Chapter 8 - O'Hara versus McCluskey
Nowadays, Kathleen's duties included paying the weekly bills at various shops. She took this job very seriously, and worked out carefully in advance what was owed at each shop so as to have the exact money ready.
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Her first stop was always the Barber's shop where she paid for the week's newspapers. The Barber was Mr McCluskey and one of his sons assisted him in the shop. She found him an exasperating man. She always received a certain amount of jovial ridicule whenever she entered the shop, stimulated no doubt by her prim attitude.
The shop was easy to recognise with the Barber's Pole stretching out over the pavement. The windows were curtained with white net which kept those outside from looking in, while those inside had a panoramic view of The Square and its happenings. Not a move nor a snippet of gossip occurred without old McCluskey's knowledge.
Here, the Newry 'Bus stopped each day, discharging its passengers and small cargo. The daily newspapers were dumped outside the shop and from that moment a steady stream of customers entered and left again with the clanging doors behaving like the bellows on a worn out old organ.
Mr McCluskey was known to be a strict father, although Kathleen, in her weekly encounters with him found this hard to believe. He had two very pretty daughters, who wore their long hair plaited in pigtails. Each morning, they passed the O'Hara house, riding on their new bicycles, on their way to Culloville Railway Station. Here, they caught a train to Castleblaney in the Irish Free state, where the nearest Convent School was situated, about 10 miles from Crossmaglen. The two girls left home each morning at eight o'clock and they were so punctual you could set a clock by them. Quiet and reserved, they were always dressed in their dark blue school uniforms, with their long hair in plaits tied with ribbons. This was their only splash of colour, their ribbons were identical. Mrs O'Hara was often heard to remark,
"You'd think those McCluskey girls came out of a band box. They're immaculate and their dress sense is so good".
Perhaps this was a hint for some members of the O'Hara family. Everyone said Mr McCluskey was "a dacent man" but Kathleen couldn't agree with that at all. Didn't he put her through a weekly Purgatory?"
One Saturday she entered his shop and faced him,
"I've come to pay for the papers. We owe you three shillings and fourpence this week".
She then handed him the correct money. Following his normal irritating habit he handed the money over to his son.
"Pete will see to you in a minute, when he's finished Mr McEntee's hair".
She could spit. It was all a waste of time. She always gave him the correct money.
Pete disappeared into the kitchen shortly afterwards.
"You might as well make yourself comfortable, 'til Pete gets back".
Oh how she hated that! There she stood once again, facing a shop full of men looking out from behind their white clouds of soapy lather or with hair that lay dank and oily before the scissors made short work of it. The McCluskeys were supposed to be great men with the clippers too. Clusters of hair, some dark and some fair, were on the floor surrounding each Barber's chair. It seemed to be everywhere, on the floor, on the customer's laps, and some even clinging to their eyebrows and eyelashes.
Prim and solemn, Kathleen stood by the door and looked around into twinkling eyes, mischievous eyes and sombre eyes, all holding a look of expectant interest. The electric clippers hummed and the scissors clipped in turn monotonously while she grew increasingly impatient. Her feet began their tapping routine, first one and then the other.
"What am I waiting for Mr McCluskey? Don't you know I haven't finished me messages yet and me Mammy will be getting worried".
"Oh just make yourself at home Kathleen. Pete probably can't find the book".
"What book are you talking about?"
"The wee book which says whether you've paid or not".
"But don't I always pay the bill on Saturdays and have'nt I just paid you now?"
She stamped her foot and the colour drained from her cheeks.
She always did her best to control her feelings but the sight of those men in their chairs, straightening up to look at her, and Mr McCluskey's smug expression was tantalising enough to infuriate a Saint!
"If I can't go now Mr McCluskey, I'll never set foot in your shop again". Out of the corner of her eye she could see all the customers watching. Some sat straight up in their chairs, pushing aside clippers and razors. All work came to a standstill and all she could do was stand there helplessly.
"Oh, so you're thinking of taking your custom elsewhere is it? I've heard it said you leave fourpence for your comics with Pope Murphy. A mingier man I've never met and him with thousands behind him".
Her patience finally snapped. Eyes flashing she lashed back,
"You're a fine one to talk you auld skinflint, you who has two taxis standin' outside your front door and can afford to send your daughters to a swanky Convent School - and give them a new bike each!"
She gasped for breath,
"Oh and they even have a new bow in their hair every day. Me Mammy says....." She stopped short knowing she had said too much.
The looks from his customers were a combination of awe and admiration. One or two kept noding their heads as though in agreement with her.
"Why don't you ask auld O'Hara to buy you a new bicycle?"
"Me, how can we afford a bicycle? We're not made of money. Me Daddy's a hard working man - not a millionaire like some people. What's more, Mr McCluskey, I'll have you know he's not an old man. He's young and handsome. Sure you're only jealous of him. I'm just surprised he bothers to give you his custom!"
This brought a guffaw from him and a chorus of laughter from the customers.
Mustering the remains of her ruffled dignity, she made her departure. Her hand on the door she couldn't wait to get out but couldn't resist one parting shot,
"Mr McCluskey, I think it's about time you learned to count".
With that she slammed the door with such force she almost took it off its hinges.
When she felt composed enough, she walked round to Pope Murphy's shop and paid him her four pennies. No doubt there were those who watched her from McCluskey's window and she was of a mind to turn and stick her tongue out at them but thought better of it. If she expected a welcome or a warm greeting from "The Pope" she was sadly mistaken. There he stood behind his counter, almost submerged in a sea of magazines, papers and books, his face a study of gloom and melancholy. Somehow, he always seemed to be meditating over some problems he found very depressing. She thought,
"He's probably wonderin' how he can diddle some poor unfortunate like meself".
She put four pence on the counter and received her two copies in gloomy silence without even a "Thank You".
"Oh the weasel!" she thought as she took her leave. "Not so much as a goodbye or thank you. I suppose its what you call a silent debate. I wonder what he would have done if I'd walked out without paying him?"
That evening she related her encounter with Mr McCluskey to her parents as they sat around the big dining table. Their attitude astonished her. She was expecting sympathy and understanding but instead met with concealed mirth and then open laughter. Her Daddy said,
"Sure Mr McCluskey meant you no harm and he likes to have a wee bit of a crack with you".
"That's easy for you to say Daddy. How would you like to be the laughing stock of the place?"
She was still not at all happy the following Saturday, when with tongue in cheek, she knocked on Mr McCluskey's front door adjoining the Barber's Shop.
"No-ones going to make a fool of me", she thought as she waited for an answer. She knocked and waited, and waited and knocked again and again, more imperiously each time. She could have waited until Doomsday for that door never opened.
Instead a good ten minutes later, the shop door opened and there stood himself, all smiles, with his white apron wrapped around his rotund tummy, inviting her in. She held her stand.
"I've come to pay your bill but I'm not going into your shop to listen to insults about me and me family".
"Kathleen dear, you know we can't transact business outside my shop".
"Dear you're calling me now is it? It won't work. I'm not going to step inside your door. You have me the laughing stock of the place".
She held out her hand offering him the three shillings and fourpence, not moving a step.
"You know Kathleen O'Hara, it's against the law for me to receive money outside my shop, particularly with the uniformed gentleman looking at us at this very moment".
She always had a great respect for the police as her Daddy had been a policeman. She turned her head and looked across The Square and there at The Barracks's corner stood the indomitable Sergeant Boyd, a figure not to tangle with. She knew very little about the law and it would be better to play safe. Unwillingly, she found herself in motion, then hurrying those last few steps across the threshold.
There they were! The mischievous eyes, the twinkling eyes and the sombre eyes, all giving her an expectant look of welcome, as the owners straightened up for another session of McCluskey versus O'Hara,