, splashing the children's faces and the furniture around.
Kathleen, who had looked on disbelievingly, sprang into action. This wasn't by any means the first time this had happened and she daren't think what was in store for them. She found the lid of a tea chest and pushed it against the window as best she could. By now the sun was beginning to shine again and a very subdued family stared at the makeshift window, awaiting their fate.
Their Mammy was out shopping at the time and Kathleen decided to meet her and perhaps cushion the blow. After all, this had happened so many times in her absence that it was getting to be a bad habit. It was Market Day and this was the day their mother brought home the golden country butter, the buttermilk and the wheaten bread. She met her by the new line of houses on the Culloville Road. Her Mammy knew before she could get a word out.
"Not another pane of glass! You'll have us all in the workhouse yet".
"Ah Mammy there were three of us this time and you wouldn't tan the youngest one".
She had to admit it; her mother was very intuitive but she was relieved to see her take it so well. She took the shopping and rushed back home. There was the Baker's van from Newry waiting for Mrs O'Hara's custom. He was a kind, jovial man, always with plenty of time to spare so there would be a crack with their Mammy and a few of the neighbours.
The sun was warm now and Kathleen left the front door open and finally joined her mother at the back of the van.
"Bejabers, what was that noise?"
She looked round the front of the van just as Joe McShane was taking the two sides of the road with him and singing at the top of his voice.
"The Garden of Eden has vanished they say".
It wasn't very musical or articulate to Kathleen's ear but she didn't wait to listen to more. She rushed into the house while her mother stood smiling at the antics of Joe. She never understood why she was afraid of Joe. Her mammy always said he was a harmless man but she could never be sure of that. Here he was, shaking hands with all and sundry and receiving friendly and patient replies, with everyone anxious to keep the peace. He seemed to find it hard to keep from tangoing across the pavement and when he saw Kathleen cowering at the door he lunged towards her. This sent her rushing for the kitchen where she managed to close the door behind her and stood panting, while Joe invaded the front room looking for her.
"Are you there child? Come out 'til I look at ye. Be Jasus these floors are very slippery".
Then she heard a thud. Silence followed and after some time she peered through the keyhole. As all seemed clear she flung open the door. There was Joe flat on his back in the larder. He had walked into the dark of the Cold Room and then collapsed. Gentle and understanding hands revived him and sent him on his way. From the safety of her bedroom Kathleen stood and watched him scrutinising the road ahead, then fling his body forward as he got on his way.
"Oh Mary this London's a wonderful..."
"I wonder what sort of welcome home he'll get", she thought.
Joe was one of the dalin' men from Crossmaglen who made their living from buying and selling cattle and horses. There was an old saying,
"The dalin' men from Crossmaglen put whiskey in me tay".
She didn't think he had too much money to take home that day.
"God help the poor wee woman. She must be very understanding".
He lived out in the bog in a little whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof and a smoky chimney. They must have been a very clean couple as that little cottage was the envy of many around. She had heard he didn't have to pay any rent and there were always animals grazing round the house. The goats seemed at home there alright often coming down the bog road to meet Joe in all his moods.
On one of the few occasions the family walked out the Culloville Road on a Sunday, Kathleen had time to examine Joe's house from a distance. It was situated about two hundred yards away from the road and it had its own narrow strip of bog road up to the cottage. It was easy to reach in the dark as Joe had painted small boulders and stones white on each side of the driveway.
"White stones", she remarked "I suppose are meant to mark his way home in case he gets lost in the bog one night".
"Whist child and put a stopper to that tongue of yours and just keep walking".
Each side of the door also had its whitewashed stones and flowers of all colours stood against the front wall. The breeze coming across the bog was fresh and clean and the flowers and shrubs, nodding at the passers by, were a great temptation to gather. She remarked to her mother,
"It's like a little oasis there. The house is small but they won't have to worry about draughty rooms like we have in our house".
"It's an oasis alright, away from everyone. They've found this little haven of their own. Where else could you find such sweet air perfumed by the heather and the bog flowers? Not only that, Kathleen, haven't they a lovely uninterrupted view of Slieve Gullion?"
"Mammy I think there's a touch of the poet in you. I hope I've taken after you".
Kathleen noticed a few horses grazing contentedly with hens meandering around scratching for their food.
"They say the wee wife is a wonderful cook and has a great way with the baking of the bread and all on an open fire. Better still she has the cure for the sour stomach and as good as Dr O'Brien with all his fine medicines".
"Sure they have neither rent nor fuel to pay for. It's as good as being a millionaire. All he has to do is go out and cut the turf for the fire when he's sober!"
Sure enough the turf was stacked neatly along the side walls of the cottage. Kathleen felt a twinge of jealousy at her mother's remark about Joe's wife having "the Cure". It would still be a long time before she would think of going near him. Hadn't she a cure of her own? God forbid he should ever come looking for her. She'd drop dead from fright.
Joe had a beautiful daughter too and she came home twice a year. She was tall with curling dark hair and dignity in her walk. When she was home, all three walked into Mass together, passing O'Hara's house and many a young pair of eyes were glued to the windows watching them go by with Joe all spruced up and walking straight. The daughter walked between her parents and towered over them. Her clothes looked expensive and well cut worn with this great dignity of hers. She had style and the local girls watched eagerly for her homecoming.
"If only I could get me hands on some of them lovely clothes", thought Kathleen, "Shure they're wasted in the bog".