WHEN WE WERE GIRLS IN THE SOLDIERS’ COTTAGES|
By Veronica Breen Hogle
When I was a girl growing up in the Soldiers’ Cottages in Bagenalstown, I spent much of my time in the upstairs window taking in the view of the little railway and flourmill town. Some nights, I watched boys, veiled in fog, or sprinkled with shimmering frost, playing marbles under the new electric lamppost. Long before the wind-up alarm clock went off, I woke up to the sparrows making noisy rackets under the eaves. In summer, the sweetness of wallflowers and new mowed hay perfumed the air. When I saw women with buckets walking towards the black iron pump on the Car Road, I grabbed my white enamel pail and ran to be with them. While our buckets filled, my ears were cocked for the news about new babies, wakes and weddings, and who was coming home on holidays from England.
From my perch at the window, I could look up the sloping fields to a place called The Rocks. Boys and girls often went there to play cowboys and Indians. It was alive with a chorus of blackbirds, thrushes, robins, crickets and croaking frogs. Butterflies yo-yoed above violet, yellow, and red wildflowers clustered near tall lacy ferns. Gray rabbits with big brown eyes and cotton ball tails, peeked out from under rocks and boulders that glinted in the sun. Some people were raging about the flashlights that licked the roofs and windows of our houses at night. They blinded the rabbits and made them stand still. On bright moonlight nights, I could see the silhouettes of men beating the rabbits with thick blackthorn sticks. Other people said the rabbits made a dinner for people with not much else to eat.
Just below The Rocks, trains whistled and steamed in and out of the Railway Station with its name MUINEBHEAG stated in Irish and BAGENALSTOWN stated in English. My father whistled while he worked there. I often saw him with his thick puce pencil tucked behind his ear, under the rim of his navy railway uniform cap, giving orders to men unloading tea chests, and crates of fruit from foreign countries. His uniform seeped up the smells of tobacco, tea and spices.
The fields around our cottages were home for potatoes, wildflowers and golden haystacks. In the market square, the steeple of St. Andrew’s Church reached up into the sky. At the bottom of our field stood a somber gray limestone church with no steeple. Rex, my collie sheep dog and I often raced through the meadow, speckled with waving red poppies. We stopped at the low stonewall surrounding the church. A black sign in the front said “Church of Ireland,” in gold letters. I sat on the wall and wondered what the church looked like inside. The doors were always closed, except for a few hours on Sunday. The only sounds were the jackdaws in the tall trees, Rex barking, trying to round up the hedgehogs, and the drone of the fat bumblebees hovering over the red valerian.
Monday was washday. Through the open window, I saw the next-door neighbor fishing for her wood clothes pegs in the huge pocket she made by folding up her flowery apron. She held the pegs in her mouth while she hung white striped flannel shirts, white work overalls, and sheets made from bleached flour bags on clotheslines. On days no smoke came out of the chimney pots, no smuts from the coal fires landed on the white wash that dried soaking up the smells of flowers, and softed by a sprinkling of rain.
The sheets snapping and billowing in the wind interfered with my view of a girl with a mop of brown curly hair. She sat on a wood seat, between two ropes, tied to an apple tree in her orchard. Every day, when I came home from the convent for my lunch, I took the shortcut up the stump. I stood and watched her playing with other children in the playground of the small school, beside the church with no steeple. Even though I didn’t know her at all, I felt I knew her well, just from watching her swing under the apple trees, read her book, and devour apples. It was strange that she never came to the pump with her water bucket. The women said her name is Amanda Stevenson. Her father worked in the flourmill and went to work wearing a suit and soft hat.
Most of the men in the cottages worked in the flourmill. They left early in the morning wearing white overalls, carrying billycans and metal lunch boxes. When they returned home before the six o’clock Angelus rang, even their eyelashes were heavy with flour. The men were given a Soldiers’ Cottage because they fought in Belgium and France in World War One. They all had families. Many of their children had already gone to England to find work. Three of the ten families in the cottages have no fathers. The widowed mothers and their children lived in the houses on small pensions.
I remember the summer I was eight and a bit. Worries of school and cross nuns had faded. The golden yellow and rosy red apples hung heavy on the trees. I walked up and down the Car Road, dropping into the cottages. As I pass Amanda Stevenson’s house, I hear someone playing “Pop Goes the Weasel,” on the piano. I sit under the tall hedge, keeping time with my feet. I go and rap on Amanda’s door. It opens. A tall, thin woman, wearing a flowery blue pinafore stands there. Her gray hair is wrapped in a neat sausage roll around the nape of her neck.
“Yes?” says the woman without any smile at all. I step back and look a long way up into her eyes.
“I’m Vonnie Fitz. I live two houses away, beside Cunninghsm’s. Can Amanda come out an’ play?”
“No. Amanda can’t come out to play today. She’s too old to play with you,” closing the door and I see the doorknocker quiver. I walk away looking down at the gravel stones.
I go back to the upstairs window. I watch Amanda glide back and forth on her swing under the apple tree, her head buried in a book. She picks a sweet rosy apple off the tree. Without even a glance to see if there’s a worm inside, she gobbles it down. Without lifting her eyes, she flings the core into the hedge. A few days later, I feel brave enough to give the brass knocker a few good raps.
“Yes?” says the same serious woman, wearing a different blue flowery pinafore.
“Can Amanda come out ta play?”
“No, you’re too young to play with Amanda.” She closes the door. The brass knocker shivers. It’s sunny, but I feel cold as I kick the gravel stones on the way out the gate.
A week later, on my way back up the Car Road, I hear “Pop goes the Weasel” on the piano in the Stevenson’s house again. I sit under the thick hedge and sing all the words. I jump up and go through the gate. I grab the doorknocker and give three strong raps. The woman I’ve come to know opens the door.
“Oh, dear child,” she says. “I’ve told you so many times Amanda’s too old to play with you…”
“Oh, I don’t want ta play with Amanda. I’m learning ta play the piano with Sr. Agnes after school. Can I play “Teddy O’Neill for ya?”
Her eyes get big. She smiles. The door inches open.
“Who’s here Mummy?” shouts a girl’s voice.
“It’s Vonnie Fitz,” from beside Cunningham’s. She wants to… play ‘Teddy O’Neill’ for me…”
I’m face to face with Amanda. The sun makes her mop of brown, curly hair shine like mahogany. She has green eyes like me.
“Are ya goin’ ta play us a tune?” Amanda asks, leading into the parlor. I start with, “I see the old cabin he danced his wild jigs in, as neat a mud cabin that ever was seen …’
When they clap at the end, my heart beats like a hammer. I don’t say a word about Mrs. Cunningham pounding the wall with the poker when I play the piano too loud.
“Here. Let’s play ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ for four hands,” says Amanda. We sit close together on the piano stool and she shows me how to play base. She sings, “Half a pound of tuppenny rice…….”
I rush home and tell Aunt Christina Mrs. Stevenson let me in into her house. I’m bursting with news.
“Why don’t the Stevenson’s have a picture of the Sacred Heart with a little red lamp over the mantel?” I ask her. “It’s the only house in the cottages without one,” I go on. Aunt Christina’s eyes become huge.
“An’ they’ve no statue of Blessed Mary. No holy water font. No crucifix. Not one statue of a saint anywhere,” gushing out what Stevenson’s did not have.
“That’s because they’re a different religion,” says Aunt Christina. “Don’t say a word to them about it,” she orders. “Don’t be a nosey parker.”
I cup her ear, “They’ve no picture of the Pope either,” I whisper.
“Just don’t say a word about it. Oh, you’re too young to play with Amanda. Don’t go over there any more,” my aunt says.
“But, she’s only three years older than me,” I reason. I say no more about my observations. Half the time when I rap on Amanda’s door, her mother lets me in “just for a little while” to the neat, spotless house, which often has the smell of onions and dinner simmering, or an apple tart baking in the oven. The reflection from the coal burning in the range makes a square on the gleaming red tile floor. Amanda and I play, “All around the cobbler’s bench -- the monkey chased the weasel…”
Suddenly, my Aunt Christina had to go to hospital for a long time. I was sent to live with my grandmother on a farm in Graiguenamanagh. When I came back, I ran to Amanda’s house so the two of us could play 'Pop Goes The Weasel.' But the Stevenson’s were gone from the Soldiers’ Cottages. They had moved to a grand house near Browne and Crosthwaite’s Flourmill on the Barrow River, where Amanda’s father had become the miller.
Amanda and I never played together again.
The years passed. I settled in Buffalo, New York. Amanda stayed in Bagenalstown. She sometimes visited my mother who told me Amanda became a piano teacher, became Mrs. Rothwell, had a houseful of children, and is now a widow.
Last winter, I went back to my little town on the Barrow River. The flourmill stands alone and deserted. The passenger trains still stop at the railway station several times a day on their way to Waterford and Dublin. But the goods’ department stands all dark and all silent. Grass and moss grow over the building where my father loved to work.
The Church of Ireland still looks the same.
Amanda and I met for dinner in Bagenalstown. We talked about the town, our children, grandchildren, and our mutual medical ailments. I told her I used to run home and report on all the religious objects I noticed she didn’t have in her house.I told her I used to try to find her a red lamp and I wanted to give her one of our many statues of Saint Theresa.
“So you were an undercover agent, spyin’ on me when we were playin’ the piano -- 50 years ago” said Amanda, her green eyes dancing. She leaned towards me and said she was glad I told her.
When my mother died three months later, I went back to Ireland for her funeral. I left the wake just for a short time. When I returned, my niece said a woman had visited and left this message:
“Tell Vonnie, the girl she used to play with in the Soldier’s Cottages was here. Tell her the friend who has no picture of the Sacred Heart and no little red lamp is thinking about her today. Tell her I will keep her forever in memory and prayers.”
P.S.Summer 2007. This story was published in The Carlow Nationalist, Ireland in July 2007. It will also appear in Celtic Heritage Magazine, NS, Canada, later in 2007.
PPS. This article appeared in The Buffalo News on June 27, 2010. Also grateful thanks to the Carton family who used to live in the Soldier's Cottages, most of whom now live in England, for the wonderful photo of themselves and the laundry blowing in the wind in the background. Veronica