Chapter 9 - Peter McCourt
There was one shop where Kathleen was always welcome and that was Peter McCourt's. He lived right across The Square, on the road leading down to the School. Mrs O'Hara liked to leave some of her custom with him. Here she bought some groceries and he had a marvellous collection of sweets.
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For Kathleen it was a fascinating shop with its highly polished wooden counter running its whole length. Halfway along the counter there was a small door always partially ajar. Standing on top was a glass showcase full of expensive bars and boxes of chocolates, all out of her financial reach. On the shelf behind were masses of tall glass jars, full of coloured boiled sweets, toffees, liquorice allsorts, and half bars of "Gib" or rock. There they stood, like tall policemen, only more enticing!
As the jars emptied, Peter refilled them from his stock under the counter. The most popular variety were the boiled sweets and the cheapest too. They came in large tin cans and those children lucky enough to buy the last pennyworth from the can, received the can, with all its remaining sugar, broken bull's eyes and other coloured sweets. Kathleen got to know about this special transaction. Peter was a very kind man and he had a "gra" for her so she reckoned she could get around him.
Peter was small of stature, grey haired and bespectacled. You might meet him on the street and pass him by without noticing him but he had a great big heart and was very understanding of young people, particularly young girls. He was married to the Headmistress of the Infant's School and the big sorrow of their lives was that they had no children of their own. If Peter had one passion in life it was filling in the football coupons which were in the Sunday newspapers and putting bets on the horses or dogs. On most of her visits she found him engrossed in his paper work, so she gave him the benefit of her advice and sometimes helped him pick horses.
"And if its the dogs you're interested in Peter, I consider myself quite an authority on them".
"Sure I know, I know. Haven't I seen you exercise your neighbour's dogs".
"I know you won't have a word said about them but they don't always win races".
"Sure that's what gambling's all about".
She let him have the last word as she had other things on her mind.
She had been plucking up her courage to tell Peter how little pocket money she got and decided today was the day. He was very understanding and suggested she run a weekly account with him. She was free to spend a ha'penny twice a day and an ecstatic Kathleen knew she would always get good value from Peter. She rushed home and informed her mother of their arrangement. To her surprise she was met with a sharp rebuff.
"Kathleen you'll have us the laughing stock of the town. A monthly account indeed! He must be as soft in the head as you even to contemplate it".
Mrs O'Hara headed across The Square to Peter's shop with Kathleen in hot pursuit.
"Oh please Mammy. Don't spoil me arrangement".
Sure it was all in vein and she knew it.
"There's no way Kathleen can run an account", her mother told Peter.
"Her pocket money isn't enough and she'll be setting a bad example for the other children".
"But Ma'am", she heard Peter reply, "All the sweets Kathleen gets in a month won't break you or me. If she wants to leave her shilling with me every month, she'll get all the sweets she needs".
Kathleen walked home with her mother, silent as befitted the occasion, but her heart was missing beats with the knowledge that she was now a favoured monthly customer. Peter was true to his word. Not only did she get the sweets but all the shiny tin cans, often a quarter full of sugar and boiled sweets. She was jubilant arriving home, with these new cans.
Peter had a game going that cost one penny to play. It was called "Punch". After a penny had been paid, Peter produced a board with small cavities, each holding a number. He then handed a customer a small key and a card was punched and opened out to a number. If it was one of the lucky numbers, the customer received a prize. Behind Peter hung a board showing all the lucky numbers each set against a prize.
It had always been a very unlucky game for Kathleen and she had spent many a penny without success. One day she punched and said,
"Sixty four and it's no good Peter".
She opened the door to walk out when Peter called he back.
"I think you need your eyes seen to. That number you punched is a lucky one".
She could hardly believe her eyes when he showed her the little ticket No. 84. She didn't believe it was a miracle but decided to keep quiet. Anyway, she received a stick of rock.
Mrs McCourt was kind too but Kathleen didn't see her very often. When she did come into the shop and Kathleen happened to be there, she was sure to come away with something special from the glass case standing on the counter. Mrs McCourt was a tall, dignified lady and wore clothes like a model. She towered over Peter who didn't seem to notice anyway. Theirs was a love match and sure what was a few inches in height between man and wife. Her perfume heralded her coming. No one else in Crossmaglen seemed to afford these luxuries and no one else knew where she bought them either.
"Oh she's well deservin' of it", thought Kathleen. "Sure they're the most dacent pair around these parts. Anyway, Peter has very good taste".
There were times when Peter wasn't in the shop. He could be having a meal in the kitchen or be in the front room, reading a book. If his wife was home she whiled away her time playing some of his favourite melodies on the piano. He loved Strauss waltzes. When this happened, Peter was relieved by the maid, Biddy. She tried to look after her employer's interests. To Kathleen, she was hard boiled and stingy without a generous streak in her body. If you were a ha'penny short you were sent home for it. The wonder was, she was there so long she was treated like one of the family.
Kathleen considered her favourite phrase was,
"Home with you gersha and tell your mother you're short of cash".
What's more she would hold on to the purchase until it was fully paid for. She just didn't enter into the spirit of the special arrangement with Peter at all.
Biddy took quick, bird-like steps as she walked the passage into the shop. As soon as these steps were heard most of the children beat a hasty retreat, or, if too slow off the mark, they tried to ask for something not sold in the shop. This was a bit difficult as Peter sold almost everything from Castor Oil, paraffin oil, groceries and frying pans to hundredweights of meal and flour.
There were times Kathleen didn't have the nerve to run. Confronted by Biddy she had to do some quick thinking. One day Seamus was outside in the pram, crying his eyes out was usual and she thought she had found the answer.
"Biddy, do you have teats for baby's bottles?"
She felt sure Peter did not stock such things.
"We have surely and the bottles to go with them".
Biddy produced a sheet of white cardboard with at least a dozen teats on it. There was nothing left to do but buy one but as she left the shop she promised herself she wouldn't be caught like that again. She would ask Peter what he didn't stock and be ready for Biddy next time. She had to work up to it.
"Peter, why did you have to choose that Biddy one to look after the house and the shop?"
"Ah! She's a great girl and a powerful worker".
"She's no good behind the counter and we never get any bargains from her".
"What sort of bargains, Kathleen?"
She told her story.
"Well Kathleen, I do sell almost everything people in these parts are likely to need but I don't sell postage stamps. They have to go to the Post Office for them."
From then on whenever she heard Biddy's footsteps in the passage she called out,
"Can I have a tuppeny ha'penny stamp please?"
"Oh its you Kathleen O'Hara Away with you and your tuppeny ha'penny stamps to the Post Office".
That was enough. Kathleen was out of the door like greased lightning, pushing the pram ahead of her.
She got tired of forever pushing the big black pram across The Square and was glad to get to their front door where she left it to go to play. It was quite a little hill from the O'Hara's down to O'Connell's and it wasn't an unusual sight to see the big pram take off on its own, complete with baby, gathering speed and ending up with a somersault outside O'Connell's Bar. It was a wonder to everyone how the O'Hara baby came out of these escapades unhurt. Perhaps less wonder that he cried a bit.
One evening, Kathleen was called in from play to mind the baby and try to put him to sleep. Her mother had gone next door to buy loaves and she was left with the baby who, as usual, was bawling his head off with no notion of sleeping.
"Use your soothing charm on the little one 'till I get back", her Mammy said. She could never understand why she always got the job of pacifying babies. She thought her Mammy would be better at the job than her as she was the one who seemed to want them.
No way could she pacify Seamus so she took him out of the pram and laid him in the cradle, which sat on two good rollers and usually had a soporific effect. Not today however, so she started to sing a popular song of the day as she rocked him,
"He flies through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze."
As she sang one verse after another, she quickened her tempo and the rocking too, while keeping an eye on the window through which she could see the other children playing, balancing themselves on the steel bars surrounding the pump.
"Look at Mary Ann. She'll never give an aerial display if she can't even balance on a steel bar".
Her mind was far away and she was becoming impatient. This was reflected in the violence of the rocking. The singing and rocking got faster and faster.
All of a sudden she took a look at the cradle just in time to see her brother "fly through the air with the greatest of ease" and land with a thump at the foot of the table.
"My God! Surely I've killed him".
Galvanised into action she picked up the screaming baby and tried to comfort him by kissing away his tears. It was the dark bump appearing over one eye that really worried her.
"There'll be hell to pay now", she thought, as she ran to the larder and took out the butter dish. Soon the baby's face was plastered in greasy butter and that was how Mrs O'Hara found him. The next day the bump had almost gone and Kathleen was congratulated on her prompt course of action.
"Shure it was nothin'. Shure Mammy aren't you rubbin' butter into one or other of us nearly every day of the week".