Chapter 7 - The Landlord's Downfall
Kathleen's mother kept up a number of old country customs. When the banks along the roads and hedgerows were yellow with primroses as April came to a close, the children were sent out to gather them. They returned home, arms laden, leaving a golden trail behind them. Their mother then carried the flowers outside and with the aid of a ladder, got Patrick to fling them all over the roof to welcome in the first day of May. She maintained that as long as she did this, Lady Bountiful would come in the door too. As May is also the month of Our Lady in the Church, here there was pagan and Christian practice all rolled into one. The ritual had all the children's eyes looking towards heaven as there was always the risk of the ladder slipping causing Patrick to fall. Their mother had more confidence in him but kept her foot on the bottom rung of the ladder to steady it.
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On New Years Eve, their Mammy was the one with the black hair, who went outside the door to enter at midnight. She always came in with a lump of coal in her hand. Her greeting was simple,
"God bless all here. May this New Year shower blessings and love on all who enter this house".
Before Christmas each year, windows were flung open to the chilling air. At some time a little robin always seemed to appear in one of the rooms. This was a sign to look for a letter from Father Christmas. Patrick usually found the letter on top of the wardrobe, well away from seeking hands. When it was safely recovered, the children handed it to their Mammy who read out the message from Father Christmas. It generally expressed the hope they were being good children, helping their parents and working hard at school. If they were, he promised not to forget them and he never did.
Every year, Kathleen sent a letter to Father Christmas, Toyland, North Pole, and from then on excitement reigned. She was still writing after her twelfth birthday. Because of her age, this particular year her Mammy invited her to accompany her on her Christmas shopping and she didn't need to be asked twice. Their first and only stop was at Mrs McNamee's shop. The window was crammed full of toys and it was difficult to move inside without tripping over fairy cycles, tricycles and doll's prams. Baby pianos stood in all sizes and dolls were gazing out from under their curling lashes. Some looked shy, some impudent and some could open and shut their eyes.
It was all too much for her and when they finally left she was clutching a small Christmas stocking, quite unlike the large ones, full of good things which she knew would come later on Christmas morning. Having seen so many toys, she realised that when she wrote to Father Christmas this year, she would have to be careful not to be greedy. There were so many things she suddenly needed.
She was in the Senior Girl's school now and heard a great deal of talk about Father Christmas. Kathleen's innocent questions were met with sniggers.
"Don't tell me you believe in Father Christmas at your age", remarked Brigie Flynn, "It's your mother and father who leave the presents".
It seemed to Kathleen that most of the class were of the same opinion but that didn't alter her attitude one little bit. She listened but it went in one ear and out the other. After all, hadn't her Daddy said a few years back,
"If you believe in Father Christmas, then he is real".
She believed implicitly and had never been disappointed. So now she took extra care in writing and was very careful how to word her numerous requests. She ended up,
"Thank you Father Christmas. Sure I know you'll do your best".
She sat in the morning room full of anticipation, folded her letter, placed it in the envelope, wrote the well-known address and went in search of her mother.
"Well I've done it Mammy. Can I have a tuppeny ha'penny stamp for my letter?"
Her mother gave her a long look and gently ushered her into the Dining Room, closing the door firmly behind her. She found this perplexing but not for very long. What was said behind the closed door Kathleen never divulged but when she came out her step was slow and her air dispirited. She dragged her feet upstairs and sought the privacy of her own bedroom. Somehow, Christmas was never quite the same afterwards.
Kathleen was only eight the year when January came in bitterly cold and wintry. One morning she woke to a great silence. When she looked out she saw The Square covered in a blanket of snow. All the rooftops were white and the sky a pinky grey. The snow lay for ten days and she made the most of it. Snowmen and slides appeared all over The Square and there was great rivalry between different groups of children.
One day they had great fun. This was the day the O'Hara's landlord came to collect his rent. His name was Freddie Gibson and he was a quiet inoffensive man but a Protestant. He lived in a large stone Georgian house at Creggan. This was a local beauty spot and a great favourite with courting couples. It was a small progressive townland and mostly Protestants lived there. The scenery was worthy of an artist's brush. Tall stately trees covered the demesne. A stream flowed through the grounds and under the bridge where illegal fishing went on unchallenged. In Spring, the banks were golden with primroses and under the trees daffodils abounded.
Freddie, a mild and timid bachelor, lived with his widowed mother, a most forceful and domineering lady. He was tall and slightly built and there was plenty of room left to fill out his large belted raincoat. He wore his cap well forward on his head against the piercing, wintry wind. Kathleen had overheard her young Aunt regale her parents with her experience with Freddie. She and a girl friend had walked through the demesne gathering primroses and daffodils when Freddie suddenly appeared at his gate. He said to my Aunt,
"Why don't you come in for a while. My mother's not at home".
This story had provoked great laughter and it had stuck in Kathleen's memory.
Like most of the Protestants around, Freddie appeared to have plenty of money but never seemed to get around to spending very much. He didn't have a car or a horse and trap, but instead rode into Crossmaglen on an old-fashioned high minded bicycle. He was always most polite and courteous to their mother and invariably remained to drink a cup of tea after Mrs O'Hara had paid her rent.
This day when Freddie appeared in town and made his way to their corner of The Square, Kathleen was playing outside the house with her two friends, Mary Ann Martin and Brigid Flynn and some of the local boys. While he was inside being polite and taking tea with her mother, they prepared a reception of their own.
Eventually Freddie reappeared. He walked down the steps, picked up his bicycle and made ready to ride away, pushing his cap well down on his head and tightening the scarf round his neck. Just as he was in the act of mounting, a ferocious snow-ball fight erupted between the children and somehow a few stray snow-balls happened to hit Freddie. He started to run across The Square, and at this, the children stopped snow-balling each other and , as one, turned on poor Freddie and snow-balled him unmercifully. As he retreated they followed him across The Square. Freddie ran on, stumbling through the snow, trying unsuccessfully to mount his bicycle. His cap had blown away and lay in a deep layer of snow.
As he reached the Post Office at the corner of The Square where it is joined by the Newry Road, his pace quickened as the road sloped sharply down hill and he couldn't stop. The brakes on his bike didn't get a chance to work and he landed in a heap in the snow beneath his cycle, with its back wheel still rotating. He eyed the children from this uncomfortable position and quite surprised them with his flow of invective.
"Begorrah Freddie, Me Mammy will never believe me when I tell her you're no gentleman".
"And you're no lady, Miss Smartypants, either".
Having witnessed his debacle, the children took to their heels, jubilant and flushed with success.
Suddenly, apart from Freddie, Kathleen found herself alone in The Square. The only evidence of the incident was his speckled tweed cap lying crumpled in the snow. She brushed herself down, took a backward look at Freddie who appeared to be mobile again, and stared to head across The Square for home, when suddenly she was stopped by the tall, stalwarth figure of Constable Flannagan, the last man in the world she wanted to see. Standing by the Culloville corner he had witnessed Freddie's downfall. Kathleen put on her most meek and innocent expression and tried to slide by when she heard his gruff voice,
"I'd like to have a word with you. Kathleen O'Hara"
She heard the authority in his voice and stood petrified as she gazed up at him.
"Maybe he'll put me in jail", she thought, "And I'll have to live on bread and water. Then I'll probably get that old Rheumatic Fever again".
She decided to try her charm on him and gave him a great big beaming smile.
"It's a grand day Constable Flannagan, though you must be findin' it chilly holdin' up that corner".
"Is it caustic we're gettin', Kathleen O'Hara. Well you seem to be enjoyin' it fine. Tell me were you involved in that poor man's downfall?"
She looked him straight in the eye, fingers crossed behind her back.
"Not at all, sure I've been in the Chapel, saying me Novena".
"Indeed some Novena it must have been since you look so pious and innocent. Well then it's time you knew what's goin' on behind your back"!
With that he brought his hand from behind his own back and pushed a big handful of snow right into her face and went off chuckling.