The evening’s low sun beating through the box window blinded her. All she could see was the silhouette of a humped figure, stirring like a witch with a cauldron. She could hear the flour sack swishing around the tin basin. The puffing and wheezing sent Eibhlín forward to help. But she was pushed away gently by an arm swiping the air.
‘Go out and catch the rest of the sun. child. Put your tunic on ye first’.
She fluttered to the corner on her tippy toes and slipped into her canvas tunic. She ran to the door and stopped for a minute to rub her moaning belly.
‘Granny, do you need me to go to the shop today?’ she hinted, licking her lips.
‘It’s drippin’ and bread, Eibhlín’
Shoulders slumped, the nymph withdrew and the door closed softly behind her.
Outside, she stood with her back resting on the door for a while feeling the sun on her face. There was no one around. Annie was off with her mother at the fishery and Sean was in big school now so he wouldn’t be on the road until later. She sligged towards the abandoned barn by the stream at the end of the row of cottages, and peered into the gaping darkness to see if there was any mischief in the making. She’d been forbidden to get inside ‘the crock’ since Annie had caught her finger under the indicator switch and lost her nail. She hadn’t cared much for the attention Annie got for her injury. It had been the best hideaway they’d ever had, and she’d spoiled it.
‘If I see ye near that ould banger I’ll redden ye’
Granny had only reddened her twice: once for saying a curse in school which was fair enough. It had been a bad day. The other was for kicking Jimmy Byrne hard when she was wearing her clodhoppers. He’d deserved it though, the fecker. He never left her alone and he always pretended to be her friend when she had toffee.
Eibhlín’s thoughts turned to food again. Hunger was burning her insides but she didn’t want to complain to Granny. She did her best but there hadn’t been any work at the fishery this week. She only got a day or two when they were busy or someone was sick, or even died. Like when Mary Murphy died of the consumption, after three weeks in bed. Granny got lots of work for a while, until Mary’s daughter took over the job. Eibhlín’s thoughts switched to Granny’s rattling chest. It had been going on for a while now and she refused to go to the doctor saying it was only a ‘bad dose’.
She washed clothes and linen too, for the Undertaker Cullen across on Harbour Road. Mrs. Cullen was an ould bitch and wouldn’t let her daughter play with Eibhlín because she said she had nits. Granny had been furious, and nearly burned the head off her with paraffin, just in case. She had marched Eibhlín over to their front door and announced in diplomatic tones that her child was nit-free. Granny had said that Eibhlín was never to ask to play with any of the Cullens, ever. She supposed she might get reddened for that too.
The sun was going down and the evening chill brought her back inside. She grimaced at the smell of the cabbage bubbling in a small pot on the stove. Granny was sitting by the stove darning, with her skirt thrown over her knees and legs apart, to let the heat in. The sackcloth hung on a line of twine above her, and the smell of the soapy steam was pleasant and fresh.
‘It’s going to be one lovely smelling petticoat. I can’t wait to wear it to mass on Sunday,’ she beamed.
Granny kept her head down but smiled. Eibhlín knew that pleased her. She knew Granny was determined to get her up and hardy, like she had promised her Daddy. Granny worried that she wasn’t getting enough food. Darkness passed over Granny’s face and Eibhlín sensed that she was remembering that sad time. She never met her father, or any of her family, but she had overheard Granny telling the tale. She never spoke of it to Eibhlín. Her Daddy’s name was Joe. He was only twenty two when he’d come down with pneumonia after a hard winter in the fields. She was three and her sister barely born. On his deathbed he had asked Granny to take Eibhlín and bring her up so her mammy might move off to England to start again.
‘What about little May?’ Granny had whispered squeezing his hand tightly.
‘I’m coming back for her’.
They’d thought it was ‘the delirium’ from the fever and said no more. Sure enough though, little May became ill and died too, just weeks later. A tear escaped and ran down Granny’s leather cheek.
‘Granny, I’m hungry. Can we eat now?’
‘Yes Child’, she muttered, slowly making her way into an upright position.
She hobbled over to the pot on the stove and added salt. Her breath caught in her chest suddenly and she exploded with a rasping cough, reaching deep into her lungs. She stood still, holding her hanky to her mouth for a moment, as if trying to prevent another attack. After a moment she stood up and took a deep breath in.
‘Do you want the water with it?’
Eibhlín nodded furiously. She rocked on her chair in anticipation. Granny sat down at the table putting the bowl in front of her. Eibhlín shoveled the cabbage down her throat with gusto. Not a word was spoken until the dregs were drained. Sitting for a moment and let the food settle in her stomach, her attention moved onto the hard lump of bread sitting on the board, then to Granny who caught her eye, and back to the bread. Granny smirked and pulled the bread towards her, cutting off a bit and slathering it with the dripping Mrs. Hayden had kindly dropped in the day before. She sprinkled it with sugar while Eibhlín bored holes in it with her eager eyes. It was gobbled up within a few seconds.
‘That’s not good for yer belly Eibhlín’
Eibhlín said nothing. She craved another piece but knew not to ask.
She was stretching up and the neighbours often commented that Eibhlín was a good girl with manners. Although Granny wanted to leave her in school for as long as she could her chest had been so bad lately she wondered how it would all end. She willed herself not to think the worst for months, but it was getting worse, and now every night brought the dreaded fever.
Eibhlín loved Fridays! Usually there was a few bob after the wages had been doled out, and they often went directly from school up the street for a few bits. If it was a very good Friday she’d get a piece of toffee from Curran’s on the corner. Granny would sit on the window ledge puffing and panting while Eibhlín ran in and queued with her tuppence. Today was Friday. Eibhlín ran to the school gates anticipating Granny standing in her usual spot with the mothers, nattering and complaining about the cost of the herrings or the weather. Her shoulders dropped when she realised Granny wasn’t there. She flitted down the ditch as fast as her heavy school shoes allowed. The church bells were ringing loud and continuously in her ears. It occurred to her that it happened only on holy days or when someone died. She picked up her pace and began to run. She wanted to see if Granny was home to tell her about the bells. Letting herself in, she saw no fire had been lit that morning. Alarm ran up through her body. A whimper rushed up her throat and escaped through her lips. Something wasn’t right.
She jumped as the latch opened suddenly. Aunty Ellen entered and looked at her blankly for a moment, as if assessing what she should do next. Sighing heavily, she scanned the cottage. She spotted a flour sack hanging on a hook by the door and took it down. Walking towards Eibhlín, she handed it to her.
‘Put your things in that’
‘Why? That’s for my Easter dress. Granny’s going to soak it and sew it up for me. She told me.’
Eibhlín was wide-eyed. Aunty Ellen was a cross woman with a permanent scowl. Eibhlín had always had the impression that her Granny wasn’t fond of her.
‘Lord save us, will ye just do what yer told so we can get on with things, girl’
She arrived at Ellen’s house to old men sitting around drinking whiskey. Women in black were huddled in groups whispering. A man she knew named Pauric kept patting her head and blowing his bulbous nose.
‘Tis a cruel old World, that’s for sure’
She walked from one end of the cottage to the other, searching for Granny between the skirts and legs. She peered up now and then, to check for Granny’s familiar smile. So many strange faces looked down at her. Some were tear-stained; others seemed wistful. She found Ellen in the kitchen stewing tea and cutting bread.
‘Where’s my Granny. Is she in the infirmary with the consumption?’
Aunty Ellen looked down at her. Her face softened momentarily and she pulled her up from under her arms plonking her on the table.
‘Now listen Eibhlín. Things have changed. You’re going to live here with me and the boys. You’ll have to be a big girl now and do as yer bid, right?’
She took a big shiny coin out from her apron pocket and put it in front of Eibhlín’s face. She smiled broadly inviting her to take it.
‘What about a bit of toffee, for the day that’s in it eh?’.
Her face changed quickly.
‘Mark my words, I won’t be pandering to ye the way your granny did. Off to the shop with ye and be grateful for what ye have’
Eibhlín grabbed the coin and jumped down from the table.
On the way back from the shop a boy from her class called Joe stopped her.
Looking for half my toffee no doubt.
‘Sorry for your loss’
‘Your Granny. Lord have mercy on her soul’
She stopped in her tracks. A surge of shock took her and her knees buckled, taking her to the ground.