Before I Forget...
October 27th 1972
The Day After
We, the children, slept last night but really it was no more than resting our eyes and bodies. But there was one less body sleeping in our house. I don’t think my mother or father slept at all though, they are still trying to carry on the normal morning duties and make it seem like nothing has changed. Things have changed though. We have changed in the blink of a small child’s eye. Mam calls us up to get some breakfast and out of pure habit she calls her name without thinking. And then bursts into tears, as does my father. I feel close to getting sick, ‘womiting’ as my godmother Mai calls it; a rumbling feeling in the pit of my stomach that was probably just hunger pangs from the night’s sleep. As children we are used to playing games and we try to see if we can make things change just by pretending that what has happened wasn’t real. But it has happened and it is real. My sister Angela is sitting at the table crying her eyes out and my brother Maurice is close to doing the same; it’s as if we are all trying to vent our anger and sorrow through our eyes. I can’t seem to cry, just a feeling of dizziness in my head, and I don’t speak for hours that day, I can’t pretend, it does no good. The morning moves on, a constant flow of people coming knocking to our door to follow the rituals of events such as this one. Following the guidelines of good taste and following the semi-religious rituals that are drilled into country folk from days gone by. Maybe if enough people call we will reach a time were we can turn back the clock.
We carry on trying not to look at each other, we keep looking around at the slightest sound from her room; maybe she is hiding under the bed, afraid to come out for fear of punishment for playing such a rotten trick on everyone. Five year olds can be great for keeping quiet for long periods when they play Hide and Seek, it comes natural to them. They haven’t reached a level yet where they can carry on long meaningful discussions so keeping quiet for a game is easy to them. I wish she would make some noise and show herself. I really do.
The mortuary building at Youghal Hospital is a bad place; people only go there when someone they know is dead. I hate it, it is an evil place. It gives us a last look at someone who has only been with us for a short time before she has been taken away. I want to take her out of the ugly timber box and carry her home to Piltown. But I can’t. She died yesterday. On her way home for lunch from school.
October 26th 1972
My little sister Catherine had blonde hair. Short smooth cheek length blonde hair curled in just below her chin. She never had long hair; it just did not suit her physique and as our mother was, through financial necessity, the only person who ever cut our hair when we were young, Catherine was always presented smartly to the world. We all were, to the best of our parent’s ability considering the financial constraints we were under. Some of our clothes were made by our mother, again simply because it was cheaper to make them than buy them. We knew nothing of finance or budgets or the like during the long summer of 1972.
Catherine was a small child for her age and she would smile in a shy sort of way and dip her head slightly if she was in a situation where she thought she was being made fun of.
“I’m small now but I’ll get bigger” she used to say, no doubt going to bed every night dreaming of when she would be on the same physical level of the adults and older children around her. The world in which Catherine lived was a child’s one, full of simple views on everything, simple dreams and simple solutions to big problems. She loved dogs, always stroking and petting them and loved to roll around with them on our grassless dusty front lawn in Piltown, during the long summer of 1972.
Our American aunt, her husband and their kids came to visit us that year, spending the best part of a month with my family and other family relatives in the vicinity. It was a time of great fun and excitement; we had an aunt, my father’s sister Biddy, who had ‘made good’ over in the city of Detroit in the state of Michigan and here she was back home for a visit to show us her husband and her children; our cousins James, Anne and Margaret. My God, she even had a car to drive herself around while she was here, though neither she nor her husband Mike could ever quite grasp the concept of using the clutch when changing gear. Auntie Biddy worked in a big hospital and eventually she would work her way along the line to become a senior Theater Nurse in that hospital. Not bad for a little girl who had left Ireland in the mid 1950s with little or no education. Catherine was fascinated by our American cousins and followed them around like a little lapdog; Auntie lovingly gave her the nickname “Little One” as she was the smallest of this temporarily expanded group of children that would set out from our house on a day log dose of mischief in the local fields. There were three cousins and four of us; a dozen years on from it first hitting the cinemas, Piltown had its own very special version of The Magnificent Seven during that long summer of 1972.
Catherine’s fifth birthday was on July 31st that summer; a photo was taken in our kitchen to commemorate the day and it was a crowded picture. Us four, the three American cousins, some more first cousins from nearby; all crammed into a small corner of the kitchen so our mother could take the photo with her Agfa Synchro Box camera. She managed to fit us all in and the camera is still here in 2012 and so is the only copy of that picture that was taken at that birthday party. We had cakes, we had Taylor Keith orange and lemonade, we had MiWadi cordials; it was heaven. Eat all we wanted and no thinking of the next day. Shortly after Catherine’s birthday party in 1972, our American relatives went back to Detroit, promising to return soon for another holiday.
We were in a world of new adventures and new beginnings in 1972, our first TV set was beaming coverage of the Munich Olympics to our kitchen every night, that’s where our television set was, and we were almost oblivious to what was going on in relation to the Israeli athletes and coaches that had been kidnapped at the event. We knew that something was going on but at our age we didn’t get the full story from our parents. Events in Northern Ireland were being spoken of more and more by the adults who called to our house or met in social settings; again, as young children we were vaguely aware that all was not right with our world, particularly the northern part of our island, but our understanding of our fellow man was rather minimal in 1972. Years later as we grew up we began to understand the enormity of the Troubles and the Munich horror; but we were only interested in our own little problems while al that was going on. One of the certainties of life was to be brought home to us in October 1972 in such a savage way that it still resonates today.
“No, not the Little One !!” was my Auntie Biddy’s reaction to a phone call from one of our neighbours on October 26th 1972. “No! No! No!, not her!”
But it was our little one. “I’ll see you later at big lunchtime Mam” were Catherine’s last words to my mother on October 26th 1972, said as she trotted off down the two hundred yards or so to our school, in her pink hand-made dress, which she absolutely loved above all other clothes she had. It was the last day she wore it. It was the last day I was to see her in the playground with her few friends. It was the last day she hopped out over the stile at the front of the school and went to cross the road to come up home for her lunch. I was already a little further up the road and heading for home when a car passed me by, I took little notice of it; why would I? Cars were becoming that bit more common on the country roads of rural Waterford in 1972. Why would this one be any different? It would prove to be, to this day, the most important car ever in my life.
It was a blue Hillman Avenger being driven by a man who was on his way to a local farm to meet the farmer in question on some agricultural matter. I have no idea what his name was, though I think he had a girlfriend in nearby Youghal whom my parents were familiar with. The blue Hillman Avenger screeched to a halt after hitting my sister Catherine as she was attempting to cross the road in front of Kinsalebeg National School on October 26th 1972. Screams from the school playground were not screams of fun and excitement, as one would normally hear in such an environment. Most of the young children in the school playground had seen the accident; the screams were screams of horror.
I was halfway up home when I heard the screams and looked back towards the school, the weakness about my body was heightened when the most visible thing I could see upon my glance backwards was my little sister’s body lying prone and lifeless on the cold tarmac road in front of our school. In her pink dress. There was a flash before my eyes that I can still recall, and I stumbled to the ground. Thinking back now, did I faint? Whether I did or not, I soon began running the remaining hundred yards or so to our house, screaming for my mother all the way. Mother was in the front garden, idly wandering around the front garden waiting for her kids to come up for a short mid-day lunch. I reached the outside wall of our house and screamed at her
“Mam, someone’s knocked Catherine down at the school and she isn’t getting up!”
I sat down by the wall on my haunches and watched in disbelief as my father, who had been in the back garden; ran as fast as his feet could carry him towards the scene of the accident, he must have surely been hoping against hope that the lifeless body in the pink dress that her mother had made would somehow begin to rise and get up from the prone position she was now in. The nearer he got to her though, the more his hopes were diminishing and disappearing. She was gone. In an instant of time. A split second of time when a car and a child occupy the same spot on the path of life.
My father made his way back up the road a little slower than he had gone down; floods of tears were now cascading down his face and he ran to my mother who was in absolute hysterics in the front garden. “She’s gone, pet” he said holding on to her as she almost fainted. She was nine months pregnant with my brother Michael at the time. Neighbours were beginning to congregate by this stage; brought out from their houses by all the commotion in our front garden. My mother screamed at the top of her voice:
“It’s not true, it can’t be!!” My father tried to calm her down but it wasn’t working, she was in disbelief; how could a little child who had skipped off down the road a few hours earlier be now lying on the road, lifeless? How? Why?
“I have to go back down to her ” my father said; to anyone listening it just sounded like he was going down the road to visit a neighbour. I’m not sure if the finality of what had happened had really sunk in with my poor father. He, and my mother, had lost two daughters already but the anguish of their deaths was not as severe as this time. Both of the earlier daughters had died in the 1960s while infants, from complications from various illnesses that were incurable. My parents had moved on to the best of their ability and continued to produce offspring. Catherine duly arrived in 1967 and was a little bundle of fun and games from the off; smiling at everyone the whole time. She only spent six months in our house in Monatrea, as we moved to Piltown in early 1968. We had been granted a County Council house as our dwelling in Monatrea was by then unfit for human habitation, did not have running water or electricity and was over-run by vermin at regular points during the year. I remember being told that we would no longer have to walk the four miles to school and back every day, the house we were going to move to was only a few hundred yards down the road. My brother Maurice and sister Angela and myself were beyond ourselves when we realised what changes were going to come when we left the isolation of Monatrea. Catherine was still a baby in my mother’s arms when we left.
“We would be better off in Piltown…” that’s what I remember my father saying, not long before we closed the door on our house in Monatrea for the last time.