Where Old Ghosts Meet

Growing up in the poverty of 1940s Dublin 10 Year old Danny Flynn relates the roller coaster events of his childhood as his mother tries to hold her family of 6 children together in the face of overwhelming odds.

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4. The Party at Weaver Square

      In the dark days leading up to Christmas the Flynn’s already difficult circumstances became even more difficult. The small wage that Mr Flynn used to bring home each Friday night had just about kept them afloat. Aer Lingus, where he had worked as a clerk after leaving the army, helped to pay for the funeral expenses but the plight of their former employee’s family had since ceased to be of any great concern to them. Misfortune seemed to attract more misfortune. Teresa’s asthma became much worse and she could be heard wheezing more often.  A vile green preparation called ‘Potter’s Asthma Powder’ used to smoulder in a saucer beside her bed, supposedly to give her some relief. Vincent thought he would prefer to suffer the asthma.

The prospect of the approaching Christmas was a frightening one for Sarah Flynn who had not had to worry about such things before.   She smoked another Woodbine as she pondered her huge problem.  

On the morning of Christmas eve an attractive young lady appeared suddenly on the Flynn’s doorstep. From behind the living room curtains, where he was lurking hoping to catch a glimpse of Yvonne Twinning in the street, Vincent saw that she was holding a white carrier bag in her right hand and it was heavy and bulky. She tapped her immaculate patent leather shoes on the concrete door step as she waited patiently for her knock to be answered.  Sarah came to the door wiping her coal stained hands on a tattered apron and looked at the strange visitor on her doorstep.

‘Yes - can I help you?’ Sarah asked, inspecting the smartly dressed woman from head to toe. The young woman beamed a white smile and answered in a very rehearsed voice. ‘Good morning - it’s Mrs Flynn isn’t it?’  Sarah nodded and continued to stare at her in a puzzled way. ‘My name is Miss Rooney. I’m from Aer Lingus. Would you mind if I popped inside for a moment?’

Her voice and culture had a manner far removed from Mrs Flynn’s world. Sarah moved to one side and invited the Aer Lingus lady in with a gesture of her coal stained hand.  A sense of shame overcame her as they reached the kitchen and Sarah looked at the shaky old chair she had to offer the airline envoy.  Vincent crept silently from his station in the living room and sneaked up the stairway to eavesdrop on the conversation. His efforts were rewarded with just a few snatches of information, ‘........we were all very shocked at he office.....’   before the kitchen door slammed preventing him from hearing what course of action that shock had engendered in the office.

Vincent pounded up the stairs to the bedroom above the kitchen and put his ear to the floorboards hoping to penetrate the barrier between him and the talking women downstairs. He found a spot where odd bits of conversation could be salvaged. ‘The Sisters at Weaver Square convent might be able to help ......I could enquire on my way home ....tell them to expect you ....’ ‘I don’t care so much for myself ‘ He heard his mother reply, ‘it’s the wanes I worried about.....’ As Vincent watched the mysterious woman leave and walk quickly down the front path to a waiting car, he noted with interest that she wasn’t carrying the white bag she had arrived with. He made a mental note to seek out the bulky container as soon as possible.

On his way down the stairs he looked in at Teresa who was making a strangled noise as she inhaled the obnoxious green Potter fumes. The Christmas breakfast the next morning was the same dull fare of so many mornings before it but seemed more exciting as the children chatted eagerly and  showed each other their presents. Vincent had been unable to track down the Aer Lingus bag but worked out that it had contained the toys they were holding. Teresa’s chest heaved and wheezed as she looked bright eyed at the doll she had been given. Sarah opened the cupboard to put away the bread and margarine and her eyes fell on the white bag shoved underneath a large pile of unpaid grocery bills.  

Vincent and Anthony both attended Weaver Square Convent School that was run by the Sisters of Mercy. In Vincent’s class the mercy was in short supply. Sister Charity kept a long thin cane hidden in the depths of her black habit and produced it with uncharitable frequency. It was with some surprise and horror therefore that the boys greeted the news they were to be taken to the school that very afternoon for, as their mother described it, a party. Teresa was too ill to be taken but the others promised they would try and bring her something back from the festivity. 

‘Will you be alright Teresa?’  asked Mrs Flynn for the third time, looking anxiously at her daughter propped up in the bed. She hated having to leave her behind but needs demanded her walking the children to Weaver Square. She toyed with the idea of asking the kind Mrs McGuinness to sit with Teresa till she got back but felt too ashamed to admit  where she had to go. ‘Ill be alright Ma,’ Teresa puffed the words out, ‘Yous go and enjoy yourselves.’

In the light rain that had begun to fall on the deserted street the Flynn’s set forth for Weaver Square. Sarah felt sure that everyone in Clover Road knew where they were heading to and were peering from behind every curtain. They were unsure if Miss Rooney had paved the way for them into the party and that they would be accepted at the charitable feast. The journey was one that Vincent and Anthony made every school day and they could have walked there blindfolded. They crossed the busy South Circular Road and into the sedate residential Donore Avenue with its tree lined pavements fronting the splendid houses that were mostly owned by Dublin’s Jewish community. They passed the long high wall of the White Swan laundry and into the narrow cobbled road of Cow’s Parlour.

Onward they trudged through the rain and the depressing narrowness of Black Pits. The drizzle continued to fall relentlessly.  Vincent felt wet clothes clinging uncomfortably to his skin. He was very hungry and wondered what the nuns would serve up. Bosco’s hands were blue with cold as he walked shoulders hunched in front of Vincent. They turned the corner into Weaver Square and looked wide eyed at the scene greeting them.  A long line of women and children were standing in silence  waiting for the school gate to open. Sarah’s shame increased as they joined the end of the underprivileged queue. 

While they had fallen on hard times she refused to see herself in the same class as ‘those ones from Cuff Street,’  - a title she bestowed on any citizen of Dublin she considered to be less refined than herself.  Vincent had never seen Cuff Street but had a mental image of the people who lived there cuffing each other all the time. At  two o clock a black clad nun with a smile that seemed to be painted on her face appeared at the gate and under her watchful eye the crocodile of human misery began to snake its way forward to be swallowed up in the dark gateway.

Vincent recognised the nun as Sister Rosary, a thin faced woman from Wicklow who had illustrated to his class using her stiff white collar as a representation of what the human soul looked like after confession. She would put a black spot of dust on it to show what a venial sin looked like, and God forbid that it should ever turn completely black from mortal sin. She held up her hand as the Flynn’s reached the gateway. Her small dark eyes fell on the foundered Bosco and the painted smile vanished to be replaced with a grim look of authority. ‘What age is the boy?, ‘ was the question that had caused her smile to disappear. Mrs Flynn was taken aback and guessed that there was an upper age limit for the party.  ‘ ‘He’s eleven Sister,’ She replied, taking a year off Bosco’s age and hoping that God wouldn’t strike her dead for lying to the holy nun. ‘I’m sorry,’ the nun said holding her hands out in a gesture that suggested it was all someone else's fault, ‘the party is only for the little ones.’ ‘ You and the boy can wait in the hall while the children are eating.’ Sister Rosary said dismissing the Flynn’s from her mind and returning to spy for further gate crashers.

Inside the school the Flynn children reluctantly left their disappointed mother and Bosco to follow the crowd to a large hall set aside for the party. its high ceiling echoed to the squabble of excited children talking loudly and scraping the wooden forms back from the long row of tables set out with plates and large white mugs. The stench of unwashed children and damp clothes drying from the heat of bodies, blended with the sickening chocolate odour coming from a massive steaming cauldron behind the serving hatch. A grim picture of St. Anthony looked down disapprovingly at the Flynn children as they took their places at the far end of the hall.

The others seemed to be more at ease in the noisy surroundings and pushed and jostled each other as they waited for the festive proceedings to begin.  A few places up from where he was sitting, Vincent spotted Eamon Lunney from his class. Vincent had been forbidden to play with Eamon since the day he told his mother about watching the lice crawling up the back of his head in class. Eamon was in earnest conversation with a red headed boy who was staring into his white mug in anticipation.  

A silence began at the entrance to the hall and fell towards the back like tumbling dominos until the whole place was levelled in silence. The only sound to be heard was the spirited bubbling of the mysterious chocolate mixture as it brewed unhindered behind the hatch. All eyes turned towards the door as the Mother Superior of the convent swept into the crowded room flanked by the thin Sister Teresa and the fatter Sister Mary Mark. The marched resolutely to the centre of the serving hatch, their polished shoes clicking across the red tiled floor, before turning to face the sea of hungry faces. Mother Superior stood for a few moments smiling sweetly at the gathered children before flicking her right hand to her forehead to begin the Sign of the Cross. The children followed her as they called down God’s blessing on the coming food.

Bless us Oh Lord and these thy gifts, which of thy Holy bounty we are about to receive Through Christ Our Lord. Ames

While Vincent had no particular expectations about the Christmas party, he was somewhat disappointed to see the two buns and the mug full of chocolate drink being doled out to each child. It just didn’t add up a party; despite the dollop of red jam topping each bun. He looked for reassurance at the coloured streamers hanging apologetically from the high ceiling, but failed to be persuaded by their hopeful intention. Beside him Columba stared doubtfully into his mug as though it might hold the answer to some deep riddle.

Down the line of creaking table the serving nuns advanced filling the white mugs with the steaming liquid from enamel jugs and placing two buns on each plate. The chocolate brew tasted even worse than it looked and the Flynn children had difficulty forcing it down their throats.  Out of curiosity Vincent asked the boy beside him what the drink was called. The muffled reply sounded like ‘Cafola‘, a concoction he had not, nor since, heard of. As he held the revolting mixture of bun and Cafola in his mouth and tried not to be sick, Vincent worried that his mother and Bosco might have got fed up waiting and left.

The three Sisters of Mercy on duty moved around the feasting children occasionally finding a head of hair clean enough to pat. Josephine didn’t seem to find the poisonous drink too bad and Vincent wondered if she might be wiling to finish his off for him.  Josephine refused the offer and reminded him he should be grateful and think of the black babies in Africa. The emaciated Sister Teresa was only a few places away and advancing. Vincent didn’t want her to find him being unappreciative over the Cafola. With a show of courage he took the mug in both hands and swallowed it over.  ‘Hello Vincent,’ he heard her say from behind his right shoulder, ‘ My  word!  You do seem to be enjoying that!’ ‘Yes Sister - it was very nice thank you,’ he lied.

Would you like some more?,’ Vincent heard the dreaded words. A mixture of fear and embarrassment forced Vincent to consent to another mug of the disgusting Cafola. Josephine and Columba sniggered from behind their covered faces as the good Sister recharged Vincent’s vessel with the words,  ‘There you are Vincent - drink it all up like a good boy.’ His stomach heaved at the prospect in front of him and he silently cursed the woman from Aer Lingus for his predicament. Through the high window in the hall he saw that the light was beginning to fade.

The party was in its dying moments when Vincent and Josephine lead the two younger children out of the great hall to rejoin their mother and Bosco. They remembered too late about their promise to save something for Teresa. In the long corridor outside Bosco was standing looking cold and hungry and wishing he was at home. ‘What did yous get to eat?’ was all that Sarah wanted to know as they appeared from the mass of disgorging children. ‘All we got was aul buns and brown stuff to drink!’ Columba informed her in an accusing voice. ‘We forgot about Teresa Ma,’ Anthony confessed on their behalf. ‘It was only two buns each Ma!’ Josephine defended their greed, but still felt a sense of shame as she thought about Teresa waiting at home. ‘Never mind - never mind,’ Mrs Flynn absolved them of their selfishness with a wave of her hand and gathered her brood together for the journey home.

By the time they reached Cow Parlour the rain had eased off a bit. In the small terraced houses lights were beginning to come on giving the miserable street a cosier look. In one house the curtains had not yet been drawn and an old woman was sitting dozing in front of a blazing fire. Anthony walked ahead of the others, his eyes on the pavement to avoid stepping on a crack and giving water to the devil. Mrs Flynn stared  into the gathering darkness and fretted about Teresa at home on her own. She quickened her footstep anxious to be back with her sick daughter. In the quiet street Josephine was singing softly to herself. ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,’ her voice echoed in the stillness of Donore Avenue. Up ahead Anthony suddenly stopped and bent over to retrieve something from the wet pavement. He picked up the object and stared at it in disbelief for a few moments before turning on his heel and running back to his mother. ‘Hey Ma - Hey Ma,’ his excited voice filled Donore Avenue, ‘Look what I found!’ The others grouped around the excited Anthony to see the cause of his exhilaration. In his hand Anthony was holding a wet, but still recognisable, one pound note. Sarah hushed him fearful that its owner might suddenly reappear to claim it. Making sure that there was nobody watching, she placed the sodden banknote in the palm of her hand and carefully squeezed off the excess water. It was still in a serviceable condition and a few minutes on a warmed up plate at home should convert it into a passport to their Christmas supper.

The children danced happily around her, the prospect of something better than Cafola shouting down the small voice of honesty that would speak louder next Saturday at confession. Back home again Sarah went immediately up the stairs to check on Teresa. Behind her on the stairs the rest of them followed bursting to tell their eldest sister about the party and the treasure that Anthony had found. She was sitting up in bed a feeling a lot better. Teresa laughed as she tired to listen to them all talking at once. While Sarah went to warm up the cooker, Bosco was dispatched to Pender’s, a family  who sold goods from their house, with instructions to apologise for disturbing them on Christmas night, and to ask for a stone of potatoes and a pound of butter please. ‘And you better get a loaf and ten Woodbines for me,’ she called after him.   Bosco would have known to buy the bread and cigarettes anyway. Every shopping list he’d ever been given by his mother had always ended with the bread and Woodbines  

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