Chapter 3 - Convalescence
Kathleen began a year of convalescence. Autumn came with afternoons warm, still and peaceful when the older inhabitants seemed to slumber contentedly seated in front of their houses.
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She took up her old position on the door step, drinking in the scene and listening to the chimes of the blacksmith's anvil. Crossmaglen boasted two forges and these were owned and worked by cousins. They were at different ends of The Square almost facing each other. On these afternoons it seemed as though they spent their time hammering out a melody. When Big Pat started there was sure to be a melodious reply from his relation across The Square.
It was time, she decided, to visit Big Pat's forge again. The name suited for Pat was a giant of a man with large muscular arms and a stoop that became more pronounced with the passing of the years. He was large, he was brown and he smelled of horses. The forge itself was shaped like a horse shoe with a dark cavernous alleyway and Big Pat at the other end. As she came in he greeted her,
"So it's yourself Kathleen, come to visit us. Come right in".
"I'd like to stay for a while if you don't mind Pat".
She arranged herself sedately on a stool and not too far away from the towering horse facing the forge fire.
Big Pat's face was bathed in sweat while he dextrously removed a horse shoe from the fire, hammering and shaping it and then taking it back to the turf fire. Here his son blew the bellows sending up showers of sparks and acrid smoke. Shadows danced on the walls of the dark cavern and then faded away. All the while the horse stood docile while Big Pat got on with the shoeing. He wore a dark leather apron on which he cradled the hoof. This apron was splattered with mud and holed from burning sparks. It had large pockets holding an assortment of nails, old bills, hammers and odd cloths which he sometimes used to wipe the sweat from his brow as he worked hard and long.
The forge was often crowded with men and beasts. Here locals gathered and gossiped and newspapers were perused, particularly the pages covering horse and dog racing. Bets were placed and money changed hands and there was always a post-mortem by the unlucky punters. "Going to the dogs" was a favourite expression and a lucrative one for some of the boys.
Even Kathleen was a keen follower of the sport since one of her neighbours, Paddy Maguire, had two good greyhounds who won races locally and in big towns across the border. When Paddy wasn't exercising his dogs in the fields, likely as not he was to be found at Big Pat's forge, regaling all with the wonderful feats of his hounds. He had stiff competition here since most of the residents owned a dog or two. Discussion often became heated and sparks flew in more ways than one!
Big Pat loved these arguments and the roar of his laughter could be heard across The Square. Some might say Big Pat goaded them on but there were others who called him "The Mediator". His forge was a place of work but it had room for fun and laughter. Kathleen loved the jovial atmosphere and revelled in the crack.
Mary appeared through a door saying,
"Come on Pat, your tay's ready".
A shaft of light pierced the darkness and with it some of its magic.
"Ah woman, you can't take a man away from his work, not in the middle of a job like this."
Raising his eyes, he surveyed one of God's gifts to man; the big, gentle horse. There was respect in Pat's eyes for his horses. The way he caressed their backs, combed their manes, patted their heads and spoke a language in their ears that only they understood, showed this.
"Would he kick you Pat?" Chimed in Kathleen.
"Not at all Kathleen. Only if I abused him. Now who'd have the heart to hurt such a gentle creature? If I think he's a mane beast, I look him straight in the eye and he gets the message. Oh and sometimes it's me that gets a message and then I watch myself".
He said this with such animation, Kathleen knew he didn't mean a word of it.
Mary appeared to call Big Pat a second time.
"Pat your tay's getting cold".
There was a touch of irritation in Mary's voice and Kathleen decided it was time to go. Although she enjoyed the crack yet it was time to leave the smoke laden forge with its turf fire, heated irons and burned and sweating horse flesh. She bade Pat goodbye and he remarked,
"Ye'll always be welcome under my roof and the childer will be glad to play with you."
Aileen was standing impatiently outside.
"You'll be killed if you don't come home - always gossiping with the neighbours and the meal gettin' cold on the table."
"Ah you fuss too much", was all the reply Aileen got.
Eileen returned alright expecting to have to gulp down the usual raw egg. "Glory be. She's forgotten me today. She must have had a lot on her mind". If there was one thing she couldn't stand it was the sight of a raw egg. Ever since her illness she had to take one every day. The time of the day was difficult to gauge as she did everything in her power to avoid taking it despite all the coaxing. Her mother said it was on Doctor's orders and Kathleen knew in the end there was no dodging the issue. When Dr O'Brien made rules you didn't disobey, for there were times he could be a sour as a bag of weasels!
Usually she tried to gulp down the raw egg from a glass after it was well mixed and has a good pinch of salt added to it. Mostly she did this while holding her nose with her free hand. Finally it got to the stage when she refused point blank to take it. Her understanding mother tried to camouflage it in her food, but Kathleen made a stand when she discovered that her mother had put a raw egg in her "champ". This was a delicious mixture of mashed potatoes with a good dollop of butter and milk with the added ingredients of young, green chopped scallions. It looked and it was an appetising dish and Kathleen loved it.
Friday was normally a fish day for the O'Haras. Their Mammy bought fresh fish in the market or sometimes in the shop next door to the Post Office where they sold delicious country butter, cheese and eggs as well as fish. It was usually smoked haddock or smoked and boiled in a little milk with some shallots, salt and pepper. The family loved it, all that is except Kathleen. She wasn't partial to fish in any form. With the return of her appetite, potatoes cooked in any way were her desire, so on Fridays she was the one to get a large plate of champ, loaded with scallions. Her Mammy made a well in the middle and plomped a large piece of butter in it. Here Kathleen took over and mixed the melting butter into the potatoes. Troth it was a meal fit for a King!
By the time she got indoors, they were already seated round the large kitchen table, impatiently waiting to attack the fish and the champ. The young ones had good appetites and Kathleen was the only one not interested except for the plate of champ. The vacant chair was there but her mother was very snappy.
"Kathleen, why is it you never get home in time for your meal? We always say grace before meals and it's a rare thing for you to make it with your constant gallivantin'".
She slipped into her chair, determined to keep quiet so her mother's annoyance could evaporate. She took a look at all their plates from which the contents were quickly disappearing, then had a look at her own. All eyes were glued on her now. One quick spoonful and she looked at her mother for a moment before she exploded.
"You've ruined me champ - me good champ. Who in God's name ever heard of anyone destroyin' a good plate of champ with a raw egg. You intended me to have that rotten auld egg".
She was furious.
"I should have stayed at the forge. Big Pat would give me the shirt off his back and you know that Mammy. I bet they're all sittin' down to their champ right now".
That was one day that she had neither raw egg nor champ and went hungry. The chilly atmosphere didn't help either. Still maybe her mother had learned a lesson that day too. Never interfere with a good plate of champ!