Stokane National School Reunion
The Red, Sweet Paper
- by Thomas Kilcullen.
The March wind was blowing cold and hard down the river valley and over the old stone bridge above the little town. I stood on the old stone bridge with my shawl hanging loosely round my shoulders. I was letting the wind blow the smell of smoke from the camp fire away from my hair. It was a fine, healthy wind that was blowing as I stood there. I could find my hair tossing and whirling, and I felt relieved with the freshness returning to my head and face.
I leaned over the wall and watched the water flowing towards me carrying with it flecks of foam and an occasional air bubble which were caused by the waterfall a short distance up-river. The water was calm and flowing gently as it passed under the bridge where I was standing.
I knew that river water well, many a morning my mother washed me in that same river when I was a child. Every time we were camped at the crossroads above Moran’s my mother would bring me down to the river and wash me from head to toe, then she would make me run around until I was dry. She used to say:
“Dry girl with the heat of your own body”.
As I stood there gathering up my hair into a bun, I saw a red-coloured sweet paper floating towards me on top of the water, it was opened flat, not rolled up like some sweet papers you would see thrown around. “I knew the sort of sweet that was in that paper”, I said to myself and I watched it float slowly under the bridge.
I crossed to the other side of the bridge and watched the sweet paper float down-stream. It had not much further to float until fate would decide its future. Would it turn to the right and float down the water that was turned off down the Mill race to drive Casey’s mill, where it would be crushed by the wheels of the mill, or would it float down-river and out to sea, where fish in playful mood, might come up from the depths of the sea, and poke it with their noses, or hungry seagulls might swoop down from the sky to make sure it wasn’t food of some sort escaping them. As I watched, it floated past the mill race and was on its way out to sea and different horizons.
The tears came to my eyes as I watched that sweet paper, for it brought me back many years to a wet and cold evening at Donoghue’s shop.
I left the camp that morning after eating two or three potatoes that were left over after supper the night before and set off bare-footed down the road after my mother; she was going on a begging round of the countryside, and I was going with her. We were not long on the road when it started raining. I was dressed badly for the rain. I remember I had on two cotton dresses which reached far below my knees with no underwear, and I had on over the cotton dresses a big jacket — the sleeves of which were hanging below my finger tips.
I must have been a sorrowful sight, because when my mother looked at me she said I was dressed right for the job.
We travelled some miles round the country and we got eggs, milk, butter, tea and sugar from the farmers’ wives. I carried the tea and sugar in cans in my jacket pockets, my mother carried the remainder of our collections tied to a rope she had round her waist and covered with her shawl.
We arrived at Donoghue’s shop in the evening and my mother made me stand outside while she went into the shop to sell the eggs.
I was very cold and hungry standing outside the shop and the hem of my dress which was seeping wet for some time had now scalded my legs and the blood was appearing on the backs of them.
I was looking in through the shop window and I saw a jar of sweets with red-coloured paper wrappings. How I longed for one of them sweets. I knew my mother would not buy any of them — she never bought sweets.
I saw Mr. Donoghue lift the jar of sweets and fill a paper bag with the sweets from the jar, he handed them to a well-dressed woman. I watched this woman until she came outside the door of the shop. She had a little girl with her and when she came outside she opened the paper bag and was giving some sweets to the little girl who was about my own age. I was standing beside them, and I rolled up my sleeve and held up my hand hoping to get some of the sweets.
The little girl looked at me and her eyes opened wide, and she let a yell of horror and fright and clutched her mother’s skirt. Her mother looked at me rather crossly and said: “You shouldn’t be standing here, you dirty little girl”, whereupon she rushed off down the street talking to the little girl, and I stood there with a lump of sorrow in my throat that was to stay for a very long time.
Some time after this my father sold a horse in Ballinasloe Fair. There was great celebrations that evening and my father gave me some coppers. I put the coppers in my pocket and kept them safely hidden.
We were camped at the crossroads up from Donoghue’s shop shortly after the Ballinasloe Fair and one morning as Mr. Donoghue was opening his shop I arrived. I placed my coppers on the counter and asked for sweets, pointing to the jar holding the sweets with the red wrappings.
Mr. Donoghue filled a paper bag full of them and handed them to me. I was delighted. I ran out of the shop and up the street. I sat down in a corner in a side lane and I removed the paper from one of the sweets. I looked at the paper over and over, and I now think it was the colour of that paper that fascinated me, I ate the sweet and then I remembered the wet evening and the woman and the sweets and the little girl, and a strange feeling came over me.
I jumped up and started throwing the sweets away in every direction. I started to cry, for somehow I then realised, for the first time, that I was truly a tinker and different from the girls born in rich families. I returned to the camp later with a feeling that I was never to forget.
The noise of a cart crossing the bridge woke me from my day dreams. It was Jack, my husband. He looked at me and said: “What’s wrong, Kate?” I replied: “Nothing”.
I looked down the river, the red sweet paper was gone out of sight. Jack handed me a bottle, saying: “Take a swipe”. I drank a few mouth-fulls out of the bottle and handed it back.
I sat in the cart and pulled the shawl around me. Jack got the pony into a trot and we were on our way back to camp.
On the way I said to Jack: “Will we get the house”. He looked at me and smiled, and said: “Kate, I’ll have you in a house for Christmas”.
“Thank God”, I replied, “we will be known as itinerants then”.