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Child on the doorstep
Angela took her coat from the hook at the back of the door and stepped out into the early morning. The day was a chilly one – it was early yet but Angela was glad the bite of winter seemed to be gone at last, though it was only early March 1926. In the children’s verse March was supposed to begin like a lion and end like a lamb so she knew they weren’t quite out of the woods yet. But they were on the way to spring and that morning a hazy sun was trying to break through the clouds. Funny how it cheered a body to see the sun.
But then her good mood was dispelled a little when, despite the early hour, she saw Tressa Lawson on the road before her, carrying a cushion and an army-issue blanket. As the eldest in the family it was her job to lead her father, Pete, by the hand for he had been blinded by mustard gas in 1915. He wore his great coat against the chill of the day and immense pity for the man rose up in Angela.
‘Why does he go out so early?’ she’d asked Tressa one time. ‘He says he gets the best pitch then,’ Tressa had said. ‘He positions himself by the tram stop in Bristol Street.’
Angela had nodded; she knew he did, for she had seen him there herself and never passed without greeting him and dropping some money in the cap on the oor before him.
‘He says he gets the people waiting for the tram and those getting off, as well as those walking into the city centre by foot.’ Tressa had chewed on her bottom lip before going on, ‘Sometimes though, for all he sits for hours, often chilled to the bone, especially in the winter, despite his cushion and blanket, he has collected precious little. I hate the look on his face then. He hates the thought that Mammy has to take in extra washing from the big houses in Edgbaston, that he can’t provide adequately for his family. He often says he feels a failure.’
Angela’s intake of breath had been audible and she had hissed to Tressa, ‘Your father is no failure.’
‘I know that,’ Tressa had said, ‘but it’s what Daddy thinks.’
Angela remembered him marching away to war, so proud that he had the opportunity to serve his King and country. And when it was over, four gruelling years after it had begun, they called it the ‘Great War’. Personally Angela thought there was actually not anything great about that war at all. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars and all the men ghting in it had been promised a land ‘ t for heroes’, but in fact those who returned had nothing but the dole queue and poverty awaiting them.
Somehow, Angela could never see the decent and respect- able Pete Lawson without feeling a pang to her heart. That bloody ‘Great War’ had also taken away Angela’s beloved husband and Connie’s father Barry, and at the time Angela had thought she would never get over the tremendous loss she’d felt.
The lovely letter of commendation that she had received from his commanding of cer, who had said how brave and courageous a soldier he was, hadn’t helped the searing ache inside her. The letter had told her that Barry had eventually lost his life saving another. While her mind screamed ‘Why?’ she imagined in the heat of battle there was little time for logical thought and Barry would have acted instinctively. But that act was the culmination of this very brave soldier’s career; the of cer had said he was recommending him for an award and in due course she received the Military Medal.
Angela still thought it cold comfort and if her husband had been a little less brave he might have been one of the ones who had marched home again. His mother, Mary McClusky, on the other hand, had been ‘over the moon’ that her Barry had received a medal for gallantry and Angela thought Connie might like it as she grew. It would show her what a ne father she’d had, for she was too young to remember him at all, and Angela had put the medal away carefully to show her when she was older.
In the end, despite commendations and medals, she had learnt to cope with her profound loss because she had Connie to rear and Barry’s mother Mary to care for too, for they lived together. Anyway, she was by no means the only widow and when the Armistice was signed and the men who had survived were demobbed, it was only too obvious how few men there were about.
As Angela made her way to the Swan public house where she cleaned, she re ected anew on all the changes brought about because so many men had not returned from the war. She could well remember what George Maitland, her old employer, had said on a similar subject.
He had no children and this was a great regret for him, but when the war began and the casualty gures began appearing in the paper, he had said to Angela one day when she was collecting her groceries, ‘You know I’ve never had chick nor child belonging to me and at times that has been a cross to bear, for I would have loved a family. But now I look at my customers and see the ones who have lost sons and wonder if it is worse for them who have given birth to a boy and reared him with such a powerful love that they would willingly give their life to save him. But they are unable to save him from war and when he dies for King and country, the loss must be an overwhelming one. I have had women in the shop crying broken-heartedly about their beloved sons who will never return and at times I am almost thankful I have no sons of my own to suffer the same fate.’
Angela had often thought about George’s words as the war raged on and could understand his reasoning so very well, but then she often did. In her opinion he was a very wise man. She had worked in his shop for two years before her marriage and just after it and had become very fond of him, and he had thought a lot of her too. So much so that, after he died, she found he had left her his mother’s jewellery, which he had lodged in the bank with authorisation saying it was for Angela alone. It was totally separate from the will, in which everything presumably was left to his wife, Matilda.
Angela had never taken to Matilda, mainly because of the way she had been with George. She was a cold woman, who never seemed to have a high regard for him, and in Angela’s hearing had never ever thrown him even a kind word, and there was no place in her life for children, or sex either, so people whispered.
By now Angela had reached the pub and would have to settle her mind to the job in hand. She went in the side door and called out to the landlord, Paddy Larkin, as she did so. She was very grateful to Paddy for offering her this job after the war, for she couldn’t in all honesty say either her father- in-law, Matt, or her husband, Barry, were regular visitors there. She was more than happy to have it though, because it eased the nancial pressure, and with Constance at school and Mary to see to her in the holidays, it was perfect for them all.
Angela seldom saw the landlady Breda Larkin for she was usually getting herself ready upstairs. She often wouldn’t come down before ten thirty or so to open the pub at eleven and Angela would usually be on her way back home by then. However, one morning when she had been at the cleaning for three years or so, Breda got up early. She greeted Angela pleasantly enough, but when she had left she turned to her husband and said, ‘She’s wasted on the cleaning, that Angela McClusky.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at her, you numbskull,’ Breda said impatiently. ‘Despite everything she is still a beautiful woman, blonde, busty and pleasant. She has a smile for everyone and she will bring the punters in, especially on Friday and Saturday night.’
Paddy might have bristled at being called a numbskull by his wife but he had to acknowledge what she said made sense. Angela was not only a very good-looking woman, but she had something a little special, and though she was always agreeable, she was not irty – too irty a woman behind the bar could cause all manner of problems. And so he put the proposition to Angela the next day. She knew it would be extra hours and so extra money and she also knew she couldn’t have considered it if she hadn’t Mary at home, for she would not leave Constance alone for the hours she would be behind the bar. She told Paddy she would have to ask Mary, for she would be the one looking after Connie, but it was only more for courtesy.
As she’d anticipated, her mother-in-law had no objection.
‘Why would I even think about objecting?’ Mary said to Angela. ‘It is only two nights a week you’ll not be here and I shall do what I do every night: sit before the re and do a bit of knitting and a bit of dozing. But surely to God you won’t be doing the cleaning as well?’
‘No, well, I’m going to put a proposal to Paddy,’ Angela said. ‘He wants me Friday and Saturday night and Sunday lunchtime. So I could do the cleaning on Monday to Thursday, and if he was agreeable ask Maggie to take over the cleaning over the weekends.’
‘Oh you do right to think of her,’ Mary said. ‘That poor girl.’
Angela knew how Mary felt for her best friend, Maggie, who was also Connie’s godmother. She had married Michael Malone after the war, having been sweet on him for years, even before the war began, and had written to him when he was in the army. A few of the men from their town had been part of a pals battalion and had fought alongside each other and Angela had found out later that the shell that had killed Barry while he’d been trying to save another had blown Michael’s left leg clean off.
He had thought any future with Maggie was scuppered, that she wouldn’t want to saddle herself with a one-legged man, but Angela knew her friend was a bigger person than that. And Maggie had said that it made no difference to the way she felt about him and Angela knew she spoke the truth. She also knew if Barry had lost his leg, but came home to her, she would have rejoiced. Though getting Michael to understand that took Maggie some time.
A major slump after the war meant that, with strapping able-bodied men nding any sort of employment hard to come by, no one was prepared to even consider employing a one-legged man, and he felt bad that he couldn’t provide for Maggie. Maggie had said she didn’t need providing for, and besides, as he had been so disabled in the war, Michael had been awarded a pension of twenty-eight shillings a week. Angela was pleased for them both, but was a little confused that as a war widow she quali ed for a pension of only eighteen shillings, with an extra shilling added for Connie.
‘No understanding the way governments work,’ Mary had said when this had been explained to her after the war.
Angela had quite a sizeable nest egg in the post of ce because of her well-paid war work in munitions making and delivering shells, as well as the money Barry was sending her. But savings didn’t last for ever if you had to draw on them constantly and so when Paddy Larkin had offered her a job she hadn’t even had to think about it. She knew Maggie too wouldn’t hesitate, because any job was better than no job, and it would do her very well for now.
‘It’ll be money the government won’t know about because Paddy pays you in hand,’ Angela pointed out. ‘Will Michael mind that it’s you working and not him?’
‘He may well mind,’ Maggie said. ‘But he is above all a realist. And so he will not show any resentment to me or give me any sort of hard time.’
‘He’s a good man you have there, Maggie.’
‘I know it,’ Maggie said. ‘But the war exacted a heavy price from us one way and the other. Oh, I know Michael survived and Barry and our Syd didn’t so maybe I shouldn’t moan, but I would like to take the look of failure from his face. He knows in the present climate he hasn’t the chance of a sniff of any form of employment and I can’t even give him a child.’
She caught sight of Angela’s face and went on, ‘I see you think it irresponsible to bring another life in the world just now when our nancial position isn’t great and not likely to improve very much. But, oh, Angela, how I long to hold my own child in my arms – a wee girl like Connie, or a boy the image of his father. I don’t think it will ever happen, that’s the point, and that’s hard to bear.’
Angela was upset to see her friend so downhearted and the worst of it was everything she said was true; none of the girls she worked in the munitions with had become pregnant. This was such a phenomenon across the country that investigations had been made and it was found that the sulphur many of them worked with had made them infertile.
Angela had wished at the time she had become infertile too and then there might have been no repercussions from the terrible attack that day she had driven to the docks for the rst time. She had been one of the rst and only female delivery drivers, transporting munitions around the country. It had been on one of these trips that something terrible had happened, something she had tried to push out of her mind but which had come back to haunt her and caused her to make the most heart-breaking decision of her life.
One dreadful night she had been attacked and viciously raped when making a munitions delivery at night in a strange town. Her assault had left her scarred, but worse, it had left her with child. With no other course available, with a husband away ghting at war and nowhere to turn, Angela had been forced to leave the child, a young girl with fair hair and blue eyes like her own, on the workhouse steps. The shame and the pain of it had stayed with her and Angela had had to shut off the past to keep the pain at bay.
At least she had Connie, though, who she loved with all her heart and soul, while poor Maggie had nothing. Angela had pushed all the awful memories away. Better to focus on the present and Connie’s future.
Maggie was grateful for the chance of employment at the Swan and took herself off to see Mr Larkin. They got on ne and the upshot was that she was to take on the weekend cleaning, while Angela worked behind the bar.
In fact Paddy felt it was scandalous that two women, one a widow and one with a disabled husband, should have to take on jobs like the ones he was offering to keep the wolf from the door.
‘Those men fought for King and country, both of them,’ he said to his wife one night as they prepared for bed. ‘You’d think their relatives would be taken care of if they were killed like Barry McClusky, or crippled like Maggie’s husband, or Pete Lawson, blinded, and so many more.’
‘You’ve just said it though, haven’t you?’ Breda said. ‘So many more. Think about it, there were thousand upon thou- sand killed and even more injured. I should think it takes a great deal of money to ght a war and so they haven’t got the money to provide adequately for all the dependants.’
‘And since when have the government cared about the likes of us anyway?’ Paddy said morosely. ‘Cannon fodder, the common people are.’
‘That’s about the shape of it,’ Breda said. ‘And people do what they can to survive. And now Maggie doesn’t have to make a decision this winter whether to order another hundredweight of coal or buy the makings for a dinner, and neither does Angela, so at least we have made two of those dependants happier.’
‘And that’s all we can do, I suppose.’
‘It is,’ Breda said decidedly. ‘Now come to bed and stop fretting about things you can do nothing to change.’
As Angela worked, whether it was pulling pints behind the bar or cleaning, she was always well aware of what she owed Mary, for without her stalwart help in caring for Connie, she knew their lives would have been nancially harder. But she didn’t just appreciate Mary for the help she gave but she was glad she was there with them. She had been part of her life since as far back as she could remember and she hadn’t a clue how she was going to manage without her. And though Mary might have years to live yet, she somehow doubted it. The news of Barry’s death had hit her for six, combined with the death of two of her other sons in 1912 as they had travelled to America on the Titanic to seek better prospects, and the grief had done much to hasten the death of her husband. The bad times were wearing her down and Mary hadn’t the resilience of youth.
It wasn’t all bad. Mary still thought a great deal about her other two sons in America who had gone ahead some years before the Titanic disaster, and she was glad they were so happy in their new lives. She often wished she could see them again just the once, but she had known when she kissed them goodbye it was nal. They wrote regularly though, and she was grateful for that, especially when they included dollar bills folded inside the letter. They wrote about things she could barely imagine, like the ashing neon lights in a place called Times Square and the trolley buses and the trains that ran underground in the bowels of the earth and the motor cars they helped build that were now lling the wide straight roads of America.
And they wrote of their marriages – for Colm had followed his brother Finbarr and married a Roman Catholic girl – and sent pictures of their weddings. But Mary could barely recog- nise her sons and their wives, and the babies born later were like the photographs of strangers, names on a page, and sometimes she was heart-sore knowing that she would never hold her sons’ children in her arms and take joy in them. Connie helped there, for she still had to be looked after, and Mary knew Connie loved her with a passion that eased the pain in her heart.
As Connie grew up, she became very good friends with a girl in her class called Sarah Maguire. Angela had no problem with her having Sarah as her special friend as she herself had been best friends with Maggie Malone, née Maguire, at a similar age. She was friendly with Sarah’s mother Maeve and knew them to be a respectable family and was glad to see Connie making friends of her own. It wasn’t as if she’d be all that far away in any case, for the Maguires lived just a wee bit down Bell Barn Road on the corner of Great Colmore Street.
The Maguire home was so different from Connie’s – although cramped and noisy it was lled with a vibrancy and vitality often lacking in her own. She liked them all, even Sarah’s parents. She saw little of Mr Maguire but what she saw she liked. He was called James and his eldest son, wee Jimmy, was named after him. He had big swollen muscles that often strained against the fabric of his shirts, which he usually wore folded up to the elbow so that his lower arms looked like giant hams, and led to large, red, gnarled hands. His face was equally red, with his nose sort of splashed against it and his wide, generous lips tilted upwards so it looked as if he was permanently smiling. He did smile a lot anyway and laugh, and a full-throated and very infectious laugh it was too. Added to this he had a ne head of brown hair which was sprinkled only lightly with grey.
Mrs Maguire, Maeve, had an equally dark head of hair though it was always tied away from her face in a bun of some sort. She wasn’t as pretty as Connie’s own mother – few people were – but Maeve Maguire’s face had an almost serene look seldom seen on those with a houseful of children. Connie had never heard her raise her voice and Sarah said she almost never did. So her face had a contented look about it, with no lines pulling her mouth down, although there were creases around her eyes which were a strange grey-green colour.
‘Do you mind me coming round so often?’ Connie asked her once. ‘My granny says I mustn’t annoy you.’
Mrs Maguire gave an almost tinkling laugh. ‘Child dear, you don’t annoy me in the slightest,’ she said. ‘You are like a ray of sunshine. And anyway, when you have so many, one more makes little difference and there is more company for you here. The children’s friends are always welcome and you help Sarah with the jobs she must do, so you must assure your granny you are no trouble.’
Maeve Maguire had hit the nail on the head, for Connie, though she loved her mother and grandmother dearly, was often lonely. There was something else too. Sometimes her mother seemed far away. She was there in person but when Connie spoke, she sometimes didn’t answer, didn’t seem to hear her and her eyes had a faraway look in them. She had asked her grandmother about it and Mary had said that her mother was still remembering her daddy, Barry.
‘You said that when I asked you why she was sad at Christmas.’
‘Yes. She’s remembering then too.’
‘But, Daddy didn’t die at Christmas.’
‘No, but Christmas is a time to remember loved ones,
especially those you might not see again,’ Mary had said and added, ‘Don’t you feel the same when you remember your daddy?’
Connie didn’t; in fact, if she was absolutely honest, she didn’t remember her daddy at all, just the things people had told her about him. But even though she was a child she had known her granny would not like her to share those thoughts and so she contented herself by saying, ‘Mmm, I suppose.’
So she went for company to Sarah and the Maguire house. They sat together at school and met often on Saturdays and holiday times and on Sundays at Mass.
‘Beats me how you don’t run out of things to say,’ Angela commented dryly as they sat down for an early meal before she went to serve behind the bar one Saturday evening.
It was funny but they never did. They often talked about their families and one Saturday as they went along Bristol Street, fetching errands for Maeve and pushing the slumbering baby Maura in the pram, Connie suddenly said, ‘Aren’t your mammy’s eyes an unusual colour?’
‘I suppose,’ Sarah said. ‘Neither one thing or the other. Mine are the same. Look.’
‘Oh, I never noticed,’ Connie said.
‘All us girls are the same,’ Sarah said. ‘Well, that is, Kathy and Siobhan are. Too early to tell with Maura yet and the boys both look like Daddy.’
‘It must have been more noticeable with your mother because she has her hair pulled back from her face,’ Connie said. ‘But now I come to look closer you look very like your mother.’
‘Oh, the shape of my face is the same and my mouth is and thank goodness my nose is like Mammy’s too. I would hate to have a nose like my father’s, which isn’t really any shape at all. Looks like it’s been broken and not xed prop- erly or something. I asked him once and he said that if it had been broken he hadn’t been aware of it. Mammy said she grew up nearly beside him on the farm in Ireland and Daddy grew up with a rake of brothers, seven or eight of them with only a year between them all. There were girls too, cos there were thirteen altogether, and Mammy said near every time she saw the boys two or three of them would be scrapping on the ground like puppies. She said Daddy’s nose could have been broken a number of times and their mother wouldn’t have had time to blow her own nose, never mind notice that one of the tribe had theirs busted.’
The two girls burst out laughing. ‘Why do boys do that, ght and things?’ Sarah shrugged. ‘Who’d know the answer to that or care either? It’s just what boys do.’
‘Glad I’m a girl.’
‘And I am,’ Sarah said. ‘And it’s a blooming good job because there’s nothing to be done about it if we were unhappy. And never mind the likenesses in my family, what about yours? You look just like your mother. I’ve never seen hair so blonde and your ringlets are natural, aren’t they? I mean, you don’t have to put rags in your hair or anything.’
Connie shook her head so the ringlets held away from her face with a band swung from side to side.
‘No,’ she said. ‘They’re natural all right, it’s just that I can’t ever wear my hair loose for school. Mammy insists I have it in plaits.’
‘That’s because of the risk of nits,’ Sarah said. ‘The same reason Mammy won’t let me grow mine long. But still, you’re luckier than me because when you’re old enough you can wear your hair any way you like and you’ve got the most startling blue eyes.’
‘I know, I seem to have taken all things from my mammy and none from my daddy at all.’
‘D’you remember your daddy?’
Connie shook her head. ‘Not him, the person. Sometimes I think I do because I’ve been told so much about him, but I know what he looks like because Mammy has a picture of him in a silver frame on the sideboard. Remember I showed you? I don’t look like him at all.’
‘That’s how it is sometimes though, isn’t it?’ Sarah said.
‘Oh yes,’ Connie said as Sarah’s words tugged at her memory. ‘My mammy was born with golden locks and blue eyes like mine, my grandmother said, but she’s not my mammy’s real mother. My mammy’s real mother died in Ireland when she was a babby, like I told you before.’
‘Yes,’ Sarah said, ‘she lost the rest of her Irish family and that’s when she went to live with the McCluskys who came to England. Their son Barry was your daddy.’
Connie nodded and added, ‘And my daddy was killed in the war.’
That wasn’t uncommon and Sarah said, ‘Yes, I think lots of daddies were. But maybe your daddy and your other granny are in heaven this minute looking down on us all?’
‘I’d like to think it.’
‘Don’t say you have doubts,’ Sarah said with mock horror. ‘If you have, keep them to yourself, for if Father Brannigan hears you he will wash your mouth out with carbolic.’
Connie grinned at her friend and said, ‘When I die I shall ask God if I can pop back and tell everyone it’s true.’
Sarah laughed. ‘You are a fool, Connie. You’ll have to come back as a ghost and that will frighten everyone to death,’ she said. ‘Anyway, when were you thinking of dying?’
‘Oh, not for ages yet.’
‘Good,’ Sarah said. ‘In the meantime I think we better get on with Mammy’s shopping or she’ll think we’ve got lost. And it looks like Maura is waking up so our peace is prob- ably gone anyway.’
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