M A DEVEREUX
What I can remember it was a crisp autumn day I myself was sitting on a chair next to the kitchen window, I just sat there gazing out of the window onto the garden outside. The entire garden was covered in dew that had formed from the heavy mist the night before. With the dew on the ground and the sunlight breaking its way through the clouded filled sky the whole garden seemed to come alive.
The trees that once stood firmly fixed during the summer months swayed gently in the winds that autumn brought with her. Its leaves at their almost subtle hint of autumn colour were rustling away to themselves as if trying at their very best to be heard above all the noise that surrounded them. Back inside the room from which I looked out onto the garden it was so peaceful; there was barely a sound to be heard apart from the odd crackling and hissing noise that came forth from the open fire.
Beyond the crackling and hissing sound of the fire there came the sound of muffled voice which were coming from the room adjacent to which I was in. Then all of a sudden without warning the silence of the whole house was shattered. Like a piece of glass been thrown hard against a wall or like a clap of thunder that comes before a storm, but the sound that had interrupted the silence was not that of breaking glass nor was it thunder it was the cries of pain that came from my mammy which was followed shortly by the sound of a baby crying. A few minutes later the door of the kitchen opened and in walked my father or Noel as we always referred to him. He just stood there staring, he stared straight at me but it was like I was not there, as if all of a sudden I had become transparent to him. He must have only been standing there for a few moments but to me it seemed like an eternity as if time itself had come to a halt. It was only the tears that started to form in Noels eyes that started up the hands of time once again, to try and stem his tears Noel wiped his eyes with the back of his shirt sleeve but to no avail the tears just kept on coming. It was a bit scary and strange to me to see Noel crying like that I had never seen him do so before nor was I to do so again.
Noel was never one to show his true feelings to anyone at the best of times. When he finally managed to pull himself together he told us mammy had given birth to a baby girl and that we could go and see her and mammy but only a few of us at a time as the room was small and there were nine of us. Five boys three girls and me. When it came to my turn to see her I crept into the room so not to frighten the baby, mammy was sitting up in bed with the baby in her arms, mammy looked up and saw me standing there at the foot of the bed and smiled. With encouragement from mammy I moved closer to her so to have a better look at the baby. She was wrapped up in a white hand knitted shawl with only her head and one hand poking out, she was so tiny she looked as if she was made of china. At first I was a bit hesitant to touch her or not as she looked so fragile as I did not wish to harm her in any way. In the end I decided to hold her hand just for a little while, as I held her tiny hand in mine it was so warm and soft to the touch. As I stood there holding her I felt a warm glow come over me it was the first time I had seen a new born baby, it was to be one of the most happiest and most proudest moments of my life. The rest of the day was hectic with people coming and going a friend and neighbour of mammies Norah O Brien helped my eldest sister Moira make the supper for the rest of us while my mammy rested. When supper was ready and the table laid Norah rushed off home to look after her own family. After supper Noel went to the pub with some of his friends to celebrate with a couple of glasses of porter or more. With Noel gone Moira took charge as she always did. Breda and Brendan were sent to Slatterys to get milk bread butter and whatever else was needed. Irene did the washing up as per usual. Fergal and John went outside to chop up wood for the fire, they chopped up enough wood to keep the fire burning the whole night through. Tony gathered up his snares and went out over the back garden fence and into the fields behind to catch if he was lucky a rabbit or two for dinner the next day. Paul styed and helped Moira to do the dusting and other bits and bobs that needed doing, as he was too young to help his brothers. As I was only three I was not asked to do anything so I just played with my doll on the kitchen floor and kept out of the way. Now and again I would go and have a peek through the crack in the bedroom door; I dare not go in just in case I woke either of them. I just wanted to make sure the baby and mammy were all right. By the time Noel had come home from the pub we were all tucked up in bed. At that time we slept three to a bed I slept with Breda and Irene I always tried to get in the middle if I could because it was warm in the middle and you didn’t have to fight for the bed clothes. Even though we were a bit squashed it was cosy all the same.
The following day I was awoken by the sound of birds screeching in the back yard, as I lay there I noticed the rays of sunlight dancing on the bedroom ceiling, as I watched I thought to myself if things would always be the same, if it would be like this forever never to change. Then there came more screeching this time it was not the birds, it was mammy she was shouting “it’s time to get up and dressed for school or you’ll be late” One by one all my brothers and sisters got up as I was too young and did not have to go to school I decided to stay in bed a bit longer. I slipped back underneath the sheets and curled myself up into a tight ball and watched while the rest ran around like headless chickens looking for their books shoes and anything else that they needed for school that day.
When all the pandemonium was over I got up myself and headed for the kitchen. As I reached the kitchen door I could smell the familiar sweet smell of freshly made porridge. I went in they were all seated at the kitchen table except for mammy and Noel. Noel had already gone to work and mammy was standing at the range keeping an eye on the porridge to make sure it did not burn. I went and sat on the empty chair next to Paul we each had a bowl and a spoon in front of us. As we waited for the porridge Tony tried to make one or more of us feel sick with his stories so he could get more of the porridge. Mammy told him to stop or he would have to go without himself. When the porridge was ready mammy dished it up we had two piping hot spoonful’s each. No sooner was the porridge in our bowels it disappeared.
You had to be quick in our house at eating your food because if you left it standing there for even a minute you knew for sure someone else would have eaten it for you. It was like that then with twelve of us too feed and very little money. It was not that Noel did not have a good job he did, but he would gamble most of his wages on the horses. Gambling was like a drug to Noel he could not go a day without doing some sort of bet. Even if it came down to the last penny in his pants pocket. The little money he did give mammy she had to hide on the off chance Noel came looking for the money back.
That morning I spent some time in the garden playing by myself. The views from the back garden were breath taking to say the least, the fields themselves seemed to roll on forever well until they reached the mountains that is. Most mornings the mountains were fairly visible to the naked eye, with the clouds that seemed to be strangely drawn into its midst and with the mist that descended upon them. With the mist gone and the clouds risen from the mountain top back into the heavens from whence they came from. The colours that the mountains gave were spectacular, oranges, violets, purples and reds virtually the colours of the rainbow that was not all the mountains gave. You could tell by just looking at the mountain if it was going to rain or not. When the mountains gave the impression that they were only a stone’s throw away you knew that it was definitely going to rain. When the mountain looked far away you knew it was going to be fine. This was common knowledge to the people living in the town and surrounding areas. Below at the very foot of the mountain is where the woods stood in its glory, the two seemed to merge into one in such a way it was impossible to say where either one began or finished.
In the summer months we would make the long journey into those very woods to pick the berries that grew there in abundance. The woods would be awash with those berries dripping from every bush in sight. It was like a sea of blue that flowed out over the landscape that laid out before you. When I was very young our mammy would make the journey to the woods with us but as time went by and I got older mammy made the journey less frequent. It wasn’t that she was getting too old herself to make it I think it was more likely that she thought we were old enough and hopefully sensible enough to go by ourselves. I alone must have made that journey at least a hundred times or more enough to have lost count anyway. Out of all those times I had gone there, there were two particular occasions that spring to mind. The first was a particular cold day for the time of the year it was nearing the end of the picking season, we had been there for hours and had very little to show for it as the berries were few and far between. I myself was cold tired and hungry all I wanted to do was just go home, then it started to rain so we called it a day. We loaded up the cart with what we had and headed for home. As the cart made its slow steady way along the winding stony ridden path I sat at the back of the cart with my white spindly legs dangling over the edge I sat there carefree swinging my legs back and forth thinking of nothing in particular. Without warning the cart came to a complete stop and I was thrown forward onto the stony road that lay out beneath me. My hands and knees were torn to ribbons, my brother Tony jumped off the back of the cart and helped me to my feet I was shaking and my hands and knees were throbbing with pain I could not help but cry. “Stop all that nonsense Aine at once we haven’t got time for all this nonsense” Tony said Then without hesitation Tony turned his back to me and jumped right back onto the cart “Come on John let’s get going” Tony said “What about Aine said John” “oh she will be alright it will do her good to walk the rest of the way home” said Tony. With a crack of the reign the donkey moved off slowly taking the cart with him. I just stood there for a while hoping John would stop the cart and I could get back on, but the cart did not stop it just kept rolling on. I had no choice but to do what Tony told me to do I mean the only other option was to stay where I was and I knew I couldn’t do that. Every step I took was a painful one the wound on my knee started to bleed the blood ran down my leg and onto the stockings I was wearing. With the blood running down my leg and the tears down my face by the time I got home that night both face and stockings had turned a shade of scarlet.
The second time our mammy happened to be with us. Yet the journey home was the cause of all our troubles. This time we did not have the donkey and cart with us, that meant we had to carry by hand the fruit that we had picked that day, it was getting late mammy wanted if we could get home before dark that meant taking a short cut through a farmer’s fields. These particular fields belonged to a Mr Quinn he did not take too kindly to people crossing his fields without permission to do so. There was one time he chased us with his shotgun and let off a shot in our general direction. We dare not look back but kept on running, as we did we could hear him shouting after us, you won’t be so lucky next time I’ll make sure of that. As mammy was with us this time we thought it would be probably safe enough to cross the field. He would not dare try anything like that with her there. We had crossed the first field alright and there seemed to be no sign of Mr Quinn so we continued onto the next field. It wasn’t until we were half way across when mammy saw it, it stood there perfectly still looking straight at us, it was about four feet tall five feet long and weighed approximately ten hundredweight it as I referred to was in fact a bull. In a quiet and calm voice mammy told us to put down what we were carrying and on the count of three run as fast as we could, not to look back under any circumstance. Are you ready said mammy, yes was our reply, one two on the count of three we ran like the wind as fast as our legs could carry us. As I neared the fence I could hear the bull getting closer you could hear the sound of its hooves hitting the ground under its weight. As I got closer to the fence the bull seemed to be gaining on us almost so that I could hear its breath as it came out of its nostrils. Half imagining its hot breath upon my neck I threw myself over just in time and had landed on the other side of the fence with a heavy bump. I lay there for a while as I was too exhausted to move and with sheer relief to be in one piece.
As I lay there I could feel the colour coming back to my face as the blood began to race around my body like a steam engine. God knows what would have happened if we did not make it I shudder to think, even now after all these years later it still sends a chill down my spine. We never did cross those fields again as mammy said it was better to be late than dead on time.
The land directly behind our house was wasteland belonging to no body it was a great place for wildlife. There were all sorts of animals and insects especially in summer. There were to name a few frogs and toads that leapt about like coiled springs in long green grass that grew along the river bank. Butterflies of such grace and beauty but to see them in flight to me was the only true way you could truly appreciate their sheer radiance. Rabbits that scurried from burrow to burrow as if their life depended upon it. A number of birds swallows that flew so effortlessly in the heights of the pale blue skies, starlings that fluttered from pillar to post screeching at the very tops of their voices and finally came the
Black crows or jackdaws as we called them. They were the biggest and most mischievous of the lot. In our garden there grew all sorts of wild flower. It was only by the sheer magic of Mother Nature at work there were any flowers in our garden at all. The seeds from sister plants that grew for miles around would be swept up and carried on the backs of the winds that passed by, and just for a brief moment to come to a stop just long enough to deposit its load into our very garden below. With all their beauty and grace, the flowers had their sinister side too. Well it was not the flowers themselves but the bees and wasps that the flowers encouraged with their heads full of pollen that was the problem. With the first drop of sunlight the flowers in our garden would start to open their heads each individual petal in turn would unfold to reveal their fruits. Given time these very fruits would encourage the bees and wasps to come into our garden to feast on what was on offer. To some this whole invasion of the garden would go unnoticed but to me someone who had been stung on the leg at the tender age of three this whole episode that unfolded out in front of me would be catastrophic as I was terrified of them then as I am still to this present day, it’s funny how at such an age everything you see hear or come into contact with is such a big thing. I mean even the most simplest of bus rides would become an adventure to you. All the sights sounds and people you meet so much to learn but impossible to take in all at once. Some of the goings on that went on around me meant nothing to me then and to be honest I did not much care. It was not until I grew up then these things I did not understand or cared for become apparent to me. Many a time something would happen or be said that held a question only to be answered by myself later in life. Going back to that day in the garden as I played mammy came out of the house wielding an axe in her hand she carefully placed the axe onto the floor, then went over to the pile of wood that had been specifically placed on top of each other mammy picked a couple of the blocks of wood and brought them back to where the axe laid. She then picked the axe up and proceeded to chop the wood. The axe she held was thrown up high above her head and brought back down with such force you could hear a cracking sound as the wood splintered into two halves. She did this again and again until the wood was roughly the size she wanted. With all the chopping of the wood done mammy placed the axe leaning against the kitchen wall then in one clean movement mammy straightened her curved frame and turned to face me. “Come over here Aine said mother” “Come over here and take this wood inside for me will you” hold out your arms Aine, mammy then placed the chopped wood along my forearms. “Now there’s enough for you to carry go on now and take it into your sister” As I headed for the back door mammy shouted after me “Tell your sister to show you how to make a fire tell her I said you could, tell her I said your old enough to do so.” With that I went inside,” Moira I shouted” “What” “mammy said your to show me how to make a fire, she said I am old enough to do so” With a tut and a huff and a roll of the eyes she agreed. “Oh come on then I better show you then” Both of us went over to the fireplace Moira knelt down in front of the fire I stood beside her still clutching the wood I had brought in with me. “First we need some newspaper you go and get that for me Aine. Oh Aine you can leave the wood here if you like she said in a sarcastic tone of voice. I went over to where we kept the newspapers and grabbed a handful and brought it back to Moira.” There you go” I said” now sit yourself down next to me” said Moira. The first thing we need to do is clean out all the ash left behind from the previous fire before we can make a start on the new one. We used an old shovel that had a broken handle to remove what little remained of the fire. We had to be careful doing so, one because even though the fire had been out for a long time the ashes still remained very hot two because of the dust particles that had formed from the ash if not cleared out carefully would easily float off into the air to form a grey cloud of dust that would then float depositing itself on anything and everything it came in contact with, With all the cleaning done we made a start to replenish the fireplace, we scrunched up pieces of newspaper and laid them on the bottom of the fireplace, on top of that went the wood kippens that mammy had chopped up earlier. “That’s enough that’s enough wood Aine you don’t want to use too much said Moira. “Now what comes next I asked.” The next and last thing we need is the coal said Moira. We laid the coal on by hand it was cold to the touch and dirty, by the time we were finished our hands were as black as the dead of night. But did I care not. “There you go Aine your first fire all that needs doing now is to light it said Moira.” I better do the lighting we don’t want you to burn yourself do we Aine. Moira had to stand on tiptoe to reach where the matches were kept out of harm’s way. Moira opened the box and took out one of the matches then with a flick of the wrist Moira struck the match head along one side of the box it came from. With a flash and a crack the match was alight. Moira put the match to a piece of newspaper that was poking out from beneath the wood and coal, with the paper taking hold Moira stood back watched and waited and in no time at all we had a roaring fire in front of us. Bang bang went the back door, it was mammy coming back in she was laden down with a bucket full of vegetables that she had just dug up from the garden. Mammy went straight over and sat the bucket down next to the kitchen sink. Now there is a grand fire said mammy, you’ve done a grand job there girls, a grand job indeed. With that Moira went back to whatever she was doing before I interrupted her. I myself went and sat in Noels chair and watched while mammy got the dinner ready. Mammy emptied the bucket full of vegetables onto the work top then disappeared outside. A few minutes later she was back in this time the bucket was full to the brim with water. Mammy had filled the bucket up with water from a tap outside because at that time that tap was the only source from which we could get water. Even though that may have seemed a bit harsh in fact we were one of the lucky ones to have our very own tap from which we could get water from whenever we wanted. Others in the town would have to make their way to where they could get water from a pump. I was glad we did not have to get our water from there because for one reason all the toeing and froing you had to do. For another in the summer sometimes when the sun was at its strongest the supply of water to the pump would often dry up. When winter came you had another problem being that the water would freeze, therefore cutting off the water supply altogether. Back in the kitchen mammy began to pour about half the bucket of water into the kitchen sink with that the vegetables were quickly to follow. Plop, plop went the water as the vegetables entered. Mammy was just about to start on the vegetables when there came this almost faintest of cries, they were coming from mammy’s and Noel’s room. It was Kathleen “Moira will you go and see to your baby sister” To this request there was no reply. With a big sigh where in god’s name is that girl when you need her. Aine will you go and sit with Kathleen for a bit while your mammy warms up some milk, now there’s a good girl. I entered the bedroom Kathleen was lying in her cot at the foot of mammy’s bed. I stood by the cot peering in on Kathleen. With each cry her face would crease up so much that she looked like an old woman to me. Her whole tiny body was shaking; her limbs were kicking out in all directions. With that the crying became louder and louder I did not know what to do I just stood there hopelessly watching I just hoped mammy would not be much longer. With that very thought she was there with a bottle of milk in her hand. “Now there, there, there Kathleen mammy is here now with your bottle come on now no more crying.” With that mammy plucked Kathleen right out of the cot with one hand and with the other she shoved the bottle straight into Kathleen’s mouth. The bottle mammy used was an old chef bottle that once held sauce in. A rubber teat was then pulled over the top end and there you had your very own baby’s bottle. “Aine do you want a go at feeding Kathleen, oh yes can I come closer then, here hold the bottle like this, that’s it.” With the milk all gone mammy placed Kathleen back down into her cot and with the utmost care mammy carefully wrapped Kathleen up in her blanket to keep her warm. With that mammy rocked the cot back and forth to help get Kathleen off to sleep, there now she’s fast asleep said mammy. So not to wake her we both left the room quietly. Back in the kitchen mammy went straight back over to the kitchen sink and carried on where she left off. As mammy frantically scrubbed at the vegetables to free them from their coat of mud with each rub the once clean water started to turn into a sea of brown. With all the scrubbing done mammy lifted the vegetables out and onto the worktop. The vegetables needed chopping, dicing and slicing to do the job mammy used the sharpest knife she had. With the most greatest of ease the knife sliced through the vegetables like a hot knife through a knob of butter. With no help whatsoever mammy had the vegetables chopped sliced and diced in no time at all. Mammy then threw all the vegetables into a big pot, and then all that needed doing was to add the water and a pinch of salt. Then came the really messy part the skinning and gutting of the rabbits that Tony had caught in his snares the night before. The rabbits were cleaned then they too were thrown into a pot of water and a pinch of salt added. The dinner was prepared and ready to cook; mammy added a couple more logs to the range to keep the heat the range was producing at the right temperature for cooking on. The pot containing the rabbits was put on the range first; the pot of vegetables was to follow later as the vegetables needed less cooking time. I do not know what it was about the fire but it seemed to draw you into it somehow. I myself could sit there for ages just gazing into it was it the simple hissing cracking and popping noises that it made or maybe the smell of the burning wood, or even the heat it threw out or maybe just the flickering of light that came forth. Or maybe a combination of all four of these. What I do know was that it made me feel safe and secure. There would be many a time when I’d be in the kitchen just sitting there half-awake half asleep watching the flames that rose from within the fire dancing their merry dance. As I watched I would be slowly drawn away from all the noise and from all that’s around me. I would be carried off into a world of make believe a dream world where nothing could harm you, where entirely anything you wanted could happen and where everything was possible. There would be times when I would dream of the rich and famous the stars of film and music. There would be of course Jimmy Shand and his band from the music world and from film it would have to be Roy Rogers who else could it be. In these dreams I would meet and marry the man of my dreams, which would change as often as the hands of time. One week it would be Spencer Tracy the next who knows. Whoever it was they would treat me like a princess I would have the most luxurious clothes and live in the most fantastic homes. I would want for nothing. These dreams of romance would come along later in life when I was much older but for now the dreams I had were much simpler. I would dream of owning my very own sweet shop where I could eat as many sweets as I wanted. I would also own loads of dolls of all shapes and sizes. They would be made of china nothing but the best, but the one dream I would have again and again was the one of myself wearing a brand new dress, the dress would be bright blue with matching shoes. The dress would flow right down to touch the floor. Aine, Aine I had done it again I had fallen fast asleep while sat in Noel’s chair. Again the fire had worked its magic on me.”come on now Aine you have no time for all that sleeping, the rest will be back soon and the table isn’t even laid yet. “With the table just laid the front door burst open and in they all came like a school of fish being carried along by each passing wave. How that door managed to stay upright through all those years of knocks and bangs that it took only God knows. With bag in hand and arms flapping about like seagulls searching for food. With that came the clopping of shoes on hardened floor which was added to by squeals and chatter that came mainly from the girls and to top it all shouts of laughter that came from the boys. The noise they were making only if you could have heard it for yourself only then could you truly realise how loud it was. It was that loud I reckon they could have raised the dead from their sleepy grave. “For heaven’s sake shut up the lot of you.” Came the cry from mammy. With that the house fell silent. “Tell me have any of you happened to seen Moira on your way home” I haven’t seen her said Tony, nor I nor me came the replies. “She’s probably at Katie’s house Katie who, Katie O’Brien said Breda. All right come on now and sit yourselves down. As quick as a flash we were all seated at the dinner table, before we could start our dinner grace had to be said. We give thee thanks dear lord our god for all this bounty we are about to receive through Christ our lord amen. Come on now eat up said mammy. There was no need for mammy to say this twice as we were like a pack of hungry wolves hovering over its freshly caught prey just waiting for the moment to arrive when all signs of life have left so that eating could start. Just like a wolf would I too had to keep one eye on my food while I ate and the other on incoming vultures. The vultures that the wolf had to contend with were the likes of eagles, hawks and falcons. The vultures I had to keep an eye on were my brothers and sisters. If you looked away even for just a second you were sure whatever was on your plate would definitely not be there when you looked back. Now and again one of the boys tricked me or one of the others to look out the kitchen window at something or another in the garden and like a fool one of us would look out and of course there would be nothing out there, the same would go for your plate. With the dinner finished the table had to be cleared and the washing up done. We all took our turn in doing the washing up but tonight it was Irene and Breda’s turn to do so. I stayed sitting where I was and watched the pair of them working away. While Irene and Breda did that, the rest went off to their bedrooms to do their homework that the teacher had set them that night. As soon as Irene and Breda had done they too went off to do their homework. The clock on the wall was fast approaching nine o’clock and there was still no sign of Moira. “Where in god’s name is she said mammy, your father will be home any minute now and if she’s not back before he gets in there will be holy murder and that’s a fact” It was fine to nine when Moira finally showed her face. “Where in hells name have you been until this time of night” “Ah mammy it’s not that late and I was only at Katie O’Brien’s” “Only Katie nothing don’t give me any more of your cheek girl, you know what time your father is expected if he finds out that you’ve been out till this times there will be hell to pay my girl and there will be no more time off school to help with your baby sister.” Mammy I promise not to do it again, please do not tell Noel ok ok I shan’t tell your father just this once. If you ever pull a stunt like this again my girl mark my words your father will know and that’s no lie. Will know what came the bellowing sound of Noel’s voice behind me. Well mammy and Moira just stood there frozen to the spot just like two frightened rabbits caught in headlights of an oncoming vehicle. Well what is it I am not supposed to know, well I’m waiting now I’m telling you not one of you is to leave this room until I get an answer even if it takes all night. Before either mammy or Moira had a chance to open their mouths. It’s about something I did Noel said Tony. Well come on boy tell me “I was caught stealing from Murph’ys shop.” From hearing those words you should have seen Noel’s face change the look on his face was enough to frighten anybody. The whole of his neck and face turned a bright shade of red. I was sure steam was going to pour out of his ears at any moment. Come here now boy and hold out your hand. Tony did as he was told straight away as he knew it was better to do so. Tony held his hand stretched out in front of him, his hand was perfectly still not the slightest hint of movement only in his eyes did he show his fear. Noel undid the belt he was wearing around his waist, rolled one end of his belt tightly around his hand then proceeded to give Tony his punishment. The crack the belt made as it struck Tony’s hand went straight through me even to this very day. If I concentrate I can still hear the sound that the belt made as it made contact with the flesh of Tony’s hand. “Now let that be a lesson to you Tony and that also goes to the rest of you as well. If I ever hear of any of you stealing from Murphy’s shop or from anyone else’s comes to matter, be warned you’ll get the same. Now off to bed with the lot of you. To be quite honest there’s one thing that still puzzles me is why Tony lied to Noel in the first place. Maybe it was that Tony knew if Noel knew the truth of the matter he would have made Moira go back to school and that would have left mammy to cope on her own, maybe that was it but I never did find out.