Aunt Kit and Uncle Ernie get married 1939
Our family group at Aunt Kits and Uncle Ernies wedding 1939
Note my untidy sock.
Well, I couldnt, but I wanted to be able to do so and Ernie promised to teach me. First of all, he let me blow and make a noise on it and then, the next day, he taught me how to play, When I Grow Too Old to Dream. Its a simple tune to learn on the mouth-organ and it was not long before I was playing it quite well. Then he taught me how to play God Save the King, as it was in those days, and then, almost instinctively, I found that I could play many other simple tunes. The trouble was that there were no sharps and flats, as one finds on a chromatic instrument, and Ernie never taught me how to blue the notes. But it was a great starter and, though I havent played one for years, I have always owned a mouth-organ since then.
In Hope Street, in which the school was situated, there was a barber shop where we youngsters could get our hair-cuts for a single penny. Adults also paid a penny but the barber, a lovely, friendly man with a kind and cheerful demeanour, always gave the lads a bar of Sharps Eton toffee which cost a half-penny in the shops. I considered this was fantastic value and I looked forward to each occasion when Dad or Mum said I needed a hair-cut and gave me the extra penny along with my bus-fare. Sometimes, I would share this four-inch flat bar of toffee with my sisters, but most times I would eat it all by myself before I was twenty paces out of the barber-shop. After the war I went back to see if the shop was there, but it was empty and the locals told me that the barber had joined up and been killed in North Africa. I blessed his soul.
The Sheerness Catholic School, which I think is still standing, but which might have suffered a change in its usage, was right next door to the local Co-operative Dairy. In those days it was the practice to give children a third of a pint of milk each day at break time and so it was never a problem getting the supplies in on time. After the break we did our P.T. and then continued with our classes until lunch-time. There were several of us who went round to the railway bridge near the school to stand atop it and wait for the train which went by each day at lunch-time and which would whistle at us and let out a shot of steam which, for a brief second, would engulf us and make the girls among us scream with delight.
After school we would run to the local bus station and try to get an upper-deck seat for the journey home to our various little towns on the island, Queenborough, East Minster, Minster, Eastchurch and even Leysdown, which was right at the far end of the island. Usually, we were home early enough to be able to play outside for an hour or two after we had had our tea. Tea consisted of bread, and butter, a hunk of mouse-trap cheese and a tomato with some lettuce. Sometimes, we would get a pickled onion: I loved pickled onions and would spend ages peeling each layer from the outside and nibbling at it to make it last longer. The drink was either water, sometimes a glass of milk and sometimes tea. It was simple and meagre but, healthy food.
We rarely ate sweets and were not encouraged to do so, anyway, because we were never given any pocket-money. If, by chance, we were given a present by a visiting uncle, aunt or friend of our parents, it was usually a three-penny bit. We would dash off to the sweet-shop further down the Broadway and indulge ourselves in toffees, boiled sweets or fizz. Fizz was a bag of sweet, effervescent powder with a tube of licorice sticking out of it. Youd suck the fizz out through the licorice tube and then eat the licorice itself. This took longer to do than eating a normal sweet and so appeared to be better value. But the best value, meaning that it lasted longest, was the gob stopper, a large marble of really hard, flavoured sugar which filled the mouth when first inserted and just seemed to last forever. The girls sometimes preferred jelly babies and ju-jubes which were softer.
Kathy was lucky. Being the eldest, she was invited to spend a weekend in London with Auntie Millies sister and family who ran a sweet and tobacconists shop. She came home with marvellous stories about how much fun she had had, the enormity of London, visits to various landmarks and just how many sweets she had eaten. I was so jealous and decided not to give her a bit of my Sharps Eton toffee the next time I had a haircut.
At weekends we would go and play hide-and seek in the Glen, or sometimes I would go off with Uncle Deniss step-son, Maurice Rose, who taught me scrumping. One Sunday afternoon we went to an orchard which was ripe and ready to scrump apples and pears. We climbed trees in different parts of the orchard so that, as Maurice said, we could stand a better chance of making a quick get-away and less chance of being caught in case the farmer appeared. Sure enough, as luck would have it though, the farmer caught me up the tree, but didnt seem too concerned.
Are you enjoying those apples? he asked.
Yes sir, said I, quaking.
Well, go ahead then and eat as much as you want, young fellow , he invited.
What a nice bloke!, I thought. This was nobody to be scared of.
Oh, thank you, sir., I said, and wondered what all the fuss was about being caught by the farmer while scrumping.
The farmer whistled and along came his dog a bloody great bull-terrier and I could have sworn it was foaming at the mouth. I like dogs and have always got on well with them, but bull-terriers can be a handful.
Sit., commanded the farmer, Stay., and then walked off leaving the animal at the foot of the tree.
I ate a couple more apples, without even tasting them, while I planned my next move. I tried throwing a few apples and saying, Go fetch, good dog, go fetch., but the stupid thing just sat there and ignored me. I started to come down the tree, but this enraged the animal and it started barking and jumping up to try and get a piece of my leg in its jaws. I didnt know what to do. I tried calling out to Maurice but got no answer. The little sod had made his escape and left me to deal with the situation as best I could.
I was worried, particularly because Dad was a stickler for time and would not countenance my being home late, leave alone being late for tea and putting the rest of the family to any inconvenience. I sat up that tree for what seemed like hours. It was summer and still bright, but I knew it was well past tea-time, maybe even bed-time. Oh, crumbs, I was really going to be in for it. Finally, I heard a couple of sharp whistles in the distance. The dog pricked up his ears, shook himself and, without as much as a second glance upwards, ran off in the direction of the calls. I began to get down, almost fell out of the tree and ran helter, skelter back to Kinsale. Of course, Dad gave me a telling-off and a couple of slaps on the backside, I think, more for effect than anything else, and I sat down to a late tea.
Later on, I asked Maurice why he hadnt come to my rescue though, on thinking about it later, what he could have done would not have been very much. His excuse was that if he had gone and told Dad what had happened it would have resulted in both of us getting punished for scrumping, instead of me just getting a telling-off for being late. The only time I ever scrumped again was when I was much older, in 1947, and then only from the safety of the fence bordering an orchard where the fruit overhung the road.
I was late on another occasion but Kathy was with me and so, if I remember correctly, I was only scolded because of the reason for our lateness.
Kathy and I had been to the fair-ground and wandered around for an hour or so. I had put all my pennies into the slot-machines and had lost the lot. I knew Kathy had two pence with her for the bus fare home. I begged her to give me the money and used all the powers of my persuasion.
Im going to win, Kathy. I just know it. Please just lend me the money and Ill give it back to you when I win. But Kathy was not impressed by my pleading.
Well have to walk all the way home if you lose, and its getting late., she said.
Oh, go on, Kathy. I know Im going to win. Go on, be a sport!
Finally, she took pity on her miserable brother and gave in.
Here you are then. Please dont lose them. She almost pleaded as she handed me the coins.
I went up to the machine which hung on the wall. It was one of those boxes which had panel-pins set in a couple of circles on the back face with two holes near the bottom of the circles. On the front of the glass-faced box there was a slot where you inserted your coin to obtain a metal ball, a knob which you turned to deliver the ball, and a small lever with which you flipped the ball. If you were successful in getting the ball to enter the green hole, you got your coin back together with another ball for a second go. If, on the other hand, your ball fell into the red hole, you lost.
I gingerly put the first coin into the slot and twisted the knob. Out came my first ball. I flipped the lever and watched the ball go round and round, bounce about on the panel-pins and slip into the red hole. I was choked with horror at seeing that I had lost one of the precious pennies. My hands were trembling and I worried lest all that excitement would affect the way I flipped the next ball.
I started to insert the second penny and Kathy had second thoughts.
No,, she said. I want the penny back. Ill go home by bus and you can walk.
O my God, I thought, I can never do that alone and at this time of the evening. I turned my full powers of persuasion on. Almost with tears in my eyes, I begged her to let me have just one more go.
Finally, she relented. I went through the same drill, this time kissing the coin and doing pooja  on it. I rubbed it in my sweaty little palms and finally, with a flourish, I inserted it into the slot. Once you had put the coin into the slot, you could not then change your mind and get it out. If you walked away, you had lost your coin anyway ; might as well turn the knob, flip the bloody ball and hope that the pooja worked. I was committed.
I turned the knob and flipped the ball almost as soon as it came to rest on the flipper. It spun around the face of the machine a couple of times and then bounced about tantalisingly and disappeared down the red hole.
Oh, crumbs, its gone, I thought and looked at Kathy in some sort of supplication. She sniffed haughtily and turned away.
We started to walk. We went along the sea-front because it was a slightly shorter way than walking along the road. Kathy was sulking and silent so I began to tell her stories about witches and fairies. But she was always afraid of witches, and it was getting darker. I started to tell her stories of other Disney characters which I thought would make her happier. Eventually, she started to smile and then laugh.
OK, now I could prepare myself for the inevitable rollocking which I was surely going to get from Dad. I would not make any excuses What was the point? Id just have to take whatever was coming to me like a man. When we got home, I got it.
This business of telling stories was such a common practice when we were young. When we were in Ireland, all four of us kids slept in the same bedroom. It was customary for us to tell each other stories which we made up. One night Kathy complained that she could not go to sleep and so I began to tell her some stories. The other two had gone to sleep.
However, my stories were not working on that night and sending Kathy off to sleep and she was restless, tossing and turning in her bed. I had a brainwave.
Ill play you a lullaby on my nose., I said.
On your nose? Kathy queried.
Yes, Ill play the Hawaiian guitar on my nose.
OK. Go on then.
By humming with my mouth closed and with one nostril blocked by my thumb, I rhythmically plucked on the other nostril. To me that had the sound-effect of playing the Hawaiian guitar.
Kathy lay quietly for several minutes listening and then ; was she asleep?
Are you asleep yet, Kathy?
No, not quite, play more. Did I detect a smile in her voice?
I played on and on and was getting quite tired myself when, suddenly, Kathy burst out laughing. Then the other two girls began laughing and I guessed I had either woken them up with my guitar, or they were laughing with Kathy. Then, seeing the funny side, I started laughing too.
We laughed and laughed and carried on laughing for several minutes when, suddenly, Kathy stopped laughing and wailed out, breathing laboriously, and complaining of a pain in her chest.
Please save me. Oh God ! Im going to die. Please save me, she whimpered.
Philomena and Mary, hands to their mouths, sat up in bed and looked on in anguish, their eyes wide open. I was terrified, because I knew it was all my fault, but even so I went helter-skelter into Mums and Dads bedroom. I woke them up and told them that Kathy had said she was going to die. For a brief second they were confused as they awoke. Then, hastily pulling themselves together and leaping out of bed, they went hurtling into our bedroom, concerned at Kathys pain.
Dad slipped on his shoes, pulled his trousers over his pyjamas, threw a dressing-gown over his shoulders and, shouting out to Mum that he was running off to fetch assistance, he hared off next door to fetch the neighbour - the lady doctor. She came round to the house and examined Kathy who was now lying quietly and nursing her chest; there was no laughter now from any of us. We kids left the room and sat, for what seemed like hours, huddled together wondering when Kathy was going to die. I even began to pray that she would have kind angels to carry her off to Heaven and that they would play real instruments beautiful golden harps? for her when she was transported. Who wants nose operated Hawaiian organs ?
But she is a strong girl that big, lovely sister of mine. After the doctor had examined her and asked how the pain had started, she diagnosed a convulsion caused by the laughing. Hooray, Kathy was going to live after all. Everything can be so dramatic when you are a child.
When the doctor was leaving she paused and said, nodding at me.
One of these days, Patrick, you really MUST play that Hawaiian guitar for me!
Mum sat with a wan look on her face and in stunned silence. Her rosary beads were in her hands.
Dad gave me another rollocking.