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Authors: Katie Flynn

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BOOK: Rose of Tralee
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For as Cracky had improved, Caitlin had grown more ingenious and naughtier. Not that she meant to be wicked; she started off each new day with a vow that today she would be as good as gold. Only things happened and opportunities occurred . . . but as her mammy said, she didn’t always have to
take
the opportunies; she could sometimes think first – and not act.

But I’m a reformed person, she reminded herself as she skipped along the pavement. It’s
weeks
– well, days – since I was last in trouble, because if you want Santa to visit you have to be good near Christmas, and in the New Year I’ll make a real resolve for to be entirely changed and always Mammy’s little helper. She could just imagine herself dressed in a clean pink dress with a snowy pinafore over it and shiny black-button shoes on her feet, gently soothing the sick and making soup for the old street beggars, and was rehearsing what Daddy would say when Mammy told him how wonderfully helpful and grown-up she had become, when she saw, ahead of them, Cracky’s sister, Roisin. Roisin was a real, grown-up lady now, working in the jam factory on Parnell Street, and she had money, too. So Caitlin nudged Cracky and the two of them broke into a sharp trot. Roisin was generous to her smaller brothers and sisters, and she was lively and loved to tell them stories of her friends – and enemies – at work, so it was worth a run to catch her.

‘Roisin!’ Caitlin panted, grabbing her by the arm. ‘Where’s you goin’, eh? You aren’t headin’ for home, that’s for sure.’

Roisin stopped and smiled down at them. ‘I’m goin’ Christmas shoppin’ for a little somethin’ for baby Timmy,’ she said. ‘I t’ought I’d mebbe get a little wooden horse. He’d love a wooden horse, would me laddo.’

‘Can we come?’ Caitlin asked eagerly, all thoughts of going home and having tea temporarily forgotten. ‘We’ll help you choose the best, won’t we, Cracky?’

‘We-ell ...’ Roisin began dubiously. ‘I’d love to take youse both, but your mammy will worry if you’re late, an’ it’s dusk already. Better not, alanna.’

‘Oo-ooh,’ Caitlin moaned. The difficulties of being good. But if she went with Roisin and took her time, Mammy would have made the tea and laid the table, and she might get just a little cross ... or even very cross indeed, since Caitlin’s only job after school was the table-laying and a bit of a hand given towards their tea. ‘Oh, well, if Mammy’s cross I could say I forgot the time ... an’ I do love the big shops, so I do!’

‘Yes, but if your mammy gets cross she’ll mebbe tell your daddy an’ Colm that you’re a bad spalpeen, an’ they won’t take you on outings,’ Cracky put in craftily. He was thinking of his sharing their tea, Caitlin thought, and gave him a light kick on the ankle. It looked like a mistake, but Caitlin was cunning at ’accident on purpose’ kicks, as Cracky well knew.

He swung his own leg and got her right on the kneecap, and she couldn’t even holler, since she’d started it, so instead she said defiantly: ‘Me daddy may tell me off, but Colm won’t. Colm will know I’m good at heart; he was always sayin’ just that when I
did somethin’ Mammy thought I shouldn’t.’

‘Oh, but Colm isn’t comin’ home this year,’ Roisin said confidently. ‘Still, alanna, he’ll be back next summer I’ve no doubt. No, you’d better not come shoppin’ wit’ me, I don’t want you to be in trouble at home.’ And before Caitlin could put her right, Roisin had smiled, waved and disappeared in the direction of the big shops on Grafton Street.

Caitlin stood for a moment, whilst a tide of fury washed all over her. Just what did Roisin mean by that? Did she think she knew more about the O’Neills than Caitlin did, by any chance? How
dared
she say that Colm wasn’t coming home for Christmas, when Caitlin was looking forward to seeing Colm even more than Daddy!

But Cracky, unaware, caught hold of her arm and pulled. ‘Come on, your mammy may want us to run a message,’ he said urgently. ‘An’ it’s hungry I am for me tea! Don’t worry about old Roisin, we can go wit’ her another day . . . she might give us a penny to spend at the week’s end, when she’s paid.’

Caitlin shook him off. She was so angry she didn’t care what Cracky thought, or what he said to Roisin when he got home, either. ‘Your b-bloody old sister’s a wicked l-liar, so she is,’ she stuttered. ‘Of
course
Colm’s comin’ home wit’ me daddy. Fellers always come home wit’ their re-relatives. Oh, I’d like to t’ump your Roisin on the nose for sayin’ untrut’s about me brother.’

‘Aw, don’t go on,’ Cracky said, giving her shoulder another tug. ‘Your mammy telled you she didn’t know for sure about Colm yet. I ‘spec’ another letter’s come. Your mammy gets a lot of letters, don’t she?’

‘But how could horrible Roisin know before me?’ Caitlin demanded, standing with legs apart and
hands on hips, determinedly refusing to let Cracky move her so much as an inch along the pavement. ‘She’s a bad girl, to tell lies to a young wan like meself! I’m ... I’m a holy innocent, you know.’

Cracky gave a rude shout of laughter. ‘Holy innocents wear haloes an’ they don’t have no bodies, just little wings where their necks oughter be,’ he said mockingly. ‘You’re a holy terror, that’s what you are.’

‘An’ you’re as big a liar as your . . . your
damned
sister!’ Caitlin shrieked. ‘You’re twice as naughty as me! And you can’t come to me home for tea, nor at Christmas, either, so sucks to you.’

Unwarily, Cracky put his hand on her arm, beginning to say penitently that he was sorry, that he’d not known . . .

But to be touched, when she was in a rare temper, was fatal. Caitlin aimed a small clenched fist at Cracky’s nose – and hit her mark. Cracky roared and, forgetting his resolve to take care of his little friend, hit back. In less than two seconds the two of them were fighting in earnest, swapping mighty blows which occasionally even connected. Through a red haze Caitlin thumped, dodged, kicked, scratched . . . and to keep her temper blazing she occasionally let forth a shriek of ‘Frys are liars!
All
Frys are liars!’, scarcely hearing Cracky’s breathless retort that all O’Neills were soft in the head and wasn’t that a well-known fact now?

Indeed, when the interruption came she was actually sobbing with rage, and her first inclination was to fight on and ignore the voice which was raised in a scandalised shout. But then firm hands seized her and dragged her off her opponent, and a soft voice said in her ear: ‘And what’s all this, then? I come out lookin’ for my little girleen because it’s gettin’ dark
an’ I’m worried she might be in trouble, an’ I find her engaged in a street brawl an’ fair raisin’ the roof wit’ her screechings. Why, you sound worse than the banshee herself – an’ you look worse, too, Caitlin Maria O’Neill! What’s the meanin’ of it? And if it isn’t Cracky, your best pal, wit’ blood runnin’ from his poor nose an’ his poor shins kicked into pieces! You should be ashamed, young lady!’

It was her mother, of course. Naturally, when you’re being really specially bad and wicked it’s always the person you most want to impress who sees you. Caitlin gulped, knuckled her eyes – she had been crying hard, what with the knocks and her temper – and looked up into Mrs O’Neill’s stern face. ‘Mammy, tell Cracky me brother’s comin’ home for Christmas, just like you said. Oh tell me he’s wrong, an’ me dearest Colm will be home wit’ me daddy.’

Eileen O’Neill looked down at her small, dirty, tear-streaked daughter and repressed a smile. Poor kid, she was always vowing to be good and gentle, just the sort of little daughter her parents wanted, and she’d had a good long stretch of being good, too – it must be all of ten days, Eileen told herself. But the fact was, they’d spoiled her rotten, she and Colm and dear Sean, when he was home, and now she’d got a temper on her when she was crossed and a wickedly inventive mind, and it was a full-time job looking out for her. Indeed, she valued Cracky’s help and the last thing she wanted was for the two children to fall out. So she didn’t smile, but turned her daughter around to face Cracky. ‘Look what you’ve done to your friend’s nose, you wicked wretch! Well? What do you say to Cracky?’

‘He hit me too, though not nearly as hard,’ Caitlin
muttered, chewing her knuckles. ‘But . . . but I did start it.’ She looked across at Cracky and although Eileen could only see the top of her head, she could tell that Caitlin was smiling. ‘It was a good punch that first one,’ she said. ‘I’m real sorry, Cracky. If you’ll come home wit’ the mammy an’ me I’ll make it better wit’ warm water an’ a key down your back. An’ I’ll give you first go at the cake,’ she added generously.

‘Oh . . . well, it’s all right,’ Cracky mumbled. ‘I didn’t know you was goin’ to go
mad
or I’d ha’ dodged, so I would. An’ I know I shouldn’t hit a girl, Mrs O’Neill,’ he added. ‘But she’d ha’ kilt me stone dead if I’d not fought back. She’s a terror when she’s roused . . . an’ I did laugh at her over somethin’ or other,’ he finished.

‘Right. Well, we’ll go home and clean you both up an’ I’ll start the tea in earnest,’ Eileen said. ‘But before we move a step from here, Caitlin, let us get one t’ing crystal clear. I
told
you that Colm wouldn’t be here for as long as Daddy, did I not?’

‘Yes, Mammy,’ Caitlin said. She gave a disgusting snort and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. Eileen closed her eyes but said nothing. Kids never carried handkerchiefs and the jumper Caitlin was wearing had been through too much to be ruined by a runny nose. ‘But I t’ought, . . . you never said . . .’

‘I told you he’d not been wit’ the tunnelling long enough to take a proper time off,’ Eileen said remorselessly. ‘He only has the two days. An’ he’s writ home – there’s a letter for you too, alanna – to say it’s not worth the ferry fare to come all the way home one day and leave the next. So it’ll just be your daddy who comes home this time.’

‘Oh. Well, why did you tell Roisin afore meself?’ Caitlin said piteously, more tears starting. ‘I’d never
have clacked Cracky only Roisin said ... she said

‘I met Roisin earlier in the day, when I’d just opened the letter,’ Eileen said. ‘I was disappointed meself, there’s no denyin’ it, but I t’ink your brother’s showin’ good sense. The summer’s more fun an’ he’ll have longer then if he stays in England now. So how about tellin’ Cracky that all Frys speak the trut’, now?’

‘Well, Roisin spoke the trut’,’ Caitlin muttered. She cast a black look at Cracky. ‘But when I said I were a holy innocent he said I were a holy terror and that weren’t true, Mammy. I’m pretty good, aren’t I?’

‘Sure an’ you do your best, but I’m bound to confess you’re no holy innocent,’ Eileen said, repressing another smile. ‘Say you’re sorry to your pal now, an’ we’ll get back to our teas.’

But astonishingly, when Caitlin, with rather an ill grace, did apologise to Cracky, and when Eileen repeated her invitation to tea, Cracky turned them down. He refused nicely, with a smile, but nevertheless he said he had better go home, his mammy would probably need him ... he might catch up with Roisin and help her to carry her parcels.

Eileen watched him go uneasily. She realised that she relied upon Cracky more than she had ever acknowledged, even to herself. When Caitlin was with him, Eileen knew that no harm would befall her daughter. Oh, she might – probably would – get into all sorts of scrapes, but she would come home intact, or almost so. Sometimes her knees might be grazed, her cheek scratched, her school jumper unravelled, but she would have been as well guarded, Eileen knew, as she would have guarded the child herself. So the thought of Cracky being suddenly unavailable was a frightening one. When Colm had been here he
would be at the flat before Eileen-herself got back from work and he had kept an eye, but with Colm gone and Cracky standing on his dignity, how on earth would she manage? Asking another child to keep an eye on Caitlin would be useless, she knew that. Caitlin could be led but not driven and how many older children would understand that? Cracky wasn’t far out when he had called her daughter a holy terror.

‘Awright, Cracky Fry, go home then, why don’t you?’ Caitlin squeaked. ‘I don’t care – me daddy’s comin’ home an’ we’ll go out, go to the Mayro an’ ... an’ buy presents from all the big shops an’ we’ll go wit’out you, what’s more.’

Eileen slapped across Caitlin’s legs, hard and quick, leaving a red mark, and saw Cracky wince even as Caitlin let out a howl any tom-cat would have envied. ‘Mammy, Mammy, that hurt, so it did! I’ll tell me daddy you’re a wicked woman who smacks good girls,’ Caitlin whimpered. Then she turned on Cracky. ‘It’s all your fault, Cracky Fry! Go on, go away, like you said you would.’

‘Cracky, I’d be honoured if you’d take your tea wit’ us,’ Eileen said desperately. ‘An’ the biggest, best present under the Christmas tree shall be yours. And when we pass the bakery you shall have a sticky bun for puttin’ up wit’ Miss No-Manners here. Now then, what d’you say to that?’ She gave Caitlin a little shake. ‘What’ll you do after school wit’ no Cracky to give an eye to you? For I’d not have you alone in the flat, creatin’ havoc the way you would if there was no Cracky to keep you in check. So what d’you say to your friend now?’

‘I’m really, truly sorry,’ Caitlin gabbled. Eileen was sure her small daughter had suddenly realised what
her life would be like without Cracky to mind her. ‘Do come back to tea, Cracky ... I never meant what I said.’

Cracky grinned at them both. ‘Well, I will then,’ he said magnanimously. ‘Lead on, Mrs O’Neill!’

It was a good tea. Thick slices of fatty pork fried until it was frizzled golden brown, a pile of golden potato cakes cooked in the pork fat and a plateful of bread and margarine to fill in the chinks. Then there was tea, and a hefty slice each of tea brack.

‘I’m stuffed tight,’ Caitlin said happily, if in-elegantly, as she drained her teacup. ‘Me an’ Cracky’ll wash up for you, Mammy, ’cos I was too late to lay the table or help. An’ if we do a good job, could you read us Daddy’s letter after?’

Her mother agreed to this and the two children got on with the work, so Eileen settled down in front of the fire with her knitting and began to turn over in her mind how she would manage Christmas, now that she knew for sure Colm would not be coming home. It was a shame that the boy should miss his family holiday but Sean had promised that their landlady, the Mrs Ryder whom both the O’Neills had frequently mentioned in their letters, would make Colm very welcome and see that he had a good time. ‘What’s more there’s other young folk in the house. Two very pretty girls and a young feller not much older than Colm,’ Sean had written in his neat, slanting hand. ‘So I wouldn’t be weeping for your son. Likely he’ll have a better time in the Vale than he would have at home.’

BOOK: Rose of Tralee
10.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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