Chapter 28 - Kathleen's Favourite Shop
The next Fair Day that came around happened to be on a holiday from school as it was also a Feast Day.
"It couldn't have fallen on a better day", thought Kathleen, as she prepared to go to the Fair. She knew how she was going to spend her day. With her mother's permission, she set off early for Keenan's shop. It was a favourite of hers and of course it belonged to her Great Uncle and Aunt. She knew she would be welcome to stay all day if she wanted as long as she didn't get in the way.
[ Chapter 29 ] or [ Table of Contents ]
She crossed The Square in the direction of the Market House dominated by the large chiming clock. Remembering the time of her illness, she had found comfort in listening to its fine mellow chimes. It was called the "Jackson Clock" as it had been donated by a family of that name, and it was the outstanding feature of the town. As she trod her way between the half dressed street stalls and the livestock, she kept her eyes averted from McCluskey's shop. This took some doing. It took her all her time to avoid squealing pigs and back stepping horses. Carts and milk churns were obstacles too. A fat cow urinated as she passed and made her feel sick. Two young pigs jumped from a cart and darted towards her and all she could do to avoid them was to fling herself desperately to one side, only to land among the pots and pans Rosie Brady was arranging on her stall.
"Damn it child look what you're doing to me blood pressure and me profits".
A torrent of abuse from Rosie turned to concern when she saw Kathleen's eyes smart with tears. At times like these she could be as sour as a bag of weasels but she had a soft heart underneath.
"It was an accident Rosie. Those squealing pigs ........."
"Ah child of grace, sure it wasn't your fault at all. Me tongue slipped".
She picked herself up, looked in disgust at her frock, covered in mud, turned on her heels and yelled over her shoulder.
"It slips too often Rosie. I hate your auld saucepans and I'm fed up with your auld stinkin' fish".
With that she beat a hasty retreat and didn't stop until she reached Keenan's shop. The invective that followed her would make a saint blush. She entered the shop like a whirlwind, almost knocking over Mick the Riddle's son who wasn't much taller than her anyway. He was on his way out, bowing his way past her, having made a good start to the day with a few pints of porter under his belt.
Kathleen loved this shop, so large and spacious. It was full of walnut drawers and cubicles. It had been one of the largest, most thriving shops in Crossmaglen in its day. That was before the Black and Tans came during the troubled times. They took all their groceries and drink from the shop but never paid for anything. She was told that was why her Grand Aunt had a breakdown shortly afterwards and it wasn't any wonder.
Their golden years were past now, prosperity a forgotten thing, with empty shelves and cubicles a reminder of better times. At the end of a long counter was serving hatch for the private drinkers who preferred to stand out in the ark hallway. This had another door opening into the Bar Room, which had two compartments. The Private Bar at the back always had a blazing fire in the hearth and a window that looked out on a narrow yard. This Bar had its own door on to the road and the customers spent their time drinking, arguing, singing and betting on horses. When closing time came those in the front bar who were of a mind to continue, quietly walked into the back room, closing the door behind them. The front bar was tidied, glasses washed and the bar closed down. The lights were extinguished and the front door was locked on the outside, with the barman re-entering the grocery shop with the key. He went back to the limitless job of catering for the patrons in the back room.
Those too rowdy or boisterous soon found themselves outside a locked gate at the bottom of the yard. Here a lane passed along the back of the houses emerging into The Square by McCluskey's house.
While conversing with her relations, Kathleen's eyes kept darting over the large shelves at the top, filled with empty boxes which once contained Chiver's jellies and Ronuk floor polish and not just substitutes for the real thing. Those closer to hand were filled with the usual tea, sugar, butter, tins of fruit and quite an assortment of groceries. There was also a shelf for fresh bread. She did her best to repress a desire to get behind the counter and her day was made with the appearance of Maeve, her second cousin and a few years older. On the opposite side of the shop was a smaller counter complete with shelves, cubicles and its own little counter door. Here they sold tins of paint, distemper and all sorts and sizes of nails, even to horseshoe nails. At this counter they spent many happy hours playing shop and today was no exception. When they tire of playing, they filled oilcans for the customers being careful to pump in the right measure. It was rather unusual to have a large paraffin container standing so close to the bar but Kathleen never heard anyone complain.
As a change from hard work they also indulged in one or two dancing sessions. Right here she first learned to dance, using a broom as a partner. Each time the shop door opened, the bell transmitted its sound to the occupants of the kitchen and one or other of the family stepped up into the shop to attend to the customer.
Meals were served in the kitchen and a delight to receive at any time. It was a large and spacious kitchen with a large black range shining like silver and a kettle forever on the boil. Here they made their jams and preserves, cured their own bacon and fried their own hams. Even the eggs came in fresh from the barn. The pigs roamed at leisure in the yard and the hens clucked their way through the seed in the barn, cackling at the appearance of any intruder. For those who liked their drink in comfort and in a happy atmosphere, the kitchen was the place, but they were old and valued customers.
A few of the locals sat around but they were in the minority. It was the country folk who provided the custom and consumed most of the liquor.
They were hard drinkers with the gift of earthy eloquence. A profound insight into the vagaries of nature was often interlaced with a vulgar joke. Big Jim Rafferty noticed Kathleen's face reddening up.
"Boys keep the talkin' clean, Can't you see we've got a young lady in our midst".
She was grateful to him. She enjoyed the discourse especially when Big Jim had a jar too much. Today he had picked on her cousin Mary who was attending to the customers in the kitchen but now it was time to go.
"Mick I was wondering if you'd like to take the long way home and accompany me to the gate. You know Mick she'll be watchin' out for me. You know there's nothing worse than a wicked woman".
"You don't say".
"Oh I mean it Mick. She's a tarrer when she's rizzed and we're always short of a plate or two as it is".
So the two left reluctantly and Mary got on with the job of washing the glasses.
Often this very mixed gathering had to accept the appearance of a policeman for even they liked to take a drink where they could do so more privately. They sat on the hard chairs and stretched out their uniformed legs in complete relaxation, forgetting about poor Mary trying to make her way round the kitchen with trays of full glasses and her eyesight never too good.
The availability of the kitchen for special customers did not help the family when the police made their periodic raids on Public Houses. The sweep was always after hours when the drink tasted better and many an unfortunate customer had been caught in the very act of fleeing. The rap on the door after hours signalled the scraping of chairs and a general rush for all other exits. Bottles and half filled glasses were pushed underneath chairs and tables. Most of the police already knew most of the escape routes and what they didn't know they guessed. One police with a gaunt and vulpine face took this duty very seriously and this displeased the locals who looked on him as a snooper. This officer seemed to be very accident-prone and often could be seen sporting a black eye or walking with a limp, no doubt as a result of an accident in the dark in the line of duty.
On one such night when a raid was at it's height, Jamsie Flynn, who considered himself to be a young athlete, scaled a wall to jump to safety. Instead he broke his leg and found himself in the arms of the law for his pains. The dishonour was in being caught and being brought to Court for such a trivial offence. Mick the Riddle was once heard to remark,
"They only make the laws so we can break them".
Her cousin had grown up in this atmosphere and accepted it, while Kathleen felt the excitement, intrigue and suspense all around her. She kept quiet most of the time feeling that if she spoke out of place she might never be allowed back again.
Across The Square, and not too far from the Police Barracks, stood McConnell's Bar with its plaque over the door. It was a well-known haunt for the roistering, fun loving boyos. Their revelry went on at times until the early hours of the morning with a local tenor singing various impromptu arias. "Kathleen Mavourneen" was always high on his list. One particular night Constable Flannagan was on duty and getting very little sleep with all the commotion going on, so he walked across to the Bar and knocked on the door, shouting,
"Will yez pipe down in there or otherwise I'll have to throw you all in the jail. Its hard lines when an unfortunate man like meself on duty, can't get a dacent night's sleep".
Sure enough they obliged and the Constable returned to his Barracks and his forty winks and the fun started up again.
That afternoon, Kathleen and Maeve were sitting on the shop window ledge, sunning themselves, when Maeve's older sister, Bridie, sauntered out of the shop door accompanied by her friend. These two voluptuous young ladies were around eighteen years of age, eyefuls to behold and very popular with the opposite sex. They attended all the local dances and gatherings. Kathleen knew all about that. Didn't she stay awake at night listening for them to walk by on their way to dances. Bridie was a tomboy who liked her Woodbines and enjoyed a good joke. There she was sitting on the opposite window ledge, puffing away at her cigarette. She remarked to Kathleen,
"I suppose you'll be thinking of smokin' any day now Miss Prim?", giving her the full force of her smile and an engaging giggle. Just then the shop door opened and her anxious mother proceeded to tell her off.
"You know Bridie, if your father finds you smoking there'll be hell to pay all round. You're far too young to be at it".
Bridie's reply was a snort, an eloquent glance and an unforgivable remark,
"You can tell him to go to hell".
An exasperated mother, tears in her eyes, flew indoors banging the door behind her. Kathleen was shocked that Bridie should show such disrespect to her mother but Bridie's little giggle gave way to laughter. Finally she managed to say,
"Did you see the expression on me mother's face. That floored her".
All the same, as the door opened again, her hands moved like lightning and her packet of cigarettes disappeared up the leg of her knickers. Kathleen had seen all this before and had to admit Eva O'Connell was the expert. Her slow masterly action was a work of art and could hypnotise an onlooker. In Bridie's case it was all a question of guilty speed.
Her rude remark to her mother had reached the ears of Rosie Brady, holding court at her stall. She came over, eyes blazing, and blasted away,
"You daughter of Beelzebub. You'll live to regret the day you insult your parents".
"Ah go away with ye, ye auld witch, you look silly without your broomstick".
Rosie ignored this stinging remark as she passed through the swinging door for a quick bottle of stout. She smirked and said,
"And don't be thinking I'll keep secrets from your father. No, Rosie Brady is an honest, God fearing woman and knows her duty".
It was no surprise to Kathleen, as an interested spectator, to see the irate father appear at the door, grab Bridie by the ear, push her into the shop and march her down to the kitchen where the door closed noisily behind them. Later a subdued Bridie appeared at the shop door to gaze on a far from tranquil scene. Her eyes lit on Rosie, watering her dried up fish, which were attracting flies as well as innocent customers. The light of battle was still in her eyes as she shouted across the street,
"That's right you auld divil, water your stinking fish that you bought nearly a week ago. That's right, poison us all as long as you get the money to keep you in porter".
"What an unkind thing to say to old Rosie and her with a heart of gold", thought Kathleen, forgetting all about her own altercation earlier that day, but then Rosie was fit to handle anyone.
The arrival of the Newry Bus scattered the livestock and the clusters of people bargaining over cattle, horses and goats. Over in front of the Market House cattle were pushed on to the weighing scales, stamped and run up ramps to waiting lorries. The cattle dealers continued bargaining, a quick spit on the hand, a clap on the back and then the handshake to clinch the deal, not forgetting the "go between" for his handshake and commission. As the sun cast it's long shadows over The Square, stall holders began the tedious job of packing up while the country folk gathered their wares ready to begin their journeys home. The thirsty ones retired to the pubs and back rooms and some of the ladies to the "snugs" where they could quench their thirsts in private. Some sought solace after a frustrating day of futile bargaining, others to celebrate a successful venture or a sizeable sale, as they stood behind their tall glasses of porter or drops of "the cratur", that golden sunshine.
Some looked for a good crack or a bit of a song. Certainly there was plenty of that further along The Square. Kathleen heard the sound of raised voices and the forcible eviction of a customer. She rushed up to McConnell's as she had a good idea who was causing the trouble. Sure enough it was Mick the Riddle. It was a terrible time for Constable Flannagan. The cells were full to overflowing with drunks. The language and songs that came from them were fierce and not suitable for young ears. Two outstanding regulars were Mick the Riddle and his son. Mick was tall and angular, around six feet six inches tall and he wore his peaked cap pulled well down over his head and resting on his forehead. He had a threadbare suit, which was spotless but green with age. The son was a weedy five footer who walked under the weight of a well-aged hard hat. Maybe he thought it would give him extra height.
When father and son strode into Crossmaglen on a Fair Day morning the locals looked on in amusement at the tall taciturn father striding across The Square with his small anaemic looking son hopping and running beside him, trying to keep up. The silent pair went straight to O'Connell's Bar, their favourite haunt, and generally they stayed until the drink loosened their tongues and they began to argue angrily with each other. From verbal insult it was only a small step to the exchange of blows.
Mick had now reached the stage where he hated all men smaller than himself. Since he was the tallest man there, all of six feet six inches, towering over all the other drinkers, it was small wonder he had few friends when in that mood. When he started fighting talk, it was time to close the bar. Men or the counter were but small obstacles in his way. Porter glasses and bottles were aimed at the barman who ducked under the counter and the mirror and the glass shelves would become his targets. Wherever Mick went he had a following, sure of a riotous display of fisticuffs sooner or later. Even the followers did not escape injury if they happened to get in the way of a flying glass or a badly aimed bar stool. Kathleen made sure to keep her distance from the bar.
The climax was always the same; his enforced liberation from the Bar by three or four lusty stalwarts, accustomed to assisting this mode of exit. Mick was well used to it and always put up a spirited defence, lashing out in all directions while simultaneously delivering a truly formidable flow of invective from which few, from God downwards, escaped.
"Oh may God forgive him". Thought Kathleen, watching it all from a safe distance. Mick could dwell vitriolically on the ancestry of anyone without fear or favour. Neither Popes, Presidents nor Monarchs escaped. In picturesque language he dwelt on his shame at being obliged to mix with natives who were all misbegotten misfits.
Sitting there on the pavement, with the Bar doors locked behind him, he looked a sorry sight. In his inebriated state, with co-ordination difficult, he made several attempts to launch himself upwards and cursed as he found himself back on the pavement. It was a test of endurance as he balanced and swayed, finally making another Bar door, shouting to passers-by who gave him a wide berth.
"What's wrong with a wee one for the road? Are ye all Tee Tee Totallers?"
A little later, after his second eviction, the fighting started again, this time in the middle of The Square with half his drinking companions joining in.
"I'll take on any man six foot or more", was Mick's constant cry as he flailed out left, right and centre. Some of the well-known strong men pranced around him, fists up and looking brave, but they fell like ninepins and were often kicked aside by Mick as he took on his next opponent. Some he just threw over his head in a most nonchalant manner. It was a real free for all.
By this time Kathleen has retreated to watch the proceedings from the safety of her Aunt's shop. The crown swayed from one area to another. Spectators getting too close often received a well-delivered blow for their pains. It was great crack altogether! At the cry of "Police", the crowd took to its heels, leaving Mick and his son in sole command. Mick found time to push his shirt back into his pants and drew himself up to his full height, before they were marched off to the Police Barracks, Mick in the lead with the on tagging along behind as usual.
"I suppose you've reserved the best room in the house for me", said Mick, peering myopically through his alcoholic haze. The Sergeant had a quiet grin to himself, nodding an agreement,
"Indeed I have Mick. Only the best is good enough for a regular customer like you".
Mick beamed with delight as he lurched along helped by his jovial captors.
"A good night's sleep and we'll be ready for a dacent drink tomorrow".
"Oh it's a great drinkin' man you are. The loiks I've never seen".
"Let's see what tomorrow brings", said Mick very complacently.
With the incarceration of Mick the Riddle and his son, peace reigned once more. Twilight fell softly enveloping Crossmaglen in tranquillity and sleep. As always, the following morning before most of the inhabitants were awake, Mick, looking fresh and carrying himself with quiet dignity, strode across The Square followed by his small weedy son, still trying to keep up. Silently they set off for home to rusticate and farm their small homestead. It was a stone cold certainty that the next Fair Day they would be back.
One thing bothered Kathleen. What happened to Mick's son when only one of them was locked up? Where did he spend the night? Did some good soul take him in or did he end up sleeping it off in a hayloft? A stranger who had witnessed their escapades was heard to enquire,
"Is every Fair Day like this?"