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Authors: Katie Flynn

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BOOK: Rose of Tralee
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Colm had been eight then, not thirteen as he was now, and hadn’t been as strong a swimmer as he was now, either. He had screamed, though, and Seamus had echoed the scream, and then he had hurled himself off the quayside and into the water, which was a dozen feet below, for the tide had been out.

‘You might have killed your young wan be landin’ on her head, boy,’ the man who had rescued the pair of them told him as he hauled them to safety aboard his boat. ‘Never jump into water feet first until your swimmin’ is a deal better than it is now. But you won’t do it again and you’re safe, the pair of ye. Now tell me, how did she come to fall in?’

Colm had explained, tearfully, what had happened, and their rescuer had seen them both ashore and had bidden Colm to take the young wan home right now and put her into a warm bed. ‘She’ll be none the worse be tomorrow’s morn,’ he had declared cheerfully.

He had been right, too. And Colm’s ould wan had never realised that her precious baby had landed in Anna Liffey; Colm managed to make it appear that she had got wet by somehow slipping into the fountain at St Stephen’s Green whilst watching himself and other chisellers sailing boats made from matchboxes – and he had done it without telling any downright lies, either. But even so, it had taught him a lesson. A little sister was precious, so she was, and though he had felt ill-done-by, at first, when his mother had made him take the baby with him whilst she was working, he soon began to look on it as an honour rather than a penance. Other boys his age had sisters, it was true, and sisters automatically looked after younger brothers and sisters. But he and Caitlin were the only kids in their family, so they had to look
out for each other; it stood to reason. So whilst his mother did her housework or marketing, or worked at her cleaning in the big houses around Ely Place and Merrion Square, he took his sister with him and put up with the sneers of other chisellers who were not so burdened.

That had been at first. Now it was generally accepted that going somewhere with Colm often meant taking Caitlin too and Seamus, who was the youngest member of a very large family, actually seemed to enjoy the child’s company which, since he and Colm got along just great, was as well.

So now, making their way through the dreamy, dusty summer streets, the two boys talked over their plans for the morrow.

‘We can’t go swimmin’, ’cos me mammy’s workin’, so we’ll be takin’ Caitlin wit’ us. But the mammy’ll give us some pennies . . . an’ she’ll give us bread an’ cheese an’ mebbe an apple so’s we can spend the day in Phoenix Park. We might hear the lions ... if we only had some money we could show Caitlin the animals in the zoo!’

‘We could fish in the pond,’ Seamus said, grinning. ‘There’s some big ’uns in there!’ He glanced down at Caitlin, trotting between the two of them, one hand grasping the hem of her brother’s shirt though the rope was still knotted firmly round her waist. ‘Tired, alanna?’ he asked. ‘Will I be after carryin’ you for a bit?’

Caitlin looked consideringly up at Seamus, then shook her curly head. Colm guessed that she, too, had napped now and then in the hot sunshine on the canal bank, with the bulk of Polikoff’s clothing factory looming up behind them, and now had no objection to stretching her legs a little.

‘S’awright, Shay,’ he said, therefore. ‘She’ll be good an’ tired be the time we get home, then she’ll gobble her tay an’ straight to bed wit’ her. Less trouble for the mammy an’ me.’

The three children continued to walk together until their ways parted at the junction of Kevin and Cuffe Streets, where Seamus turned left towards his home just off the Coombe and the O’Neill children turned right, towards Cloddagh Court which ran behind Grafton Street, quite near Switzer’s. The O’Neills had not lived there long. Until five months ago, they had been almost next door to Seamus’s large family on the Coombe, but Colm’s mammy had been determined to get nearer her work and, as soon as she could afford it, she had rented the rooms in Cloddagh Court.

‘It’s handy for Merrion Street and next time Switzer’s want a char, it’s goin’ to be meself, so it is,’ she told her son as she washed the dishes and he wiped them and put them away. ‘Can you imagine workin’ there, me laddo? Eh, an’ they pay better’n the big private houses I’ve heared tell.’

So now when Seamus turned left towards the Coombe, the O’Neills turned right and made for Grafton Street. Even late on a sunny summer’s afternoon it would be crowded, but no one took any notice of a small grubby boy and grubbier girl, making their way past the smart shops and imposing buildings.

Presently they turned left and found themselves suddenly transported. Gone were the wide pavements, smart people, brilliant shop windows. Here the narrow streets were dirty and crowded with noisy, ragged children kicking a ball, rolling marbles, playing tag, skipping rope. Colm and Caitlin made
their way between them, exchanging greetings and insults.

‘Where’s ye been? Oh, you t’ink you’re a Mickie dazzler, goin’ off out wit’ the kid in tow ’stead o’ playin here wit’ your pals ...’

‘Whyfor’s she on de rope? You skeered someone’ll kidnap her, an’ send yiz a ransom note an’ a lock o’ hair?’

‘Don’t I wish they would?’ Colm replied untruthfully. He would be doing Caitlin no favours by admitting he enjoyed the company of a five-year-old – and a girl at that. ‘Still an’ all, she’s not bad as young wans go.’

Caitlin, never slow to learn insults, simply said ‘Shut your bloody gob!’ to anyone who addressed her, which startled even the rudest of the surrounding kids and would have mortified her mother, had she heard.

Even Colm, who knew well how to swear when adults were out of the way, was taken aback and reproved his sister as soon as they entered the quieter area where they lived. ‘Cait, you mustn’t say that,’ he said earnestly. ‘You’ll be in big trouble, so you will, an’ you’ll mek our mammy cry first an’ beat your little bum next.’

‘You say it,’ Caitlin stated. She was kicking a nice piece of red tile ahead of her, head down, eyes on the ground, concentrating. ‘You said it to the chiseller who telled you to t’row in your line somewheres else. You said he was a greedy bugger.’

‘Ye-es, but I’m . . . I’m older’n you and I’m a feller. Fellers can say t’ings which gorls can’t,’ Colm said after the slightest of hesitations. ‘Swearin’s bad . . . have you ever heard Mammy say bad words?’

‘No-oo. But I’m a kid, she’s a mammy,’ Caitlin said
complacently. ‘It’s different for kids. You telled me so.’

They reached their door and Colm pulled his sister to a halt with a tug on the rope, then bent to untie it from her small waist. ‘You’ll be a mammy one day,’ he said cunningly. ‘Just like our mammy. But only if you don’t say bad t’ings. You hear me?’

Caitlin manoeuvred her piece of red tile up to the bottom of the two scrubbed steps which led to their rooms and, after a moment’s frowning thought, nodded. ‘Awright. I won’t say bad t’ings no more. Well, not when our mammy’s listenin’,’ she added hastily. ‘But them boys was
, Colm!’

‘You can be turble rude back wit’out swearin’,’ Colm said, lifting her over the steps and settling her on his hip as they approached the door. ‘Mammy’s out ... d’you want to pull the key up?’

The key was kept on a piece of string attached to the letter-box. You put your hand very carefully through the slit, found the piece of string and hauled the key through. It was odd, Colm thought as he stood his small sister down and watched her fumbling through the slit, that everyone he knew employed this device yet thieves did not take advantage of it. Mammy was always on about thieves, yet so far as he knew no one in the vast, sprawling area that was the Liberties had ever been robbed by someone hauling up their key.

‘Got it, Colly,’ Caitlin said breathlessly. ‘Me open?’

‘’Course,’ Colm said at once and lifted her to keyhole height. ‘Remember, turn gently and it’ll open sweetly. Turn jerky an’ it won’t open at all.’

The child clung grimly to the key for a moment with both hands, breath held, eyes almost shut, then she squeaked triumphantly, ‘It’s worked, Colm! You do the handle!’

Colm turned the handle, the door opened and the two of them entered.

The room was both their main living-room and kitchen, for the parlour next door was kept for special occasions only, so that this room was crowded with all the impedimenta of family living. There was an open fire, unlit on this warm day, the mantelpiece over it a refuge, at the moment, for all the ornaments and breakables which had once been scattered about the room, for well Mammy knew that if any of the china figurines or pretty crockery was within reach of Caitlin’s small, busy fingers it was unlikely to last an hour out, so she had put her treasures out of reach as soon as the child began to toddle. ‘As I did when yourself was at that age,’ she had reminded Colm. ‘Caitlin’s no better an’ no worse than any other child – she likes to touch. And look how careful of me nice t’ings you are, now you’re a big feller! There’s no one I’d trust sooner than you, Colm, an’ that’s gospel trut’, so it is, and one day Caitlin will grow more careful, just like me boy has.’

Apart from the mantelpiece, all the other surfaces held more utilitarian objects, save for the stoup of holy water by the door and the pictures, mostly representations of the Virgin, which crowded the walls. The large scrubbed wooden table had a box of cheap cutlery at one end and four tin plates and mugs at the other. In the centre was a tottering pile of dry linen, awaiting the iron, while under the table lurked a large basket full of what looked like folded – and ironed – sheets, pillowslips and tablecloths. There was a rug by the fire, made of pieces of brightly coloured rag, the back of it sacking, the edges neatened with a border of raffia, and on the topmost sheet was an apple and a sheet of paper.

Caitlin dived for the apple with a squeak of joy but Colm grabbed her before she could snatch it up. ‘There’s a note from Mammy on the paper, Cait,’ he said rather breathlessly. ‘Let me read it forst, then we’ll have halves, eh?’

‘Sure,’ Caitlin said cheerfully. She stood back, staring up at him as he perused the lines. ‘What’s it say, Colm?’

‘It says to scrub the spuds an’ then to tek the basket of linen round to the back door of the Merrill place in St Stephen’s Green Street South and knock the door. The housekeeper’ll give us one an’ ninepence for the washin’.’ He stopped reading and heaved a sigh. ‘There! Mammy’s not supposed to do that old crow’s washin’, she’s got enough on her plate, so she has, but at least she’ll be paid for it this time.’

‘What’s one an’ ninepence?’ Caitlin said as her brother went over to the washstand and poured water from a bucket which lurked beneath it into the round blue basin that stood on the top. ‘Is it money, Colm?’

‘That’s it,’ Colm said. He crossed the room to where a box full of potatoes stood against the wall, neatly hidden from view by a clean but ragged piece of cloth. ‘How hungry are ye, Caitlin? One spud or two?’

‘T’ree,’ Caitlin said promptly. Ever since her third birthday she had understood three and had used it whenever she could do so. ‘Can I pick ’em out, Colm?’

‘No, ’cos they’re covered wit’ earth, so they are, an’ you’ll get your little pawses all filt’y,’ Colm told her. ‘Besides, they’re huge ole spuds, alanna. I doubt you’ll ate two of ’em, let alone t’ree.’ He saw his small sister’s lower lip begin to wobble ominously and said
hastily: ‘You can fetch me the piece o’ salt, though, from the cupboard. Or will it be too heavy for you? ’Tis on the bottom shelf, in a brown paper.’

Whilst Caitlin stood on tiptoe to open the cupboard door Colm hastily chose three enormous potatoes and stuck them in the water, forgetting to knock the worst of the earth off them first so that the water quickly began to resemble a swamp. Sighing, he did as good a cleaning job on them as he could under the circumstances, then put them into the large blackened pan which stood between the buckets beneath the washstand. One bucket was for slops, the other for fresh water, and he saw with dismay that by the time he’d covered the potatoes with water he would have to go down to the ground floor to replenish the bucket, as well as taking the other one to empty the mixture of water and mud which his carelessness had brought about. It was a nuisance, because he had planned to put the potatoes to one side of the fire, then take the empty bucket in one hand and carry the basket of clean linen in the other, but now he would have to make a double journey.

‘Here’s the salt, Colm,’ a small voice said breathlessly at about pocket level. Colm grinned at his little sister and took the big chunk of salt, the size – and weight – of a housebrick, from her. He stood it on the dry piece of the washstand and chipped a piece about the size of a walnut off it with the old kitchen knife which Mammy kept especially for the purpose, then handed the salt back to Caitlin, who received it in both arms and staggered proudly back to the cupboard with her burden. ‘Is there anythin’ else I can fetch for you, Colm?’ she asked, slamming the salt down on the lowest shelf with an audible crash. ‘Are you goin’ to light the fire? I’ll bring the
matches if you like.’

Colm knew very well that Mammy always kept the matches on the topmost shelf, and knew, too, that Caitlin could never reach them in a million years. ‘It’s all right, alanna,’ he said, however. ‘We’ll not be after lightin’ the fire until we’ve delivered the linen.’ He bent and picked up the bucket of water, pouring it over the potatoes, then stood the bucket down again and tossed in the salt. ‘And anyway, you know you aren’t allowed to touch matches, they’re . . .’ he turned as he spoke and what he saw made his eyes bulge. Caitlin was calmly struggling from shelf to shelf like a goat up a mountainside, heading straight for the topmost one. ‘Why, you wicked little ...’

He leaped towards her on the words, just in time to see her clutch at what she clearly thought was a shelf edge ... and topple backwards, holding his mammy’s wooden chopping board in her hands for one brief second before releasing it to clutch at the air as she crashed floorwards. A number of objects came off the shelves with her, landing on or around the child, and Colm, his heart beating so loudly that it almost deafened him, pushed everything wildly aside and looked down into her white face. ‘Caitlin! Are you all right?’ he gasped. ‘What devil possessed you to go climbin’ like a mountain goat on Mammy’s cupboard shelves? Oh, if you’ve been an’ gone an’ kilt yourself then it’s my fault, for not rememberin’ as how you’re always game for anyt’ing, any’ting at all!’

BOOK: Rose of Tralee
8.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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