On the Bus

This evening we are going to Ballyshannon on the bus.  It is raining, and I suppose it will still be raining when we go to Ballyshannon.  We will get on the bus down on the Main Street.  While we are waiting for the bus my Daddy will talk to the other grown-ups, and John and I will stand in Stenson’s doorway to keep out of the rain.  I know it’ll be like this, because that’s the way it is every wet day we go to Ballyshannon.

John is seven, I am five.  Sometimes grown-ups talk to John, but they never talk to me.  I suppose that is because he is seven, but I can understand what they are saying, even though they don’t talk to me.  After a while they say to John, “and is this your little sister? What’s her name? Does she never talk? Has she no tongue?”

I used to stick out my tongue when they said this, and then John told me that it was rude to stick out my tongue.  Now I don’t stick out my tongue anymore, but I still don’t know why grown-ups don’t talk to me and then say that I don’t talk.

I do talk sometimes, you know, but sometimes I decide not to talk.  One day when I was three, we were going to Ballyshannon in Sylvester Adam’s car. Sylvester Adam is a man who runs a Hackney cab.  He takes people in his car anywhere they want to go, and they pay him.  This day we were going to Ballyshannon in Sylvesters car, and we were going past the river.  I was sitting on my Daddy’s knee in the front of the car. When I saw the river I said “The River Erne”. You see, I knew that it was the River Erne.  But daddy and Sylvester were surprised that I knew this, and they laughed and laughed.

“She knows a thing or two, that wee girl.” Said Sylvester.

“She does indeed,” said my daddy, “the River Erne! Very good! Ha ha!”

Later he told my Mammy that I knew it was the River Erne.  They laughed a lot. My Mammy said, “she may be quiet, but she’s not slow!”

I thought that it was a lot of fuss about nothing. I was careful not to talk after this, because I don’t like a big fuss.

There’s something else about Sylvester.  The boys at school call him “Sylvester the Pope”.  When he drives past the schoolyard at playtime the boys run up to the wall and shout at the car, “Sylvester the Pope!” I don’t know why they think he is the Pope.  You see, Sylvester is a Protestant, and a Protestant can’t be a Pope.

Last year we went on our holidays to Rossnowlagh.  We stayed in a little green house with walls made of corrugated iron, painted green.  Houses aren’t usually made of corrugated iron. The roof of our shed at home is made of corrugated iron, and in summer my daddy puts onions from the garden up on the shed roof to dry. Our cat sits up on the shed roof when the sun is shining. Our dog doesn’t go up on the roof.  This is strange, because the dog is much bigger than the cat but he doesn’t seem to be able to climb as well as the cat.

Last year when we went to Rossnowlagh I was surprised to see that the walls of the house were made from corrugated iron.  There was another little green house very near to ours.  In fact, the two houses were stuck together.  I heard my mammy explaining to John that the houses were semi-detatched.  It means that instead of building two houses with four walls each, they build them with three walls each and then just have one wall between them at the side.  That way the builders can save bricks or cement or corrugated iron or whatever they are using to build the house.

There was another family staying next door.  The day we arrived, my mammy warned me that during the holiday I was not allowed to say the words Catholic or Protestant. I don’t know why she warned me, because I never say anything anyway.  But I knew that this meant that the people in the other house were Protestants.  They were from Enniskillen.  There were two boys called David and Walter.  They were bigger than John and me, I suppose they were about ten or eleven.  They played golf every day.  One day I was walking across the golf course.  My Mammy had sent me to get milk at a farmhouse at the other side of the golf course.  It was quicker to go over the golf course, but my mammy had warned me not to walk over the golf course if people were playing golf.  This day I was coming back with the milk, and David and Walter were playing golf.  I didn’t think they would count, as they were children. But David shouted at me.

“Get off the golf course!”

Walter shouted,

“You can’t come on the golf course when there are people playing! That ball could have hit you on the head!”

There were two things that I thought were very silly.  David and Walter were children, just a bit older than us, but they seemed to think that they were people.  Also, the ball couldn’t have hit me on the head, as it was rolling along the ground.

Enniskillen.  

David and Walter were from Enniskillen.  I was in Enniskillen last year, in hospital, when I had my tonsils out.  I was very annoyed that I was in a cot in hospital.  After all, I was four and a half, but nobody older than two is ever in a cot.  And I was too big for the cot, because my feet touched the bars at the bottom.  There were two other children in cots.  They were called Lucy Leonard and Peggy Campbell.  They were both three. I don’t know if they minded being in cots.

A strange thing I noticed in hospital was that the nurses were always telling us not to talk after getting out tonsils out as it would be bad for our throats.  Then they asked us questions which we couldn’t answer, because we weren’t allowed to talk.  I didn’t answer, because I wasn’t allowed to talk, and then they thought that I couldn’t hear, so they shouted the questions loudly.

“this wee girl has no tongue,” the nurses would say sometimes.  There are some things that are very difficult to understand.

After two days in hospital I went home.  My daddy and Sylvester came for me. Lucy Leonard’s mammy came for her.  She was a very big, very awful looking woman, and she was wearing a very big brown furry coat and she had her hair cut in a fringe.  My hair is cut in a fringe.  When I saw how awful Lucy Leonards mammy was with her hair cut in a fringe, I prayed that when I grow up I wouldn’t have a fringe or a big brown coat like Lucy Leonard’s mammy.

Anyway, we’ll soon be going to Ballyshannon on the bus.  In the meantime, I am in my bedroom, looking out the window.  I like to sit on the window sill and look out.  Down the road I can see Duff’s haggard and Duff’s field.  The field is square, and the haggard is triangular.  In the haggard there are haystacks and sheds and a lot of hens.  At Mrs Callum’s, where we get our milk, I was surprised at first to see that the haggard wasn’t triangular.  It wasn’t a square either, it just wasn’t any shape.  But maybe a haggard can be any shape, or no shape at all.  Beyond Duff’s haggard there are lots of tall trees, and beyond the trees is Grace’s quarry.  Graces have a field where nothing grows except gorse. We call it the gorse field, and sometimes we play there. One day we were in grace’s house.  A very old man lives there, and two very old women.  They are called Petey and Biddy and Sadie.  They were drinking tea, and they supped the tea out of their cups with soup spoons.

From my window I can also see McCreen’s meadow.  It is very near our house, just across the road.  It is a big hill.  Sometimes we go up to the top, and when you are at the top of the hill you can see the River Erne.  One day in winter when there was lots of snow we went up with the sleigh and sleighed down the hill.  When I am sitting at the window looking out, I think about all these things.  Sometimes my mammy comes into the room when I’m looking out the window.

“Dreaming again?” she says. “why don’t you play with your dolls?”

But I’m not dreaming.  You dream only when you’re asleep, and I’m not asleep. One night when I was asleep I was dreaming that the donkey from McCowley’s field at the other side of the house came in through the back door and up the stairs and into my room and tried to eat me.  I was very frightened.  My mammy told me that the donkey couldn’t come in the back door, and certainly couldn’t come up the stairs.  And anyway, she said, donkeys eat grass, they don’t eat little girls.  But I wasn’t sure.  Did this donkey know that he was supposed to eat grass, not little girls?

My mammy thinks that I’m dreaming when I sit at the window looking out.  She says that I should play with my dolls, but sometimes I just prefer to sit and think.  My dolls are on the bed.  One doll is called Aleesh, and the other is called Bambino.  I have a golliwog called Merribly Robeson.  And I have three sigortens, but I didn’t give them names because they are not real dolls.

We have a gramophone in the kitchen, and sometimes my mammy puts on a record called Lindy Lou.  The man who sings Lindy Lou has a very deep voice. His voice is so deep that I think he is singing down a wellington boot.  His name is Paul Robeson.  John says Paul Robeson is a black man.  So, because my golliwog is black, I call him Merribly Robeson.  One day there were visitors in our house.  A woman asked me what was my golliwog’s name.  I said that he was Merribly Robeson, and everyone laughed and laughed.

“Why don’t you call him Sambo?” somebody asked.  But I think Sambo is a silly name.  I still call him Merribly Robeson, but I don’t tell anyone anymore.

I don’t tell anyone about the sigortens either.  The sigortens are like dolls, but they are not real dolls.  They are very tiny, they are only the size of my finger, or the size of the pawns on the chessboard.  Once I stood them on the chessboard when my daddy and John were playing chess, and they were just the same height as the pawns.  But my daddy and John didn’t want them on the chessboard, so I had to take them away.  They are not real dolls, because their arms are stuck to their sides and they can’t move.  And some of them don’t have legs, because the bottom half of them is a pincushion.  You can’t play with them the way you do real dolls.  So I give them to my dolls to play with.  I call them sigortens, but nobody knows they are sigortens.

Soon we are going to Ballyshannon.  I can hear Daddy calling me and John to get ready. In the hall we put on out coats and scarves and gloves. Daddy taps the thermometer on the wall beside the kitchen door.

            “Good God! It’s cold!” he says.  He always does that on a cold day. Sometimes in the summer when the sun is shining he taps the thermometer and says, “Good God! It’s hot!”

I don’t know why he bothers to do this.  I always know whether it’s hot or cold without having to look at the thermometer.

Then we go down the road.  We go past Duff’s haggard and Duff’s field and McCrean’s meadow.  Then we go past the chapel and a row of eight houses called Hawthorn row.  I don’t know why it’s called Hawthorn Row.  There aren’t any Hawthorn tree’s there.

All the way down the road, my daddy and John are talking.  They are talking about the shops where we are going, and the things we are going to buy.  They are talking about Ernie Fox, and the other people who will be on the bus.  Ernie Fox is always on the bus.  He helps people to smuggle things.  The customs men will be at the border, and they will get onto the bus and search everywhere.  Sometimes they search in people’s shopping bags and pockets. And they are always looking for Ernie Fox, because he is usually smuggling things for people, but most times they cannot find him. Sometimes he gets off the bus down the road and goes home across the fields.

John and my daddy are still talking. John takes my hand now because we are coming onto the main street.

“Sally wouldn’t understand about the border, would she Daddy?” he asks.

“Not at all,” says Daddy.

But I do understand about the border.  It’s like the River Erne, except that you can’t see it.  You can see the River Erne under the bridge when we get on the bus.  You can see it from the top of McCreens meadow.  And you can see it in Ballyshannon.  It’s the same river, but it goes on for miles and miles.

And the borders a bit like that, but you can’t see it. I know this because one evening we were in Mrs Callum’s, where we get our milk, and Ernie Fox came in.  He was wearing three pairs of trousers.  One pair was his own, and the other two were pairs that he was smuggling for someone else.  He had crossed the border just down the fields.  I think the border must be like the equator. Miss Brogan, our teacher told us the equator is like a line that goes all the way around the world.  She showed us a globe one day and pointed to where the equator is, right in the middle of the world, but she said if we were there we wouldn’t see it.

Now we have arrived at the bus, but it’s not going yet. The driver is not there, and all the people are crowding up the steps. Some people are looking round for Ernie Fox.  He is not here yet but he will certainly come.

We sit at the back of the bus.  It is very crowded, so I sit on my daddy’s knee.  I look out the back window at the rain.  Ernie Fox has arrived, and the driver is there now. The bus starts and I am still looking out the back window at the rain.

My Mammy doesn’t come on the bus to Ballyshannon.  She stays at home with my baby brother.  One evening we all went to Ballyshannon in Sylvester’s car, and my Mammy and baby brother came too.  But he cried the whole way there and the whole way back.  I think he was frightened of the noise of the car.  So now my Mammy stays at home with him.

I remember the night when my baby brother was born.  My Mammy was in hospital, and my Daddy had been away to see her.  When he came home he told us that we had a tiny baby brother.  The next day we went to the hospital to see my Mammy and the baby brother.  I knew that babies were small, but I didn’t think that they could be so very small.  My Daddy lifted him up and showed him to me.  My Daddy is fat and bald and he has a moustache.  He is forty-four years old.  He was born in nineteen hundred, and this year is nineteen forty-four, so he is always the same age as the century. I know this because one day I heard him telling it to John.

When I saw my Daddy holding my baby brother, I wondered what my baby brother would be like when he would be forty-four.  He’ll be forty-four in nineteen eighty-eight.  I wonder if he’ll be fat and bald and have a moustache.  I hope I won’t be an awful looking big woman with a fringe and a brown coat like Lucy Leonard’s mammy.

Now the bus has stopped at the border, and the driver goes into the customs hut.  The customs men come out, and they get into the bus and look around. They are not searching.  They are just looking at people.  I think they are looking to see if Ernie Fox is there.  He is there, sitting talking to another man, and he is smoking a pipe.  Now he’s laughing, and he doesn’t seem to care that the customs men are there. The customs men talk to each other and then they go away.  On the way home they will search the whole bus. Sometimes it takes ages.

The bus is moving again.  It is still raining.  We are going passed a lot of trees. And it seems as if the bus is standing still and the trees are going back along the road.

Once when I was three I thought that our house was moving away.  I was outside in the back garden, and I saw the house staring to move.  I ran very fast to the back door, so that I’d be inside the house, wherever it was going.  Later, I went outside to see where the house was now.  It was still in the back garden. Then I realise that it was the clouds in the sky that were moving, and it looked as if the clouds were staying in the same place and the house was moving.  And the clouds were moving because it was a windy day, and the wind was blowing the clouds along.  You see, I really do understand a lot of things.  But I don’t tell anyone. I think they would be amazed that I know so many things and make a big fuss, and I don’t like a big fuss.

Sometimes I think about how I am always thinking.  When I finish thinking one thing, another thing comes into my mind immediately.  One day I decided I was going to think about nothing.  So I didn’t let any new thoughts start.  But then I realised that I was thinking that I wasn’t thinking anything.  And I suppose that is the same thing as thinking something.

John is sitting on a seat at the side of the bus, and he is talking to Mrs Callum. Mrs Callum is usually on the bus to Ballyshannon.  She is big and fat, and she wears a black coat and a black beret, and she carries two big shopping bags. Mrs Callum has a farm near our house, where we get our milk.  To get to Mrs Callums house we go over Duff’s field and two other fields.  I like Duff’s field because there is a stile in the wall to climb over, but I don’t like the other two fields because we have to climb over the wall and sometimes the stones are loose and they slip down.  Sometimes when we arrive at Mrs Callums house she is still milking the cows.  She sits on a little stool beside the cows and the milk goes into a big pail.  One of the cows has its tail tied to its leg.  She says that this cow keeps waving its tail about, and it hits her in the face while she is milking, so she ties the tail to the cow’s leg.

After the milking we go back into the kitchen.  There is a front door which is never open.  The back door, where we go in has a half door, which Mrs Callum keeps closed so that the hens won’t come into the kitchen. She always wears a big flowery apron when she is at home.  She gives us biscuits out of a tin box on the mantel piece, and a drink of milk.  Sometimes the milk from the big pail is still warm.

There is a well at the side of Mrs Callum’s house.  She gets the drinking water from the well.  Sometimes the well is empty, and I can’t understand how it gets full again.  It can’t be from the rain, because I know you shouldn’t drink rainwater.  I suppose I could ask someone how the water gets into the well, but they might make a big fuss, so I won’t ask anyone. Some time I’ll find out for myself.

In a corner in Mrs Callum’s house there is a mouse hole.  While we are having our milk and biscuits I always watch the mouse hole.  I wonder if the mouse might come out some day.  There used to be a mouse hole in our kitchen, behind the door.  When I was three I used to put jam in the mouse hole. Mice are supposed to like cheese, but I couldn’t find any cheese so I put in jam.  And I know that the mice liked the jam, because after a while it was always gone. So I kept on feeding them jam.  Then one day my daddy blocked up the mouse hole with cement.

I started thinking all these things just because I saw Mrs Callum.  When I saw her at the side of the bus, I thought about her cows and her well and her half door and the mouse hole in her kitchen, and then I thought about the mouse hole in our kitchen, and how I used to feed the mice with jam.  There is always something to think about, so it is impossible to think about nothing.

Now we have arrived in Ballyshannon.  All the people from the bus go off to the shops.

One other evening in the dark a woman in the crowd grabbed my hand.  “Come on, Kathleen,” she said, and started walking away very quickly.  The she noticed I wasn’t Kathleen, and she let go of my hand.

John and I stand in the shop doorways while Daddy does the shopping.  We go first to Margan’s for bacon and butter.  Then we go to Cameron’s for meat.  Sometimes there are other small messages in other shops.  In the summertime John and I get threepenny ice cream wafers in Sweeney’s sweet shop.  I like to suck the edges of the wafer until it is all closed up into a sort of mattress, and then I eat the mattress.  But in the winter Sweeney’s do not sell ice cream.

When we finish our shopping we go into the pub until it is time for the bus home.  A lot of people from the bus are in the pub.  Daddy sits up at the bar and drinks a glass of Guinness, and John and I sit at a little table and we drink lovely red lemonade.

One evening there was a man sitting up at the bar talking to Daddy, and he had a little boy called Tom.  Tom was two and a half years old.  They put him sitting with us.  When we had finished our lemonade we thought we would like some more.  So we sent Tom up to the bar to ask for more Guinness.  We thought that everyone would laugh at this, and they wold get us more lemonade.  Tom went up to the bar and asked for more Guinness.  Everyone laughed and laughed, and Tom’s daddy lifted him up and sat him on the counter, and the barman gave him more lemonade, and nobody remembered about John and me.

Ernie Fox has arrived in the pub and he is going round talking to people.  They are giving him parcels and packets to smuggle for them.  He has two big shopping bags full of parcels.  Then they start laughing and joking with him.  They ask him how is he going to get home tonight.

He doesn’t tell them.

“Least said, soonest mended,” he says, and he winks.

He will possibly go a bit of the way home on the bus, and then he will get out and go home over the fields.  He goes a different way every time, and he always turns up on the Main Street at home a short time after the bus arrives.  He gives everyone their parcels, and then they all go home.  It must be difficult, going across the fields, climbing over walls in the dark, carrying heavy bags.  But I suppose he is used to it.

A man starts teasing Ernie Fox.  He says that some day his luck might run out and he will be caught.  A woman tells him not to get caught tonight, because he is carrying her messages.

Ernie Fox just laughs.

“That’ll be the day!” he says.

A man comes into the pub quickly, and goes round quietly taking to everyone.  He is telling them that there are lots of customs men out tonight.  They are not just at the Customs Hut, he says, they are along the road and over the fields.  Everyone looks at Ernie Fox.  They all seem to be worried, but he doesn’t seem to be worried at all.  Someone asks him what he is going to do.

He winks again, and says,

“What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.”

Ernie Fox has lots of these sayings, and he is always talking in proverbs.  A lot of these proverbs are in the Vere Foster headline book that we use in school for learning to write.

One night when he was setting off into the darkness over the fields, he turned round and said,

“Faraway fields are green,” and everyone laughed.

Sometimes he says,

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and he holds up his two big shopping bags.

When people say they’ll see him later, he says

“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

I wonder if Ernie Fox did the Vere Foster headline book long ago when he was at school, and that is why he remembers so many proverbs.

Now we are going out of the pub.  The bus is there, and everyone gets in.  We go to the back seat again, and I sit on my daddy’s knee and look out the window again.  It is still raining.  Ernie Fox is not on the bus.  I can see him on the street, out at the back of the bus.  I don’t know why he is not getting on the bus like everyone else.  He might be thinking up some new idea about how to get home.  Nobody else can see him, because everyone except me is facing the front of the bus.

Ernie Fox has started climbing up the ladder at the back of the bus.  The ladder goes up to the roof, and there is a rack on the roof.  When people have suitcases or bicycles they are kept on the roof of the bus during the journey.  But in winter nobody would be bringing suitcases or bicycles on the bus.  I am watching Ernie Fox climbing up the ladder.  He has very long legs.  There are five ladder rungs the length of his legs.  Now he has disappeared out of sight on top of the bus.

The people on the bus are worried.  They keep asking where Ernie Fox is.  They keep saying they saw him a minute ago and now he has disappeared.  The driver waits for a while, and then he says that he has to go.  Everyone keeps looking out and up and down the street, and the driver starts the bus and goes on.

Someone says that Ernie Fox is going to find some other way home.  Someone else says that Ernie Fox is the boy who will never get lost.  I don’t know why they call him a boy, because he is a man, and quite an old man.  I know that he is on top of the bus, but I don’t say anything.

It is still raining.  It hasn’t stopped raining all day.  Ernie Fox must be soaked up on top of the bus.  I look out at the trees and houses, and I pretend again that the bus is standing still and the trees and houses are moving back very quickly along the road.

Jinnie Roddy is sitting half way up the bus.  I cannot see her, but I know that she is there because I can hear her laughing.  She has a very load squeaky laugh, and she is always laughing.

Someone says to her that she’ll be getting married one of these days, and she just laughs more loudly.  One day when we were waiting for the bus in Stenson’s doorway, Jinnie Roddy was there and she was talking to a man and she was laughing as usual.  He asked her if she was married and she said yes.  The man pointed to me because I was standing beside her and asked her if I was her wee girl.  She said yes, and she said that my name was Angela.  I don’t know why she said that she was married and that I was her wee girl Angela.  Maybe the man wanted to marry her and she didn’t want to marry him and she just told him all those things to put him off.

Now the bus has stopped at the Customs Hut.  Two Customs men come in, and walk up and down the middle of the bus.  There are three more Customs men out on the road.  They look at everyone, and they look in some people’s shopping bags.  They don’t say anything about Ernie Fox, but everyone knows they are looking for him.  The bus is very quiet now.  Everyone has stopped talking.

At last the Customs men go away, and the bus starts again.  Everyone starts talking again.  Jinnie Roddy starts laughing again, and she says she hopes Ernie Fox will turn up because he is smuggling two pairs of nylons for her.

Now the bus has arrived on the Main Street.  Everyone gets out, and Ernie Fox climbs down from the roof.  Some people shout and cheer at him.  A lot of people are laughing, and saying that they knew he’d find a clever way to get home.  Someone says that he’s the boy who has it all figured.  He gives out the parcels from his two big bags.

We go up the road to our house.  My daddy and John are talking all the way.  They are saying that Ernie Fox is very smart and cunning, and nobody knows what he is going to do next.  They are saying that it was a good one that he was on top of the bus the whole way home, and nobody knew…….

And I still don’t say anything, because if they knew that I knew they might make a big fuss, and I don’t like a big fuss………..

Sive Haughey, Fermanagh/Donegal Border

Back to Crossing Page