dinner for billy

Billy lived alone in a corridor and wore blue silk drawers. On wash day, Mammy closed the curtains on our kitchen window so she couldn’t see them on Billy’s clothes line. He had a matching vest, a bit frayed at the edges, but without the faint brown stain on the drawers.

He was a Roman Catholic and we were Protestants, but Mammy did her duty and sent me round to Billy’s house every Sunday with a bowl of stew. I had to go out of the front door, which opened directly on to the street, because what was the point in doing a good deed if nobody knew about it?

It was only a few steps to Billy’s front door, just enough time to shove a couple of spoonfuls of stew into my mouth and return the spoon to the bowl. Sometimes, he was waiting behind the net curtain and opened the door before I could kick it.

“Hurry up, get in. I can see Ma McCracken’s curtains twitching.”

“Mammy said can you wash the bowl before you give it back.”

She didn’t, but I never missed a chance to practice my dumb insolence.

“Off you go, out the back way.”

I liked going through Billy’s long, narrow house, surely some kind of architect’s mistake. The narrow living room, barely wide enough to accommodate the front door and the window, led into the bedroom. A glowing Sacred Heart adorned one wall, above a dresser with dusty vials of Holy Water.

Billy was going to Hell, but I wasn’t quite sure why, only that it was something to do with the Pope. His window always got smashed on the Twelfth of July, but he never told the police. No point. My Da fixed it for him and Billy slipped him a bottle of whiskey when Mammy wasn’t looking.

A tiny scullery beyond the bedroom opened on to the communal garden. A quick hop over the dividing wall and I was home again, job done for another week.

I hated the old fucker.

One Sunday in November, after taking Billy’s dinner to him, I overheard a conversation between Mammy and my older sister, Frances, who was getting married in a few weeks. Frances could whinge for Ireland.

“Do we have to invite Billy to the wedding, Mammy?”

“Yes, we do. What would the neighbours think if we didn’t ask him?”

“But he’s – you know –”

“I know, but maybe he won’t come.”

But Billy did come, in spite of being “you know –”. His hair was freshly permed and his overcoat had a velvet collar, which proved to be quite the talking point. I watched him like a hawk all day, but couldn’t work out what “you know –” could possibly mean.

January blew in with sleet and snow. Mammy stepped up Billy’s dinners to twice a week. Well, it was the Christian thing to do. The snow was too deep for me to walk a mile to school, so I was left alone in the empty house while Mammy and Da went to work.

The letterbox thumped and a handful of letters shot through the letterbox. I picked them up and had a quick shuffle. We didn’t get many letters as such, usually just bills, but today there was a lavender-perfumed envelope addressed to Mr. W. McParland of number 22a, Reilly Street.

Well, this was interesting.

We were number 22 and, for the briefest of seconds, I considered walking next door and poppng it through the letterbox. But, lavender perfume? Maybe it was a love letter. Maybe it had stuff in it about ‘doing it’.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I had the envelope ripped open. The writing was flamboyant and written in purple ink with lots of curlicues. I could hardly contain myself, even as I struggled to read it.

My dearest William,

It seems so long since I last saw you, when we ran naked through the grass together.

Boy, this was good.

Unfortunately, that was the best bit. The rest was just a lot of boring arrangements to meet, so I skimmed over it until I got to the bottom of the page.

Yours, in loving friendship,

Harold.

Harold? That wasn’t a lady’s name. Why would a man write that stuff to another man?

I was so engrossed in this conundrum that I didn’t hear Mammy come home.

“What’s that you’re looking at?”

“Nothing.”

She held out her hand “Let’s see nothing, then?”

I didn’t have to wait long for a reaction.

“Where did you get this filth?”

Unseen, I stuffed the envelope into my pocket.

“Uh, it was in the dustbin. It was on top when I took the rubbish out.”

She turned on her heel and stormed out into the street, hammering on Billy’s door and shouting for him to come out.

He opened his door and, before he could speak, Mammy was in there.

“You bloody pervert! You’re not fit to live near decent people! And leaving your filth where a child can see it, you’re evil.”

Billy stood open-mouthed, without a clue what she was talking about.

An interested crowd of neighbours were unashamedly gawking at the spectacle, which lent fuel to Mammy’s ire.

“Yes, you can all look! You don’t know what he’s been up to. Things with men!”

Things? What things? Running in the grass?

She caught sight of me, taking everything in and dying to know more.

“And you, get back inside. You’ve seen enough for one day.”

Back to Billy, now ashen-faced and trying to get his hands on the letter.

“Oh, no. This is going to the priest, he’ll know what to do about it.”

There was much, much more as the neighbours felt it was only right that they had a say in the matter. But I didn’t hear it, as the door closed behind me.

After that, there were no more dinners for Billy.

Bridget’s story

Note: this is not my story. It was given to me many years ago by a friend with one proviso: that I didn’t publish it until she was no longer with us. It is set in Ireland and I believe the era she was writing about is late 1940s / early 1950s. I have changed nothing. It is exactly as ‘Bridget’ gave it to me.

The big yard with its rounded benches here and there, the many windows with bars across. The part of the big yard has a big shed where you could warm your feet and hands on the pipes; where you could see women doing the washing and listen to the steam hiss from the high windows. You could climb on the pipes to see the women at work, each with a cloth cap and white apron. A few had large rubber aprons and boots. Don’t let anybody catch you looking. You might get slapped hard as often happened.

Lots of childre, standing, running, crying, laughing, skipping and some staring. I’m sure it was the pool of water at my feet they stared at. I wasn’t frightened. My big sister held my hand. She was told to. The big people in black and white were pointing their sticks in all directions. Lines of children formed. Nobody showed me where to go. I cried, and the pool of water at my feet again. I had a big mug of bread and milk with sugar on the top. I ate it really quick and somebody yelled, “Glutton”.

I cried again. They took my coat and hat. Now I had the same grey smock dress and grey socks and brown boots as all the other children had. We all sat on benches, staring. I was crying. I don’t know why.

This was my first day at my new home for the next thirteen years. I was told later in life that I was an orphan. My mother died a very young girl and my father walked off the face of the earth.

Time passed with fighting, crying, never too worried except you would just die if you had your bootlaces robbed or your hair clips.

That teacher with the hump, an ex orphan I later found out, she was really useless. The one in the kitchen was horrid. She had a big lump on her neck, always chasing the girls. Mother in charge was skinny with glasses, had a stick in her hand day and night, didn’t know any different.

Another ex orphan had a room, must have been twelve flights of stairs. She would send you to her room for a paper, then sneak up behind you and catch you pinching her biscuits. She enjoyed this and would gladly tell the whole room full of girls how Jesus had told her to follow. Giggle, giggle, wallop straight across the face. Mother of Mercy, it hurt.

Twelve years seems a young age to start work at 5:00 am. We went to bed at 9:00 every night, not to sleep, I hasten to add, but to discuss whose turn it was to jump it tonight. While some girls watched, others would make their way down the long corridors to the outside, sliding drainpipes, going through windows and finally ending up in the convent orchard. There we would fill several pillowcases with apples, gooseberries, tomatoes, pears, in fact anything that was fit to eat. Things were hectic for a few hours. Many times, the teachers would be waiting for us. We’re behind you. When caught, God love us.

The teacher with the hump would be in charge of the kitchen while the one with the lump on her neck was on holiday. She would call two girls, one being me at 4:45 am. Of course we were already dressed under the covers, boots, heavy coat, so as we could get five minutes extra sleep. In complete blackness we would find our way down to the kitchen, always half asleep and very cold.

Make sure you don’t switch on any outdoor lights. You fiddled about for a while, if you took longer than necessary the whole convent would know and Reverend Mother, a nasty woman, would make sure you didn’t take so long the next time. Her stick would come down on your back like it was made of steel. There was a big furnace to light and 9 times out of 10 it didn’t. Oh,  God help you then. Lighting the big black range in the kitchen was sheer murder. You often had to reset it again which took ages. I’m sure it was my fault. I still can’t light a fire. Next you put the enormous black pot on for stir about (porridge). The teacher with the hump was really slow and would rant and rave about lumps in the porridge. This would cause us to go into fits of laughter. She often locked us out of the kitchen, knowing we would be beaten. We would beg her forgiveness. She was so slow in the kitchen desperation would often make her let us in.

Off to the large pantry we would go, first to see how many rats and mice would be caught on this sticky black stuff.Armed with a large cloth we would clear the dead rats away and sing songs like Death to the Young Lorenzo.Fetch out trays of buttered bread and put two slices on each plate. There were about 400 plates. Pour cocoa into each mug, all before 7:00 am. Maybe if we were really quick, we could sneak some bread from the bin and toast it. This was sheer heaven with oozing butter, nearly choking for fear of being caught.

Mass was at 7:30 am but we didn’t go because we were known as kitchen girls. Everyone helped to clear the plates and mugs. We has to wash and dry hundreds of plates and mugs, scrub large wooden tables. Roll up your skirt and scrub stone floors, reset tables for dinner. One plate, one spoon. I can’t remember ever being late for school at 9:00 am. Mind you, my knees were always black and wet.

I didn’t like school at all, always envied the outside girls with their different clothes and white shoes with lovely white ankle socks. Why couldn’t I join in with the outside girls? They were the girls with parents and brothers. I had two brothers but I was told they were put in a school in Dublin. I remember when they came to see us once and, oh my God,they caused chaos, jumping from the windows and chasing the girls all over the place. I think they were banned after that because I never saw them again for two years.

Sister Bridget was a peculiar woman. Looking back now I think they were all odd in some way. This one insisted that all girls lined up for roll call. She always managed to fix her pointing rods right under our breasts. I was very ill once and she came to see me. I was really quite frightened but not fully aware of her act. As I grew older, I heard lots of nasty tales about her.

Our hair was always long and in thick plaits. Once I washed my hair out of time and was punished by not allowing me togo on a seaside trip, which meant I was in this great place all on my own. Reverend Mother called to see me now and again.

Anyway, these seaside trips were really horrid. Even if it was pouring down you had to go in the water with a rotten grey swimsuit and a black cap. The teachers would call you for lunch which was bread and jam with plenty of Luke warm milk, loads of very soft pears and crab apples. One teacher would hand out sweets, about 3 each, that was nice.

Every girl from the age of 10 had to take charge of a younger one. My little girl’s name was Bridget and I loved her very much, but soon it was her time to look after a younger one, and so it went on and on.

I was very good at needlework but very bad at knitting. My sister had to teach me, she would pull my hair and pinch me. I just couldn’t knit, when it came to shape the heel, I would make a fist and hope the shape would come.

Singing and acting was my thing. Oh yes. Do you know, I was asked to sing solo once in a Leis. We won the cup. Well, I won’t say it was me but I could dream and pretend. My friend Mary helped me with a composition once, called The Postman. I enjoyed it so much that I read it over and over again. Of course the next day at school the teacher asked me who helped. Lying, I said no one sister. She put my work in her desk and tested me. Everyone was surprised, I was so good. They were all nice to me but it never happened again.

I stole a load of 2p stamps once and sent loads of letters out without envelopes looking for my brothers. I was punished dreadfully.

Winter was awful for me, my feet and hands would be covered in chilblains, all bursted and green. It seemed too that my jumper never fitted, the sleeves were too tight and short. I sometimes had to put black polish on my knees to cover the holes. Mind you, I liked darning.

Sister Bridget asked me, “What is that dirt on your hands?” And before I had time to answer she walloped me across my knuckles which meant my chilblains started bleeding. My sister jumped up and pulled at her veil, nearly getting it off. Of course she was badly punished. 

I loved my sister, I still do. I don’t know where my brothers are, one of them gambles, the other one drinks. Oh well.

My friend Kathleen was nice, we all liked her because she got you in front of the line for bath time, about 20 girls every day in the same bath water, two girls to a bath and Miss Higgins, an ex girl, would sit and

watch. Hair wash day was held in the cottage, down the yard. Two girls would wash, two would dry. I loved hair wash day, everyone had to brush their hair until it was dry and shining. We did have beautiful hair.

My friend Kathleen was nice, we all liked her because she got you in front of the line for bath time, about 20 girls every day in the same bath water, two girls to a bath and Miss Higgins, an ex girl, would sit and watch. Hair wash day was held in the cottage, down the yard. Two girls would wash, two would dry. I loved hair wash day, everyone had to brush their hair until it was dry and shining. We did have beautiful hair.

The cottage was also used for the washing of your own sanitary towels. This time of the month you were made to feel dirty, one kept their towels, clean and used ones under the mattress. Somehow I got them to the cottage without anyone seeing them, but of course everyone knew what was going on. Once you came out of the cottage, there was a small furnace there. I used to wonder what the big girls were doing near the fire. I soon found out, they just burned them.

On Ash Wednesday (holy day) the girls would rub their finger inside the lid of the furnace and make the mark of the cross on their foreheads, make believe that had been to church. I did the same myself when I got older, making sure it was Wednesday, not Thursday.

The white dresses were beautiful with the lovely white veil, white underwear, white stockings and lovely shoes. Oh, I was happy. It was first holy communion day, we were to be blessed by the Bishop. It took ages to walk to the church, but I loved it. Afterwards there was cake and milk.Mrs Newman was my godmother. I never met her. She must have been a lovely lady because she sent me a lovely white rosary beads and prayer book for that special day.

I would leave school one hour earlier to peel the cooked potatoes that were always so hot but you dare not drop them. Teresa was always getting me in trouble, she would giggle and drop her hot potatoes on my foot. The cook would go mad and throw them at us and we would not know what to do for laughing. Dinner consisted of two potatoes in a thick brown soup. It was quite nice, not knowing any better. Return to school at 2:00 pm.

I remember once I had a very bad big toe and couldn’t really walk on it, but I knew they were picking the girls for parts in a play called Pearl the Fisher Maiden. Oh yes, I would be there, of course I got a part. I would cry and let them know I wanted a part. Thinking back, it wasn’t really my crying, I must have been quite good.

Mother Anthony was in charge. My God, how she jumped about and danced, amazed me.She was lovely, she wasn’t in charge of the orphanage girls, maybe we were all the same to her. I even played my mouth organ in one of her groups. We went to Dublin, which was great. Yes, she was good.

There were some really terrible big girls, one in particular. She was always bossing and everyone looked up to her. She would stop the two girls carrying the plates of bread and milk and scoop the sugar off the top until another girl had the same idea. Well, it was dreadful, they were pulling at each other’s hair and overalls. We enjoyed it. Sometimes the big girls would take your bootlaces. Now that was bad, it made you late for school and you were punished. When I got older, I did the same myself.

Every morning you had to lay a white towel on the floor and using a fine comb search for anything that might be in your hair. I never found anything but if you did, you had to have black ointment rubbed into your scalp. This was shameful so you worked hard at your hair, just in case.

Every night two girls had to sit upstairs on the landing with the younger ones. There was a staircase, which I’ve never seen open.This would really scare us because the rumour was that this was where the dead nuns came from. I would sit and wonder for hours, often I could see the nuns coming down. I would run for my life.

At 8:00 pm the children were woken, poor things. You had to sit them on the potty even though they already wet their beds. Some of the girls were horrid to the children. I got in trouble several times for putting dry sheets on instead of just turning them. I loved looking after them.

There was a room that nobody ever went in, but there was an older girl there, who would look out the window all day. She would smile and make silly signs, I know now why. She was abusing youngsters and had to be locked up.

Mary had her last blessing from the priest and I remember everyone kneeling round her bed. She had her hands closed and rosary beads dangled in her fingers, she was dying. Soon after, she was up and about but never very strong.

Sunday was nice, when we had our best coats on and, after Mass, go in line for a walk, everyone would be in brown or grey. Finding a penny was a miracle, all the girls would crowd round while she would sneak into a shop and buy a long toffee bar. Somehow, most of us got a lick.

Often one of the girls would make a run for it. This was great because the teachers in charge would go running after her. Sometimes she would be away for days but always brought back in the end.

They said a man got into the convent and hurt a nun. I didn’t know what that meant but she died soon after.Myself and another girl had to sit at the end of her bed while the nuns were at Mass. Talk about fear, we were wetting ourselves, almost convinced she was moving. We would start going for the door but knew we couldn’t. I don’t remember …

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Mother Genevieve would sit at the back as well and if you looked away from the altar she would give you the most merciless poke. God, I hated her. Blowing the organ was, I don’t know (funny) but God help you if you didn’t do it properly. If you were with a giggly girl, you just couldn’t concentrate. She would go up when she was supposed to be going down. The nun playing the organ would give you a quick sly rap on the fingers. This often resulted in you rolling about laughing, which meant trouble again because all the other nuns would look up, and this made the girls at the back laugh even more.

Good Friday was a funny day, it was Mass all day, going to kiss the cross. Well, laugh, my stomach hurt. You see, all the nuns would be sitting each side of the small church and the priest would be waiting there to bless you as you kiss the cross. Oh God. One girl, somewhere down the line would kneel on another girl’s stocking, knocking her flat on her face, which meant that the whole line of kneeling girls would go toppling over. Even the priest found it hard to keep a straight face.

The nuns had a holiday home in Carlingford, two girls usually went with them. I would long and dream to be picked and, God Bless me, I was. What a way I felt, getting this suitcase ready, going there was marvellous. But wait for the shock, my God. Went to this room, it seemed 200 miles up the stairs. I was with a girl called Ann, a peevish girl, who was always combing her hair. Straight away we were fighting, do you know she gave me such a thump in my stomach I blacked out. One of the nuns had to look after me. I had a whole two weeks to spend with her. Oh dear God, she was horrid. If only Kathleen had been chosen to go with me.

Our day started at 6:00 am. The cook would come around seven, and the handy man would already have the range working. She was a great big woman and cooked lovely food. The man would have his in the shed at the other end of the yard. The nuns would serve each other, but we would do the cleaning, washing up and run errands.

I washed my best dress for Sunday and Ann poured all green paint over me. I cried so much I was ill. I was even afraid to go to sleep. Of course, I told the nun in charge. I don’t know what happened but I was glad to get away. She was evil.

When we got back to the convent it was the rule to put all our best clothes away in the Sunday cupboard, so it was called. I saw a lovely pair of pink knickers so I took them, knowing full well I would have to hide them wherever necessary. Then I became very ill with sore throat and bad head. Guess what happened. I was caught wearing them and was nearly murdered. I told so many lies as to where I got them.

Oh God, it was awful.